Reuters: U.S. President George W. Bush won reassurances from his old ally Silvio Berlusconi on Thursday that Italy will help pressure Iran over its nuclear program and take more of a frontline military role in Afghanistan.
By Matt Spetalnick and Robin Pomeroy
ROME (Reuters) – U.S. President George W. Bush won reassurances from his old ally Silvio Berlusconi on Thursday that Italy will help pressure Iran over its nuclear program and take more of a frontline military role in Afghanistan.
In a warm meeting that contrasted with the cool reception Bush got in the streets of Rome, including protests and chants of "Bush, go home", the U.S. and Italian leaders agreed to ratchet up the pressure on Iran over its nuclear program.
The West fears Iran's uranium enrichment activities could be used to build a nuclear bomb. Iran says its program is only for power generation to meet the needs of its growing economy.
Bush stressed his preference for using diplomatic means but repeated "all options are on the table", a refrain repeated in his European tour to convince Iran that Washington will consider military action to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
At a joint news conference, Berlusconi reiterated Italy's offer to join the group leading talks with Iran, formed by the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany.
"I told Silvio I would seriously consider it," Bush said.
"I also made it clear however, that all of us, 'P5 plus 1' or not, need to be sending the same message to the Iranians, which is verifiably suspend your enrichment program or else you will face further sanctions and further isolation," he said.
Berlusconi offered Bush Italy's expertise on Iran to help in the negotiations, saying that Italy's extensive trade links with Iran meant "we know Iran very well from the inside".
Bush, on the third stop of a week-long farewell tour of Europe, was also assured by Berlusconi, a supporter of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, that Italy would relax a ban on using its troops in a combat role in the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
Italy has about 2,700 troops in Afghanistan but has so far — like France, Germany and Spain — been reluctant to send them to the south and east where the Taliban are most active. This has caused tension with the NATO command and Washington.
Since coming to power in May, Berlusconi's government has talked of "limited" deployment to combat zones but Bush said he went further and talked of scrapping the so-called "caveat".
"I appreciate very much the fact that the government announced to the parliament with your instructions, Mr Prime Minister, that the caveats that have restricted your forces in Afghanistan have been removed … ," said Bush.
The personal sympathy between the pair was evident in their smiles and hand clasping before their talks in Villa Madama, a Renaissance villa designed by Raphael for the Medici family.
The two leaders also share a clear preference for who should win November's U.S. election, between the young Democrat Barack Obama and veteran Republican senator John McCain.
"I can't avoid expressing my very personal preference for the Republican candidate, because if he wins I would no longer be the oldest," said Berlusconi, who looks younger than his 71 years thanks partly to a hair transplant and cosmetic surgery.
"I was born on September 29, 1936 and he was born on August 29, so he is a month older than me," said the Italian premier.
Bush visits the Vatican to meet Pope Benedict on Friday before traveling to Paris, London and Northern Ireland.
(Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky, Stephen Brown, Philip Pullella and Gavin Jones)