David Sanger at the New York Times and Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post have penned a pair of articles as fawning as can be within the bounds of a family paper, announcing that Condi has eclipsed Dick in running the show on Iran.

But the administration’s about-face, as recounted by U.S. officials, shows the dominant influence of Rice on the policymaking process. A year ago, she persuaded Bush to back the European talks with Iran. Conservatives were concerned but went along, thinking the European effort would fail. Now, Rice has moved the administration to a point unimaginable at the start of the second term.

“Condi felt the need to jump-start the talks and take control of the situation,” a second official said.

Kessler, “Rice Key to Reversal on Iran…”

On a Tuesday afternoon two months ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sat down to a small lunch in President Bush’s private dining room behind the Oval Office…

[The meeting] touched off a closely held two-month effort to reach a drastically different strategy, one articulated two weeks later in a single sentence that Ms. Rice wrote in a private memorandum. It broached the idea that the United States end its nearly three-decade policy against direct talks with Iran.

Sanger, “A Talk at Lunch That Shifted the Stance on Iran”

Okay, the Kessler article is insightful, if one reads between the lines. Kessler suffers largely through guilt by association, his story coming as it does as part of the same spin campaign that produced the Sanger article. (I am not sure Kessler’s heart was in the spin, given some of the details that were included in his story.)

Anywho, the gist of the spin is easy enough to spot:

(1) Condi is a genius,
(2) The President is The Decider,
(3) Cheney is back in his cage.

Even Jim Hoagland agrees it is true! So, you better check yourself before your wreck yourself, I-ran.

Anybody Got an NSPD?

Sanger and Kessler cite the usual anonymous officials, including an unnamed, genderless “participant” in internal debates, who just happens to share with Sanger what Bush tells Rice and the details of her daily activities.

Since Condi is ascendant, I guess that means she told Sanger and Kessler that they’ve finished that Iran NSPD, right? Sanger and Kessler asked her about that, right? I mean, they reported that she’s in charge of the policy, so we surely have a policy, right? RIGHT?

Maybe it came out of Condi’s little memo, the two-pager with the color coded schedule that Sanger reports Hadley called “impenetrable”? You know, the one with the “single sentence” devoted to negotiations with Iran? Is that NSPD 47 now? It sure must be the shortest NSPD ever. And, given Condi’s obvious brilliance, the best written. Maybe even has the prettiest font and the nicest paper, too. I bet it’s even set to music, composed by Yo Yo Ma.

Or maybe the new NSPD came out of the meetings that Kessler reports Condi held in secret under the not even slightly suspicious title “security issues”—meetings so secret that no one was allowed to mention them or make photocopies of any documents. (Thank goodness, the MSM has perfected the art of stenography, or historians would be, like, totally hosed.)

Anyway, I’d suggest alternative places where this “new super duper secret awesome Condi-fied Iran policy” might be presently housed, but none of those undisclosed locations are appropriate for mention a high-minded forum like this.

Gary Sick Saves the Day

And, all things considered, if Rice has cobbled together even a temporary coalition to do something, anything about Iran, then I am grateful. The adults may not be in charge, but at least the children seem to be in between tantrums.

So, instead of continuing my tirade, I’ll leave you with the words of Gary Sick, of the Gulf/2000 Project, who offers a critical reading of the statement issued by Rice in light to details reported by the Times and Post:

I start from the assumption that Rice’s statement was a compromise document that was fought out over a period of weeks, perhaps months, in Washington between the warring tribes (the Washington Post in particular documents this in some detail in their front-page story today). One tribe seems to be centered in the State Department in the persons of Condoleeza Rice and Nick Burns; the other tribe is headed by VP Cheney and operates out of his black-box counter-policy staff in the White House—a new phenomenon in the history of US foreign policy.

Neither side appears to have won an outright victory, though Rice & Co. were able to win the tactical victory of an offer to Iran of possible diplomatic contact. It is important to remember that every word of this statement was weighed and was subject to arguments and objections. So it is possible to learn a lot just by a careful reading.

The entire first half of the document is devoted to a restatement of the US objections to Iran and its nuclear program. This is to appease the Cheneyites that Bush and Condi have not gone wobbly on Iran. At the same time, the word “diplomacy” shows up over and over, which I take as a signal that Bush and Condi have looked at the likely outcome of a military strike and have decided that it is a losing proposition. But they dare not “take it off the table,” both as a negotiating tactic and as a necessary sop to those lusting for more blood sport after Iraq.

The preamble also stresses multilateral approaches, identifying the US with its European allies and “the international community.” This is, if nothing else, a measurement of how the Cheney forces have been weakened by the unilateralism of Iraq and its aftermath. They must at least pretend to build international support, even if at heart they don’t believe in it.

For those of us who have followed the various proposals in op-eds, study groups, and Track II meetings concerning possible contact between Iran and the US, we will appreciate that the language of this statement, though tough, does not resort to the more extravagant rhetoric of the past. There is no talk here of an Axis of Evil, or rogue state, or outlaw regime, or central banker of terror, that have characterized so many American statements about Iran. Remember, in the negotiations of this text, those words were not just casually omitted; they had to be resisted or excised.

