Monday, June 05, 2006

The New York Times on Condoleezza Rice's Influence

Yesterday's New York Times ran an insightful piece on Condoleeza Rice and the administration's top-level decision-making process on U.S.-Iranian relations.
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.

The story neatly explicates the power dynamics of President Bush's inner circle, and suggests how substantially White House relations with the State Department have changed during Secretary Rice's tenure. The Iran gambit, of course, might end up being a brilliant piece of diplomacy, utlimately serving to expose the phoniness of Iran's three-year negotiations with the European powers.

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