TEHRAN, Iran – A new U.S. intelligence review concluding Iran stopped developing an atomic weapons program in 2003 is a "declaration of victory" for Iran's nuclear program, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Wednesday.
Russia's foreign minister, meanwhile, indicated that the U.S. report's findings undermined Washington's push for a new set of U.N. sanctions against Iran.
The U.S. intelligence report released Monday concluded that Iran had stopped its weapons program in late 2003 and shown no signs since of resuming it, representing a sharp turnaround from a previous intelligence assessment in 2005.
"This is a declaration of victory for the Iranian nation against the world powers over the nuclear issue," Ahmadinejad told thousands of people during a visit to Ilam province in western Iran.
"This was a final shot to those who, in the past several years, spread a sense of threat and concern in the world through lies of nuclear weapons," Ahmadinejad said, drawing celebratory whistles from the crowd.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would not directly respond to Ahmadinejad's remarks, but told reporters in the Ethiopian capital Wednesday that the U.S. intelligence report's public release showed the Bush administration was committed to transparent democracy while Iran was not.
Iran has touted the report as vindication of its claims that its nuclear program is peaceful and Iranian officials insist that Washington should take a less hawkish stance and drop attempts to impose new sanctions in light of the report's surprise conclusions.
Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, called the report a "sigh of relief" Wednesday because its conclusions also jibe with the agency's own findings.
"Iran has been somewhat vindicated in saying they have not been working on a weapons program, at least for the past few years," ElBaradei told reporters in Brazil's capital.
The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate was released two days after the world's major powers met in Paris on Saturday and indicated that a compromise text on a third sanctions resolution could be circulated at the U.N. as early as Friday by the six countries — the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany.
Russia, a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council, said Wednesday there was no proof that Iran has ever run a nuclear weapons program.
"We will assess the situation regarding a new U.N. Security Council resolution taking into account all these facts, including the U.S. confirmation that it has no information about the existence of a nuclear weapons program in Iran," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters.
Russia and China, another veto-wielding council member, have grudgingly approved two sets of limited U.N. sanctions against Iran over its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment. But the Kremlin has bristled at the U.S. push for tougher measures, saying they would only widen the rift.
China had said Tuesday the U.S. report raised second thoughts about new sanctions.
President Bush defended his approach Tuesday, and Rice said it would be a "big mistake" to ease any diplomatic pressure on Iran despite the new U.S. findings.
"I continue to see Iran as a dangerous power in international politics," Rice told reporters traveling with her to Ethiopia where she planned to see African leaders. "At this moment, it doesn't appear to have an active weaponization program. That frankly is good news. But if it causes people to say, 'Oh, well, then we don't need to worry about what the Iranians are doing,' I think we will have made a big mistake."
The finding comes at a time of escalating tensions between the United States and Iran, which President Bush has labeled part of an "axis of evil," along with Saddam Hussein-era Iraq and North Korea.
The United States and some of its allies accuse Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, a claim denied by Iran, which says its nuclear program aims only to generate electricity.
Iran has rejected the two U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that it halt uranium enrichment, a process that can produce either fuel for a reactor or a nuclear warhead.
Rice urged nations such as China and Russia not to harden their stance against a new round of sanctions.
"People need the opportunity to absorb what they've heard," Rice said. "We have been completely transparent about what the intelligence assessment says. And people need a chance to read it. When they do that and when they read it in its detail and nuance, they will be able to see the points that I have made."
But some analysts said it may be hard to maintain support for a swift new U.N. resolution that would further restrict trade with Iran.
"An enormous effort has been invested to date in trying to bring the Russians, Chinese and Europeans on board with the current sanctions ... and this report doesn't appear to have been widely anticipated among our allies," said Suzanne Maloney, a foreign policy senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
"Now you have the U.S. intelligence community coming out and saying formally that Iran halted its weapons program four years ago. This will certainly undercut any push to get new sanctions," she added.
European and U.N. officials said the report bolsters their argument for negotiations, and that the international community should not walk away from years of talks with an often defiant Tehran that is openly enriching uranium for uncertain ends.
They also said sanctions are still an option to compel Iran to be fully transparent about its nuclear program.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said the new U.S. intelligence report meant that Washington's push to refer the case over Iran's nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council in 2006 was "illegal."
"One of the consequences of this report is that referring Iran's nuclear issue to the U.N. Security Council was illegal because, based on the report by U.S. intelligence agencies, Iran had no nuclear weapons program when the issue was referred to the U.N. Security Council in 2006," Hosseini said in a statement Tuesday.