Bush to travel to Europe to mend fences over Iran

German, French, British leaders to lobby hard for further diplomacy

February 19, 2005|By Tyler Marshall and Edwin Chen | Tyler Marshall and Edwin Chen,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - President Bush departs tomorrow on a European fence-mending trip under a full head of political steam.

He takes with him a re-election mandate from the American people, his conviction that events in the Middle East are beginning to move his way, and the momentum from a successful European warm-up act by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who traveled there earlier this month.

Yet Bush's hopes of reviving the North Atlantic alliance and enlisting Europe in his bid to remake the Middle East and promote democracy could quickly run aground on a simmering, unresolved issue: Iran's nuclear ambitions.

U.S. and European officials agree that preventing the Iranian government from acquiring nuclear weapons is an urgent priority, but differ strongly about how to do it. Americans are openly skeptical of a diplomatic initiative led by Britain, France and Germany, while Europeans criticize the United States for doing nothing but issue blunt warnings to Iran, which insists that its nuclear energy program is peaceful.

"Strong statements are not a policy," said a European diplomat, who declined to be named.

European officials said that persuading Bush to back the European initiative on Iran is their top goal, and the president is expected to be lobbied hard on the issue during the trip. A second European diplomat said Iran would be a major topic during a series of one-on-one sessions with each of the leaders of the three countries driving the negotiation in the Iranian capital, Tehran.

Bush is scheduled to dine Monday evening with French President Jacques Chirac, to have breakfast Tuesday with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and lunch that day with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

"We hope this trip offers a real in-depth opportunity to explain to President Bush himself, not just some assistant secretary of state, that these negotiations are the only game in town and should be supported more than they already are," said Germany's ambassador to the United States, Wolfgang Ischinger. "So far we've had some expressions of support, but not much real support."

Iran is the most urgent in a series of issues that continue to divide Europe and America. Despite the desire of both sides to reduce tensions, there has been little visible movement to find common ground through other issues.

On a prominent role for the International Criminal Court, the Europeans support it, and the Americans don't; on selling arms to China, the United States opposes a European plan to lift its arms embargo against Beijing; on the Kyoto Treaty on global warming, the Europeans back it, but the Americans do not. There also is skepticism in Europe about Bush's plan to spread freedom and democracy in the Muslim world.

However, the urgency of the Iranian issue gives that matter added impact.

Bush will meet with leaders of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels, Belgium, on Monday and Tuesday. Later in the four-day trip, he will make separate stops in Mainz, Germany, to seek to repair his links with Schroeder, and in Bratislava, Slovakia, for talks with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

But the centerpiece of Bush's trip is expected to be Brussels, where hopes on both sides are high. On Monday afternoon, he will give a major address to articulate his vision for a united trans-Atlantic community, said Stephen J. Hadley, the White House national security adviser.

The United States and Europe are "going through a phase of intense rapprochement," one that Europeans hope will lead to "an atmosphere of trust," said John Bruton, the European Union's ambassador to the United States.

Despite the mutual desire to start anew, major obstacles remain.

On Iran, the Europeans hope to achieve a negotiated agreement that would give Iran a peaceful nuclear energy program, national security guarantees and an array of economic benefits in return for Tehran's pledge not to seek atomic weapons and to open its facilities to international inspection. The Bush administration is skeptical of the European initiative, has no direct contact with Iran and has flatly rejected European pressure to join the negotiations.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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