In 2005, when Condoleezza Rice became secretary of state, she took over from someone with whom she shared more than a few similarities: Colin Powell. Like Powell, Rice enjoys popularity beyond that of anyone else in the administration. Like Powell, she was schooled in the realist tradition of foreign policy thinking. And, like Powell, she now finds herself, two years into a Bush term, in a high-stakes game of geopolitical brinkmanship, the outcome of which will determine whether we are plunged into a new Persian Gulf war. With Powell, it was Iraq; with Rice, Iran.
Four years ago, Powell voiced considerable skepticism about the wisdom of invading Iraq, whereas Rice, according to most accounts, agreed withor at least accommodatedthose in the administration bent on Iraqi regime change. But as secretary of state, she seems to have become, over the past year, the leader of efforts within the administration to find a negotiated settlement with Iran over its presumed nuclear weapons program, one that avoids direct military confrontation. Rice certainly has at least one powerful motive for averting a war with Iran: her own reputation. Over the past two years, as books by Bob Woodward, Ron Suskind, and others have exposed the administration’s inner workings, Rice’s competence and credibility have been called into question. (Woodward cited George H. W. Bush as saying that as national security adviser, Rice was a “disappointment” and “not up to the job.”) Her legacy now rests on her ability to solve the Iran crisis peacefully.
In this, she possesses advantages Powell lacked. She is one of the president’s most trusted confidants, something Powell could never claim. And as a result of the disaster in Iraq (and the disaster for Republicans at the polls last fall) most of the hard-liners who made Powell’s life miserable in Bush’s first term are gone or have been sidelinedthough the vice president and his sizeable national security staff are still powerful.
What remains the same is that a secretary of state in the Bush administration is extremely constrained. Rice belongs to an administration averse to real diplomacy with its adversaries, and therefore lacks a secretary of state’s most elemental tool: the authority to negotiate directly. In more than a year of intensive reporting on U.S. policy vis-à-vis Iran, in numerous ongoing conversations with administration officials and Iran watchers, I’ve observed how Rice, in attempting to take the lead on Iran policy, has had to walk a very taut tightrope. On the one hand, she must mollify those in the administration still bent on regime change in Iran. On the other, she has taken the lead of a new crop of experts who believe in modifying Iran’s behavior through diplomacy. Recently, her team has achieved some notable successes. On February 26, for instance, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius reported that the United States planned to join Iran to discuss Iraq security at a Baghdad conference in March.
But the difficulty Rice faces is that every successful effort to pressure Iran through firm but peaceful means has the potential to be hijacked by those seeking grounds for military confrontationjust as Powell’s efforts once were. Will Rice’s gamble on diplomacy work, despite the formidable odds, or will she get Powelled? That is precisely the question that lingers in the minds of some within the State Department. “People are very conscious of Iraq,” one official involved with Iran policy told me, on condition of anonymity. “And they realize there are people who would love to see this be a runaway train.”
One of Colin Powell’s greatest problems as secretary of state was the fact that his counterpart at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, ran an infinitely bigger bureaucracy able to throw more resources at issues like Iraq. Although Rice’s arrival at the State Department in 2005 appeared to offer the promise of a higher-profile diplomatic element to Bush’s second-term foreign policy, she suffered from a similar difficulty. “It’s astounding how little knowledge there is on basic issues,” one government source told me last May on condition of anonymity, referring to the administration’s Iran capacity. “There is no expertise ... How do you run a government this way?”
To counter Rumsfeld and Cheney, Rice would have to fight asymmetrically. So she used her access to the president, worked to restore frayed U.S. alliances, and moved to beef up her department’s intellectual and policy talent. She quickly recruited an all-star team of nonideological bureaucrats and diplomats as her inner circle. These included her friend and former fellow Bush 41 National Security Council colleague Philip Zelikow; and Nicholas Burns, who had been Clinton’s ambassador to Greece and the spokesman for Madeleine Albright’s State Department, and now became the top envoy on Iran. Christopher Hill, a foreign service veteran and three-time ambassador who made his name as a top peace negotiator during the Balkan wars, was appointed envoy on North Korea.
In the early spring of 2006, in part as a result of the disintegrating situation in Iraq, America faced the prospect of a newly resurgent Iran, which was supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shiite militants in Iraq, and suspected of building nuclear weapons. As the administration considered its response, it was divided between the regime changers (a faction of hard-liners who argued internally that Washington should continue to shun Iran and work ultimately to replace its leadership) and the so-called behavior changers (the moderates in the bureaucracy, Congress, and the wider foreign policy elite, including Rice’s former boss Brent Scowcroft, who strongly advocated for negotiations).
Rice dealt with this tension in the same way she’d approached the other epic ideological disputes that have divided the administration: she tried to split the difference. Her State Department began to visibly incorporate some of the rhetoric and initiatives of the regime changers, while nodding to those advocating engagement by bolstering U.S. diplomatic efforts to cobble together an international alliance to pressure Iran to back down.
Rice’s struggle to gain influence over the administration’s Iran policy began to take visible shape in March 2006. In an unclassified memorandum obtained by the Center for American Progress, she outlined aggressive measures to boost the department’s Iran expertise. These included a deployment of a dozen Farsi-speaking foreign service officers to countries surrounding Iran, and a new Iran “watching station”a virtual American embassyin Dubai. Rice also called forand ultimately received$85 million from Congress to support pro-democracy, human rights, and civil society efforts in Iran, including $50 million to expand U.S.-government Farsi language broadcasting to be beamed into the country from Dubai. Finally, she also ordered the creation of a new Office of Iranian Affairs. The office was intended to be a key outpost in Rice’s attempt to move Iran policy back under State Department control.
These developments might have seemed like a clear win for the behavior changers, but, as is usually the case in the Bush administration, the reality was more complicated. The new Iran office was staffed by political appointeesveteran democratization specialists from the International Republican Institute, who worked as advisers for Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter, Liz (then the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and coordinator for broader Middle East and North Africa initiatives). In early May last year, I visited this initiative, located in a warren of offices on the department’s second floor. Framed pictures of Persian miniatures and a map of the Persian Gulf were going up on the wood-paneled walls. Later, a department aide would explain to me that there was an argument in government circles over whether the Iran policy should be behavior change or regime change. The aide personally favored regime change, as did many working for Liz Cheney in the department.
Meanwhile, Rice’s Iran team was devoting extraordinary diplomatic energy to working the Iran nuclear issue through the United Nations. Led by Burns, the team pushed the International Atomic Energy Association to refer Iran as noncompliant to the UN Security Council, which it did in April 2006. The team also started energetically lobbying members of the Security Council plus Germany to agree to a package of carrots and sticks to pressure Iran to abandon its nuclear program.
At the end of May, Rice pushed the policy as far as she could. In the Ben Franklin Room of the State Department, she made her boldest announcement since becoming secretary of state: The United States would agree to join direct talks with Iran for the first time in twenty-seven years. Iran was given the summer to consider Rice’s offer, which was accompanied by pages of inducements from the West, including an international offer to build Iran a civilian nuclear power facility, and economic inducements such as WTO membership. Yet again, though, this wasn’t a pure victory for the behavior changers. Instead of offering unconditional negotiations, Rice’s proposal included a caveat palatable to the hard-liners that placed the prospect of ever getting to the negotiating table in doubt: Iran had to agree to suspend its uranium enrichment program for the duration of the talks.
Still, an administration official, who declined to be named, at the time described the mood in the department in response to Rice’s announcement as “subtly dramatic.” He added that for his colleagues who were present in the run-up to the Iraq War, the Iran situation had started to seem like déjà vu. “Something had to be done. And so [Rice] did it. And she had a lot of help; there have been some powerful voices in Washington making this case. She is sticking her neck out a little bit, trying to push this through, and leaving it up to the Iranians to do the right thing.”
Rice’s conditional offer turned out to be the high-water mark for Iran diplomacy for the next ten months. Emboldened by the U.S. failure in Iraq, Tehran seemed in no hurry to accept the United States’ overture. Then, on July 12, Iranian-backed Hezbollah killed three Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others on the Lebanese border. Israel proceeded to launch a retaliatory air campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon, while Hezbollah lobbed missiles into northern Israel. While the issue is disputed, some analysts have argued that Hezbollah would not have taken such a provocative action without Iran’s permission.
The war in Lebanon diminished any modest appetite the White House may have had for cutting a deal with Iran. Rice received the thankless task of negotiating to end the conflict. On July 30, while she was in Israel urging the country’s leaders to avoid civilian casualties, the Israeli military bombed the Lebanese town of Qana, accidentally killing dozens of civilians. That night, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora let Rice know she would be unwelcome in Beirut. At a press conference in Israel, Rice looked stricken; she returned to Washington immediately afterward.
