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Unified Theories

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In the Washington Post today, Glenn Kessler provides yet more evidence that Iran's leaders proposed talks with the United States back in May of 2003. (See here as well.) In recent weeks, Condoleezza Rice has denied that she ever even saw the Iran memo, which arrived at the State Department via Swiss channels. Is that true? A few days ago, Kessler reported that, indeed, Powell "did not forward the memo to the White House" after receiving it. But why would he have done that? It's all a bit mysterious. Anyway, now Steve Clemons has a grand unified theory about all of this:

It seems that one of the reasons why the U.S. ignored a serious Iran proposal for comprehensive negotiations leading to normalization in March/April 2003 was that Secretary of State Powell and his staff worried that moving forward on an Iran effort would so antagonize Cheney that they would not get agreement from the White House to push forward on the fragile deal-making getting the North Korea-focused Six Party Talks going.In other words, Powell and Co. -- in addition to Cheney's team -- quashed the Iran possibilities to do North Korea.

This... all seems quite plausible, actually. The Iran memo, after all, was dated May 4, 2003. A few days later, this bit of news popped up in the Washington Post: "The Bush administration plans to adjust its policy toward North Korea by adopting a two-track approach that would combine new talks with pressure on the communist state." That shift represented a victory for Powell over those--Cheney and Rumsfeld--pushing for regime change. Around the same time, an intelligence official told the New York Times, "There's a sense in the Pentagon that Powell got this arranged while everyone was distracted with Iraq."

So Powell had just won a big, fat interagency battle over North Korea at the exact same moment he decided to sit on the Iran memo. Like I said, it all seems plausible. Historians, no doubt, can haggle whether Powell made the right choice. As Clemons notes, though, "it is odd and frankly disturbing that serious strategists felt they had to make any choice at all." Right. And it's hard not to wonder whether similar tradeoffs are being made today...

--Bradford Plumer

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