Condoleezza Rice seems in control of everything—except events. As she paused for a few minutes in the cabin of her Boeing 757 last week, winging her way to her 63rd country in two and a half years (Spain this time), the secretary of State calmly swatted away questions about the apparent stalemates she faces on so many fronts: Israeli-Palestinian talks, out-of-control nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, and an emerging cold-war-like confrontation with Russia. (That's without even bringing up the quagmire in Iraq.) Rice gets through controversy by snubbing it, smiling it out of existence. She's particularly dismissive when asked whether, at this late date, she is still fighting rear-guard actions against hard-liners in Washington—especially those in Vice President Dick Cheney's office who don't like her diplomatic approach to Iran. "There's always noise in any large system," Rice told NEWSWEEK in an interview.
She's not being glib: administration officials universally acknowledge that her views are dominant in Washington. But the rumbling has been getting louder. A NEWSWEEK investigation shows that Cheney's national-security team has been actively challenging Rice's Iran strategy in recent months. "We hear a completely different story coming out of Cheney's office, even now, than what we hear from Rice on Iran," says a Western diplomat whose embassy has close dealings with the White House. Officials from the veep's office have been openly dismissive of the nuclear negotiations in think-tank meetings with Middle East analysts in Washington, according to a high-level administration official who asked for anonymity because of his position. Since Tehran has defied two U.N. resolutions calling for a suspension of its uranium-enrichment program, "there's a certain amount of schadenfreude among the hard-liners," says a European diplomat who's involved in the talks but would not comment for the record. And NEWSWEEK has learned that the veep's team seems eager to build a case that Iran is targeting Americans not just in Iraq but along the border of its other neighbor, Afghanistan.
In the last few weeks, Cheney's staff have unexpectedly become more active participants in an interagency group that steers policy on Afghanistan, according to an official familiar with the internal deliberations. During weekly meetings of the committee, known as the Afghanistan Interagency Operating Group, Cheney staffers have been intensely interested in a single issue: recent intelligence reports alleging that Iran is supplying weapons to Afghanistan's resurgent Islamist militia, the Taliban, according to two administration officials who asked for anonymity when discussing internal meetings.
Historically, Iran and the Taliban have been more often bitter enemies than allies; in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, cooperated with U.S. efforts to oust the Afghan regime that harbored Osama bin Laden. Tehran went so far as to round up Qaeda suspects transiting or residing in Iran for possible deportation to countries (like Saudi Arabia or Egypt) aligned more closely with Washington. In early April, however, British forces operating under NATO command in Afghanistan's wild-west Helmand province stopped a convoy carrying what appeared to be ordnance of Iranian origin intended for delivery to the Taliban. The explosives bore suspected Iranian markings similar to those found on weapons confiscated from Shiite militias in Iraq—and the Brits intercepted another shipment a month later.
An official familiar with the interagency group's deliberations said that Cheney's aides kept asking what sounded like leading questions, demanding to know whether there was any Iranian entity other than the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—the state security force Washington accuses of arming Iraqi insurgents—that could be responsible for the arms shipments. Cheney's aides, the official added, appeared less interested in other more mundane items on the Afghanistan policy committee's agenda. British officials who asked for anonymity because of the nature of their work emphasize that they lack hard evidence linking the shipments to the Revolutionary Guards, and that the weapons could just as easily have been bought on the black market in Iran. But according to one official familiar with the intelligence on Iranian interference in Iraq, Cheney earlier this year began exhibiting particular interest in any evidence detailing Tehran's aid to anti-American insurgents there. Asked about the vice president's allegedly keen interest in Iran's activities in Afghanistan, Cheney spokeswoman Megan McGinn said, "We do not discuss intelligence matters or internal deliberations."
Rice has more directly clashed with Cheney's office on issues like Mideast peace, where according to administration sources who declined to be named discussing internal deliberations, she's found herself stymied in efforts to push for more engagement with Syria and the Palestinian radical group Hamas. A senior White House official concedes that even on what should be the simplest-to-achieve deal—a new relationship with Syria that would help stabilize Iraq—Cheney's office is blocking Rice's efforts to bring Bush around. The secretary has also fought with the veep's office in seeking to soften detention policies at Guantánamo. In the interview, however, Rice insisted her relationship with Cheney himself is good. "The vice president has never been somebody who tries to [undermine others] on the sidelines, behind the scenes. He really doesn't," she said. "In fact we have a kind of friendly banter about it, in which I'll tease him about the image that he doesn't like diplomacy."
Rice has reason to be confident. She maintains a tight relationship with Bush, with whom she talks twice a day. "We have been together a long time, the president and I, in any number of different incarnations, and when I'm speaking, I'm speaking on his behalf," she says. Even one of Rice's fiercest current critics, former U.N. ambassador John Bolton—a key Cheney ally who was her subordinate only a few months ago—says that her views are ascendant in the administration. "I think those who support [the policy of nuclear negotiations with Iran] ... are riding high," Bolton told NEWSWEEK, adding that he left the administration because he believed his hard-line views toward Iran and North Korea were being eclipsed by Rice's State Department (there was also the small matter of the Democrat-controlled Congress refusing to confirm him).
Bolton admits that the hard-liners are not what they were in the first term, when Cheney's office was accused of cherry-picking intel to make the case for war against Iraq. One by one, the Cheneyites have been losing significant supporters in the top ranks of the administration—most recently White House deputy national-security adviser J. D. Crouch, a conservative former Pentagon official and academic who left last week. To thwart the hard-liners once and for all, though, Rice knows that she must start to deliver. Even as Tehran has made technical strides in its enrichment program, negotiations have been stalled: on Thursday the chief Iranian and European negotiators announced they would meet again in two weeks.
In the end, the administration's few remaining hard-liners may be the least of Rice's problems. In her NEWSWEEK interview, she acknowledged how hard it would be to achieve the kind of "breakthrough" agreement that traditionally defines a successful secretary of State. "I wouldn't rule it out," she said. But, Rice added: "we're laying the foundations for someone else to succeed in the future, and I think that's fine." As long as she can keep things under control.