Iran Issue Looms Over Bush's Persian Gulf Trip

The president's tough strategy against Iran proves a hard sell.

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President George W. Bush, left, and Saudi King Abdullah.

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President Bush is using his most extensive trip to the Persian Gulf this week to try to rally the region's Arab states to support U.S.-led measures to financially squeeze and isolate Iran. Though concern about Tehran's nuclear efforts and its support for radical groups is widely held, the president is finding his hard-nosed strategy on Iran difficult to sell.

"Iran's actions threaten the security of nations everywhere," asserted Bush, who cited U.S. efforts to strengthen security assurances to the Gulf Arabs and to persuade others to "confront this danger before it's too late." His remarks came a week after five Iranian speedboats veered close to U.S. warships in the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic passage in the Persian Gulf, in an incident the U.S. Navy said came close to triggering American fire.

Bush, in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, called Iran a major source of "instability" in the Middle East as "the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism." He reviewed Iranian support for anti-Israeli militant groups in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, along with Tehran's alleged arms shipments to Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan and its ballistic missile and nuclear programs.

The public message was the same as before, though aides to Bush said it was important for him to have a chance to present his case in person to the region's rulers, who have shown some discomfort with the administration's forceful anti-Iranian rhetoric and have tried to establish their own, smoother relationships with Tehran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year received invitations to attend a summit meeting in Qatar of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a group of six Arab states, and to make the hajj Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

In private, Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were said to be urging Arab leaders to look for ways to cut off Iranian access to banks and financing. In the United Arab Emirates, where trade with Iranian companies and investments by Iranians are helping to fuel an economic boom, such cooperation will be hard to secure. More broadly, public commitments to adopt the tougher U.S. line on Iran have not yet materialized.

Meanwhile, though, the administration is embarked on some $20 billion in sales of high-tech weaponry to Gulf Arab states, part of its strategy to blunt Iranian influence. It notified Congress today that it wants $123 million in "smart bombs" and associated hardware to be sold to Saudi Arabia, where Bush is now visiting after stops that included Kuwait, Bahrain, and Dubai.

Bush is making his Iran pitch in an environment of deeply skeptical, even unfriendly public opinion. An editorial today in the Saudi Gazette, an English-language newspaper based in Jidda, dismissed Bush's Iran comments as "a display of the fairly muddled thinking behind the current foreign policy of the United States." The paper added, "The U.S. refuses to hold direct talks with a country in which it has meddled for more than half a century."

The administration's campaign to pressure Iran and secure a tougher, third round of economic sanctions at the United Nations Security Council was dealt a blow last fall when a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iran had halted an active program to develop nuclear weapons back in 2003. The surprise finding took much of the steam out of Bush's urgent warnings on Iran, even though Tehran was (and is) continuing to defy the Security Council's official demands to stop its work related to uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing before negotiations with the United States and other countries can begin in full.

Iran insists that its nuclear program is for producing energy and research only—and that it will not accept even a pause in its work. Many of the Gulf Arab states remain suspicious of Tehran's motives. But they appear as yet unsatisfied that Washington has found the right balance between guaranteeing their security against Iran and keeping tensions and talk of conflict to a minimum.