Word of the still unacknowledged talks between Washington and Tehran buzzed around the corridors of the Gulf States’ Manama Dialogue security conference in Bahrain last Saturday.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Gulf sources, all ears, mingled with the participants milling about outside the conference hall and picked up some intriguing scraps of dialogue from the mixed bag of ministers, army officers, intelligence agents, princely eminences and assorted hangers-on.
According to a number of informants, the US-Iranian talks kicked off in Geneva, Switzerland, in November. But both parties soon found security wanting and, in search of total hush, decided to move to Algeria. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was online to the royal court in Riyadh after the Saudi king brought the two parties together, is a live wire of the talks.
Some recalled that in 1974, when the US sought a discreet avenue of communication with the shah of Persia, they met in Algiers. It was there that Washington persuaded the shah to withdraw his support from the late Iraqi Kurdish leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani, whose son Massoud Barzani is president of Iraqi Kurdistan today. That deal paved the way for Saddam Hussein‘s brutal suppression of the Kurdish revolt.
One delegate held this episode up to show that not much has changed. According to his information, Algeria is again the stage for an American-Iranian deal on Iraq. Other participants nodded in affirmation. One added: The deal is not limited to Tehran’s withholding fighters, arms, roadside bombs and explosives; Iranian intelligence will help US generals impose some sort of political settlement on Iraq along with security. Tehran’s vast intelligence network is spread out in many corners of Iraq.
A life expectancy of eight months for Washington-Iran deal
“In 1975,” one commentator put in, “the American-Iranian entente let Saddam Hussein subdue the Kurds and Iraqi Shiites. A similar deal now, in 2007, is giving Iran control of Iraq.
The general consensus was that this deal might stand up for eight months – until August 2008 at latest, when the Republican Party chooses its candidate for president. A fresh round of negotiations will be needed to extend the accord beyond that date.
Who profits? DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources asked.
Most Gulf officials replied (off the record) that Iran’s nuclearization can no longer be stopped. They did not think that by absolving Iran of developing a bomb program after 2003, American paid an exorbitant price for lowering the flames of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they found it difficult to accept the removal of the American military option from the table at this stage and speculated at length over whether Israel would pick it up.
In general, little credence was given to the US Intelligence Estimate itself.
Some cited DEBKA-Net-Weekly 328 of last week (Bush Lifts the Corner of His Secret Grand Design). Its Gulf subscribers agreed that the Bush administration and Tehran were working on a broad agreement which centered on Iraq but also spanned Afghanistan – for Iran to stop letting fighters and arms through; and Lebanon – for Hizballah’s claws to be kept off the election of a new president.
It was generally agreed that the deal had begun taking effect: The scale of violence in South Iraq had declined in the last three weeks by between 70 and 80 percent – especially in the Basra province where Iranian intelligence is king of the local Shiite militias.
British premier Gordon Brown was therefore able to announce Monday in Basra that for the UK, “The Iraq war is over” and the last British soldier will quit Iraqi soil no later than 2008. (See HOT POINTS below.)
Gates appeals for unified US-Gulf command
Their loquacity dried up when the Gulf officials took their seats in the conference chamber, and granted US defense secretary Robert Gates and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, a fairly cynical hearing. Neither American speaker referred to the US-Iranian dialogue, although it was an open secret in the hall; nor did they say whether the United States military option against Iran was alive – although it had been safely buried in the corridor gossip.
Indeed, both senior Americans spoke as though it was still viable.
“Everywhere you turn it is the policy of Iran to foment instability and chaos,” said Gates, “no matter the strategic value or the cost in the blood of innocents – Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. There can be little doubt that their destabilizing foreign policies are a threat to the interests of the Untied States, to the interests of every country in the Middle East and to the interests of all countries within the range of the ballistic missiles Iran is developing.”
After stating “The Estimate is explicit that Iran is keeping its options open and could re-start its nuclear program at any time – I would add, if it has not done so already,” – Gates urged Iran's neighbors to cooperate more closely in their defense activities to counter Tehran's policies.
Two days earlier, to give the defense secretary muscle, the Pentagon announcement that more than $10 bn worth of Lockheed Martin Patriot interceptor missiles would be sold to the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. They would include for the first time the most advanced version of the weapon, the Patriot Advanced Capability-3, as well as second generation versions of the missile, launching stations, antennae and communications gear. Made available separately to Kuwait would be up to $1.36 bn worth of missiles and for the Saudi Air Force an upgrade for their AWACS.
Gulf rulers prefer to deal directly with Tehran on their own account
However, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, most of the Gulf emirate speakers refused to be drawn either by Gates’ appeal or the arms packages. Instead, albeit without repeating the opinions voiced freely outside the conference room, Saudi, Omani and UAE spokesmen heaped criticism on the Bush administration’s strategic and military policies in the Persian Gulf, the Middle East and vis-a-vis Iran.
They were moved to resentment by the call to join the US in a bloc to counter Iran, when all the time the Americans were secretly engaged in direct talks with Iran for coordinating their regional strategies. The Gulf leaders therefore decided to institute their own direct track to Tehran and coordinate their policies too. To vent their ire, they challenged Gates by asking him if he thought the “Zionist” weapon was a threat to the region like Iran’s enrichment program, the US defense minister replied in the negative.
So rancorous was the exchange that Adm. Fallon said he was perplexed by the “clearly hostile questions.” Interviewed by the Gulf Daily News, he said: “You scratch your head at some of the thinking. I just reject out of hand the premise of some of the comments we heard – we are a force for peace in the world and we engage here for the purpose of trying to make this a better world, and I think the record pretty much speaks for itself.”
Not so, according to the consensus of opinion among the Gulf rulers who, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Gulf and military sources, came away from the Manama Dialogue at sharp odds with Washington.
The Saudis did not rise to speak. Their agenda is revealed in the first article in this issue.
The disclosure of sales of anti-missile systems to counter Iranian missiles had been planned by Pentagon as backup for the defense secretary’s appeal for close cooperation with the America to defeat Tehran’s policies. A US-Gulf missile shield was to have been established under a joint command.
This did not happen, despite the effort pursued at the Manama Dialogue.