Wed, Nov 15, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Bush pans Syria, Iran overtures

NO SUDDEN SHIFT Though voters rejected his policies in the congressional elections, the US leader said he would not retreat from his hardline positions on Iran and Syria


US President George W. Bush's warning on Monday over Iran and Syria defied a drumbeat of calls at home and abroad for the US to engage with its two foes.

From the UK to Australia and in the political echo chamber in Washington, the notion of diplomatic outreach to Damascus and Tehran is being mooted as part of a possible fresh strategy to end Iraq's torment.

On Monday, however, Bush signaled that his looming "lame duck" status and loss of allies in Congress would not cause him to back down.

Iran must halt its nuclear program and Syria must get its hands off Lebanon and stop shielding extremists before talks can begin, Bush said as he met Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The US accuses Syria and Iran of fomenting instability in Iraq and allowing insurgents to cross their borders.

Renewed debate on Iran and Syria arose as the congressionally mandated Iraq Study Group, charged with coming up with a new approach to ending the spiralling violence in the country, met Bush on Monday before drawing up recommendations.

Veteran co-chair James Baker has said Washington should not be afraid to talk to its enemies, prompting speculation the group will endorse contacts with Iran and Syria on ending violence in Iraq.

Some observers say the group may suggest de-linking Iraq from Washington's nuclear showdown with Tehran.

The State Department said on Monday a previous effort to discuss Iraq with Iran through its ambassador in Baghdad "didn't work out."

The high price Iran and Syria might demand for help in Iraq is likely to seriously complicate any talks, but foreign policy analyst Jon Alterman said he expected a US-Iran dialogue within the next two years, despite current political posturing on both sides.

"Complete chaos in Iraq is not in Iran's interests; complete American success in Iraq is not in Iran's interest either, but we are much closer to the former than the later," said Alterman, who works for the Center For Strategic and International Studies.

Some analysts believe that Tehran might require an end to pressure on its nuclear drive, while Syria could ask for more of a free hand in Lebanon in return for helping in Iraq. Either demand could force a retreat by the Bush administration.

Top Democrats, emboldened by last week's rout of Republicans in the congressional elections, are among those recommending a new approach.

Future Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Joseph Biden called on Sunday for a conference of regional powers similar to the Dayton talks that brought peace to former Yugoslavia.

Some observers interpreted last week's appointment of Robert Gates as the US defense secretary as a sign of a possible softening of US tone on Iran and Syria, as he once advocated dialogue with Tehran.

Britain's Observer newspaper reported on Sunday that British Prime Minister Tony Blair told Bush in a phone call it was important to involve Syria and Iran in the attempt to reduce violence in Iraq.

Earlier this month, Blair sent a senior official to Syria to assess its readiness to play a "constructive" role in the Middle East, sparking speculation about a possible new diplomatic opening.

But Blair toed the US line on Monday, though he did say Iran should be given a "strategic choice": the country should help the Middle East peace process, not hinder it; it should stop supporting terrorism in Lebanon and Iraq; and it should abide by, not flout, international obligations.

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