President George Bush issued a strident new warning to Iran and Syria yesterday, accusing them of harboring terrorists and hinting at the consequences. "This behavior is completely unacceptable," he said during a joint press conference at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, with the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. "And states that continue to harbor terrorists will be held completely accountable."
Mr Bush said that the sponsoring of terrorism in the region was undermining the latest push for peace in the Middle East, which is delicately poised after promising overtures last month.
The US president will meet both the Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, and his Israeli counterpart, Ariel Sharon, in Washington later this month, and is keen to ensure that the influence of regional power brokers Syria and Iran does not jeopardize recent progress.
"Both prime minister Abbas and prime minister Sharon are showing leadership and courage," Mr Bush said. "Now it's time for governments across the Middle East to support the efforts of these two men by fighting terror in all its forms."
Iran's nuclear ambitions are looming particularly large over the region. Israel warned yesterday that Iran "is trying everything" to get a nuclear weapon, and that if it succeeded it would threaten a far wider theatre than just the Middle East.
Iran denied the charge, saying that developing nuclear weapons would imperil its own safety. It repeated the claim that its nuclear developments are aimed at meeting energy needs and are in no way a threat to the region.
But the EU also voiced "increasing concern" about Iran's nuclear maneuvers, and warned that a trade deal could be in jeopardy unless Tehran allows inspectors to look at its nuclear projects. The Bush administration has made no secret of its desire for regime change in Iran, but has had even less international support than it had for toppling Saddam Hussein.
During Mr Berlusconi's visit, the US president has thanked him for his support as part of the "coalition of the willing" during the war in Iraq.
Before sitting down to a chicken lunch at the ranch, Mr Bush said: "Defending freedom requires cost and sacrifice. The United States is grateful for Italy's willingness to bear the burdens with us."
Mr Bush expressed concern about the deteriorating situation in Liberia, but stopped short of specifying what sort of contingent he would commit to the country beyond the 40 marines sent in yesterday to protect its embassy in Monrovia.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003