BEIRUT -- Vice President Dick Cheney charged in an interview released Tuesday that Iran is trying to develop weapons-grade uranium, though international inspectors and U.S. intelligence services have not found evidence of such an effort.
"Obviously, they're also heavily involved in trying to develop nuclear weapons enrichment, the enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade levels," Cheney said, according to a transcript released by the White House of an interview done Monday in Turkey with ABC's Martha Raddatz.
Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful energy production, but the U.S. and other Western countries fear Tehran will eventually develop nuclear weapons.
In its latest report, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency, says Iran is enriching uranium at its plant in Natanz to less than 3.8%, which is the level necessary to create fuel for a civilian reactor. Weapons-grade uranium is enriched to 80% or 90%.
Cheney's comment also contradicted the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies, which concluded in a report revealed late last year that Iran had halted its efforts to develop nuclear weapons in 2003.
The vice president's statement was the second time in a week that a White House official has made an allegation regarding Iran's nuclear program and its intentions that did not square with publicly known facts.
President Bush said last week that Iran's leaders had "declared" they were seeking nuclear weapons. Iran has always denied the charge, and the White House later backpedaled, calling the president's remarks "shorthand."
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Cheney made the remarks at the end of a 10-day tour of Middle East countries to discuss high oil prices, the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Arab-Israeli conflict. But the subject of Iran was never far from his agenda.
In addition to Israel and the Palestinian territories, his route took him to Oman, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Turkey, in effect encircling the country that has become the greatest U.S. rival in the region. And at almost every stop, he brought up the subject of Iran and its role in disrupting U.S. efforts in the region.
Before the first stop of his visit to Oman, a Cheney aide told Agence France-Presse news service that Iran "has got to be very high" on the agenda for the talks.
"The Omanis . . . are concerned by the escalating tensions between much of the world community and Iran and by Iran's activities, particularly in the nuclear field," the news agency quoted the aide as saying.
In Saudi Arabia, Cheney also brought up the Iran issue. According to the Jidda-based English-language Arab News, the Saudis oppose any war with Iran. Saudi King Abdullah also raised the issue of Israel's undeclared nuclear program, saying that the Middle East should be free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.
In Jerusalem on Monday, Cheney accused Iran and Syria of "doing everything they can to torpedo the peace process," a reference to the teetering talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
© 2008 The Los Angeles Times