Cooperation with major world powers for solving global problems is a central theme of the National Security Council officials' new Middle East Review (see second article in this issue). This is partly explained, say DEBKA-Net Weekly's Washington sources, by the dearth of competent administration hands for managing the complex US polices regarding Iran, Syria, Israel and the Palestinians.
It is also President Barack Obama's declared approach. (Regional problems, including Iran, are “challenges that no single nation, no matter how powerful can confront alone,” he said in April after attending the G-20 summit in London. “The United States must lead the way,” he said. “But our best chance to solve these unprecedented problems comes from acting in concert with other nations.”)
What the US president omitted to mention was that he is short of senior professional staffers in the White House, the State Department or the NSC who are qualified to execute his policies.
In the nearly nine months since taking office, Obama has found no director for the Iranian desk. He has excluded secretary of state Hillary Clinton from Iran and sensitive Middle East issues. As we reported in previous issues, she has been confined to the Levant, meaning Syria and Lebanon.
Our sources also note that National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones, normally the US president's senior strategic adviser, has turned out to be a crack administrator who likes to end the day's work in the early afternoon after performing his tasks with technical perfection. Strategic thinking appears to be beyond him. Washington insiders whisper that at Gen. Jones' office lights are rarely on at night. “The world around may be in turmoil, but the NSC is a very peaceful place under Jim Jones,” said one source.
For three months, Dennis Ross has been referred to as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Central region. But the impression conveyed that he is the president's point man on Iranian policy has proved erroneous.
Ross is invited to some of the president's consultations on Iran – but not all. Since April, he has not been entrusted with any Iranian mission and his position at the White House is unclear.
William Burns wants to recycle Bush proposals for Iran
In contrast, President Obama has resorted increasingly in the past month to the counsel of a third-ranking diplomat from previous administrations, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns.
Despite his experience in high office (ambassador to Moscow 2008-2005, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council staff in 2005), Burns is not regarded as a high-flyer aspiring to, or capable of, a lead role in complex diplomatic moves on a global scale.
He has been slated to lead the American delegation at the Six-Power Talks with Iran on Oct. 1.
According to our sources, Burns' favors launching the talks with a recycled version of the deal first put together under George W. Bush, for Iran to suspend nuclear activity, including the enrichment of uranium, in return for which Washington will lift UN and US sanctions for an equal length of time. This quid pro quo would aim to generate a calming interval and improved ambience, during which the two sides would test the water for substantial negotiations on Iran's nuclear program.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources do not see much chance of this proposal finding acceptance in Tehran.
The Islamic regime is not secure enough to show a sign of external weakness by suspending enrichment even for a moment. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are telling their people they have brought Washington to its knees on the nuclear issue in order to hide the chinks in their armor in the face of substantial opposition to their rule.
For Iran, the words “nuclear program” are non-existent in any negotiating context
With Iran refusing outright to discuss its nuclear activities, there is serious concern in Washington that the Europeans and Chinese will take the bit in their teeth at the negotiation table and force the United States to follow in their train. This scenario would shatter the way Obama administration spokesmen have presented engagement with Iran to the American public: The United States doesn't wish to be part of a fake process, they say, and the invitation to dialogue was part of measuring whether Iran really was willing to change its behavior.
This front is becoming hard to maintain when it is not shared by either the Russians or the Europeans, and least of all Iran.
Tuesday, September 15, Russia’s Foreign Ministry asserted that Iran is prepared for significant and comprehensive discussions regarding its nuclear plans. “A package of Iranian proposals shows its true intentions to deliberate on the nuclear issue,” a spokesman from Russia’s Foreign Ministry said.
But a study of the five-page Iranian reply to the world powers totally gainsays this assertion. It contains not so much as a shadow of the three words “Iranian nuclear program”.
The only indirect reference is this:
“The Islamic Republic of Iran believes that learning from past mistakes and letting go of useless courses of action is key to success in future negotiations. All parties’ commitment first, to the creation of a new structure for international interactions that is free of past mistakes, and ridden with the good intentions of all parties in speech and in action, and second, to justice and law, will lead to a new phase of negotiations for a long term collaboration with a vision for reinforcement of permanent peace and security in the region and the world.”
Obama's new hands-off posture on Iran
So whence did Moscow pluck its information about Iran's purported willingness for significant and comprehensive discussions on its nuclear plans?
Certainly not in Tehran.
Before a US-Russian understanding took shape some sources in Washington suggested that President Obama has embarked on a hands-off strategy at this point. This had entailed refraining from pulling out the stops against Israeli preparations to strike Iran's nuclear installations, on the one hand, and giving the Russians, Chinese and Europeans plenty of rope to see what they can come up with from Iran.
In all their past efforts, their diplomats have come away empty-handed from their dealings with Iran. If this happens again, it was hoped in the White House, Moscow, Beijing and the Europeans (excepting France which favors more aggressive action against Tehran) would have to come around to Washington's approach and accept its demand for a staged acceleration of sanctions against Iran.