The 24-hour delay in the Russian president Vladimir Putin’s arrival in Tehran was not caused by the much-publicized assassination plot, but by an undisclosed event, which was significant enough to make him revise his tactics with Iran’s rulers.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Gulf and Moscow sources reveal that, two days earlier, on Sunday, Oct. 14, the radical, rabblerousing television preacher Sheik Yusuf Qardawi issued a new fatwa (religious edict) instructing Sunni Muslims how to respond to a possible US attack on Iran.
His instructions were for all Muslims to rally around Iran, set aside all Sunni sectarian rivalries, quarrels and disputes with their Shiite brethren and join them in Islam’s common war against the aggressor.
Whle Qardawi may not dictate policy to Arab and Muslim governments, he has spellbinding effect on the thoughts and behavior of the Muslim masses. Therefore, even Muslim governments disinclined to obey his edicts dare not be seen to publicly set them aside.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Gulf and Moscow sources report that, although the sheikh’s latest fatwa was circulated to a limited number of senior Sunni clerics, its content reached Tehran and Moscow just as Putin was about to leave for the Iranian capital.
He thereupon put off his departure – not because of the Chechen murder plot – but for some hard thinking.
One of the Russian president’s fondest ambitions which he has been fostering for the last three years is to be looked up on as a bridging force between the world of Islam and the West. He had riding on his landmark trip to Iran, the first by a Russian head of state since Stalin, his prestige in Muslim eyes. After learning of the new edict, Putin and his strategists put their heads together to rethink the policy plan he had prepared for his trip.
Ayatollahs pleased as punch
In Tehran meanwhile, our intelligence sources report that US agents watching trends in Tehran were astonished to see Iran’s top officials looking as pleased as punch. Only when they learned of the Qardawi edict did they understand the smiles.
Iranians Shiite rulers, for centuries semi-outcasts in the Sunni-ruled Muslim world, and of late under massive political, diplomatic and financial pressure from Western powers led by the United States, were rejoicing over the unforeseen gift of sweeping solidarity on the part of the entire Muslim world, for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution brought them to power.
But a second triumph awaited them from their Russian guest. The ayatollahs had been braced for sour exchanges on two thorny issues, their nuclear weapons aspirations and the Russian foot-dragging in finishing the Bushehr nuclear reactor and supplying it with fuel rods. Now, with Qardawi’s fatwa on board, the Iranians felt newly empowered to play on Putin’s sensitivities over his status in Muslim eyes, and pin him to the wall.
Western intelligence sources are not au fait with all the details of the proposition the Russian leader put before Iran’s supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at their nocturnal interview Tuesday, Oct. 16.
In general lines, it appears that he proposed setting up a joint Russian-Iranian committee to supervise the Bushehr reactor, the use of the fuel provided for its operation and the return of fuel rods to Russia.
This joint mechanism would be presented to the international nuclear watchdog in Vienna, the IAEA, as a legitimate monitoring agency that guaranteed the Bushehr reactor was not misused for weapons production.
Once the mechanism was in place, Putin said, the project could go forward to completion without further delay.
Dismay in Washington and Jerusalem
Hints of this deal were apparent in the words of Ayatollah Khamenei after his long conversation with the Russian president.
“We will ponder your words and proposal,” he said. Regarding the necessary IAEA approval, he added: “Iran is serious about its program of enriching uranium but will cooperate with the UN nuclear watchdog and avoid adventurism.”
The Russian president had clearly gone back on his resolve and assurance to the US president to stall the completion and activation of the Bushehr reactor.
It took less than a day for President George W. Bush to lash out in response:
Wednesday, Oct. 17, he said to reporters at the White House:
“We’ve got a leader in Iran who has announced he wants to destroy Israel. So I’ve told people that if you’re interested in avoiding World War Three, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.”
For “people,” read “Putin,” the object of a warning by President Bush that Russia and its leader will be held responsible for the outbreak of a world war if their assistance enables Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.
On the same day, a dismayed Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, acting on Israeli intelligence analysts’ interpretation of the outcome of Putin’s talks in Tehran, picked up the phone to the Russian president and demanded to be received Thursday, Oct. 18 in the Kremlin.
Putin assigned him two hours.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Jerusalem sources report that Washington was far from happy about Olmert’s initiative and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, at the tail end of her Middle East shuttle, told him so bluntly.