By Peter Spiegel, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
TEL AVIV -- The top U.S. military officer attempted to reassure Israeli defense leaders Monday that the United States still views Iran as a serious threat to the Jewish state, even as the Israelis disagree with an American intelligence finding that Tehran ceased its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed the National Intelligence Estimate of Iran's nuclear program with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the head of Israel's military in back-to-back meetings here, where the report has provoked widespread debate over American intentions. Participants in the meetings said Israeli officials took issue with the U.S. view that the weapons program had stopped, saying Iran's continued enrichment of uranium was aimed at developing a nuclear bomb. The U.S. assessment, issued last week, says the enrichment program has continued unabated, even as the weapons program was shut down. Iran has insisted that it is producing only low-grade uranium to drive civilian power plants, not highly enriched uranium for bombs. Mullen said after the meetings that both Barak and Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the new head of the Israeli defense staff, expressed a desire to work with the U.S. on analyzing American intelligence on the Iranian program. Mullen said he expressed similar U.S. concerns about the enrichment program, calling it the "center of gravity" of the Iranian program that needs to be stopped with the help of international pressure. He also reiterated American views that Iran continues to mislead nuclear regulators about the extent and intentions of its program.
"I wanted to reassure them that I still consider Iran a threat," Mullen said in an interview with The Times aboard his aircraft. "Their hegemonic views, their regime's rhetoric, still speaking to the elimination of Israel, is all very disturbing to me. I intended to leave the impression with them that I wasn't taking my eye off the mark."
The timing of the intelligence estimate, coming in the midst of Bush administration efforts to garner international support for a third round of U.N. Security Council sanctions, has forced the White House to scramble to reassure allies such as Israel that it has not changed its view of the Iranian government and remains committed to eliminating its enrichment program. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, during a weekend stop in Bahrain to address a group of Arab leaders, acknowledged that President Bush and his foreign policy aides felt frustration with the timing and content of the report, but noted that such decisions are made by intelligence professionals, not policymakers. "The estimate clearly has come at an awkward time," Gates said. "It has annoyed a number of our good friends. It has confused a lot of people around the world in terms of what we're trying to accomplish." Sunni Muslim-led states in the region have grown increasingly concerned about Shiite Muslim-dominated Iran's strengthening position in the Persian Gulf, fearing it is using chaos in Iraq to boost its influence.