Standing up to the State of the Union

Iran and Syria, cited as "sponsors of terrorism" by the president, strike back: Tehran calls the U.S. one of the heads of a seven-headed dragon, and Damascus chides Bush for being selective in his definition.

By Julian Borger

Published February 4, 2005 2:50PM (EST)

The Syrian and Iranian governments reacted angrily Thursday to George W. Bush's vow to confront them over their alleged harboring of terrorists and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. The American president's State of the Union speech on Wednesday night identified Syria and Iran as the primary obstacles to his administration's declared mission to spread peace and democracy in the Middle East. It sent tremors through the region, raising fears that the administration may have more military action on its second-term agenda.

Iran's leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, denounced the United States as "like one of the big heads of a seven-headed dragon," menacing his country under the direction of "Zionist and non-Zionist capitalists." "Bush is the fifth U.S. president seeking to uproot the Iranian nation and the Islamic Republic of Iran. [Jimmy] Carter, [Ronald] Reagan, father Bush and [Bill] Clinton failed. This president will also fail," the Associated Press quoted him as saying.

The response from Damascus, Syria, also reflected growing nervousness at Bush's intentions. "Freedoms cannot be exported by tanks and planes, death and destruction," said Syria's information minister, Mehdi Dakhlallah. "Everyone knows that Syria is cooperating in fighting terrorism, but the definition of terrorism cannot be selective and based on ideology and politics," he said.

In his speech, Bush restated the commitment he made in last month's inaugural address to dedicate foreign policy to spreading democracy -- particularly in the Middle East. In Wednesday's speech, he pledged $350 million in support for Palestinian nation building. He also made a distinction between nondemocratic allies, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to whom he offered encouragement for democratic reforms, and adversaries such as Syria and Iran, for whom he reserved tougher words.

Using the sort of rhetoric once applied to Saddam Hussein, he said: "To promote peace in the broader Middle East, we must confront regimes that continue to harbor terrorists and pursue weapons of mass murder." He said Syria was harboring terrorists, and dubbed Iran "the world's primary state sponsor of terror," accusing it of pursuing nuclear weapons. In an apparent call for an Iranian democratic uprising, he declared: "To the Iranian people, I say tonight, 'As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you.'"

Flynt Leverett, a Middle East expert on the National Security Council during Bush's first term, pointed to a difference in tone between the warnings aimed at Syria and at Iran. "He still is basically addressing the Syrian regime," said Leverett. "With Iran, it struck me that ... this president is not going to do a deal that would legitimize the regime." If that analysis proves accurate, the speech is bad news for Europe's hope of getting the U.S. more involved in talks with Iran on suspending uranium enrichment. Added Leverett, "Bush and Rice believe that Iran is in a pre-revolutionary state. They'll let this European thing play out because it buys time, but ultimately they think these internal contradictions will bring a revolution in Iran."

Judith Kipper, a Middle East specialist at the independent Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said: "The message for Iran was not constructive. This idea that the population will somehow rise up against the government is not going to happen, and in terms of getting the Iranians to cooperate on nuclear questions and to look at the whole basket of things the U.S. wants, it's counterproductive."

[On Friday, the Washington Post reports, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that attacking Iran is "simply not on the agenda." Rice, who is on a weeklong trip to Europe, also told reporters: "It's not the absence of anybody's involvement that's keeping the Iranians from knowing what they need to do. They need to live up to their obligations. They need to agree to verification and to stop trying to hide activities under cover of civilian nuclear power."]

Julian Borger

Julian Borger is a correspondent for the Guardian.

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