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Analysts Comment on Bush's Expanded Fight Against Terror in Iran, Iraq - 2002-02-01

In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, President George Bush warned Iraq, Iran and North Korea that the United States will not tolerate any efforts to acquire or export weapons of mass destruction. The warning underscored Mr. Bush's pledge to expand the fight against terrorism beyond al-Qaida to other groups and regimes that sponsor terror.

In his travels around the country since Tuesday, U.S. President George Bush has emphasized his determination to combat terrorism and any states linked to it.

"We've also sent another message," he said. "If you're one of these nations that develops weapons of mass destruction and you're likely to team up with a terrorist group or you're now sponsoring terror or you don't hold the values we hold dear true to your heart. Then you too are on our watch list."

On Tuesday President Bush labeled Iraq, Iran and North Korea an "axis of evil."

In the Middle East, Iranian and Iraqi officials denounced the speech as arrogant.

Most analysts listening to Mr. Bush's speech on Tuesday were not surprised by Mr. Bush's harsh words on Iraq. The U.S. administration has continued to warn that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is trying to rebuild his arsenal of toxic weapons and represents a threat to regional stability.

But Middle East analysts like former Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Robert Pelletreau were somewhat surprised that Mr. Bush put Iran in the same category. "And the reason is the picture from Iran is not all one-sided as it is from the other two," he explained. "There have been some positive gestures with respect to the U.S. campaign against terrorism from Iran, including the initial messages of sympathy, their condemnation of terrorism, their willingness to let humanitarian supplies to be transported across Iran and their willingness to help if there were any downed [U.S.] airmen. But I think that recent developments over the past few weeks are what probably pushed Iran over into the same category."

The U.S. warning to Iran comes after reports of Iranian support for groups working against the interim government in Afghanistan. It also follows Israel's seizure last month of a shipload of Iranian weapons allegedly bound for the Palestinian Authority and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, which Iran supports. Iran has denied both accusations.

Iran's President Mohammad Khatami denounced the speech as an insult to the Iranian nation. But Ali Reza Nourizadeh of London's Center for Arab and Iranian Studies says Mr. Bush's warning targeted the Iranian government, not the Iranian people. "He was careful to mention he is sending signals not to all Iranians but to minority groups who are not elected and they are the ones who carry all these policies against the will of the Iranian people," says Mr. Nourizadeh.

On Tuesday President Bush told the U.S. Congress that Iran aggressively pursues these weapons of mass destruction and exports terror, while an un-elected few repress the Iranian people's hope for freedom.

Professor Shaul Bakhash of Virginia's George Mason University says those supporting President Khatami's reform efforts inside the Iranian government will be dismayed by Mr. Bush's hostile tone.

"I think members of the administration may expect that the presidents' warning will strengthen the hands of those who want to see a change in Iran's foreign policy. But the speech could have the contrary view," said Mr. Bakhash. "It could strengthen the hands of the hardliners who have been arguing that the U.S. will never deal with Iran in a reasonable way and any hopes for a useful dialogue with the United States has no basis in fact."

Former U.S. diplomat Robert Pelletreau agrees it is a setback for those working for a U.S.-Iranian dialogue but says Mr. Bush's warning indicates Washington's zero tolerance for terrorism but does not shut off channels of communication already being developed.