Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Bush Bypasses Iranian Leaders to Tell the People: We Respect You

James Bone, The Times Online:
George Bush used a UN address yesterday to appeal directly to the Iranian people over the head of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, their firebrand leader, who stayed away from the chamber.

To the people of Iran, the United States respects you,” Mr Bush declared in a televised speech to the 192-nation General Assembly. “We respect your country. We admire your rich history, your vibrant culture and your many contributions to civilisation.

You deserve an opportunity to determine your own future, an economy that rewards your intelligence and your talents, and a society that allows you to fulfil your tremendous potential,” he said.The greatest obstacle to this future is that your rulers have chosen to deny you liberty and to use your nation’s resources to fund terrorism and fuel extremism and pursue nuclear weapons.”

Mr Bush pledged that Washington would accept Iran developing civilian nuclear power but delivered an uncompromising message that it must abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions. The Bush Administration has met resistance among its international partners in its drive to impose limited UN sanctions on Iran after its failure to meet a UN deadline of August 31 to halt uranium enrichment. READ MORE

Jacques Chirac, the French President, appeared to break ranks with the United States on Monday by saying that he was not yet ready to back sanctions.But after a meeting with M Chirac at a New York hotel yesterday, Mr Bush signalled some American flexibility on the way forward.

Washington has demanded that Iran halt its uranium enrichment activity before the resumption of international talks on its nuclear programme. But Mr Bush suggested yesterday that he would be happy to see the European Union’s “Big Three” powers continue discussions wiith Iran to prepare the ground for a suspension of uranium enrichment work.

The EU-3 will continue to dialogue with the Iranians to get them to the table, so they will verifiably suspend their enrichment activities, in which case the United States will come to the table,” he said. Mr Bush emphasised, however, that Iran could not string along the EU-3 indefinitely while it seeks answers to its questions about a six-power package of incentives offered in June by Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and America.

We believe time is of the essence. Should they continue to stall, we will then discuss the consequences of them stalling. One of the consequences, of course, will be some kind of sanctions programme,” he said.

At the same time, a Pentagon official told CNN that the US Navy was updating contingency plans for military action against Iran. Admiral Mike Mullen, the chief of naval operations, is said to have held a series of meetings over the past six weeks to assess how the US Navy would supply warships and troops in the event of a clash. The US Navy is looking at how many warships would be required to maintain a naval blockade of Iranian oil facilities in the Gulf while keeping the shipping lanes open for other tankers.

M Chirac told reporters that he foresaw a resumption of talks between Iran and the six powers based on a promise by Iran to suspend uranium enrichment for the duration of the discussions. The six powers would make a reciprocal pledge not to seek sanctions while the talks were under way, he said.

At the end of the talks, either there would be a deal that left everybody satisified, or each side would be free to pursue its own goals. Further contacts are scheduled in New York this week between the EU and Iran.

Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, is due to meet Ali Larijani, the chief Iranian nuclear negotiator. Señor Solana told Spanish reporters that it would be wrong to push for UN sanctions when the EU was making real progress in talks with Tehran.

Diplomats say that Mr Larijani has raised the idea of a confidence-building two-month suspension of uranium enrichment but has yet to get approval from Tehran. The planned meeting with Señor Solana was thrown into some doubt when Mr Larijani did not arrive on schedule in New York.

The prospect of a face-to-face confrontation between Mr Bush and Mr Ahmadinejad receded when the Iranian leader failed to show up at the UN in time to listen to the US President’s speech. He also missed the diplomatic luncheon for visiting heads of state because alcohol was being served.

Mr Bush won modest applause after outlining his “Freedom Agenda” for the Middle East. But Mr Ahmadinejad was due to deliver his own rival vision in a speech to the General Assembly last night.