CAIRO, Egypt – In a rare interview with an Arabic satellite news station, U.S. President George W. Bush denied that the United States is gearing up to attack Iran and said he remains committed to working diplomatically to resolve the standoff with Tehran over its nuclear program.
Bush, in an hour-long interview with Al-Arabiya TV, also reiterated his pledge to negotiate with Iran if it gives up its nuclear program.
"I have said that if they suspend their nuclear program, we will be at the table," Bush said, according to a transcript of the interview the White House released on Friday. "But they have so far refused to do that."
Bush brushed off as "gossip" reports in the Arab press that he has issued orders to senior U.S. military officials to prepare for an attack on Iran at the end of January or in February.
"I would call that empty propaganda," Bush said. "Evidently, there's a lot of gossip in the parts of the country — world that try to scare people about me personally or my country or what we stand for. And that kind of gossip is just what it is. It's gossip. It's baseless gossip."
In the hour-long interview, Bush acknowledged that some people in the Middle East think he is against Islam and is a man or war. The interview was conducted on Thursday in the Oval Office and two other areas of the White House by the Saudi-owned satellite news broadcaster.
"I understand the images of my country have been distorted," Bush said. "And I understand people say things about me personally that simply aren't true. And so I appreciate the chance to come and talk to you directly and to talk to your viewers directly about what's in my heart and about the fact that my country is a country of peace."
The president said he was optimistic about the chances for Middle East peace ahead of a U.S.-sponsored conference expected to be held in Annapolis, Maryland, in mid- to late-November. Israelis and Palestinians are in deep discussions over the framework of the talks, while Arab leaders have expressed deep skepticism over the conference.
"I'm very optimistic we can achieve a two-state solution," he said, as Israelis and Palestinians are preparing for U.S.-sponsored peace talks set for November. "It's an opportunity for there to be a serious, substantive discussions about the way forward, and a two-state solution."
Bush pledged to support Palestinian security forces and help President Mahmoud Abbas financially so that ordinary people's lives would be improved. He added that U.S. strategy is to get all parties to the table for general peace, with the first step being a commitment from Israelis and Palestinians to the concept of peace before embarking on the road map to create two states living peacefully side by side.
Arab leaders, however, have expressed doubt over the seriousness of the conference and expressed fear that it will be little more than an empty photo opportunity.
Bush said he was "deeply concerned" about interference from Syria and other neighboring countries, into presidential elections in Lebanon. He also urged the international community to follow through quickly in holding an international tribunal to bring to justice those who killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, slain in a massive 2005 truck bombing.
"I'm frustrated, frankly, by the pace at which the tribunal is lingering. It's not moving," Bush said. "There needs to be a definitive moment where the evidence is laid out, and if it's clear evidence."