Vice President Cheney said yesterday that Iran is a top threat to world peace and Middle East stability, accusing Tehran of sponsoring terrorism against Americans and building a "fairly robust new nuclear program."
In an interview aired on MSNBC's "Imus in the Morning" show a few hours before President Bush's inaugural address, Cheney warned that Israel "might well decide to act first" militarily to eliminate Iran's nuclear capabilities if the United States and its allies fail to solve the standoff with Tehran diplomatically.
"Given the fact that Iran has a stated policy that their objective is the destruction of Israel, the Israelis might well decide to act first, and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards," Cheney said. In 1981, Israel sent warplanes to destroy Iraq's nuclear reactor.
"We don't want a war in the Middle East, if we can avoid it," he said.
Iran says its nuclear facilities were built to support a peaceful energy program; the Bush administration disagrees.
In the interview with Don Imus, the vice president made a rare admission, saying he had miscalculated how quickly Iraqis would be able to recover from Saddam Hussein's government and begin running their country.
"I think the hundreds of thousands of people who were slaughtered at the time, including anybody who had the gumption to stand up and challenge him, made the situation tougher than I would have thought," he said. "I would chalk that one up as a miscalculation, where I thought things would have recovered more quickly."
The White House has been widely criticized for its postwar planning in Iraq, especially its failure to prepare for the insurgency that is threatening stability and the upcoming elections for a 275-member national assembly.
Bush condemned Iran as part of an "axis of evil" shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, heightening tensions and raising the possibility of U.S. military action to prevent Tehran from becoming a nuclear power in the volatile Middle East.
In his inaugural address, Bush did not mention Iran, but he vowed to fight for those seeking freedom from the "rulers of outlaw regimes." Some foreign policy experts predict Bush might use military force to destroy Iran's nuclear program during his second term, but the president and Cheney have promised to pursue diplomacy first.
"Certainly in the case of the Iranian situation, I think everybody would be best suited by or best treated and dealt with if we could deal with it diplomatically," Cheney said. The current Bush policy calls for European nations to take the lead in negotiating for a full and verifiable halt to Iran's nuclear program. Bush has said on several occasions that all options are on the table if Iran does not comply.
If current negotiations fail, Cheney said, the United States would ask the U.N. Security Council to impose international sanctions on Iran to force compliance with the nonproliferation treaty. "You look around the world at potential trouble spots; Iran is right at the top of the list," he said. The administration has offered no concrete evidence to support its assertion regarding Iran.
The Pentagon has denied a report in the Jan. 24 issue of New Yorker magazine that the United States is conducting secret reconnaissance missions in Iran to identify potential nuclear targets.