Friday, December 24, 2004

Bush: "We don't have much leverage with the Iranians right now."

News: "No immediate plans for new US sanctions on Syria, Iran
12-24-2004, 08h49

Brendan Smialowski - (AFP/File)
WASHINGTON, (AFP) - Despite President George W. Bush's stern warnings to Iran and Syria against "meddling" in Iraq, Washington has shown no sign of readying new sanctions and appears to have little leverage with either state.

Bush raised eyebrows last week when he issued the threat to the two countries accused by the US-installed Baghdad government of orchestrating attacks in Iraq ahead of next month's crucial elections.

"We will continue to make it clear to both Syria and Iran that ... meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq is not in their interest," the president said after talks with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

He repeated the warning on Monday and said Washington had a variety of diplomatic and economic measures it could take against Syria, acccused of helping funnel money and manpower across the border to Iraqi insurgents.

But US officials said there was nothing currently in the pipeline beyond the sanctions imposed in May, including a near-blanket ban on US exports to Syria and a green light to freeze Syrian assets in the United States.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the administration was constantly reviewing the Syrian Accountability Act enacted a year ago to halt Damascus' alleged support of terrorism. "But I don't have anything new at this point," he said.

Officials said the Syrians have shown some signs of cooperating, helping to crack down on funding for anti-American insurgents and tightening their border patrols. Some 1,000-2,000 people reportedly have been arrested trying to cross over into Iraq.

Washington still has some options available to it under the Accountability Act, including downgrading bilateral diplomatic ties and imposing travel restrictions on Syrian envoys in the United States.

But the Bush administration is displaying little inclination for such heavy measures, which officials said could cut off lines of communication with Damascus and jeopardize the current level of help they are getting from the Syrians.

"The screws are on pretty good right now, but there is no talk at this point of doing anything more," said one US official, who asked not to be named.

Still, the United States continues to ratchet up its rhetoric. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage kept up the pressure Wednesday, warning Damascus its ties with the United States depended on whether it refrained from interfering in Iraq and Lebanon.

Asked in an interview with Arab journalists whether he expected relations to remain frosty, the State Department number two said: "I would hope for a much better day with Syria, but it's all up to (President Bashar) al-Assad and his colleagues."

The Americans' margin for maneuver looked equally slim with Iran, which Iraq's Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan has branded the "most dangerous enemy of Iraq."

The first US sanctions imposed on Tehran date back to 1979 when militants took 52 US embassy staffers hostage. Over the next two decades virtually all trade and investment between the two countries was barred.

Even Bush, who is also seeking to persuade Tehran to rein in its nuclear weapons ambitions, realizes that his administration may have run out levers to press.

"We've sanctioned ourselves out of influence with Iran," he told a news conference on Monday. "In other words, we don't have much leverage with the Iranians right now."

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