Two weeks ago, when US president George W. Bush visited Paris (DEBKA-Net-Weekly 353 June 20: Bush Go-Ahead for new French Middle East Strategy), he decided there was no reason not to hang his secret rapprochement with Tehran on the hook proffered by President Nicolas Sarcozy’s pro-Iranian-Syrian orientation.
Washington continued to pump out diversionary press leaks to blind the general public to the quiet talks, to avoid a public debate, and keep Israel from going to war against Iran.
Friday, this issue’s publication date, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen pays a short visit to Israel for talks with IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi.
At the end of July, Ashkenazi will spend several days in Washington, his first as Israeli chief of staff.
Mullen’s visit (more about which in a separate article) comes shortly after the New York Times quoted a Pentagon official as reporting a large-scale Israeli air exercise over Crete to drill an attack on Iran. This report was part of the diversionary tactic.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources, no more than 45 Israel Air Force F-15 and F-16 jets, refueling planes and helicopters took part in the exercise (less than half the number cited by the American official).
Recognizing the headlined report as an American feint, the Iranian made an uncharacteristically low key response: The Iranian foreign ministry spokesman commented Israel was incapable of military action because it was sunk in deep political disarray. (See separate article.)
Three days before Mullen, another US admiral, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead, spent a busy three days as the guest of the Israeli Navy commander Rear Adm. Eli Marom on June 21-24.
He toured the two big Mediterranean ports and naval bases at Haifa and Ashdod and boarded three of Israel’s naval craft: INS Lahav, an Eilat-class corvette; a Shaldag-class fast patrol boat and a Dolphin-class submarine, the INS Takoma. He also met minister of defense Ehud Barak.
Adm. Roughead said his first visit to Israel was “extremely worthwhile, productive and enjoyable both professionally and personally.” This is an important visit, because “Israel,” he said, “is an important partner in maintaining maritime security and achieving key objectives of cooperative maritime strategy.”
Rice “reaches” out to Iranians
The fact that American commanders are treading on each other’s heels on their way to Israel is an effective way of keeping Washington’s finger on Israel's military pulse. The Bush administration has no wish to be taken unawares by an Israeli military attack on Iran which could upset the covert diplomatic applecart which the US and French presidents have set rolling.
While the US Chief of Naval Operations was in the middle of his visit, a fresh flurry of conflicting signals issued from Washington. Monday, June 23, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dropped a remark which earlier in the administration’s term would have caused a sensation.
On her way to a conference of donors to the Palestinian Civil Police Force in Berlin, she floated a plan to open a US interests section in Tehran similar to the one maintained in Havana. She said: “We do have the station in Dubai where [Iranians] can get visas, but we know that it's difficult for Iranians sometimes to get to Dubai. We want more Iranians visiting the United States. We are determined to find ways to reach out to the Iranian people.”
Since the 1979 siege of the US embassy in Tehran by revolutionary zealots, Washington has been represented in Tehran by the Swiss embassy. This arrangement has become untenable since Switzerland signed a big gas deal with Iran, in breach of US sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
Tehran responded that it was ready to discuss establishing an American diplomatic outpost. This too went largely unremarked.
Comments by three prominent conservatives this week further muddied the waters surrounding the state of the US-Iran relationship.
Bill Kristol, of the Weekly Standard, remarked that President Bush is capable of launching an attack on Iran if he thinks the Republican contender John McCain is losing the race for president to the Democratic senator Barack Obama.
But if McCain pulls ahead, “he will leave the Iranian situation for him to handle.” Kristol’s view was endorsed by another conservative, Daniel Pipes of the conservative Hoover Institution.
As to an Israeli go-it-alone attack on Iran, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton suggested that if Israel does anything, “the most likely period is after our elections and before the inauguration of the next President.”
Sunday, debkafile reported the estimate of Israeli intelligence and military circles that the extension of Mossad director Meir Dagan’s tenure for another year, up to the end of 2009 points to a probable Israeli military action against Iran this year, before the Bush presidency runs out.
These crossed signals appear designed to inform Tehran that while diplomacy is preferred, Washington is keeping the two-edged sword of an Israeli military attack hanging over its head.
Iran reacted with its usual ploy for countering such bugbears: It announced a huge exercise of Iran’s ground, sea and air forces for testing the national preparedness to rebuff an attack to begin now.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources note that such exercises are routine Tehran camouflage for states of readiness, and the units disperse when the alarm abates.
But this time, there was a significant departure from this routine: The million-strong Basij volunteer civil defense militia was mobilized and its commanders instructed to stand on guard on the home front.
A leery Iran takes no chances, launches a military “exercise”
According to our intelligence sources, the innately suspicious Iranian strategists are not sure what to make of the Bush administration’s crossed signals and the loaded international climate. But in case they are missing writing on the wall put there in an arcane code by Washington, they are playing it safe by placing the home front on the ready for any contingency.
Two further pieces of published information may be relevant to the undercover US-Iranian talking track. The German Der Spiegel‘s Internet edition ran a small item last weekend quoting Western intelligence circles who are convinced that the Syrian-North Korean plutonium reactor bombed by Israel last September was in fact an integral part of the Iranian nuclear program. Iran maintained this project in Syria, they said, to keep it out of sight of the West and the UN nuclear watchdog.
This disclosure ties in with a report published earlier this month by the American nuclear scientist David Albright. He disclosed that Iran and North Korea had obtained blueprints for building compact nuclear payloads to fit atop ballistic missiles from the Pakistani nuclear black marketer, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, tracing the two revelations to the same undercover source, conclude that the Iranian nuclear armaments project is a lot farther advanced that disclosed yet. Washington furthermore implies by their publication that it has much more evidence about these projects than Tehran estimates.