WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's statement that Iran is actively studying how to outfit a missile with a nuclear bomb caused surprise and confusion in Washington on Thursday, and members of Congress demanded that he provide more details.
Powell's remarks Wednesday -- apparently unscripted and based on classified information -- appeared to catch the Bush administration and its European allies off-guard. The CIA refused to comment, and the White House and State Department declined to offer details. Some sources raised questions about the credibility of the intelligence.
In Santiago, Chile, where Powell is attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, he downplayed the furor in a Chilean television interview Thursday, saying Iran's ambitions were well known.
"They shouldn't be brand-new ... issues," Powell said. "They shouldn't surprise anybody. I think the Iranians still have much more to do to convince the international community that they are not moving into the direction of a nuclear weapon."
One source, however, described the intelligence mentioned by Powell as "weak."
Some administration officials "were surprised he went public on something that was weak and, because it was weak, was not supposed to be used," the source said.
One senior Democrat on the House International Relations Committee said Iran's efforts to build nuclear weapons and mount them on missiles have been known for years, but the United States faces new hurdles in making its case to the world.
"After crying wolf for so long about Iraq, how are we going to have any credibility on this?" said Rep. Gary L. Ackerman of New York, who recently returned from a trip to the Middle East. "People in the Arab world won't believe it and say we have a bad track record and just want to invade another country in the Middle East."
Ackerman added: "How do we expect anybody to believe us, even if we know it's true? This is the disaster we created for ourselves in lying about Iraq."
En route to Chile, Powell told reporters Wednesday that the Iranians "were working actively on missile systems. You don't have a weapon until you can put it in something that can deliver a weapon."
"We are talking about information that says they not only have missiles but information that suggests they are working hard about how to put the two together," said Powell, who will leave his government post soon.
On Thursday, a senior State Department official denied that Powell's remarks were linked to delicate negotiations before Thursday's meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, where Iran's nuclear program will be discussed. The official, who asked not to be named, said Powell was simply answering reporters' questions about the status of Iran's nuclear weapons program.
But the source who called the intelligence weak said that other administration officials scrambled to try to explain to allies what Powell meant and underscore that Washington did not intend to undermine the deal France, Germany and Britain struck with Iran on Sunday under which Tehran agreed to a temporary freeze of its uranium enrichment program.
An ambassador from one of the three European nations said the IAEA was the best forum for exploring Iran's nuclear activities, suggesting Powell should share any new information with that agency.
"We hope all the relevant information will be made available to the IAEA for consideration and verification," said the ambassador, asking that his country not be named. "We Europeans are strongly in favor of total transparency and full verification of all relevant nuclear activities conducted by Iran."
Arms control experts, including those who have access to intelligence on Iran, said they were not sure whether Powell was asserting that the U.S. had fresh information or a "smoking gun" to support its long-held conclusion that Iran was actively working on nuclear weapons.
The United States has long claimed that Iran was trying to develop nuclear warheads and improve its long-range Shahab-3 missiles to deliver them. Experts who follow the Iranian program, including some with access to classified data, said Thursday that they had no evidence but were inclined to believe Powell's statement that Iran is "working hard ... to put the two together."
However, members of Congress and two former arms inspectors warned that U.S. credibility was at stake in light of the Bush administration's failure to back up its claims that Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq maintained illicit nuclear and biological arms programs.
Several officials were surprised that Powell was not more circumspect about the intelligence on Iran, given that his statements about Iraq to the United Nations Security Council in 2003 have been discredited.