Retaining his tough stance against Iran, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney said Wednesday that Tehran may have restarted the nuclear weaponization program that a U.S. intelligence report said was halted in 2003.
Speaking in Oman, a U.S.-allied Arab monarchy and neighbor of Iran's, Cheney told ABC News, "The important thing to keep in mind is the objective that we share with many of our friends in the region, and that is that a nuclear-armed Iran would be very destabilizing for the entire area."
In December an intelligence report known as the National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iran's nuclear weapons development program was stopped in the fall of 2003 because of international pressure. The report, however, cautioned that Tehran continues to enrich uranium and still could develop a bomb between 2010 and 2015 if it decided to do so.
Critics of the Bush administration said the report should dampen any campaign for a U.S. confrontation with Iran.
But Cheney said questions remain: "What it (the NIE) says is that they have definitely had in the past a program to develop a nuclear warhead; that it would appear that they stopped that weaponization process in 2003. We don't know whether or not they've restarted."
"What we do know is that they had then, and have now, a process by which they're trying to enrich uranium, which is the key obstacle they've got to overcome in order to have a nuclear weapon," he said. "They've been working at it for years."
Iran's nuclear policy
The vice president's visit to Oman, part of a 10-day trip to the Mideast, fueled speculation that the United States was ratcheting up military pressure on Iran over its nuclear program. As a quiet U.S. military ally, Oman allows the United States to use four air bases — including one just 50 miles from Iran — for refueling, logistics and storage of pre-positioned military supplies.
Cheney denied that he'd stepped up his opposition to Iran's nuclear policy.
"I've been pretty consistent over time about Iran," he said. "I don't think I've ratcheted up the rhetoric. I felt strongly for a long time, and a lot of us have, that Iran should not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons."
Cheney officials said the vice president wanted to visit the sultanate to show U.S. appreciation for its cooperation in fighting terrorism, but that Iran would be a top topic of discussion.
Before dining with Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said, Cheney borrowed his 60-foot royal yacht and went fishing.
A Cheney spokeswoman said the vice president, his wife, Lynne, and daughter Liz, a former State Department official who is traveling with her father as a private citizen, headed out under sunny skies into the Gulf of Oman on "Kingfish I." Cheney has had a personal relationship with the sultan going back to the time when the vice president was defense secretary, but the sultan did not go along on the fishing trip.