Is Condi Getting Better?

Just as the theocratic leadership in Iran is trying to rein in the aggressive nationalism of the new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, so Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appears to be restraining aggressive nationalists in Washington who want to escalate rising tensions with Iran and Syria.

In just the last 10 days, Rice and her State Department have reportedly not only opposed proposals to carry out military raids inside Syria as a way of further weakening, and possibly overthrowing, its already beleaguered President Bashar Assad, but they have also put forward a plan for directly engaging Iran for the first time since May 2003.

The latter move, which, according to the Wall Street Journal, also includes setting up a small “interests section” in Tehran, came even as British Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested that Iran was behind a series of bombings by Shi’ite militias in southern Iraq that have killed half a dozen British soldiers this year. Bush himself was also preparing to deliver a speech in which he called both Iran and Syria “allies of convenience” of al-Qaeda and “Islamic radicalism.”

In both cases, the role played by Rice has aggravated right-wing hawks, particularly hardline neoconservatives who were already unhappy about her public declarations that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon must do more for Palestinians beyond disengagement from Gaza. It suggests that her so-called practical idealism may not be all that different from the “realism” of her immediate predecessor, the hapless Colin Powell.

It may also bear some similarity to realist tendencies of Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who last week enhanced the authority of his Expediency Council and its chairman, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, to oversee the performance of Ahmadinejad’s government, particularly in foreign policy.

The approval last month of a resolution referring Iran to the UN Security Council for allegedly violating its nuclear-reporting obligations was reportedly seen – by Tehran’s stock market as well as its gray beards – as a sharp setback to its international standing, and one that had to be taken seriously given rising tensions with Washington over Iran’s nuclear program and its activities in Iraq.

“Managers at [the nuclear] sector should know that we need diplomacy and not slogans,” said Rafsanjani, who was defeated by Ahmadinejad in June’s elections. “This is where we should use all our leverages with patience and wisdom, without provocation and slogans that can give pretexts to the enemies.”

His remarks sounded eerily like Rice’s mantra – “Now is the time for diplomacy” – since becoming secretary of state.

In contrast to Powell, who labored long and hard to achieve the same end, Rice has so far succeeded in getting Bush to try serious diplomacy, as well as rhetorical posturing and military threats, on the two remaining members of the “axis of evil,” Iran and North Korea.

On the first, she persuaded her boss to support the negotiating position of Britain, France, and Germany (the EU-3) on a deal to provide Tehran with economic and other carrots in exchange for renouncing its production of fissionable material that could be used to build nuclear weapons.

On the second, her chief negotiator in the Six-Party Talks for denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, Assistant Secretary for Asian Affairs Christopher Hill, was given significantly greater flexibility to engage the North Koreans directly in discussions than Powell was ever able to get.

These victories have tended to confirm the assessment that Rice and her team – which features such formidable players as Deputy Secretary Robert Zoellick, Undersecretary for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, and Counselor Philip Zelikow – are in a much stronger position in the administration vis–vis the hawks.

Just last week, a prominent neoconservative, Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), complained that “The Bush revolution has …lost its energy” and that the administration’s “rhetoric retains its ring, but it does not resonate through the Department of State…”

The realists’ stronger position, of course, is due above all to the fact that, with 150,000 U.S. troops still bogged down in Iraq at the cost of $6 billion a month, the “coalition of the willing” getting smaller virtually every month, and public support for the war in a state of collapse, those who argue that expanding the conflict have a hard row to hoe.

It also helps that key Pentagon ideologues – notably former Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary for Policy Douglas Feith – are gone and that relations between Rumsfeld and influential neoconservatives, such as Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, have deteriorated badly.

In addition, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley has weighed in with Rice in most internal battles, in contrast to Rice’s reluctance to take positions when she served in the post in Bush’s first term. Finally, Rice has also benefited from a much closer personal relationship with the president than Powell could even dream about.

But that does not mean that the hawks are defeated. On both Syria and Iran, as demonstrated by the threatening tone of Bush’s speech last week, the hawks, particularly neoconservatives, are pressing for stronger action.

For several months, Kristol, among others, has been urging cross-border raids – either by air or by land – of Syrian targets, particularly sites where “foreign fighters” bound for Iraq allegedly train or muster.

According to Knight-Ridder, that proposal was discussed among Bush’s top advisers late last month, but it was Rice, who has fiercely criticized Damascus in public, who successfully argued against the idea, particularly given the anticipated Oct. 25 report by a UN commission investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. If it inculpates Assad, the regime could fall on its own. In that sense, Rice’s advice was, if nothing else, “expedient.”

On Iran, the administration’s rhetoric has also hardened amid charges, which preceded Blair’s, that Iran was providing both its Shi’ite allies and Sunni insurgents with specially designed bombs.

On this front, too, the neoconservatives, who remain powerful in Cheney’s office and elsewhere in the national-security bureaucracy, including the State Department’s nonproliferation bureau and the U.S. mission at the UN, have been the most outspoken, with AEI in the vanguard role.

On Monday, for example, one of its resident regional specialists, Michael Rubin, published an article entitled “Only Threat of Force Will Tame Tehran” in the London Guardian. Later this month, AEI will host a conference focusing on Iranian minorities, such as Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Ahwazis, and Baluchis who, “in the event the current regime falls … will undoubtedly play an important role in their country’s future.”

In this context, Rice’s apparent backing for engaging Tehran as part of a new carrot-and-stick strategy that would include “a quiet approach to representatives of Khamenei” himself, according to the Wall Street Journal, is no less remarkable than her successful efforts to gain a broader negotiating mandate for North Korea.

October 12, 2005