By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 29, 2007 3:46 PM
President Bush said today he has no intention of sending U.S. forces into Iran, but he vowed to "respond firmly" if Iran steps up a campaign that the United States charges is aimed at killing U.S. troops and derailing democracy in Iraq.
Bush told National Public Radio that he is willing to do "whatever it takes" to protect U.S. troops in Iraq from what the White House says have been attacks with weapons supplied by Iran.
White House spokesman Tony Snow later said the administration was taking a wait-and-see approach to a statement by Iran's ambassador to Baghdad that his country was prepared to offer the Iraqi government economic and military help to promote reconstruction and security. The ambassador, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, told the New York Times Sunday that the plans include establishing an Iranian national bank branch in Baghdad, the newspaper reported today.
"We'll wait and see whether it's a positive development or not," Snow told reporters in a news briefing. However, "to the extent that anybody, including Iranians, are smuggling weapons, bringing in fighters, killing Americans, trying to destabilize the democracy in Iraq, we will take appropriate measures to defend our troops and also to defend the mission," he said.
If carried out, the Iranian offer could drive a wedge between Washington and the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at a time when the United States is trying to limit Iranian influence in Iraq and punish the Islamic Republic for pursuing a nuclear program that includes uranium enrichment and spent-fuel reprocessing. The United States charges that those activities are part of a secret program to build nuclear weapons. Iran insists they are intended to provide fuel for civilian nuclear power plants.
Both Iran and Iraq have Shiite Muslim majorities. In Iran, fundamentalist Shiite clerics hostile to the United States took power in a 1979 revolution that deposed the U.S.-backed shah of Iran. In Iraq, Shiites who had long been oppressed under the rule of Saddam Hussein assumed control of the government as a result of elections that followed the 2003 U.S. invasion to depose Hussein.
In the face of increasing violence by Iraq's Sunni Muslim Arab insurgents and foreign Sunni jihadists against the government and Shiite civilians, Iraqi Shiite militias and death squads have engaged in bloody reprisals in an intensifying spiral of sectarian strife. The Shiite militias reportedly have receiving training and weapons from Iran, and Washington has charged that Iranian intelligence agents and members of the country's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have been active in Iraq.
Asked about the Iranian ambassador's statement today, Bush told NPR, "If Iran escalates its military action in Iraq to the detriment of our troops and/or innocent Iraqi people, we will respond firmly." He said his message to U.S. troops and to the Iraqi government and people is that "we will help you defend yourself from people that want to sow discord and harm. And so we will do what it takes to protect our troops."
As for whether he would seek congressional approval for a move against Iran, Bush said he had "no intent upon going into Iran." He said he did not know how anybody could say that "protecting the troops means that we're going to invade Iran."
Bush said it was important "not to mix issues" regarding Iran. One issue is "what is happening in Iraq," and another is Iran's "ambitions to have a nuclear weapon," he said. "And we're dealing with this issue diplomatically, and I think this can be solved diplomatically. And the message that we are working to send to the Iranian regime and the Iranian people is that you will become increasingly isolated if you continue to pursue a nuclear weapon."
Bush added, "The Iranian people have got to know that this government and the United States bears no hostility to them. We're just deeply concerned about a government that is insisting upon having a nuclear weapon, and at the same time, rewriting history -- the history of the past, and regards, for example, the Holocaust. It troubles a lot of people in this world, and I'll continue to work with friends and allies to send a clear message."
Bush was referring to statements by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad describing the Holocaust as a "myth" and calling for Israel to be "wiped off the map."
At his news briefing later, Snow said there was "a burden of proof" on the Iranians to show that their intentions in Iraq are constructive. He added, "But the Iraqi government is sovereign, and it certainly can make arrangements with its neighbors. And I dare say it's not going to make arrangements that are going to be detrimental to its security or its prosperity."
Asked how the Bush administration views Iranian activities inside Iraq at present, Snow said, "Right now, what we are seeing is some evidence that the Iranians have been involved in activities that have led to the deaths of American soldiers and also the deaths of innocent Iraqi civilians. And to the extent that that kind of activity continues, we will respond appropriately."
He continued, "We would certainly welcome Iran to start playing a constructive role in the region. And among other things, they could stop smuggling arms. . . . They could stop contributing to terrorist organizations. They could stop supporting Hezbollah. They could, in fact, encourage people within the Middle East to promote peaceful negotiations with Israel on a two-state solution. There are a whole series of positive things they can do."
Separately, he said, the Iranians also "could accept the offer that the United States and other nations have made to give them peaceful civil nuclear power in exchange for their renouncing any programs -- verifiably -- that could lead to the creation of nuclear weapons. And we have certainly extended our hand in terms of much warmer, more constructive relations should they do so."