ROME (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush threatened Iran on Wednesday with more sanctions if it failed to stop enriching uranium and said all options were on the table to thwart Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
Bush, who met German Chancellor Angela Merkel as part of his week-long tour of Europe before flying to Rome, is pressing allies to agree new punitive measures against Iran.
While Europeans have voiced support for new sanctions, they are also looking past Bush, whose presidency ends in January.
“Both the chancellor and my first choice, of course, is to solve this diplomatically,” Bush told a joint news conference with Merkel.
But he added: “All options are on the table”, a reference to the threat of military action to stop Iran’s nuclear programme, which the West fears is aimed at making atomic bombs.
“The message to the Iranian government is very clear,” said Bush, visiting Europe for the last time before the end of his eight years in office.
Merkel was more cautious, saying she could “not exclude” a further round of sanctions if Iran failed to cooperate and suspend enrichment work, which Tehran argues is for peaceful power generation.
With his approval ratings at home at the lows of his presidency and his domestic agenda largely blocked by an opposition-led Congress, Bush is trying to reassert his relevance on the world stage and forge a foreign policy legacy defined by more than the unpopular war in Iraq.
He has focused increasingly on Iran and says he wants to leave his successor a framework of international diplomacy for tackling the Iranian nuclear threat.
Despite three rounds of sanctions by the U.N. Security Council, Iran has refused to stop enrichment.
This weekend, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana will be in Iran to present a revised package of political and economic incentives for Iran to give up enrichment, similar to an offer made in 2006 that was rejected.
Italy promises a tougher line on Iran now that Silvio Berlusconi, a firm Bush ally, has returned as prime minister.
“After presenting what will probably be the final offer, if nothing happens we must be consistent, meaning the path of sanctions should be resumed more firmly than ever,” his foreign minister, Franco Frattini, said in a television interview.
In a speech in western Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the Bush “era” had ended and promised Iran’s foes would not be able to “harm even a centimetre” of its territory.
Bush met Merkel at an isolated government residence north of Berlin where meetings can take place out of the media glare.
He then headed to Rome to meet Berlusconi and Pope Benedict before continuing on to Paris, London, and Northern Ireland in the next few days.
Bush remains unpopular in western Europe more than five years after he clashed with Germany, France, Russia and others over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
About 1,000 peace activists and leftists waving banners staged a protest in the centre of Rome when Bush arrived in the city.
“He (Bush) is trying to squeeze out additional Italian and European troops for Afghanistan and maybe Iraq and to get a green light for a possible terrible war against Iran,” said one Rome protest leader, communist Marco Ferrando.
Bush told reporters in Meseberg he had no regrets about going to war in Iraq but admitted he could have been smarter in making the case for the U.S.-led invasion.
“I could have used better rhetoric to indicate that one, we tried to exhaust diplomacy in Iraq, and two, that I don’t like war,” Bush said. “But, no, the decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision.”
Bush said he expected to seal a security pact with the Baghdad government but called media reports that Washington is planning permanent bases in Iraq “erroneous”. U.S. Democrats worry Bush could use agreements sealed before he leaves office to tie the next president into current Iraq war policies.
Merkel, a conservative who grew up in East Germany, has worked hard to repair ties between the Cold War allies and has forged a close relationship with Bush. But she acknowledged this week that a “new era” was looming when Bush is replaced.
Democratic candidate Barack Obama is especially popular in Germany, where he is likened to President John F. Kennedy, who won over the country in 1963 with his celebrated “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech.
Obama says he is ready to talk directly to Iran over its nuclear programme, a move the Bush administration has rejected.