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Bush enlists Europe to isolate Iran, Syria

WASHINGTON -- On the eve of his first foreign trip since reelection, President Bush said yesterday he would seek to persuade European allies to form a unified front against Syria and Iran, countries that Bush considers dangerous regimes that have relentlessly frustrated US efforts in Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.

''Mine is a mission and a trip that says, we share values," Bush told Slovak State Television yesterday as he prepared for departure tomorrow. ''It's those values that should unite our voices when it comes to spreading those values in parts of the world that are troubled parts of the world," he said, going on to mention Iran and Syria.

He declined to rule out a military option against Iran, but said, ''I believe diplomacy can work, so long as the Iranians don't divide Europe and the United States."

US officials hope to persuade European countries to use the threat of economic sanctions and political isolation to pressure Iran and Syria to undertake reforms, and also seek to toughen the European stance against Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon, an anti-Israeli group that Iran and Syria support.

The US push is occurring after Syria and Iran reiterated their longstanding alliance against the United States in a statement this week and as US officials said they found fresh evidence that Iran is bent on building a nuclear bomb. In addition, the United States accuses Syria and Iran of allowing insurgents free movement across the countries' borders into Iraq.

Developing a shared strategy with Europe for confronting Syria and Iran is a key item on Bush's agenda next week as he meets with the leaders of Germany, France, Britain, and Russia.

The United States already has imposed limits on trade and assistance to Syria and Iran, under the Syrian Accountability Act and laws against funding state sponsors of terrorism. US officials are considering cutting off banking ties with Syria under the USA Patriot Act or an executive order. But most of Europe continues to trade freely with Syria and Iran, accounting for about half of all imports into both countries.

Russia provides arms to Syria and helped build Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor. Yesterday, President Vladimir Putin of Russia pledged further nuclear cooperation with Iran.

''No effort to impose sanctions or politically isolate the two regimes would work without the cooperation of Europe," a State Department official said. ''It's obviously going to be an effort to get everyone working from the same page."

A separate US official who closely follows the Middle East said that while in Europe, Bush would talk about ''the fact that a sanctions regime that only includes the US still gives these countries the access to the kinds of material or money that lets them continue their negative behavior."

In the case of Iran, the United States has been focusing on possible punishments and has been sending unmanned drones and conducting secret reconnaissance missions inside the country to find targets for a possible commando raid on its facilities, according to published reports.

By contrast, France, Germany, and Britain have focused on offering Iran economic inducements to coax concessions from Tehran. Europeans have said they want Bush to support Iran's entry into the World Trade Organization if Iran verifiably renounces its nuclear program. They also want Bush to consider offering Iran a security guarantee and assurances that the United States is not pursuing a policy of regime change, according to two Western diplomats.

Joining the WTO would give Iran new legitimacy and greater access to world markets.

''Iran is very much interested to be part of the WTO," said a European diplomat in Washington who spoke on condition of anonymity. ''If the US opposes Iran to be a member of the WTO, we can promise Iran a lot of things, but it won't work."

France's foreign minister, Michel Barnier, told the French Senate yesterday that Bush administration officials said they would consider signing on to the WTO offer. But the US official who closely follows the Middle East said yesterday that the administration's policy against such a move has not changed.

''Our position has been that economic incentives for a country like Iran that is a state sponsor of terrorism and a country that has meddled in Afghanistan and Iraq and is dedicated to opposing the Middle East peace process . . . are not appropriate," he said. ''The Europeans have tried to do this as the 'light at the end of the tunnel' process. . . . We've not been a believer in that."

But, he said, Washington might show more flexibility on the issue if European negotiators promised to enact their own sanctions if negotiations with Iran fall through.

There seems to be far more agreement between the United States and European nations on how to approach Syria, which came under the microscope this week after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, Lebanon's former prime minister. Along with a host of European leaders, Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for an international investigation to determine whether Syria, which has occupied Lebanon since 1976, was responsible for the attack.

Syria's Ba'athist regime has long angered the Bush administration by allegedly providing safe haven for Saddam Hussein loyalists and supporting Hezbollah. In September, US and French officials cooperated for the first time since the divisive Iraq war, on a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for the removal of all foreign troops from Lebanon.

In a separate move that would hit both Iran and Syria, the Bush administration is seeking to persuade European countries to classify Hezbollah as a terrorist group as Washington does. Hezbollah periodically launches attacks on Israel but also provides social services to a large swath of Lebanon.

Syria is not a member of the WTO, but the issue of its membership has not been raised by European leaders.

Bush and Rice stepped up their rhetoric this week, calling Iran and Syria ''out of step" with democratic developments in the Middle East. In his State of the Union address, Bush said that if Iranians challenged their leadership, Washington would support them.

But some say such tough talk makes Syria and Iran more belligerent because it convinces them the United States will accept nothing less than their downfall.

''Sometimes we can create self-fulfilling prophecies by the way in which we deal with authoritarian regimes," said Theodore H. Kattouf, US ambassador to Syria from 2001 to 2003.

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