Bush urges Arab allies to confront Iran

United States President George Bush on Sunday ratcheted up rhetoric over Iran, lambasting it as ”the world’s leading sponsor of state terror”, and urging America’s closest Arab allies to confront it ”before it is too late”.

Giving the only formal speech of his seven-country Middle East tour in the United Arab Emirates, the president accused Tehran of backing Shia groups in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

”Iran’s actions threaten the security of nations everywhere,” he declared in Abu Dhabi. ”So the United States is strengthening our longstanding security commitments with our friends in the Gulf and rallying friends around the world to confront this danger before it is too late.”

Bush arrived in the UAE after stops in Kuwait and Bahrain, where he visited the headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet, three of whose warships were involved in last week’s confrontation with Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats in the Strait of Hormuz.

Speaking in Israel earlier he had already threatened Iran with ”serious consequences” if it attacked American vessels. But Tehran has repeatedly dismissed the incident as routine and accused an ”adventurist” US of deliberately exaggerating it for propaganda purposes.

”Iran is today the world’s leading state sponsor of terror,” the president charged. ”It sends hundreds of millions of dollars to extremists around the world while its own people face repression and economic hardship at home. It seeks to intimidate its neighbours with ballistic missiles and bellicose rhetoric. It defies the United Nations and destabilises the region by refusing to be open and transparent about its nuclear programmes and ambitions.”

The Iranian foreign ministry responded on Sunday night by warning him not to ”pursue policies of fooling people in the region”. Today Bush arrives in Saudi Arabia, linchpin of Washington’s regional alliances, where King Abdullah has overseen a cautious rapprochement with Tehran in recent months. Last November’s US intelligence report stating that Iran had ceased developing nuclear weapons in 2003 was also damaging to hawks pressing for tougher sanctions and even military action.

Over the weekend Iranian officials agreed with Mohamed ElBaradei of the UN atomic agency, the IAEA, to complete an investigation of alleged covert weapons-related activities within a month. Western governments argue it is stringing out talks while failing to halt uranium enrichment. Iran insists it wants to refine uranium for electricity generation.

Much media comment in the Gulf in the past few days has cautioned the US not to drag the Arabs into a new war with Iran while highlighting Washington’s uncritical support for Israel, with its undeclared arsenal of nuclear weapons entirely outside the international non-proliferation regime.

Prince Saud al-Faisal, the veteran foreign minister, said last week: ”Saudi Arabia is a neighbour of Iran in the Gulf, which is a small lake. We are keen that harmony and peace should prevail among states of the region.”

In what had been billed as the central theme of his Abu Dhabi speech, Bush also sought to revive his short-lived post-Iraq Middle East ”freedom agenda”, widely seen to have been shelved in favour of stability and the status quo in the face of concerns about Islamists and the victory of Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian elections.

Saudi Arabia bans political parties, and dynastic rule is the norm elsewhere in the Gulf. In Egypt, where he is holding talks with the fifth-term President Hosni Mubarak on Wednesday before returning to Washington, the semi-legal Muslim Brotherhood is the largest opposition movement.

The president has been urging Arab leaders to back the Israeli-Palestinian peace deal he says — to widespread scepticism — it is possible to reach by the end of his term this time next year. Governments have been making polite noises but ordinary people remain hostile.

Bush also repeated his assessment of progress in Iraq, bolstered by talks in Kuwait with General David Petraeus, architect of the ”surge” strategy. ”The US is fighting side by side with Sunni and Shia and Kurd to root out the terrorists and extremists,” he said. ”The United States will continue to support you as you build the institutions of a free society.”

But, highlighting transatlantic differences, the British Foreign Office Minister, Lord Malloch-Brown, warned against ”triumphalism on any side”. Iraq, he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, had been ”a terrible episode for everybody”. – Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008

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