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Administration fights to maintain pressure on Iran

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – The Bush administration scrambled Wednesday to hold together a global alliance of suspicion against Iran, saying the clerical regime still has much to answer for despite a U.S. reversal of its claim that Tehran is seeking nuclear weapons now.

President Bush opened a trip to Nebraska with a warning about Iran – his second in the two days since U.S. intelligence agencies jointly concluded that Iran had long ago dropped active military nuclear ambitions.

Vice President Dick Cheney acknowledged that the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran might make it harder to build international support to persuade Iran to give up its uranium enrichment program.

“There’s nothing in the NIE that said we should be – not be concerned about their enrichment activities,” Cheney told, an online political magazine, in an interview at the White House on Wednesday.

Asked whether the intelligence report made that task more difficult, Cheney replied: “Perhaps, but it wasn’t easy to begin with.”

Bush’s top diplomat, who must explain and sell the shifted U.S. position among European allies later this week, pushed anew Wednesday for international solidarity on Iran.

No allies have told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice they want to back out of a U.S.-led drive for new sanctions on Iran, but the administration is worried that the new assessment weakens its leverage over Iran and drains the urgency from international efforts to roll back Iran’s nuclear program.

“It is the very strong view of the administration that the Iranian regime remains a problematic and dangerous regime and that the international community must continue to unite around the Security Council resolutions that it has passed,” Rice said in Ethiopia.

Bush demanded that Tehran detail its previous nuclear weapons program, “which the Iranian regime has yet to acknowledge.”

“The Iranians have a strategic choice to make,” he said before an appearance in Omaha. “They can come clean with the international community about the scope of their nuclear activities,” and accept U.S.-backed terms for new nuclear negotiations, “or they can continue on a path of isolation.”

Cheney said the administration thought it was important to release the intelligence information on Iran before it could leak.

“I think there was a general belief, that we all shared, that it was important to put it out – that it was not likely to stay classified for long anyway – and, in terms of trying to deal effectively with this kind of an issue, especially in light of what happened with respect to Iraq and the NIE on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that we be up front with what we knew,” Cheney said.