- The Washington Times - Monday, November 22, 2004

CARTAGENA, Colombia — President Bush yesterday called for independent verification of Iran’s claim that it has stopped enriching uranium that could be used in the development of a nuclear weapon.

“Well, let’s say, I hope it’s true,” Mr. Bush said in a joint press conference with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. “And I think the definition of truth is the willingness for the Iranian regime to allow for verification.

“You know, they have said some things in the past,” he added warily. “And it’s very important for them to verify and earn the trust of those of us who are worried about them developing a nuclear weapon.”

The State Department was equally skeptical.

“This is a situation we’ve been in before, where Iran has said that it would suspend, and then subsequently went on to renege on those commitments,” said State Department spokesman Adam Ereli. “So obviously, our interest is seeing not what they say, but what they actually do.”

The United States will reserve judgment until the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) verifies Iran’s claim, which comes in the wake of an agreement that Tehran reached earlier this month with Germany, France and Britain. The IAEA has a team of inspectors in Iran.

“Nations around the world understand the dangers of the Iranian government having a nuclear weapon,” Mr. Bush said. “And so it looks like there is some progress.

“But to determine whether or not the progress is real, there must be verification,” he added. “And we look forward to seeing that verification.”

Iran’s announcement yesterday that it had suspended enrichment of uranium was widely viewed as an attempt to avoid being referred to the U.N. Security Council by the IAEA, the world body’s nuclear watchdog. Still, the claim was taken at face value by IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei.

“I think pretty much everything has come to a halt right now, so we are just trying to make sure that everything has been stopped,” Mr. ElBaradei told reporters. “Hopefully by Thursday, I should be able to report that we’ve verified the suspension.”

If the suspension turns out to be bogus, Western condemnation would be swift.

“If there is a failure by Iran to meet its obligations, then Britain, and also Germany and France, reserve our collective right to refer the matter to the Security Council,” said British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

Also at yesterday’s press conference, Mr. Bush said he would ask Congress to continue sending billions in U.S. aid to help Colombia fight the illegal drug trade through a program called Plan Colombia.

“Since the year 2000, when we began Plan Colombia, the United States has provided more than $3 billion in vital aid,” he said. “Plan Colombia enjoys wide bipartisan support in my country, and next year, I will ask our Congress to renew its support so that this courageous nation can win its war against narcoterrorists.”

Mr. Bush added the stop in Colombia at the suggestion of Mr. Uribe, one of the few conservative leaders in a largely anti-Bush Latin America and a man who was among the first foreign leaders to send his congratulations on the president’s re-election.

• Bill Sammon in Washington contributed to this report.

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