"To promote peace in the broader Middle East, we must confront regimes that continue to harbor terrorists and pursue weapons of mass murder," U.S. President George W. Bush said in his 3 February State of the Union address. After discussing Syrian interference in Lebanon and cooperation with terrorists, he turned to Iran.
"Today, Iran remains the world's primary state sponsor of terror, pursuing nuclear weapons while depriving its people of the freedom they seek and deserve. We are working with European allies to make clear to the Iranian regime that it must give up its uranium-enrichment program and any plutonium reprocessing and end its support for terror. And to the Iranian people, I say tonight: As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you."
The timing of the address -- 9 p.m. in Washington, 5:30 a.m. in Tehran -- means that Iranian newspapers did not react to it immediately. Commentary in conservative and hard-line newspapers -- "Iran," "Hamshahri," "Jomhuri-yi Islami," "Kayhan" -- is likely to be colored by the fact that Iran is commemorating the anniversary of the 1979 revolution, which is called the 10 Days of Dawn. "Sharq," which is the most outspoken pro-reform daily, tends to be more interesting.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared to respond to Bush's address in a 3 February speech to students. He said, "The Iranian nation and the Islamic Republic are subjected to attacks by global tyrants because they support the oppressed and confront the oppressors," state television reported "The Iranian nation is not only standing against global bullies, but also it has given the belief to the world of Islam that it is possible to confront the [world] arrogance and win." Khamenei criticized the United States as one of the heads of the seven-headed dragon of arrogance, and added, "The brain of this dragon is the Zionist and non-Zionist companies and capitalists who have brought the current American president to power in order to safeguard their own interests."
Khamenei compared Bush to his predecessors, saying, "Bush is the fifth U.S. president who intends to uproot the Iranian nation and the Islamic Republic, but he will succeed as Carter, Reagan, Bush the father, and Clinton succeeded."
The earlier official Iranian reaction to the State of the Union address was dismissive. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said, "Mr. Bush has forgotten that the great Iranian nation had by its Islamic Revolution 26 years ago put an end to the U.S. hegemonic influence and presence in Iran, and he has turned a blind eye to realities in the Islamic Republic and institutionalization of freedom and democracy in the country, speaking of a number of things which have nothing to do with the dynamic society of Iran today and more than everything bring more disgrace for the U.S. administration," IRNA reported. Assefi then spoke critically about the timing of the Iraqi elections, saying that holding them sooner would have contributed to security there.
A commentary on state television asked what right the United States has to speak about human rights in other countries. It added, "Are the indiscriminate killing, shedding of blood, destruction, and making the people of Iraq homeless during the past two years Bush's gift of freedom which was supposed to be presented to the Muslim people of Iraq in the name of democracy?"
Other aspects of the state television commentary were more interesting and unusual. It claimed that Bush praised Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas for "their efforts to stop the resistance of the Palestinians." Interestingly, Abbas has just accepted an invitation to visit Tehran.
Iranian officials, furthermore, have made many comments in the last two weeks about their country's support for so-called resistance organizations. This was particularly the case when Lebanese Defense Minister Abd al-Rahim Murad visited Tehran. Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani told Murad on 1 February that Iran will continue to support organizations fighting Israel, IRNA reported. He said, "The Islamic Republic of Iran will continue spiritual support for the Lebanese and Palestinian nations [in their campaign] to restore their rights and free their occupied lands."
What Tehran sees as "spiritual support" is seen differently by Washington. The U.S. State Department asserts that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism and refers specifically to its involvement with Hamas, Hizballah, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine--General Command.
The Iranian state television commentary claimed that Bush said, "I tell all Iranians to give up their entire nuclear programs both in the enrichment of uranium and in the plutonium reprocessing." This is not quite what he said, and use of the term "all Iranians" may represent an appeal to nationalism. Nationalism is a factor that has appeared previously in official speeches and media commentaries defending Iran's nuclear program.
Bush's speech may not have struck a sufficiently aggressive note for hawks in Washington. For Tehran, on the other hand, his condemnation of terrorism and expression of concern about nuclear ambitions come at a particularly sensitive time. Indeed, reaction to the speech may be a way to measure the foreign-policy views of candidates in the June 2005 presidential elections in Iran.