PRAGUE, 13 February 2006 -- UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan today meets U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House for talks expected to focus on issues relating to the Muslim world. On the agenda are the increasingly tense dispute over Iran's nuclear program, the nomination of a new prime minister in Iraq, and how to defuse the explosive row over satirical Western cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
Kofi Annan and George W. Bush are meeting at a moment when developments in the Middle East are becoming ever more complicated.
"Annan will be pleading for a conciliatory diplomatic approach to Iran -- for anything rather than military action."
Their discussions at the White House come at a time when Iran is hinting it may withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) because of Western efforts to take it to the UN Security Council over its opaque nuclear program.
In addition, after weeks of wrangling, Iraq's biggest Shi'ite alliance has nominated acting Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari to lead the country's first full-term government. But the vote in his favor on 12 February was so close that it suggests divisions in the ruling United Iraqi Alliance. If so, the new government's stability could be undermined at a crucial time for Iraq.
And the uproar over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad continues, with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying the riots sparked by the publication of pictures of the Prophet Muhammad could spiral out of control.
Iran A Central Concern
Iran features in all three issues, in that Rice has accused Tehran of using the anger felt by Muslims over the caricatures to artificially fan anti-Western riots, a charge that Iran denies. And U.S. officials have repeatedly accused Shi'ite Iran of seeking to meddle in Iraq's internal political affairs.
What are some of the positions which Annan and Bush likely to take at the White House meeting? On Iran's nuclear program, the UN leader is likely to try to try and dissuade Bush from preparing military action against the Iranians, says political analyst Glen Barclay of the Australian National University in Canberra.
"Annan will be pleading for a conciliatory diplomatic approach to Iran -- for anything rather than military action," Barclay believes.
In recent days, there has been increasing press speculation that the United States and Israel are preparing air strikes aimed at destroying Iran's nuclear facilities. Barclay says that it would be normal military contingency planning to draw up a blueprint for attack, to be ready in case politicians decide to take that option.
But some reports from Washington say the planning is on a marked sense of urgency, suggesting that more than the usual military assessments are being made.
However, those reports have not deterred ultra-conservative Iranian President Muhammad Ahmadinejad, who continued his brinkmanship by suggesting that Iran might withdraw from the NPT during a rally at the weekend:
"The Islamic Republic's policy has been to follow its nuclear efforts in the framework of the [International Atomic Energy] Agency and the NPT [nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty]," Ahmadinejad told a rally celebrating the 27th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. "However, if we find out they are going to take advantage of these regulations to destroy the rights of the Iranian people, you should know that the Iranian nation will reconsider its policy."
Annan will not be holding out to Bush any prospect of wide support for a military strike at the United Nations, even though there is general consensus that nobody wants to see an Iran armed with nuclear weapons.
"Both the Americans and the Israelis will be prepared to take military action against Iran, if they can get any international support," Barclay says. "But I don't think either of them are going to get any support, and I don't think either of them would act with only the support of [the other]."
For his part, Bush is likely to press Annan to use his influence on UN Security Council members to take a firm line on Tehran's nuclear program if and when Iran is reported to the Council, as it is expected to be after a meeting of the IAEA's governing board next month.