LONDON – President Bush hit pay dirt Monday in what has been widely billed as his farewell tour of Europe with pledges for new financial sanctions against Iran and a commitment for a net increase of 230 British troops in Afghanistan.
The deployment takes British troops to their highest levels in the South Asian nation, with 8,030 forces now committed in Kabul, Kandahar and Helmand.
The decision was not officially linked to the arrival of Bush, who held talks Monday with British 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 of the heavy lifting 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.
The two leaders focused on Iran, which appears likely to reject a package of incentives presented by Western officials over the weekend. The proposal was designed to halt the Islamic Republic’s uranium enrichment program, which Iranians say is a civilian energy program but some Western leaders believe could help Iran build a nuclear bomb.
Brown announced that European Union leaders are prepared to adopt further financial sanctions against Iran and said Britain would step in with a freeze on assets of the Islamic Republic’s largest bank, Bank Melli.
He said officials also will begin considering “a new spate of sanctions” on Iran’s oil and gas sector, presumably with an eye toward punishing outside companies that invest in Iran’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 halted doing business with Iran in order to protect their U.S. business connections.
The result has been tighter, more expensive credit for Iranian businesses and worries 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,” said Brown, referring to the package of incentives presented over the weekend, which he said included 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.”