Driven by the Specter of a Russian Pact with a Nuclear-Armed Iran
Up until his visit to Moscow on July 6, President Barack Obama's top team was deep in a fierce debate over how to address Iran's nuclear program. Even after various US intelligence agencies confirmed that the Iranians had acquired the means for conducting a nuclear test within six months, many of his advisers continued to fight for dialogue.
Among them were National Security Adviser, Gen. James Jones, and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who argued that even this ominous diagnosis could play out in favor of Obama's engagement credo. They maintained that in the regime's weakened and divided state in post-election Iran, Tehran would not dare provoke the US and the Europeans by staging a nuclear test.
In support of this argument, its proponents said further that Iran's attainment of the capability for building nuclear bombs and warheads could even be an asset. It would smooth the way for a fast deal, because Tehran would then be more amenable to holding back from break-out point if suitably rewarded with political, economic and technological aid, especially upgrades of its antiquated oil fields and an offer of refining infrastructure. The ayatollahs would prefer this course to burning its international bridges by going all the way.
A nuclear-armed Iran – not if but when
This school of thought is challenged by Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and to some degree, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen. Their reading of Iran's intentions is that precisely because of their internal crisis its leaders will go for a nuclear test as a rallying point for uniting the people behind the regime.
The debate in the top US establishment took an ominous turn this week with a statement from Clinton during her Southeast Asian tour which indicated the administration was resigned to Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon quite soon. On July 22, she told a Thai television program that Washington could extend “a defense umbrella to protect its Arab allies” if Iran succeeded in developing nuclear weapons.
The “if” sounded more like a “when.”
She went on to say: “We want Iran to calculate what I think is a fair assessment that if the United States extends a defense umbrella over the region… it's unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer.”
The secretary also said the US could move to significantly upgrade the defenses of nations such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in response to the Iranian threat.
(See Israel's response to the Clinton remarks in a separate item.)
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources in Washington, this debate has been necessarily based more on emotions than facts since neither camp possess real intelligence data or actual evidence of what, say, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were scheming – even now.
Obama refrained from arbitrating between the two before heading out for his July 6 summit in Moscow with President Dmitry Medvedev prime minister Vladimir Putin for two reasons: He was still keen on dialogue with Tehran and he cherished the hope of a collaborative effort with Russian leaders to lay the Iranian nuclear threat to rest.
A pact with Iran would be Moscow's payback for US missile shield
He left Moscow with that hope extinguished. His reset button had backfired. When he landed two days later at l'Aquila, Italy, for the G8 summit, everything had changed.
In his first formal visit to Moscow, Obama not only failed to persuade the Kremlin to cooperate on Iran – then or in the future (see DEBKA-Net-Weekly issue 404, of July 10) – but between the lines of the words he heard from Medvedev, Putin and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, lurked a determination to pay Washington back for its refusal to renounce the plans for stationing intercept missiles in Eastern Europe and the expansion of US influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia. This was to be accomplished by a scheme of their own: to enter into a military-nuclear alliance with Iran. Russian leaders now appeared ready to back the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad duo to the hilt on matters nuclear as well.
A nuclear-armed Iran backed by Moscow's military muscle was a truly daunting prospect.
It would open the door for a Russian breakthrough to a power base in the Gulf region at large and finally kill Obama administration planning for deals with Iran on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian issue.
The Kremlin was apparently preparing to hit back at America's missile shield in East Europe by intercepting and downing Obama's plans for key US interests.
Germans raise the alarm, British try and silence it
In the meantime, the German Foreign Intelligence Service (BND) began to lose patience with American dithering. Because its director Ernst Uhrlau had come to believe the Iranian nuclear test to be even closer than the Americans estimate, he ran some startling details in Der Stern news weekly on July 15:
“Iran will soon be able to produce atomic bombs and perform underground nuclear testing, just as North Korea has done”, BND experts were instructed to inform the magazine.
“If they want to, they will be able to set off a uranium bomb within six months,” a German expert said.
Iran is focusing on building missiles capable of transporting nuclear bombs to targets as far as Europe. According to a senior BND official, these efforts are pursued “with massive intensity.”
The German Foreign Intelligence Service has “no doubt” that the missile program in Iran is “exclusively” aimed at the production of atomic warheads.
The necessary missile components are being obtained through a massive network of dummy companies headed by the Iranian, Said Mohammad Hosseinian.
To try and keep the Iranian issue from escalating, the British Foreign Office stepped in. It “leaked” a retraction of the Der Stern report ostensibly from BND sources to local and European media outlets. But German intelligence struck back there and then to repudiate the retraction and identify its source as British.
This exchange further stoked the debate in Washington about how to handle the new Moscow and Tehran situation.
Gates is converted to the military option
But then, DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources in Washington report, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who bought his reputation as a Russian expert in his days as Central Intelligence director in the 1990's, decided to lead the way in suggesting that there was only one way left for the Obama administration to arrest the strengthening of Russian-Iranian military and nuclear collaboration, namely, by putting America's military option against Iran back on the table.
The ardent opponent of the Bush and Obama administrations against use of military force against Iran had been converted into its fiercest advocate.
Gates is convinced that Moscow will think twice before developing its strategic alliance with Tehran when it realizes that a perilous military clash with the United States stands waiting at the end of this path.
And last week, Obama too was won over.
So now, after refusing to hear of military action for cutting down Iran's nuclear weapons program for three years, Washington is proposing to play that chip.
Scarcely noticed in the West, talk has died down in Washington about the disastrous effects of a military strike against Iran, particularly if conducted by Israel. It has been replaced with suggestions that the US is not afraid to wield its military might against Iran.
Likewise, indications of extensive US-Israeli military collaboration abound (more of which in the next article.)