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MIDDLE EAST: Cheney makes Iran bomb allegation

March 25, 2008 |  8:59 am

Meoutl

Certainly high oil prices, the state of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Arab-Israeli conflict were high on the agenda of Vice President Dick Cheney's recent tour of the Middle East. But the subject of Iran was never far from the surface of the trip, which is now wrapping up.

CheneyCheney alleged in an interview Monday that Iran was trying to develop weapons-grade uranium, even though international inspectors have never found such evidence.

According to a White House transcript of an interview with ABC's Martha Raddatz, Cheney said:

Obviously, they're also heavily involved in trying to develop nuclear weapons enrichment, the enrichment of uranium to weapons grade levels.

Iran is currently enriching uranium at its plant in Natanz in central Iran. Weapons-grade uranium is enriched or concentrated at 80% or 90%. According to the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report, Iran currently enriches uranium at concentrations of less than 3.8%, which is the amount necessary for creating fuel for a reactor. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful energy production, but the U.S. and other Western countries have cast suspicion.

Nevertheless, Cheney's comments contradict both U.S. intelligence agencies' assessments of Iran's nuclear program and the findings of the IAEA. Both say, and Iranians admit, that Iran is trying to master the enrichment of uranium. But no one has yet come up with proof that Iran is now actively trying to produce weapons-grade nuclear material.

It was the second time in a week that a White House official has made an allegation regarding Iran's nuclear program and intentions that did not square with publicly known facts.

President Bush said last week that Iran's leaders had "declared" that they were seeking nuclear weapons. Iran has always denied it was seeking nuclear weapons, and the White House later retracted the statement somewhat, calling his remarks "shorthand."

In any case, Cheney's recent trip around the Middle East had a curious arc. He all but encircled the country that has become the greatest U.S. rival in the region.

At almost every stop on his trip, Cheney brought up the subject of Iran and its role in upending U.S. plans for the region.

Before the first stop of his visit to Oman, a Cheney aide told Agence France-Presse that Iran "has got to be very high" on the agenda for the talks:

The Omanis, like a lot of other people, are concerned by the escalating tensions between the rest of the world community and Iran, by some of Iran's activities, particularly in the nuclear field, but outside its borders as well.

In Saudi Arabia, Cheney also raised the Iran issue. According to the Jeddah-based, English-language Arab News, the Saudis oppose any war with Iran. Saudi King Abdullah also raised the issue of Israel's undeclared nuclear program:

[T]he king confirmed his opposition to any US military strike, sources said. Saudi Arabia, along with other Gulf Arab countries, sees negotiations as the best way to ease tension between the US and Iran. According to sources, the king also told Cheney that the Middle East should be free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

In Jerusalem on Monday, Cheney accused Iran and and its partner Syria of "doing everything they can to torpedo the peace process," the teetering talks between Israel and the Palestinians on establishing a lasting peace.

Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Graphic: The red countries are ones Vice President Dick Cheney visited during his recent tour of the Middle East; the blue is Iran. Credit: Borzou Daragahi / L.A. Times. Photo: AFP

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