The factions which make up the Iranian regime are beating each other over the head over the question of who came off best, Washington or Tehran, from the four-hour bilateral conference which US and Iranian ambassadors Ryan Crocker and Hassan Kazemi-Qomi held in Baghdad Monday, May 28.
The argument has fueled the power struggle between the extremist camp headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who also speaks for the radical Revolutionary Guards, and the pragmatists, led by the two ex-presidents, Hashem Rafsanjani and Muhammed Khatami.
Supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who gave his nod for the talks, is careful to hold aloof from the warring camps.
The pragmatists argue that the very fact that the Bush administration chose Iran of all the regional nations for official bilateral negotiations on Iraq is ample proof of Iran’s might and its supremacy as the key regional power. According to some Gulf sources, Iraq’s other neighbors, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, discreetly asked the Americans for invitations to the Baghdad encounter, only to be turned down.
(Read separate article in this.)
By singling out Tehran and agreeing to the historic meeting taking place at prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s private residence, the Bush administration, say the two Iranian ex-presidents, must be in poor straits. After all, Washington has treated revolutionary Iran as a pariah for 23 years, ever since the 1984 Irangate scandal. They argue further that face-to-face encounters offer Iran its best chance of talking America into abandoning its campaign to foment uprisings against the Islamic government in Tehran.
This campaign has got the ayatollahs really worried.
The intelligence accumulating in Tehran reveals that a broad American-controlled network of clandestine teams is busy gathering intelligence, plotting attacks and conducting psychological warfare against the regime in many parts of the country.
Many are infiltrating Iran from the outside, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources.
Farsi-speaking members of the Pakistan based Balochi Abdolmalek Rigui, which is much feared in Tehran, are stealing into the country from the east. This group is believed to be in contact with undercover CIA units in northern Iran, from which they are taking operating funds, weapons and, in the view of Iranian intelligence, also a list of targets for strikes in Iranian Balochistan.
From the Gulf emirates and Iraq in the west, the US and Britain are suspected of raising recruits for another group of fluent Farsi-speakers: Iraqis who spent the eight years of the 1979-1987 Iraq-Iran war as exiles in Iran. They too are able to melt into the indigenous population for intelligence-gathering and attacks.
Ahmadinejad suspects American sabotage of Iran’s nuclear program
The Iranian intelligence ministry claimed last week to have rounded up complete networks of spies and terrorists, but DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report this is an exaggeration; only a handful of agents were picked up.
Some members of the extremist Iranian camp swear the Americans have found ways to sabotage their nuclear program.
They are sure that defective and inferior equipment is being sold to them through third parties. Some also believe that Iranian nuclear scientists employed by the program have been got at and are taking their research projects into blind alleys.
They find proof in the slow progress of centrifuge production for enriching uranium. While Western sources cite the figure of 1,600 or 1,800 centrifuges as a major breakthrough in Iran’s ability to produce nuclear fuel, Ahmadinejad and his Revolutionary Guards clique are deeply dissatisfied. They say the target for April 2007 was 3,000 centrifuges working at full speed and it was not reached. The president has made no secret of his suspicion that the slowdown was the result of sabotage engineered by the long arm of Western intelligence.
The constant US military buildup in the Persian Gulf is also making Iranians very jumpy. They cannot decide whether to expect an American attack this summer. American denials do not allay their fears as no one believes them.
The heads of the Islamic regime are also fearful of America’s stepped up investment in the overseas Iranian opposition groups under its wing. The Bush administration is seen to be working to amalgamate the various dissident groups in exile and forge them into an anti-Iran front to be launched at a grand assembly in Paris some time in June.
In a last attempt to derail the ambassadorial get-together in Beirut, Ahmadinejad and his fellows accused its supporters of violating the very principles laid down by the supreme ruler. A year ago, they recalled, Khamenei discredited the circles in the regime which maintained that America held the key to solving the nuclear impasse. He castigated any person favoring dialogue with the United States as short on manhood and self-respect.
Rafsanjani and Khatami had a reply to this argument: The talks in Baghdad, they said, pertained to the single issue of Iraq and were necessary to help Muslims in distress in a neighboring country. The dialogue did not touch on Iranian state affairs.
Tehran consensus: Bush is winner of dialogue
The leaders of the pragmatic school added for good measure that Tehran’s refusal to engage in diplomacy with Washington would be presented internationally as an admission of culpability in the destabilization of Iraq. This would count against the Islamic Republic when the UN Security Council convened to approver harsher sanctions for its refusal to abandon uranium enrichment.
But even through the ambassadorial meeting was allowed to go forward in Baghdad, the extremists still had the last word in Tehran.
America will not desist from its threats against Iran for failing to toe the line on the nuclear and every other issue, they declared. Nothing has happened to prevent Washington from building a dossier to frame Iran at the next UN session. Furthermore, before the Baghdad conference, the American delegation to Tehran threatened its rulers with painful reprisals if they continued to meddle in Iraq and other places.
For these perceived indignities, the Iranian president cooked up a reprisal of his own.
Tuesday, May 29, three US-Iranian citizens were formally charged with spying and jeopardizing national security: Haleh Esfandyari, the 62-year old head of the Middle East department of the Woodrow Wilson research center in the US; Parnaz Azima, a broadcaster for Radio Farda, which is subsidized by the US Congress, and Kyan Taj-Bakhsh, an urban planning adviser from New York.
The fate of another two detainees has been blacked out: One is Ali Shakeri, member of a pro-Iran lobby, who was arrested on a home visit and an unnamed American national. Iranian officials deny knowledge of their whereabouts.
The total number of people under arrest is five, exactly the number of Iranian agents detained by US forces in the northern Iraqi town of Irbil in January and whom the Americans refuse to release.
No date has been set for the continuation of US-Iranian talks. They may never take place. It depends largely on who comes out on top of the hammer-and-tongs battle between the rival factions in Tehran.
But the consensus in both camps is that President George W. Bush has emerged as the real winner of the decision to engage Iran in bilateral talks. After acting on a key recommendation of the Baker Iraq Study Group and pressure from the Democrats, the US president has been vindicated in his original proposition that talking to the Iranians would be an exercise in futility.
He can also hold up a real achievement: diplomacy has exacerbated discord at the highest levels of the Islamic government.