US President George W. Bush said Friday that successor Barack Obama will inherit a Middle East in which Iran seeks nuclear arms and the Arab-Israeli conflict remains "the most vexing problem."
In a sweeping defense of his policies towards the region, Bush acknowledged "frustrations and disappointments" but said "the Middle East in 2008 is a freer, more hopeful, and more promising place than it was in 2001."
"On the most vexing problem in the region -- the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- there is now greater international consensus than at any point in modern memory," he said in a speech to a forum on the Middle East.
But Bush also charged that Iran and Syria still sponsor terrorism, the Iraq war has been bloodier and costlier than expected, and that democratic reforms in the region have come "in fits and starts" while peace efforts have suffered "unfortunate setbacks."
He warned that Iran's suspect nuclear program "remains a major threat to peace" and that "for the safety of our people and the peace of the world, America will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon."
Obama, who takes office January 20, has vowed to "do everything in my power" to that same end.
Bush, the first sitting US president to call for an independent Palestinian state at peace with Israel, defended his approach to ending the six-decade conflict despite a lack of concrete progress from US-backed negotiations.
Bush called the two-state approach "one of the highest priorities of my administration," and described talks revived at a US-sponsored November 2007 conference in Annapolis, Maryland, as "determined and substantial."
"While the Israelis and Palestinians have not yet produced an agreement, they have made important progress," he said. "They have laid a new foundation of trust for the future."
The Bush administration blamed Israeli political turmoil in November as it all but ruled out a peace deal in 2008.
But even before that, the talks had yet to resolve any major core disputes, and progress seemed difficult in the face of the Palestinian rift pitting president Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah against the Islamists of Hamas.
Hamas has controlled Gaza since June 2007, while Abbas has controlled the West Bank from his headquarters in Ramallah.
Obama has vowed to continue to support the peace talks.
Bush fiercely defended his decision to invade Iraq in March 2003, but called the war "longer and more costly than expected," while pointing to Iraq's fledgling democracy as one of the hopeful signs in the region.
In his first public remarks on Baghdad's approval of a US-Iraq security pact that plans for US forces to withdraw by 2011, Bush welcomed "a framework for the drawdown of American forces as the fight in Iraq nears a successful end."
He also cited Lebanon's "Cedar Revolution" against Syrian sway, Libya's decision to halt its quest for nuclear weapons, increased regional enthusiasm for democratic rule, and prosperity in places such as the United Arab Emirates.
"Iran is facing greater pressure from the international community than ever before," while terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda "are increasingly facing ideological rejection in the Arab world," he said.
"These efforts have not always gone according to plan, and in some areas we have fallen short of our hopes," said Bush, who made no mention of Obama in his speech.
"It's rather difficult to see that we did not see a sharp deterioration in the American position in the Middle East," said Anthony Cordesman, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
"It's very difficult to point to any achievement. If there have been achievements almost all come from the United States military," he told AFP before the speech.