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IRAN: Bush's bomb allegations give pause

March 22, 2008 |  8:50 am

Ahmadinejad

The White House tried to explain away as "shorthand" comments made by President George W. Bush Thursday alleging that Iran has admitted it was seeking nuclear weapons in order to destroy Israel.

President Bush made the allegation toward the end of an interview with Radio Farda, the U.S. funded Persian-language radio station. It was on the occasion of Nowruz, the Persian New Year:

...[The Iranians have] declared they want to have a nuclear weapon to destroy people -- some -- in the Middle East. And that's unacceptable in the United States and it's unacceptable to the world.

The comment flies in the face of last year's U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded that Iran had probably stopped its clandestine nuclear weapons program in favor of pushing forward with its controversial enrichment of uranium, which could potentially become a building block for such a program. It also contradicts the findings of international nuclear inspectors who've scoured the country's complex of nuclear facilities with moderate success.

And it also ignores a simple fact: Iran has never "declared" it's trying to get weapons. Iranian leaders consistently deny they are seeking nuclear technology for anything other than power generation. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2005 issued a fatwa forbidding weapons of mass destruction as un-Islamic.

So what was Bush referring to?

According to the Washington Post, which broke the story on Thursday, 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.

Bush made a similar comment last year, describing Iran as "a government that has proclaimed its desire to build a nuclear weapon."

Many commentators blasted the speech as either perilously uninformed or dangerously mendacious. Iranian blogger Hooman Majd, at the Huffington Post, was incredulous that Bush would make such a speech as a way to curry favor with Iranians on the occasion of the country's most important non-Muslim holiday:

What exactly are the Iranian people supposed to think? That Mr. Bush is an idiot? That he's a liar? Maybe they're thinking, "oh my gosh, it's worse than we thought. Could he actually bomb the crap out of us because he actually believes his own nonsense?"... If the idea was to get the Iranian people on your (or our) side, if the idea was to convince them that their government is acting foolishly and dangerously, then you just scored a big fat zero.

But many Iran analysts point to a graver danger than just alienating ordinary Iranians. The smartest Iran experts inside and outside the country I know often tell me of four or more different positions within the government on nuclear technology. They range from stopping the program altogether, to pursuing just nuclear energy, to keeping the nuclear weapons option open, to puttin' the pedal to the metal toward nuclear weapons.

The danger: comments like Bush's could embolden the hardest of the hardliners in the Iranian government. Those who may be pushing for a nuclear weapons program in Tehran could point to Bush's remarks and argue that America wants confrontation with Iran anyway, that Washington's problem isn't just Iran's nuclear program but the very existence of the Islamic Republic.

"So why not go for the bomb?" they would say.

Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photo: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at a ceremony celebrating the second annual National Day for Nuclear Technology last year at the nuclear plant in Natanz, central Iran. Credit: ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH/EPA

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