The comprehensive strategy US President Barack Obama crafted and packaged for halting Iran in mid-momentum toward a nuclear weapon was kicked off at the UN Security Council on June 9 by tough sanctions, followed up by US and European penalties and assorted complementary steps.
Russia was brought into the picture early on.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's analysts track the unfolding of this package and note how it sprang leaks along the way. In the first place, Tehran was posited as being deterred enough by Russia and China voting for the UN sanctions and the US and European Union follow-ups (on June 25 and July 26) to start thinking about backing off from its nuclear aspirations, especially uranium enrichment.
To keep the ayatollahs on the run, Washington turned up the military heat. On Aug. 1, Admiral Mike Mullen Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff commented: "I think the military options have been on the table and remain on the table. It's one of the options that the president has."
Then, administration spokesmen flooded the media with remarks about possible US and Israeli strikes on Iranian nuclear installations, backed by a hectic spate of exchanged visits between US Pentagon and military officials and Israeli counterparts and a quick succession of joint American-Israeli military exercises.
The two most prominent were: Juniper Stallion 2010 (June 9-12), in which the USS Truman naval strike force and Israeli air and naval forces drilled in the Israeli Negev an attack on targets in Iran; and a joint exercise in the first three weeks of August in which about 200 US Marines conducted counter-insurgency and other training with Israeli Special Forces.
This was the public face of Obama's Iran policy.
The carrots behind the tough facade
After the stick, a quite different package made up mostly of carrots was dangled before Iranian officials in private conversations held in Europe via Russian go-betweens.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington, Moscow, Tehran and Jerusalem, it represented a deal traded between President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Washington on June 24 at what became known as the 'Hamburger Summit' for the meal they shared at Ray's Hell Burgers in Arlington, Virginia. They produced what was supposed to be the clincher: After delays without number, Moscow would get the Iranian nuclear reactor finished and rolling at Bushehr – so granting the Iranian regime a nuclear achievement of the first rank. The regime could then take the stage for its people and the Muslim public worldwide as the Middle East's first nuclear power in possession of a working reactor.
This incentive, the US president calculated, would bring Iran to the talks with the P5+Germany in early September sporting a laurel crown endowed by Washington and Moscow and take its seat as the equal of all the participants. The International Atomic Energy Agency would also have to treat the Islamic Republic with the proper deference. Once the revolutionary rulers of Iran had gained the international respect they craved, they were bound to be amenable to discussing limitations on their military nuclear program – or so the White House figured.
They would also be offered the incentive of being left in possession of the technology for assembling nuclear weapons and enough enriched uranium to fuel them, provided they pledged not to cross the threshold into constructing a bomb or developing missiles to deliver them.
(Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta disclosed on June 27 that Iran has enough fissile material for two atomic bombs, and it could develop nuclear weapons in two years).
Some of the rosy varnish has dimmed
By letting Tehran get away with the Bushehr reactor, Washington also dropped another inducement into Iranian ears that if they played ball with the Obama strategy, they might at some point be rewarded with American nuclear reactors along with civilian nuclear technologies.
In the two and a half months since this policy went into action, some of the rosy expectations have faded for Washington's realists. Still, they admit that even if not every last objective is reached, there was bound to be some progress in relations with Tehran and headway toward a solution of the Iranian nuclear controversy.
Moscow's role has been pivotal.
What stood out was the way Washington and Moscow agreed on the stages for Russia to get the Bushehr reactor on stream and at what points it would release to Iran the equipment and technology, the lack of which kept the reactor unfinished and idle year after year. The two powers were therefore able to line up behind tough dictates for the Iranians who, to put it mildly, were not exactly thrilled by this collaboration and did their best to break it up – first, by harsh threats about the detriment to Iranian-Russian relations.
(On Friday, July 23, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned his Russian counterpart against joining an American "plot." Our enemies, he said at a youth festival in Tehran, "have started a new propaganda war against Iran, which is written and directed by the US and staged by the Russian president. The two nations of Iran and Russia are friends and we hope that this friendship continues but the question is why the Russian president gets involved in this American play and jeopardizes his [country's] interests,'" Ahmadinejad asked).
Iran tries to put the squeeze on Moscow – and fails
Next, the Iranians tried to build on their surrender to US-Russian stipulations on Bushehr to squeeze benefits from Moscow – for example, a demand to hand over the five advanced Russian S-300 interceptor missile systems sold them in 2007and withheld ever since. They tried arguing that there was no point in having a functioning nuclear reactor if it was inadequately protected.
The Kremlin was unmoved, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Moscow report. Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin brushed the Iranians off with the comment that if they decided against activating the Bushehr reactor, fine, that was their affair. But then Moscow would no longer be responsible for its operation.
The ever-practical Iranians accepted defeat on this point – which may turn out to be the only real benefit from Obama's Iranian strategy. It was also the first time the US and Russia had joined forces on a nuclear issue and had their way. This success could lead to cooperation on many other issues as well.
At the same time, Moscow has its own fish to fry. After endorsing sanctions at the UN, the Russians are not averse to helping Iran break them, although to a lesser extent than China, Brazil, Turkey and India.
Having presented in general terms the strategy Obama crafted for dealing with Iran, DEBKA-Net-Weekly will devote the next articles to such questions as: What dangers are intrinsic in active Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr? Can certain US circles be believed when they claim that "just like Bushehr, Iranian enrichment is no threat"?
How is the new Iranian reactor regarded in Israel? Did it bring an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities and a Middle East war closer or push it farther into the future?
How has it affected Tehran's attitude toward the Obama administration? And how will the Islamic Republic use the Obama strategy to turn the tables on him?
And, not so incidentally, what made the Saudi King Abdullah angry enough to hang up on President Obama in the middle of a phone call?