Bush cites Iran as `primary sponsor of global terror'

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GEORGE BUSH'S State of the Union address, the first of his second term, was a familiar mix - the litany of sweeping goals at home and abroad, the inconvenient truths glossed over or omitted, the whole presented with astonishing self-belief.

On the domestic front, Mr Bush set out in some detail for the first time his plans to part-privatise social security - the biggest overhaul of America's most-venerated welfare programme since it was signed into law by Franklin Roosevelt exactly 70 years ago.

Abroad, he was more specific on the grand theme of spreading freedom across the Middle East, first set out in his inaugural address last month. He chastised Iran as the "primary state sponsor of terror" and promised Iranian reformists the backing of the US: "As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you."

Syria was given a similar stern warning to "end all support for terror and open the door for freedom". Mr Bush also urged Egypt and Saudi Arabia - US allies which have previously had a virtual free pass on their internal repression - to do more to foster democracy.

As usual, the President was well served by his speech writers and stage managers of ceremony. State of the Union addresses now regularly use special presidential guests to illustrate grand themes. But this year's was especially emotional, the tearful embrace in the VIP gallery between the parents of a US Marine killed in Iraq, and an Iraqi woman who took part in Sunday's election, 11 years after her own father was murdered by Saddam Hussein's intelligence services.

In the audience below, many Republican senators and congressmen pointed their fingers, carrying the purple ink stains used to mark Iraqis when they cast their vote at the weekend.

But now comes the hard part for Mr Bush - to bridge the gap between soaring rhetoric and awkward realities that do not conform with the grand vision, and the race to turn proposals into law within 18 months, before the 2006 mid-term election campaign. After that, even this most confident and determined of presidents will be treated as a lame duck.

Iranian leaders reacted with fury to the speech because it picked out Tehran as a sponsor of terrorism. But, as Iran prepares for presidential elections in June, the signs are clear the favourite, the former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, may be preparing the ground for rapprochement with the US.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader said: "The Islamic Republic of Iran, because of supporting the oppressed and confronting oppressors, is being attacked by the global tyrants." But allies of Mr Rafsanjani say the former president may be planning to seek a "grand bargain" with the US, offering concessions on Tehran's nuclear programme, terrorism and Iraq if he wins the election.

Meanwhile, the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said yesterday he has not decided whether to attend the prestigious Munich Conference on Security Policy next week in Germany, where he might be subject to arrest on a war-crimes complaint. "I have not made a final decision on that ," he said. "And there are several factors." CNN television also reported that Mr Rumsfeld had twice submitted his resignation to President Bush during the Abu Ghraib scandal last spring.