WASHINGTON (AFP) – US Vice President Dick Cheney early headed for Egypt and Saudi Arabia for talks with the leaders of both countries, in which the war in Iraq and regional security were expected to take center stage.
The trip, officials said, is meant as a continuation of Cheney’s tour of the region that began last December with visits to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Oman, but was interrupted when he had to rush back to Washington to cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate on the budget.
Tuesday, the US vice president is scheduled to meet with both President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, officials said.
No other details of the talks have been publicly released, but an administration official told AFP that “peace and democracy in the Middle East — I think that is going to be the general focus of him going there.”
In his meetings with the Egyptian and Saudi leaders, Cheney will discuss “key issues of mutual concern relating to President Bush’s freedom agenda and the war on terror,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Foreign policy experts expected Cheney to prod his Arab interlocutors to lend more support to Iraq’s first democratically-elected government in decades that will emerge following the December 15 parliamentary election.
But the US foreign policy focus has shifted since December as Iran last week resumed its uranium enrichment research, a development that US officials charge was a dangerous “escalation” of what they believe is Tehran’s secret drive to acquire nuclear weapons.
It is not immediately clear how much the growing controversy over Iran will affect Cheney’s talks with President Mubarak and King Abdullah.
But the vice president said in a radio interview on Wednesday that Iran’s nuclear program “obviously is an increasingly significant problem that the world is going to have to address.”
Cheney said the new Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has sparked an outcry around the world by repeatedly questioning Israel’s right to exist, “doesn’t inspire confidence … in anyone.”
The vice president said that although Iranians occasionally hold elections, they could not be considered free and fair because “the old guard controls who actually gets on the ballot” and they have not resulted in “what I would think of as a responsible government.”
“So this is a nation, whose government I don’t believe serves them well at this point,” Cheney added.
There were “a lot of Iranians who would like to see the policies changed,” he argued. “And we’ll see what happens.”
The vice president headed for the Middle East as US senators on both sides of the aisle indicated a bipartisan consensus on Iran, urging more economic and political pressure on the country and suggesting that use of force should not be taken of the table.
“We are tied up to a great degree,” Republican Senator John McCain, referring to US military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. “But that does not mean that we don’t have military options.”