Bush's Gamble On Iran

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, June 4, 2006

President Bush handed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and German Chancellor Angela Merkel a significant foreign policy victory and put new distance between himself and Vice President Cheney with last week's decision to dangle the carrot of U.S. participation in talks with Iran. But it is a victory of process rather than of substance and could still come undone.

Cheney has been outflanked by the diplomats of Foggy Bottom before, most notably in the summer of 2002, when Bush agreed to let Colin Powell take the case for a preventive strike against Iraq to the United Nations. But we know now that Bush had accepted the substance of Cheney's argument for war even as he let the diplomats ply their trade in New York.

So we are not out of the woods yet in this multifaceted crisis with Iran. At the same time, however, there are important differences between today and 2002. They suggest that this time the president has genuinely not yet made up his mind about acting militarily, if necessary, to halt or delay Iran from covertly developing nuclear weapons. That decision is probably a year away.

Expectations of successful talks with the Iranians are low at the White House. The true immediate significance of Rice's dramatic announcement was that it shows Bush is now fighting to save his battered presidency by allowing change in a White House where Cheney's influence has been paramount.

Bush's move to bring Wall Street heavyweight Henry Paulson in as his Treasury secretary was another case in point. The decision was made, senior aides told reporters, without participation by Cheney or political adviser Karl Rove. Whatever the accuracy of those anonymous comments, the fact that Bush aides made them without fear of retribution is a startling measure of the vice president's lessened standing.

Cheney still has strong allies in the administration, particularly Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But the Pentagon is increasingly seen as the source of problems rather than solutions for this administration as Iraq goes from bad to worse, with the military, financial and moral costs of the American effort mounting toward unbearable levels.

The failure of a new "national unity" Iraqi cabinet to make much headway in stemming violence in Baghdad or providing services to the people -- after U.S. officials loudly proclaimed its formation as a "breakthrough" -- underlines the need for a sense of change to extend to Iraq if Bush is to save his presidency. But on Iraq there is still no sign of a winning strategy taking hold or of visible daylight between Bush and Cheney.

As insurgency and corruption have grown more intractable in Iraq, Cheney, Rice and the main U.S. allies in Europe have focused more on Iran, as if to leapfrog the problems of Iraq by concentrating on a new crisis, although from different directions.

The vice president has made no secret of his distrust of the Iranian regime and his desire to change it. The secretary of state and the Europeans, led by Chancellor Merkel, have convinced Bush that he must exhaust every peaceful avenue before asking for economic sanctions or other punitive measures against Tehran. British Prime Minister Tony Blair reportedly made the same points to Bush in their private talks here last month.

"The administration is going to great lengths to keep the international community on board as Bush tries to get on his feet again at home," a European ambassador said after hearing the State Department's top Middle Eastern expert, C. David Welch, insist that Bush had resisted endorsing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's unilateral "realignment" plan for the West Bank during Olmert's visit here last month. "Otherwise, why emphasize so much something that did not happen?"

By the summer of 2007, Bush will be looking at two converging timelines: the end of his presidency and the fate of the diplomatic effort to talk the Iranians into a verifiable peaceful nuclear program. If the diplomats have not made significant headway, Bush will confront the terrible choice of acting militarily on his own before the end of his term or of leaving behind this nightmarish problem for his successor to deal with at the outset of his or her presidency.

Bush is more open to a diplomatic outcome for the Iranian crisis than he was on Iraq. He knows he can muster no significant international support for intervention in Iran. But the Iranians have the capacity to bring about the return of Dick Cheney to policy dominance if they continue to overplay their hand.


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