Iran shift: the Washington version


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

June 4, 2006

A Talk at Lunch That Shifted the Stance on Iran

WASHINGTON, June 3 ‹ On a Tuesday afternoon two months ago, Secretary of State 
Condoleezza Rice sat down to a small lunch in President Bush's private dining 
room behind the Oval Office and delivered grim news to her boss: Their coalition
against Iran was at risk of falling apart.

A meeting she had attended in Berlin days earlier with European foreign 
ministers had been a disaster, she reported, according to participants in the 
discussion. Iran was neatly exploiting divisions among the Europeans and Russia,
and speeding ahead with its enrichment of uranium. The president grimaced, one 
aide recalled, interpreting the look as one of exasperation "that said, 'O.K., 
team, what's the answer?' "

That body language touched off a closely held two-month effort to reach a 
drastically different strategy, one articulated two weeks later in a single 
sentence that Ms. Rice wrote in a private memorandum. It broached the idea that 
the United States end its nearly three-decade policy against direct talks with 

Mr. Bush's aides rarely describe policy debates in the Oval Office in much 
detail. But in recounting his decisions in this case, they appeared eager to 
portray him as determined to rebuild a fractured coalition still bearing scars 
from Iraq and find a way out of a negotiating dynamic that, as one aide said 
recently, "the Iranians were winning."

Mr. Bush gradually grew more comfortable with offering talks to a country that 
he considers the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism, and whose president has 
advocated wiping Israel off the map. Mr. Bush's own early misgivings about the 
path he was considering came in a flurry of phone calls to Ms. Rice and to 
Stephen J. Hadley, his national security adviser, that often began with 
questions like "What if the Iranians do this," gaming out loud a number of 
possible situations.

Mr. Bush left open the option of scuttling the entire idea until early Wednesday
morning, three senior officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity 
because they were describing internal debates in the White House. He made the 
final decision only after telephone calls with President Vladimir V. Putin of 
Russia and the Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany led him to conclude that if 
Tehran refused to suspend its enrichment of uranium, or later dragged its feet, 
they would support an escalating series of sanctions against Iran at the United 
Nations that could lead to a confrontation.

Even after Mr. Bush edited the statement that Ms. Rice was scheduled to read 
Wednesday before she flew to Vienna to encourage Europe and Russia to sign on to
a final package of incentives for Iran ‹ and sanctions if it turns the offer 
down ‹ Ms. Rice wanted to check in one more time. She called Mr. Bush. Was he 
sure he was O.K. with his decision?

"Go do it," he was said to have responded.

She did, but the results remain unclear. Iran has given no indication it will 
agree to Mr. Bush's threshold condition, suspending nuclear fuel production. 
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Friday that he would oppose "any pressure to 
deprive our people from their right" to pursue a peaceful nuclear program.

The official news agency IRNA reported that Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr 
Mottaki, said Saturday that Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy 
chief, was expected to arrive in Tehran in the next few days with the new 
package of incentives.

"Iran will examine the proposal and announce its opinion after that," Mr. 
Mottaki said. Mr. Bush's aides now acknowledge that the approach they had once 
publicly described as successfully "isolating" Iran was in fact viewed 
internally as going nowhere. Mr. Bush's search for a new option was driven, they
say, by concern that the path he was on two months ago would inevitably force 
one of two potentially disastrous outcomes: an Iranian bomb, or an American 
attack on Iran's facilities.

Conservatives, even some inside the administration, are worried that Mr. Bush 
may be forced into other concessions, including allowing Iran to continue some 
low level of nuclear fuel production. Others fear that the commitments Mr. Bush 
believes he extracted from Mr. Putin, Ms. Merkel and President Jacques Chirac of
France may erode.

But the story of how a president who rarely changes his mind did so in this case
‹ after refusing similar proposals on Iran four years ago ‹ illustrates the 
changed dynamic between the State Department and the White House in Mr. Bush's 
second term. When Colin L. Powell was secretary of state, the two buildings 
often seemed at war. But 18 months after Ms. Rice took over, her relationship 
with Mr. Bush has led to policies that one former adviser to Ms. Rice and Mr. 
Bush said "he never would have allowed Colin to pursue."

It is unclear how much dissent, if any, surrounded the decision, which appears 
to have been driven largely by the president, Ms. Rice and Mr. Hadley, with 
other senior national security officials playing a more remote role. Both White 
House and State Department officials say Vice President Dick Cheney, long an 
opponent of proposals to engage Iran, agreed to this experiment. But it is 
unclear whether he is an enthusiast, or simply expects Iran to reject suspending
enrichment ‹ clearing the way to sanctions that could test the Iranian 
government's ability to survive.

