Rice takes steps toward healing with Europe

US Secretary Of State Condoleezza Rice Visits Germany
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice shares a word with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder at a news conference in Berlin, Germany, on Friday. Sean Gallup / Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice embarked on the German leg of her first trip abroad as America's top diplomat with a meeting and press conference with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Berlin on Friday.

Andrea Mitchell, NBC News’ chief foreign affairs correspondent, is traveling with Rice and reports on how the hot-button issues of "regime change" in Iran and the ongoing war in Iraq went over in Germany.

Q: During the press conference with Rice and Schroeder, you asked about the German stance on “regime change” in Iran. What was the German response?

Mitchell: The Germans are trying to patch over the differences that they’ve had with the United States over how to handle Iran. Germany, Britain and France are negotiating with Iran offering incentives and trade deals in order to get Iran to come clean on its suspected nuclear  program.

European leaders have been concerned, very concerned, that the tough talk coming from Washington — especially from some hardliners in the administration, but most recently from the president himself during the State of the Union address on Wednesday night — could undermine those negotiations.

What’s taken place so far on this trip, is somewhat of a mixed message, but now Condoleezza Rice is trying to reassure Europe that the United States is pursuing diplomatic options and is not about to attack Iran.

The German response is that we all, both the United States and Europe, all agree that democracy is the goal for Iraq. But the Germans and others would perhaps use different tools to reach that same goal.

Q: How concerned are the Europeans with the rhetoric over Iran?
The Europeans have been concerned about the rhetoric; partly because of their opposition to the war in Iraq. Of course Great Britain is in a separate category, having been America’s strongest ally going to war in Iraq, but certainly Germany and France and other European countries that did not support going to war with Iraq are suspicious of American motives.

The other difference between Europe and America on this subject, is that Europe wants to give Iran the benefit of the doubt and believes that Iran ought to be able to have civilian nuclear power programs. The U.S. suspects strongly that those nuclear energy programs are really a cover for banned nuclear weapons development activity.

At the same time, the U.S. believes that Iran has to fix its human rights record, which Secretary Rice described as “to be loathed” on her trip over during a briefing to the press on the airplane to London.

The U.S. also believes that Iran has to stop supporting terror. The president described Iran in his State of the Union address as the world’s greatest supporter of state-sponsored terror.

The U.S. has a much higher threshold for Iran to get clean on nuclear weapons development, fix its human rights record and to stop supporting terror before it can rejoin the family of nations.

Whereas Europe is really demanding only that Iran stop developing nuclear weapons and would permit Iran to continue nuclear power.

One of the questions the U.S. has long asked is: Why does Iran, with all is its oil and natural gas wealth, need nuclear power?  So the U.S. has long believed that Iran’s nuclear power plants are really a cover for weapons development. It has long believed that Iran is being disingenuous.

Q: Does it seem that there has been a change of tone since Rice took over for Powell?  
Rice has been tougher in a lot of her rhetoric on Iran, certainly, than Colin Powell was. But she has said that she believes that this is the time for diplomacy. She has tried to, during this trip, ensure Europe that she is interested in diplomatic solutions.

So it is kind of a mixed message. I think it reveals a split inside the administration between hardliners who would not trust Iran on any front, and others who think that Iran ought to be given the benefit of the doubt or at least ought to be given a chance to pursue a diplomatic solution.

Q: There were some light-hearted moments during the press conference with Rice and Schroeder. Is that a sign of a thaw in the relationship between the United States and Germany?  
Mitchell: Yes, I think that’s true. I think that Schroeder went out of his way today to be as welcoming as possible and to try to permit the start of President Bush’s second term, with a new secretary of state, to really be a new beginning.

Q: Do you attribute that to the success of the elections in Iraq over the weekend?
I think the elections in Iraq certainly helped. One of the things that Schroeder said is that Germany is now willing to do more in training Iraqi security forces, which it is currently doing in a very minimal way by training about 1,500 troops outside of Iraq, in the United Arab Emirates.

Schroeder said Germany is now willing to do more troop training and also do more in terms of financial support to the new Iraqi government, helping the new Iraqi government develop a constitution, develop civil society, institutions of journalism — basically help democracy work in Iraq.

Q: What kind of reception can Rice expect on the rest of her trip? 
She is certainly going to have some hard work ahead of her when she gets to France because the French government was perhaps even more critical than Germany about the invasion of Iraq.

But I think she is looking forward to a real opportunity in the Middle East. She believes that the time is right for a big opening in the talks that are now planned next week between the Israelis and the Palestinians. With the new Palestinian leadership making a commitment to improve security and to combating terrorism, the Bush administration believes that this could be the moment to finally achieve something substantial in the Middle East.