New York Times: President Bush on Sunday urged wary Persian Gulf allies to rally against Iran before it is too late, even as the International Atomic Energy Agency announced that the country had agreed, yet again, to answer outstanding questions about its nuclear programs within four weeks. The New York Times
By STEVEN LEE MYERS
Published: January 14, 2008
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates President Bush on Sunday urged wary Persian Gulf allies to rally against Iran before it is too late, even as the International Atomic Energy Agency announced that the country had agreed, yet again, to answer outstanding questions about its nuclear programs within four weeks.
In an address to government and business leaders in an opulent hotel here, Mr. Bush focused not only on what the United States believes are Irans nuclear ambitions but also its suspected support for Islamic militants in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. He called Irans government the worlds leading sponsor of terrorism and accused it of imposing repression and economic hardship at home.
Irans actions threaten the security of nations everywhere, he said. 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.
The announcement about Irans pledge of cooperation on its nuclear program, however, could undercut efforts to build international support against Tehran. It came after a visit to Iran this weekend by Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear monitoring agency, who met with Irans supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iran agreed to carry out its pledges, made last year, to resolve suspicions about its nuclear programs, though the state news agency said it expected the United Nations Security Council to drop its sanctions in return. The announcement essentially delayed for another month what had been an end-of-the-year deadline to disclose all of its nuclear work, including any covert or undeclared military research.
Over the past year and a half the Iranians have repeatedly made declarations that they would answer outstanding questions within a week, but each of those deadlines has passed with only partial answers offered.
With Mr. Bush in the middle of a trip to the region intended to build a united Arab front against Iran, the White House acknowledged that the announcement represented progress, but expressed skepticism about Irans willingness to provide complete information. It also said Iran was still obliged to suspend its enrichment of uranium, as required by the Security Council.
Answering questions about their past nuclear activities is a step, said Gordon D. Johndroe, a White House spokesman. But they still need to suspend their enrichment and reprocessing activity. Another declaration is no substitute for complying with the U.N. sanctions.
Administration officials say many Arab states are wary of Irans growing power and influence in the region, especially among Shiite minorities in predominately Sunni nations like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
In recent months, however, the gulf states have shown signs of reaching out diplomatically to Iran. Saudi Arabia gave permission to Irans president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, and the Gulf Cooperation Council also extended him an invitation to a summit meeting last month.
Mr. Bush began his Middle East trip in Israel, focused on brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace, but Iran has loomed large in his travels, particularly after a confrontation in the Strait of Hormuz a week ago between three American warships and five Iranian speedboats.
The Pentagon has appeared to back away from part of its initial account of that encounter. In Bahrain, where Mr. Bush began his day on Sunday, the commanders of the two American ships involved said that a threatening radio message may not have come from the Iranian boats.
The commanders said they took the radio warning seriously nevertheless, because it was broadcast as the Iranian speedboats were maneuvering in what they viewed as a provocative manner around the American ships. Because the warning, that the American ships would explode, was broadcast over an open maritime radio channel, it could have come from another ship in the area or from somewhere on shore.
In a news conference at the headquarters of the Fifth Fleet, the officers also said they had determined that boxes dropped into the water by the Iranians were not dangerous, as feared at the time, and were probably a ruse to study the reaction of the Navy warships. Whether it was coincidental or not, it occurred at exactly the same time that these boats were around us, Cmdr. Jeffery James of the Hopper, a destroyer, said of the radioed threat, and they were placing objects in the water so the threat appeared to be building.
For the second time in two months, Mr. Bush found himself making a case about Irans threat in the face of developments that seemed to undercut it. In December, an American intelligence report concluded that Iran had suspended a nuclear weapons program in 2003, a finding that has delayed a new round of United Nations sanctions.
In his meetings, in Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, Mr. Bush and his aides have tried to press leaders to do more to help the United States to isolate Irans leaders. Privately, Mr. Bush has urged Persian Gulf leaders to restrict Irans access to banks and other financial institutions, one administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to discuss internal deliberations.
In addition to sanctions already imposed by the United Nations Security Council over Irans failure to comply with demands involving its nuclear programs, the administration has lobbied for countries to enforce American sanctions against four state-owned banks in Iran and the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards. Ayatollah Khamenei appeared to be referring to the administrations efforts on Sunday when he declared, Americans mistakenly think they can bring the Iranian nation to its knees with pressure, according to the news agency ISNA.
Mr. Bush used his speech here on Sunday to call for greater political freedom in the region.
You cannot build trust when you hold an election where opposition candidates find themselves harassed or in prison, he said at the Emirates Palace, a large hotel on the Persian Gulf, built at a cost of $3 billion.
You cannot expect people to believe in the promise of a better future when they are jailed for peacefully petitioning their government, he continued. And you cannot stand up a modern and confident nation when you do not allow people to voice their legitimate criticisms.
Except for Iran, though, Mr. Bush did not single out any country, including his host, the United Arab Emirates, whose record on human rights remained problematic, according to the State Departments most recent human rights report.
Thom Shanker contributed reporting from Washington, and Nazila Fathi from Tehran.