Hardly had US president-elect Barack Obama outlined his plan to harness Moscow and Beijing to a concerted effort to halt Iran's nuclear program, when his ideas were knocked down by Tehran and Moscow.
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the high-powered chairman of Iran's Expediency Council, said Tuesday, Dec. 9, that the Islamic Republic does not intend to engage the US in war, but only “stand on its two feet and set a role model for regional countries to uphold their independence and freedom.”
In a speech marking the Eid festival, Rafsanjani reproved the incoming president: “It is not appropriate for Obama to use such words similar to those of Bush.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Tehran sources report that the quid pro quo, on which the transition teams set up by Obama and his designated secretary of state Hillary Clinton are working, is a non-starter.
It would require the Tehran regime to accept a two-month suspension of uranium enrichment to give talks with the new US administration a chance to move forward, while Washington would freeze sanctions for the same period of time.
Our Iranian sources say this plan cannot work because it would clash with the peak of Iran's drive in the early months of 2009 to build up its stock of enriched uranium. The enrichment program, they say, is Tehran's strongest card – not only in its international stance but also at home, where the Islamic regime must present the people with a constant and steadfast face.
Supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is anxious to do nothing that might impede the pugnacious Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election as president next June. Buckling under American pressure while failing to lift the sagging economy would make the regime look weak to the Iranian voter and cost Ahmadinejad the election.
Moscow will not admit Iran has a nuclear weapons program
Another strong dose of negativity was administered to the Obama team's plans for talking Iran out of its nuclear ambitions by Moscow, where Vladimir Voronkov, head of the foreign ministry's department of European cooperation, dropped a small bombshell: “One cannot say today that Iran can create nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them,” he said.
This succinct sentence sharply disassociated the Russian government from the American, European and Israeli assessments of Iran's ability to build its first A-bomb by mid-2009 and its breakthrough in the development of ballistic missiles.
To add weight to his statement, Voronkov said his information “is confirmed by all the services responsible for the collection and analysis of information.”
He did not let it go there. “The difference is that our partners (US and Europe) want to use instruments of pressure,” said the Russian official, adding: “We do not consider such instruments to be always effective.”
An unusual feature of Voronkov's remarks is that he broke with a longstanding norm, whereby Russian politicians and office-holders strictly avoid open mention of Moscow's spy services and never, ever name their fields of undercover work.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Moscow sources stress that Voronkov would never have been authorized to speak so frankly about Russian intelligence services and their conclusions for anyone less than the incoming US president.
Putting Obama straight was important enough for the Kremlin to respond to his words before 24 hours had gone by. Russia's leaders, president Dmitry Medvedev and prime minister Vladimir Putin, wanted it clearly understood by the new US president that the Iranian nuclear issue must not be included in the broad gamut of topics covered in their forthcoming talks – quite simply because, in their view, it is a non-issue.
They will on no account contradict a firm conclusion reached by Russian intelligence.
Obama must accept Iran as a “regional power” – Kremlin
Obama was thus advised to forget about his back-up plan for tougher sanctions if talks with Tehran were unavailing. Moscow would not play ball and Beijing would likely be just as unaccommodating.
The Russians were not yet done.
A few hours later, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov advised Washington to accept reality and start treating Iran like “a regional power” in any future negotiations. To bring Russia into US talks with Iran, the new US administration must also accept the relationship between Moscow and Tehran as that of big power and regional power.
Moscow's approach is not new. But Washington has always refused to accept that Russia regards itself as part of the Muslim world because of its fast-growing Moslem population (20 million out of 150 million).
Historically, Islam preceded Christianity as a presence on Russian soil. Moscow maintains a balancing act which often entails defending Muslim interests to earn a privileged political relationship with the Muslim and Arab worlds. But Russia also has its European side. In both these capacities, Moscow claims its historic vocation is to bring about understanding between the West and the Muslims.
In this context, deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov surprised American correspondents when he announced in a briefing at his Moscow office that Russian officials had approached members of the incoming Obama administration and urged them to hurry up and normalize relations with Iran and reach terms on its nuclear program.
Ryabkov said his government hoped “the new administration understands there is no alternative to the political process and dialogue at all levels.”
Asked if this meant that Obama would be required to establish normal relations with Tehran as the pre-condition for a nuclear deal, the Russian official replied: Yes, absolutely.”
The new US president was being put on notice that to obtain Russia's good offices for dialogue with Iran, he must abide by the two rule books laid out by Tehran and Moscow.