The US president, George Bush, raised the possibility today of military action against Iran, saying his first choice was for a diplomatic solution to the standoff over Tehran's nuclear programme, but that "all options are on the table".
The prospects of a diplomatic breakthrough looked slim, however, with Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, labelling his US counterpart a "wicked man" whose policies had failed.
Bush's comments came a day after a US-EU summit in Slovenia threatened new sanctions against Iran if it fails to end its uranium enrichment programme. He was speaking after talks with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who appeared to support the US view.
"The first choice is to solve it diplomatically and that's exactly what we're doing," Bush told reporters in Meseberg, a German government rural retreat north of Berlin. "The message to the Iranian government is very clear."
Germany is Bush's second stop on a final visit to Europe before he steps down as president. He wants Iran to halt uranium enrichment in a verifiable way, claiming the nuclear material is intended for atomic weapons. Iran insists its nuclear programme is for purely civil purposes.
Merkel, a strong US ally, reiterated Germany's support for possible new sanctions against Iran if it does not suspend enrichment.
"The offer has been put to Iran, but ... if Iran does not meet its commitments, then further sanctions will have to follow," she said. "We again said we want to give diplomacy a chance, but we also have to stay on that particular issue."
The two leaders also discussed climate change, Afghanistan, rising food prices and the tortuous progress of World Trade Organisation talks.
Bush is in Rome tomorrow for talks with the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, ahead of a meeting the next day with Pope Benedict XVI. After a stopover for more talks in Paris he heads to London on Sunday followed by Belfast.
With Bush's presidency winding down rapidly before he leaves office in January the trip has attracted relatively little media interest and – unlike previous occasions he has been in Europe – almost no protests.
Addressing a crowd in the central Iranian city of Shahr-e-Kord, Ahmadinejad mocked Bush as a lame duck leader whose time "has come to an end".
"This wicked man desires to harm the Iranian nation," he said. "[Bush] made plans, moved into Afghanistan and then Iraq, and announced that Iran was the third target.
"I tell him your era has come to an end. With the grace of God, you won't be able to harm even one centimetre of the sacred land of Iran."
Iran would remain implacable against international pressure, he insisted. "If the enemy thinks they can break the Iranian nation with pressure, they are wrong. With God's help, we have achieved victory and the enemies cannot do a damned thing."