By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 14, 2008
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates, Jan. 13 -- President Bush on Sunday accused Iran of undermining peace in Lebanon, funding terrorist groups, trying to intimidate its neighbors and refusing to be open about its nuclear program and ambitions.
In a speech described by the White House as the centerpiece of his eight-day trip to the Middle East, Bush urged other countries to help the United States "confront this danger before it is too late."
Bush sought to address the Iranian people directly, saying: "You have a right to live under a government that listens to your wishes, respects your talents and allows you to build better lives for your families. Unfortunately, your government denies you these opportunities and threatens the peace and stability of your neighbors. So we call on the regime in Tehran to heed your will and to make itself accountable to you."
Iranian officials, meanwhile, pledged to answer all remaining questions about their country's past nuclear activities within four weeks, the Associated Press reported. The timetable was announced by a spokeswoman for Mohamed ElBaradei, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who wrapped up a two-day visit to Tehran that included meetings with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader.
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the Iranian move was not enough. "Answering questions about their past nuclear activities is a step, but they still need to suspend their enrichment and reprocessing activity," he said. "Another declaration is no substitute for complying with the U.N. sanctions."
Bush's comments on Iran were part of a speech devoted to advancing the cause of freedom and democracy in the Middle East. It was the latest in a steady volley of attacks on the country in the past week that began even before he left for Jerusalem last Tuesday.
Bush is trying to persuade Arab countries to join U.S. efforts to pressure Iran, though many appear ambivalent about the administration's campaign following a new U.S. intelligence report that concluded Iran stopped a nuclear weapons program in 2003.
On Monday, Bush will travel to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, viewed by many inside and outside the administration as the linchpin of efforts to develop an anti-Iran coalition. As part of an attempt to show its commitment to Saudi Arabia, a senior administration official said the White House plans to notify Congress about a substantial arms sale package for the Saudis. The package is expected to be worth $20 billion.
Bush has warned Iran that it faces "serious consequences" for a recent incident in which the Pentagon accused Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboats of harassing U.S. warships in the Strait of Hormuz, a vital passage for oil. Iran has challenged the U.S. account of the incident.
New details have emerged in past days that raised questions about parts of the initial account, including a Pentagon acknowledgment that a threatening radio message heard by the U.S. ships may not have come from the Iranians.
The commander of one of the U.S. ships said Sunday that the message was taken seriously because it came as Iranian vessels swarmed the American fleet, the Associated Press reported.
"This was not a loose bunch of guys," said Cmdr. Jeffery James of the destroyer USS Hopper. "During this entire time, we were going through our pre-planned responses trying to warn them off before we had to take any lethal action. And fortunately for everyone involved, they turned outbound before we needed to open fire," he said.
James and Capt. David Adler of the cruiser USS Port Royal spoke to reporters Sunday at the Bahrain headquarters of the Navy's Fifth Fleet, which patrols the Persian Gulf. Neither would say how close the Navy was to firing at the Iranian boats.
Before leaving Bahrain for Abu Dhabi, Bush visited the headquarters, where he talked about the incident with Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, the fleet commander. One senior administration official, briefing reporters about the visit, said Cosgriff discussed the behavior of the vessels and why they were threatening, and reminded the president that the Navy lost lives in the attack on the USS Cole from small vessels filled with explosives.
Iran has sharply disputed the U.S. allegations. "We exercised restraint, and we very calmly announced that this was a routine procedure, but they tried to . . . raise this issue at the same time when Mr. Bush was traveling to the region in order to paint Iran in a negative light," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told reporters, the Reuters news agency reported.