WASHINGTON – President Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel presented a united front Wednesday on the need to stifle Iran's nuclear ambitions but tread cautiously in public on their uphill push for possible U.N. sanctions.
"We spent a lot of time on Iran — after all, we're close allies in trying to make sure that the Iranians do not develop a nuclear weapon," Bush said after his Oval Office meetings with Merkel. "We will continue to consult with our partners as to how to achieve a diplomatic solution to this issue."
Other than Merkel's statement that it is crucial to "try to draw as many partners as possible" into the diplomatic efforts, neither leader would directly address how to bring Russia and China alongside the countries that are moving toward sanctions.
Earlier Wednesday, Britain and France introduced a U.N. Security Council resolution, with U.S. and German backing, that would be legally binding and set the stage for sanctions against Iran if the nation does not abandon uranium enrichment. Russia and China, permanent members of the Security Council with veto power, oppose sanctions against Iran, while Britain, France, Germany and the United States say they will seek to make the demand on uranium enrichment compulsory.
Asked what sort of sanctions he would prefer, Bush said: "That's the kind of question that allies discuss in private."
Merkel, who met last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin, said, "In order to pursue this diplomatic process successfully, we need to pursue this on a step-by-step basis."
Iran, meanwhile, continued to publicize the nuclear weapons work it insists it's doing to produce energy, not weapons.
The resolution mandates that Iran "shall suspend all enrichment related and reprocessing activities," according to the text presented to the council.
Bush also announced that he would be traveling to Germany in July as part of a trip to Europe for the Group of Eight summit in Russia. The stop in Germany was being kept secret, and Bush realized as soon as he said it that maybe he shouldn't have. "Am I supposed to say that?" he said to staff while reporters laughed.
Their reticence to talk strategy in public, however, did not dampen the leaders' unequivocal message to Tehran, which is suspected of seeking to develop nuclear weapons under the guise of a program Iran says is limited to civilian energy production.
"The Iranians must understand that we won't fold," Bush said. "Our partnership is strong and for the sake of world peace, they should abandon their nuclear ambitions."
Added Merkel: "Under no circumstances must Iran be allowed to come into possession of nuclear weapons."
This is Merkel's second visit with Bush in four months. Other issues on their agenda: Iraq, trade, the Middle East, Darfur peace talks, Merkel's scheduled visit to China next month and the G-8 summit in Russia.
Merkel and Bush had a friendly meeting during the chancellor's first trip in January, despite her criticism of the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It was a sharp contrast to the chill that existed between Bush and Merkel's predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, who was a vigorous critic of the war in Iraq.
"I had a lot of meetings with her predecessor, and I remember them fondly," Bush said about Schroeder. "And I thought our relations — look, the Iraq war made relations difficult. People, they didn't — the government didn't agree. And I understand that."
Merkel said she and Bush have a very good rapport. "And we bolster that friendship, also, by frequent telephone calls and constant contact," she said.
After seeing Bush at the White House and joining him and his wife, Laura, for dinner, Merkel goes to New York on Thursday for a meeting with business leaders. She returns to Washington that night to address the American Jewish Committee's gala marking the organization's 100th anniversary. No other German chancellor has addressed the AJC.
Bush and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will join her.
In her remarks in New York, Merkel may touch on Iran, a subject of special immediate import to the Jewish community after Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent statement that Israel should be "wiped off the face of the map."
Bush and Merkel's diplomatic friendship is strong, yet the two are facing very different political situations. Merkel's approval ratings in opinion polls top 80 percent, in sharp contrast to Bush, who is languishing at the lowest level of his presidency, 32 percent.
With British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac both facing domestic political difficulties and a new government soon to take over in Italy, Merkel arguably is the most popular politician in Europe.
Bush said Merkel has a unique perspective as the first German leader to come from the former communist East Germany.
"I'm talking to a very sophisticated leader who knows what it's like to live in a world that isn't free," Bush said. "And there's just something to me that is intriguing and important to have a partner in peace who brings that kind of perspective, who knows the discomfort of what it means to live under the iron hand of a communist ruler."