In case anyone was left in doubt, US Vice President Richard Cheney charged Iran this week with trying to develop weapons-grade uranium.
He said to an ABC interviewer in Ankara Monday, March 24: “Obviously, they're also heavily involved in trying to develop nuclear weapons enrichment, the enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade levels.”
Two days earlier, Cheney departed Riyadh for Israel. As soon as he took off, King Abdullah rushed the Saudi Shura Council into urgent session to hear an alarming report, in the form of the King Abdul-Aziz City for Science and Technology’s proposals, which were based on “the probabilities of leaking nuclear and radiation hazards in case of unexpected nuclear attacks in Iran.”
The Shura Council discussed the report without reaching conclusions.
The US vice president undoubtedly shared with the Saudi king and the Omani ruler Sultan Qaboos, whom he also visited, the information he gave to the ABC interviewer.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Gulf sources, he went further and let them know that Washington is not averse to direct action by any Gulf or Middle East force against Iran. The US, he indicated, would support such action by diplomatic and military means.
These rulers were allowed to infer from this statement that the Bush administration no longer views as credible the National Intelligence Estimate released last November, which forced the American military option off the table by concluding that Iran had suspended its covert weapons program in 2003.
Cheney also implied that Washington would not object to someone else exercising this option.
Radioactive fallout – a hot Gulf topic
Highly credible sources in the Gulf stressed at the same time that on no occasion did Cheney state explicitly that America would attack Iran. The Saudi and Omani rulers may have taken this for granted, but it was never said outright. As for the Shura Council’s urgent need to discuss nuclear radiation, Saudi sources stress that in no way did it imply that Riyadh had solid information and a date for a prospective US attack on Iran.
Nonetheless, Cheney’s veiled comments set up a wave of jitters in the region, coming as the did on the heels of homeland defense and medical drills mounted by Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain to withstand Iranian missile attacks on their capitals and oil fields, or radioactive fallout from foreign strikes at Iranian nuclear sites.
The royal house took the opportunity to show the public that plans to protect the country for any contingency were in hand. The Shura Council session was called straight after the US vice president’s visit to Riyadh to bring anxieties out in the open and demonstrate that preparations had been made to defend the kingdom.
As for the US leaders’ talks in Israel, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report that there is no doubt that the Iran issue dominated all conversations. This is apparent from his choice of interlocutors: prime minister Ehud Olmert, defense minister Ehud Barak, chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi, Mossad director Meir Dagan and Military Intelligence-AMAN commander Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin.
More US navy and air power head for Gulf
He wound up his visit by dining with all the heads of Israel’s defense and intelligence establishments at Barak’s private residence. This gave him the chance to wrap up all his business in Israel on such issues as Syria, Hizballah and Hamas, as well as Iran.
Three additional topics stood out in Cheney’s conversations with the Gulf rulers:
1. He encouraged them to conclude long-term accords with India, including nuclear cooperation. Without saying so outright, Cheney typically let his hosts know that Washington would not object to the Gulf nations and New Delhi concluding mutual defense pacts extending India’s nuclear shield to their region.
2. Although less than nine months remain for the current administration, Cheney said the Bush administration would look with favor on requests from Gulf governments for additional military assistance, and make every effort to fill applications before the January 2009 transition of the presidency.
3. The Vice President promised the US Navy’s and Air Force presence in the Persian Gulf would be expanded in the coming weeks. The American Fifth Fleet’s command base in Bahrain would be augmented with additional aircraft carriers and warships.
Five days later, on Thursday, March 27, it was announced that the USS Abraham Lincoln had departed March 13 from Everett, Washington, for a scheduled seven-month deployment to the Persian Gulf to join the USS Harry Truman. The group first made a port visit to San Diego to load its air wings, extra equipment and 1,500 more crew members before embarking on its journey to the Persian Gulf.