With a close eye on the political calendar, the White House engineered two key visits to take place 24 hours before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was sworn in for a second term as Iran's president Wednesday, Aug. 5.
Tuesday, former US president Bill Clinton arrived in Pyongyang on a “private mission” to secure the release of two US journalists jailed for “illegal entry” to North Korea, and Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said of Oman, a friend of the United States, paid his first visit in 30 years to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The last high-ranking American to set foot in North Korea was Clinton's secretary of state Madeleine Albright in 2000.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources point out that both visits were far from private. Most significantly, they marked President Barack Obama's new approach which for the first time acknowledges the bracketing together of the two rogue nations as close confederates in their nuclear weapons development and diplomatic policies (as this publication has reported for at least two years).
The Sultan was asked to visit Tehran in the week of the Ahmadinejad inauguration in the face of protocol and possible protest riots and stay on for an extra day after the ceremony.
This gesture underlined the White House's determination for its Gulf friend to fully explore the prospects of immediate US-Iranian dialogue taking place at the outset of the Ahmadinejad presidency – notwithstanding the domestic unrest in Iran and the challenge to his re-election.
An Iranian rebuff would carry a price
At the same time, the US administration signaled that a rebuff would carry stiff penalties. Sending Sultan Qaboos away empty-handed, namely with a negative reply or no a date for negotiations to begin, would set in motion a negative process consisting of four steps:
First: Last week, a string of top security and intelligence US officials, led by defense secretary Robert Gates and national security adviser James Jones, touched down in Israel for conferences on a coordinated bid to build up the military pressure on Iran.
(More details about US military planning appear in a separate item in this issue.)
The week was capped on Friday, July 31, with the arrival of Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal in Washington.
Although Saud confined his comments after talking with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to a blunt rejection of the US President's request for ties with Israel, his closed-door meetings with US officials and military and intelligence officers focused on Riyadh's real worry, Iran and its nuclear drive. He was given a briefing on the White House's new three-point policy on Iran, best defined as: First: Political engagement, Second: Sanctions, Third, but not last: Military Confrontation.
Monday, August 3, the Pentagon announced through US Air Force spokesman Andy Bourland: “The Air force and Department of Defense are looking at ways to accelerate” the deployment of the giant bunker buster bomb called Massive Ordnance Penetrator and put it into service by July 2010, which is to say, within a year.
Shortly after this notice, the Times of London citing intelligence sources reported that it would take Iran six months to enrich enough uranium and another six months to assemble the warhead for mounting on its long-range Shehab-3 missile.
The industry was only waiting for supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's go-ahead for the first bomb to be produced.
The estimated target date for the accelerated US bunker buster's deployment tallies closely therefore with the timeline for Iran's prospective nuclear capability.
US could manage tighter sanctions unilaterally
The next development, Tuesday, Aug. 4, was another leaked report, this one to The New York Times, revealing that the US was talking to several European allies about restricting sales of gasoline and other refined petroleum extracts to Iran if it refused to discuss its nuclear program. Israel was briefed on this by Jones. Washington was said to be mulling sanctions against companies which supply Iran with 40 percent of its gasoline, cutting off their exports to the US and freezing their financial and shipping insurance.
Since Iran lacks the refinery capacity for supplying its gasoline needs, these sanctions could cripple its economy and undercut its regime.
The reports did not address the question of whether or not Russia and China would endorse such sanctions – for good reason, DEBKA-Net-Weekly Washington sources report: Administration strategists have concluded that the US can go it alone in the first stages of a gasoline and petrol product embargo, without resorting to the UN Security Council or running the gauntlet of Russian and Chinese vetoes.
In any event, US experts do not believe a total embargo on all Iran's imports to be feasible in its early stages and would hope to cut down no more than around half.
On the plus said, they also estimate that while Russia and China will not want to participate in the embargo, neither would they want to be seen openly busting one at the risk of serious fallout in their diplomatic and economic relations with the US.
Furthermore, if the US decides to raise its sanctions to a full naval blockade of Iran, Russian naval support would suffice without Chinese help. Washington may therefore break dramatically with historic precedent and seek US-Russian naval cooperation in the Persian Gulf for imposing such a blockade. Moscow would then have to choose between siding with the United States and continuing its ties with Iran.
In the second half of his first year in office, President Obama is therefore discerned to have embarked on a frankly independent foreign policy. He appears to be willing to embark on solo action without resorting to the UN Security Council or other nations, be they friendly or not.
Obama's cards on the table for Tehran – and Pyongyang
The US president is not proposing to take unilateralism to the same extremes as did his predecessor George W. Bush when he prepared to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2001-2003, but the go-it-alone tendency is jelling at the core of his external and security policies.
It was noted by the Israelis in last week's conversations with Gates and Jones and also by other Middle East leaders. The two US officials emphasized that Iran and its nuclear program were America's call. Their message was: Leave handling Iran to the US which accepts its responsibility as a world power to solve such problems – up to and including military solutions.
(A separate item in this issue examines Obama's attempts to stop a nuclear arms race in Middle East and Asia).
The heads of the Iranian Islamic Republic now have a full picture of what the Obama administration has in store for them if Sultan Qaboos fails to bring Tehran to the negotiating table on their nuclear program. The penalties have been thrust up front: harsh new sanctions leading to a possible military confrontation – not just with Israel but with the United States.
In the first half of 2009, Iran stood on the sidelines and watched as Washington stood by and let North Korea get away with another nuclear test and multiple ballistic missiles tests. Now, US officials reckon Tehran and Pyongyang will switch roles. The North Koreans will stand by as observers to see how matters shape up between Washington and Tehran. Before determining their own course, they will want to see whether Tehran opts for the path of concessions and accommodation or adopts a hard line at the risk of a diplomatic collision leading to unilateral US sanctions and a possible transition into a limited military showdown?
The cards are now on the table.
Two answers, tough choices
The Obama administration hoped Bill Clinton would have a message to deliver from Pyongyang, along with the two American women he rescued on Wednesday, Aug. 5 from a North Korean jail where they were held for illegally crossing the Chinese-North Korean border. In seeking – and obtaining – a pardon for the women from Kim Jong-Il, Clinton was also after the North Korean leader's consent to his suspend nuclear and missile activity and return to the Six-Party forum with China, the US, South Korea, Japan and Russia to negotiate the termination of this activity. It was restarted at the Yongbyon nuclear facilities when Kim broke off talks in April 2009.
The White House is now on tenterhooks for answers from Pyongyang and Tehran as reported by the former US president and the Omani ruler. Those answers could saddle the Obama administration with some hard options regarding the next stage of US policy on the interlinked Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs.