Iran Nuclear NewsA talk at lunch that shifted the stance on...

A talk at lunch that shifted the stance on Iran


New York Times: 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. The New York Times

Published: June 4, 2006


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 said, “with a look that said, ‘O.K., team, what’s the answer?’ “

That question touched off a closely held two-month effort to reach a drastically different strategy, one articulated in a single sentence that Ms. Rice wrote in a private memo to the president. It broached the idea that the United States end its nearly three-decade-long policy against negotiating directly with Iran.

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 a president who determined that he needed to rebuild a fractured coalition still bearing scars from Iraq, and to find a way out of a negotiating dynamic that, as one of his aides 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 of Germany, Angela Merkel, 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 and approved the statement Ms. Rice was scheduled to read on Wednesday morning 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 the president back. Was he sure he was okay with his decision?

“Go do it,” he responded.

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

Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, said Saturday that Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief who will deliver the new package of incentives for Iran, is expected to arrive in Tehran within the next two days, IRNA news agency reported.

“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 publicly described throughout the spring as successfully “isolating” Iran was in fact viewed here as going nowhere. Mr. Bush’s search for a new option was driven, they say, by growing concern that the path he was on two months ago was inevitably going to force one of two outcomes, both of which could prove disastrous: 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 to engage 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 top adviser to both Ms. Rice and Mr. Bush said “he never would have allowed Colin to pursue.”

After the surprise election of Mr. Ahmadinejad last summer, Iran ended its voluntary 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 for possible sanctions. 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 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 Non-Proliferation Treaty. That would close the biggest window into Iran’s program, making it hard to assess how fast the country was racing toward a 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 against Iranian defiance. 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, “had Iran on the mind” because he 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 secluded herself 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 American-led economic sanctions against Iran if the Security Council failed to act.

For the first time, her proposal also raised a question the administration 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?

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 at the United Nations 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, administration officials received an 18-page letter from Mr. Ahmadinejad. 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. “This letter isn’t it,” Ms. Rice told reporters later in the day. “It isn’t addressing the issues we’re dealing with in a concrete way.”

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 Vice President Dick 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 — and shake up a status quo that one senior official characterized as “rowing with one oar, which sends you in circles.”

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 to join the negotiations might work — largely because it would force the choices back into the lap of Mr. Ahmadinejad and Iran’s religious leaders. And even while the council had dismissed Mr. Ahmadinejad’s letter, its members used the meeting to discuss whether to respond to it.

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,” an apparent reference to keeping Ms. Merkel and Mr. Putin on board. Mr. Bush made the calls.

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, Mr. Bush is acutely aware that part of his legacy may well depend on his ability to prevent Iran from emerging as a nuclear power in the Mideast, without again resorting to military force to achieve his ends in the region.

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