Bush wins support for Iran sanctions
President Bush received a boost Monday in what has been widely billed as his farewell tour of Europe: pledges for new financial sanctions against Iran and a commitment for a net increase of 230 British troops in Afghanistan.
The new deployment takes the number of British troops in the Central Asian nation to its highest levels, with 8,030 forces now committed in Kabul, Kandahar and Helmand provinces.
The decision was not officially linked to the arrival of Bush, who met Monday with Prime Minister Gordon Brown and had breakfast with his predecessor, Tony Blair, a day after visiting Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle.
But the announcement follows long-standing U.S. complaints that some European allies are not doing their share in the war against the Taliban.
“Eighteen months ago, the Taliban had boasted that they and their paid foreign fighters would drive our forces out of southern Helmand. Now most would agree that security is on the way to being transformed,” Brown said at a news conference with Bush.
“Our aim is to generate progress, where the fourth-poorest country in the world, laid low by decades of conflict, can as a democracy enjoy peaceful economic and social development, with our forces over time moving from a direct combat role to train and support Afghanistan’s own army and police,” he said.
The two leaders focused most of their attention on Iran, which is likely to reject a new package of incentives presented by Western officials over the weekend. The proposal was an effort to halt the Islamic Republic’s uranium enrichment program, which Tehran says is a civilian energy program but some Western leaders allege could enable Iran to build a nuclear bomb.
Brown announced that European Union leaders were prepared to adopt further financial sanctions against Iran, and said Britain would step in immediately with a freeze on assets of the Islamic Republic’s largest bank, Bank Melli.
He said officials also would begin considering “a new spate of sanctions” targeting Iran’s oil and gas sector, presumably with an eye toward punishing foreign firms that invest in the Islamic Republic’s most important moneymaking industry.
The U.S. adopted unilateral sanctions against Bank Melli and two other Iranian banks in October and has been urging other countries to follow suit. Several Western banks have stopped doing business with Iran to protect their U.S. business connections.
The result has been tighter, more expensive credit for Iranian businesses and concerns about financing of major new oil and gas projects, should comprehensive oil and gas sanctions be adopted.
“Our message today to the Iranian people is that you do not have to choose the path of confrontation,” Brown said, referring to the package of incentives presented over the weekend, which he said included offers of political and economic partnership and help with nuclear technology for civilian use.
“I will repeat: We will take any necessary action, so that Iran is aware of the choice it has to make, to start to play its part as a full and respected member of the international community, or face further isolation,” Brown added.
Bush said he welcomed Britain’s “strong statement.”
“Thank you very much for working hard to keep this coalition together to provide [what is] necessary so we can solve the problems diplomatically, that’s my first choice,” he said. “The Iranians must understand all options are on the table, however.”
A British Foreign Office spokesman, who spoke on the standard condition of anonymity, said EU representatives Monday agreed in principle to adopt Europe-wide sanctions against Bank Melli. He said they did not specifically discuss sanctions on investment in Iran’s oil and gas industry but were expected to put the issue on the table soon.
Both leaders downplayed reports of a conflict over the number and pace of British troop withdrawals in Iraq. “I have no problem with how Gordon Brown is dealing with Iraq; he’s been a good partner,” Bush said.
Brown said the additional troop deployment in Afghanistan was not coming at the expense of British forces in southern Iraq, which were drawing down and shifting to an “overwatch” role -- though not as quickly as originally envisioned.
“You cannot trade numbers between the two countries. There is a job to do in Iraq, and a job to do in Afghanistan, and we will continue to do it,” he said, insisting there would be “no artificial timetable.”
Bush concluded his European tour with a brief visit to Northern Ireland, congratulating leaders there on the British province’s new power-sharing government.
“Northern Ireland is a success story,” he said. “Obviously, more work has to be done. Progress made to date would have been unimaginable 10 years ago.”
He had to enter the baronial Stormont Castle, the seat of the government in Belfast, through a side gate to avoid antiwar protesters at the main entrance.
The protests echoed demonstrations a day earlier in London, in which 10 police officers were injured and 25 people arrested.
Special correspondent William Graham in Belfast contributed to this report.