Although the war in Lebanon was not the decisive victory for Israel that administration hawks hoped it would be, the conflict shifted the balance of power in the government back to the hawks on Iran. Vice President Cheney reportedly began to meet secretly and in public with Saudi officials and other actors outside State Department channels in joint efforts to undermine Iran.
However, Rice’s effortsspearheaded by Burnsto work through the UN Security Council did achieve a breakthrough: on December 23, she won a Chapter VII resolution from the UN Security Council, imposing the first international sanctions on Iran since 1979. This was clearly a victory for those who wanted to work through the international community using nonmilitary means to change Iran’s behavior. However, the resolution also happened to suit the hard-liners’ agenda. Of course, when Powell urged the administration to seek a UN resolution on Iraq in 2003, the administration allowed him to do sothen used the resolution as a stepping stone to war.
In the afternoon on Valentine’s Day of this year, with half of Washington shut down due to a heavy snowfall, Nicholas Burns spoke to a packed house at the Brookings Institution. That week, Washington was perceptibly tense. Just days earlier, the administration had made its oddly furtive case to the press through anonymous military briefers in Baghdad that Iran’s al-Quds force was supplying a particularly lethal, armor-piercing form of explosive device to Iraqi Shiite militant groups. Burns’s talk stated that the increased administration campaign to pressure Tehran was not part of a march to war, but involved tough, sustained, coercive diplomacy of the type that had succeeded in winning North Korea’s agreement to end its nuclear program just a day earlier.
“We are convinced that sooner or later the costs to Iran of its isolation are going to be so profoundly important to them, destructive to their economic potential, that they are going to have to come to the negotiating table,” he said. “And we are not going to give up.” The cerebral and nonideological Burns gave the impression of a consummately professional diplomat who was communicating a deliberately ambiguous message both to his American and international audience, in which the hint of force was carefully calibrated to reinforce U.S. diplomatic efforts.
For now, it’s impossible to tell whether Rice’s high-stakes ploy will succeed. Colin Powell believed that by accommodating the hawks, he could gain the leverage he needed to influence the policy for good. Instead, he ended up lending his considerable credibility to a policy of war with Iraq that had already been decided without the State Department’s participation.
Rice has managed to win at least one significant battle with her multilateral approach. On the issue of North Korea, Christopher Hill made an end-run around administration hard-liners to win the president’s approval to a deal in which North Korea pledged to end its nuclear program in exchange for economic assistancean agreement similar to one negotiated by the Clinton administration in 1994 and dismissed for the past six years by the Bush administration as appeasement. But Iran is far more central to the emotional vortex of administration hawks than North Korea, combining as it does the Middle East, tyranny, terrorism, nuclear weapons, oil, Islamic radicalism, and Israel. And unlike North Korea, Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons yet, and the deterrent threat to military action they provide.
Rice knows how the system works. In February, she traveled to Jerusalem to attempt to restart the Middle East peace process. But while she was en route the neoconservative NSC adviser Elliott Abrams was, according to news reports, using contacts in the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to arrange a phone call between Olmert and Bush. After the call, Olmert announced that Israel would not recognize the Palestinian unity government as a legitimate negotiating partneran essential precondition for productive talksand that Bush supported Israel’s stance. Her position fatally undercut, Rice returned to Washington empty-handed.
The great fear is that Rice’s entire diplomatic effort could be used to justify future military confrontation. Weekly Standard editor William Kristol made this case publicly in February. “You can’t just suddenly use force,” Kristol said on Fox News Sunday. “[The question is,] ‘Can the president build a predicate if he feels he has to use force?’ ... I think if things have stabilized in Iraq, then you could easily build political support for being much tougher on Iran at the beginning of 2008.”
The behavior changers hope he’s wrong. “It’s a finely nuanced thing,” a U.S. official involved with Iran policy told me in February. “We do want to pressure them. We want the Iranians to know we could bomb them. It would really hurt them. We are being tough, but that’s different than bombing people,” he continued. “That’s different than a casus belli ... The people who are professionals here have only contempt for what happened in the past, and we’re very conscious of not being used.” The official concluded: “For once, I think we’re doing it the right way.”