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Blair Cautiously Signals Shift In Policy Toward Middle East

By Alan Cowell
THE NEW YORK TIMES


LONDON

Confronted by likely changes in American policy on the war in Iraq, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain said Monday that the “nature of the battle” had changed and that Western strategy in the Middle East must “evolve,” possibly to include a “new partnership” with Iran.

Iran has a choice, Blair said, of partnership or isolation. But he took pains, in his annual foreign policy speech, to avoid giving the impression that he was making major policy changes in response to uncertainties surrounding the Bush administration after the American elections last week. He also laced his speech with criticism of Iran, accusing it of “using pressure points in the region” to thwart Western diplomacy.

President Bush said Monday in Washington that Iran must first halt its enrichment of nuclear fuel if it wanted to enter into negotiations, calling the prospect of a nuclear Iran “incredibly destabilizing.”

Blair’s nuanced gestures on Iran, and also Syria, were made a day before he speaks by video-link to a bipartisan panel in Washington, the Iraq Study Group, on some of the same themes. Bush spoke with the group on Monday. Blair’s address Monday night was his first major statement since last week’s triumph by the Democrats in the American elections.

He rebutted the notion that Iraq’s turmoil could be blamed on the way Britain and the United States have conducted their occupation.

He said terrorism in Iraq had “changed the nature of the battle,” and added: “Its purpose is now plain: to provoke civil war. The violence is not therefore an accident or the result of faulty planning. It is a deliberate strategy. It is the direct result of outside extremists teaming up with internal extremists.”

But he acknowledged that the Western strategy should change. “Just as the situation is evolving, so our strategy should evolve to meet it,” he said.

He urged a major political, economic and military strengthening of the Iraqi government but went on to say that a “whole Middle East strategy” was needed: “Just as it is, in significant part, forces outside Iraq that are trying to create mayhem inside Iraq, so we have to have a strategy that pins them back, not only in Iraq but outside it too.”

“There is a fundamental misunderstanding that this is about changing policy on Syria and Iran,” he continued. “First, those two countries do not at all share identical interests. But in any event that is not where we start.”

Blair called a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians “the core” of the broader effort for peace, followed by a renewed effort to resolve differences over Lebanon.

He said, in criticizing Iran’s leadership, that “They help the most extreme elements of Hamas in Palestine; Hezbollah in Lebanon; Shia militia in Iraq,” and he repeated a call he made in July for Western powers to “offer Iran a clear strategic choice” to help Middle East peace efforts, withdraw support for “terrorism in Lebanon or Iraq” and abide by international nuclear obligations.

In advance of his speech, British newspapers and official leaks of the address had suggested that Blair would seek a new compact with both Syria and Iran as potential interlocutors for Middle East peace.