- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 22, 2005

BRUSSELS — President Bush yesterday dismissed as “ridiculous” European speculation that U.S. military action against Iran is imminent, although he refused to rule out an attack to end Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

“This notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is simply ridiculous,” he said during a press conference with European leaders. “Having said that, all options are on the table.”

Mr. Bush said he was “getting good advice from European partners” on Iran. He called Great Britain, Germany and France “great interlocutors” for negotiating with Tehran’s ruling ayatollahs on the nuclear issue.

“It’s in our interests for [Iran] not to have a nuclear weapon,” he said. “It’s also in our interests for them not to continue funding terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which has the desire to stop the Middle East peace process from going forward.”

The president is concerned that Iran will develop a nuclear weapon by using fuel from a nuclear power plant that Russia is building in Iran. The subject is expected to be broached tomorrow when Mr. Bush holds a summit in Slovakia with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been accused of cracking down on democracy within his country.

Mr. Bush said he would “remind President Putin that democracies are based upon rule of law and the respect for human rights and human dignity and a free press.”

He added: “I also will remind him that the United States believes strongly in democratic values.”

Yuri Ushakov, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, yesterday warned against “demonizing” Moscow.

“Some of our interests differ,” Mr. Ushakov wrote in The Washington Post. “But emphasizing our differences, ignoring our similarities and devaluing what we have achieved pushes us apart rather than pulling us together.”

Still, Mr. Bush made a point of mentioning that Mr. Putin has been cracking down on Russia’s fledgling independent press.

“I like a country with a free press — an independent, free press,” he said. “And there has been some moves where the Russian government … didn’t license certain members of the press.”

Mr. Bush also pointed out that he heard complaints about Russia during meetings yesterday with NATO and EU leaders.

“I think it’s very important that President Putin hear not only from me in a private way, which he will, but also hear some of the concerns I heard around the table today,” he said. “There were some concerns from the Baltic nations, and I look forward to carrying their message.”

He added: “It’s very important for President Putin to make very clear why he’s made some of the decisions he’s made as well as respect his neighbors.”

Mr. Bush added to the strain on U.S.-Russian relations by meeting yesterday with recently elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko. Mr. Putin had endorsed Mr. Yushchenko’s rival, Viktor Yanukovych, whose initial electoral victory was thrown out amid charges of fraud.

“It is an open secret that many in Russia are expressing serious concern about American intentions in the post-Soviet space, including in Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia,” Mr. Ushakov wrote. “Our estrangement would benefit neither nation.”

The Bush administration, meanwhile, is concerned about Moscow’s reasserting itself in the Middle East just as Mr. Bush is pushing for democratization in that region. To complicate matters, the president is mindful of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

“We’ve got a lot of common projects that will make people more secure around the world, one of which is to make sure that nuclear stockpiles are safeguarded,” he said. “I look forward to talking to him about that.”

At an earlier press conference at NATO headquarters, Mr. Bush beamed when NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer announced that all 26 members of the alliance, including foes of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, have agreed to make contributions of money, troops or other resources to Iraq. The Europeans pledged to help train Iraq’s security forces and rebuild the war-torn nation.

Mr. Bush travels to Germany today for a meeting with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and a visit to U.S. troops. He later flies to Bratislava for meetings with Slovak officials and, tomorrow, Mr. Putin.

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