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 recalled, interpreting the look as one of exasperation “that said, ‘O.K., team, what’s the answer?’ “
That body language touched off a closely held two-month effort to reach a drastically different strategy, one articulated two weeks later in a single sentence that Ms. Rice wrote in a private memorandum. It broached the idea that the United States end its nearly three-decade policy against direct talks 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 determined to rebuild a fractured coalition still bearing scars from Iraq and find a way out of a negotiating dynamic that, as one aide 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 Angela Merkel of Germany 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 the statement that Ms. Rice was scheduled to read Wednesday 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 Mr. Bush. Was he sure he was O.K. with his decision?
“Go do it,” he was said to have responded.
She did, but the results remain unclear. Iran has given no indication it will agree to Mr. Bush’s threshold condition, suspending nuclear fuel production. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Friday that he would oppose “any pressure to deprive our people from their right” to pursue a peaceful nuclear program.
The official news agency IRNA reported that Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, said Saturday that Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, was expected to arrive in Tehran in the next few days with the new package of incentives.
“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 once publicly described as successfully “isolating” Iran was in fact viewed internally as going nowhere. Mr. Bush’s search for a new option was driven, they say, by concern that the path he was on two months ago would inevitably force one of two potentially disastrous outcomes: 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 on 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 adviser to Ms. Rice and Mr. Bush said “he never would have allowed Colin to pursue.”
It is unclear how much dissent, if any, surrounded the decision, which appears to have been driven largely by the president, Ms. Rice and Mr. Hadley, with other senior national security officials playing a more remote role. Both White House and State Department officials say Vice President Dick Cheney, long an opponent of proposals to engage Iran, agreed to this experiment. But it is unclear whether he is an enthusiast, or simply expects Iran to reject suspending enrichment — clearing the way to sanctions that could test the Iranian government’s ability to survive.
After the surprise election of Mr. Ahmadinejad last summer, Iran ended its 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. 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 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.