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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We're joined now by National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley. He's on the line from his office at the White House.

Good morning.

Mr. STEPHEN HADLEY (U.S. Assistant to the President, National Security Affairs): Good morning. How are you?

MONTAGNE: Fine. Thank you.

President Bush has said he didn't have all the details of this intelligence report that he's praised, as we just heard, until last week. Though, in August, the director of National Intelligence did alert him that there was no information about Iran's nuclear weapons program. And given that Iran is at the top of this administration's concerns, did that conversation end there?

Mr. HADLEY: The director of the National Intelligence did alert the president that there was some new information. He didn't go into great detail on that information. And what he also advised that this was one of many streams of information, some of which were potentially in conflict.

So he basically said, Mr. President, there's something - it may be new, it may - it indicates that there was a covert nuclear weapons program, but it may have been suspended. It's too soon to tell. We're going to work the information and come back to you, Mr. President. And then they went off and worked it. And that's what you would hope your intelligence community would do.

MONTAGNE: And - but didn't the president asked for more information on one of the most important aspects of his foreign policy?

Mr. HADLEY: Mr. President - the president has been asking for more information on Iran for the last several years. He's spent a lot of time bringing, actually, the Iranian analysts in and interacting with them directly, trying to probe, understand what they know. And in that process, he's identified additional information that he would like.

And one of the reasons, of course, I think that it was that encouragement of the intelligence community that resulted in the effort to expand their information that indeed resulted in this information coming to light in the last couple of months before the submission of the National Intelligence Estimate.

MONTAGNE: Given that the president knew that a new more positive assessment on the Iranian weapons program was in the works, why weeks later was he warning about Iran's nuclear weapons program possibly leading to World War III? That's a pretty strong rhetoric.

Mr. HADLEY: It's right, and it was right at the time and it's right now. Because there are really three things you look at in terms of a country taking out an option, if you will, to have nuclear weapons.

One is the acquisition of highly-enriched uranium, which is the material from which a nuclear weapon is made. Secondly is the technical know-how to turn that material into a bomb. And then third is a way of delivering it to a target like a ballistic missile program.

MONTAGNE: So that means there's - they've got a lot of knowledge and a lot they could potentially do in the future. But given that…

Mr. HADLEY: That's right. And the problem is that what we have with Iran is they are continuing to pursue what's called nuclear enrichment, which is a path to getting nuclear material for a weapon. And they are continuing to pursue developing ballistic missiles. What this report tells us is that they actually had the third element - a covert nuclear weapon program to take nuclear material and turn it into a weapon.

Now, the good news is that they halted that program in 2003. The bad news is they had it in the first place and unfortunately, could restart it. And in the interim, they continue to do the hardest thing for getting a nuclear weapon, which is continue to pursue nuclear enrichment, which would give them the means of obtaining weapons-grade nuclear material.

MONTAGNE: Given though, that 16 intelligence agencies have agreed that Iran has shelved this covert nuclear weapons program, is it less likely that the United States will launch a military strike against Iran?

Mr. HADLEY: They have shelved the covert nuclear weapons program. They continue, of course, to pursue the enrichment program which gives them the nuclear material that we're concerned about that. I think what the estimate says, though, is we have some time to deal with that problem and the basic strategy we've pursued is the right one. That is pressuring Iran, at the same time, opening a negotiating option for them in terms of resolving this issue. So diplomacy has time to work and that's of course what we are pursuing, a diplomatic solution. That's what the international community has been concerned about. And that's what people think and believe strongly needs to be suspended. And you're hearing that from the president this morning. You're hearing it from other leaders in Europe. So that is what the president means when he says we need to ensure that Iran is not on a path to a nuclear weapon because that is something that would be profoundly destabilizing to the Middle East.

MONTAGNE: So, would you say this is an opportunity for the U.S. to engage more directly with Iran?

Mr. HADLEY: We have actually had the right strategy and the right elements, which is one: pressure, but also an offer, that if Iran will suspend their nuclear enrichment program, we will come to the table. And what's regrettable is that Iran has not made the strategic decision that it's time to try and negotiate a solution to this problem.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. HADLEY: Thanks very much.

MONTAGNE: National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, joined us from the White House.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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