The Spoiler

In recent months, guessing the Bush administration's intentions on Iran has become a favorite Washington game. In a very short time, a phase of warlike rhetoric, accompanied by an ostentatious increase in naval power in the Persian Gulf, has given way to the very public pursuit of direct, high-level talks with Iran. It is obvious that Iran policy is the subject of a fierce intra-administration struggle between advocates of a military option and advocates of diplomatic engagement. Less obvious, but crucial to understanding the Bush policy, is how Vice President Dick Cheney, the leader of the pro-war faction in the administration, has managed to steer the main lines of that policy, even when it was not apparent.

Many observers believe Cheney has lost the power struggle over foreign policy to the "realists" in the administration. That may be true, but the pattern of Iran policy in Bush's second term has been one in which Cheney has let Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appear to be in command of the policy while exercising his veto power to ensure that diplomacy would fail. That tactic allowed Cheney and his hard-line allies to persuade Bush to adopt a more aggressive policy in late 2006 and early 2007. A review of the administration's Iran policy in the last two and half years shows how he has done it.


Condoleezza Rice has been the official voice of the administration on Iran ever since she replaced Colin Powell as Secretary of State in January 2005. But from the beginning, Cheney remained the dominant force in shaping the policy. He had the right to clear all foreign policy speeches in the administration, as well as the freedom to voice his own views without Rice's prior approval, according to one administration official.

In her early press briefings as Secretary, Rice hewed closely to Cheney's extremist views regarding Iran, suggesting that the administration would not "legitimize" the Iranian regime by talking to it, and endorsing the objective of regime change. More important, Rice had to agree to key conditions Cheney attached to Rice's shuttle diplomacy on Iran with three European allies, Russia, and China in 2005 and 2006.

The ostensible aim of the talks was to reach an agreement with Iran that would result either in Iran ending its uranium enrichment program, which appeared to be Rice's alternative to the military option championed by Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. But it now appears that Cheney's fingerprints were all over the process from beginning to end. As reported in The New Republic last October, it was the vice president who insisted that Rice extract a pledge by the Europeans that they would take Iran to the Security Council if their negotiations with Tehran on the nuclear issue failed to produce an acceptable agreement.

Rice's negotiating partners wanted to address Iran's security concerns in formulating a proposal to Tehran, recognizing that a failure to do would doom the project. But that was exactly what Cheney and the other administration hawks wanted. When the Europeans submitted a draft proposal to the United States in May with an offer of "cooperative relationship on regional security arrangements including guarantees for territorial integrity and political sovereignty," it was immediately rejected by the Bush administration. Referring to Cheney and his allies, Martin Indyk, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs in the second Clinton administration and now Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute, says, "I think they saw the multilateral negotiations as a banana peel for Rice. If you really believe the military option is the only way to go, then you need to lay the predicate for it, and the best predicate is that we tried the diplomatic route and it didn't work."

Meanwhile, others in the administration had come to recognize that Iran had to be part of the solution to the quagmire in Iraq. Then-Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad convinced Bush that the United States should open a dialogue with Iran about Iraq, because of Iran's influence with the militant Shiite leadership there. In late November 2005, Khalilzad revealed that he had gotten White House authorization to "engage" Iran on the subject of Iraq. When Iran agreed to enter into such talks in mid-March, 2006, Rice immediately said they could be useful. But, within a matter of days, Rice was telling Khalilzad that "it wasn't the right time to meet," according to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. Cheney had won another round.

By late last summer, Iraq was exploding in sectarian violence, making a mockery of Bush's claims of progress. The State Department was renewing its effort to persuade Bush to enter into direct talks with Iran on the premise that Iranian influence on Iraqi Shiite political leaders was a key to stabilizing Iraq. To have any chance of success in such talks, however, would require a broader dialogue with Iran, such as Iran had proposed to the Bush administration in early May 2003, linking all the major issues dividing the two countries. Rice had told friends in Washington earlier in 2006 that she hoped a broader diplomatic dialog could be opened up.

