ABU DHABI (AFP) – US President George W. Bush arrived in the United Arab Emirates on Sunday for a visit in which he was set to reach out to ordinary Iranians across the Gulf in a new swipe at the Tehran government.
Bush was to deliver a keynote speech in the Emirati capital Abu Dhabi telling Iranians, for whom the UAE is their main trading partner, that there is a better alternative to the current regime, his spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters.
“When he speaks to different people in the region, he will again speak to the Iranians themselves and tell them that there is a better future for them, a better way to live than what their current government is providing for them,” Perino said.
The Middle East tour which Bush began in Israel on Wednesday has been overshadowed by renewed tensions with Tehran following a face-off between Iranian and US naval vessels in the entrance to the Gulf earlier this month.
Washington has since repeatedly warned Tehran that its commanders are authorised to use force in self-defence if necessary.
But in an embarrassing climbown that was gleefully seized on by Tehran, the Pentagon admitted that a sound recording it had released of a voice threatening to blow up the US vessels may not have emanated from the Iranian vessels.
The Navy Times reported that US navy experts now believe the threatening voice may have been that of a local heckler known as the “Filipino Monkey” who frequently interrupts ship-to-ship radio traffic with insulting interventions.
Tehran accused Washington on Sunday of distorting the incident “to fool the region” during Bush’s visit and called on US officials to apologise.
“The Americans have lost face again,” foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told reporters.
“They tried to bring it up at the same time as Bush was travelling to the region to paint Iran in a bad light. But their plans fell flat,” he said.
Bush flew into Abu Dhabi from Bahrain where he discussed the January 6 incident in the Strait of Hormuz with the commander of the US Fifth Fleet Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff, who said he was taking it very seriously, Perino said.
However he made no mention of the face-off with the Iranians over breakfast with fleet personnel on Sunday morning.
Throughout his Middle East tour Bush has kept up his rhetoric against Tehran, which Washington accuses of trying to acquire an atomic bomb under the cover of a civil nuclear programme, a charge Iran denies.
In Israel, Bush warned that Iran posed “a threat to world peace” and should not be allowed to develop nuclear know-how.
In Kuwait on Saturday he called on Iran to stop supporting militias that attack US forces and Iraqis.
But Washington has also been careful to reassure Gulf allies fearful of renewed conflict in their backyard that it regards military action against Iran as a last resort.
Bush wanted to “remind the region about the United States’ commitment to Gulf security, his belief that this can be solved diplomatically,” his spokeswoman said.
In Abu Dhabi, the US president went straight into talks with his UAE counterpart Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan.
Despite a longstanding territorial row, the UAE is Iran’s largest trade partner, with up to 10,000 Iranian firms operating in Dubai, making the city state Iran’s main business hub.
Trade between the oil-rich Gulf state and the United States is also likely to loom large on the agenda.
A free trade pact has so far eluded Washington and Abu Dhabi, and their friendship suffered a setback when US congressional opposition forced Dubai’s giant port operator to offload US operations in 2006.
But the United States and the UAE — touted as a model of economic progress in an unstable region — have steadily forged closer links.
The two countries are far more discreet about their military links and only held the first meeting of a Joint Military Commission in January 2005.
Neither side speaks publicly about logistical accords dating back to the 1991 Gulf War whereby US aerial refuelling tankers and C-130 transporters have used facilities in the UAE.