By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush said on Tuesday a planned missile shield in Europe is vital to protect against an "emerging Iranian threat" as he pressed an escalating U.S.-led campaign against Tehran.
Laying out his position in the clearest terms so far, Bush used a policy speech at the National Defense University to hammer home the theme that Iran poses a grave danger because of its simultaneous pursuit of nuclear and missile technologies.
Bush's latest verbal salvo followed his stark warning last week that a nuclear-armed Iran could lead to World War Three, a remark that drew criticism from political opponents at home who accuse him of stoking tensions with Tehran.
"The need for missile defense in Europe is real, and I believe it's urgent," Bush said. "Iran is pursuing the technology that could be used to produce nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles of increasing range that could deliver them."
Bush sought to reassure Russia that it need not fear U.S. plans to locate components of the anti-missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, and said Iran would be the key target of such a shield.
Trying to shore up international opposition to Iran, the Bush administration has sharpened its rhetoric in the standoff over Tehran's nuclear program.
Western countries accuse Iran of seeking to build atomic bombs under cover of a civilian program. Tehran denies this. Iran also maintains that its missile program is strictly for self-defense.
Bush has said he wants a diplomatic solution, although he has not ruled out military action if all else fails.
His efforts to win U.N. backing for a third round of sanctions against Iran have faced resistance from Russia and China, veto-holding members of the Security Council.
Russia has said it is not convinced Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons or that it will pose a serious missile threat anytime soon.
But British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on Tuesday he was prepared to consider more sanctions against Tehran.
Bush's latest remarks came just hours ahead of talks in Rome aimed at defusing the Iranian nuclear situation.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was quoted as telling state television that his government will not negotiate with anyone about its right to nuclear technology.
Bush said Iran had indicated it is developing missiles with a range of 1,200 miles and thus able to strike U.S. allies in Europe.
He said U.S. intelligence had concluded that with continued foreign assistance, Iran could have an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States and all of Europe before 2015.
"We need to take it seriously now," Bush said. "Today we have no way to defend Europe against the emerging Iranian threat. And so we must deploy a missile defense system there that can."
U.S. concerns about Iran extend beyond its nuclear program. Vice President Dick Cheney accused Tehran on Sunday of being a "growing obstacle to peace" in the Middle East and of having a role in the deaths of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, where the U.S. officials say it is supplying arms and training to militants.