Iran Is a Leader in Terror, Rumsfeld Tells Defense Group

By MICHAEL R. GORDON

New York Times

Published: June 4, 2006

SINGAPORE, June 3 — Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told a gathering of defense experts here on Saturday that Iran was “one of the leading terrorist nations in the world.”

Mr. Rumsfeld also questioned why Russia and China would allow Iran to participate in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional organization that includes Russia, China and Central Asian nations.

Iran has observer status in the group, and the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is expected to attend a summit meeting that the organization is holding in Shanghai this month.

“It strikes me as passing strange that one would want to bring into an organization that says it is against terrorism one of the leading terrorist nations in the world: Iran,” Mr. Rumsfeld said.

His pointed comments were made at an important moment in American diplomacy. This week, the Bush administration reversed a refusal to hold direct talks with Iran that had lasted decades. The administration said it was willing to join European allies in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program if Teheran first suspended its efforts to enrich uranium.

At the same time, Washington has been seeking Russian and Chinese cooperation in fashioning a common negotiating strategy. Both nations are members of the United Nations Security Council, which the United States would like to impose punitive measures if Iran does not accept a package of incentives and suspend its nuclear enrichment activities.

The United States and its European allies recently agreed on the package of incentives, which are to be conveyed to Iran in the coming days. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said that Iran must respond within weeks. President Ahmadinejad has rebuffed the offer, but America officials said this may not be the final word.

In his comments, Mr. Rumsfeld said that President Bush had presented Iran with the opportunity to defuse the confrontation over its nuclear program through diplomacy and that more time was needed to assess the prospects for a diplomatic settlement.

“The information has just been communicated to them, and it seems to me the appropriate thing now to do is to wait and see which path the Iranian government will take,” he added.

But he painted a dark picture of Iran, saying that it had a long history of “being engaged in terrorist activities” and, thus, was not an appropriate participant in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The Russian- and Chinese-dominated organization was established in 2001 and one of its stated goals is to counter separatist and terrorist groups.

Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong , said Friday that Iran’s role in the Shanghai organization was a way for Russia and China to demonstrate their influence. Iran, he said, had applied to upgrade its presence to full-fledged member. By agreeing to consider this, he said, “Russia and China have reminded the West of their combined influence on world-turning events.”

India, which also has observer status in the organization, said Iran’s participation in the upcoming summit as an observer was a matter for Iran to decide. “Who am I to decide on their behalf?” said the Indian defense minister, Pranab Mukherjee.

One of the main themes in Mr. Rumsfeld’s address here was the need for more inclusive institutions. The United States was concerned last year when an East Asian summit was held that included 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations, as well as China, Korea, Japan and other countries, but which excluded the United States.

Mr. Rumsfeld repeated a theme from last year’s address — that China needed to be open about how much it was spending on its military and what the funds were being used for.

Russia, he said, had sought “to constrain the independence and freedom of action of some of their neighboring countries.” Defense officials said this was a reference to the pressure that Moscow has put on Central Asian nations to curtail military ties with the United States as well as to Russia’s difficult relationship with Georgia and Ukraine.

Mr. Rumsfeld’s presentation and that of other defense officials were made at an annual conference organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Neither China nor Russia sent high-level officials to the conference. Iran has made its own forays into the region. Last month, President Ahmadinejad visited Indonesia where, Mr. Lee noted, he received a hero’s welcome from Indonesian students.

“This showed how successfully Iran has portrayed itself as a leading Muslim country, its nuclear program as a project in which Muslims worldwide should take vicarious pride, and the issue as a nationalist struggle,” Mr. Lee said. “We have to refocus on the core issue, which is nuclear proliferation and Iran’s obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty.”