U.S. President George W. Bush refused to rule out a military attack on Iran and vowed to step up pressure on Tehran, despite a surprise intelligence report saying Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003.
Bush faced questions on Tuesday about whether he knew of intelligence that Iran had ended its nuclear arms program when he warned in October that Tehran could trigger World War Three.
"Can't you be accused of hyping this threat?" Bush was asked at a news conference a day after his administration released a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concluding that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003.
"I was made aware of the NIE last week," Bush replied.
Meanwhile, Iran said the U.S. report had vindicated its stance, while U.N. atomic watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei said the document could help defuse tensions.
But Bush remained adamant that the Islamic state was a threat and called on U.S. allies to step up pressure.
"Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous and Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon," he told the White House press conference.
"The best way to ensure that the world is peaceful in the future is for the international community to continue to work together to say to the Iranians we are going to isolate you."
The NIE said U.S. allegations about Iran's atomic goals had been exaggerated for at least two years, although it could have the capability to make a nuclear weapon by 2010.
Iran responded positively to the report.
"Looks like there are wise people in the United States who seek to find a way out of the predicament which U.S. leaders have created, and this report might help that," said Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, quoted by state news agency IRNA.
"If America corrects its past approach we welcome that."
Iran's top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili also responded optimistically. Asked if the report would improve the conditions for resolving the nuclear standoff, he replied: "Normally it should be this way."
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) head ElBaradei, whose inspectors have been investigating Iran's nuclear drive for four years, called for immediate negotiations between Iran and its western critics.
Democrats pounce on Bush
Meanwhile, Democrats pounced on Bush with accusations that he had deliberately misrepresented the threat posed by Iran, just as they have said he exaggerated the threat posed by prewar Iraq.
"What's shocking today is that apparently he knew about this estimate a month or more before he made those statements," said U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat.
"I don't think that shows a responsible use of intelligence."
But it was Bush's remark, at the news conference, that drew attention from Democrats, the news media and intelligence experts: "In August, I think it was (U.S. intelligence chief) Mike McConnell came in and said, 'We have some new information.' He didn't tell me what the information was."
Increasingly strident U.S. rhetoric over Iran's nuclear program reached a peak on October 17 when Bush warned that a nuclear-armed Iran could lead to World War Three.
A day later, Vice President Dick Cheney announced his own warning of "serious consequences" for Iran if it refused to abandon its nuclear activities.
The comments stirred fears of a possible U.S. military confrontation with Iran and helped send world oil prices soaring toward the $100 a barrel mark.
On Tuesday, some former intelligence officers said Bush and other top White House officials were probably briefed about the intelligence findings long before the NIE was published.
"I can't imagine that McConnell ... would tell the president about this and not tell him what the information actually said," remarked Flynt Leverett, a former member of Bush's National Security Council.
"I think they certainly played fast and loose with the facts," he said in an interview with CNN.