February 14, 2006
Iran, Iraq, Hamas Make 2006 Year Of Crisis for Bush
By Mort Kondracke

It's a good thing that President Bush has a small-bore domestic agenda this year, because the stakes could not be higher in the Middle East.

This is the year when his policy in Iraq either succeeds or fails, with Republican control of Congress and, possibly, the prospect of impeachment hanging on the outcome.

This is also the year when Iran either is stopped from developing nuclear weapons or succeeds in demonstrating that the world community, led by the United States, is utterly feckless.

And it's the year when a terrorist group, Hamas, takes over control of the Palestinian Authority and the world, again led by the U.S., decides whether to force the new regime toward peace or let it consolidate and prepare for war.

The good news, perhaps, is that Bush has changed foreign policies in his second term and is now less isolated from other countries. The danger is that multilateral diplomacy will bog down and let enemies like Iran carry the day.

It's too much to say that Iran has replaced Iraq as the central crisis point for the administration, but it has achieved almost equal status.

That's because Iran's extremist government is not only defying the world community in developing nuclear weapons, but is highly influential in Iraq and is allied with Hamas and will try to undermine whatever economic pressure the U.S. tries to bring to force accommodation with Israel.

Iran's radical Islamist president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, traveled to Syria in January and not only sealed an alliance with that terrorist-aiding regime, but also met with leaders of Hizbollah, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

There's no way to know whether worldwide rioting over European cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed emerged from those meetings, but there's little doubt that Iran and Syria encouraged them. The worst outbreaks occurred in countries where their influence and the terrorist apparatus are strongest: Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan and Pakistan.

If Iran develops nuclear weapons with radical Islamists at the helm, there is every danger that it will actually use them against Israel - a country that Ahmadinejad has said should be wiped off the face of the earth - or employ them to intimidate neighbors and deter retaliation for terrorist activities or aggression, or hand them off to a terrorist group. It's the world's most dire nightmare.

The Bush administration is operating on the assumption that Iran is still "years" away from having deliverable nuclear weapons, although International Atomic Energy Agency Director Mohammed El-Baradei said it would be "months" once Iran begins enriching uranium.

Bush clearly has adopted a different foreign policy approach in dealing with Iran from the one that led to the Iraq war - from one dominated by "neo-conservatives" to one led by "neo-realists," as the Wall Street Journal dubbed them.

With Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the lead, the administration is pursuing multilateral diplomacy, not unilateral action, in its efforts to contain Iran. Remarkably, Rice earlier this month got Russia and China to join the U.S. and Europe in referring Iran to the United Nations Security Council - the first step toward imposing sanctions on Iran if it persists in violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

After years of being battered by Democrats for being "unilateralist" and "arrogant" toward allies, the administration got hit by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) for "outsourcing" Iran diplomacy. Clinton obviously is running for president in 2008 by trying to move to the right of the Bush administration and others in her party.

The administration seems to believe that diplomacy can bring Iran to heel, either through the threat of sanctions or sanctions themselves. It's banking on Iran's economic dependency on foreign investment and gasoline imports, its reluctance to be internationally isolated - and the world's willingness to actually get tough on Iran.If diplomacy fails, the administration will be forced to decide whether to use military force against Iran's nuclear facilities or allow Israel to use U.S.-supplied F-16s and bunker-buster bombs to do so. The consequences could be $100-a-barrel oil, rampant terrorism and a demand from Iraq's Shiite-dominated government that U.S. troops leave the country.

Democratic critics charge that because U.S. forces are tied down in Iraq, they can't credibly threaten Iran. But it's also plausible that Bush's invasion of Iraq demonstrates U.S. willingness to use force when it has to.

Diplomacy would seem to be necessary in Iran's case to build a case for military action, because Iran has not been subject to the decade of sanctions that were applied to Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion.

In the meantime, Iraq still does not have a government, insurgents are crippling reconstruction and incidents of violence seem to be rising. White House officials acknowledge that developments in Iraq dominate the public's attitude toward Bush, creating gloom even about a robust economy.

Bush has no large domestic initiatives on tap for this year such as Social Security reform. That's good. This year, his presidency is riding on foreign policy.

Mort Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call.

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