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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 December 2006, 13:59 GMT
Blair and the 'strategic challenge' of Iran
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Tony Blair making speech in Dubai
Tony Blair in Dubai: called for 'alliance of moderation'

The British Prime Minister Tony Blair's attack on Iran as a "strategic challenge" raises the rhetoric in a war of words between Iran and the West that is escalating with the possibility of a worse confrontation to come.

Speaking on Iran's doorstep in Dubai at the end of a tour of the Middle East, Mr Blair chose to single out Iran as he called for an "alliance of moderation in the region and outside of it to defeat the extremists".

"A large part of world opinion is frankly almost indifferent. It would be bizarre if it weren't deadly serious," he said.

This really puts paid to any lingering hopes that Iran might be seen as a help, not a hindrance over Iraq. Mr Blair repeated his charge that Iran was "openly supporting terrorism in Iraq to stop a fledging democratic process..."

The heightened language and the nuclear issue remain a volatile mix.

Iran's attitude in return was expressed recently by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who has widened his prediction that Israel ("the Zionist regime") will "collapse", into a forecast that the same fate will happen to the US and UK "with the crumbling of your devilish rule..."

Mr Blair spoke as the UN Security Council discussed imposing trade and technology sanctions on Iran following its refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment programme.

The heightened language and the nuclear issue remain a volatile mix.

Mr Blair did moderate his language at the last minute - he substituted the word "challenge" for "threat". And he changed what he had said in a similar speech in Los Angeles in August. He had then accused Mr Ahmadinejad of "trying to acquire a nuclear weapon". This time he said that Iran was "trying to acquire nuclear weapons capability".

But the theme was clear enough.


It was the continuation of a threat he had made in Los Angeles. In that speech, Mr Blair had told Iran (and Syria) that they could have a partnership but that "if you export terrorism around the region and destabilise democracy in Iraq, we will confront you".

The Dubai speech was part of the confrontation.

His comments there and throughout his tour of the region show that in the last few months as prime minister, Mr Blair has lost none of the determination with which he approaches the great problems of the Middle East and what he sees as a global clash between moderation and Islamic extremism.

It was this determination that led him to join the invasion of Iraq, a decision that has attracted severe criticism of his record in office. This week a leading think tank in Britain, Chatham House, said the Iraq invasion was a "terrible mistake".

Banging the drum

Unabashed, Mr Blair has banged his drum for his ideas on this trip. He went to Turkey to declare that Turkish accession to the European Union was of "fundamental importance". He went to Baghdad to stand "four square" with the government of Nouri Maliki.

He took sides with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas against the government of Hamas.

And he tried to further his hopes - hopes that rest on the actions of others in reality - of re-starting meaningful contacts between Israel and the Palestinians.

He will have left a legacy of tough words and action for his successor. Whether any successor will take such a strong and interventionist stance must be in doubt.


Prime Minister Tony Blair gives a speech in Dubai

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