Shift in U.S. Stance Shows Power of Seven-Letter Word
- Shift in U.S. Stance Shows Power of Seven-Letter Word
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 1, 2006; Page A13
The Bush administration's decision to consider sitting down with the Iranian
government underscores a central truth of diplomacy today: Nuclear weapons buy
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
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
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."