Rice Rejects Overture To Iran And Syria

By Glenn Kessler and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 15, 2006

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday rejected a bipartisan panel's recommendation that the United States seek the help of Syria and Iran in Iraq, saying the "compensation" required by any deal might be too high. She argued that neither country should need incentives to foster stability in Iraq.

"If they have an interest in a stable Iraq, they will do it anyway," Rice said in a wide-ranging interview with Washington Post reporters and editors. She said she did not want to trade away Lebanese sovereignty to Syria or allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon as a price for peace in Iraq.

Rice also said there would be no retreat from the administration's push to promote democracy in the Middle East, a goal that was de-emphasized by the Iraq Study Group in its report last week but that Rice insisted was a "matter of strategic interest." She reiterated her commitment to pursuing peace between Palestinians and Israelis -- a new effort that President Bush announced in September but that has yielded little so far.

"Get ready. We are going to the Middle East a lot," Rice said.

In a separate interview with Post editors and reporters, Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte provided an assessment of the situation in Iraq that did not deviate much from the Iraq Study Group's grim appraisal. He said the Iraqi insurgency could now finance itself from inside Iraq "through corruption, oil smuggling and kidnappings."

Rice's remarks indicated that, despite a maelstrom of criticism of Bush's policies by outside experts and Democrats, the administration's extensive review of policy in Iraq and the region will not yield major changes in its approach. Rice said that Bush could be "quite expansive" in terms of a policy review and that the new plan would be a "departure." But the president will not radically change any of his long-term goals or commitment to Iraq, she said.

Indeed, Rice argued that the Middle East is being rearranged in ways that provide the United States with new opportunities, what she repeatedly called a "new strategic context."

She said the range of struggles in the Middle East, such as the election of Hamas in the Palestinian territories, the conflict between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government, and strife in Iraq, represents a "clarifying moment" between extremists and what she called mainstream Arabs.

"This is a time for pushing and consulting and pressing and seeing what we can do to take advantage of this new strategic context," Rice said.

But she said democracy in the Middle East is "not going to be concluded on our watch" and acknowledged that "we've not always been able to pursue it in ways that have been effective."

"I take that criticism," she added.

Rice's comments on Iran and Syria were among her strongest on one of the key recommendations of the Iraq panel, co-chaired by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton. The report noted that Iran cooperated with the United States on Afghanistan and urged the administration to "explore whether this model could be replicated in the case of Iraq."

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