Iraqi leaders are increasingly frustrated by the realization that their old enemy Iran is mischief-making to upset their progress towards stable government and democracy.
(See separate article on Iraq‘s elections.)
On December 15, the first day of campaigning for Iraq’s January 30 election, interim defense minister Hazem Shaalan said bitterly: “Iran is the most dangerous enemy of Iraq and all Arabs. Terrorism in Iraq is orchestrated by Iranian intelligence, Syrian intelligence and Saddam loyalists.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports the conviction in Baghdad and Washington that Tehran is in fact holding the historic ballot for a 275-member national assembly hostage so that it can finish building a nuclear bomb.
Using the same delaying tactics, Tehran is also whipping up Palestinian violence against Israel to disrupt the January 9 Palestinian vote for Yasser Arafat’s successor, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon's Gaza pullout plan and any attempt at Middle East peacemaking.
The implication is clear. Nothing in the Middle East will be settled until Iran gets its bomb.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources have discovered a decision by Washington to put off dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue until at least early April. This will take the heat off Tehran for three to five months so that it can press ahead with its nuclear program undisturbed by diplomatic pressure. Even after reengaging on the nuclear issue, US diplomacy won't go into high gear until late May or early June.
A secret message outlining this respite for Iran was sent from Washington to the Iraqi and Israeli governments last week. The message also contained news. American agents had discovered and aborted a fresh piece of Iranian chicanery. Tehran had found another way of getting round its solemn commitment to the Europeans and the International Atomic Energy to suspend uranium enrichment in return for EU perks and the nuclear watchdog’s postponement of a complaint to the UN Security Council on Iranian violations. While agreeing to take its centrifuges off-line, Tehran’s intelligence services and hundreds of their import-export straw companies had been ordered to covertly locate and purchase “laser guns” at any price.
These devices are used for covertly enriching uranium for military purposes. Even if they were caught out, the Iranians would have maintained that no mention was made of laser guns in their promise of an enrichment shutdown.
US undercover agents blow up laser gun components
It wasn't the first time Iran went looking for laser guns.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly 120 of August 8, 2004, in an article entitled “Sold to Iran: Russian Laser Guns that Enrich Uranium”, uncovered the first shipments of this Russian-made mechanism to the Islamic Republic. Then, US President George W. Bush intervened personally with Russian leader Vladimir Putin to stop the sale.
This time, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources reveal that US agents tracked the laser gun components to their source, crated ready for shipment aboard a commercial cargo plane and marked as agricultural spare parts. There and then, they affixed small explosive devices to the crates and blew them up.
Our sources have not named the source country so as not to compromise the US demolition mission still in progress. The success of this exploit provided some of the grounds for the Bush administration’s belief that some months are left for scotching Iran’s nuclear weapons plans.
Off the record, US officials, including defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, warned Iraq’s interim prime minister Iyad Allawi that Tehran was preparing to vent its fury over this setback to its plans by staging a terrorist offensive widespread enough to dislocate the Iraqi election. This warning came from US intelligence, was confirmed by Jordan’s King Abdullah and Iraqi president Ghazi al-Yawar when they visited the White House earlier this month, and echoed by Saudi, Egyptian and Israeli intelligence sources.
King Abdullah mentioned up to 20,000 Iranian agents armed with weapons and sophisticated explosive devices standing by inside Iraq for orders to blow up the national ballot. Egypt and Israel, as our counter-terrorism sources reveal in the next item, have picked up similar intimations. At a signal from Tehran, thousands of these hidden combatants are programmed to spring into action, pulling in Iraqi Baathist diehards and the Shiite radicals held at bay by force of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani authority and US troops.
Frustrated Iran May Unleash Terror Offensives
Our sources in Baghdad learn that Allawi warned Washington that Tehran-instigated terror could further destabilize his government and put paid to an election on time.
