Iran Remains Key Concern as Bush Returns

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 19, 2008

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt, May 18 -- As he toured the Middle East over the past five days, President Bush tried to shore up support for his strategy of isolating Iran in meetings with the leaders of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian territories. But the one session that did not take place laid bare the problems his administration faces as it tries to persuade its allies to keep the faith.

Bush was supposed to meet with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora on Sunday. But Siniora had to cancel to deal with a political crisis at home that has highlighted the commanding position the Shiite movement Hezbollah, an ally of Iran, has assumed in Lebanon.

With Iranian-backed Hamas consolidating control in Gaza and Iranian-backed militias making trouble for the U.S.-backed government in Iraq, Iran and its proxies appear to be on the march, and U.S. allies are concerned that the Bush administration does not have an effective plan for coping. One Arab diplomat said Iran is on an unchecked "rampage."

"Everyone is focusing on the Iranian nuclear bomb, which doesn't exist, but in the meantime the Iranians are winning the souls of the people," said Alon Liel, a former senior Israeli diplomat. "They are winning the battle in Lebanon, and they are winning the battle in Palestine through Hamas."

Speaking to reporters traveling with Bush on Sunday, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley acknowledged a certain "tactical success" by Iran in Lebanon, where Hezbollah defeated government-allied militiamen last week and made clear it is the most powerful force in the country. But he argued that the move could turn out to be a "strategic failure" by undermining Lebanese public confidence in Hezbollah because it used its militia to fight government-allied forces.

Hadley said he sees "an opportunity for the Lebanese forces of democracy and freedom, and for those in the region that support it, to hold Hezbollah to account and hopefully to clip its wings a little bit." He added: "We will have to see. This is a story very much in progress."

Bush, in a speech Sunday at the World Economic Forum here, criticized both Iran and Syria, which also backs Hezbollah, and singled out Iran for what he believes are its efforts to obtain a nuclear bomb.

"Every peaceful nation in the region has an interest in stopping these nations from supporting terrorism," Bush said. "And every peaceful nation in the region has an interest in opposing Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions. To allow the world's leading sponsor of terror to gain the world's deadliest weapon would be an unforgivable betrayal of future generations."

Bush described the two countries as among the "spoilers who stand in the way" of positive reform in the Middle East.

Bush concluded his Middle East trip with meetings with leaders gathered for the economic conference. He met for the first time with Pakistan's new prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani; discussed conditions in the occupied territories with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad; and conferred with several senior Iraqi officials.

The president also restated his long-standing call for democratic reform in the region, calling on leaders to allow competitive elections, release political prisoners and grant more rights to women. He seemed undeterred by previous resistance to such proposals and by irritation from some leaders over lectures from the Bush administration. He offered a pointed barb at the region's autocrats: "Too often in the Middle East, politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail."

Hadley said the White House thinks Bush made progress in his goal of achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by the end of his term. He said Bush might even return to the region "when there is work for him to do to advance the process."

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