Bush's Middle East policy was in tatters, after Israel's ill-considered occupation of Southern Lebanon had failed miserably, raising the prestige of Iran's Hezbollah allies, and it was becoming clear that the war in Afghanistan was faltering. Finally, Rice's multilateral diplomacy, which was supposed to produce a tough Security Council sanctions resolution on Iran, was instead producing a draft resolution that lacked real teeth. That was reportedly what Cheney planned all along. Neoconservative Lawrence Kaplan of The New Republic reported last October that Cheney's aides had supported Rice's multilateral diplomacy in the belief that it would fail. When Bush tired of the diplomatic "kabuki", they believed, Bush could "switch to the military track with little lost."

In a series of meetings with his top advisers in late September and early October, diplomacy was even further marginalized. Bush agreed to a plan under which U.S. military was authorized to capture and detain – or even use lethal force against – anyone identified as a member of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which had been working with Shiite political-military organizations in Iraq. That program was part of a larger strategy of hitting back at Iran throughout the region, with the aim of creating what senior officials described to reporter Karen DeYoung of The Washington Post as "a sense of vulnerability among Iranian leaders." The insecurity in turn was supposed to induce the regime to accept the U.S. demand for an end to its uranium enrichment.

In December, Bush approved a second round of decisions on three measures aimed at intimidating Iran. For the first time since the invasion of Iraq, a second aircraft carrier strike group would be sent to the Persian Gulf as a signal to Iran.

Second, Bush would announce the addition of up to 50,000 more combat troops to Iraq. The ostensible purpose would be to establish control over the sectarian militias in Baghdad and Sunni insurgents in Anbar province. But Cheney and his allies were at least as interested in the impact on Iran, according to a participant in a mid-February Pentagon meeting who briefed a source outside the Pentagon. The troop "surge" would strengthen U.S. forces against retaliatory attacks by Shiite militias in the event of a U.S. strike against Iran and thus reinforce the message to Iran that Washington was in a stronger position to employ the military option.

Third, the policy of snatching Iranian officials in Iraq who could be linked with the Revolutionary Guards would be announced, kicking off a major publicity campaign alleging Iranian responsibility for the Shiite use of armor-piercing explosive devices against U.S. troops.

As for the diplomatic engagement with Iran recommended by the Iraq Study Group, Bush had already made up his mind to resist it. A subtext of Bush's January 10 speech outlining the troop "surge" and the targeting of Iranian officials was that he would not agree to direct contacts with Iran until he had gained new "leverage" over Tehran. That same day, in the Kurdish city of Irbil, U.S. troops attacked an Iranian office which had been given diplomatic status under a previous agreement between Iran and the Iraqi government and kidnapped five Iranian officials.

A week later, while talking with reporters on a trip to the Middle East, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates again referred to the need for leverage "before we engage with the Iranians ... [T]here is nothing the Iranians need from us," he said. "So in any negotiation right now, we would be the supplicant."

These statements, combined with the actual seizure of Iranian officials, could be read as an indication that the administration was seeking to strengthen its hand in preparation for ultimate negotiations with Iran, at least on Iraq. But the newly aggressive policy had been sold to Bush by Cheney and his allies, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and his deputy Elliott Abrams, not by those in the State Department who had been pushing for diplomatic engagement with Iran. And the objective in seizing Iranian hostages was not to grease the road to direct high-level negotiations with Iran. Rather, the order to "kill or capture" Iranian officials appears to have been another master stroke to ensure that no real negotiations could take place

In January and February, Cheney and his allies were on the offensive. Cheney's national security adviser John Hannah startled a foreign ambassador by telling him that the administration regarded 2007 as "the year of Iran" and that an attack on Iran was a real possibility, according to DeYoung. On February 14, in a major briefing for the media, U.S. military officers argued that the Iranian government was behind the presence of armor-piercing weapons in Iraq, although they acknowledged under questioning that the claim was merely "an inference."

