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Focus on Iran Causes Unease

Reaction in Tehran is stern, but analysts abroad see Cheney's warning of a possible Israeli strike as a way to prod Europe. Bush's speech is criticized.

January 22, 2005|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — 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.

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