The relentless drive for a nuclear bomb by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini‘s successors in Tehran is integral to their overall ambition to attain superpower status for the Islamic Republic. Iran’s incumbent hard-liners have made this the target of a multi-year strategy, maintaining a constant weather eye on Washington as the only power capable of interfering with their progress.
The five months between now and the January 2005 swearing in of the next US president is seen, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Tehran sources, as a window of opportunity for pressing ahead almost unhindered with Iran’s nuclear weapons program and its new diplomatic offensive for pre-empting American or Israeli military action to destroy its nuclear facilities. Betraying their global ambitions, the ayatollahs are for the first time since the 1979 revolution brought them to power, confronting Washington with a diplomatic strategy that reaches outside the confines of the Middle East and Persian Gulf. Iran’s diplomatic brashness reflects its pretensions to becoming a nuclear rather than a regional power, on the way to owning a full arsenal of atomic weapons and delivery vehicles, ballistic missiles, warplanes and military satellites.
This march forward is not entirely plain sailing. There is still some sharp debating within the regime that could slow forward momentum. But Iran’s leaders are hell-bent on using the next five months to attain a non-reversible point in their nuclear development and diplomatic challenge to the United States. After that, it won’t matter if President George W. Bush is re-elected or if he is replaced by Senator John Kerry, whom they prefer, like most Arab and Muslim nations from Saudi Arabia to Turkey. Iran cannot be made to turn back.
For Iran’s political, religious and military leaders, Kerry is no better than Bush. They prefer Kerry because they hope he can be humiliated like his Democratic predecessor Jimmy Carter, around whom Khomeini ran rings by staging the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran and hostage-taking outrages in Lebanon. Carter finally lost his bid for a second term after Khomeini and Republican candidate Ronald Reagan reached a secret understanding for the embassy hostages to be freed on the day of the 1981 presidential inauguration, after 444 days spent under siege.
Iranian leaders are looking forward to Kerry’s election, believing it will stretch the current five-month window of opportunity to four years – so that by the time the next US presidential swearing-in rolls round in January 2009, they will have stocked up on dozens of nuclear bombs. Bush would be more of a problem.
In view of the larger picture, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iran experts see signs of Iraq receding as Iran’s primary weapon against American interests.
This does not mean the policy makers in Tehran have lost interest in Iraq. They would certainly not want a strong Iraqi neighbor ruled by a powerful government in Baghdad on their doorstep, or an autonomous Shiite state in the south. A Shiite-Sunni pact against the Kurds would be just as unpopular in Tehran as a Kurdish-Shiite pact against the Sunnis. What the Iranians would like to see most of all is years of debilitating guerrilla war against US forces culminating in a state of chaos.
The two chinks exposed in America’s armor by its decisions on Najef have further impelled Iran towards its strategy of demoting Iraq to second place on its global front:
One was the unforeseen mistake the US made in letting the influential and moderate Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani leave the country for heart surgery in London just as American forces were poised to crush the rebellion staged by the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr.
This week, they tried to correct this blunder by flying the grand ayatollah home from London, on Wednesday, August 25. But by then, three weeks of battles had run into a standoff. At the time, CIA and US field commanders viewed Sistani as a potential obstacle to a full-scale offensive against the Mehdi Army and wanted him out of the way before it began.
Though beleaguered in the Imam Ali shrine, even Sadr managed to exploit the appearance of US weakness for the empty but well-publicized gesture of offering to hand over the keys of the mosque to “senior religious authorities.” He knew quite well that Sistani’s absence left Najef’s Shiite ayatollahs incapable of a common, strong stand against him and played, moreover, into Tehran’s hands by leaving the holy city bereft of a unified, powerful Shiite leadership.
Secondly, once the battles around the Imam Ali mosque entered their fourth week, whether or not US forces were victorious against Sadr’s militia became politically and psychologically irrelevant in the eyes of Iran, Iraq and Shiites everywhere. The very fact of being pinned down by a ragtag militia of 2,000 men armed with nothing stronger than rocket-propelled grenades was perceived as an exhibition of weakness on the part Washington and the Iyad Allawi’s government alike.
They all quickly grasped that US troops’ hands were held by orders not to damage the revered Shiite shrine in which Sadr and his men sheltered.
Even the US military’s desire to avoid heavy casualties was understood, but many wondered why no bold night raid was staged by a US or Iraqi commando unit to cut the mosque off from the vast (five sq mile) cemetery surrounding it or from Sadr’s forces outside.
Senior US commanders failed to appreciate the negative impact their cautiousness in Najef would have on other battles sure to erupt quickly in other parts of Iraq, a misapprehension akin to letting Sistani leave the Najef scene at the wrong moment.
What Tehran understands from these lapses is that America is mired deep in the Iraqi mud. Its leaders believe therefore that they can afford to bide their time and avoid the temptation to come to Sadr’s aid in the final stages of the Najef confrontation, lest a showdown develop prematurely with the United States.
Instead, Iranian policy makers are swiveling their sights outside Iraq, to Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Turkey and India, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources. Seen from Tehran, the severance of America’s lifelines from those countries will cause Iraq’s political, military, economic and intelligence structures to implode and eventually degrade the importance of the US presence there.