Meanwhile, Cheney and his allies were pushing for the addition of a third carrier task force to the Persian Gulf in the spring – a move that would replicate the U.S. military posture in the Gulf at the time of the 2003 attack on Saddam Hussein's Iraq. At a meeting of at the Pentagon on February 18 over which Gates presided, a small group of civilian officials discussed a strategy for convincing Iran that the United States was serious about preparing for an air assault on Iran, according to the account given by one of the participants to a source outside the Pentagon. The plan involved a progression of military moves similar to the run up to the March 2003 attack on Iraq, with the addition of a third carrier task force in the Gulf as a key element. Newsweek reported in its February 19 issue that such a deployment was "likely."

But the hawks never got the deployment of the third aircraft carrier they sought. Admiral William Fallon, who had been nominated to replace General John Abizaid as the chief of the Central Command (CENTCOM), responsible for the entire Middle East and Africa, strongly opposed the deployment as unwarranted, according to a source who was given the gist of those messages from a Pentagon official. Fallon's refusal to make an official request for it, as his predecessor General John Abizaid had done in December for the second carrier strike group, undermined the larger coercion strategy.

That strategy was put on hold. Suddenly the State Department, with the support of Gates, was able to advance its line of diplomatic engagement with Iran. In late February, the administration agreed to participate in a regional security conference convened by the Iraqi government with its neighbors, including Iran. Administration officials suggested to the media, unconvincingly, that diplomatic engagement with Iran could begin because the administration "now feels that it has leverage."

When Iranian naval forces captured 15 British naval personnel in the Gulf on March 23, the degree of change in the administration's policy from the aggressive posture of January and February was suddenly illuminated. For the first few days the administration remained silent about the incident rather than exploiting it to build support for a tougher policy. Then Gates gave a speech on March 27, in which he clearly articulated the State Department's line on Iran. He failed to mention Iran's British captives, referred to the need for a more positive Iranian role in Iraq, and hinted that the administration's priority was to talk with Iran about Iraq. The regional security talks in Baghdad were "a good start toward improved cooperation," Gates said, "and our government is open to higher-level exchanges."

Tehran's leaders reverted to a familiar Iranian diplomatic tactic by announcing on April 4 that the British sailors and marines would be released unconditionally. The move was reminiscent of 1991, when then-President Hashemi Rafsanjani used Iran's influence with Hezbollah to get all the American and British hostages in Lebanon released, and 2001, when Iran agreed to cooperate with the U.S. military in its campaign to overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. In both cases, the United States had responded either by ignoring the Iranian gesture or by adopting an even more hostile policy.

That pattern was repeated by the Bush administration. At a meeting of top officials on April 10 to decide on the U.S. response, Rice argued for the release of the five Iranian officials still detained by the United States, according to a report in The Washington Post, on the grounds that they were no longer useful. But Cheney's representative at the meeting reportedly insisted that holding on to them could signal to Iran that even more Iranian officials in Iraq might be seized. Rice then went along with the "consensus."

The refusal to release the Iranian prisoners was yet another way of obstructing the path to U.S.-Iranian negotiations. Rice had begun angling for a private meeting with Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki on the sidelines of the second round of regional consultations on Iraq in Egypt on May 4 and 5. She intended to use both the Swiss Embassy in Tehran and Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari as channels to communicate with Iran. Mottaki would not meet with Rice during the meeting, but there was discussion about a future U.S.-Iran meeting at the Ambassadorial level later this month.

But American and Iranian diplomats sitting down together, as positive as it may seem, is hardly the end of the policy struggle over Iran. If Cheney can succeed in making the U.S. position in those talks sufficiently rigid and uncompromising, he can still bring diplomacy to a standstill.

Earlier this month, Cheney showed that he still had the power to voice a policy line that the other top officials administration have abandoned. From the deck of the John C. Stennis in the Persian Gulf and speaking from a text that had not been cleared by the State Department, Cheney referred to the two carriers in the Gulf and said the administration was "sending clear messages to friends and adversaries alike," including the message that "we'll stand with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating this region."

With more than 20 months remaining in Bush's term, and with a president who has been known to oscillate between authorizing diplomatic contact with Iran and falling back on brute force, Cheney will still have opportunities to get Bush back on the track of escalating military pressure. In the meantime, we can expect more months of diplomatic contacts with Iran -- contacts that will be doomed to failure as long as Cheney can continue to impose unrealistic constraints on the State Department.