- The Washington Times - Monday, January 7, 2008

President Bush will be following in some unlikely footsteps on his eight-day, seven-stop Mideast tour that starts tomorrow.

Iran’s firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and other top officials of the Islamic republic have paid visits to a number of leading Arab states in recent weeks, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar.

The trips are seen as a clear challenge to U.S. influence in the region by Tehran, which has not had official relations with Washington since shortly after the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Mr. Bush and National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley openly acknowledge that countering Iranian ambitions will be a key theme of his talks in Riyadh, Cairo and other capitals.

Mr. Bush told Reuters news agency last week that containing Tehran was “absolutely” a motivation for his trip, the first extended visit to the Middle East of his presidency.

The point has not been lost on the Iranians, who yesterday criticized Mr. Bush’s trip as an unwelcome meddling in regional affairs.

“We see such a trip as interference in the relations of the countries in the region and propaganda,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Hosseini said. “Of course the countries in the region, regardless of such things, will pursue their bilateral and regional dealings.”

The U.S. and Iran have clashed on a number of fronts in recent years, including over what Washington says is Iranian support for radical anti-U.S. militants in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. In addition, the Bush administration has led the international charge to curb Iran’s nuclear program, insisting Tehran is secretly trying to obtain nuclear weapons.

Mr. Bush’s message has been muddied by the November release of a U.S. consensus intelligence report that concluded Iran had suspended its military nuclear activities in 2003, even as basic research efforts continue unabated. The unexpected report was widely seen in the region as torpedoing the prospect of direct U.S. military action against Iran before Mr. Bush leaves office.

“There is great uncertainty as to what the [U.S. intelligence estimate] was, with one conspiracy theory after another about it” in the region, said Anthony H. Cordesman, a national security analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “And the president is certainly going to be asked about that.”

The Shi’ite Muslim revolution of Persian Iran has long been a source of deep concern for leading Sunni Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The rise of a Shi’ite-dominated government in Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003 has only fed fears that Iran was expanding its influence throughout the region.

But Arab and Gulf states now seem to be hedging their bets as their concerns over U.S. long-term intentions grow.

Mr. Ahmadinejad last month became the first Iranian leader ever to address the 27-year-old Gulf Cooperation Council, a Saudi-dominated alliance of six Gulf states formed in part to curb Iranian expansionism in the 1980s. There were no breakthroughs at the Qatar summit, but the invitation received wide coverage in the Arab press.

Mr. Ahmadinejad followed that up with a high-profile meeting with Saudi King Abdullah, which generated fresh headlines of a possible Arab-Iran rapprochement.

And last week, Ali Larijani, Iran’s former top nuclear negotiator and now Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei’s key national security aide, was in Cairo for the highest-level Iranian-Egyptian talks in more than a quarter-century.

Mr. Larijani offered to assist Cairo’s planned nuclear-power program and blamed the United States for trying to drive a wedge between Iran and its Arab neighbors.

“We should not allow Americans and others to undermine our cooperation and relations,” he told the Iranian Fars News Agency.

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