An Ominous Diary for Second Half of November

In a notoriously unpredictable part of the world the chronology of events in the latter half of November, 2007 bodes volatility, at best; violent outbreaks, at worst.


November 15: The nuclear watchdog loses traction


The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency’s director, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, published his latest report on Iran’s adherence to UN Security Council injunctions to halt uranium enrichment, make its nuclear program fully transparent and the presence of clandestine nuclear arms projects.

He determined that Tehran is marginally more cooperative with the agency and its inspections, but could not report much progress on anything else. Indeed, this report finally confirmed that Iran has not heeded UN Security Council resolutions to stop uranium enrichment and has moved onto industrial scale production. That was no secret.

Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad actually bragged that centrifuge production stood at 3,000 machines.

The ElBaradei report should therefore offer no hindrance to the UN Security Council getting down immediately to a new series of tough economic and military sanctions against Iran.

The chief inspector knows that, whereas in 2003, the international cards were stacked behind the IAEA’s refusal to confirm Saddam Hussein‘s weapons of mass destruction, today, the cards are reversed: An international lineup of four permanent Security Council members, the US, France, UK and Russia, plus Germany – and possibly even China – is set for a third round of sanctions against Iran.

But still he made a last-ditch try to rescue the Islamic Republic from punishment. He tried to stage a dramatic visit to Tehran Tuesday, Nov. 13, to persuade the Iranians to offer just one concession – for instance, a three-month pause in enrichment – enough to keep the diplomatic effort afloat a little longer and sanctions at bay. But the Iranians told him humiliatingly not to bother. They were satisfied with what they had already extracted from him, a statement that he had no knowledge of an Iranian military program, which cost him dear in international credibility

ElBaradei found he was catching it from two directions – the Security Council group and Tehran.

His leeway for maneuvering against Washington is further narrowed by the rift widening between Moscow and Tehran and the understanding unfolding between Russia and the United States for turning the screw on Iran (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 325 of last week). The Bush administration has trumped the Vienna-based agency and its director and sanctions loom large. But both see Tehran running with the ball.

The ayatollahs could fight back directly or indirectly by targeting the Gulf or activating Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Palestinians.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources do not rule out Iran resorting to deterrent action in the Gulf or Iraq, especially if President George W. Bush goes through with the plan first revealed by debkafile on Nov. 11, to put before the public the new findings on Iran’s nuclear secrets gathered by the United States, Russia, France, Germany and Israel.

Bush cleared the plan with visiting French president Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel a week ago, and also with Russian president Vladimir Putin.


November 21: Lebanon’s fate in the balance


US military sources familiar with the Lebanese scene interpreted for DEBKA-Net-Weekly the two exercises the Shiite Hizballah conducted on Nov. 2 and 3 – a command drill and mock call-up for 10,000 reservists – as an object lesson for the pro-Western Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora and the Americans.

Iran’s Lebanese surrogate was demonstrating that in a crisis it can mobilize a bigger reserve force faster than any the Lebanese army can muster – or any force the Americans are able to rush to Lebanon.

Our military sources are also closely watching out for Tehran’s reaction to the thaw in Washington-Damascus relations ((details of which appeared in last week’s DEBKA-NetWeekly and will be followed up in this issue). Iran’s rulers are displaying symptoms of resentment and trepidation, which could well be translated into violent steps.

For instance, Hizballah could be ordered to derail the US-French-Syrian deal over the Lebanese presidential election in parliament which, after several delays, is scheduled for Nov. 21.

There are already ominous stirrings on the ground indicating that Hizballah, Hamas and Jihad Islami are preparing to go into action from the Israel-Lebanese border or the Gaza Strip – or both.

The unease has infected the UN peacekeeping force which has been deployed in South Lebanon since the end of last year’s Israel-Hizballah war.

Italian Maj. Gen Claudio Graziano, commander of the Interim Force in Lebanon, warned Wednesday, Nov. 14, that the peacekeepers should be “ready to face any new developments which could affect our area of operations.”

