Bush’s Realization on Iran: No Good Choice Left Except Talks


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

June 1, 2006

Bush's Realization on Iran: No Good Choice Left Except Talks

WASHINGTON, May 31 ‹ After 27 years in which the United States has refused 
substantive talks with Iran, President Bush reversed course on Wednesday because
it was made clear to him ‹ by his allies, by the Russians, by the Chinese, and 
eventually by some of his advisers ‹ that he no longer had a choice.

During the past month, according to European officials and some current and 
former members of the Bush administration, it became obvious to Mr. Bush that he
could not hope to hold together a fractious coalition of nations to enforce 
sanctions ‹ or consider military strikes on Iranian nuclear sites ‹ unless he 
first showed a willingness to engage Iran's leadership directly over its nuclear
program and exhaust every nonmilitary option.

Few of his aides expect that Iran's leaders will meet Mr. Bush's main condition:
that Iran first re-suspend all of its nuclear activities, including shutting 
down every centrifuge that could add to its small stockpile of enriched uranium.
Administration officials characterized their offer as a test of whether the 
Iranians want engagement with the West more than they want the option to build a
nuclear bomb some day.

And while the Europeans and the Japanese said they were elated by Mr. Bush's 
turnaround, some participants in the drawn-out nuclear drama questioned whether 
this was an offer intended to fail, devised to show the extent of Iran's 

Either way, after five years of behind-the-scenes battling within the 
administration, Mr. Bush finally came to a crossroads at which both sides in the
debate over Iran ‹ engagers and isolaters, and some with a foot in each camp ‹ 
saw an advantage in, as one senior aide said, "seeing if they are serious."

Mr. Bush, according to one participant in those debates, told Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice several months ago that he needed "a third option," a way to 
get beyond either a nuclear Iran or an American military action.

Ms. Rice spent a long weekend in early May drafting a proposal that included a 
timetable for diplomatic choreography through the summer.

"Nobody wants to get to that kind of crisis situation ‹ whether it is us or the 
next administration ‹ where you either accept an Iranian weapon or you are 
forced to do something drastic," said the participant, who declined to speak on 
the record about internal White House deliberations.

The idea of engagement is hardly new. When Colin L. Powell was secretary of 
state, several members of his senior staff argued vociferously that the United 
States needed to test Iran's willingness to deal with the United States ‹ 
especially in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

There was strong opposition from the White House, particularly from Vice 
President Dick Cheney, according to several former officials.

"Cheney was dead set against it," said one former official who sat in many of 
those meetings. "At its heart, this was an argument about whether you could 
isolate the Iranians enough to force some kind of regime change." But three 
officials who were involved in the most recent iteration of that debate said Mr.
Cheney and others stepped aside ‹ perhaps because they read Mr. Bush's body 
language, or perhaps because they believed Iran would scuttle the effort by 
insisting that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty gives it the right to develop
nuclear fuel. The United States insists that Iran gave up that right by 
deceiving inspectors for 18 years.

In the end, said one former official who has kept close tabs on the debate, "it 
came down to convincing Cheney and others that if we are going to confront Iran,
we first have to check off the box" of trying talks.

Mr. Bush offered a more positive-sounding account: "I thought it was important 
for the United States to take the lead, along with our partners, and that's what
you're seeing. You're seeing robust diplomacy."

As part of the diplomatic timetable, Ms. Rice will be in Vienna on Thursday to 
endorse an international offer to Iran that includes several plums. Among them 
will be the dialogue with Washington that Iran has periodically sought, a 
lifting of many long-standing economic sanctions, and even light water reactors 
for nuclear power with Russia and the West controlling access to the fuel.

Yet skepticism abounds. "It's true that the conditions are significantly 
different than they were four or five years ago, but candidly they are not as 
favorable now for the United States," said Richard Haass, who as the head of the
State Department's policy planning operation during Mr. Bush's first term was a 
major advocate of engagement with Iran.

First, the new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinijad, "has vowed that the country will 
never back down on enriching uranium.

"Oil's at $70 a barrel instead of $20, said Mr. Haass, now the president of the 
Council on Foreign Relations. "And we are bogged down in Iraq," where the United
States is vulnerable to Iranian efforts to worsen the violence and arm the 

But the internal debates in the White House included vigorous discussion of the 
risks associated with any effort to negotiate with foes suspected of seeking 
nuclear weapons. And in this, Mr. Bush already has bitter experience.

In its dealings with North Korea, which Mr. Bush branded a member of the "axis 
of evil" along with Iran and Iraq, the administration also decided a few years 
ago to try limited engagement, locked arm-in-arm with neighboring nations.

But North Korea has kept making weapons fuel, and the allies have not stayed 
united: China and South Korea continue to aid the North. The Iranians have 
doubtless noticed.

The question now is whether there is any middle ground between Mr. Bush's demand
that Iran give up everything, and Iran's insistence that it will give up 
nothing. Without breaking that logjam, the American-Iranian dialogue may never 

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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