PM, Bush hold private meeting on Iran

Olmert attempts to turn summit momentum into effort to thwart Teheran's nuclear drive.

nuclear 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
nuclear 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Having depicted the wide Arab participation in Tuesday's Annapolis summit as a sort of victory for Middle East moderation over Iranian opposition, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert held his second private White House meeting of the week with President George Bush on Wednesday to try to translate the summit's momentum into a more effective effort to thwart Teheran's nuclear drive. At a briefing prior to the Annapolis gathering, Olmert noted to The Jerusalem Post that the Iranians had made clear that they wanted their presumed allies to stay away and were "furious" about the high Arab turnout. Some 20 Arab and Muslim countries sent foreign ministers or other senior ministers to the gathering - including the Saudis and, most gallingly for Teheran, Syria, which dispatched its deputy foreign minister, Faysal Mekdad. The Iranians wanted the Arab world to stay away, Olmert said, "and now see even the Syrians coming." But Syria has stressed that it only came to Annapolis to ensure that its demand for the Golan Heights remained prominent on the Middle Eastern negotiating agenda. Damascus was testing "Washington's seriousness about working for peace this time. Its previous intentions have deluded us," according to the Syrian daily Teshreen. And Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal told reporters on Monday that his country's presence had no connection to any American hope of galvanizing a post-Annapolis wider consensus against Iran's nuclear drive. "We have to worry about Israel first," Faisal said, and deal first with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was a separate priority, he said, from the question of "whether Iran is developing weapons of mass destruction or interfering in Iraq." Olmert had been saying consistently up until the last few months that he was confident Bush would find the means to stop Iran before leaving office. In an interview with the Post in September 2006, for instance, asked whether he felt that Bush would, one way or another, stop Iran from going nuclear, Olmert replied succinctly, "I believe so." He elaborated that Bush "has the courage. There is no one in the world today who has greater courage and determination, and a sense of mission about these issues." At this week's briefing, however, Olmert was more circumspect, saying only that Bush was "doing a lot on the Iranian issue" and that he and the president had been discussing it "for a long time." Iran used both private diplomacy and public rhetoric to try to dissuade Arab participation in Annapolis - both because of its opposition to any reconciliation with Israel, and out of concern that changing alliances might leave it more isolated and more vulnerable to pressure over its nuclear drive. And having failed to deter the Arab delegations, it publicly expressed its dismay. The official Iranian media quoted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as having flatly told Saudi King Abdullah by phone over the weekend: "I wish the name of Saudi Arabia was not among those attending the Annapolis conference. Arab countries should be watchful in the face of the plots and deception of the Zionist enemy." And in a similar phone conversation with Syrian President Bashar Assad, he was reported as saying that "only the true representatives of the Palestinian people can take decisions" on their future. He was more bitter still in a speech to a gathering of Iran's Basij religious militia, declaring that "attending this conference shows a lack of political intelligence... The names of those who give concessions to the Zionist occupiers by attending will not be remembered for goodness." Ahmadinejad's rhetoric was also echoed by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who predicted that Annapolis was "doomed to failure." He told militia volunteers that "they hope the conference will help the usurping Zionist regime and save the honor of the Black House." The Iranian-backed Hamas, presumably considered by Teheran to be among the "true representatives of the Palestinian people," also denounced the Annapolis gathering, as did the Iranian-backed Hizbullah in Lebanon. And there were tellingly-timed new warnings from Hamas and from Iran itself about their development of new missile capabilities. Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Muhammad-Najjar announced "a victory for the Defense Ministry" on Tuesday in its development of a 2,000-kilometer-range missile, the "Ashura," which would bring European targets into range. And Hamas spokesman Ahmad Yousef declared on Sunday that Hamas could make deadlier Kassam rockets to fire into Israel. In Damascus, meanwhile, Hamas leader Moussa Abu Marzouk warned of escalated violence after Annapolis "in all its forms and means." Along with the Arab states, vital potential partners of the US and Israel in the bid to thwart Iran were notably present at Annapolis, with France, Britain, Germany, Italy, China and Russia all represented at the level of foreign minister. France and the UK are publicly committed to stepped-up sanctions aimed at persuading Teheran to change course. Much of the international community is awaiting next month's United Nations Security Council discussion of new reports into Iran's nuclear program, including an assessment by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of its scope and of the degree of Iranian compliance with inspection requirements. The two key holdouts against intensified sanctions, Russia and China, have said they would reassess their positions in light of the imminent new reports. And there has been some speculation here that the revived talk of Russia hosting post-Annapolis talks on multilateral Middle East peace tracks - an idea the Russians say the US is now supporting in principle - may be part of an effort to give Moscow a greater peacemaking role and deepen its partnership with other international players in seeking to deter Iran. Olmert has stated in the past that "Israel can't accept the possibility of Iranians having nuclear weapons, and we will act together with the international forces, starting with America, in order to prevent it." Israel's strong preference is still for sanctions to deter Iran, rather than any resort, by any player, to immensely complex military action with potentially significant repercussions. Plainly, though, time is limited, as Iran maintains its nuclear program in defiance of international pressure, and as the Bush administration heads into its final year. After Wednesday, Bush and Olmert may not have too many more opportunities to forge a definite position on thwarting Iran one way or another.