WASHINGTON — President Bush contended that Iran has "declared they want a nuclear weapon to destroy people" and that the Islamic Republic could be hiding a secret program.
Iran, however, has never publicly proclaimed a desire for nuclear weapons and has repeatedly insisted that the uranium enrichment program it's operating in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions is for civilian power plants, not warheads.
Bush made his assertion Wednesday in an interview marking the Iranian New Year with Radio Farda, a U.S. government-run radio service that broadcasts into Iran in the Farsi language. The White House released the transcript on Thursday.
The president reiterated his view that Iran has a right to civilian nuclear power. But, he said, the low-enriched uranium fuel for its reactors should be supplied by Russia, a proposal that Tehran has repeatedly rejected.
"The problem is the (Iranian) 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?" said Bush.
"Secondly, they've declared they want to have a nuclear weapon to destroy people, some in the Middle East. And that is unacceptable to the United States and it's unacceptable to the world."
Iran has repeatedly denied seeking nuclear warheads, and its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a religious edict in 2005 forbidding the production, stockpiling and use of such weapons.
Asked about the president's comment, Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman, said Bush had "shorthanded" Iran's desire "to wipe Israel off the map," its refusal to heed U.N. Security Council demands to suspend its enrichment work and Iran's continued development of ballistic missiles.
Asked if Iran could exploit Bush's inaccurate comment for political purposes, Johndroe replied: "I'm not concerned about that. If they want to spin it a certain way, they can do it any way they want. They have still called for Israel to be wiped off the map and are in violation of three U.N. Security Council resolutions."
Speaking in October 2005 at a "World Without Zionism" conference, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was quoted by state-run Iranian media as saying that "Israel must be wiped off the map."
Some experts, however, disputed the translation, saying that Ahmadinejad's comment couldn't be interpreted as a threat to use force against Israel.
Meanwhile, the State Department announced targeted new restrictions on a bank in Bahrain, which is controlled by the Iran-based Bank Melli, and additional scrutiny of any vessel calling at a U.S. port that has recently visited Iran. It said Iran hadn't maintained "effective anti-terrorism measures" at its ports.
"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.
The Treasury Department also warned U.S. banks that Iran is using "an array of deceptive practices" to circumvent international financial sanctions.
The department said that it is "particularly concerned that the central bank of Iran may be facilitating transactions for sanctioned Iranian banks."
In the Radio Farda interview, Bush said, "There's a chance that the U.S. and Iran could reconcile their differences," but only if Iran verifiably suspends its uranium enrichment program.
"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 a civilian nuclear program . . . without enabling the government to enrich."
Enrichment produces both low-enriched uranium, which is used to fuel nuclear power plants, and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, depending on the duration of the process.
Iran kept its program hidden for 18 years until its disclosure by an Iranian opposition group in 2002.
A December 2007 U.S. intelligence report said Iran halted work on nuclear weapons four years earlier, but could restart it.
Tehran has refused to comply with three U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that it suspend the program while the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency completes an investigation and institutes strict safeguards to ensure the project isn't being used for weapons.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008