Iran TerrorismBush and Blair lay out Lebanon plan but warn...

Bush and Blair lay out Lebanon plan but warn Tehran

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The Guardian: Tony Blair and George Bush delivered yesterday their sharpest warning yet to Iran over its involvement in Lebanon and its suspected nuclear weapons programme. The Guardian

· Timetable ‘could lead to ceasefire by next week’
· Iran nuclear plan will lead to ‘confrontation’ – Blair

Patrick Wintour and Julian Borger in Washington and Ewen MacAskill

Tony Blair and George Bush delivered yesterday their sharpest warning yet to Iran over its involvement in Lebanon and its suspected nuclear weapons programme.

As they set out a vague plan for bringing a cessation of violence in the Israel-Lebanon conflict at a joint press conference in the White House, they repeatedly referred to the threat posed by Iran and Syria, and their links with Hizbullah.

Mr Blair said events such as the conflict in Lebanon underscored the “simple choice” faced by Iran and Syria. “They can either come in and participate as proper and responsible members of the international community, or they will face the risk of increasing confrontation,” he said.

Tehran, and to a lesser extent Syria, are alleged to have supplied weapons and money to Hizbullah and are due next month to deliver a response to a UN security council demand over their alleged ambition to secure a nuclear weapons capability. Mr Blair said Iran and Syria were making a “strategic miscalculation” if they thought the US and UK would be “indifferent” to their actions because of the pressure of events.

Speaking of their plan for a peace deal in Lebanon, Mr Blair and Mr Bush set out a timetable that the prime minister said could lead to a ceasefire by next week. Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, is to return to the Middle East today to present the plan to Israel and Lebanon.

Her aim is to tempt Israel with a pledge to install the Lebanese army, backed by an international force, in southern Lebanon to stop Hizbullah rocket attacks and to tempt Hizbullah with the return of the disputed Sheba’a Farms area. Hizbullah will not have to disarm immediately.

The details of who will join the international force will be discussed at the UN on Monday.

Mr Bush and Mr Blair have been resisting calls for an immediate ceasefire in every international forum for the past fortnight. This has been seen by their critics in Europe and the Middle East as an implicit green light to Israel to carry on its military offensive against Hizbullah.

The Foreign Office has been pressing Mr Blair for days to adopt a more critical policy towards the Israel even if it meant a rift with Mr Bush, but he ignored the civil servants’ pleas. Some cabinet members fear Mr Blair, with his references to the “arc of extremism”, is misreading the crisis as the next phase in the war between terrorism and democracy across the Middle East.

Although there was no change in policy, Mr Blair’s tone changed, emphasising the suffering in Lebanon in a way he had not before.

By calling for a meeting on Monday on the creation of an international stabilisation force, before a ceasefire resolution is passed, Washington and London hope to put pressure on other world leaders to back their calls for a ceasefire.

Among the possible troop contributors being discussed are Turkey, Indonesia, Germany, Italy, Brazil and Greece. But British and US officials hope to exert maximum pressure on France, which has historical ties with Lebanon and forces capable of rapid deployment.

If a multinational force is agreed, British officials have said they envisage its deployment in two phases: an initial small force on the border almost immediately after a ceasefire is agreed, and a bigger body of between 10,000 and 20,000 troops that would, as Mr Blair put it, allow Lebanese forces into the south, which has long been a Hizbullah fiefdom.

US officials privately shrugged at the suggestion, eagerly promoted by their British counterparts, that Mr Blair’s visit had accelerated movement towards a ceasefire. A source in the White House described the notion as something that had been “cooked up” for political ends, and Mr Bush appeared to refer to it at yesterday’s joint press conference when he said: “We share the same urgency of trying to stop the violence.”

The US believes significant damage has been inflicted on Hizbullah and that prolonging the war would enhance the Shia group’s standing in the Islamic world more than it hurt its capacity to fight.

Meanwhile, Israel said it killed 26 Hizbullah fighters near the town of Bint Jbail, while Hizbullah launched a new rocket, the Khaibar-1, at the northern Israeli town of Afula, in its deepest strike yet.

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