Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Wednesday, February 1, 2006
The remarks came in a speech Tuesday night that overturned some pundits' expectations that a president under fire may lower his sights this year.
Addressing Iranian citizens, Bush said: "America respects you, and we respect your country. We respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom. And our nation hopes one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran."
Bush also had firm words for the leaders of Iran, a country he said was "held hostage" by an oppressive clerical elite.
"The regime in that country sponsors terrorists in the Palestinian territories and in Lebanon -- and that must come to an end," he said.
"The Iranian government is defying the world with its nuclear ambitions, and the nations of the world must not permit the Iranian regime to gain nuclear weapons.
"America will continue to rally the world to confront these threats."
Earlier Tuesday, Washington scored a diplomatic victory when previous holdouts Russia and China joined Britain, France and U.S. in agreeing that Iran should be reported to the U.N. Security Council over its nuclear activities.
Bush has referred to Iran, its links to terror and its pursuit of nuclear weapons in his last four State of the Union addresses.
This year's was the longest and clearest, and it comes at a time a new government under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has taken the nuclear dispute to a new level, and as Ahmadinejad himself courts controversy with statements denying the Holocaust and calling for Israel's destruction.
Before Tuesday's annual address, some political analysts suggested that Bush might take a more subdued line on foreign policy than he has in previous ones, citing slipping approval ratings, public discontentment about the Iraq war, and the unexpected victory of Hamas in a Palestinian legislative election his administration had strongly backed.
On the contrary, the tone was optimistic and resolute.
The president defended his policies in Iraq ("we are in this fight to win, and we are winning"); made no apology for the controversial counter-terror spying program ("we will not sit back and wait to be hit again"); and pledged that America would "never surrender to evil" posed by "radical Islam."
(Earlier in the day, the Council on American Islamic Relations released a letter to the president, urging him "to avoid the use of hot-button terms such as 'Islamo-fascism,' 'militant jihadism,' 'Islamic radicalism,' or 'totalitarian Islamic empire.' ")
Bush reminded Americans of the danger posed by Islamist terrorists, referring twice to 9/11 and several times to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.
On the Hamas victory, the president demanded that the terrorist group's leaders disarm, reject terror, recognize Israel and work for peace, a call that brought a sustained ovation from assembled lawmakers and other guests.
He also advocated the push for democracy in the Middle East.
"Dictatorships shelter terrorists, feed resentment and radicalism, and seek weapons of mass destruction," Bush said.
"Democracies replace resentment with hope, respect the rights of their citizens and their neighbors, and join the fight against terror. Every step toward freedom in the world makes our country safer, and so we will act boldly in freedom's cause."
A thread running through the foreign policy half of the speech was the importance of shunning isolationism, an issue he referred to directly four times.
Decisions taken during the course of this "decisive year" would determine both the future and the character of the country.
"We will choose to act confidently in pursuing the enemies of freedom or retreat from our duties in the hope of an easier life," he said. "We will choose to build our prosperity by leading the world economy - or shut ourselves off from trade and opportunity."
"In a complex and challenging time, the road of isolationism and protectionism may seem broad and inviting - yet it ends in danger and decline."
Bush said isolationism would not only "tie our hands in fighting enemies" but also prevent the U.S. from helping friends facing challenges like corruption, poverty, human trafficking, the drug trade and AIDS.
"Never let it be said that President George W. Bush walks away from a challenge," said Heritage Foundation vice president for government relations Michael Franc.
"Reeling from plummeting poll numbers and facing an opposition party that smells political blood in the 2006 election waters, the president came out swinging."
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