Bush drills for Middle East deals

Israel's demand to remove Iran's threat before a Palestinian deal could hamper President Bush's effort for peace.

Although a lame duck, President Bush can use his trip to the Middle East this week to achieve better success with the region's main threat, Iran. He enjoys backing in Congress for his tough stand on Iran (unlike on Iraq). This bipartisanship may give him leeway to set a new course.

The nine-day, six-nation trip will deal with many issues, such as Mr. Bush's recent push for a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal. He now predicts an agreement by year's end.

But even that goal is hindered by Iran's dangerous meddling in the region. Israel has set forth a critical linkage: It wants Iran's threat all but removed before it will allow a Palestinian state to be created on its border.

Israel's concern for its security, of course, is understandable. Attacks on its civilians are all too real or possible from bomb-lobbing militant groups backed by Iran: Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hizbullah in Lebanon. And Iran is still capable of creating a missile and nuclear threat, even if it has apparently hit the pause button in making an atomic bomb, as US intelligence claims.

But the US must set its own path in deciding whether Iran's influence can really be eliminated or simply contained. After all, Iran is a regional giant in population, oil wealth, and potential for meddling.

With the Iran question as the real substance of the trip, Bush's talks with the main US Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, are critical. His Jan. 14 visit to the oil kingdom will be a key step toward a Middle East peace.

Unlike Bush, Saudi's royal Sunni rulers actually talk to Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, despite the fears of the dominant Sunni Arabs in the region toward Iran's Shiite and Persian revolutionaries. In a surprise to the US, Mr. Ahmadinejad attended last month's meeting of the once anti-Iran Arab club, the Gulf Cooperation Council. He was then invited by the Saudi king to visit Mecca.

Such a welcome mat for Iran, however, may simply be a traditional Saudi tactic of keeping one's enemy close. That differs from the US stand of keeping Iran contained and Israel's wish to see the Iranian threat removed.

If Bush's intent is to simply shore up the Arab alliance against Iran, he'll need to adopt their diplomatic subtlety. And he'll need to recognize that Arab states are not united in their concerns and tactics toward Iran. Some want American military equipment for defense against Iran. Others want a strong Sunni role in Iraq's government to prevent Iran's influence there.

Instead of US leadership in the Middle East, the time may be ripe for US followership, especially after Bush's mishandling of Iraq. And a Saudi-US alliance is also critical for final hammering of an Israeli-Palestinian deal.

That pact is necessary for success in Bush's longer-range agenda of more freedom and democracy in the region. It doesn't hurt that he'll speak of that goal again in a speech during his stop in the United Arab Emirates.

But as he has now learned, the region first needs to deal with Iran and other radical Islamists in Iraq and elsewhere, as well as Palestinian aspirations for an independent state of their own.

Firm progress on those issues would be some of the best legacies to leave the next US president.

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