MESEBERG, Germany (AP) – U.S. President George W. Bush dusted off an old Iran refrain, the idea that military action is a possibility to thwart Tehran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. The difference: This time he said it in the heart of Europe, where that idea is viewed as nearly unthinkable.
Bush’s warning that “all options are on the table” has not been heard much lately. Instead, he has been emphasizing that diplomacy is the preferable course. But he volunteered the military option with no prompting during a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Speaking at a baroque castle nestled on a lake in the German countryside Wednesday, Bush said Iran has a choice to make now, after having failed so far to make the right one.
“The Iranian people deserve better than being isolated from the world,” he said. “We’ll see what choice they make.”
Merkel made clear her views on the saber-rattling without directly countering her guest. “I very clearly pin my hopes on diplomatic efforts,” she said at Bush’s side. Iran’s leader weighed in, too. Speaking before thousands in the city of Shahr-e-Kord, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Bush “won’t be able to harm even one centimeter of the sacred land of Iran” and promised continued defiance over Iran’s nuclear activities. Iran says it is enriching uranium to generate electricity, not build a bomb, a claim the West highly doubts.
“In the past two-three years, they employed all their might, resorted to propaganda … and sanctions,” Ahmadinejad said. “If the enemy thinks they can break the Iranian nation with pressure, they are wrong.”
Bush has alternated lately between slightly more conciliatory and slightly more forceful language on Iran.
Within the coded language of the U.S. attitude toward Iran, several small changes in Bush’s rhetoric Wednesday added up to a difference. Three times, he called a diplomatic solution “my first choice,” implying there are others. He said “we’ll give diplomacy a chance to work,” meaning it might not. He also offered, without even being asked a question about Iran, that “all options are on the table”, a once-standard refrain, not heard as much recently, that neither confirms nor denies an intention to use military force.
Last week, Bush talked tough on Iran with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, where fears of Iran’s growing might run high and discussion is becoming increasingly common of military action to keep Tehran in check. But in Slovenia on Tuesday at a summit with the European Union, Bush’s approach was milder. He emphasized the need for tough new sanctions but made no mention of “all options” being on the table.
There is no indication the U.S. actually plans any sort of military action, and experts believe it would be an extremely difficult feat tactically for many reasons.
Bush’s back-and-forth talk appears designed to both remind Iran that the U.S. is serious about keeping it from developing a nuclear bomb and to try to finally corral sometimes-reluctant allies behind a common firm stand.
Judy Ansley, Bush’s chief aide on Europe, said Bush and Merkel did not discuss a military option in their meetings, only the diplomatic route. But the German leader was strong on the need for new sanctions, through the United Nations but also possibly unilaterally by the EU, if a package of incentives and penalties does not persuade Iran to halt its enrichment program. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, is visiting Tehran soon to present the offer, an updated version of one developed five years ago by the United States, Germany, Britain, France, Russia and China and ignored by Iran.
In Paris on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned that the world has lost patience with Iranian foot-dragging, and she said Iran won’t be allowed to use the fresh diplomatic overture as an excuse for further delay. She said that “no one is of a mind to allow them to stall very much longer.”
Merkel pointed to a recent report by the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency as proof that Iran is a problem. The group said that Iran has stonewalled its attempts to delve into allegations that several Iranian projects appear to represent different components of a nuclear weapons program. “We need to react to this … with further sanctions, if necessary,” she said.
Merkel also said European nations are newly committed to enforcing the three rounds of mild U.N. sanctions that already are on the books. “We are under quite a considerable pressure to act together and in concert,” she said. “We in the European Union will do everything to see to it that this actually happens.” And she said the EU will consider measures meant to curtail dealings with Iranian banks and thus squeeze the oil-rich country. Her remarks were notable, as she is in a tough spot politically, leading a divided coalition government that faces elections next year. Merkel also has to answer to German businesses. Germany has considerable financial dealings with Iran, a major energy supplier, though exports to Iran fell to $5 billion in 2007 from $6.8 billion in 2006.
“What we should do from the U.S. standpoint is not ask Merkel to do things she cannot do until the election is behind her,” said Simon Serfarty, a global security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
On Iraq, Bush repeated his lack of regrets about waging the war. But he acknowledged a mistake, saying he had not explained well enough in the time leading up to the invasion that he had tried to exhaust all diplomatic options first and that he didn’t like the idea of war. “I could have used better rhetoric,” he said, referring to terms such as “dead or alive” to describe Osama bin Laden and “bring them on” in reference to Iraq.
Over dinner Tuesday, and then in breakfast, meetings, a stroll around the castle’s formal, manicured gardens and lunch, Bush and Merkel further developed U.S.-German ties that have mostly flourished since she succeeded Gerhard Schroeder, with whom Bush had stormy relations. Bush’s visit to the cream-colored, lakeside Schloss Meseberg was the diplomatic equivalent of Merkel’s stay at the president’s ranch in Texas. Remaining far outside Berlin in the Germany countryside also shielded Bush from the kind of protests he usually sees in the big cities of Western Europe.
Other top topics besides Iran included efforts to secure a new, global pact to combat climate change, the Mideast, Afghanistan and trade. The leaders emphasized their similarities when they appeared together before reporters in a stately cobblestone courtyard.
Merkel went so far as to characterize her relationship with Bush, despite some policy differences and his enormous unpopularity in Europe, as “fun” and “actually nice.” Bush flew from Germany to Rome, where he spends two nights while on a grand farewell tour around Europe.