Sunday, March 2, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrives for a historic two-day visit to Baghdad. Although he will be the official guest of the Iraqi government, wherever he turns, he will bump into the ubiquitous American presence – almost like his visit to Columbia University, New York last year.
And from the moment he lands, the US military will be responsible for his safety.
He will alight at Baghdad international airport under the eyes of US troops flying the Stars and Stripes; US tanks and armored personnel carriers will protect the route of his limousine convoy from the airport and, if he looks up, he will see US Cobras overhead.
After sleeping at the Iranian embassy in Baghdad his first night, his appointments on March 3 will inevitably take him into the US-fortified Green Zone government center.
The Iranian president’s talks with Iraqi president Jalal Talabani and prime minister Nouri al Maliki will take place in offices not far from US intelligence command, which keeps track around the clock of weapons and extra-powerful roadside bomb deliveries Iran smuggles to the Iraqi insurgents fighting US forces. Next door are the headquarters of Gen. David Petraeus, commander of those forces.
Also in the Green Zone is the US embassy in Iraq and the office of ambassador Ryan Crocker, who has been trying in vain to reconvene another round of US-Iranian talks on Iraqi security.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Tehran report that this surreal scenario for launching Ahmadinejad with full honors as the first Gulf head of state to visit post-Saddam Baghdad was certainly in the mind of supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei when he made a rare appearance before Iranian officials Tuesday, Feb. 26 and praised Ahmadinejad to the heavens.
New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s strains reach Tehran
Khamenei also cocked a shrewd ear to another epic event taking place some 5,430 miles away from Tehran: the New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert in Pyongyang under the baton of Lauren Mazel, a dramatic piece of symphonic diplomacy staged to break the deep layer of ice overlaying North Korean-US relations.
The canny Iranian ruler appeared to envisage the Bush administration or its successor showing the same forbearance for Iran’s nuclear aspirations as was granted North Korea – in which case Tehran too would be glad to host an American orchestra.
What he seemed to be after in a carefully phrased speech was consensus for Iran to replicate the arrangement with North Korea, i.e. to temporarily suspend its nuclear weapons and long-range nuclear missile projects along with the uranium enrichment process – but not be required to dismantle any part of its program.
If this arrangement became acceptable, Iran would be willing to go back to nuclear diplomacy with the US.
Khamenei put it this way: “One example of an advance by the Islamic system has been the nuclear issue, in which the Iranian nation has honestly and seriously achieved a great victory.”
He was saying in typically oracular fashion that the game was over and it had ended with the Islamic Republic’s victory over the opponents of its nuclear aspirations.
The supreme ruler gave President Ahmadinejad full credit for this victory.
Our Iranian sources note that even Iran’s so-called moderates, or pro-reformists, such as ex-presidents Hashemi Rafsanji and Mohammed Khatami, never questioned their country’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon per se, only argued that to avoid provoking an American attack, all the elements of the program should be put in place, including detailed technical specifications, but stop short of actually assembling a bomb.
The extremist camp headed by the president and the Revolutionary Guards chiefs countered, in contrast, that Iran needs to have a complete weapon and its vehicles of delivery ready in case of attack, because assembling one would waste precious time. Ahmadinejad’s was the loudest voice to argue that the United States would never go through with its military option against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.
And he was right. The US National Intelligence Estimate released last December let the Bush administration off the military hook by claiming that Iran had shelved its covert military nuclear projects in 2003 – even though suspicions were stronger than ever that Tehran is well advanced towards nuclear weaponization.
Ali Khamenei said with unusual warmth that he regarded “the role of the person of the president in the advance of the nuclear issue as outstanding.”
Sauce for Pyongyang is sauce for Tehran
This praise not only strengthened the extremist faction ahead of parliamentary elections on March 16; it also signaled Washington that the pugnacious president had gone up in the world. The supreme ruler has rewarded “his role on the nuclear issue,” by putting him in charge of Iran’s military nuclear program. He is the man for the Americans to talk to on the nuclear question.
If anyone imagined Tehran would be more forthcoming, the supreme ruler put them right; the West’s ranks were divided and Washington had competition, he said: “Those people (in the West) who used to say Iran’s nuclear activity must be dismantled are now saying we are ready to accept your advances, on condition that it will not continue indefinitely.” This feat was achieved by “our perseverance,” he pointed out.
Khamenei was referring to Germany, which is reported to be in covert talks with Iran on a proposal for the West to respect Iran’s nuclear advances as is and for Tehran to agree to put it on ice for a number of years. This would leave the Islamic Republic with the initiative for activating its nuclear option at will.
The ayatollah, who lays down the law in the Islamic Republic, was suggesting that the United States and the West match another of the concessions extended North Korea, which, while disassembling its weapons-grade enrichment facilities, was allowed to retain the stocks already accumulated, as well as its nuclear-capable missiles and bombs.
North Korea is getting away with a great deal, and Iran’s rulers are taking note.
During his visit to Tokyo this week, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert put before Japanese prime minister Yasuo Fukuda and defense minister Shigeru Ishiba intelligence updates showing North Korean nuclear scientists and missile engineers employed in Iran’s military industries and Syria’s weapons of mass destruction programs.
Pyongyang, by assisting Iran and Syria develop banned weaponry, is in breach of the non-proliferation accords it signed last year with the Six-Nation Group in return for the lifting of sanctions.
In these circumstances, Iran’s hard-line rulers are drawing huge encouragement from Washington’s willingness to send the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on a charm mission to Pyongyang.