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State Department official attacks Iran’s president

November 30, 2005

By Guy Dinmore in Washington

Published: November 30 2005

Iran’s new president, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, is an irresponsible radical who is digging a hole for himself, a senior US official declared on Wednesday.

Nicholas Burns, the State Department’s number three official, launched a particularly personal attack in a speech that focused on Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons, its support for “terrorist” groups, including Hamas and al-Qaeda, and its poor human rights record.

“Through his statements and actions, President Ahmadi-Nejad is digging a hole for himself and he appears determined to keep on digging,” Mr Burns told the School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University.

Mr Burns, who liaises with the European Union in its nuclear talks with Iran, said the Bush administration would spend more dollars on supporting the pro-democracy efforts of the Iranian people in the hope they would change their own government.

But Iranians and others in the audience said that behind the tough rhetoric, the Bush administration was adopting a more pragmatic approach towards Iran that has upset neoconservatives and pro-Israel groups in Washington.

Analysts say recent shifts in policy have been driven by a realization that neoconservative promises of an implosion within the Iranian regime were premature at best, and that the US could ill afford another serious confrontation abroad, especially on the edge of Iraq where Iran exercises considerable influence.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), one of the most influential lobby groups in the US, on Wednesday expressed its displeasure with the Bush administration, issuing a statement criticising what it called a disturbing shift in US policy towards Iran on the nuclear issue.

It said Iran had won a “critical round in its game of cat and mouse with the international community” last week, when the US decided not to refer Iran to the UN Security Council at a board meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Aipac also condemned the recent decision by the US to back a Russian-European proposal that would allow Iran to master the initial stages of the nuclear fuel cycle by converting uranium into gas at its Isfahan facility.

Iran-watchers in Washington also see further evidence of a more pragmatic policy in the recent decision to get Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Baghdad, to engage his Iranian counterpart there.

Mr Burns said that despite the absence of diplomatic relations since 1979, the US had not sought to impose a “complete diplomatic silence” in its dealings with Iran and would act in its national interests.

The policy statement delivered by Mr Burns differed little from his testimony to Congress in May – except for the tough attack on Mr Ahmadi-Nejad who took office in August after a surprise election victory.

Mr Burns attacked what he called “a highly ideological and confrontational foreign policy” pursued by the president since then, including Iran’s decision to end its voluntary suspension of nuclear fuel cycle development, a “combative” speech to the UN, his sacking of some 40 “experienced” ambassadors, and his latest call for Israel to be wiped off the map.

Mr Burns’ speech appeared designed to highlight what the US hopes are the new battle-lines being drawn in Iran – between people and government, rather than within the regime between reformists under the former president, Mohammad Khatami, and hardliners.

“There is a clear struggle underway between the reactionary Iranian government and the moderate majority,” Mr Burns said.

Although he promised more funding for pro-democracy activities, observers in Washington said the Bush administration was faced with a paucity of worthy recipients in the US, and considerable hurdles in overtly funding such groups inside Iran.

On the nuclear issue, Mr Burns said the US was “working closely with the Europeans, Russia, India, China and other countries with the hope of forming one increasingly united and purposeful coalition to deter Iran’s efforts.”

He again threatened that if Iran did not cooperate then it would face a UN Security Council debate “at a time of our choosing”. But he made no mention of sanctions, which China, Russia and India oppose.

Mr Burns said it was time for the world to react “to this radical shift in Iran’s behavior’ and consider an alternative to the past policy of engagement.

He suggested the international community had constructive “leverage” through diplomatic contacts, trade and investment. But he made no specific recommendations.

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