US Vice President Richard Cheney has come and gone from the Persian Gulf; Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmidnejad has made the rounds; Washington and Tehran have agreed to talk (as DEBKA-Net-Weekly 300 predicted last week).
Yet the enigma remains.
None of the region’s rulers or military chiefs knows for sure whether the US and Iran are heading for a war confrontation in the foreseeable future – or, specifically, if the widely predicted summer 2007 clash is still on.
To dispel some of the uncertainty, Cheney informed them that President George W. Bush was absolutely determined to pursue US military action to keep nuclear weapons out of Iran’s hands before he departs the White House in Jan. 2009.
He advised the rulers he met to prepare themselves for this eventuality.
The vice president did not elaborate on this statement or connect it to events in Iraq. But he said each ruler would be invited to Washington in the coming weeks to hear this pledge from the president’s own lips. Saudi King Abdullah and UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan would also be asked to address the joint Houses of Congress.
This jarred with the US decision to hold talks with Iran, beginning on May 28. But
Cheney assured his Middle East friends that the US is going into this dialogue with its eyes open and no illusions, taking care to keep the military option alive at all times
This message was underscored before he touched down in the region on May 11.
Between April 24 and May 10, the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard the Bataan Expeditionary Strike Group drilled landing tactics. The entire force took part, including the Battalion Landing Team 2/2, the Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-264 and the MEU’s Combat Logistics Battalion-26.
The maneuvers were performed with live ammunition in conditions as close as possible to the real battlefield at Kuwait’s Udairi Range and Camp Buehring. As soon as they landed on firm ground, the units were thrown into desert battles on terrain similar to that of Iran’s coastal areas.
Some of the units held earlier practices in Djibouti, Kenya and Qatar.
Cheney made a point of mentioning the arrival in the Gulf in the last two weeks of the biggest marine landing force in the world, the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6).
He also broke the news to his Arab hosts of the big Iranian-North Korean transaction in the works that would double Tehran’s long-range missile arsenal.
(Full details of the deal appear in the next article).
Military posturing coupled with dialogue
Should the deal be finalized, he promised the US would do whatever it takes to prevent the cutting edge North Korean ballistic missiles from reaching Iranian hands. Everything he said led to the conclusion that America’s military option against Iran was in active mode.
To make this more convincing, the vice president climbed aboard the nuclear-powered USS John C. Stennis and declared: “With two carrier strike groups in the Gulf, we’re sending clear messages to friends and adversaries alike. We stand with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating the region.”
Tehran’s comeback was fast. “They (the US) cannot strike Iran,” said president Ahmadinejad. “The Iranian people can protect themselves and retaliate.”
He left a trail of threatening talk in his visits to Gulf rulers.
Nonetheless, his hosts received the impression that the war panic which had gripped Tehran in March and April had abated and a sense of calm and confidence had taken its place. Iran’s rulers appeared now to regard US military movements and Cheney’s tough statements as maneuvering for positions of vantage in readiness for the negotiations ahead.
A subtext running through Cheney’s conversations in the Gulf, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, was that a vestige at least had survived of the anti-Iranian diplomatic lineup the US first mooted in January, even though its Arab adherents had turned away. Ahmadinejad, for his part, concentrated on persuading those Arab rulers to stay aloof from Washington’s regional strategy.
The Iranian president’s tactics were more effective than the US leader’s, as shown in detail in a separate article in this issue.
Middle East rulers take precautions
But all in all, the Middle East policy-makers addressed are highly dubious of everything they heard from their American and Iranian guests alike. They take it for granted that both were at pains to fool everyone with misleading representations of their real plans and intentions. They have therefore constructed broad safety shoulders allowing them political or military leeway just in case of the unexpected, a sudden military move by the US or Iran, or a mega-attack by a third party like al Qaeda, which catapults the two antagonists and the entire region into an unforeseen eruption of hostilities.
To hedge their bets against largely unknown odds, Middle East and Gulf policy-makers have embarked on three courses, on which this issue will expand below:
1. They are putting in place military and political shock absorbers to withstand the spreading military upheavals expected when the US military pull-out from Iraq gets underway in late summer. Saudi Arabia and Jordan as the most vulnerable are bracing hardest.
2. Military provisions are in preparation against a potential military confrontation between the US and Iran or Israel and Iran. The most immediately affected are Israel and Syria.
3. The so-called moderate Arab rulers are carefully treading the golden mean between Washington and Tehran.
In other words, no one is willing to risk full exposure to the cold outside America’s military cloak in the Middle East, notwithstanding general disappointment with America’s military achievements in Iraq. At the same time, they are making sure of good relations with their unpredictable next door neighbor, Iran.