In September 2002, Arab League head Amr Mussa warned that an invasion of Iraq would “open the gates of Hell” in the Middle East. Four years later, with those gates–at least in Iraq — open wide enough to drive a tank through, the look of the Bush administration is suddenly in rapid flux. (The neocons, having ushered in Hell, are being ushered out the door; while the first President Bush’s “realists” and their followers are heading in.) Given the nominee to replace Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the Gates of Hell may soon have a new meaning. Right now, despite all the anticipation about future Iraq policy changes, the good news that accompanies the nomination of former CIA Director (and, as president of Texas A&M, keeper of the Bush family flame) Robert Gates has little to do with Iraq and lots to do with Iran.

In these early post-election days, the Iran rhetoric at the White House has, in fact, remained at the boiling point. As last week ended, White House spokesman Tony Snow labeled Iran and Hezbollah a “global nexus of terrorism.” (Paul Woodward, editor of the War in Context web site, commented: “The administration is no longer served by playing to the Christian Right, so its out with religious ‘evil’ and in with a much more sophisticated, secular, and no doubt bi-partisan, “global nexus of terrorism.”) Then, on Monday, the President himself, in a press briefing with Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, called for the global “isolation” of Iran and essentially rejected an opening of any sort to that country. (“[I]f the Iranians want to have a dialogue with us, we have shown them a way forward, and that is for them to verify — verifiably suspend their enrichment activities.”).

None of this sounds like good news; but, despite the rhetoric, the Gates appointment certainly lessens the possibility of an air assault on Iranian nuclear facilities early next year (as well as any campaign to “decapitate” the Iranian regime). This had clearly been one of the (mad) policy options that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were entertaining.

Like James A. Baker, co-head of the Iraq Study Group, Gates believes in negotiating with Iran. In the summer of 2004, with former Carter National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, he co-chaired a task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations that argued for opening a dialogue with Iran. Its report, “Iran: Time for a New Approach,” contended that the lack of American engagement with Iran had harmed American interests and advocated direct talks with the Iranians. (“Just as the United States has a constructive relationship with China [and earlier did so with the Soviet Union] while strongly opposing certain aspects of its internal and international policies, Washington should approach Iran with a readiness to explore areas of common interests while continuing to contest objectionable policy.”)

In addition, Gates–like Baker one of Daddy Bush’s boys–has clearly been brought in to help clean up Sonny’s Iraq mess. Being sane and hard-headed, he knows perfectly well that stirring up a hornet’s nest in neighboring Iran is hardly a way to tackle the almost insurmountable Iraqi crisis.

Gates offers another advantage for those who prefer not to go to war again. The American high command (despite the fantasies of some administration critics) would never refuse a direct order from the commander-in-chief to bomb the gates of Hell out of Iran. However, a civilian Secretary of Defense (whose reputation is at stake) might. So the replacement of Rumsfeld is also significant in this way.

Throw in a new Democratic Congress that, as Juan Cole has written, is less likely to grant the necessary funds for such a war (though Time’s Tony Karon at his Rootless Cosmopolitan website disagrees), and you have the potential for a genuine ebbing of tensions in the one area where the rash acts for which the Bush administration is by now well known could literally wreck the global economy in a matter of days. For this, a small sigh of relief is in order.

For the larger picture, check out Michael Klare’s “The Meaning of Gates: From Imperial Offense to Imperial Defense” at Tomdispatch.com.