He added: “The situation in Lebanon overall is calm, but in the South it could change at any minute, so let us be prepared to face any threats.”


UNIFIL fearful


The Italian commander is intent on keeping the 15,000-strong UN force on its toes after his request to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for directives on how to handle potential exigencies returned unanswered. He asked for instructions on how to act in particular in the event of –

1. A big terrorist attack on his men on the scale of Hizballah’s 1983 suicide bombing attacks on US Marines and French Beirut headquarters, in which 400 men were slaughtered.

2. The outbreak of civil war in the wake of the controversial presidential election in Beirut and its spread to the South. Should the UN force fight off attempts by armed Hizballah and Christian and Druze organizations to seize control of the country? Or should they keep to their narrow mandate?

3. A flare-up of hostilities between Israel and Hizballah.

4. The installation by Iran and Hizballah of an alternative Lebanese government in Beirut, rival to the Siniora administration and a resulting split in the army. To which should the international force defer and offer cooperation?

Gen. Graziano complained in his message to Ban Ki-moon that the peacekeepers under his command feel as though the world body has dumped them and no longer accepts responsibility for them.


November 24-26: US at peak of drive for Palestinian state


These and other unsolved dilemmas come together on Nov. 24, the day US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice has set for Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas to present themselves in Washington and brush up their acts ahead of the international conference opening in Annapolis two days later.

Because they are not expected to arrive with a signed and sealed joint statement, the Bush administration has given itself two days to bulldoze them into concessions for the sake of cobbling one together.

The Israeli leader will be at the receiving end of the heaviest pressure.

Ehud Olmert received due notice in the speech Rice delivered to a Jewish-American audience in Nashville, Tennessee Tuesday, Nov. 13. She stated that in the upcoming talks with Palestinian leaders, “Israelis must be prepared for difficult and painful sacrifices of some of their longest-held aspirations.”

She did not specify what the sacrifices would be and added, almost as an afterthought, that the Palestinians must also be prepared for sacrifices.

In the same speech, the Secretary of State described Palestinian statehood as a bulwark against the spread of extremists and stressed: The threat from violent extremists means that failure of the talks is not an option. “What is at stake is nothing less than the future of the Middle East.”

These assertions clarified the Bush administration’s expectations of the international conference. All the ills afflicting US Middle East policy were lumped into a single ailment, the panacea for which was to be the Annapolis conference’s role in kick-starting progress towards creating a Palestinian state.


Will Golan talks tempt Assad away from Tehran?


DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington sources report that the Israeli prime minister will face demands to make the event a success by offering “painful” concessions to the Palestinians. But that will not be all. He will be told to prepare to meet Syria’s demands, which are at the very least to hand over the Golan. This step will carry the US-Israeli-Palestinian event in Maryland forward to the next stage on the Bush agenda, which is to draw president Bashar Assad into divorcing Iran. The main carrot offered him will come from Israel.

The Americans are hoping Assad will earlier show good faith by abstaining from meddling in Lebanon’s presidential election on Nov. 21. This will be taken as a success for Bush administration diplomacy and the first crack in the Syrian-Iranian alliance.

The Middle East scenario will then go back to its starting point: speculation over how Iran, Hizballah, and the Palestinian Hamas and Jihad Islami (both of which have been left out in the cold by Washington’s feting of Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas) will react to the moves the Bush administration has started rolling.

The Secretary of State rounded off the script in the same speech when she said: …”a two-state solution for the Israelis and Palestinians is more urgent than ever because of the threat from violent extremists in the Middle East,” referring specifically to Hamas, Lebanese Hizballah guerrillas and Iran.

Iran is choosing to “destabilize the Middle East, pursue nuclear capabilities and threaten our allies, especially Israel,” she said.

Rice knows perfectly well that there is no chance of those “violent extremists” lying down quietly and accepting the Annapolis strategy, especially with Syria’s participation.

And most Middle East sources believe that Assad will take the best of two worlds – gifts from Washington and Jerusalem and free oil from Tehran.

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