WASHINGTON (AFP) — The White House on Friday sought to back pedal on comments by President George W. Bush accusing Iran of having said it was seeking a nuclear bomb.
The Islamic regime has always denied in recent years trying to arm itself with an atomic bomb, saying its nuclear program was a peaceful, civilian effort to meet its electricity needs.
But Bush in an interview with a US-controlled Farsi-language radio station said Iran has declared it wants nuclear weapons "to destroy people."
Bush told Radio Farda, which broadcasts from Europe to Iran, that he supported Iran developing a civilian nuclear power program.
"It's in their right to have it," Bush said, according to a White House transcript of the interview made on Wednesday.
"The problem is the 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; and secondly, they've declared they want to have a nuclear weapon to destroy people -- some in the Middle East."
The White House on Friday sought to downplay the remarks, saying Bush was merely speaking in shorthand.
"The president shorthanded his answer with regard to Iran's previously secret nuclear weapons program and their current enrichment and ballistic missile testing," said national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
The Iranian nuclear program, coupled by its ballistic missile tests and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's calls for Israel to be wiped off the map, has fueled worries about Tehran's intentions.
The United States and its European allies have led efforts to pressure Iran into freezing its disputed uranium enrichment work, a process that can be used both to make nuclear fuel and the core of an atomic bomb.
The UN Security Council recently imposed a third set of sanctions against Iran over its refusal to halt its nuclear activities.
But Bush's remarks to Radio Farda could damage Washington's campaign against Tehran, which was already hurt by a US intelligence assessment released in December.
The US National Intelligence Estimate said Iran halted a secret nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that the Islamic republic appeared less determined to join the small club of nuclear-armed nations.
The White House has since strived to counter the perception that the intelligence report downplays the Iranian threat.
"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 civilian nuclear power without -- you know, without enabling the government to enrich," Bush told Radio Farda.
Bush said the two sides can "reconcile their differences" but that Tehran needs to make "different choices," namely halt its enrichment work.
The interview was part of a series of direct messages from Bush to the Iranian people marking the Persian nation's new year.
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