Iran General NewsBlair urges strategy change in Mideast, spotlighting Iran

Blair urges strategy change in Mideast, spotlighting Iran


New York Times: Confronted by likely changes in American policy on the war in Iraq, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain said Monday that the “nature of the battle” had changed and that Western strategy in the Middle East must “evolve,” possibly to include a “new partnership” with Iran. The New York Times

Published: November 14, 2006

LONDON, Nov. 13 — Confronted by likely changes in American policy on the war in Iraq, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain said Monday that the “nature of the battle” had changed and that Western strategy in the Middle East must “evolve,” possibly to include a “new partnership” with Iran.

Iran has a choice, Mr. Blair said, of partnership or isolation. But he took pains, in his annual foreign policy speech, to avoid giving the impression that he was making major policy changes in response to uncertainties surrounding the Bush administration after the American elections last week. He also laced his speech with criticism of Iran, accusing it of “using pressure points in the region” to thwart Western diplomacy.

President Bush said Monday in Washington that Iran must first halt its enrichment of nuclear fuel if it wanted to enter into negotiations, calling the prospect of a nuclear Iran “incredibly destabilizing.”

Mr. Blair’s nuanced gestures on Iran, and also Syria, were made a day before he speaks by video link to a bipartisan panel in Washington, the Iraq Study Group, on some of the same themes. Mr. Bush spoke to the group on Monday. Mr. Blair’s address Monday night was his first major statement since last week’s triumph by the Democrats in the American elections.

He rebutted the notion that Iraq’s turmoil could be attributed to the way Britain and the United States had conducted their occupation.

He said terrorism in Iraq had “changed the nature of the battle,” and added: “Its purpose is now plain: to provoke civil war. The violence is not therefore an accident or the result of faulty planning. It is a deliberate strategy. It is the direct result of outside extremists teaming up with internal extremists.”

But he acknowledged that the Western strategy should change. “Just as the situation is evolving, so our strategy should evolve to meet it,” he said.

He urged a major political, economic and military strengthening of the Iraqi government but went on to say that a “whole Middle East strategy” was needed: “Just as it is, in significant part, forces outside Iraq that are trying to create mayhem inside Iraq, so we have to have a strategy that pins them back, not only in Iraq but outside it, too.”

“There is a fundamental misunderstanding that this is about changing policy on Syria and Iran,” he continued. “First, those two countries do not at all share identical interests. But in any event that is not where we start.”

Mr. Blair called a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians “the core” of the broader effort for peace, followed by a renewed effort to resolve differences over Lebanon.

Criticizing Iran’s leadership, he said, “They help the most extreme elements of Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shia militia in Iraq.” He repeated a call he made in July for Western powers to “offer Iran a clear strategic choice” to help Middle East peace efforts, withdraw support for “terrorism in Lebanon or Iraq” and abide by international nuclear obligations.

In advance of his speech, British newspapers and official leaks of the address had suggested that Mr. Blair would seek a new compact with both Syria and Iran as potential interlocutors for Middle East peace. But a British official, who spoke on condition of anonymity under civil service rules, said Mr. Blair did not wish to give the impression “that there is some big strategic shift going on” because Britain had always “had a policy of engagement with” Syria and Iran.

Des Browne, defense secretary of Britain, told the BBC on Monday, “Change has been under way for some time now and it distorts the reality to suggest that that change is predicated upon a change in American politics.”

Britain, with France and Germany, has played a central role spearheading European efforts, in tandem with the United States, to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Mr. Blair sent his chief foreign policy adviser, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, on an unannounced visit to Syria last month, apparently to sound out the leadership there on its readiness to promote settlement efforts.

Mr. Blair also dwelt on his close support for the United States in Iraq, an alliance that has cost him much of the popularity he had when he took power in 1997. “We need America; that is a fact,” he said.

But he balanced his remarks with overtures toward the European Union, some of whose leaders have questioned Mr. Blair’s close ties to Mr. Bush.

“Our partnership with America and our membership of the European Union are precisely suited to Britain,” he said. “For that reason, it would be insane for us to give up either relationship.”

Mr. Blair is already under pressure from his own military to withdraw from Iraq. But calls by Democrats in the United States for new thinking on Iraq have unnerved some British politicians, who fear that a speedy American withdrawal would jeopardize British troops.

William Hague, the opposition Conservative Party spokesman on foreign affairs, said Monday, “It is very important that there is heavy British involvement in that reassessment, that it is not just an American process.”

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