Cheney Lines up Middle East Arab Allies for US Iraq Pull-out and Possible Iran Attack
US Vice President Dick Cheney arrived in Riyadh Sat. May 12, with a full caseload for his talks with Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz . He is seeking coordination with the Saudis in good time for the approaching winding-down of US military forces in Iraq. Cheney will also clinch the Bush administration’s offer to double the Saudi air force in size, boosting its capability for contending with Iranian air might and the Revolutionary Guards’ naval and marine strength.
The USS offer of advanced warplanes was first revealed by debkafile when it was presented in Riyadh by visiting US defense secretary Robert Gates last month.
The vice president’s regional presence from Wednesday, May 8, set up a whirlwind of activity. In Baghdad, he had a tough message for Iraqi leaders that time was running out and the country’s security crisis had reached a critical point.
“We’ve got to get this work done. It’s game time. … Everybody’s got to sit down, raise their game, redouble their efforts,” he is quoted as saying.
He then flew to Abu Dhabi for talks with the deputy chief of UAR armed forces, Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahayan.
Friday, aboard the USS John Stennis, one of two US air carrier strike groups deployed in Gulf waters, the vice president pledged the US would “stand with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating this region.”
This statement was not taken in the Gulf as a military threat, but rather a message that Washington is not looking for a military showdown with Iran, at this sensitive juncture ahead of a US troop withdrawal from Iraq, but rather bidding for strategic understandings to hold in check Iran’s nuclear weapons plans, on the lines of the accommodation with North Korea, while conditionally allowing enrichment of uranium to go forward.
In the last two weeks, Washington has marginally trimmed down the US buildup opposite Iran’s shores. Shortly before Cheney arrived, the Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike group reached the Gulf with 6,000 men – not to augment the US naval presence, but to relieve the USS Boxer Strike group which is returning to base.
While no Bush administration official has publicly admitted to a timeline for the US pull-out from Iraq – and has in fact fought one tooth and nail through Congress – debkafile‘s sources in Washington, the Gulf and Baghdad report that Cheney is bringing the news to the Middle East rulers that Washington will make its decision in the second half of August and an evacuation will begin shortly thereafter.
In parallel with preparations for a partial US exit from Iraq, debkafile discloses that Washington and Iran will embark on negotiations, which could lead to the Bush administration accepting parts of Tehran’s civilian nuclear activities, including uranium enrichment in agreed quantities.
In the meantime, as part of US preparations for this event – and a possible Iranian threat – American military strength in the Gulf is regrouping, while Saudi forces are being buttressed.
The coming weeks may, therefore, see President George W. Bush backing down on two of his most stubbornly-held foreign policy issues: a timeline for US forces to depart Iraq and uranium enrichment by the Islamic Republic.
Israel, which will be vitally affected in the years to come by these sweeping regional changes, happens to be ruled by a leadership too crippled by survival tactics to look ahead and prepare.
Its Arab neighbors are in contrast running ahead, with the Saudis and Jordanians already on the move in April. (Jordan’s Abdullah has launched a new diplomatic initiative for the West Bank, disclosed in a separate report in this page)
April 1, the Saudi monarch met Adm. William J. Fallon, US Central Command chief. April 16, he received defense secretary Gates and, two days later, April 18, he held a long conversation with the US state department Iraq coordinator, David Satterfield.
These talks led to a decision to make the Saudi air force the biggest in the Middle East, on a par with Israel’s air might, by an infusion of sophisticated aircraft equipped with the most advanced avionics, electronic warfare instruments and missiles.
In a war contingency, the boosted Saudi air force will undertake the key function of immobilizing the antiquated Iranian air force, preventing it from posing a threat to the Gulf or providing air cover for sabotage squads or marines seeking to attack oil installations, disrupt oil tanker passage through the Gulf or seize territory in Gulf emirates.
debkafile‘s military sources report: The Iranian air force, numbering 600 combat-ready fighter-bombers, is technologically backward and weak in combat skills. Some of its planes are early American models or home-made craft based on outdated US, Chinese or Russian technology.
The Saudi air force is smaller – 350 aircraft organized in 17 squadrons – but more modern and in better shape – even before the promised American infusion, which is likely to consist of first line F-16 Cs and Ds, F 15 Es and possibly the F 22 Raptor. Israel has strenuously objected to this upgrade. However, since last year’s Lebanon war, the Olmert government has by and large found itself talking to deaf ears in Washington.