April 25, 2007, 9:22 a.m.
Did Condoleezza Rice Try to Make a Secret Deal With the Mullahs?
A tense confrontation within the Bush administration over the release of the Irbil 5.
By Michael Ledeen
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose tenure at Foggy Bottom began with such energy and fine language about support for freedom in the Middle East, is begging the Iranian foreign minister to come to a “future of Iraq” conference in Egypt next week. She told the Financial Times that it would be a “missed opportunity” if Minister Mottaki didn’t show up.
In the same interview, she denied ever thinking about regime change in Iran. Our Iran policy, according to the secretary, is to “have a change in regime behavior.” Some day she will perhaps explain how any rational person can believe this cast of characters capable of changing behavior that has been constant for 28 years.
We are back to the days when Madeleine Albright went to international meetings hoping to get a one-on-one with an Iranian minister so she could apologize for past American sins and get on with the glorious business of striking a grand bargain with the mullahs. When that didn’t work, President Clinton did the public apology, and his administration trotted out a number of unilateral concessions. His vice president even made a secret deal with the Russians permitting them to sell weapons and supply expertise for the Iranian nuclear program. All for naught; the mullahs spat in our face and continued as before.
The delusion that one can settle our little disagreements with the Islamic Republic, if only the right people sit around the right conference table, has seized every administration since Jimmy Carter. Every president has sent emissaries to talk, and every administration has made demarches to Tehran. To date, the net result is hundreds of dead Americans. And yet the delusion persists. Each time it fails, the deep thinkers at Foggy Bottom manage to convince the secretary of State of the moment that we are just one small concession away from success, and by and large the secretary goes for it, just as Secretary Rice has.
That is part of the background to her public pleading for talks with the mullahs. The other part has to do with the release of the British sailors and marines from captivity in Tehran. It was obvious to anyone familiar with the methods of the Islamic Republic that the British hostages were ransomed; the only question was the dimension of the payoff to Iran. Part of the answer emerged almost immediately, when an officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps magically appeared safe and sound somewhere in Iraq, and hotfooted it back home. Within hours, Iraqi officials were publicly hinting that the incarceration of the “Irbil 5” — more top IRGC intel officers captured by American forces, along with extensive documentation of their murderous activities in Iraq — would likely end quite soon. Why were they saying that?
The answer may be found between the lines of a story written shortly afterwards by one of Secretary Rice’s favorite journalists, Robin Wright of the Washington Post. It didn’t attract nearly the attention it deserved, perhaps because it was printed on Saturday, April 14 (full marks to Allahpundit over at Hot Air for spotting it). Here is what Robin Wright said:
After intense internal debate, the Bush administration has decided to hold on to five Iranian Revolutionary Guard intelligence agents (sic) captured in Iraq, overruling a State Department recommendation to release them, according to U.S. officials.
I’ve been told that “intense internal debate” is exactly right — it was one of the most contentious debates in quite a while. Wright reports that Vice President Cheney led the charge against Rice’s position, and I am told that Secretary of Defense Gates was equally adamant. This is reinforced by a statement by General Petraeus, to the effect that we intended to keep them and keep interrogating them as long as we had food and they had things to say. Moreover, I am told that the intensity of the debate was due to the fact that Rice was not merely recommending the release of the Iranians, but had informed the mullahs that we would release them.
That makes sense to me, because that promise — if indeed it was made — would help explain the release of the Brits. It would constitute the kind of swap the Iranians like to make, and it would have been a significant triumph for the mullahs: They had lost some of their key players in Iraq, and we would have paid them off as a favor to our British pals. Tony Blair would be able to claim straight-faced that he had made no concessions, and Condoleezza Rice would be able to claim, as she has of late in private conversation, that the Iranians had backed off.
You can be quite sure that the back-channel traffic between Washington and Tehran is full of new promises, if only the Iranians will come to Egypt and sit down with us. That would enable the secretary of State to save face when she makes her next concession. After all, we’re talking, aren’t we?
It’s too clever by half, and has obviously confused the president, who, in an interview with Charlie Rose, said we wouldn’t talk to them, but then again, perhaps we would (and Allahpundit spotted it again):
“What I’m not willing to do is sit down bilaterally with the Iranians,” he told PBS’ “The Charlie Rose Show.”
Later, he said Rice and Iran’s foreign minister might have bilateral conversations at the conference. “They could. They could,” Bush said.
President Ahmadinejad was quick to pounce on the confusion. Never mind the talks in Egypt; he pronounced himself ready to meet with Bush, and with journalists in the room.
It’s worse than too clever. It’s retreat and appeasement, and the Iranians know it. It flows from denial that the mullahs are at war with us, and lapses into the belief that this war can be resolved by the tried and failed methods of traditional diplomacy. It won’t work, as our soldiers know full well. Surge or no surge, Iraq cannot have decent security unless it is protected against the Iranians and their Syrian puppets bordering the other side of the country. The Irbil 5 know a whole lot about Iranian/Syrian activities, and hence about the terror network in Iraq — in fact, they ran it — and that knowledge can help us and the Iraqis. The very idea that those intelligence officers should be sprung is a slap in the face to every coalition soldier, and Gates and Cheney were quite right to fight it.
A small victory, to be sure. But it’s a lot better than it would have been if the secretary of State had had her way. Years from now she may be grateful for it.