Bush to prod Merkel on Iran ties

US President George W. Bush swept into Germany Tuesday, looking to prod Chancellor Angela Merkel in whirlwind talks to further cut back Berlin’s lucrative ties with Tehran over its suspect nuclear programme, AFP's Olivier Knox reports.

Bush to prod Merkel on Iran ties
Photo: DPA

Bush, who has just seven more months in office, joined his ally and friend for a social dinner that served as an appetizer for a working breakfast, formal meeting, press conference, and lunch on Wednesday before he leaves.

The US president was on what he has called his last trip to Europe, a June 9-16 swing that was to take him on to Italy, the Vatican, France, and Britain, after a first stop in Slovenia for his final US-European Union summit.

White House aides said Bush would ask Merkel for more help with Afghanistan and to tighten sanctions on Iran over its defiance of international demands to freeze sensitive nuclear work that can be a prelude to an atomic weapon. The US president and European Union leaders meeting in Brdo pri Kranj agreed Tuesday to weigh additional sanctions against Tehran and crack down on Iranian banks—one of which, Melli Bank, has branches in Hamburg, London and Paris.

German officials said the chancellor would put climate change—source of hard-fought transatlantic disputes—front and centre as they meet at Meseberg Palace, an 18th-century Baroque abode turned sumptuous government guest house.

The two leaders were expected to take up a range of other issues, including the Middle East peace process, efforts to cut transatlantic trade barriers, and the July summit of the Group of Eight industrialized countries. Bush also aimed to highlight the 60th anniversary of the US Marshall Plan to rebuild post-World War II Europe and the US-led Berlin airlift, a massive aid undertaking in the face of a siege-like Soviet ground blockade of the city. The emphasis on US generosity with reconstruction funds and leadership against an ideological foe comes as the US president wants Europe to provide more money for Afghanistan and troops to fight in its restive south

The US leader and the conservative chancellor have enjoyed much warmer ties than Bush had with her predecessor, the Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder, after they famously fell out over the US invasion of Iraq. In 2006, Bush and Merkel bonded over pickled herring and barbecued boar as he visited the chancellor in her electoral district on Germany’s Baltic coast. Last year she welcomed him back to Germany for a Group of Eight summit in which she won some concessions on climate change—albeit unbinding pledges on the reduction of dangerous greenhouse gas emissions. Due to Bush’s unpopularity in Germany, Merkel has walked a tightrope between rebuilding ties to Washington and keeping the president at arm’s length.

“She has succeeded at this game between closeness and distance,” said Alexander Skiba, an expert on transatlantic ties at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

The Iran issue is shaped by Germany’s shrinking but still lucrative exports to Iran — €4.4 billion in 2005, €4.2 billion in 2006, and €3.6 billion in 2007, according to the German statistics office. And Washington’s European partners — Britain, France and Germany—want to gauge Iran’s response to a new package of diplomatic and economic incentives to freeze uranium enrichment before taking up new sanctions.

“We’re going to make this offer, and if the Iranian regime denies the Iranian people the benefit of the offer, then we’re going to have to turn up the pressure,” said US national security advisor Stephen Hadley. “I think everybody recognizes that,” he added.