This is a long-term scenario which Iran plans to pursue by three principle means:
The export of Tehran’s joint Iranian-al Qaeda terrorist campaign from Iraq to the Central Asian republics of Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and the Kyrgyz Republic. Local extremist Muslim groups will be mobilized to assassinate senior government officials in Baku, Tashkent, Ashgabat and Bishkek. Death squads will be assigned also to the Israeli and US military officers stationed in those capitals or running the Central Asian electronic listening posts that monitor Iran’s nuclear activities as well as its military and political electronic chatter.
The CIA, aided by Mossad operatives, has captured a number of Iranian agents and al Qaeda hit squads in the field already. A revelation spilled by these detainees under interrogation is reported here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s exclusive counter-intelligence sources: the son of Iran’s spiritual ruler Ali Khamenei is head of the Iranian-al Qaeda network in Central Asia.
(More about this new star on the Tehran scene – in article below.)
Exploitation of regime change in New Delhi to undermine the diplomatic and military positions of influence enjoyed by the United States and Israel under Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government which welcomed strategic and military ties with the US and Israel. His Bharatiya Janata (BJP) party was swept out of office last May in a shock election defeat. It made way for an administration led by prime minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress Party, which depends on the support of centrist and left-leaning parties such as the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Janata Dal (S). All these groupings are traditionally anti-American and anti-Israeli.
The Iranians are counting on Singh to be their man in Delhi. They have reason to be optimistic: despite escalating Muslim terror in Kashmir backed by the same elements in Pakistani military intelligence (SIS) that support the Taliban and al Qaeda, Singh is stepping up his efforts to achieve a historic reconciliation with Pakistan.
In a speech on August 15, India’s Independence Day, Singh called for mutual trust and vowed to carry forward peace efforts with Pakistan. He also said: “It is evident that cross-border terrorism and bloodshed can make this task difficult” – the first time an Indian prime minister cited terrorism as an impediment to reconciliation. But he laid greater stress on his pledge to pursue peace with his country’s long-time adversary. This was music to Iranian ears, seen as an opening to India’s rapprochement with Muslim Pakistan and the formation of an arc into which Iran can fit snugly.
The Iranians set their sights on the Indian subcontinent after their preliminary success in cutting down American and Israeli standing in Turkey.
Khamenei coerced Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan into barring his country’s airspace to Israeli planes sent on missions to strike Iran’s nuclear or military locations.
(More about this in HOT POINTS below)
Erdogan’s concession to Iran was not all that significant militarily; Israel would most likely prefer to reach targets in central and southern Iran by a southern flight path rather than the northern route over Turkey. Still, it was a painful slap for Israel. It also presaged Iran’s next step to press the Turkish prime minister for a pledge to bar US forces from launching ground or air offensives against Iran from bases in his country. This too might not be too difficult, the Iranians reason. After all, Ankara did back out of joining the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein.
Encouraged by its initial success with the Turkish government, Iran has moved over to India to press its advantage there.
Last week, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, a senior Iranian intelligence delegation secretly visited New Delhi under the cover of the low-level talks underway for some weeks on the fate of the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. The Iranian delegation leader did not mince words with India’s national security adviser Jyotindra Nath Dixit. He said: If India continues its “military honeymoon” and its trade with Israel, already worth more than $10 billion a year, New Delhi will lose the Iranian market along with diplomatic and military relations with Tehran.
The Iranian visitors informed their Indian hosts that they wielded greater influence with Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf that did the Americans, and it was in their power to bring Pakistan to a rapprochement with India – provided India played ball and abandoned its military and intelligence ties with Israel.
The Iranians were not as brash here as they were in Azerbaijan (See HOT POINTS below), where they demanded the expulsion of Israeli officers from the country forthwith. But they did suggest that it was time for New Delhi to end the exchange visits by senior Israeli and Indian officers and intelligence delegations.
India has so far not bent under the pressure from Tehran. But the Iranians are notoriously patient and expect the seeds they have planted to eventually bear fruit.
This is the most complicated and potentially far-reaching element of Iran’s global outreach. It again hinges on exploiting a given situation as seen from Tehran.
Iran believes it can fan the discord between the Bush administration and the Erdogan regime in Ankara and drive Turkey into the concessions exacted for granting its burning objective of full membership of the European Union. One of these demands is to ease up on the persecution of Kurdish militants.
EU membership will take Turkey a further step out of the American, and hence Israeli, orbit, which is all to the good in Tehran’s eyes.
How do the Kurds – Iraqi, Iranian and Turkish – fit into this shifting equation?
Iraq’s Kurds entertain a historic fear of a strong Shiite entity rising in Iraq and, most of all, of being engulfed by a potential Shiite-Sunni alliance. First signs that this was possible were seen in the collaborative operations undertaken since April by Shiite cleric Sadr’s militia and Sunni guerrillas in battles against US forces in Ramadi, Samarra and Falluja. The Kurds will therefore seek a protector to lean on after America’s exit from Iraq and may well gravitate towards Ankara. If by then Turkey has turned its back on America and Israel, the Kurds will have to follow suit – according to Iran’s prognosis.
Such hypothetical Kurdish docility would suit Tehran to a tee as a damper for the national aspirations of its own Kurds, who make up one-tenth of the Islamic Republic’s population.
Even if Iran’s master plan is only partly successful, it could generate a measure of alienation for the United States and Israel in such strategic corners of the world as Central Asia, Turkey, India, Pakistan and Iraq.
And that is only the beginning. Iran’s top diplomat, foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi, has spent the last ten days hopping from one Far Eastern capital to another, shooting poison arrows against Washington and Jerusalem in every one.