His bags were packed but Syrian president Bashar Assad decided to stay home.
After a week talking to his visitor, Jalal Talabani, leader of the northern Iraq-based Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Syrian leader dropped his plan to travel to Iran for a discussion on how best to help Iraqi president Saddam Hussein head off an American invasion.
Assad’s no-show in Teheran acutely embarrassed the Islamic Republic, at a time when its supreme spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, was escalating his verbal attacks on the Great Satan. However, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, Assad was furious when he learned from the Kurdish leader, who visited Tehran himself last week, that Iran’s leaders were deeply engaged in covert negotiations with the United States on ways of helping the US war against Iraq by logistical and other support. Talabani confided to the Syrian ruler that he and other emissaries had carried secret Iranian messages to Washington detailing the scale and form of the aid on offer from Tehran – and Iran’s expectations from Washington as remuneration.
One subject of those missives was the machinery for keeping Iran-US collaboration dark.
Hojjatoleslam Hassan Rouhani, secretary of Iran’s supreme national security council, confirmed Talabani’s tale. In the first such policy comments by a senior Iranian official, Rouhani told visiting Finnish foreign minister Erkki Tuomioja on Tuesday, January 14 – one day before Assad was due in Tehran – that his government would support American military action to eliminate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction arsenal, but not the Saddam government’s removal.
Rouhani added that Iran would cooperate with the United States operation only if it was sanctioned by a United Nations resolution.
During his extended stay in Damascus, Talabani also told his Syrian hosts that he had delivered a message from Washington to Tehran offering a US non-aggression commitment to Iran in return for an Iranian pledge not to interfere in American action – except for certain types of logistical support. The Bush government also promised to tone down its anti-Iran rhetoric.
The theocrats of Tehran are concerned by the around-the-clock broadcasts of US-run Radio Farda, which is expected soon to start satellite transmissions, as well as by 145 Congressmen’s signatures on a declaration of support for their most dangerous foe, the Iranian guerilla group Mujahideen a-Khalq.
Talabani’s disclosures showed Assad he had been outmaneuvered. He had intended to discuss with Iranian officials tactics for warding off the American offensive against Iraq and logistical help for Saddam Hussein. Now there was no point.
When Iran’s security services discovered the Kurdish leader had blown the whistle to the Syrians, the Iranian ambassador to Damascus, Hossein Sheikh-ol-Eslam, summoned him for a dressing-down. But the cat was out of the bag. Tuesday night, January 14, Syria informed the presidential office in Teheran that Assad’s visit the next day was off.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Tehran, the Syrian ruler had been urging both Iran and Saudi Arabia to halt oil exports via the Persian Gulf as a means of deterring the United States from going to war against Iraq. Both turned him down flat – Saudi Arabia was bound by its traditional policy, while Iran made it clear that its near-bankrupt economy could little afford to forego oil revenues. Moreover, officials in Tehran explained that upsetting the flow of Gulf oil would undermine their efforts to rally regional and Arab support behind Iran in case of an Israeli attack on the Bushehr atomic reactor and the underground nuclear facilities under construction at Natanz and Arak.
Divided over Hizballah tactics
Syria and Iran are equally at odds over the guidelines for their shared protege, the Lebanese terrorist group, Hizballah, in the light of the approaching American war against Iraq. Reporting this, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East sources recall that until recently, Iran egged Syria on to allow the Shiite terrorists to heat up the Lebanese-Israel border in order to hamper the US effort. But since Iran came to terms with Washington, Syria is the one urging the Hizballah to escalate border violence, while Iran wants calm to demonstrate it is serious about its accords with the Americans.
Consequently, the Hizballah has of late, under instructions from Tehran, made do with routine anti-aircraft fire against Israeli planes and positions, which never hit anything much. Even Israeli defense minister Shaul Mofaz remarked Tuesday, January 14, that the Shiite terrorists seem to have lost interest in a flare-up.
Iran is also building an independent power base in Lebanon, divorced from reliance on Damascus’s good will. Mega-bucks are being sunk into the construction of a network of bunkers, arms dumps and hideouts. Supplies of ammunition, new weapons and additional Zelzal missiles are pouring into Lebanon, kept firmly in the grip of Iranian Revolutionary Guards to ensure their prudent use in Iran’s interest.
Iran’s hope for a vested interest in post-Saddam Iraq is at the bottom of its willingness to cooperate with the United States. By backing the American offensive, the ayatollahs hope to improve their standing among Iraqi opposition factions and position themselves to pull strings in the future government in Baghdad.
Talabani and his former rival Massoud Barazani, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party, have held several separate exchanges in Tehran in the last few weeks with Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer Hakim, head of the opposition Iraqi Supreme Revolutionary Council. Both promised Iraqi Shiites would be awarded a larger role in a future Baghdad administration than the Sunni leader Ahmed Chalabi, who lacks an army and counts for less in Iraq than in Washington and Europe.
But the Kurds and Shiites have yet to work out the minutiae of power-sharing and are likely to butt heads in the future.
In an early sign of acrimony, a power-sharing conference due to have been held in the northern Iraqi town of Irbil on January 15 was deferred – and not for the first time. The Kurdish organizers explained that 75 of the participants had not been allowed to enter northern Iraq through Turkey, yet another symptom of the siege Turkey imposed on Kurdistan two weeks ago.