Outsiders may find it hard to understand what an accomplishment that may have been.

About half way down, Rice states, “The Iranian people believe they have the right to civil nuclear energy. We acknowledge that right.” Although technically that is not new, it effectively defines the boundaries of the discussion. This is not about depriving Iran of nuclear technology (as we tried to do not so very long ago) or even about nuclear power stations or even, in the final analysis, about enrichment—all of the “red lines” that the US has adopted at various times.

Instead, the US position is now defined very clearly (in the press conference that followed the announcement): “There is a strong international consensus that Iran must not have a nuclear weapon, … and that if Iran is to have a civil nuclear program it needs to be one in which the international community can have confidence that they’re not trying to build a nuclear weapon under cover of civil nuclear power. We have complete and total agreement on that.”

That is altogether sensible, but it is also a position that the US has come to adopt only slowly and, in my view, belatedly. It even leaves room—perhaps inadvertently—for an outcome in which Iran would preserve some degree of enrichment (laboratory level centrifuge operation under close IAEA supervision?) as a face-saving measure. But that would have to come later in the negotiating process.

Then it gets to the central point: ”… to underscore our commitment to a diplomatic solution and to enhance the prospects for success, as soon as Iran fully and verifiably suspends its enrichment and reprocessing activities, the United States will come to the table with our EU-3 colleagues and meet with Iran’s representatives.”

It is an amusing little irony that the US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, who is one of the hardest of all hardliners on this subject, and who presumably resisted it in the internal debate, was appointed to be the messenger to deliver advance notice of the decision to the Iranian UN ambassador, Javad Zarif, who is widely regarded as a proponent of better US-Iran relations. It would have been interesting to listen to that conversation.

Immediately thereafter, the text slips back to more hardline dogma. President Bush, it notes, “wants a new and positive relationship between the American people and the people of Iran.” This relationship is to be between the peoples of the two countries, not their governments; and all talk of more formal relations is dismissed. There is not even a substantive hint about the possible agenda for US-Iran interaction in the nuclear talks. Instead, “We believe the Iranian people want a future of freedom and human rights-. the right to vote, to run for office, to express their views without fear, and to pursue political causes. We would welcome the progress, prosperity, and freedom of the Iranian people.”

That is merely a polite way of saying that we want the present Iranian government to go away and be replaced by something else, i.e. regime change. So the US hardliners get the last word, albeit in softer language than they might otherwise prefer. That is why Condi Rice must react in horror to the idea that this might be the beginning of a “grand bargain” with the Iranian regime. That is anathema to neo-Cheney dogma.

However, if you think that this is simply a neo-con package with a bit of new ribbon, just consult the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal today, or the article by Michael Rubin in the National Review Online entitled “Damage Is Done: The Bush administration’s bad Iran move”. And there will be much more. This was a major battle; it inspired outrage by those whose ideological convictions failed to carry the day; and it’s not over.

So what should we make of all this?

First of all, it really is a major shift in US policy. Regardless of spin, the offer to join the talks is a reversal of previous US positions and was achieved only after a good bit of bureaucratic blood was spilled.

Second, it is also a compromise, consequently unsatisfactory to purists of all stripes. However, in comparing this US initiative to Ahmadinejad’s crude letter, this comes out looking pretty good.

Third, its outcome is quite uncertain. If Iran’s leaders see it as a potential opening to satisfy Iran’s national pride and also to pursue its larger goals of integration and respect in the international community, they could construct a tentative but positive response that would challenge the US side to go beyond the bare bones of this statement.

That could be the beginning of a useful process that could address a larger range of issues that divide the two countries. Secretary Rice protests that no such outcome is envisaged, and the neo-con publicists tremble at the thought that Iran just possibly might not reject the offer out of hand, thereby starting an actual negotiating process that would address more than the nuclear issue and might even lead to evolution rather than revolution in Iran.

If, however, Iran follows the dictates of its own neo-conservatives who believe that the US is presently a toothless tiger that can be dismissed with impunity, then the hardliners in Washington will also win and we will have missed still another opportunity to resolve some of the issues between the two countries, which have festered unattended for more than a quarter of a century.

We will also edge closer to the time when Iran gets into the nuclear weapons business. If we had decided ten years ago that our objective was to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and if we had been willing to engage with them then and put a reasonable offer on the table, it is very likely that Iran would not have even a nascent enrichment capability today. But several US administrations deluded themselves into thinking that we could keep the Iranians technologically dumb and deprived, by pure coercion and pressure. Now they have at least a rudimentary enrichment capability, and it is delusional to think that they will give it up entirely.

Both sides have walked away from potentially beneficial arrangements over the years. Later we both look back and realize that the price of a new bargain will be far higher than the one we earlier rejected. This is merely the latest in this sad procession, and it is too early to say which of the warring tribes—whether in Washington or Tehran—will ultimately prevail.