Roundtable Interview of US President George W. Bush by Print, Wire and Television Reporters, Including Comments on Iran Discussions with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (Excerpts)

January 15, 2008

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Q Can you talk a little bit about your discussions with him so far, and whether you've had a meeting of minds on any issues, whether it's Iran, Iraq --

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We did spend time on Iran. The interesting issue on Iran is the effect of the NIE. And I went over the NIE with him.

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THE PRESIDENT: I assured him that our intelligence services came to an independent judgment. I reminded him of what I said at my press conference when we got involved with that story: they were a threat, they are a threat, and they will be a threat if we don't work together to stop their enrichment. So we spent a fair amount of time on Iran. I have spent a fair amount of time on Iran in every stop.

It is not the only subject.

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Q Just a couple quick follow ups on Iran. On the NIE, did you -- were you, in effect, distancing yourself from the conclusions of the NIE, and these guys --

THE PRESIDENT: No, I was making it clear it was an independent judgment, because what they basically came to the conclusion of, is that he's trying -- you know, this is a way to make sure that all options aren't on the table. So I defended our intelligence services, but made it clear that they're an independent agency; that they come to conclusions separate from what I may or may not want.

Q And on the issue of Iran, did the question of a possible military strike either by the United States or Israel come up?

THE PRESIDENT: I just made it clear that all options are on the table, but I'd like to solve this diplomatically -- and think we can, and talked about making sure consistent messages emanated from all parts of the world to the Iranians.

Q Related to that, this confrontation in the Straits with the Iranian gunboats -- are the rules of engagement going to change on that? You've warned of serious consequences if they do it again.

THE PRESIDENT: I did -- I said, if they destroy our ships, yes. If they destroy our ships, there will be serious consequences.

Q Yes, but I'm saying, if they --

THE PRESIDENT: I didn't say, if they do it again -- if they do it again -- I don't know, what do you mean, if they do it again?

Q Well, if they approach the ships and would there --

THE PRESIDENT: Well, there is clear rules of engagement. Our captains -- I was briefed by the Admiral in Bahrain about the rules of engagement, but please don't confuse hitting our ships with explosives or attacking our ships and serious --

Q Okay, I won't, but I just was wondering whether the next time something like that is attempted by one of these Iranian boats, they might be fired on.

THE PRESIDENT: I don't know. It's going to be up to the captain to determine whether or not his vessel is in jeopardy. My only point is, they shouldn't be doing it. It was provocative in the first place, and our captain showed restraint. These are judgment calls and there are clear rules of engagement. Our people operate under very strict rules in the Straits, and so should the Iranians. And they better be careful of -- and not be provocative and, you know, get out there and cause an incident, because there's going to be serious consequences. And what I said in my statement was, if they hit one of our ships there are going to be serious consequences, and I meant it.

Q Do you have any sense of what they were up to? What motive --

THE PRESIDENT: I don't know.

Q -- were they test

THE PRESIDENT: I don't know.

Q Do you think they were playing some sort of game?

THE PRESIDENT: I don't know. I don't know. I was briefed -- I spent some time in Bahrain with -- you know, when I went over there for the breakfast with the troops, command briefed us, our security team on what are the rules of engagement, you know, and how do they work, how does it react. This is one of these moments where there's no time to be spending a lot time on the phone trying to figure out what to do. And there's -- these are highly trained professionals who I thought dealt with it in a very professional way.

Q Sir, are you sure of whether or not this was actually directed out of Tehran, the President's office, or whether it's some separate --

THE PRESIDENT: It could be. IRGC or -- versus the military -- but you know something? It's not going to matter to me one way or the other if they hit our ships, and the Iranian government has got to understand that. This is serious business. We lost lives when one of those boats loaded with explosives attacked us -- called the USS Cole. In this case it would be states -- it would be the actions of a state. And so my message was clear to the Iranian government: Whoever made the -- is in control of these boats, best be careful.

Q You were suggesting that this could be -- could have been directed by the Revolutionary Guard.

THE PRESIDENT: No, I'm not. His question was, do we know the chain of command. There's several chains of command inside the -- it was a very perceptive comment by the lad, and it was -- there are separate military organizations, separate organizations inside Iran, and so we don't know.

Q The IRGC, was that the --

THE PRESIDENT: The IRGC could be is a player inside Iran. I don't know. Do not write the story that I'm predicting who made this decision, because I'm telling you -- I can't be any more plain about it -- I don't know. I do know it was a provocative incident.

And my other was, it's not going to matter who made the decision. If they hit our ships, we will hold Iran responsible.

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Q Were they in any way urging you restraint in your dealings with Iran?

THE PRESIDENT: I told them that I want to solve this issue diplomatically. My position has not altered. I explained to them the diplomacy we're going through. They need to help. They need to make it clear to nations that do business with Iran that if we want to solve this diplomatically, there needs to be pressure on the regime, so that some -- the hope is, is that somebody shows up and says, we're tired of being isolated and we're tired of the economic deprivation that comes from our desire to enrich.

I also explained to them why I support the Russian position -- and for those of you who follow the White House and have listened carefully to what I've been saying, know full well that's been my position for quite a while. Because I said early on that I supported the Iranian desire for -- they said, every sovereign nation has the right for a civilian nuclear power. I said, you're right. I said, the problem with you is you haven't honored the international agreements -- "you" being the Iranians. And secondly, therefore we can't trust you with enrichment.

But because I believe that you have a sovereign right for nuclear power, I support the Russian idea of providing you with enriched uranium, and collecting the spent uranium; thereby undermining their position that they need to learn to enrich in order to have civilian nuclear power. And the danger with enrichment for civilian -- so-called civilian purposes is, is that that technology can be transferred easily to another covert military program. Knowledge is transferable, and so what I've explained to our friends in the region is the best way to stop any potential weapons program is --

(Interruption to discussion.)

THE PRESIDENT: I'm not starting over. I'm not starting over. (Laughter.)

Q That's all right, you don't have to.

THE PRESIDENT: Good, yes. Anyway -- is to start a weapons program -- to stop a weapons program is to stop their ability to enrich. I've also explained to them our position is, is that if they verifiably suspend their program, there is a way forward for dialogue through the P3 process -- what do you call -- what do we call that? The group of five --

MS. PERINO: The P5-plus-1.

THE PRESIDENT: The P5-plus-1 process.

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Q Just one quick follow-up on Iran just because it comes up -- I mean, this issue of what Israel will do has been out there ever since Vice President Cheney raised it with Don Imus in the very beginning of your second term, about the Israelis having a --

THE PRESIDENT: I don't remember that. What did he say?

Q Oh, he said there was concern about what the Israelis might do. And particularly in the weeks since the NIE, there has been murmuring in Israel -- Israeli defense circles. One of your own former officials, Bruce Reidell, told me a few weeks ago --


Q Bruce Reidell, he used to work on the NSC -- said that he came back from a visit to Iran --

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