Bush offers usual defenses for his actions

President Bush on Monday dismissed as “wild speculation” reports that his administration is weighing possible military air strikes against Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons.

On Iraq, Bush confirmed for the first time that he authorized the release of prewar classified intelligence about Iraq three years ago in a bid to influence public debate about his decision to invade the country in March 2003.

“After we liberated Iraq, there was questions in people’s minds about the basis on which I made statements _ in other words, going into Iraq,” Bush told international studies graduate students at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. “And, so, I decided to declassify the NIE (National Intelligence Estimate) for a reason. . . . I thought it was important for people to get a better sense for why I was saying what I was saying in my speeches.”

White House press secretary Scott McClellan denied that Bush had politicized the intelligence on Iraq by authorizing its release to reporters.

“The president had the authority to declassify information as he chooses,” McClellen said. “He would never declassify anything if he felt it could compromise our nation’s security.”

As U.S. forces’ failure to find lethal weapons in Iraq sparked debate over the U.S. invasion in the summer of 2003, senior Bush aides released parts of an October 2002 intelligence estimate that Saddam Hussein likely possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Bush and his aides have been on the defensive since I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, said in a court document filed last week that Cheney had told him Bush approved the leaking of portions of the 2002 intelligence report.

Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Sunday that Bush “owes a specific explanation to the American people” about his role in the release of intelligence data.

Libby was indicted in October on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s ongoing probe of the public identification of CIA agent Valerie Plame. Her husband, former U.S. envoy Joseph Wilson, had criticized Bush’s rationale for invading Iraq after the CIA sent him on a fact-finding trip to Niger, where Bush said Saddam had tried to acquire nuclear materials. He accused Bush aides of retaliating by revealing his wife’s covert employment status.

After Bush delivered a speech on the war on terror, one student asked him whether the United States will allow Iran to develop nuclear arms.

“We do not want the Iranians to have a nuclear weapon, the capacity to make a nuclear weapon or the knowledge as to how to make a nuclear weapon,” Bush said.

That view, Bush added, is shared with Britain, Germany, France and other allies.

Without prompting, Bush alluded to recent published reports that the United States is actively pursuing military options for using air power _ including a possible nuclear strike _ to take out Iran’s nascent nuclear program.

“I read the articles in the newspapers this weekend,” he said. “It was just wild speculation, by the way. What you’re reading is wild speculation, which . . . happens quite frequently here in the nation’s capital.”

Bush ruled out bilateral negotiations with Iran, saying the European Union and Russia are playing key roles in trying to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons.

“When we’re in a bilateral position, or kind of just negotiating one on one, somehow the world ends up turning the tables on us,” he said. “And I’m not going to put my country in that position.”

Bush jestingly recalled his inclusion of Iran in “the axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address, but he indicated that subsequent events have proven him right.

“I got out a little early on the issue by saying ‘axis of evil,’ ” Bush said, prompting laughter. “But I meant it. I saw it as a problem. And now, many others have come to the conclusion that the Iranians should not have a nuclear weapon.”

In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vowed to pursue nuclear technology.

“On this issue, (Iran) will not step back one iota from the right of the Iranian nation,” Ahmadinejad told a rally in the provincial capital of Mashhad.

The crowd chanted back: “Nuclear energy is our absolute right!”

Ahmadinejad promised to deliver “good nuclear news” in the coming days, which one Iranian newspaper reported would be that Iran had produced enriched uranium with a 3.5 percent concentration of the isotope uranium-235. Iran resumed uranium enrichment in January.

Most American nuclear power plants use a range of 3 percent to 5 percent enriched uranium, while U.S. nuclear weapons require highly enriched uranium with at least 90 percent uranium-235.

Despite its status as the world’s fourth-largest oil producer, Iran claims that it is developing nuclear technology for civilian power use. It is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which guarantees its members the right to peaceful development of nuclear power in exchange for eschewing the development of nuclear weapons.

The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously March 29 to give Iran 30 days to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities and resume cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency.

IAEA director-general Mohamed ElBaradei, who with his organization received the Nobel Peace Prize last year, was scheduled to visit Iran on Thursday for talks on the nuclear dispute.

At a meeting of foreign ministers in Luxembourg, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said a New Yorker magazine report on U.S. plans for a massive bombing campaign against Iran “has nothing to do with reality.”

The EU foreign ministers met to consider economic sanctions against Iran if the U.N.-led diplomatic initiative fails.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on Sunday called the idea of a nuclear strike against Iran “completely nuts” and said, “The reason why we’re opposed to military action is because it’s an infinitely worse option and there’s no justification for it.”