Rice Key to Reversal on Iran

Condoleezza Rice, shown taking questions after her announcement on Iran, brought home the conclusion that talks could fail without U.S. participation.
Condoleezza Rice, shown taking questions after her announcement on Iran, brought home the conclusion that talks could fail without U.S. participation. (By Win Mcnamee -- Getty Images)

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By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 4, 2006

At the end of March, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to Europe and had unusual, one-on-one conversations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. She also attended a meeting in Berlin on Iran at which the Russian and Chinese representatives denounced the idea of sanctions to halt Tehran's drive toward a nuclear weapon.

Rice returned to Washington with a sobering message: The international effort to derail Iran's programs was falling apart. Her conclusion spurred a secret discussion among Rice, President Bush, Vice President Cheney and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley: Should the United States finally agree to join the Europeans at the negotiations with Iran?

Though Bush administration officials had publicly always dismissed that possibility, officials at the highest levels -- including Cheney, frequently but inaccurately portrayed as an adamant foe of joining the talks -- realized that soon the administration would be forced to grapple with the question, five U.S. officials said in interviews last week. Otherwise, the options seemed to either be that Iran would get the bomb or the United States would be drawn into another war.

"We knew it was a card we had to play at some point," one senior official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity, adding that the issue was at what time and under what conditions.

Last Wednesday, Rice made the announcement. The next day, in Vienna, she used the U.S. offer to secure an accord with Russia, China and the Europeans to present Iran with a choice of either inducements to return to negotiations or face action in the Security Council.

Iran has reacted warily, so the impact of the decision will not be clear for some time. But the administration's about-face, as recounted by U.S. officials, shows the dominant influence of Rice on the policymaking process. A year ago, she persuaded Bush to back the European talks with Iran. Conservatives were concerned but went along, thinking the European effort would fail. Now, Rice has moved the administration to a point unimaginable at the start of the second term.

"Condi felt the need to jump-start the talks and take control of the situation," a second official said.

The troubled Iraq war also hangs over Iran diplomacy. Administration officials have little confidence in the intelligence on Iran's programs, while allies overseas view U.S. actions through the prism of Iraq. That concern has forced the administration to emphasize diplomacy to avoid the breach with its allies that characterizes the Iraq war.

On May 8, as Rice flew to New York to meet with foreign ministers from Europe, China and Russia on Iran, she started to bring her closest aides, such as Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns, into the discussion. She pulled out a calendar, which she had marked up in multicolored pens to note key dates, such as a Group of Eight meeting in Russia in July.

She also focused on Iran's claim that by year's end it hoped to have a 3,000-centrifuge cascade for enriching uranium.

The meeting with the foreign ministers was acrimonious and lasted well into the night. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lashed out at Burns because, at Rice's instruction, Burns had called repeatedly for Russia to stop selling arms to Iran. Despite the heated words, the meeting set in motion the talks that led to the Vienna announcement. The foreign ministers agreed to set aside any Security Council resolution against Iran and instead come up with a list of proposals that would sharpen the choice for Iran. "We needed to test the Iranians," a third official said.

Officials said there was essentially no dissent among Bush's top advisers on joining the talks. The Pentagon raised no objections, and the only cautionary tone came from Cheney, who said that the shift should not lead the administration down a "slippery slope," in which they end up retreating from their core red line: an end to enrichment and reprocessing -- the two paths toward fissile material. The group agreed to hold their red line.

Bush made it clear he did not want the United States to be seen as weak in making this move, officials added.

During the week of May 13, under strict secrecy, Rice assembled a small group of her closest aides to figure out how to structure and package the announcement. The group included Burns, Undersecretary for Arms Control Robert Joseph, counselor Philip Zelikow, senior adviser Jim Wilkinson, chief of staff Brian F. Gunderson and spokesman Sean McCormack. They were told to inform none of their aides and make no photocopies of documents. Meetings of the group in Rice's office were obscured on Rice's calendar by listing it under "security issues."

Joseph was assigned to write Rice's statement. Gunderson, a former Hill staffer, focused on selling the policy shift to key lawmakers while McCormack and Wilkinson developed a strategy on how to showcase the announcement. Officials wanted the Iranians to understand that this was a genuine offer, so it was decided that Rice would speak in the State Department's ornate Benjamin Franklin Room, giving the event a presidential aura.

The weekend before the announcement, Rice went to Camp David to make the final pitch to Bush. Her team had worked up answers to address questions from Bush about the wisdom of the move. Bush ultimately gave his final approval after speaking with key foreign leaders.

On Tuesday, the day before the announcement, Rice let U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton -- long a skeptic about dealing with Iran -- in on the secret. Bolton then joined Rice, Hadley and Joseph over dinner -- and was asked to call conservative commentators the next day to explain the decision.

Staff writer Dafna Linzer contributed to this report.


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