Similar concerns were voiced in Jerusalem. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned Washington that a mega terrorist attack launched by Iran or al Qaeda against an Israeli or Jewish overseas targets ahead of the January 9 Palestinian election would stir up enough turmoil to torpedo the ballot and stall the peace moves he is promoting.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terrorism experts estimate that Iran’s double threat to Bush's Iraqi and Israeli-Palestinian policies will take form in three simultaneous steps:
1. An Iranian-orchestrated mega-attack, including possible al Qaeda strikes in Israel and Egypt.
2. Final preparations for an Iranian guerrilla war in Iraq.
3. Rapid progress on uranium enrichment up to the assembly of an atomic bomb.
Iran is seen by our experts as throwing a smokescreen over this master plan by a series of seemingly conciliatory gestures, such as the extradition of a number of al Qaeda operatives to Saudi Arabia (as reported in last week's DEBKA-Net-Weekly), Syrian hints of similar concessions and a statement by the Islamic regime that several al Qaeda members were put on trial before Iranian courts – albeit without verifiable data of names, dates, crimes or sentences.
The Iraqis, Egyptians, Saudis and Israelis, worried about the timeout afforded Tehran, asked Washington how Iran’s nuclear race would be halted after May or June (assuming the terror confrontations were somehow thwarted).
They were told: “By heavy economic pressure up to and including sanctions.”
The Bush administration is convinced that the Iranian economy is so frail that any economic punishment will suffice to bring the government down.
This answer did little to allay mounting concerns in Baghdad, Cairo, Riyadh and Jerusalem. Even if the US evaluation of the Iranian economy is correct, the nature of a future Iranian regime is still anyone's guess. Moreover, by the time the old leadership disappears, an Iranian nuclear bomb may be an accomplished fact.
Washington drags its feet on Iranian bomb
Countries in the Middle East, especially Israel, fear that the Bush administration has fallen into a standard operating procedure of delays on Iran’s nuclear program in place of direct, tangible action. Similarly, last year, after invading Iraq, Washington sought cooperation with Tehran, especially with regard to the Shiite population. Engaging Iran, the Americans believed, would pave the way for further strategic understandings that would embrace also the nuclear issue. In line with this strategy, British forces were deployed in southern Iraq across from Iran's oil regions in the expectation, later disproved, that London would offer the key to US-European understandings on Iraq as well as Iran.
Instead of reciprocating in kind, Tehran proceeded to fuel anti-American violence in Iraq by furnishing Hizballah agents and Moqtada Sadr‘s rebel Mehdi Army with weapons, explosives and money. Not content with one anti-US front, Iran also granted al Qaeda operational cells vital logistical and intelligence support for their attacks in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, as well as providing succor and sanctuary for master terrorist Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi and the radical Ansar al-Islam. Tehran also backed to the hilt and funded Syrian president Bashar Assad‘s defiance of the United States in providing bases and training for Baathist, al Qaeda and Hizballah fighters and their safe passage into Iraq.
Amid its intricate machinations, Tehran has always taken care to avoid its agents or representatives being caught red-handed by the Americans in direct, provable trouble-making.
The Islamic Republic slipped up only once.
Last April, during the two-pronged insurgency of Iraqi radical Shiites south of Baghdad and Baathist guerrillas in the Sunni Triangle, American forces intercepted Iranian diplomats delivering orders and weapons to insurgent chiefs. But then too the Bush administration stuck to its practice of avoiding a showdown with Tehran and treated the incident with restraint.
Before the US presidential election, Washington assured a group of concerned Middle East nations, notably Iraq and Israel, that the ayatollahs would finally get their comeuppance in the form of UN sanctions once Bush was safely returned to the White House.
Now, true to its pattern of delays on Iran, Washington is postponing action for another three to four months. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian experts believe this will have only one result:
an Iranian nuclear bomb will come alive and start ticking in the second half of 2005.
None of this prevents Tehran from brazenly presenting the bill to Germany, France and Britain for its “concession” in consenting to freeze uranium enrichment while denying UN inspectors access to its hidden nuclear sites. Iran's senior nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, met the three EU foreign ministers Monday, December 13, to remind them that they owed Iran big time in nuclear technology and trade benefits.