Special Presidential Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell called on Bashar Assad in Damascus on Jan. 20 with the news that President Barack Obama had at last appointed an ambassador to Syria. He is Robert S. Ford, second-term US deputy ambassador in Iraq and ambassador to Algeria in 2006-2008. He said the new envoy would be taking up his post soon.
At that time, the administration's plans to speed an expanded military presence to the Gulf region (see the first item in this issue) were still unrevealed. Mitchell's announcement was intended to reiterate Obama's message to the Syrian president that if he was willing to stop partnering Tehran in the Gulf and Middle East and switch his cooperation over to Washington, he would not only be rewarded with an American ambassador but additional perks.
Tuesday, Feb. 2, the Obama administration sent out a conciliatory feeler to Tehran too: US national intelligence director Dennis Blair said that a final decision on nuclear arms was Iran's to make.
The subtext of this brief statement was notice that America would not resort to force to make Iran abandon its race for a nuclear weapon, but hoped Tehran was responsible enough to be dissuaded from going through to the final step of building one.
Iran flexes muscle with a space extravaganza
Tehran was the first of the two to respond.
The next day, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unveiled three new satellites, a carrier engine and a light booster rocket, all of which he said showed that Iran could defeat the West in technology.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources said the performance also told the West that Iran's space program was both an integral element of its military advances and a means of garnering prestige and influence among its Middle East neighbors.
Showcasing the Kavoshgar-3 (Explorer-3) rocket drove home the obvious message that a rocket able to launch a satellite into orbit, can also send a missile to any point on earth. The bio-capsule it carried containing a small zoo of a mouse, two turtles and worms into space, ushered Iran's entry into the realm of manned space flights and bespoke the ability to launch missiles tipped with nuclear, chemical or biological warheads.
(More about the significance of the joint Iranian-North Korean space achievements in a separate item in this issue.)
The White House had no option but to answer Tehran's response to its feeler in kind.
Spokesman Bill Burton told reporters that while the United States was still checking Iran's claims, "a launch like that is obviously a provocative act."
Damascus rattles sabers for Syria and Iran
Iran's most direct response to the US president's exploratory move came not from Tehran but through Damascus, as has happened often in the course of their close alliance.
The Syrian president, in a Middle East discussion Wednesday, Feb. 3, with visiting Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs Miguel Angel Moratinos, said that Israel is not serious about achieving peace "since all the facts show that Israel is pushing the region towards war, not peace."
Earlier that day, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said: "Israel plants the atmosphere of war in the region….Syria calls on Israel to halt directing threats once against Gaza, another against South Lebanon, then Iran and now Syria," he said, using as his pretext the words a day earlier of Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak, who urged his government to join peace talks with Syria by warning: "In the absence of peace, we could end up with all-out war."
Choosing to misinterpret Barak, Moallem went on to say after a short pause for effect:
“Israel knows that if it declares war on Syria, such a war will reach its cities as well.”
Moallem's statement stressed that from now on Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, Syria and Iran were ranged together in a single front with reciprocal defense responsibility. Next time round, Syria will not stand by idly as it did in the 2006 Israel war with Hizballah, but would react to any attack on any of the four allies with missile fire on Israel's cities.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly intelligence sources are in no doubt that the Syrian foreign minister's remarks were too sweeping and bellicose to be made without authorization from President Assad. The Syrian ruler too would not have given his foreign minister the go-ahead without common assent with Tehran.
Washington's hopes for a positive response to its gestures of an ambassador for Damascus and the abdication of force against Iran's nuclear program were thrown back in its face in short order.
Rather than ease up on his ties with Tehran, Assad chose to shake his fist and threaten to land a pre-emptive attack jointly with Iran on America's ally, Israel.
One additional object of this exercise would be to throw the new US defense alignment in the Persian Gulf and Middle East into disarray.