Bush, Merkel Address Iran, Guantanamo Prison

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President George Bush

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President George Bush hold a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House, Jan. 13. Mark Wilson/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel hold their first face-to-face meeting at the White House. They find areas of agreement on restraining Iran's nuclear program but disagree on the U.S. prison camp for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay.


The German word tauwetter means a thaw or melting, and at the White House today that's what began. For several years now US and German relations have been frosty, strained by differences over the war in Iraq, which long time German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder vigorously opposed. Well, now Germany has a new Chancellor Angela Merkel. She made her first visit to the White House today and she discussed with President Bush the rising tensions over Iran's nuclear program. It's an issue that gives Germany and the US a chance to work together. NPR's Don Gonyea reports from the White House.

DON GONYEA reporting:

Call it an attempt at a fresh start for the United States and Germany. Chancellor Merkel has been in office less than two months and President Bush, whose relationship with Gerhard Schroeder always seemed forced, hopes for a marked improvement with the new German leader. The two held a joint news conference at the White House following their morning meeting.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We've got a friendship that's important. We've got to share common values based upon human rights and human decency and rule of law, freedom to worship and freedom to speak, freedom to write what you want to write.

GONYEA: Merkel reached out as well. Speaking through an interpreter, she predicted, quote, "a new chapter in the relationship."

Chancellor ANGELA MERKEL (Germany): (Through Translator) And let me say that we indeed had a very open, a very candid discussion, one that was characterized by a spirit of trust that builds on a long tradition of German-American relations.

GONYEA: At the same time, the two leaders made it clear that not all differences have been swept aside. In fact, Merkel says she expressed concern to the president about the detention of prisoners held by the US military at Guantanamo Bay. She says the prison should not remain open indefinitely. Here's the president's response to a question on that subject.

Pres. BUSH: The answer to your question is that Guantanamo is a necessary part of protecting the American people and so long as the war on terror goes on and so long as there's a threat, we will inevitably need to hold people that would do ourselves harm.

GONYEA: But today's meeting was more about a position the president and the chancellor share, a commitment that Iran must not have a nuclear weapon. Now that Iran has broken the seals that United Nations inspectors placed on their equipment for enriching uranium, the US and three European Union nations--Britain, France and Germany--are considering taking the matter to the UN Security Council, though China and Russia have never supported that step. Merkel says it's important that the US and the so-called EU-3 take a common position.

Chancellor MERKEL: (Through Translator) That we try to persuade as many other countries as possible to join themselves to us, to ally themselves with us and we will certainly not be intimidated by a country such as Iran.

GONYEA: The president agreed.

Pres. BUSH: And countries such as ours have an obligation to step up, working together, sending a common message to the Iranians that it's--their behavior of trying to clandestinely develop a nuclear weapon or using the guise of a civilian nuclear weapon program to get the know-how to develop a nuclear weapon is unacceptable.

GONYEA: For all this common ground, Merkel must be mindful that President Bush is a very unpopular figure in Germany and the ready agreement on Iran may not be there on other topics down the road. Simon Serfaty of The Center for Strategic and International Studies says political pressures could play a role in how well their relationship plays out.

Mr. SIMON SERFATY (The Center for Strategic and International Studies): Both of them are fully aware of the enormity of the agenda they face in and beyond Iran, but soon both of them will be faced with the domestic constraints in terms not of what they wish to achieve but what they can achieve based on what their respective people allow them to do.

GONYEA: Today President Bush seemed to have no such worries, adding that he and Merkel have something in common.

Pres. BUSH: We both didn't exactly landslide our way into office.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pres. BUSH: I'm convinced that we will have a really important and good relationship.

GONYEA: It's a relationship the multiple crises in the Middle East are making more important than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House.

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