AFP: When US President George W. Bush comes to town next week, Washington's European allies will be hoping to extinguish the heat of transatlantic rancour over Iraq. But just
as one issue gets switched to the backburner for Bush's participation next Tuesday in EU and NATO summits, another in the form of Iran's nuclear ambitions threatens a fresh flare-up. AFP

BRUSSELS - When US President George W. Bush comes to town next week, Washington's European allies will be hoping to extinguish the heat of transatlantic rancour over Iraq.

But just as one issue gets switched to the backburner for Bush's participation next Tuesday in EU and NATO summits, another in the form of Iran's nuclear ambitions threatens a fresh flare-up.

The EU trio of Britain, France and Germany has taken the lead in negotiating with Iran to persuade the Islamic republic to sign up to tough UN inspections of its nuclear facilities.

The United States has thus far been content to let the powerful EU countries get on with it, but has of late begun to rattle its sabre a little more loudly.

There is talk in Washington of military strikes if the negotiations fail.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came to Europe to prepare the ground for Bush last week. Her meetings were marked by what both sides agreed was a shared desire to move on from Iraq.

But Rice also urged the EU three to take a tough line with Iran, warning Tehran of UN sanctions if it refuses to renounce its suspected nuclear weapons programme.

Michael Emerson, a Middle East expert at the Centre for European Policy Studies, said Iran was the toughest nut on the table for Tuesday "because here you do have a real difference between the Europeans and the Americans".

"On the American side, there is a division of views between those who would like to drop bombs on every nuclear establishment in Iran versus the people in Washington who think that that would be a crazy idea," he said.

"At this point, we don't know what President Bush thinks."

For its part, Europe would like to hear from Bush that the United States will take a more constructive role in the delicate talks with Iran.

"I strongly encourage the US administration to actively support the Europeans' diplomatic efforts," German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said Saturday.

"Iran will only abandon its nuclear ambitions for good if not only its economic but also its legitimate security interests are safeguarded," he said, calling on the United States to get involved in Gulf security talks.

The United States, however, has no diplomatic relations with Iran and not so long ago, Bush was referring to its clerical regime as part of an "axis of evil".

To Europe's relief, that kind of rhetoric has disappeared since Bush took office last month for his second term, to be replaced by talk that now is the time for diplomacy.

There are reassuring noises coming even from US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, no slouch at upsetting the Europeans in the past.

"There's not much daylight between the approaches of the United States and the Europeans" on Iran, Rumsfeld said in Munich last weekend, arguing that both sides wanted to stop Iran getting the bomb.

Where there is disagreement, however, is on how to reach that goal. US officials are champing at the bit for Iran to be hauled before the UN Security Council.

The Europeans prefer a carrot-and-stick approach coupling nuclear compliance with the promise of a lucrative new trade accord for Iran.

On Iraq, on the other hand, there is more of a meeting of minds now after the transatlantic fireworks of the past two years.

The Rice tour offered both sides the chance to declare a fresh start over Iraq. Successful elections in the restive country last month have helped the healing process as an eventual end to the US-led occupation hoves nearer.

Through NATO, even France and Germany have helped douse the flames of transatlantic controversy by agreeing to train Iraqi security forces, albeit outside the country itself. Some questions remain too hot to handle.