Iranian president: U.S. intelligence on Iran nuclear program a ‘step forward’

>TEHRAN, Iran (AP) – President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday called a U.S. intelligence report concluding Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program four years ago a “step forward” in comments that marked a change from his usually harsh anti-Western rhetoric.

Although Iran denies it ever had such a program, Ahmadinejad told reporters that an “entirely different” situation between the two countries could be created if more steps like the intelligence report followed.

“We consider this measure by the U.S. government a positive step. It is a step forward,” the hard-line leader said.

“If one or two other steps are taken, the issues we have in front of us will be entirely different and will lose their complexity, and the way will be open for the resolution of basic issues in the region and in dealings between the two sides,” he said.

In Washington, President George W. Bush said Iran needs to explain why it had a secret nuclear weapons program. He said such efforts must not be allowed to flourish “for the sake of world peace.”

“Iran is dangerous,” Bush said. “We believe Iran had a secret military weapons program, and Iran must explain to the world why they had such a program.”

His comments sought to keep pressure on Iran after last week’s intelligence assessment, which cautioned that Tehran continues to enrich uranium. Iran says that work is aimed at producing fuel for electricity-generating nuclear reactors, but enrichment also can make material for nuclear bombs.

Ahmadinejad stood by Iran’s right to have a civilian nuclear program, including enriching uranium, and called on the West to “change behaviors.”

“A good opportunity is available right now, and that opportunity has to be used well,” he said.

Iran has said its nuclear program is peaceful, but until last week the United States and Western allies had argued that the Iranians were secretly trying to developing atomic weapons.

The new U.S. intelligence assessment on Iran said Tehran once had a weapons program but shelved it in the fall of 2003. The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate was in stark contrast to a 2005 estimate that said Tehran was continuing its weapons development.

When asked about what other steps Washington needs to take, Ahmadinejad suggested that one would be for the United States to “make a serious change in position in the region.”

He repeated a previous invitation to Bush for a public debate and said Iran was studying requests from U.S. officials to come to Iran. He did not elaborate.