By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 20, 2008 12:46 PM
President Bush said the Iranian government has "declared they want to have a nuclear weapon to destroy people" and vowed that the United States would be "firm" in preventing Tehran's acquisition of such arms.
In interviews yesterday to mark the Iranian new year, Bush said Iran has a right to build civilian nuclear power plants but that the government cannot be trusted to enrich uranium, according to White House transcripts released today. Different types of enriched uranium can be used as fuel for nuclear reactors or as fissile material for atomic bombs.
"The Iranians should have a civilian nuclear power program. It's in their right to have it," Bush told Radio Farda, a U.S.-funded radio station that broadcasts to Iran in Farsi, the Iranian language.
"The problem is the government cannot be trusted to enrich uranium because one, they've hidden programs in the past and they may be hiding one now, who knows; and secondly, they've declared they want to have a nuclear weapon to destroy people -- some in the Middle East," Bush said. "And that's unacceptable to the United States, and it's unacceptable to the world."
Washington has long suspected that Iran wants to use its civilian nuclear power program as cover for an effort to build nuclear weapons. But the Iranian government has not publicly declared a desire to obtain such weapons. In fact, Iranian leaders have said the opposite, repeatedly insisting that they do not want nuclear arms and asserting that their nuclear program is intended only to generate electricity.
Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation specializing in nuclear policy, called Bush's statement "uninformed" and "troubling."
"Iran has never said it wanted a nuclear weapon for any reason," he said. "It's just not true."
Asked to explain Bush's comment, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said he spoke in "shorthand," combining Iranian threats against Israel with concerns about Iran's nuclear program.
"The president was referring to the Iranian regime's previous statements regarding their desire to wipe Israel off the map," Johndroe said. "The president shorthanded his answer with regard to Iran's previously secret nuclear weapons program and their current enrichment and ballistic missile testing."
In an October 2005 speech to a conference on a "World without Zionism," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was quoted by a state-run Iranian news agency as agreeing with a statement by Iran's late spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, that "Israel must be wiped off the map." Iran's foreign minister later said the comment had been incorrectly translated from Farsi and that Ahmadinejad was "talking about the [Israeli] regime," which Iran does not recognize and wants to see collapse.
According to Farsi-speaking commentators including Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan, Ahmadinejad's exact quote was, "The Imam said that this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time." Cole has written that Ahmadinejad was not calling for the "Nazi-style extermination of a people," but was expressing the wish that the Israeli government would disappear just as the shah of Iran's regime had collapsed in 1979.
In December, a U.S. intelligence review concluded that Iran stopped work on a suspected nuclear weapons program four years earlier, reversing a previous assessment that Iran was determined to acquire nuclear arms.
In the wake of the new National Intelligence Estimate, Bush warned that Iran nevertheless remains "dangerous." He pointed to the review's finding that the Iranian military was secretly working to develop nuclear weapons before suspending the program in the fall of 2003.
In his interview with Radio Farda, Bush said there was "a chance that the U.S. and Iran can reconcile their differences, but the government is going to have to . . . make different choices." He said one choice "is to verifiably suspend the enrichment of uranium, at which time there is a way forward."
Bush added, "The Iranian people have got to understand that the United States is going to be firm in our desire to prevent the nation from developing a nuclear weapon, but reasonable in our desire to see to it that you have civilian nuclear power without -- you know, without enabling the government to enrich."
Saying that Iran has "not told the truth in the past," Bush argued that it was therefore "very difficult for the United States" and other nations to trust the government in Tehran.
He expressed support for a Russian proposal to provide enriched uranium to Iran for use as fuel in nuclear power plants.
In a separate interview with the Voice of America's Persian News Network, Bush said his new year's message to the Iranian people is, "We have differences with the government, but we honor the people, and we want the people to live in a free society." He told Iranians, "Please don't be discouraged by the slogans that say America doesn't like you, because we do, and we respect you."
Bush said, "It's just sad that the leadership is in many ways very stubborn, because . . . the Iranian people are not realizing their true rights."
Asked if he would "allow [uranium] enrichment inside Iran" under guarantees and international supervision, Bush said, "I would have to be convinced that any secret programs would be disclosed." He suggested that "the better way forward" is for Iran to accept Russia's offer to supply nuclear fuel under a contract with strict monitoring.
Bush also expressed support for Iranian dissidents. "The reformers inside Iran are brave people, they've got no better friend than George W. Bush, and I ask for God's blessings on them on their very important work," he said.
He said recent talks between the United States and Iran have been "solely about Iraq." The U.S. message to Iranian leaders, he said, is to stop sending weapons to Iraqi insurgent groups and militias, "or there will be consequences inside of Iraq."
Staff writer Robin Wright contributed to this report.