LONDON (AP) – British Prime Minister Gordon Brown handed U.S. President George W. Bush good news on two fronts: a modest increase in Britain’s troops for the tough Afghanistan fight and a fresh European effort to squeeze Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The deeply unpopular prime minister seemed to calculate he had more to gain politically by being hawkish than he risked losing by appearing at the side of the also unpopular Bush. Brown’s predecessor, Tony Blair, was wounded by the impression he did too much of Bush’s bidding.
But there’s no greater platform for publicity than a joint appearance with the U.S. president. So Brown talked tough on Iran, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe ands Monday after two days of meetings.
The announcements by Brown, combined with earlier pledges by other allies, allowed the White House to crow that Bush was returning home from his weeklong European trip with new commitments, although aides had said beforehand there would be none. At every stop, Bush heard the kind of tough talk and promises on Iran that he wanted, and Italy announced welcome changes to its Afghanistan military presence.
Brown notably showed no daylight with Bush on Iraq, the issue that most got Blair into political trouble. Brown said he would not reduce the 4,000-strong British force level any further for any reason other than success in training Iraqi forces, speeding up development and seeing local elections through.
“I’m determined that we continue to do that job,” Brown said.
London’s new commitment to Afghanistan would bring the British presence there to its highest level yet. The deployment of about 230 engineers, logistical staff and military trainers will boost the number of British forces to more than 8,000, most based in a volatile, front-line southern province.
Eager to claim leadership on a tough stance toward Iran, Brown also revealed that the European Union would agree to freeze assets of Iran’s largest bank, Bank Melli, which is accused of having links to Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. A third round of U.N. sanctions passed in March introduced financial monitoring of Bank Melli and Bank Saderat, another institution the U.S. accuses of suspect activities.
Brown said European nations also will start the process of new sanctions aimed at Iran’s wealthy oil and gas sector, if Tehran continues to refuse to halt enriching uranium. “We will take any necessary action so that Iran is aware of the choice it needs to make,” Brown said. His disclosure of stronger financial sanctions from Europe was later confirmed in Luxembourg, where EU foreign ministers were meeting. EU spokeswoman Cristina Gallach said the decision isn’t formalized, but will be.
The three mild rounds of U.N. sanctions and a mostly solo U.S. effort to crimp Iran’s vast overseas financial operations have had little appreciable impact. Iran has not only continued enriching uranium, but expanded and improved its program. Tehran says it seeks only civilian nuclear energy, not nuclear weapons.
One of the main goals of Bush’s trip was more support against Iran from Europe, which, with far larger business dealings with Tehran, can pinch the major energy supplier in ways the U.S. cannot.
Bush was clearly grateful for Brown’s announcements. Despite talk early in Brown’s tenure about a stiffness between them, the two men traded much warm praise. Bush paid Brown one of his highest compliments. “He’s tough on terror, and I appreciate it, and so should the people of Great Britain and the world,” he said.
Andrew Roberts, a historian who joined a dinner at 10 Downing Street on Sunday night, told British Broadcasting Corp. radio that they ”
“were about as friendly as I have ever seen two politicians be.”
But Bush also held a private meeting with Brown’s political nemesis, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party. The charismatic David Cameron could be Britain’s next prime minister after national elections expected in the next two years, as he is favored over Brown by huge margins in polling.
Over a private breakfast, the president also conferred with Blair, in a get-together between old allies who formed a bond in the face of staunch critics.
Bush flew to Belfast before returning to Washington, a stop meant to celebrate Northern Ireland’s power-sharing administration between Catholics and Protestants but which was rife with wrinkles.
Bush and Brown encouraged the overdue transfer of police and justice responsibilities from Britain to Northern Ireland authorities, which has been blocked by the major Protestant party, the Democratic Unionists. They are angry that the major Catholic party, Sinn Fein, wants to make an infamous Irish Republican Army figure the new justice minister.
Because of Bush’s visit, First Minister Peter Robinson, the newly elected Protestant, and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, a former IRA chief, broke their staunch refusal to appear in public together. Still, they kept Bush between them at all times, and Robinson continued to refuse to shake McGuinness’ hand.
Security meant that the legislature was shut down on what would typically be its busiest day. “It’s a police state whereas normally it’s full of the energy that comes from democracy in action,” moderate Catholic politician Tommy Gallagher said.
Bush also visited a religiously integrated elementary school. In a snub, Northern Ireland Education Minister Caitriona Ruane, a Bush critic, declined to accompany the president.
About 100 demonstrators amassed at Stormont’s gate, while other protesters had constructed a giant “NO BUSH” message on a mountainside out of cloth.