Tony Blair has put a crimp in Britain’s special relations with President George W. Bush by overstepping the mandate he received as Washington’s point man for unacknowledged diplomatic exchanges with Tehran on cooperation – first for the war in Afghanistan and now in the run-up to a military offensive against Iraq. The British prime minister, according to sources in the Bush administration, has misused the Tehran channel to reach the Lebanese Shiite Hizballah for some clandestine palaver.
Those sources allege that Blair went behind the president’s back in contacting a group branded by Washington a terrorist organization. Some administration sources allow his intentions may have been good, possibly to “dilute” the global war on terror in order to bridge European-American differences over the war on Iraq. However, sources close to vice president Dick Cheney and defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld expect the British leader’s actions to eventually lead to an open rupture with Bush, although not before the Iraq war is over.
Nevertheless, there are sources in the Bush administration who judged that all the elements of a Bush-Blair blowout are in place. They wonder if the British leader realizes that some factions of his intelligence services and Foreign Office are leading him by the nose down a slippery slope that will end disastrously for US-UK relations.
Britain as Washington-Tehran Middleman
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources recall that the Bush-Blair partnership began in late 2001. The British were miffed by the President’s choice of the Russian president as his key intelligence and military ally in the Afghan War against al Qaeda and the Taliban. Bush then promised the UK a lead role in the war on Iraq, inviting Britain’s vaunted secret services and astute diplomats to serve as Washington’s point men in establishing a dialog with Iran. By playing the middleman, Britain would gain a preferential strategic position over other European countries – mainly France – with interests in the Gulf and Middle East — regardless of what transpired.
Getting Britain on board, Bush felt, also gave him a loyal ally he could trust to pursue day-to-day dealings with Iran and smooth over the historically fraught Washington-Tehran relationship, especially with regard to neighboring Afghanistan.
The United States and Iran soon fell out. Washington resented Iran’s attempts to undermine Afghan president Hamid Karzai as soon as the war was over. This despite the fact that Tehran had helped fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda, mainly by keeping the restive Shi’ites of western Afghanistan quiet.
Iran, for its part, accused Washington of overlooking its contribution to the war effort and persecuting Iran’s representatives and agents in Afghanistan.
Britain was the mediator, holding secret and often heated talks with Iran in late 2001 and during all of 2002. British foreign secretary Jack Straw paid two visits to Tehran, the first in September 2001 and the second a year later. On his second trip, on October 9, he made much of his achievement in bringing about military and intelligence cooperation among the United States, Britain and Iran for the military action against Iraq.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly and DEBKAfile have alone of all the media reported extensively on this trilateral partnership. Its outcome is there on the ground: special units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are now in northern Iraq, fighting alongside pro-American Kurdish forces against al Qaeda fighters and their Kurdish supporters.
Iranian special units are also deployed with US and British commandos in southeastern Iraq near the confluence of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.
In the latest mark of US-Iranian cooperation, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report that Tehran has allowed most of the American ammunition war reserves to be stored in an Iranian base converted into a massive US facility near the Iranian oil city of Abadan. General Tommy Franks chose this site for good reason. He is convinced that Saddam will never strike targets in neighboring Iran in the coming campaign – even if his back is against the wall. He will aim to prove his conflict is with America, not fellow Muslims. He would have no such scruples about striking a storage base built in Kuwait or Qatar, both of whom are working with the Americans, but will turn a blind eye to Iranian collaboration.
While appreciating British diplomacy in Tehran, the United States is getting worried by confidential information, according to which Britain sought Iranian assistance for opening a line of communication with Hizballah secretary general Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and other leaders of the group. British officials reportedly threw out hints that in exchange for Teheran’s assistance, London would use its special relations with Washington to avert or even scrap a potential American or Israel strike against the Hizballah
The trouble for the Bush administration is that the intelligence information flowing to Washington proves Hizballah’s security and intelligence branches were deep into the planning of the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington. One of its brightest stars, Imad Mughniyeh, had a personal hand in the operational planning as a key figure behind the network.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources reveal that the Iranian acceded to the British request and brought their representatives and the Hizballah together for regular meetings. They began talks, without Washington’s knowledge, in Lebanon, Cyprus and Tehran, discussing a British proposal that went against US aims in its war on terror. The proposal was for the Hizballah to isolate Mughniyeh and expel him from their territory in Lebanon. This would enable the British to make the case before Washington that the Hizballah had changed its spots and would play ball with the United States.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources say Hezbollah has still not responded to the British offer.
Washington tumbled to the British maneuver in the last week of October. When the Americans asked French president Jacques Chirac how come he invited Nasrallah to the opening session of the conference of Francophone states in Beirut, the French president floored them with his answer. French intelligence in Beirut, he said, had informed him of secret British contacts with Hizballah leaders going back some months. The French were sure these meetings could not have taken place without sanction from Washington. Chirac took this to mean that the Americans had lifted their taboo from the Shiite terrorists and France could pursue its own dialog on the cultural-religious plane.
Top US officials are now considering how to treat the British departure from their agreed path. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report they never saw it coming and maintain Britain has acted in contradiction of America’s anti-terror policy.