PARIS – Iran (search) may be hiding its nuclear technology inside special tunnels because of threats of attack by the United States, Tehran's chief nuclear negotiator said in an interview published Friday.
Hassan Rowhani (search), who has been negotiating with Germany, Britain and France over Iran's uranium enrichment program (search), was asked by an interview for the Le Monde newspaper: "Is it accurate that Iran has built tunnels meant to serve Iran's nuclear activities?"
Rowhani responded that reports Iran was building tunnels to hide its nuclear technology "could be true," he said.
"From the moment the Americans threaten to attack our nuclear sites, what are we to do? We have to put them somewhere," Rowhani said.
President Bush — who once called Iran part of an "axis of evil" with North Korea and prewar Iraq — has insisted that Tehran must not develop nuclear weapons, but he said Tuesday in Brussels, Belgium, it is "simply ridiculous" to assume that the United States has plans to attack Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons program.
"Having said that, all options are on the table," Bush said after discussing the issue with European allies.
In the Le Monde interview, Rowhani did not appear assuaged by Bush's statement about an attack being "simply ridiculous."
Bush "immediately added that all options were open. So the second phrase neutralizes the first," Rowhani said.
Last week, Bush tried in a series of pre-trip interviews with European journalists to dispel talk of a military attack, an issue that has been raised repeatedly since the United States went to war with Iraq primarily over its alleged weapons of mass destruction.
On Thursday, he reiterated that Iran as well as North Korea must not have nuclear weapons, saying at a joint news conference with Vladimir Putin agreed with him.
"I appreciate Vladimir's understanding on that," Bush said.
Bush also said European negotiators with Tehran represent the United States as well as the European Union and NATO and he supports their efforts.
Tehran has temporarily suspended its uranium enrichment program, however, in an agreement reached with the European Union. Highly enriched uranium and plutonium are the building blocks of nuclear weapons.
Iran has said it will decide by mid-March whether to continue its suspension, which is monitored by U.N. nuclear inspectors, depending on the progress in negotiations with Britain, France and Germany.
The United States accuses Iran of having a secret program to make nuclear weapons, but Iran insists its nuclear activities are for peaceful energy purposes.
Rowhani said in Berlin on Friday after a round of talks with the Europeans that Iran hoped to soon work out an agreement with European negotiators on the county's uranium enrichment program.
Rowhani said it was in everybody's interests to find a quick solution.
"We are confident that we will, through positive measures from all sides, see positive results in March," he said through a translator. "The result of the talks affects not only the Iranian nuclear program, but is also about the development of relations between Iran and Europe."
Tehran has temporarily suspended its uranium enrichment program, however, in an agreement reached with the European Union.
It has said it will decide by mid-March whether to continue its suspension, which is monitored by U.N. nuclear inspectors, depending on the progress in European negotiations. Rowhani is on the middle of a swing through all three countries.
Rowhani told Le Monde that taking the issue to the U.N. Security Council for eventual sanctions, as Bush has threatened, would turn the issue into a "North-South question," pitting the developing world against rich nations.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer seemed less optimistic than Rowhani on reaching an agreement on enrichment, saying that "the positions of the two sides are complex and difficult to bridge."
In Tblisi, Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili said the former Soviet republic can help solve the international controversy over Iran's nuclear program.
"Georgia has had relations with Iran for many centuries, and it can play a special role," Zurabishvili, told the independent Mze television.
But Zurabishvili warned that Georgia would not support U.S. military action against Iran, saying it could jeopardize the lives of several hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgians living there.