On Oct. 17, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, calling the stop a "personal reminder that the Prince of Peace is still with us." A day earlier and a thousand miles away, two princes of a very different cut were having a remarkably peaceable summit of their own. Russia's Vladimir Putin and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad--whose countries have for centuries either butchered each other or, failing that, just eyed each other bitterly across the Caspian Sea--met in Tehran, shook hands, declared mutual admiration and took a few winning photos.
Sun Tzu's advice to keep friends close and enemies closer was wise for many reasons, including this one: if you don't, your enemies will draw close to each other. At the moment, Russia is building a $1 billion nuclear reactor in Iran; Ahmadinejad is basking in his first state visit from a major world leader.
And yet, the Tehran summit should not have happened. Putin has no natural desire to see a nuclear-armed Iran, just as Ahmadinejad has clashed with Putin on everything from payments for the nuclear plant to Iran's smallish cut of Caspian oil profits. But the U.S. has only emboldened both countries by trying to inoculate itself against the Iranian threat with a missile shield that it resolutely tries to place on Russia's doorstep. Rice was made to wait 45 minutes at an Oct. 12 meeting in Moscow, only to have Putin stride in and mock the missile shield. "We may decide someday to put missile-defense systems on the moon," he said, "but before we get to that, we may lose a chance for agreement because of you implementing your own plans." Rice was restrained in response, as she long has been in public responses to Putin, in part because the U.S. is still lobbying for Russian support--on Iran.
The day after the summit, President Bush dismissed the front-page images as the same kind of "pretty picture" he takes with foreign leaders. "The thing I'm interested in is whether [Putin] continues to harbor the same concerns that I do" about Iran. The answer, judging by the shots of Putin and Ahmadinejad hand in hand in Tehran, is clearly no.