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Bush Warns Against Nuclear-Armed Iran

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and George W. BushU.S. Presses Allies for U.N. Action
The Washington Post – President Bush declared yesterday that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose "a grave threat to the security of the world" as he tried to rally support from other major powers for U.N. Security Council action unless a defiant Tehran abandons any aspirations for nuclear weapons.

In using the phrase "grave threat," Bush invoked the same language he used before launching the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and he highlighted in particular the danger to Israel. But during a White House appearance with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Bush stressed that he hopes to forge a "common consensus" with other world leaders for a diplomatic resolution of the escalating confrontation with Iran.

The joint front presented by Bush and Merkel contrasted with the schism between the United States and major European allies in the months leading up to the Iraq war and underscored the more multilateral strategy pursued by the White House in trying to prevent Iran from building nuclear bombs. Not only do Germany, France and Britain now support taking Iran to the United Nations, but Russia has also indicated to Washington that it would permit the matter to go before the Security Council.

China, the council’s fifth veto-wielding member, however, cautioned yesterday against a referral, although it did not say whether it would actually block such a move. And just days after breaking U.N. seals on its nuclear plant in Natanz to resume uranium-enrichment research, Iran threatened to end its voluntary cooperation with U.N. nuclear inspectors if it is hauled before the Security Council.

It remains unclear what the council would be willing to do to exert pressure on Iran. U.S. and European diplomats privately said they are mapping out a series of possible steps, starting with a stern statement issued by the council president .

The diplomats will meet with Russian and Chinese counterparts in London on Monday. But German and French envoys called any talk of economic sanctions "premature." And Britain’s foreign minister all but ruled out military action, at least for now.

The move to take the issue to the Security Council followed the collapse of more than two years of negotiations led by Germany, France and Britain. Iran insists it wants only to develop nuclear power for civilian purposes but rejected incentives to halt programs that could be used to build weapons.

Merkel yesterday expressed the European frustration at Iran’s stance. "Iran refused every offer we made, even the Russian offer," she said, referring to a proposal by Moscow to enrich uranium for Iran for nuclear reactors. "We will certainly not be intimidated by a country such as Iran," Merkel said.

In their first meeting since she took over the German government as head of a Christian Democrat-led coalition, Merkel and Bush moved to repair relations that fractured under her Social Democrat predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, who opposed the Iraq war so vocally that Bush for a time refused to speak with him. Merkel’s conservative stances more closely mirror Bush’s, and she termed their talks yesterday "a good start."

Bush went out of his way to thank Germany for its cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran, hail their "common values," and praise Merkel. "She’s got kind of a spirit to her that is appealing," he said. Asked by a German reporter if the visit went better than with Schroeder, Bush smiled and said "Yeah."

But the two split on the future of the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which Merkel has said should eventually be shut down. "Guantanamo is a necessary part of protecting the American people," Bush said, "and so long as the war on terror goes on, and so long as there’s a threat, we will, inevitably, need to hold people that would do ourselves harm."

In discussing Iran, Bush repeated his usual formulation that it is "unacceptable" for the Islamic republic to have nuclear bombs. He added that "the reason it’s unacceptable is because Iran, armed with a nuclear weapon, poses a grave threat to the security of the world."

The president went on to fortify his argument by citing recent statements by Iran’s new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has said that Israel should be "wiped off the map." Bush said, "The development of a nuclear weapon, seems like to me, would make them a step closer to achieving that objective."

The "grave threat" language was not in any talking points prepared and distributed yesterday across the U.S. government, and it surprised diplomats and even some of Bush’s own aides. During his State of the Union address in 2002, when Bush labeled Iraq, Iran and North Korea the "axis of evil," he said the three states posed a "grave and growing danger." And he later repeated the "grave threat" description to describe Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. But by and large, he has shied away from those words regarding Iran.

Bush’s language was evocative of Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which authorizes force to combat threats to "international peace and security." A White House aide said it was not meant as a signal. "There was no intent to mimic language," the aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

At a briefing, White House press secretary Scott McClellan emphasized that Bush does not see Iran as another Iraq. "Iraq and Iran are not the same situations," he said.

Unlike in Iraq, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said, a military operation against Iran was not on the table. "I’ve never had a single discussion with anyone in the U.S. administration about the possibility of military action," he told the BBC.

Iran bristled at the pressure. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said that if it is taken to the Security Council, "the Iranian government will have to stop all its voluntary cooperation with the U.N. nuclear watchdog," according to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency.

Iran has been voluntarily allowing inspections since the International Atomic Energy Agency began investigating the country’s nuclear program in 2003, but the country is not bound by any international law to continue the arrangement. Despite the rhetoric, Iran has not started assembling centrifuges or enriching uranium, according to officials in contact with IAEA inspectors. Some U.S. and European officials believe the Iranians may be spooked and holding off in hopes that it might get the country out of going to the Security Council.

As Bush plotted strategy with Merkel, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice turned her attention to China, calling her counterpart in Beijing. China’s U.N. ambassador, Wang Guangya, said that the issue should not go to the Security Council. "We are working on the Iranians to be more cooperative with the IAEA," he said in an interview. Wang said a referral "might complicate the issue" and added: "I think if other venues can be successful, why bring it to New York? We have a lot of things on the table."

The Russian ambassador, Andrei I. Denisov, also voiced concern that a referral would prompt Iran to break off relations with the IAEA.

"We strongly, strongly call upon Iran to come back to resume the moratorium as a crucial step to restart talks," he said in a separate interview. While Denisov would not confirm that Russia will allow a referral, he said, "We are ready to consider any option which is required and which is discussed by all parties involved."

Staff writers Colum Lynch and Dafna Linzer in New York and Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.