President Bush's endorsement of a plan to end the nuclear standoff with Iran by giving the Islamic republic nuclear fuel for civilian use under close monitoring has left some of his supporters baffled.
One cause for the chagrin is that the proposal, which is backed by Russia, essentially adopts a strategy advocated by Mr. Bush's Democratic opponent in the 2004 election, Senator Kerry of Massachusetts.
"I have made it clear that I believe that the Iranians should have a civilian nuclear power program under these conditions: that the material used to power the plant would be manufactured in Russia, delivered under IAEA inspectors to Iran to be used in that plant, the waste of which will be picked up by the Russians and returned to Russia," Mr. Bush said at a news conference yesterday. "I think that is a good plan. The Russians came up with the idea and I support it," he added.
In an interview published in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, Mr. Bush also said he proposed the idea to offer nuclear fuel to Iran and agreed with Moscow on the subject.
During the election campaign, Mr. Kerry urged that the international community offer Iran nuclear fuel in attempt to test whether Iran was serious about pursuing a peaceful nuclear energy program or intent on manipulating such a program to produce plutonium for weapons. "We should call their bluff and organize a group of states that will offer the nuclear fuel they need for peaceful purposes and take back the spent fuel so they can't divert it to build a weapon," Mr. Kerry said during a June 2004 speech in Florida.
At a debate in September, Mr. Kerry faulted Mr. Bush for not agreeing to engage the Iranians with such an offer. "I think the United States should have offered the opportunity to provide the nuclear fuel, test them, see whether or not they were actually looking for it for peaceful purposes. If they weren't willing to work a deal, then we could have put sanctions together," Mr. Kerry said. "The president did nothing."
Neither Mr. Bush nor his aides directly addressed Mr. Kerry's proposal at the time, perhaps because European countries were pursuing a similar tack. A Bush campaign spokesman told the Reuters news agency that Mr. Kerry was aping Mr. Bush's nonproliferation policies.
However, Secretary of State Rice, who was national security adviser at the time, dismissed efforts to cut a deal with the Iranians. "This regime has to be isolated in its bad behavior, not quote-unquote 'engaged,'" she said in an August 2004 interview with Fox News.
The administration's reticence about Mr. Kerry's plan was not shared by Republican commentators, who accused the senator of favoring "appeasement" and warned that the Iranians could divert nuclear fuel to make bombs.
A Pentagon official under President Reagan, Frank Gaffney Jr., skewered the plan in a column entitled, "Kerry's Nuclear Nonsense." Mr. Gaffney, who did not return a call seeking comment for this story, declared, "Mr. Bush understands the folly of going that route."
Writing in National Review, a Defense Department official under President George H.W. Bush, Jed Babbin, called Mr. Kerry's proposal "ignorant" and "dangerously wrong."
One analyst who faulted the Kerry plan in 2004 said he was disillusioned by Mr. Bush's endorsement of the Russian initiative. "This seems to me to be a giant step backwards in terms of clarity," the vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council, Ilan Berman, said. "It's always disheartening when those of us who bashed his political opponent realize this is going to be the case," said Mr. Berman, who warned in 2004 of "devastating consequences" if Mr. Kerry's plan was adopted.
At the White House, a spokesman for the National Security Council, Frederick Jones II, said that American support for the Russian initiative on Iran was first articulated in November at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Korea.
During a press briefing at the meeting, Mr. Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, called the Russian role "very constructive" and their proposal on nuclear fuel "an interesting idea," but he did not embrace it as openly as Mr. Bush did yesterday.
Mr. Jones said Mr. Bush's recent statements were not a major shift in policy. "The U.S. position has always been to support negotiations to obtain an objective guarantee that Iran's nuclear programs are solely for a peaceful purpose," Mr. Jones said.
Mr. Kerry's office did not respond to a message seeking comment for this story. However, a top foreign policy aide on the senator's presidential campaign, Rand Beers, said he was pleased by Mr. Bush's statements, but disappointed in how long it took the administration to warm to the concept. "They are coming around to it as sort of a late-in-the-game, last-gasp kind of idea," Mr. Beers told The New York Sun. "While it's a Pyrrhic success, the president has taken a lot of our ideas."
Mr. Beers said Mr. Bush may have been unwilling to endorse the nuclear-fuel-to-Iran deal during the campaign for fear of alienating Jewish supporters. "Some could say that the political ploy was also to make sure they didn't get on the wrong side of the American Jewish vote insomuch as they were focused on not doing anything to benefit Iran," Mr. Beers said.
Mr. Beers, who served as a national security aide to Mr. Bush before quitting for the Kerry campaign in 2003, said the fuel offer is risky but "may be the only option that has any chance at this point in time." If Iran rejects it, the rejection could help win Russian support for international action, the national security veteran noted.
Another analyst questioned Mr. Bush's willingness to join forces with Russia in such a high-stakes proposal. "It's rather trusting of the Russians, who don't exactly have a great record of late of keeping their promises on anything," a speechwriter and foreign policy adviser under President Clinton, Robert Boorstin, said. He suggested the administration's new flexibility on the issue was prompted by the recent transition of a prominent foreign policy hawk, John Bolton, from the State Department to the post of American ambassador to the United Nations. "It's probably one of the most glaring areas where I see a difference between a pre- and post-Bolton State Department," Mr. Boorstin said.