WASHINGTON — President Bush departs Sunday on a European fence-mending trip under a full head of political steam.
He takes with him his reelection mandate, his conviction that events in the Middle East are beginning to move his way and the momentum from a successful warm-up act by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who visited Europe this month.
Yet Bush's hopes of reviving the North Atlantic alliance and enlisting Europe in his bid to remake the Middle East could quickly run aground on a simmering, unresolved issue: Iran's nuclear program.
U.S. and European officials agree that preventing Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons is an urgent priority, but differ strongly about how to do it. Americans are skeptical of a European diplomatic initiative, whereas Europeans criticize the United States for doing nothing but issue warnings to Iran, which insists that its nuclear energy program is peaceful.
"Strong statements are not a policy," said a European diplomat, who declined to be named.
European officials said that persuading Bush to back the diplomatic initiative on Iran was their top goal, and the president was expected to be lobbied hard on the issue.
A second European diplomat said Iran would be a major topic during the one-on-one sessions Bush is scheduled to have with the leaders of Britain, France and Germany, which are driving the negotiations with Iran.
Bush is scheduled to dine Monday evening with French President Jacques Chirac, have breakfast Tuesday with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and lunch that day with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
"We hope this trip offers a real in-depth opportunity to explain to President Bush himself, not just some assistant secretary of State, that these negotiations are the only game in town and should be supported more than they already are," said Germany's ambassador to the U.S., Wolfgang Ischinger. "So far we've had some expressions of support, but not much real support."
Iran is the most urgent in a series of issues that continue to divide Europe and the U.S. And despite a mutual desire to reduce tensions, there has been little visible movement toward finding common ground.
The International Criminal Court has Europe's support, but not Washington's; the U.S. opposes Europe's plan to lift its arms embargo against China; the Europeans back the Kyoto Treaty on global warming, the Bush administration does not. There also is skepticism in Europe about Bush's stated goal of spreading freedom and democracy in the Middle East.
However, the urgency of the Iranian nuclear issue gives that matter added importance.
Bush will meet with leaders of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on Monday and Tuesday in Brussels.
Later in the five-day trip, he will make separate stops in Mainz, Germany, to meet with Schroeder, and in Bratislava, Slovakia, for talks with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.
The centerpiece of Bush's trip is expected to be Brussels, where hope is high on both sides. He will give a major speech Monday afternoon to articulate his vision for a united transatlantic community, said Stephen J. Hadley, the White House national security advisor.
The U.S. and Europe are "going through a phase of intense rapprochement," one that Europeans hope will lead to "an atmosphere of trust," said John Bruton, the European Union's ambassador to the U.S.
But major obstacles remain.
On Iran, the Europeans hope to negotiate an agreement giving Tehran a peaceful nuclear energy program, national security guarantees and an array of economic benefits in return for a pledge not to seek atomic weapons and to open its facilities to international inspection. The Bush administration, which has no direct contact with Iran, has rejected European pressure to join the talks.
Rice didn't specifically criticize the European approach during her overseas trip but evaded making any direct endorsement of the negotiations, even after French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said he had asked for U.S. "support and confidence."
Hadley, Bush's national security advisor, insisted that the president supported the European effort, but said the next step was up to Tehran.
"The next thing that we need to see is something from the Iranians about a willingness to go forward," he said.
The administration's reluctance to openly back the negotiations has generated suspicion in Europe that Bush wants to scuttle the talks.
Some Europeans are convinced that Washington is more interested in punishing Tehran than talking to it and that Bush is determined to bring Iran before the United Nations Security Council for alleged breaches of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
In comments Thursday at a news conference, Bush appeared to rule out for now military strikes against Iran's nuclear energy facilities, stressing diplomatic options.