Bush takes altered goals to Mideast
His trip includes Israel and the Palestinian territories.
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For months, leaders across the region feared that bellicose words out of Washington meant that the United States was on the brink of military strikes against Tehran – what for them would amount to the third war with an Islamic country of the Bush presidency. Then, last month's NIE was seen as quieting the war drums.Skip to next paragraph
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In an interview last week with Yediot Ahronot, Israel's largest newspaper, Bush said one of the goals of his trip "is to make it abundantly clear to nations in that part of the world that we view Iran as a threat, and that the NIE in no way lessens the threat, but in fact clarifies the threat."
Bush repeated in the interview that while no options have been taken off the table, he continues to want to see the threat from Iran handled "diplomatically" and primarily through economic isolation by the international community.
While in Israel, Bush is expected to hear from officials, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, that Iran remains a threat because of its uranium enrichment program. Speculation is mounting that Mr. Barak will present options for strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities in the event that diplomatic pressures fail to halt Tehran's enrichment. The enrichment process could eventually deliver the fuel for a nuclear weapon.
But Bush's reception and what he hears on Iran will be quite different in the Arab countries he visits – in part because of suspicions raised by Washington's increasingly close ties to Israel over the course of the Bush administration. While the Arab countries continue to see Iran as a threat – and not just because of its nuclear ambitions, experts say – they also want to avoid another war on Muslims in the region.
"All of the Arab Gulf states have chosen accommodation and good relations with Iran for self-protection," says Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at CSIS. "They fear Iran in terms of a nuclear threat that southern Gulf regimes still see as very real. They fear … a Shiite crescent … and Iran's potential ties to Shiites in Bahrain, Saudi, Yemen, and the UAE."
Bush will also take up with Arab leaders the $20 billion arms sale the administration proposes for the region. The Saudi portion of the package in particular is seen facing opposition from Congress.
Calling the defense agreements "a signal of long-term US commitment to the region" and "an important piece of our strategy in the region," Hadley says, "We think ultimately Congress will agree with that assessment."