WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President George W. Bush has said Iran’s people would face “deprivation” over their leaders’ nuclear ambitions and firmly warned Tehran against sowing “discord and harm” in Iraq.
In an interview with National Public Radio, Bush said he had no plans to invade Iran but cautioned: “If Iran escalates its military action in Iraq to the detriment of our troops and/or innocent Iraqi people, we will respond firmly.”
The president promised US soldiers in Iraq and that war-torn country’s leaders: “We will help you defend yourself from people that want to sow discord and harm. And so we will do what it takes to protect our troops.”
Bush last week authorized US forces to capture or kill Iranian operatives in Iraq, amid charges from Washington and denied by Tehran that the Islamic republic has been helping insurgents who target US troops.
And in his annual State of the Union speech on January 23, the US president vowed to crack down on Iranian and Syrian networks suspected here of funneling weapons and fighters into the insurgency in Iraq.
But Bush dismissed warnings from US lawmakers against attacking Iran, saying: “I don’t know how anybody can then say, ‘well, protecting the troops means that we’re going to invade Iran.'”
“I have no intent upon going into Iran,” said the president.
Bush also said that the United States was working “diplomatically” on Tehran’s alleged push to develop nuclear weapons, an issue he stressed was separate from that of Iraq.
“One of the things that is very important in discussing Iran is not to mix issues … One is what is happening in Iraq. Another is their ambitions to have a nuclear weapon. And we’re dealing with this issue diplomatically.”
Iran would face economic and diplomatic consequences if it sought nuclear weapons, the president said.
“The message that we are working to send to the Iranian regime and the Iranian people is that you will become increasingly isolated if you continue to pursue a nuclear weapon,” he said.
“The message to the Iranian people is that your government is going to cause you deprivation,” he said. “If your government continues to insist upon a nuclear weapon, there will be lost opportunity for the Iranian people.”
At the same time, Bush said he understood “a certain skepticism about (US) intelligence” on Tehran’s nuclear plans in the wake of the deeply flawed case for war in Iraq.”
“I’m like a lot of Americans that say, well, ‘if it wasn’t right in Iraq, how do you know it’s right in (Iran). And so we are constantly evaluating, and answering this legitimate question by always working to get as good intelligence as we can.
“I take the Iranian nuclear threat very seriously even though the intel on Iraq was not what it was thought to be, and we have to,” he said.
Earlier, Bush spokesman Tony Snow had reacted warily to Iran’s plans to expand military and economic ties with Iraq, saying that Tehran needed to play a “constructive” role but leaving bilateral relations up to Baghdad.
“The government of Iraq will have to make decisions about its relations with Iran,” Snow told reporters after Iran’s ambassador to Iraq told the New York Times that Tehran looked to deepen relations with Baghdad.
“The one thing we have said all along is that we hope Iran plays a constructive role in the region,” said Snow. “At this point, it has not been constructive; we hope it does become more constructive.”
The spokesman accused Iran of “pursuing nuclear weapons or supporting groups that have been committing acts of violence against either US troops, against people within Iraq, or destabilizing democracies in Afghanistan and Lebanon.”