Sunday, April 23, 2006

The top Republican and the top Democrat on the House intelligence panel said yesterday that the United States simply does not know how close Iran is to developing a nuclear weapon.

“We really don’t know,” said Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “We’re getting lots of different messages from their leadership.”

Added Rep. Jane Harman of California, the committee’s ranking Democrat: “I hope the White House is listening to what Pete Hoekstra just said. We don’t know. Our intelligence is thin.”

The two made their remarks on “Fox News Sunday” as an Iranian official in Tehran said his country has no intention of suspending its uranium enrichment activities.

The U.N. Security Council has set a Friday deadline for Iran to halt enrichment, the process that produces fuel for nuclear power reactors but also can manufacture the raw material for weapons.

In a clip aired on CNN’s “Late Edition,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said: “We are determined to defend our rights. Nuclear research will continue, and suspension of nuclear activities is not in our agenda. The issue is irreversible.”

With press and broadcast reports suggesting that the United States is exploring military strike options on Iran, Bush administration officials last week offered varied assessments of Iranian nuclear potential.

On Thursday, Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte said it will be “still a number of years … perhaps into the next decade” before Iran has enough material to assemble a weapon. But on Friday, Robert Joseph, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said “the Iranians have put both feet on the accelerator” and are “determined to move forward in complete defiance” of world opinion.

Mr. Hoekstra said he wanted to temper the discussion.

“Hey, sometimes it’s better to be honest and say there’s a whole lot we don’t know about Iran that I wish we did know,” he said. “We as public policy-makers need to know that as we’re moving forward and as decisions are being made on Iran, we don’t have all of the information that we would like to have.”

Mrs. Harman said, “I’m not comfortable that even if we knew more, that the White House would be listening clearly to the intelligence case. They apparently did not in Iraq. It was not a very strong case.”

Meanwhile, discussion continued on several news talk shows about calls for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to resign.

On CBS’ “Face The Nation,” retired Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste said he did not coordinate with five other former generals who have publicly called on Mr. Rumsfeld to resign. “This was all spontaneous,” Gen. Batiste said.

On ABC’s “This Week,” Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, said an audiotape released yesterday of what was purported to be Osama bin Laden underscored the Bush administration’s failure to capture the al Qaeda boss and served as “one of the reasons Donald Rumsfeld should resign.”

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