US Under Secretary of State William Burns was not the only taciturn participant at the meeting of six powers and Iran in Geneva last Saturday, July 19. Senior nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili was just as unforthcoming. He said neither yea nor nay to the big power incentives on offer for Tehran’s consent to suspend uranium enrichment.
In fact, nothing came of the meeting except a two-week deadline for Iran to come back with a reasonable answer.
Washington had predicted a two-tier Iranian tactic: A tough, unyielding front at the formal session, attended for the first time by a high-ranking US official, while on the informal track, the officials of Iran’s Nuclear Energy Commission accompanying Jalili would show more flexibility in quiet sessions with their counterparts from the US Energy Department in Burns’ party (whose presence DEBKA-Net-Weekly 357 disclosed on July 18).
From them Washington looked for a clue about the way the wind was blowing in Tehran on an enrichment freeze, to last at least until President George W. Bush bowed out of the White House next January.
Both tracks were equally unproductive. The Iranian officials’ tight-lipped stance cast the Bush administration into a void of uncertainty, leaving US strategists with no real leads on their next moves. They were not even sure whether the understandings reached in the secret US-Iranian powwows in recent months would stand up on such critical questions as Iraq’s pacification, Syria’s rehabilitation, Lebanese stability and the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Administration officials began to worry that a breakdown instead of a breakthrough was in store for the fine diplomatic momentum in which Bush had invested so much effort in the hope of helping his fellow Republican John McCain win the White House.
Washington is perplexed
Between the ill-starred Geneva meeting on July 19 and Thursday, July 24, speculation about the Iranian clerical rulers’ game was rife in the circles around Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, defense secretary Robert Gates and national security adviser Stephen Hadley.
Five alternative hypotheses were aired, according to our Washington sources:
1. One was that, up until Jalili set off for Geneva, the Iranian leadership had not managed to resolve its profound internal debate over whether to meet the Americans halfway, or wait for a more opportune moment. The open rift at home tied his tongue.
2. A row flared suddenly between Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) leaders and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The former accused the president of the ultimate crime of making pro-American statements and favoring diplomatic engagement with the enemy. Their extreme disapproval produced an ultimatum: Break off the secret dialogue with the Americans or be ousted from office with your associates.
The fiery Revolutionary Guards were persuaded that Ahmadinejad was selling out to America by some recent remarks.
In one speech, he urged the West to engage in talks with Iran “without preconditions” as the only open path to them. He then promised new “developments” in Iran-US relations in the coming months and said a formal US request for an interests section in Tehran – the first US diplomatic presence in the Iranian capital in thirty years – would be looked into.
Ahmadinejad also remarked: “Last year too when I was in America, I said I was ready to have a debate with the US president…
“In the coming months they will need to talk to us. They now concede we are a power beyond the region. Our power is of course human.”
On another occasion, the Iranian president told reporters, “Iran does not need any intermediaries to talk with the US. And whenever it is needed, we shall talk with them.”
Was Ahmadinejad too pro-American for his radical loyalists?
Vice president Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, an unknown quantity in the West, was revealed as taking this position much too far for the radical Revolutionary Guards to stomach.
As head of the Council of Iranians Residing Abroad, Rahim Mashai told a conference for promoting tourism to Iran: “…the modern Iran considers the people of America and Israel to be friends. No nation in the world is our enemy; we are proud of that.”
He concluded with a flourish: “We consider the American people to be among the world’s greatest nations.”
In his three years as president, Ahmadinejad’s outrageous remarks and conduct have been staunchly backed by the Revolutionary Guards. But suddenly, the pugnacious president and his cronies were singing new hymns extolling amity, music which jarred badly on the ears of his former backers.
But then, at Geneva, it all changed.
3. One theory bruited about among Washington insiders is that the discomfited IRGC leaders went directly to the supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to complain about the new pro-American winds blowing through the Islamic Republic’s political elite, warning of the peril they posed to the national military nuclear program.
The Islamic Republic’s feet, they said, were being placed on a slippery slope. The Revolution’s gains were at jeopardy at the very moment that 30 years of endeavor were about to pay off and bring to success all they had strived for, nuclear development, inroads in Iraq and strong positions in the Middle East at large.
Dismayed by the IRGC chiefs’ message, Khamenei ordered Iran’s negotiators to break off contact with their Western counterparts, according to this theory.
And in fact, since the critical encounter in Geneva, no Iranian official has ventured to make contact with any American or Western official.
The Lake-Ross Factor in Tehran’s zigzag towards Obama
Furthermore, according to our sources, the Iranian diplomats who once made a habit of keeping informal channels with Washington open in places like Germany, Iraq, Cyprus, Vienna and Eastern Africa, have clammed up.
A number of State Department and CIA feelers to them met with no response.
4. There is also a contrasting theory, which speculates that the Iranians are testing the Bush administration’s nerves to see how far they can be stretched; they will accordingly maintain their wall of silence until the middle of next week, two or three days before the end of the two-week deadline given for their reply to the incentives package, as a softening-up measure for their opposite numbers in Washington.
The Iranians will then come forward with positive-sounding words that will encourage the six powers to extend the deadline by several more weeks. Jalili & Co. will then come back to the negotiating table, their bargaining position much enhanced.
This stratagem of playing out negotiations to gain time has worked successfully for some years.
5. The last hypothesis for Tehran’s apparent zigzag rests on what some White House circles call the “Lake-Ross factor,” named for the Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama’s two leading foreign policy advisers: Anthony Lake, President Bill Clinton‘s national security adviser up to 1997, who was pegged as secretary of state in an Obama presidency (until the latest new turn of events covered in another article in this issue), and Dennis Ross, former special ambassador for the Middle East.
Tehran, according to this theory, had been maneuvered by the Obama outfit into changing its American horses.
Instead of affording Bush the awaited diplomatic kudos for supporting fellow Republican John McCain‘s bid for election, Iran’s rulers are in the process of switching their focus to Obama.
Did Obama's aides secretly meet Iranian officials in Baghdad?
This theory is supported by Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki‘s strange behavior.
On July 17, he and President Bush agreed by video conference on a “general time horizon'' for the reduction of US combat troops in Iraq. This general time horizon would be included in agreements now under negotiation that would define the US role in Iraq and the status of American forces there.
But then along came Barack Obama, and Maliki backtracked on his agreement with the US president, evidently under Tehran’s influence.
Without even a polite by-your-leave to Washington, the Iraqi prime minister said the Democratic senator’s 16-month timeline for the exit of American troops from Iraq “could be suitable”.
A rumor, which may have its source in administration suspicions, went around Washington and Baghdad this week, that while Obama was in Baghdad, some of his advisers met secretly with Iranian officials who came especially to the Iraqi capital for the purpose. Because of that meeting, they explained, the Democratic senator decided to head south to Basra to see for himself how US-Iranian understandings were working on the ground.
(Tehran’s possible switch of negotiating partners from Bush to Obama is analyzed in the next article)
Wednesday, July 23, Ahmadinejad broke the Iranian wall of silence, although his two-track statement did little to dispel the fog of uncertainty hanging over Washington.
He declared, “The Iranian nation… will not retreat one iota [on its nuclear program] in the face of oppressing powers.”
In a different tone, he praised US participation in the latest round of nuclear talks with Tehran [in Geneva] as a “positive step forward,” towards recognizing Iran’s “right to acquire nuclear technology.”
He was saying that American was on the right path, but needed to try harder to swallow Iran’s position whole.