U.S. Versus Iran / Handcuffed by the Bureaucrats

At the beginning of 1998, after a surprisingly conciliatory interview by Iranian president-elect Mohammed Khatami with CNN, the Clinton Administration responded with good will gestures to signal its preference for dialogue with the Islamic Republic. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger turned to Attorney General Janet Reno with a special request: to release a group of Iranians from the humiliating requirement of being fingerprinted upon their arrival for a visit to the U.S.

The FBI at the time only enforced this regulation on Iranian visitors - not on a single citizen from any other country in the world - amassing a database of hundreds of thousands of fingerprints for keeping tabs. The Clinton Administration wanted this one gesture for just this one group. Reno relented, and the Iranians arrived. A polite but aggressive police officer detained them at the airport: fingerprints, please. With all due respect to presidential gestures, the gatekeeper at the airport is the one who calls the shots.

It wasn't the first nor the last time American bureaucracy trumped the government directing it. It happens in Israel, too, when military personnel on the ground, for example, thwart orders to remove roadblocks in the territories. In the Clinton days, American bureaucracy put the brakes on numerous attempts at making diplomatic gestures. Now, it's the exact opposite with the Bush Administration: the intelligence community responsible for the report released the other day joined hands with the strained and reluctant military apparatus in its attempt to put the president's hands into anti-confrontation handcuffs.

Bush, who yesterday presented a business-as-usual, no-policy-change, we-need-to-keep-up-the-pressure front, is commanding an engine chugging forward while the ties between the cars lumbering behind him are coming loose. His secretary of defense, Robert Gates, not long ago assuaged Democratic legislators by promising them, leaving no room for doubt, that he would oppose any military action in Iran. In Israel, officials followed with a measure of astonishment statements made by top American brass, headed by Admiral William J. Fallon, commander of U.S. Central Command (Centcom). The admiral's Centcom appointment fueled analyses the military was preparing for action and that Fallon was the right man to command it.

However, Fallon recently called military action in Iran a strategic mistake. Bush responded to the announcement with his familiar "all options are on the table" formula and also took time to remind everyone that he - Bush - is commander-in-chief.

In any event, there's no doubt Bush didn't change his mind on Iran this week, nor did his opinion of the American intelligence agencies improve in the wake of this development. The Israeli intelligence community, for the most part, also accepted the intelligence information upon which the American agencies relied. The secret is in the formulation, and in this instance, in the choice to stress what is impossible to prove and to blur what everybody knows. Iran today is closer to having the capability to produce nuclear weapons than it was two years ago - at the time American intelligence surmised that it was developing nuclear weapons - and it is not further away than the impressions the U.S. newspaper and television headlines gave. An Israeli official yesterday described the manner in which the report was formulated as follows: they see a known rapist, armed with a knife, climbing the eaves. On the third floor there's a young girl. But they're still not sure, and are careful to remark that it is certainly possible he is climbing up to suntan on the roof.

Bush will come to Israel in January, a nice gesture leaked at the right time, on the eve of Hanukkah. But he doesn't plan to stay and live here, to learn up close how an Iranian bomb would affect its future. It will be his first visit to Israel as President: Ariel Sharon, Knight of Disengagement, didn't merit such a visit, but Ehud Olmert, Knight of Annapolis, did. Meanwhile, facing the media disaster prompted by the report, the White House played practically the same card as did Israel: it's proof Iran is dangerous, so it's important to keep up the pressure. It was agreed upon, in internal discussion, to wait for the first wave to pass in a few days to assess the damage wrought by the report on American and international awareness. One official quite bothered by it all commented, "So far, it doesn't look good."