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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Lunch That Changed Bush's Stance on Iran

WASHINGTON — On a Tuesday afternoon two months ago, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sat down to a small lunch in U.S. President George W. 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, 'OK, 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 Rice wrote in a private memorandum. It broached the idea that the United States end a nearly three-decade policy against direct talks with Iran.

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.

Bush gradually grew more comfortable with offering talks to a country that he considered the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism. Bush's own early misgivings about the path he was considering came in a flurry of phone calls to Rice and to Stephen Hadley, his national security adviser, that often began with questions like "What if the Iranians do this?"

Bush left open the option of scuttling the entire idea until early Wednesday morning, three senior officials said. He made the final decision only after telephone calls with President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel led him to conclude that if Iran refused to suspend its uranium enrichment they would support a series of sanctions against it at the United Nations that could lead to a confrontation.

Before flying to Vienna on Wednesday to read the statement and encourage Europe and Russia to sign on to a final package of incentives for Iran, Rice called Bush one more time. Was he sure he was OK with his decision?

"Go do it," he allegedly responded.

She did, but the results remain unclear. Iran has given no indication it will agree to Bush's threshold condition, suspending nuclear fuel production.

Iranian news agency IRNA reported that Iranian 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," Mottaki said. 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. Bush's search for a new option was driven, they say, by concern that the path he was on two months ago would force one of two potentially disastrous outcomes: an Iranian bomb or an American attack on Iran's facilities.

Conservatives are worried that Bush could be forced into other concessions, including allowing Iran to continue some low level of nuclear fuel production. Others fear that the commitments Bush believes he extracted from Putin, Merkel and French President Jacques Chirac might 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 Bush's second term. When Colin Powell was secretary of state, the two buildings often seemed at war. But 18 months after Rice took over, her relationship with Bush has led to policies that one former adviser to Rice and 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 Bush, Rice and Hadley. Both White House and State Department officials say U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, long an opponent of proposals to engage Iran, agreed to this experiment, too.

After the decision, Bush initially told Rice that others could work out the final negotiations. Rice told him that "only you can nail this down," apparently a reference to keeping Merkel and Putin on board.

Bush, led by Rice, is taking a significant risk. He must hold together countries that bitterly broke with the United States three years ago on Iraq. He seems acutely aware that part of his legacy might depend on his ability to prevent Iran from emerging as a nuclear power without again resorting to military force.