WASHINGTON – President Bush (search) said Friday the United States does not intend to attack Iran to crush its suspected nuclear weapons project but added that "you never want a president to say never." He expressed hopes that a European diplomatic initiative would persuade Tehran to abandon any such program.
In interviews with European journalists at the White House, Bush was asked about an opinion poll showing that 70 percent of Germans believe the United States is planning military action against Iran (search).
"I hear all these rumors about military at to Europe. There were repeated questions about whether the United States would attack Iran.
"Listen, first of all, you never want a president to say 'never.' But military action is certainly not — it's never the president's first choice. Diplomacy is always the president's first — at least my first choice."
Bush said he supports European nations' efforts to persuade Iran to scrap its uranium enrichment program in exchange for technological, financial and political support. But he did not address U.S. reservations about Europe's approach. The United States has refused to get involved in the bargaining with Tehran or to make commitments, insisting that Iran abandon its program.
"I believe diplomacy can work so long as the Iranians don't divide Europe and the United States," Bush said. "There's a lot more diplomacy to be done."
Bush said he applauds efforts by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (search) and other leaders for sending a clear message to Iran.
"They know what they need to do," Bush said of Iran. "And so what they are trying to do is kind of wiggle out."
He said Iranians think they don't have to do anything because the Americans are not involved.
"Well, America is involved," Bush said. "We're in close consultation with our friends."
"We've got a common goal," the president said. "And that is that Iran should not have a nuclear weapon. ... If we continue to speak with one voice and not let them split us up, and keep the pressure on them, we can achieve the objective."
Bush also said Iran should stop supporting Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon because this could threaten the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Iran is on record as firmly opposed to any peace process that might legitimatize Israel's presence as a Jewish state in the Middle East.
Asked if trusted Iran, Bush said, "Well, it's hard to trust a regime that doesn't trust their own people."
The president also said that he and his French counterpart, Jacques Chirac, should set their differences aside to focus on the Middle East, Lebanon and other issues. Bush said he and Chirac would send a clear signal to Syria that it must remove its soldiers from Lebanon and that "we're very serious about this."
Bush said he would talk with Russian President Vladimir Putin about actions widely viewed as a retreat from democracy. "I mean, he's done some things that (have) concerned people," Bush said. But Bush also emphasized that he has "a good relationship" with Putin and would talk with him "in a friendly way" about Western values based on the rule of law, openness, freedom of expression and checks and balances in government.
"We don't need a fresh start in my personal relationship with Vladimir Putin," Bush said. "We're friends. And that's important."
Bush said Putin "sees clearly the common enemy" in the war on terrorism and "he knows you got to be tough and resolute and strong."
In an interview with Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Bush said he disagrees with Schroeder over the future role of NATO.
At a security conference in Munich last weekend, Schroeder suggested a move away from NATO as a place to coordinate policy, saying the alliance "is no longer the primary venue where trans-Atlantic partners discuss and coordinate strategies."
Bush rejected that idea, telling the newspaper that NATO remains "vital."