By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 21, 2008
President Bush said Thursday that Iran has declared that it wants to be a nuclear power with a weapon to "destroy people," including others in the Middle East, contradicting the judgments of a recent U.S. intelligence estimate.
The president spoke in an interview intended to reach out to the Iranian public on the Persian new year and to express "moral support" for struggling freedom movements, particularly among youth and women. It was designed to stress U.S. support for Iran's quest for nuclear energy and the prospects that Washington and Tehran can "reconcile their differences" if Iran cooperates with the international community to ensure that the effort is not converted into a weapons program.
But most striking was Bush's accusation that Iran has openly declared its nuclear weapons intentions, even though a National Intelligence Estimate concluded in December that Iran had stopped its weapons program in 2003, a major reversal in the long-standing U.S. assessment.
"They've declared they want to have a nuclear weapon to destroy people -- some in the Middle East. And that's unacceptable to the United States, and it's unacceptable to the world," Bush told U.S.-funded Radio Farda, which broadcasts into Iran in Farsi.
Experts on Iran and nuclear proliferation said the president's statement was wrong. "That's as uninformed as [Sen. John] McCain's statement that Iran is training al-Qaeda. Iran has never said it wanted a nuclear weapon for any reason. It's just not true. It's a little troubling that the president and the leading Republican candidate are both so wrong about Iran," said Joseph Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation.
Others said it is unclear whether the president believes what he said or was deliberately distorting Iran's position.
"The Iranian government is on the record across the board as saying it does not want a nuclear weapon. There's plenty of room for skepticism about these assertions. But it's troubling for the administration to indicate that Iran is explicitly embracing the program as a means of destroying another country," said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran specialist at the State Department until last year and now at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center.
National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Bush was referring to previous Iranian statements about wiping Israel off the map. "The president shorthanded his answer with regard to Iran's previously secret nuclear weapons program and their current enrichment and ballistic missile testing," Johndroe said.
In two interviews beamed into Iran, Bush expressed deep respect for Iranian history and culture. In a second interview with the Voice of America's Persian News Network, Bush said: "Please don't be discouraged by the slogans that say America doesn't like you, because we do, and we respect you."
But analysts warned that Bush's statement on Iran's nuclear intentions could escalate tensions when U.S. strategy for the first time in three decades is to persuade Iran to join international talks in exchange for suspending its uranium enrichment, a process used for peaceful nuclear energy that can be converted for use in a weapons program. "The bellicose rhetoric from one side only produces the same from the other," Maloney said.
Signaling further pressure on Tehran, the administration also issued a warning on Thursday to U.S. financial institutions about the dangers of doing business with Iranian banks because of inadequate checks on money laundering and the growing risks to the international financial system posed by Iran's financial sector. "The government of Iran disguises its involvement in proliferation and terrorism activities through an array of deceptive practices," the Treasury Department said.
The advisory lists 59 major banks or their branches in cities such as Athens, Hong Kong, London and Moscow. It includes Iran's Central Bank and covers many banks not facing sanctions from the United Nations or the United States.
The Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network said that Iran's Central Bank and commercial banks started asking that their names be removed from global transactions to make it more difficult for intermediary financial institutions to determine their true identity or origin.
The United States recently imposed new restrictions on dealings with Bahrain-based Future Bank, which is controlled by Iran's Bank Melli.
"Over the past eight days, the U.S. government has undertaken a number of steps to put Tehran on notice that the international community will not allow the Iranian government to misuse the international financial system or global transportation network to further its aspirations to obtain nuclear weapons capability, improve its missile systems, or support international terrorism," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement.
Staff writers Michael Abramowitz and William Branigin contributed to this report.