Friday, March 10, 2006

Bush: Iran Grave Security Threat

CNN News:
U.S. President George W. Bush has called Iran an issue of "grave national security concern" but said he wanted a diplomatic solution to the Islamic republic's nuclear ambitions. READ MORE

His comments on Friday came as a hardline Iranian cleric denounced the European Union, whose foreign policy chief is pressing for eventual sanctions against Tehran, as a puppet of Washington.

The EU's Javier Solana and Iran's Ahmad Khatami made their remarks as diplomats from the world's key powers were hammering out an expected U.N. statement on Iran's nuclear program.

Bush said American concerns stemmed from Iran's stated intention to destroy Israel and Washington's fear that Tehran wants to build nuclear bombs -- which the Iranians deny.

"You begin to see an issue of grave national security concern," Reuters reported Bush as telling a newspaper group.

"Therefore it's very important for the United States to continue to work with others to solve these issues diplomatically, deal with these threats today," he said.

In an interview published Friday in the Austrian daily Der Standard, Solana said sanctions against Tehran may be necessary.

"At a later stage, sanctions of some kind can't be excluded. Let's wait and see what the Security Council does," he was quoted as saying.

"We are only at the beginning. I don't exclude sanctions but it depends on the type of sanctions. We certainly don't want to target the Iranian people," Solana said.

It was Solana's first explicit mention of economic measures against Iran, Reuters reported.

Meanwhile, Khatami told Friday worshippers in Tehran the European Union was just a puppet of Washington.

"The issue showed that the EU, despite its gesture of independence, is intimidated," Reuters quoted him as saying in a sermon broadcast live on state radio. "It is a puppet of U.S. policies."

Khatami also accused Bush of using the nuclear issue as part of an effort to topple Iran's government.

"Bush talks of regime change or change of its behavior, which is the same. It means no Islamic regime and the rest is just excuses," he said.

"Today the problem is nuclear energy. As soon as it is over, the problem of human rights will come up and right after that will be the issue of fighting terrorism."

Khatami's comments echoed those of Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who said Thursday that Washington's focus on Iran's nuclear issue was a "pretext" for its "psychological war" on the country and its Islamic system of government.

"On different occasions over the past 27 years, whenever the U.S. pretext lost its effect for any reason, immediately it brought up another one, given its belief that continued psychological war with the Iranian nation is the best way to confront the Islamic system," Khamenei said, according to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency.

On Wednesday, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sent a report on Iran to the U.N. Security Council, and diplomats from the council's five permanent members met briefly in New York to discuss the issue. (Full story)

They were expected to meet again Friday behind closed doors before the full 15-nation council tackles the issue next week.

The council is expected to issue a statement urging Iran to comply with resolutions by the IAEA, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog.

But there are differences among the council's veto-wielding permanent members -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- over how the statement should read.

'Test for the council'
"We're going to press for as vigorous a response in the council as we can get, and hope that gets the Iranians' attention," John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said Thursday.

"This is a test for the council. If the Iranians do not back off from their continued aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons, we'll have to make a decision of what the next step will be."

However, French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said his country wanted a political solution, not to punish Iran.

"Our goal is political, not at all punitive," he told RTL radio when asked if France backed U.S. pressure for sanctions, The Associated Press reported.

Douste-Blazy urged Iran to return to "reason."

"The hand is extended. Negotiations are possible," AP quoted him as saying. "Iran must understand that it has no choice. It has the right to civilian nuclear energy, it does not have the right to something else."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair also urged Tehran to abide by its obligations, saying the UK had no quarrel with the Iranian people.

"I hope that the Iranian people in particular realize that we have no quarrel with them and no desire to stop them having and indeed their country having the same rights as everybody else," AP quoted Blair as saying.

"With those rights come certain duties and obligations and it is important to abide by them," he added.

In comments released Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called for expanded talks to resolve differences over how to proceed with the Iran nuclear issue.

Lavrov said the talks should extend beyond the permanent council members to include Germany -- which along with France and Britain has been negotiating with Iran -- and the IAEA.

Russia and China, which have major commercial interests in Iran, are opposed to sanctions.

Meanwhile, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said Moscow's proposal for Iran to enrich uranium in Russia was "still on the table."

"Iran should take this solution," she told reporters in Salzburg. Iran insists on doing some enrichment at home.

"It is clear that we can still reach a diplomatic solution. ... We don't want to isolate Iran, and Iran should also not isolate Iran," she said.

U.S. and other Western officials believe Iran's program is aimed at developing nuclear weapons. Iran says it is for civilian purposes only.