Grand Illusions

With Rumsfeld and Powell gone, and Cheney’s power diminished, this is Condoleezza Rice’s moment. Can she salvage America’s standing in the Middle East—and defuse the threat of a nuclear Iran? Behind the curtain in Washington and Jerusalem with the secretary of state

In November, the Democratic Party swept both houses of Congress. The ensuing talk of a quick withdrawal from Iraq emboldened Iran and panicked Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and other Arab states. Suddenly, a strategic landscape whose most prominent feature was the horrifying failure of the American effort to stabilize Iraq, and the reluctance of America’s Arab allies to embrace our military presence in the region, was turned on its head. Arab leaders found themselves supporting the administration, instead of trying to sabotage what they had seen as an attempt to challenge their control over their own restive populations and to destroy the regional status quo. Meanwhile, two camps emerged in Washington: One believed in the hope of a stable, democratic Iraq and insisted that the administration get tough with Iran; the other, led by James Baker, wanted to negotiate with Iran and Syria as a prelude to an American withdrawal from Iraq.

Those who believed in the continuing wisdom of a muscular presence in Iraq also tended to agree with Rice that the United States was involved in a “generational struggle” against radical Islamists that in length and intensity might be akin to the Cold War. The Baker types tended to believe this was nonsense.

“Look, 9/11 was a huge traumatic shock to us,” Colin Powell told me when I visited him in Arlington, Virginia, last year. “But the Cold War is gone. All the theologies and ideologies that were going to supplant ours are gone. The communists, the fascists—get serious! The few authoritarian regimes that are left around are peanuts!” And here he ticked off a short list that included Venezuela, Cuba, and Belarus. Leaning forward, he added, “We can’t let terrorism suddenly become the substitute for Red China and the Soviet Union as our all-encompassing enemy, this great Muslim-extremist, monolithic thing from somewhere in Mauritania all the way through Muslim India. They’re all different. It’s not going to come together that way.”

As the debate between the two camps heated up last fall, Rice and her colleagues in the administration decided to embark on a daring and risky third course: a coordinated campaign, directed with the help of the intelligence services of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates. While the “get tough” crew favored direct military action against Iran, the administration chose a more subtle mix of diplomatic and economic pressure, large-scale military exercises, psychological warfare, and covert operations. The bill for the covert part of this activity, which has involved funding sectarian political movements and paramilitary groups in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, is said to amount to more than $300 million. It is being paid by Saudi Arabia and other concerned Gulf states, for whom the combination of a hasty American withdrawal from Iraq and a nuclear-armed Iran means trouble.

The Saudis agreed to cooperate with the United States not because they were enamored of American policy in the region but because they felt they had no choice. “Our major concern,” a source inside the Saudi security establishment told me recently, “is to make sure that the Iranians don’t start acting on their delusional rhetoric.” The Saudis have traditionally dealt with potential foes in the region by buying them off. Faced with the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, they decided to play a more active role. “The king realized that the Arab world is a disaster,” my source explained, speaking of the Saudi leader, King Abdullah. “Egypt is completely consumed by its domestic problems, and has turned inward. Jordan is a very small, weak country. Syria is a basket case. Iraq is a disaster, and the central government there has no credibility.”

Nicholas Burns, who as undersecretary of state for political affairs is in charge of the American side of the European-led effort to persuade Iran to stop processing uranium, confirmed the existence of a broad political and military strategy to counter Iran that began just after the recent war in Lebanon.

“We felt at the end of this past autumn and the beginning of January of this year that the Iranians were proceeding on a lot of different fronts without any opposition,” he said. “So we pushed them back in Iraq by detaining their paramilitary operatives. We stationed the two carrier battle groups in the Middle East, to show them this was not a Persian lake but an international waterway.” Then he ticked off other actions recently taken, including imposing sanctions on two major Iranian banks and putting pressure on Western financial institutions not to lend money to Iran.

Sources in the United States and the Middle East familiar with the covert side of the American-led effort to “push back” Iran explained that these efforts have been accompanied by other, more active measures. They pointed to an upsurge in antigovernment guerrilla activity inside Iran, including a bomb in Zahedan, the economic center of the province of Baluchistan, that killed 11 soldiers in the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on February 14; the mysterious death of the Iranian scientist Ardashir Hosseinpour, who worked on uranium enrichment at the Isfahan nuclear facility; and the defection of a high-ranking Iranian general named Ali Asgari, a former deputy minister of defense who was also the Revolutionary Guard officer responsible for training and supplying Hezbollah during its war against the Israelis in southern Lebanon in the 1980s. Iran’s oil infrastructure may be another likely target. “People focus altogether on the nuclear facilities and how difficult they would be to take out,” former Secretary of State George Shultz told me in his office at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “But it’s not difficult for somebody to sabotage those refineries.”

There was no Iran desk at the State Department when Rice got there, and she has been working hard to build the department’s expertise. “I get a little worried when I find out that we don’t have that many people around who have that kind of deep knowledge,” she told me. “I don’t understand the system very well, and I don’t think anybody really does,” she said, speaking of the leadership in Tehran. “You can sit five people down, and you’ll get different readings on what that system is like.”

