Walking a Tightrope Into 2007

Posted in Iran | 01-Jan-07 | Author: David Ignatius| Source: Washington Post

As the new year approaches, I think of three people who symbolize for me some of the difficulties of the year we have just lived through and also the promise and potential of the one ahead. Each of them reminds me that we are walking into the future balanced on a tightrope.

The first is Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran. As an official of the Islamic Republic of Iran, he is part of a regime that posed the biggest strategic challenge to the United States in 2006. But he also embodies Iran's potential to become a great nation -- and perhaps to escape the apocalyptic confrontation with the West that is proclaimed by his political rival, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

For all of Ahmadinejad's headline-grabbing fulminations this year, it was Qalibaf who was the big political winner. His slate won a majority in the City Council election in Tehran this month, while Ahmadinejad's faction managed to win just two of 15 seats. The hotheaded president also fared poorly in elections around the country, as Iranians looked past his defiant rhetoric and focused on his poor performance in managing the economy.

Qalibaf's program has been about delivering services rather than tirades. A former general in the Revolutionary Guards air force, he made his name cleaning up Iran's national police. He angered reformers by advocating a crackdown on student demonstrators in 1999. But now, as mayor of Tehran, he has concentrated on filling potholes, collecting the garbage, and building new parks and recreation areas in the poorest areas of South Tehran.

The second person I think of as the year turns is Sallai Meridor, the new Israeli ambassador to Washington. We had several long talks over the past month, and these discussions helped me understand the forces that animate and haunt Israel. The first is the living reality of the Holocaust. Meridor somberly named for me the members of his own family who perished in the camps. "I feel like we are in the 1930s again," he said, speaking about the threats by Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders to destroy Israel. If the world allows such a nation to acquire nuclear weapons, he says, "We will have betrayed our children."

Israel is a dialectic of fear and hope, and Meridor's hopeful side surfaces when he discusses the Palestinian issue. He told me several weeks ago that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was determined to resume negotiations to create a Palestinian state -- and now, at year-end, the frozen wheels of the peace process are indeed turning again. Israel will have to stop expanding settlements on the West Bank if it is serious this time. But listening to Meridor, who is 51, I sense that for his generation of Israelis, there is a dawning recognition that a Palestinian state living in peace with Israel is crucial for its future as a democratic Jewish state.

As I think about the promise of the year ahead, I will remember Meridor's description of running ecstatically through the streets of Jerusalem in 1977 to welcome Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

My final man on the tightrope is Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security. He embodies a new year's reality we know in our gut but rarely speak out loud: The terrorists who struck America on Sept. 11, 2001, will hit us again -- perhaps with even more destructive power. It's Chertoff's terrible responsibility to prepare for that nightmare while the rest of us go about our business.

I visited with Chertoff several times this year, and each time I thought to myself: Thank God I don't have his job. He spends his days sifting different scenarios of mass destruction: We are inspecting more cargo vessels, but what about private yachts? We scrutinize people boarding commercial flights, but what about private planes? The temptation is to focus on the threats that are easiest to protect against -- thus the overkill in airport security -- but Chertoff knows that's wrong. And he admits he can't do everything. "Risk management doesn't mean risk elimination," he told me in one of our talks.

As Chertoff thinks about the new year, he wants to stay focused on the biggest risks out over the horizon -- the nuclear or biological attacks that could kill hundreds of thousands of Americans. I admire Chertoff's dedication, but I have a nagging worry that his collection of bureaucratic agencies isn't up to the job of keeping America safe.

Will Iran find a stable place in the world? Will Israel and the Palestinians finally get it right? Will a battered America make wise decisions about its national security? People living on a tightrope probably shouldn't be drinking champagne, but what the heck? Here's to a peaceful and prosperous 2007.

The writer co-hosts, with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues at http://blog.washingtonpost.com/postglobal. His e-mail address is [email protected].