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Rice's Mideast Realignment Strategy

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON -- What's America's strategy in the Middle East? Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this week sketched a new framework based on what she calls the "realignment'' of states that want to contain Iran and its radical Muslim proxies.

In an interview Tuesday, Rice summarized the new strategy that has been coming together over the last several months. Although many of its elements have been previewed in recent weeks by commentators such as Columbia University scholar Gary Sick, Rice's comments were an unusually detailed public explanation of the new American effort to create a de facto alliance between Israel and moderate Arab states against Iranian extremism.

Rice said the new approach reflects the growing Arab concern about Iran's attempt to project power through its proxies: "After the war in Lebanon, the Middle East really did begin to clarify into an extremist element allied with Iran, including Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. On the other side were the targets of this extremism -- the Lebanese, the Iraqis, the Palestinians -- and those who want to resist, such as the Saudis, Egypt and Jordan.''

America's recent show of force against Iran -- seizing Iranian operatives in Iraq and sending additional warships to the Persian Gulf -- was part of this broader effort to reassure the Saudis and others that, despite its troubles in Iraq, America remains a reliable ally against a rising Iran. "The U.S. has to demonstrate that it is present in the Gulf, and going to be present in the Gulf,'' Rice told me.

Realignment is linked with a new U.S. effort to forge peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Rice is encouraging both sides to explore so-called "final-status issues'' -- such as borders, the status of Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to a homeland -- rather than remain deadlocked over the so-called "road map.''

The effort to contain Iranian-backed pressure took on new urgency this week, as Hezbollah's campaign against the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora spawned a spasm of violence that left at least four dead. America, France and Saudi Arabia quickly organized a $7.6 billion financial rescue package for Siniora, but that hasn't stemmed the rising sectarian tension in Lebanon between Sunnis who back Siniora and Shiite supporters of Hezbollah.

Critics may see Rice's realignment strategy as another high-risk roll of the dice by the Bush administration in a region that is already polarized by the Iraq War and sectarian conflict. These critics may also question the central role of Saudi Arabia, a conservative Islamic monarchy that many Arabs regard as a bastion of the status quo.

"The reception will be very skeptical'' among some Arabs, cautioned one prominent official who is normally among the most pro-American in the region. "Increasing the fault line between Sunnis and Shiites is a mistake,'' he argued. State Department officials would counter that it was Iran that moved the fault line by encouraging Hezbollah's provocative behavior in Lebanon.

The Bush administration's thinking about realignment helps explain why it has resisted engaging Syria and Iran, as recommended by the Baker-Hamilton report. As Rice put it, "You have a 'pan' movement, across the region. The war in Lebanon crystallized it for everyone. You can't just leave it there. ... If you concentrate on engaging Syria and Iran, you may lose the chance to do the realignment.''

On Syria, Rice said the administration is seeking a change of policy, rather than regime change. Asked about an offer made in an interview with me last month by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem to help the U.S. provide greater security in Iraq, she said: "If the Syrians want to stabilize Iraq, why don't they do it?'' As for Israeli interest in exploring the Syrian initiative, she noted recent private peace feelers between Syrians and Israelis and suggested that if the Israelis decide there is something important, they will pursue it.

The administration's tougher stance against Iran arguably has already produced some results. Iran's firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, appears to be in political trouble with the ruling mullahs, in part because his reckless talk alienated other Muslims. But the strongest leverage against Iran appears to be the West's unified diplomatic coalition. "The Security Council resolution (condemning Iran's nuclear program and mandating mild sanctions) has had more of an effect than I thought it would,'' Rice said.

The realignment strategy poses as many questions as it answers -- not least the anomaly of supporting Sunni resistance to Iran at the same time the U.S. augments its military support for a Shiite-led government in Iraq. But as with any strategy, Rice's realignment idea has the virtue of offering a basis for discussion and careful thinking about a region perched on the edge of a volcano.

(c) 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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