Senior White House, National Security Council and CIA officials have been playing down what is termed mildly Washington’s “lack of success” in bringing the powerful Kurdish leader, Massoud Barazani, to last week’s meeting of Iraqi opposition leaders in the US capital.
However, Barazani’s absence was symptomatic of a more significant failing: the Bush administration’s inability to avoid the traps Tehran has successfully set for Washington in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Lebanon. Washington remains susceptible to those traps even while denouncing Iran’s global terror campaign and hospitality to more than 1,000 al-Qaeda fighters on the run from Afghanistan. The Bush team has shown an Achilles heel in its efforts to play along with Iran’s sophisticated game of diplomatic duplicity. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iranian affairs sources and experts, this weakness derives from the secret contacts low-level administration officials have been holding with two Iranian government levels – in Europe and in the United States.
One group represents Iran’s powerful spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the other, its weak and hesitant president, Mohammed Khatami. The existence of this back channel is cause for frustration among intelligence officials and strategic analysts in Washington and the Gulf, who are familiar with the internal situation in Iran. These experts tell DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources that, while the United States deludes itself that it is pursuing a divide and rule tactic by engaging two apparently disparate and rival factions, the Khamenei-Khatami duo always seems to wind up in the same policy corner. Driving a wedge between them is beyond the ability even of a superpower, they say. In no circumstances would Khatami stand up to Khamenei and his minions.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources note that Germany and Switzerland are mostly where the representatives of the Bush administration and Khamenei get together in secret. The Iranian side is headed by Muhammad-Javad Larajani, a former top Iranian foreign ministry official in good standing with several National Security Council and State Department officials.
President Khatami is represented by Mohammed Zawad Zarif, Iran’s new ambassador to the United Nations and a graduate of San Francisco State University. With him is Hooshang Amirahmadi, professor of public policy at Rutgers University and president of the American-Iranian Council.
Zarif’s added value for the US administration is his reputation as top Iranian expert on the real powerbrokers of the Iraqi government and military. He also has first-rate connections in Baghdad, which he visited shortly before assuming his UN post and where he is also held in high regard. More than one branch of the US government views Zarif’s access to decision-makers in both Teheran and Baghdad as a valuable asset.
However, the web of contacts Washington maintains with Iranian leaders is almost certainly behind the diplomatic debacle of the Iraqi opposition leaders’ meeting in the US capital and Barazani’s absence.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Kurdish and Turkish sources, Turkey refused to let the American plane coming to collect the Kurdish leader for the meeting to enter its airspace. Ankara chose this way to signal that, notwithstanding the pledge brought by deputy US defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz during his July visit – that an independent Kurdistan was not on Washington’s agenda – Turkey had not lowered its guard against any form of political independence to the Kurds, especially Barazani’s Kurdish Democratic Party.
The US administration, finding Turkey now a no-fly zone, suggested that Barazani be picked up for his flight to Washington in Iran. However, the very idea of setting foot in Iran raised grave suspicions in the mind of the Kurdish linchpin of America’s Iraq strategy and he refused. All the parties involved in the Iraq crisis found the suggestion highly inappropriate in regional terms.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Kurdish experts explain that Barazani was put off less by the Turkish travel ban than by the notion of his setting foot in Iran.
What happened next, according to our Iranian sources, was that when the Iranians heard Barazani was staying away from the Washington get-together, they decided to deny permission to attend from the Teheran-based Hojat al-Islam Abdul Aziz Hakim, head of Iraq’s Supreme Islamic Revolutionary Council and the most influential figure among the country’s 16 million Iraqi Shi’ites. Instead, they sent his brother, Abdel Aziz.
What was to have been the crowning achievement of Washington’s secret political campaign to muster Iraqi opposition groups in a wall-to-wall demonstration of support tapered off therefore into a failed meeting of second- and third-tier functionaries.