By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 1, 2006
The Bush administration's decision to consider sitting down with the Iranian government underscores a central truth of diplomacy today: Nuclear weapons buy leverage.
For six years, President Bush and his aides have dismissed the idea of talking with Iran about its nuclear programs, and until last year gave little support to European efforts to restrain Iranian nuclear activity. Attempts by former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, a moderate, to foster a dialogue were rejected, and even back-channel moves failed to gain traction.
Now, in perhaps the biggest foreign policy shift of his presidency, Bush has approved the idea of sitting down at the table with the Iranian government -- one headed by a former student radical who denies the Holocaust. Attached to the U.S. offer was a stern condition: a verified suspension of Iran's nuclear enrichment operations. But the offer overturned a long-standing taboo, and it came from an administration stocked with officials who have made little secret of their desire to overthrow the government in Tehran.
The administration made this move at a moment of weakness. The president's public opinion ratings are among the lowest ever recorded for a modern president, and oil prices have reached record levels, in part because of the confrontation with Iran. The high price of oil, in turn, has enriched the Iranian treasury.
Iran recently announced it had learned how to achieve a key aspect of enriching uranium -- sooner than expected -- raising the stakes in the confrontation. Even so, the lingering fallout from the administration's decision to attack Iraq has made it increasingly difficult to win the support for sanctions on Iran from critical nations such as Russia and China.
A key factor in Bush's decision yesterday is the influence of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who announced the offer in a televised news conference. Since becoming secretary of state last year, Rice has worked assiduously to make certain that the United States does not maneuver itself into becoming the world's enemy No. 1, as it did on the Iraq war.
When Rice made her first trip overseas as secretary last year, to Europe, she had expected to hear a lot of concern about Iraq. Instead, she later said, she was surprised to learn that the confrontation over Iran's nuclear program was a bigger concern -- and that the United States was considered the problem.
She very quickly won Bush's approval for a public shift in policy: active support of the European negotiating track. The support included withdrawing the U.S. objection to Iran's application to the World Trade Organization and allowing Iran the potential to purchase civilian aviation spare parts.
At the time, Rice insisted that the decision to support the Europeans did not mean the Americans would join the talks. (Lower-level U.S. officials on occasion have talked to Iranian counterparts about Afghanistan and Iraq.)
"We've made very clear that we have a lot of other problems with the Iranians," Rice said when she announced the decision in March 2005. "We've also made very clear that we don't intend to do anything to legitimize the Iranian regime. And so what we're looking at here is helping the Europeans in their diplomacy, not shifting policy toward Iran."
But the Iranians walked away from those talks, and the administration slowly found itself drawn into a different stance as the diplomacy unfolded. Rice needed to win over the Russians and Chinese -- and keep the Europeans in line -- so she quietly dropped the objections to the Iranian desire for nuclear power. Previously, the administration had insisted Iran had no need for nuclear power because of its vast oil and gas reserves. But to placate other nations, U.S. officials retreated from that insistence.
"The Iranian people believe they have a right to civil nuclear energy," Rice said yesterday. "We acknowledge that right."
Over the past two months Bush and Rice, along with Vice President Cheney and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, have considered the question of whether the time was right for the United States to sit at the talks. Once Bush received assurances earlier this week from leaders of China, Russia and other nations that if this offer were rejected they would accept a harder line against Iran, U.S. officials decided to go forward with the plan.
Rice said yesterday that she advocated this decision in part because of echoes of the concerns that she heard on her first trip -- that the United States was not serious about resolving this issue with diplomacy.
Conservatives in the administration have chafed at the shifts, suggesting it shows weakness on the part of the United States because Iran apparently has been able to make significant progress in nuclear energy -- with little apparent consequence.
Rice made this new move just as it appeared the European effort was on the verge of collapsing through division and lack of leadership. The Germans, eager to strike a deal with Iran, have been the most adamant that the United States needed to join the talks.
"If this is what it takes to get Russia and China to join in sanctions, so be it," one administration skeptic said. "But I am most concerned that we will end up renegotiating with ourselves again."