After the surprise election of Mr. Ahmadinejad last summer, Iran ended its 
suspension of uranium enrichment, and the United States and Europe won 
resolutions at the International Atomic Energy Agency to move the issue to the 
United Nations Security Council. But it took weeks over the winter to get the 
weakest of Security Council actions ‹ a "presidential statement." Russia, which 
has huge financial interests in Iran and is supplying it with nuclear reactors, 
was particularly reluctant to push the Iranians too hard.

At a private dinner on March 6 at the Watergate with Ms. Rice, Mr. Hadley and 
Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, Mr. Lavrov warned that Iran could 
do what North Korea did in 2003 ‹ throw out inspectors and abandon the Nuclear 
Nonproliferation Treaty. That would close the biggest window into Iran's 
program, making it hard to assess its bomb capability ‹ the same issue that had 
led to huge errors in Iraq.

On March 30, Ms. Rice traveled to Berlin for what turned into a fractious 
meeting with representatives of the other four permanent members of the Security
Council and Germany. She questioned what kind of sanctions would be effective. 
The conversation went nowhere.

That led to Ms. Rice's warning to Mr. Bush over lunch, on April 4, that the 
momentum to confront Iran was disintegrating. Mr. Bush, one aide noted, was 
receiving special intelligence assessments every morning, some on Iran's 
intentions, others examining Mr. Ahmadinejad's personality, still others 
exploring how long it would take Iran to produce a bomb.

On Easter weekend, Ms. Rice sat in her apartment and drafted a two-page proposal
for a new strategy that pursued three tracks: the threat of "coercive measures" 
through the United Nations, negotiations with Iran that included what Ms. Rice 
has called "bold" incentives for Iran to give up the production of all nuclear 
fuel and a separate set of strategies for economic sanctions if the Security 
Council failed to act.

They were accompanied by a calendar Ms. Rice had marked in three colors tracking
the schedule for each of the three tracks, which Mr. Hadley told her was 
"brilliant, colorful, and completely impenetrable."

For the first time, her proposal also raised a question the administration had 
long avoided: Had the time arrived for the United States to play what she and 
Mr. Bush, both bridge players, called their biggest card ‹ offering to talk with
Iran? She shared the proposal with Mr. Hadley, and then raised it with Mr. Bush 
in private on May 5

The idea intrigued Mr. Bush, White House officials say, and on May 8, Ms. Rice 
met with him just hours before flying to New York for a meeting with her 
European counterparts.

She asked him what kind of body language to display at the United Nations 
meeting. Should she signal that the United States was considering negotiations 
with Iran? "Be careful," he said, according to officials familiar with the 
conversation. "I haven't made up my mind."

That same day, an 18-page letter from Mr. Ahmadinejad arrived. It declared 
liberal democracy a failure, although it also was perceived by many as an effort
to reach out and start a dialogue.

Ms. Rice and Mr. Hadley read the letter on the flight to New York, but dismissed
it. "It isn't addressing the issues we're dealing with in a concrete way," Ms. 
Rice said that day.

Her meeting in New York with her European counterparts turned testy, 
particularly an exchange with Mr. Lavrov, who was still smarting from a speech 
by Mr. Cheney denouncing Russia for its increasingly authoritarian behavior. But
the discussion, while fractious, convinced her that the only way to break the 
stalemate was to offer to join the negotiations.

While Mr. Bush was intrigued, he was intent on secrecy, and so when the National
Security Council met on the subject on May 17, he warned against leaks. The 
session was notable because Mr. Cheney, who had fought in the first term against
engagement with Iran, said the offer might work, largely because it would force 
the choices back on Iran. And while the council had dismissed the letter, it 
used the meeting to discuss whether to respond.

While Mr. Bush initially told Ms. Rice that others could work out the final 
negotiations, Ms. Rice told the president that "only you can nail this down," 
apparently a reference to keeping Ms. Merkel and Mr. Putin on board. Mr. Bush 
made the calls and got them to agree that if Iran resists, they will move ahead 
with a range of sanctions.

But Mr. Bush, led by Ms. Rice, is taking a significant risk. He must hold 
together countries that bitterly broke with the United States three years ago on
Iraq. And now, he seems acutely aware that part of his legacy may depend on his 
ability to prevent Iran from emerging as a nuclear power in the Middle East, 
without again resorting to military force.

Nazila Fathi contributed reporting from Tehran for this article.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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