As Bush Heads to Mideast, Renewed Questions on Iran

By Michael Abramowitz and Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 7, 2008

President Bush intends to use his first extended tour of the Middle East to rally support for international pressure against Iran, even as a recent U.S. intelligence report playing down Tehran's nuclear ambitions has left Israeli and Arab leaders rethinking their own approach toward Iran and questioning Washington's resolve, according to senior U.S. officials, diplomats and regional experts.

Bush is to leave Tuesday for Israel, where he hopes to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations he launched in Annapolis late last year. But in Jerusalem and some of the Arab countries Bush plans to visit, Iran's growing regional influence looms larger than the peace process or the Iraq war. Leaders in the region are gauging whether the lame-duck administration has the interest and ability to cope with Iran, or whether they should pursue their own military and diplomatic solutions.

"Part of the reason I'm going to the Middle East is to make it abundantly clear to nations in that part of the world that we view Iran as a threat, and that the [National Intelligence Estimate] in no way lessens that threat, but in fact clarifies the threat," Bush said in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot released Friday.

Administration officials have been alarmed by what they see as Iran's efforts to develop a nuclear weapon and intimidate its Sunni neighbors. But their efforts to build support for sanctions and other pressure on Tehran took a serious hit last month when a National Intelligence Estimate -- representing the shared view of U.S. intelligence agencies -- concluded that Iran halted its nuclear arms program in 2003.

Administration officials insist that the estimate showed Iran remains capable of, and interested in, developing a nuclear weapon. But Israel, which is believed to have nuclear weapons, saw the report as a sign that Washington is flagging in its zeal to confront Iran, which they regard as a threat to its existence. And in Arab Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia, which feel threatened by the rising Shiite power that Iran represents, the NIE renewed doubts over whether the United States might be seeking an accommodation with Tehran.

In an interview yesterday, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa cited recent overtures between Iran and Arab countries and said Arab nations are exercising a prerogative to set their own course on Iran. "As long as they have no nuclear program . . . why should we isolate Iran? Why punish Iran, now?" he asked.

One senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly about the trip said many Middle Eastern governments were "confused" by the NIE. "No Arab regime understands why the United States would publish an intelligence estimate." The official said Iran will be an important focus of Bush's conversations with regional leaders, with the president seeking to reassure them of U.S. staying power in the Middle East.

"Iran, for Israel, is topic Number One," said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian expatriate living in Israel who runs an economic and political analysis company, and has written a book about Iran's nuclear program. "Most of the Israeli politicians and population see Iran as a greater threat than Hamas," he said, comparing Iran to the Islamic movement that controls Gaza. "And the Israeli government will be eager for Bush to show them that he is still committed to stopping Iran."

In Tehran yesterday, an Iranian government spokesman said Bush had failed to create an anti-Iran coalition. "The aim of these repeated trips is to compensate for the failed policies of America in the region," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini, according to wire reports.

Bush is planning stops in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and several smaller Gulf countries during his eight-day trip. While in Kuwait, Bush will meet for the first time in four months with Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, to discuss Iraq.

In Israel, which he is visiting for the first time as president, Bush is likely to be greeted as one of the country's greatest friends. But in the Arab world, his presidency has been perceived as damaging to the region and to U.S. prestige.

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein's Sunni Arab regime in Iraq, which long served as a counterweight to Shiite Muslim Iran, has allowed Iran's influence to grow. At the same time, Arab leaders blame the breakdown, until recently, of Israeli-Palestinian talks on Bush's refusal to assume the U.S. president's traditional hands-on role in Middle East peace negotiations.

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