UNITED NATIONS—President Bush sought to assure the Arab world Tuesday that he isn't waging a war against Islam and singled out Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria for standing in the way of the spread of democracy across the Middle East.
Addressing the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly, Bush restated his demand that Iran abandon its drive for nuclear weapons. Speaking directly to the Iranian people, he said that the Tehran government is stifling the country's "tremendous potential."
"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," Bush said. "Despite what the regime tells you, we have no objection to Iran's pursuit of a truly peaceful nuclear power program."
Bush's comments on Iran, while tough, were more restrained than in recent weeks. Last month he called Iran a "grave threat" in a speech to the American Legion. That helped fuel speculation that some sort of U.S. military action against Iran might be coming.
But while the president spoke publicly in softer tones, he and other administration officials continued to work behind the scenes to forge consensus among U.S. allies for tough sanctions against Tehran.
Bush met with French President Jacques Chirac Tuesday morning and the two leaders appeared in sync on how to handle Iran, one day after Chirac appeared to suggest that negotiations with Iran should begin even before Tehran suspends enriching uranium that could be used for nuclear weapons.
Bush said that three European Union nations—Britain, France and Germany—would continue talks with Iran aimed at getting Iran to verifiably suspend its uranium enrichment. Once Iran does that, Washington would join negotiations. If Iran fails to suspend, then the Western powers would "discuss the consequences ... and one of the consequences, of course, would be some kind of sanction program," Bush said.
A French diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe the leaders' private talk, said Chirac had reaffirmed that while preparatory talks with Iran can take place now, no real negotiations can start until Iran halts enrichment.
"Let me take this opportunity once again to say that the present views of the United States and I again see eye to eye on this one," Chirac said. "I totally agree with President Bush. We both are determined to push forward on this one, to move ahead in a constructive manner."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was expected to address the assembly hours after Bush and Chirac. He has been the subject of ridicule and the butt of jokes this week in New York's tabloid press and on Capitol Hill, where Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, compared him on Tuesday to Adolf Hitler and poked fun at his name.
"Ahmadinejad—I call him Ahmad-in-a-head—I think he's a Hitler type of person," Voinovich said during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. "He's made it clear that he wants to destroy Israel. He has made it clear that he doesn't believe in the Holocaust. He's a, he's a ... we all know what he is."
Bush didn't mention Ahmadinejad specifically. Instead, he denounced the Tehran government and leaders of other governments and terrorist groups that are hampering the White House's push to expand democracy in the region.
He blasted Hezbollah for launching "unprovoked attacks on Israel," lashed out at Hamas for "working to destabilize the region," and accused Syria's government of turning Syria "into a tool of Iran."
However, Bush went to great lengths to stress that his disagreements aren't with the people of the Middle East.
"My country desires peace," Bush said. "Extremists in your midst spread propaganda claiming that the West is engaged in a war against Islam. This propaganda is false and its purpose is to confuse you and justify acts or terror. We respect Islam."
Bush's speech was a rare attempt to reach out directly to foreign audiences, according to Jon Alterman, head of the Middle East programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right think tank in Washington.
But Alterman said the speech might not be effective.
"What the world is waiting for is a sense of humility and an acknowledgement of lessons learned," he said, referring to the invasion of Iraq and other perceived U.S. missteps in the region.
Some experts on the region said Bush's speech was more for domestic consumption than a foreign audience.
"This speech is intended to raise the prospects for Republican candidates for the fall," said Stephen Schlesinger, director of World Policy Institute at the New School in New York. "It's an attempt to shape public opinion."
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean dismissed Bush's speech as election-year campaigning.
"Today we heard more of the same rhetoric from a desperate President Bush who is worried more about his party's political prospects this November than about how to protect and fight and win the real war on terror," Dean said in a written statement.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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