Iran and Syria hit back at Bush
President's vow to target Tehran and Damascus in push for peace and democracy causes anger and fear in region
Julian Borger in Washington
Friday February 4, 2005
The Syrian and Iranian governments reacted angrily yesterday to George Bush's vow to confront them over their alleged harbouring of terrorists and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.
The American president's state of the union speech on Wednesday night identified Syria and Iran as the primary obstacles to the Bush administration's declared mission to spread peace and democracy in the Middle East.
It sent tremors through the region, raising fears that the administration might have more military action on its second-term agenda.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, denounced the United States as "like one of the big heads of a seven-headed dragon", menacing his country under the direction of "Zionist and non-Zionist capitalists".
"Bush is the fifth US president seeking to uproot the Iranian nation and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Carter, Reagan and father Bush and Clinton failed. This president will also fail," the Associated Press quoted him as saying.
The response from Damascus also reflected growing nervousness at Mr Bush's intentions. "Freedoms cannot be exported by tanks and planes, death and destruction," said Syria's information minister, Mehdi Dakhlallah.
"Everyone knows that Syria is cooperating in fighting terrorism, but the definition of terrorism cannot be selective and based on ideology and politics," he said.
In his speech, Mr Bush restated the commitment he made in last month's inaugural address to dedicate foreign policy to spreading democracy - particularly in the Middle East.
In this speech, he pledged $350m (£186m) in support for Palestinian nation-building. He also made a distinction between non-democratic allies, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to whom Mr Bush offered encouragement for democratic reforms, and adversaries such as Syria and Iran, for whom he reserved tougher words.
Using the sort of rhetoric once applied to Saddam Hussein, he said: "To promote peace in the broader Middle East, we must confront regimes that continue to harbour terrorists and pursue weapons of mass murder."
He said Syria was harbouring terrorists, and dubbed Iran "the world's primary state sponsor of terror", accusing it of pursuing nuclear weapons.
In an apparent call for an Iranian democratic uprising, he declared: "To the Iranian people, I say tonight, 'As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you.'"
Flynt Leverett, a Middle East expert in the national security council during Mr Bush's first term, pointed to a difference in tone between the warnings aimed at Syria and at Iran.
"He still is basically addressing the Syrian regime," said Mr Leverett. "With Iran, it struck me that ... this president is not going to do a deal that would legitimise the regime."
If that analysis proves accurate, the speech is bad news for Europe's hopes of getting the US more involved in talks with Iran over suspending uranium enrichment - one of the requests likely to be put to Condoleezza Rice, Mr Bush's new secretary of state, as she tours Europe in the next few days.
"Bush and Rice believe that Iran is in a pre-revolutionary state. They'll let this European thing play out because it buys time, but ultimately they think these internal contradictions will bring a revolution in Iran," said Mr Leverett.
Judith Kipper, a Middle East specialist at the independent, New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, said: "The message for Iran was not constructive. This idea that the population will somehow rise up against the government is not going to happen and, in terms of getting the Iranians to cooperate on nuclear questions and to look at the whole basket of things the US wants, it's counter-productive."
Mr Bush said that an Israeli-Palestinian peace based on two independent states was "within reach" with US help. Ms Rice is due to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the region on Monday, to restate US eagerness to do more to push the peace process along.
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