The Bush administration’s warning that Iran might face military action from Israel raised the ire of Tehran, but politicians and analysts said Friday that it could bolster European efforts to get the Islamic Republic to end its suspected nuclear weapons program.
Israeli politicians were quick to say they had no imminent plan to attack Iran, even as some commentators elsewhere expressed unease at the sweeping and “messianic” tone in President Bush’s inaugural speech marking the start of his second term.
Tehran did not respond directly to Vice President Dick Cheney’s comments Thursday about a possible Israeli strike against Iran.
Cheney’s remarks brought into focus comments Bush made in his address, in which the president said the United States stood ready to defend itself and protect its friends “by force of arms if necessary.”
At Friday prayers in Tehran, a forum that often reflects the thinking of Islamic hard-liners who wield power, a leading cleric sounded a defiant note.
Saying he was speaking to “Americans and Zionists,” Mohammed Emami Kashani said: “The world will catch you red-handed. If you ask the people in the world, everyone will tell you how despised you are.... People will become increasingly aware of your plots and hopefully you will not achieve anything.”
The conservative Tehran Times accused the Bush administration of “belligerent, unilateralist policies [that] brought about nothing but crisis and insecurity for the world.”
Israeli and U.S. analysts share the view that Iran is secretly working to acquire or build nuclear weapons and is moving to build longer-range missiles capable of delivering them, a charge the Iranian authorities dispute.
On Sunday, the New Yorker magazine reported that U.S. forces had already gone into Iran seeking to verify targets for a possible military strike. Bush administration officials disputed the accuracy of the report but did not categorically deny it.
Israel has said it will allow negotiations, led by Britain, France and Germany, to try to bring about a verifiable halt in the alleged weapons program. In October, the Europeans won an agreement from Iran to temporarily suspend its efforts at enriching uranium. Enriched uranium can be used to make nuclear weapons.
The U.S., which has no direct relations with Iran, also has given its backing to the European efforts for now.
A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Cheney’s remarks were intended to spur European countries to get tougher with Tehran.
What Cheney said “was not intended to warn Iran, or caution Israel, as much as to encourage the Europeans to take a much stronger stance on imposing a more rigid regime of inspection on Iran with regard to its nuclear program,” the official said.
“In effect, Cheney was telling the Europeans, ‘Hurry up and get your act together, or we can’t be responsible.’ ”
Israel has said that it regards Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, if unchecked, as a threat to its existence. But the Jewish state also says it would consider military action against the country only if all other options had been exhausted.
“We are not going to initiate an attack against Iran at this stage,” said Raanan Gissin, an aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “We don’t believe that the diplomatic measures and sanctions that can be imposed have been fully tried yet.”
Bush’s inaugural speech was directed to a world community that remains largely disenchanted with the U.S. president. A BBC World Service Poll of 22,000 people in 21 countries showed this week that 58% of respondents, and a majority in 16 countries, considered the world more dangerous because of Bush’s reelection.
But in France, some commentators expressed confidence that Bush’s second term would start with a new emphasis on diplomacy and cooperation, even with regard to Iran.
The U.S. and Europe are pursuing a logical “good-cop-bad-cop” approach toward Iran, with British, French and German negotiators trying to persuade Iran to dismantle its weapons programs or face American military might, said Bruno Tertrais of the Foundation for Strategic Research, a Paris think tank.
“We are not on the eve of a large military operation against Iran,” Tertrais said in an interview on Europe1 radio. He said U.S. leaders wanted “to keep the pressure on Iran. They trust the Europeans to conduct negotiations ... but they need to threaten at the same time.”
But in Germany, the parliamentary foreign policy spokesman for the opposition Christian Democrats was irked by the comments from Bush and Cheney.
“It would be sensible if the Americans would think not only about potential military strikes. It would be good if they would participate more constructively in the diplomatic efforts of the European Union,” Friedbert Pflueger told a Berlin radio station.
Commentators in various regions chided Bush for what they said was his aggressive projection of American power and questioned whether the president was sincere about backing freedom fighters and not dictators, as they say the U.S. does now in the Middle East and Asia.
“The U.S. president issued a blood-curdling cry yesterday” warning America’s enemies to expect “an untamed fire of freedom,” wrote London’s Daily Star. It’s up to British Prime Minister Tony Blair to use his influence to make sure the U.S. defends freedom “with a cool head,” the Star said.
“Super-Zero Mr. Un-Credible Goes on the Warpath,” said the irreverent Daily Mirror, a British tabloid, calling the president’s speech “bizarre.”
“There is a sense of a man who considers the whole world as his own parish,” said Italy’s left-leaning La Repubblica.
Belarusian President Alexander G. Lukashenko, the leader routinely referred to as Europe’s last dictator and one seen as being in the sights of the Bush administration, was sardonic in his reaction to Bush’s call for an expansion of freedom.
“Suppose someone or other didn’t really want such ‘freedom,’ soaked in blood and smelling of oil?” he asked his National Security Council on Friday. (Belarus thumbed its nose at Bush two days earlier when its state television aired “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the anti-Bush documentary by U.S. director Michael Moore.)
Britain’s conservative Daily Telegraph, generally supportive of Bush, was also skeptical, fearing that Bush would be too bogged down in Iraq to deal with any of the other six “outposts of tyranny” recently mentioned by Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice: Belarus, Myanmar, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Zimbabwe.
“With a much strengthened mandate for his second term, Mr. Bush has vaulting ambitions for liberty,” the paper said. “The president’s ambitions are admirable, but he has got to get Iraq right if they are to have a hope to be realized. That is the unfinished business of his first term, and will doubtless preoccupy him throughout the second.”
French officials such as Foreign Minister Michel Barnier have taken the inauguration as an opportunity to declare “a new era” in U.S.-French relations that will put the Iraq-related tensions in the past.
Nevertheless, Bush’s rhetoric struck some editorialists in France as short on substance.
“No mention of the situation in Iraq was made, nor about the role of the United Nations or Europe,” Swiss journalist Richard Labeviere said in an editorial on Radio France International. “His repeated incantations for world freedom do not provide any manual, any program, any policy ... only moral values based on a spiritual revival that has overwhelmed America.”
L’Union newspaper in eastern France said the speech was “messianic,” and the Sudouest regional newspaper may have best expressed the typical French view.
“With this president, the world feels like it’s dancing on a volcano,” wrote columnist Bruno Dive. “We’re not only talking about his foreign policy, which set Iraq on fire, worsened the situation in the Middle East and loosened the link with European allies.
“We also think about his economic policy based on abysmal deficits which put the USA (and therefore the rest of the world) on the edge of a financial crash.”
Alexander Konovalov, president of the Institute for Strategic Assessment, a think tank in Moscow, said Bush’s ambitions exceeded the reality of U.S. power.
“The words that all the oppressed can count on America’s help are just a declaration,” Konovalov said. “It has been shown quite explicitly that, in reality, not all the oppressed can count on America’s stepping in.”
Although he doubted that the U.S. or Israel could attack Iran, Viktor A. Kremenyuk, deputy director of the USA-Canada Institute in Moscow, said he felt that Bush’s remarks did not bode well for Russia.
“The U.S. is claiming the right to sit in judgment and decide whether Russia conforms to the standards of democracy. And since it is clearly understood that there is less and less democracy in Russia
Times staff writers Megan K. Stack in Cairo, Laura King in Jerusalem, Sebastian Rotella in Paris, Bruce Wallace in Tokyo, Ching-Ching Ni in Beijing, Maria De Cristofaro in Rome, Petra Falkenberg in Berlin and Alexei V. Kuznetsov in Moscow contributed to this report.