ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates —President Bush today described Iran as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and called on Arab allies to help his administration curb the threat “before it’s too late.”
In a speech at an opulent palace-style resort here, halfway through his eight-day tour of the Middle East, Bush accused Iran’s ultraconservative Shiite Muslim government of using intimidation and “bellicose rhetoric” to silence domestic opposition and foment instability in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories.
“Iran’s actions threaten the security of nations everywhere,” Bush said. “So the United States is strengthening our longstanding security commitments with our friends in the Gulf, and rallying friends around the world to confront this danger before it’s too late.”
Such a public chastisement of Tehran was a bold move here – Iran is the No. 1 trade partner in the United Arab Emirates, where oil wealth has fueled a remarkable wave of construction and foreign investment. The UAE has become an important conduit for Iranian imports in spite of U.S.-backed economic sanctions, and Dubai is home to a thriving Iranian expatriate community.
To many Emiratis, Bush’s plea for Gulf Arab countries to help rein in Iran was tantamount to asking them to pick sides in the U.S.-Iranian showdown over Tehran’s nuclear program and its support for Islamist militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
“I don’t think we’re going to stay away from Iran,” said Ahmed al Ali, 28, an Emirati aviation student who attended Bush’s speech. “We can’t stop being friends with Iran, just like we can’t stop being friends with the United States. We’ll have to find a balance.”
Arab leaders are wary of the regional sway Iran has gained from having a friendly Shiite Islamist government in Iraq and electoral victories by groups it supports in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon. Still, confidence in the United States’ ability to contain Iran is waning, and Arab leaders are concerned that if they wait too long to count Iran as an ally, they’ll find themselves on the bad side of an important economic partner and a burgeoning regional powerhouse whose leaders’ Islamist rhetoric resounds with many ordinary Arabs.
In his half-hour remarks, Bush also lashed out against al Qaida, which he presented as the Sunni equivalent of Iran’s extremist ideology. He reminded the audience, mostly Emirati men and women in traditional attire, that Muslims were among the victims of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. Extremism, Bush said, is “the great ideological struggle of our time.”
Bush praised recent elections in the Middle East, but emphasized that true democratic reform extends beyond the ballot box. Bush appealed to Arab rulers – and their constituencies – to give universities, civil society and local governments more power in creating a “free and just society.”
However, the president did not specifically address the human rights records of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies where women and foreign laborers frequently experience discrimination and have few legal protections.
“This new era is being built with the understanding that power is a trust that must be exercised with the consent of the governed,” Bush said.
Bush was on Day 5 of his first extensive visit to the Middle East, where he’s promoting a Palestinian-Israeli peace plan, urging Arab allies to keep their distance from Iran and renewing calls for democratic reforms in the region. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, accompanying the president, listened to the speech from a front row packed with Emirati dignitaries.