RIYADH (AFP) — US President George W. Bush on Tuesday appeared to distance himself from what he called an "independent" US intelligence finding widely seen as dousing the likelihood of armed confrontation with Iran.
"I just made it clear that all options are on the table, but I'd like to solve this diplomatically -- and think we can," Bush, in Saudi Arabia as part of a week-long Middle East trip, said of talks with Saudi King Abdullah.
The US president said he told his host he still viewed Iran as "a threat" despite last month's US National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded that Tehran had shelved its nuclear weapons program in 2003.
The NIE, the consensus finding of all 16 US spy agencies, undermined the Bush administration's claim that the Islamic republic was actively seeking to get an atomic arsenal -- though it also noted that Tehran has refused to suspend uranium enrichment, which can be a key step in that direction.
"I defended our intelligence services, but made it clear that they're an independent agency; that they come to conclusions separate from what I may or may not want," said the president.
Bush said he had also told the king that the Iranians "were a threat, they are a threat, and they will be a threat if we don't work together to stop their enrichment."
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal however avoided any forceful criticism of Iran when asked by a journalist if he considered the country a threat, as Bush said it was.
"Iran is a neighboring country and important in the region," he said. They had nothing against the country but hoped that Tehran responded to UN calls for it to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Iran should avoid escalating its dispute with the UN and the IAEA, he added. "It's not in its interests."
Citing an anonymous senior US administration official, Newsweek magazine reported Monday that Bush had all but disowned the NIE in talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
"He told the Israelis that he can't control what the intelligence community says, but that (the NIE's) conclusions don't reflect his own views" about Iran's nuclear-weapons program, the weekly quoted the official as saying.
Asked whether Bush doubted the findings, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino did not answer directly, saying instead that the president had "complete confidence in the intelligence community."
"He does not believe that the NIE that was produced ... should provide anyone any comfort that Iran is not a threat," she told reporters.
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