Bush, German Chancellor Merkel Discuss Iran

MESEBERG, Germany (AP) -- President Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel both want to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons but they're standing on opposite sides of a revolving door. He's on his way out of office. She's trying to stay in.

Bush's desire to resolve the nuclear standoff with Tehran before his presidency ends was a highlight of talks Wednesday with Merkel at a baroque palace in the countryside outside of Berlin. With her and other European leaders this week, Bush was urging solidarity against Iran in the form of tougher sanctions if the country doesn't stop its uranium enrichment program.

Global warming, Afghanistan and relations with Russia also were expected topics at Bush's meeting with Merkel at Schloss Meseberg, the German government's main guesthouse. After a countryside bike ride that seemed to invigorate Bush, he and Merkel had breakfast and then took a camera-ready stroll through the formal, manicured gardens next to the cream-colored castle.

Bush seemed to want to stay as far as possible from the line of media, steering Merkel down a path that took them away. But minutes later, Merkel steered them back and the two chatted briefly with reporters before moving inside.

The two were also all smiles when the president arrived by helicopter Tuesday night for a dinner that opened their talks. They were to end their discussions over lunch, squeezing in a news conference in the palace's cobblestone courtyard.

Bush is close with Merkel, and has hosted her at his Texas ranch - the less-grand diplomatic equivalent of his invitation here to Schloss Meseberg. Their relationship hit a bump at a recent NATO summit in Romania when they split over whether to give Georgia and Ukraine a path to membership in the alliance, but still is a hugely improved over U.S.-German ties under Merkel's predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder.

On Iran, Europeans want to wait on stiffer sanctions until after the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, visits Tehran to present a package of incentives in exchange for stopping its enrichment program. The offer, an updated version of one that Iran ignored a few years ago, was developed by the United States, along with Germany, Britain, France, Russia and China.

Following Bush's final US-EU summit Tuesday in Kranj, Slovenia, the leaders issued a joint declaration that said the United States and Europe "are ready to supplement those (previous) sanctions with additional measures" if Iran does not halt enrichment. It also said they would "work together ... to take steps to ensure Iranian banks cannot abuse the international banking system to support proliferation and terrorism."

It was unclear whether this second pledge meant Europeans had signed on for the kind of harsh measures the U.S. favors, such as prohibiting business with Iranian banks, or merely represented a repeat of previous calls for closer monitoring of dealings with them.

Bush's campaign for stronger sanctions has been bolstered by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Since beginning an investigation last year into allegations of a secret Iranian nuclear weapons program, the IAEA has asked in vain for substantive explanations for what seem to be draft plans to refit missiles with nuclear warheads, explosives tests that could be used to develop a nuclear detonator, military and civilian nuclear links and a drawing showing how to mold uranium metal into the shape of warheads.

Iran claims its nuclear program is geared toward generating electricity not bombs and remains defiant, saying the evidence from the U.S. and other purportedly backing the allegations was fabricated.

Aboard Air Force One on Tuesday en route to Germany, national security adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters that the president's strategy was to make sure that all the European partners see eye to eye on the latest offer. At the same time, he said the parties need to agree that if the Iranians reject the offer being presented by Solana, then "we need to turn up the pressure."

Agreeing to stiffer sanctions, such as taking further steps to squeeze Iran's financial and business dealings, would be difficult for Merkel.

Under Merkel, Germany has cut back trade with Iran; German exports to Iran shrank to $5 billion in 2007 from $6.8 billion in 2006. Washington wants Germany to do even more, but Merkel faces a tough re-election campaign next year and has to answer to German businesses that don't want to cut financial ties to Iran.

"German business is not happy," said Julianne Smith, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "This is going to have political ramifications. She's only going to go so far."

Merkel and other European leaders want to convince the president this week that they take the threat from Iran seriously. At the same time, they seek to restrain hard-liners who want the United States or Israel to use military force against Iran.

Verbal threats and political tensions have increased between Iran and Israel after Iran's hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said in 2005 that Israel one day would be "wiped off the map," an assertion he repeated last week.

Earlier this month, Israeli Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz said Israel will have "no choice" but to attack Iran if it doesn't halt its nuclear program. A spokeswoman for Mofaz later said he was expressing his own opinion, not the government's.

Merkel and other European leaders want to give current diplomatic efforts more time. But that's something Bush doesn't have.

© 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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