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In Abu Dhabi on Sunday, President George Bush gave his most comprehensive speech thus far during his swing through the Middle East. Most notably, he came out swinging on Iran in a way that has not been heard since the release of the US National Intelligence Estimate early last month.
"Iran is today the world's leading state sponsor of terror," Bush said. "It sends hundreds of millions of dollars to extremists around the world - while its own people face repression and economic hardship at home. It undermines Lebanese hopes for peace by arming and aiding the terrorist group Hizbullah. It subverts the hopes for peace in other parts of the region by funding terrorist groups like Hamas and the Palestine Islamic Jihad. It sends arms to the Taliban in Afghanistan and Shia militants in Iraq."
"Finally," he continued, "[Iran] defies the United Nations and destabilizes the region by refusing to be open and transparent about its nuclear programs and ambitions... 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 is too late."
It is no coincidence that Bush said this in the Gulf, amid Arab countries that feel threatened by Iran and cannot fathom why the US, by releasing the NIE, seemed to switch from leading the charge to isolate Iran to a message more like that of Russia's - downplaying the threat and puncturing the sense of urgency while pretending that there is no essential connection between Iran's "civilian" nuclear program and its quest for the bomb.
The governments of the region might be encouraged by Bush's new tone, but they learned long ago to pay more attention to American actions than to words. These states know that Bush will be out of office in a year, and what matters is whether Teheran is prevented from becoming a nuclear power or not.
They also know that the Israeli-Palestinian question is like a reed in the wind of the much larger struggle with radical Islamism - both within the Muslim world and between that world and the West. It should be obvious to every leader Bush has met or will meet on his trip that if Iran is allowed to go nuclear, all the forces that seek to literally blow up the new Israeli-Palestinian negotiating effort will be strengthened, and the prospects for peace will shrink to nil.
Accordingly, there are two major missing pieces to Bush's current diplomatic push. The first is a strange omission from his speech in Abu Dhabi. While Bush spoke frankly about the need for greater freedom in Arab lands, he did not include a push for normalization with Israel - as he had done in previous speeches.
At Annapolis, for example, Bush said, "Arab states should also reach out to Israel, work toward the normalization of relations and demonstrate in both word and deed that they believe that Israel and its people have a permanent home in the Middle East."
At other times in the US, Bush urged the Arab states to emulate Anwar Sadat's courageous gesture that led to Israel's peace treaty with Egypt. Yet, where it counts, speaking in Arab countries, Bush was silent.
Easing the pressure on the Arab states to make minimal gestures toward Israel is deeply misguided. If Arab states were to start meeting Israeli leaders, either in Israel or their own countries, this would send a powerful signal to the Palestinians that now is the time to make peace. Without such support from the Arab states, no amount of money or even direct pressure can induce the weak, divided and radicalized Palestinians to work seriously toward reconciliation.
The second missing piece is more effective US persuasion of Europe to tighten its sanctions against Iran. More than he needed to come to this region, Bush needs to go to European capitals and say explicitly, "If you want peace in the Middle East and the world, you must join the US in sanctioning Iran."
If Europe imposed the same trade and diplomatic sanctions that the US already has imposed on Iran, the pressure on Teheran would be tremendous and the aura of inevitability around an Iranian bomb would be punctured. But this will not happen unless Bush personally raises the level of his Iran diplomacy towards Europe to that of the efforts he is now dedicating to the Annapolis process. After all, the success of Annapolis depends on facing down Iran, not the other way around.