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.”
Put aside the question of whether you buy this picture of progress. What matters is that, by all accounts, Cheney and what’s left of his neocon brigade consider it so much hooey. Per usual, this faction is obsessively focused on Iraq. Per usual, they’re in utter denial about the source of the chaos there, preferring to blame it on Iran’s (admittedly pernicious) influence and not our own cataclysmic errors. And, per usual, they have a solution at hand: bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities (even Cheney isn’t nuts enough to regard a ground war as feasible) and sparking a change of régime in Tehran. As a Pentagon consultant told Sy Hersh last fall, “They believe that by tipping over Iran they would recover their losses in Iraq … It would be an attempt to revive the concept of spreading democracy in the Middle East by creating one new model state.”
Now, it’s true that Rice has done little to distance herself publicly from the hawks inside the White House. She’s thrown herself foursquare behind Bush’s more aggressive military moves. Yet Rice plainly regards measures such as sending additional warships to the Gulf as symbolic gestures designed to assure our allies in the region that America is serious about Iran. And though she was once prone to spouting windy rhetoric about “transformational diplomacy” and democratizing the Middle East, such talk has lately, and conspicuously, been replaced by an old-fashioned realism. The kind of realism that she learned at the knee of Brent Scowcroft. The kind that acknowledges that brokering peace between Israel and the Palestinians is essential to Mideast stability. The kind that would view air strikes against Iran as an idiot’s errand.
Until recently, of course, no one sensible would bet on Rice in a death-cage match with Cheney. And yet all around Washington the perception is that the vice-president has lost a fair degree of his mojo. Whether or not Scooter Libby is convicted of perjury, his departure is seen by current and former administration officials as having left Cheney severely depleted in fighting internal foreign-policy skirmishes. So, too, has the culling of many of his most powerful allies, from Donald Rumsfeld to John Bolton.
The best evidence so far of Cheney’s waning sway—and a sign that Rice may be more capable of taking him on than many assume—was the artful way in which she recently circumvented him in securing a deal on North Korean nuclear disarmament. In the past, Cheney’s hard-line position dominated discussions on the issue; rarely was the State Department allowed to deal with North Korea without the direct involvement of Vice’s people. But this time Rice stealthily end-ran him, dealing directly with Bush and securing his okay before Cheney had the chance to intervene. (Hence the wails of horror from his proxy, the ever-dyspeptic, walrus-faced Bolton, over the tentative agreement.)
Assuming that Cheney is down for the count would be foolhardy on an epic scale. The man has staged more ghoulish resurrections than Freddy Krueger. Witness Bush’s decision to reject the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group—a set of prescriptions specifically designed to give him a face-saving exit strategy and give his party at least a fighting chance in 2008. Can there be any doubt that the hidden hand of Cheney was working the joystick on that one?
But on Iran, Rice may now have enough throw weight to counterbalance him. She appears to have Defense Secretary Robert Gates firmly in her corner, as well as the military, which realizes that bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities would only delay coping with the problem, not to mention spurring blowback in the Arab world that would make the fallout from Iraq seem trivial.
The only trouble is that, even if Rice’s diplomatic path prevails inside the White House, it may not lead to an actual resolution of the crisis. “If the only thing we’re putting on the table is that we’ll talk to you, it isn’t going to work,” argued Francis Fukuyama, the apostate neoconservative theoretician, the other day at a conference in Washington. “What the Iranians have really wanted over a long period of time is the grand bargain: the [U.S.] forswearing régime change, accepting the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, restoring Iran’s regional status, full diplomatic relations.”
For Condi Rice, for the moment, all that appears to be a bridge too far. Time and again she has thundered that “security assurances [for Iran] are not on the table.” Yet among Rice’s mentors, the prevailing view is that almost nothing should be off the table, so great would be the value of keeping Iran from going nuclear and inducing it to play a more constructive role in the Middle East. As Rice drifts back in the direction of those rabbis, it’s just possible to hope that the press of circumstances—and her desire to leave a legacy that’s about more than Iraq—will bring her to a stark realization: Before she can possibly transform the Middle East, she will need to be tough enough to transform the dynamics inside the administration. And then she will need to have the guts to continue transforming herself.