Condoleezza Rice speaks often and proudly of her penchant for carefully studying the past for what it tells us about the present and the future. So it was fitting that, in an interview last week with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz while she was over in Jerusalem, Rice was queried about a comparison that’s become a kind of mantra for Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu: “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs.” What, pray tell, did the secretary of State have to say about that? “I am fond of historical analogies—but not that fond,” she replied.
Well, it’s certainly comforting to hear that we are not on the brink of World War III. And even more so that the woman in charge of American diplomacy is sane enough not to go around saying we are. But still not all that comforting—not with both sides of the simmering conflict between the United States and Iran playing such a dangerous game. In one corner, we have a fanatical, anti-Semitic, terror-sponsoring administration in Tehran that persists in defying not merely America but the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency with its uranium-enrichment efforts. In the other, we have a glaringly inept, frequently dissembling, flagrantly will-of-the-people-defying administration in Washington that persists in amping up its bellicosity to earsplitting levels: hurling accusations of Iranian complicity in the slaughter of American soldiers in Iraq; detaining Iranian operatives in Baghdad and Irbil; dispatching a second aircraft-carrier group to the Persian Gulf.
You don’t need to be especially gloom-and-doomy to conclude: This cannot end well. Or to feel yourself overcome with a stomach-churning sense of déjà vu.
Yet for all the eerie similarities to the run-up to Iraq, the burgeoning crisis in Iran is unfolding under different circumstances: in the twilight instead of at the apogee of the Bush administration. Old faces are gone. New dynamics are emerging. The nature of internal White House deliberations are thoroughly in flux. Whereas once Colin Powell and the State Department were marginalized, now Rice and her team are at the center of the action. And whereas once Dick Cheney was the Rasputin and the Machiavelli of Bush’s foreign-policy assemblage, he now seems a wan and fading figure, still influential but far from omniscient, let alone omnipotent. With the Middle East poised on a razor’s edge, it’s sobering to realize that the difference between bedlam and stability—between a shooting war with Iran and a diplomatic solution—may be determined by office politics. But, I suppose, it was ever thus.
Rice, as we all know, has long been close to Bush—so close that she once slipped and referred to him as her “husband.” Formal, meticulous, and a touch obsessive, she saw her promotion to secretary of State as a world-historical event. And yet it wasn’t until she trained her sights on Iran that she put herself in a position to make an impact on the order of the Foggy Bottom predecessors whom she most admires: Marshall, Acheson, Shultz.
That process began nearly a year ago, when Rice persuaded Bush to abandon America’s three-decade policy against direct talks with Iran. The abandonment carried one large condition: that Tehran agree to suspend its nuclear program for the duration of the negotiations. Still, says Nicholas Burns, Rice’s undersecretary for political affairs, “it was perhaps the most significant American government offer made to Iran since 1979–80—and certainly the most significant on the nuclear issue.”
But not significant enough to satisfy Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who flipped the bird to the U.S. and its allies. A few months later, in December, the U.N. Security Council approved a set of sanctions against Iran, demanding that it halt its uranium enrichment within 60 days. That deadline came and went last week, with the IAEA reporting that Iran was still steaming ahead and Ahmadinejad still striking a defiant pose. Now Rice and her people are gearing up to push for a new U.N. resolution, this time with sharper teeth, even as they exert pressure on banks and multinationals to cut off capital and trade to Iran.
According to Rice’s lieutenants at State, the diplomatic crunch is weakening Ahmadinejad’s hand. In Iran’s recent municipal elections, his political allies were routed; clerics and lawmakers are publicly assailing him; the country’s economy is reeling. On a grander scale, Rice maintains that Iran’s troublemaking is bringing about a “new alignment” in the region. “After the war in Lebanon, the Middle East really did begin to clarify into an extremist element allied with Iran, including Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas,” she told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius recently. “On the other side were the targets of this extremism—the Lebanese, the Iraqis, the Palestinians—and those who want to resist, such as the Saudis, Egypt, and Jordan.”