WASHINGTON—It took four meetings on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, endless hours of diplomatic grind, a dust-up with the Russians, and battles with her Bush administration rivals.
But for now Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in control over policy toward the nuclear crisis with Iran, according to White House and State Department officials, European diplomats and outside analysts.
Whether that's a comfortable place, or even a permanent one, for her is less clear.
Rice returned to Washington on Friday from a six-nation meeting in Vienna, Austria, where she and her colleagues gave their seal of approval to a policy shift that Rice had quietly helped engineer over the last six weeks.
Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States offered Iran a plate of diplomatic goodies if it agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment, which outsiders suspect is aimed at building nuclear weapons. The goodies included, for the first time, direct talks with the United States at the table.
Rice, in an interview with National Public Radio on Friday, didn't rule out sitting down personally with the Iranians to talk.
The six nations also threatened unspecified punishment if Iran refuses the offer.
Rice has invested increasing amounts of time, energy and political capital in trying to plaster into place a united international front with the European Union and Russia on Iran.
Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program is perhaps the No. 1 security challenge facing the Bush administration, and Rice's other goals, such as promoting democracy in the Middle East, have been eclipsed.
But Rice faces a challenge in trying to keep the coalition together.
The effort could blow up if Iran tries to accept only parts of the offer. And if it rejects it, Russia, which has been hesitant, could balk at going along with the sanctions in the package.
Other members of Bush's inner circle—Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld—are said to be deeply skeptical of any negotiations with Iran. They may be waiting for the diplomatic gambit to fail, even banking on it, so that they can argue that military strikes or covert action are necessary to stop Iran from going nuclear.
Rice's offer of U.S. talks with Iran exposed her to rare personal attacks from Republican neoconservatives who oppose talking to Iran.
Michael Ledeen, a conservative commentator at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote last week that Rice's "impulse is always to find some middle ground, something that will satisfy—at least in large part—both positions."
The result, Ledeen wrote, is not a policy but "a gambit. For those who want to talk, she says we'll talk. For those who don't want to talk, she says we'll only talk if the Iranians give up in advance."
As part of an effort to build support for the new U.S. strategy, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton was assigned to brief leading neoconservatives. They included Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, columnist Charles Krauthammer and members of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page staff, according to a senior State Department official. Like other officials, he requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss such maneuvering publicly.
Despite the pitfalls ahead, Rice is clearly driving policy on Iran and other issues in a way her predecessor, Colin Powell, who lacked Rice's clout at the White House, never could.
"She has done a very effective job in the last year and a half of consolidating foreign policy back in the State Department," said Samuel "Sandy" Berger, the White House national security adviser under President Clinton.
"She has invested a good deal in Iran. And properly so," Berger said.
A career State Department official who's often no fan of Bush administration policies, called the decision to offer Iran direct talks "a huge win for her in Washington over Rumsfeld and Cheney."
"She did what Powell never could, and she is clearly riding high in terms of influence and ability to get things done. Whether it actually leads to a deal is another question," said the official, who asked not to be identified.
Rice aides said the genesis of the diplomatic strategy began in mid-April, when Rice wrote a draft of the proposal on her home computer.
There were two ideas behind it: Iran must be presented with a clear choice about whether it's willing to give up its nuclear program. And the Europeans, Russians and Chinese would never go along with sanctions on Iran unless Washington got more directly involved in attempting to reach out to Tehran.
By the time of a pivotal May 8 meeting among the six nations in New York, Rice had drawn up a detailed "diplomatic choreograph" for the weeks ahead, one aide said.
The meeting almost collapsed in a bitter confrontation between the Russians and the Americans. But in the end, all the allies agreed to pursue the carrot-and-stick approach.
The proposal was fleshed out over the rest of May, leading to Thursday's meeting at the British ambassador's residence in Vienna, where final disagreements were hammered out—for now.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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