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In a little noticed remark during the first presidential debate, Sen. John Kerry said he believed the United States should have provided Iran’s hardline, cleric-led Islamic regime with nuclear fuel even as intelligence reports indicate Tehran is on the verge of producing a bomb.

“I think the United States should have offered the opportunity to provide the nuclear fuel, test them, see whether or not they were actually looking for it for peaceful purposes,” Kerry said in a critique of the Bush administration’s handling of Tehran’s nuclear program, which the Iranians claim is only for civilian purposes.

The comments came during Thursday night’s debate in Miami in reponse to a question about whether diplomacy and sanctions can resolve the “nuclear problems” with North Korea and Iran

“If they weren’t willing to work a deal, then we could have put sanctions together,” Kerry said of Tehran. “The president did nothing.”

But Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has urged his country’s weapons developers to step up work on making a nuclear bomb, a U.S. official said, according to Geostrategy-Direct, the global intelligence news service.

Citing an authoritative source in the Iranian exile community, the official said Khamenei met recently with senior government and military leaders regarding the nuclear weapons program.

Khamenei told the gathering, “We must have two bombs ready to go in January or you are not Muslims,” the official said.

Tehran has said the recent International Atomic Energy Agency resolution calling on Iran to halt uranium enrichment could lead to the country’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Iran test-fired a Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile, capable of reaching Israel, Sept. 18 and also in August.

During the debate, Bush said he wants to continue to work with the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Great Britain to “convince the Iranian mullahs to abandon their nuclear ambitions.”

Responding to Kerry, Bush noted the U.S. already has sanctioned Iran.

“We can’t sanction them any more,” he said. “There are sanctions in place on Iran.”

Israel has said it wants to await the outcome of international pressure on Iran before it considers a pre-emptive military strike on reactors as it did in 1981.

Israeli officials say Iran could produce atomic weapons by 2007.

At another point in the debate, Kerry also said he wants to end research on bunker-busting nuclear weapons, which presumably could take out an Iranian reactor if his sanctions are ineffective.

Kerry said it “doesn’t make sense” for Bush to be pursuing a new set of nuclear weapons when the U.S. is trying to tell countries such as North Korea to disarm.

“You talk about mixed messages,” he said. “We’re telling other people, You can’t have nuclear weapons, but we’re pursuing a new nuclear weapon that we might even contemplate using.”

“Not this president,” Kerry said. “I’m going to shut that program down, and we’re going to make it clear to the world we’re serious about containing nuclear proliferation.”

Related story:

Iranian leader wants nuke in 4 months

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