1. Help for America’s Iraq War Will Come High

Swiss foreign minister Josephs Deiss paid a visit to Tehran this week, ostensibly to shore up his country’s ties with Iran. In reality, he was there on quite a different mission: to find out on Washington’s behalf what were Iran’s terms for its collaboration in the war against Iraq.

He discovered that generous assistance was on offer, but the price was steep.

Deiss was a natural choice to take up the slack of the inconclusive secret talks going back and forth for months between low- and mid-level US and Iranian representatives at different international venues. Since the 1980 break in relations between Khomeinist Iran and Washington, Bern has represented US interests in the Islamic republic.

The Swiss minister Deiss got all the answers he needed in the first and longest of his top-secret meetings, a down-to- brass tacks session with Iranian defense minister Ali Shamkhani.

The Iranian minister informed Deiss that Iran despised Saddam Hussein as much as the United States hated him, and would be willing to extend logistical support for action to depose the Iraqi leader if the following conditions were met:

1. Support would be forthcoming only in areas where it could be kept away from public knowledge against an American undertaking to keep Iran’s role under wraps.

2. Iran will not recant its official anti-American posture.

3. The United States, and especially President George W. Bush, must stop heaping threats and insults on the Islamic Republic. Washington must adopt a diplomatic, conciliatory tone towards Iran much like the form of its approach to North Korea on the issue of that country’s self-declared nuclear weapons program.

4. The United States must cease campaigning against Iran’s weapons development and call off its pressure on Moscow to suspend its nuclear cooperation with Tehran.

5. Iran prefers a UN Security Council rubber stamp on any military action against Iraq.

Once that is obtained, Iran will extend the United States unlimited logistical support.

Those answers were brought forth by the Swiss diplomat’s questions:

Would Iran provide the United States with logistical support during the war, such as permission for US warplanes to cross Iranian airspace? How would Iran treat US aircraft forced to make an emergency landing, or airmen who bailed out, on its soil? Would Iran be willing to go a step further and permit the Americans to use its logistical infrastructure, including bases inside the country or Iranian naval vessels and facilities in the Gulf?

The Deiss mission was preceded by a decision in the White House that Iran was worth approaching, despite the vocal public opposition to any attack on Iraq, or any Muslim nation, issuing consistently from Iran’s supreme ruler Ali Khamenei. Iranian leaders are also known to worry about the Americans turning their forces against Iran after polishing off its next-door neighbor in Baghdad. Yet Washington was encouraged by the increasing number of voices urging Iran’s rulers to abandon their blank hostility and adopt a more positive attitude on cooperation with America against Iraq, in the hope of rewards. These voices emerge from the Babel of controversy lately besetting the reformist and hard-line Islamic camps.

What those voices say, as political commentators venture to point out, is that while Iran helped the United States achieve its goals in Afghanistan, it failed to reap any profits, largely because of its public hostility towards the Great Satan. All that is needed is a softer tone if Iran is not again to come up empty after unofficially joining forces with the Americans over Iraq.

These currents opened the door to the American feeler via the Swiss foreign minister. But the Iranians remain tough bargainers, as Deiss discovered from the answers he received from Shamkhani – and not only in the field of logistic support. Harsh pre-conditions were also laid down for Iranian collaboration with regard to Teheran’s say in Iraq’s political future:

Two conditions covered post-Saddam Iraq’s territorial integrity. Teheran will not stand for the conquered country’s fragmentation. Moreover, no Kurdish state may be allowed to rise, and even the autonomy enjoyed by north Iraqi Kurds at present has to be limited. Furthermore, key positions must be reserved for Iraqi Shiites in the future Baghdad administration, namely, the defense and interior portfolios and responsibility for security forces and intelligence.

Deiss was then accorded the rare honor of an interview with Khamenei, at which Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi and commander of the revolutionary guards Yahya Rahim Safavi were also present. Khamenei sharpened the terms laid down by the defense minister. He also complained bitterly that the US government’s attitude towards the Islamic Republic was at times downright humiliating. The general burden of this brief interview was that Iran would exact a high price for any services it was expected to provide.

The State Department in Washington is examining the detailed report submitted to the White House by the Swiss diplomat on his secret mission to Tehran. This intermediary’s main conclusion is that, behind the tough talk, Iranian reformists and conservatives alike, while subject to much ideological and strategic soul-searching, are keen on establishing normal relations with the United States. This does not mean that they trust Washington or its ultimate intentions towards their country.

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