President George W. Bush Remarks on Iran at Press Conference (Excerpts)

October 17, 2007

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Q Good morning, Mr. President, thank you. I don't know if you saw the picture on the front page of one of the papers this morning of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Vladimir Putin.

THE PRESIDENT: I did.

Q It looked like they were getting along pretty well. And they are among --

THE PRESIDENT: Surprised they weren't kind of fighting each other on the front page of the paper? No, man, come on.

Q It looked like they were enjoying each other's company. And I'm wondering, since they were leaders of five Caspian Sea region nations that have now declared each country will not be used as a base to attack the other, A, what do you make of their growing relationship? B, does it complicate what the United States can do in the region? And C, would you characterize that arrangement as some sort of Caspian Sea Truman Doctrine or something like that?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, I -- I think it's hard to judge how their conversations went from a picture. Generally leaders don't like to be photographed scowling at each other or making bad gestures at each other. So I'm not surprised that there was a nice picture of them walking along. I try to make sure that when I'm with foreign leaders, there's a pretty picture of the two of us walking down the colonnades, or something like that, to send a good message.

Q Are you saying it's not so warm?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I don't know yet. What I'm about to tell you is, is that I'm looking forward to getting President Putin's readout from the meeting. I think one of the -- the thing I'm interested in is whether or not he continues to harbor the same concerns that I do. And I say "continues" because when we were in Australia, he reconfirmed to me that it is -- he recognized it's not in the world's interest for Iran to have the capacity to make a nuclear weapon. And they have been very supportive in the United Nations. And we're working with them on a potential third resolution.

So that's where my concerns -- I don't worry about the pictures. I understand why they meet. I am -- will continue to work with Russia, as well as other nations, to keep a focused effort on sending Iran a message that you will remain isolated if you continue your nuclear weapons ambitions.

Q But this declaration doesn't speak to that, Mr. President. This declaration doesn't suggest isolation for Iran. Just the opposite, that Russia and Iran are going to do business.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, we'll find out, see. You're trying to get me to interpret the meeting based upon a news story or a picture. I'd rather spend some time with Vladimir Putin finding out exactly what went on. Thank you.

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Q Sir, given that, what you just laid out, should the American people prepare for a large number of U.S. forces to remain in Iraq after you are finished with your presidency?

THE PRESIDENT: The troop levels in Iraq will be determined by our commanders on the ground and the progress being made. Thank you.

Q Mr. President, I'd like to follow on Mr. -- on President Putin's visit to Tehran. It's not about the image of President Putin and President Ahmadinejad, but about the words that Vladimir Putin said there. He issued a stern warning against potential U.S. military action -- U.S. military action against Tehran --

THE PRESIDENT: Did he say U.S.?

Q Yes.

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, he did?

Q He said -- well, at least the quote said that -- and he also said, "He sees no evidence to suggest Iran wants to build a nuclear bomb." Were you disappointed with that message? And does that indicate possibly that international pressure is not as great as you once thought against Iran abandoning its nuclear program?

THE PRESIDENT: I -- as I said, I look forward to -- if those are, in fact, his comments, I look forward to having him clarify those, because when I visited with him, he understands that it's in the world's interest to make sure that Iran does not have the capacity to make a nuclear weapon. And that's why, on -- in the first round at the U.N., he joined us, and second round, we joined together to send a message. I mean, if he wasn't concerned about it, Bret, then why did we have such good progress at the United Nations in round one and round two?

And so I will visit with him about it. I have not yet been briefed yet by Condi or Bob Gates about, you know, their visit with Vladimir Putin.

Q But you definitively believe Iran wants to build a nuclear weapon?

THE PRESIDENT: I think so long -- until they suspend and/or make it clear that they -- that their statements aren't real, yeah, I believe they want to have the capacity, the knowledge, in order to make a nuclear weapon. And I know it's in the world's interest to prevent them from doing so. I believe that the Iranian -- if Iran had a nuclear weapon, it would be a dangerous threat to world peace.

But this -- we got a leader in Iran who has announced that he wants to destroy Israel. So I've told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon. I take the threat of Iran with a nuclear weapon very seriously. And we'll continue to work with all nations about the seriousness of this threat. Plus we'll continue working the financial measures that we're in the process of doing. In other words, I think -- the whole strategy is, is that at some point in time, leaders or responsible folks inside of Iran may get tired of isolation and say, this isn't worth it. And to me, it's worth the effort to keep the pressure on this government.

And secondly, it's important for the Iranian people to know we harbor no resentment to them. We're disappointed in the Iranian government's actions, as should they be. Inflation is way too high; isolation is causing economic pain. This is a country that has got a much better future, people have got a much better -- should have better hope inside Iran than this current government is providing them.

So it's -- look, it's a complex issue, no question about it. But my intent is to continue to rally the world to send a focused signal to the Iranian government that we will continue to work to isolate you, in the hopes that at some point in time, somebody else shows up and says it's not worth the isolation.

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Q Mr. President, following up on Vladimir Putin for a moment. He said recently that next year when he has to step down, according to the constitution, as President, he may become Prime Minister, in effect keeping power and dashing any hopes for a genuine democratic transition there. Senator McCain --

THE PRESIDENT: I've been planning that myself. (Laughter.)

Q Senator McCain said yesterday, when he looks into Putin's eyes, he sees a K, a G and a B, and he would never have invited --

THE PRESIDENT: Pretty good line.

Q And he would never have invited him to Kennebunkport. And he said it's time we got a little tough with Vladimir Putin. I'm wondering if you think -- is Senator McCain right? And what would it mean for Russian democracy if, when you leave power, assuming you do, in January 2009 -- (laughter) -- if Vladimir Putin is still in power?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, one of the interesting -- well, my leadership style has been to try to be in a position where I actually can influence people. And one way to do that is to have personal relationships that enable me to sit down and tell people what's on my mind without fear of rupturing relations. And that's how I've tried to conduct my business with Vladimir Putin. We don't agree on a lot of issues; we do agree on some. Iran is one; nuclear proliferation is another. Reducing our nuclear warheads was an issue that we agreed on early.

But I believe that diplomacy requires good relations at the leadership level. That's why, in Slovakia, I was in a position to tell him that we didn't understand why he was altering the relationship between the Russian government and a free press -- in other words, why the fress press was becoming less free. And I was able to do -- he didn't like it. Nobody likes to be talked to in a way that may point up different flaws in their strategy. But I was able to do so in a way that didn't rupture relations. He was able to tell me going into Iraq wasn't the right thing. And to me that's good diplomacy. And so I'm -- and I'll continue to practice that diplomacy.

Now, in terms of whether or not it's possible to reprogram the kind of basic Russian DNA, which is a centralized authority, that's hard to do. We've worked hard to make it appear in their interests -- we made it clear to them that it is in their interests to have good relations with the West. And the best way to have good long-term relations with the West is to recognize that checks and balances in government are important, or recognize there are certain freedoms that are inviolate. So Russia a complex relationship, but it's an important relationship to maintain.

Q Will you be disappointed if he stays in power after you're gone?

THE PRESIDENT: I have no idea what he's going to do. He -- I asked him when I saw him in Australia, I tried to get it out of him, who's going to be his successor, what he intends to do, and he was wily. He wouldn't tip his hand. I'll tip mine: I'm going to finish -- I'm going to work hard to the finish. I'm going to sprint to the finish line, and then you'll find me in Crawford.

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