TEL AVIV, Israel -- The top U.S. military officer attempted to reassure Israeli defense leaders yesterday 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 Iran 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 the head of Israel's military and Defense Minister Ehud Barak in back-to-back meetings here, where the report has provoked widespread debate over U.S. intentions.
Participants in the meetings said Israeli officials took issue with the U.S. view that the weapons program had stopped, saying that Iran's continued enrichment of uranium is aimed at developing a nuclear bomb.
The U.S. assessment, issued last week, found that 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 Barak and Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the new head of the Israeli defense staff, expressed a wish to cooperate on the analysis of U.S. 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 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 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 U.S. intelligence estimate, coming in the midst of Bush administration efforts to garner international support for a third round of U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran, has forced the White House to scramble to reassure allies such as Israel that it has not changed its view of the Tehran government and remains committed to eliminating the enrichment program.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates acknowledged that President Bush and his senior foreign policy aides were frustrated by the timing and content of the report, but noted that such decisions are made by intelligence professionals, not administration policymakers.
"The estimate clearly has come at an awkward time," Gates said.
Peter Spiegel writes for the Los Angeles Times.