‘We profoundly respect the opinions of the [US] administration, our principal ally in every respect,’ Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique said on 5 February. ‘But at the same time, in the European Union [EU] we think that it is very important to support the process of reform and the reformist sectors.’

The comments by EU officials came in response to President Bush’s State of the Union remarks on 29 January that Iran as well as North Korea and Iraq form an ‘axis of evil’ in attempting to acquire weapons of mass destruction and sponsoring international terrorism. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld further turned up the heat on Iran when he repeated accusations that Tehran was helping Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters fleeing from Afghanistan and trying to interfere in domestic Afghan affairs.

Washington has vowed to maintain pre-emptive strikes against supporters of ‘terrorism’ as an active option. Referring to the ‘axis of evil’, Secretary of State Colin Powell on 5 February said that ‘these are very dangerous regimes and it is not enough just to say they are dangerous regimes. Action is going to be required’.

UK Foreign Affairs Secretary Jack Straw suggested that President Bush’s speech could ‘best be understood by the fact there are mid term congressional elections coming up in November’. The comment was rejected by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, but questions remain over the sudden change in tone towards Iran, which had earlier been praised by both Europeans and the US alike as having played a constructive role in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Other voices suggest that Bush’s remarks on Iran are the result of successful Israeli lobbying against its arch-foe. Israel has long considered Iran to be a major threat, which, in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s view, ‘calls for the destruction of the state of Israel and elimination of the Jewish people’.

Washington has also been sympathetic to Israel’s claim that there is evidence that Iran was involved in an arms shipment to the Palestinian Authority in December.

EU diplomats are sceptical about Washington’s accusations and say that President Bush’s verbal attacks on Iran are threatening to undermine President Khatami’s reform movement, which is struggling to implement political and economic reforms in the face of entrenched opposition from conservative forces.