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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It was just weeks ago that President Bush was suggesting World War III as a possible outcome of Iran's nuclear ambition. The administration may tone down the rhetoric now that a joint report by all 16 U.S. Intelligence agencies finds Iran halted its secret nuclear weapons program back in 2003.

But Mr. Bush is adamant that he's sticking with his approach of sanctions and international pressure as NPR's Mike Shuster reports.

MIKE SHUSTER: There's no need to change policy, President Bush insisted yesterday at his news conference at the White House. The National Intelligence Estimate said Iran had a covert nuclear weapons program in the past, what's to say they couldn't start it again?

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous, and Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.

SHUSTER: As justification for continuing his Iran policy, the president cited the NIE's judgment that Iran chose to shut down its covert nuclear program in 2003 because of international pressure, the same kind of pressure the president said that he wishes to continue. But in 2003, there were no economic sanctions against Iran. The U.S. refused to engage with Iran and dismissed the European decision to negotiate as fruitless. In fact, the only pressure the U.S. had brought against Iran was its invasion of Iraq, notes Farideh Farhi, an expert on Iran at the University of Hawaii.

Professor FARIDEH FARHI (Political Science, University of Hawaii, Manoa): If we take the NIE seriously, take 2003 as the period that caused the change, then it was the fear of military action that actually promoted or caused Iran to do something about its nuclear program.

SHUSTER: It was two years later that the Bush administration decided to back the European negotiations and only a year ago that the U.N. Security Council passed the first of two mild sanctions resolutions against Iran. Recently, the administration has been talking about even tougher sanctions, all the while hinting at the possibility of military attack. But the first casualty of the NIE's conclusion appears to be the military option. Many experts think its impossible now, among them Bruce Riedel, who spent 30 years in the CIA. Riedel is a scholar with the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution.

Mr. BRUCE RIEDEL (Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center, Brookings Institution): There is no possible way that the United States could now use unilateral military force in the wake of this estimate. I don't think the political calculus in this country or that of our allies abroad would tolerate it.

SHUSTER: Paul Pillar agrees. Pillar is a former senior intelligence officer now teaching at Georgetown University. He says the NIE will also undermine the administration's effort to impose more sanctions on Iran.

Professor PAUL PILLAR (Security Studies Program, Georgetown University): Quite clearly, it has made it much harder, number one, for the administration to line up the Russians and the Chinese and others for additional multilateral sanctions against Iran. And number two, that option we kept hearing about being on the table, the military action, would appear to be off the table for the time being.

SHUSTER: These policy options may not be the only casualties of the NIE. Iran has argued for a year that the U.N. Security Council sanctions against it are unjustified and illegal. The NIE is likely to give the Iranian argument greater credibility says Bruce Riedel.

Prof. RIEDEL: Countries like Russia and China are going to point to the judgment in this estimate and say, look, the Americans don't believe they have an active nuclear weapons program. Why do we need to sanction Iran?

SHUSTER: Yesterday, the U.N. China's Ambassador Wang Guangya hinted Beijing may already be rethinking its support for sanctions.

Ambassador WANG GUANGYA (United Nations, China): It is an important report and certainly, I think, we will study the content and us who will think about the implications for the counter action here. We all start from the presumption that things have changed.

SHUSTER: Any effort to lift sanctions against Iran could be blocked by the United States which holds a veto in the Security Council.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Many top level officials have weighed in on the controversy over Iran's nuclear program. You can hear what they said and see a timeline of key events since 2003 at npr.org.

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