When I asked Rice to name a book that influenced her thinking about the Middle East, she hesitated. “I probably read dozens of books on the Middle East, but several of them I’d read before,” she said. “I’m actually, believe it or not, for an academic, an aural learner. So I tend to have people in and talk about places. And to engage people who know those regions very, very well.” She finally mentioned the UN Human Development Report, which she said had opened her eyes to the dearth of patents issued in Muslim countries.

The key to Rice’s new Middle Eastern strategy, which some administration officials hope will end in a “grand bargain” that will stabilize Iraq, keep the Syrians out of Lebanon, and force Iran to give up its ambitions to build a nuclear bomb, lies in a renewed drive to create a Palestinian state. This is the price that Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are demanding if they are to support the administration’s stance on Iraq and Iran. For this diplomatic gambit to succeed, Rice will need to make swift progress toward solving a conflict where the prospects for peace look dimmer than they have at any point in the last 20 years, and where administration policy has lurched from failure to failure since she began her tenure as secretary of state.

“The Iranians are either going to be out in a year or so, or they’ll be in forever,” Henry Kissinger told me, when I asked him what he thought about the prospect of Iran’s membership in the circle of nations with nuclear weapons. “And if they’re in forever, that means Turkey, Egypt, everybody will be in. And then we live in a world that is uncontrollable.” What that means, Kissinger suggested, is that Rice has perhaps one year to strengthen the U.S. position in the Middle East and to reach a deal with Iran. “I’m of the view that the president, vilified as he is, ridiculed as he is by many people, is basically right about the nature of the danger. Not necessarily about all the steps that he has taken. But there is a global danger. It is implacable. It needs to be defeated.”

In the fall of 2005, as part of a new push for democracy in the Middle East, Rice insisted that legislative elections be held in the Palestinian territories, against the strong advice of the Israelis, the ruling Fatah party, and the neighboring Arab states. Rice believed that elections would help precipitate a “changing of the guard” inside Fatah, the party founded by Yasir Arafat, whose older generation of leaders was flagrantly corrupt. A Fatah win would give added legitimacy to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a colorless moderate who seemed willing to reach some kind of peaceful accommodation with Israel but lacked support among his own people.

To Rice’s surprise, the elections in January 2006 were won by Hamas, the Islamist party that has been responsible for the majority of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. “Did we adequately assess the probability of the outcomes here?” said David Welch, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, a career foreign-service officer and former ambassador to Egypt whose sharp, birdlike appearance is at odds with his exceedingly calm demeanor. “Probably not, in retrospect.”

The United States, the European Union, and Israel met the news of Hamas’s victory with a declaration that they would not transfer funds to the new government until it agreed to fight terrorism, recognize the state of Israel, and abide by other commitments under the Oslo Accords and the “road map,” the diplomatic plan whose choreographed sequence of moves is supposed to lead to the creation of a peaceful Palestinian state. While the United States and the EU continued to meet with Abbas and actually increased aid to Palestinians, the money went to NGOs and other social-welfare agencies. The Hamas government was left diplomatically isolated and broke.

Eager to reverse the results of the election, Rice decided on a new plan of action that resulted in fighting in the streets of Gaza between Hamas and Fatah gunmen. The plan, which she developed after speaking to President Bush, was to put pressure on the Hamas government by providing the Palestinian security forces loyal to Abbas with training, intelligence, and large shipments of supplies and new weapons, paid for by the United States and by Saudi Arabia. The hope was that Hamas, faced with a well-armed, well-trained force of Fatah fighters, might be cowed into moderating its positions or relinquishing the power it had won through elections. Alternatively, Hamas might be pressured into an escalating series of gun battles, in which case Abbas, as head of the Palestinian security forces, would have an excuse to crush Hamas by force. This approach cast some doubt on the administration’s faith in democracy, and it, too, was a failure. Hamas won the clashes, which left more than 140 Palestinians dead, and the Hamas government remained in power.

This past February, King Abdullah, tired of seeing Palestinians fighting Palestinians (and concerned that Hamas was drifting toward Iran, which had been providing Hamas with money, weapons, and military training), invited Hamas and Fatah to Saudi Arabia, where he brokered a power-sharing deal known as the Mecca agreement. Saudi Arabia also promised to deliver $1 billion to keep the new Palestinian government afloat. The Saudi deal is widely seen as a defeat for Rice, because it created a Palestinian unity government that does not recognize past agreements with Israel and whose prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, a member of Hamas, proclaims the Palestinian “right” to “resistance in all its forms, including popular resistance to occupation,” which extends to suicide attacks against Israeli civilians.

Rice was caught on the horns of a fateful dilemma. The United States could choose to do business with the Palestinian unity government, pleasing the Saudis and gaining Arab support for future diplomatic and military moves in Iran and Iraq, at the cost of legitimizing terrorism. Or the United States could refuse to deal with Hamas, angering the Saudis and risking the collapse of its strategy. The road that Rice chooses to take is likely to determine the course of our relationships in the Middle East for years to come.

When I was invited to accompany her on a 72-hour visit to Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Amman beginning on February 17, her 10th trip devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since becoming secretary of state, I was more than eager to tag along.

Presented by

David Samuels’s “In a Ruined Country,” a profile of Yasir Arafat, appeared in September 2005.

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