WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President George W. Bush will try this week to reassure US allies in the Middle East that his administration continues to view Iran as a threat and will not abandon its friends in the face of it.
Bush leaves for the region Tuesday in a bid to give a boost to the peace process between Israelis and the Palestinians.
But another key purpose of the trip is to repair damage caused by a recent radical reappraisal of the nuclear threat coming from Iran that was undertaken by the US intelligence community.
“Part of the reason I’m going to the Middle East 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 that threat, but in fact clarifies the threat,” Bush told the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot as he referred to the National Intelligence Estimate produced by US intelligence agencies.
In a partially declassified report released at the beginning of December, the intelligence community indicates that Iran most likely had a clandestine program to produce a nuclear bomb, but it was halted in 2003 under international pressure.
The report added that Tehran today appeared less determined to have nuclear weapons than the intelligence community believed it had been two years ago.
This reappraisal has left the Iranian nuclear threat diminished, and the Islamic republic presented the finding as a victory in a years-long standoff against the US government and its international allies over its nuclear program.
However, Israel. which hardline Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would like to wipe off the map, is concerned it could one day become a target of an Iranian nuclear strike.
“And so my message to the Israeli people is, I fully understand the threat,” said Bush.
But in a region rife with historical rivalries between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Gulf countries are alarmed by what they see as growing Iranian influence and wonder if the United States plans to ease up on the Islamic republic.
The US intelligence report has already given rise to a multitude of conspiracy theories in the region, including allegations that the document was produced by a dissident faction within the US intelligence community in order to deprive the White House of any justification for possible military action against Iran.
Bush, meanwhile, insists that while the intelligence community now believes that Iran stopped its clandestine nuclear weapons program in 2003, the report confirms for the first time that such a program did exist and, therefore, can be resumed.
In addition, Iran continues to test missiles and enrich uranium, two of the three principal components of a nuclear weapons program, the president argues.
Bush also intends to maintain maximum pressure on Iran — and has tried to reassure Arab allies that they need not worry.
“I will be also talking to our friends and allies about our strong commitment to regional security, that the United States is engaged and will remain engaged in the security of the region,” the president told regional newspapers.
In a move that could be laden with symbolism, Bush will also visit US soldiers deployed in the Gulf.
However, the region remains concerned by the possibility of a US military operation against Iran, even though the probability of such a strike appears now considerably reduced.
“It’s important for the people in the region to know that while all options remain on the table, that I believe we can solve this problem diplomatically, and the way to do that is to continue to isolate Iran in the international community,” Bush assured allies.