The case of the vanishing second secretary at Iran’s embassy in Baghdad is causing extreme unease in Tehran. The United States is suspected of a deliberate provocation to drive home its determination to put up no longer with Iranian subversion in Iraq.
Iran claims Jalal Sharafi was seized by 30 Iraqi gunmen in uniform in Baghdad’s Al-Arisan district, Sunday, Feb. 4. Iraqi officials say they have no knowledge of who the kidnappers were; most likely a Sunni terrorist group, they suggest unhelpfully.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources report that Sharafi’s real name is Mohammad Javad Sharaf-Zadeh. According to a briefing from the Iranian ambassador Hassan Hazemi Qomi in Baghdad to his superiors, the abductors belonged to an elite Iraqi security unit which operates under US command.
They therefore believe that the captured Iranian diplomat is in American hands and under intense interrogation, most probably spilling the beans on Iranian agents, who recently infiltrated Iraq, and other extremely sensitive secrets. Tehran links Sharaf-Zadeh’s abduction to last month’s US military swoop on the Iranian facility in Irbil. His name, they fear, must have appeared on seized documents which listed some of Iran’s key agents in Iraq.
Tehran feels menaced by the fog of uncertainty surrounding the US anti-Iran campaign in Iraq. Iraqi officials shrug off any knowledge of these incidents, including the one on Monday, Feb. 5, the day after the abduction, when an armed group tried to storm the Iranian Baghdad embassy. One man was killed and several injured in the attack.
Our sources also learn that Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf brought ill tidings to Tehran. On a surprise visit Monday, he handed supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei a tough message from Washington. The United States, said the message, will not tolerate Iran’s continued subversive activity in Iraq and demands an immediate cessation – else it will expand its campaign against Iranian agents and terrorist infrastructure in the country.
This galvanized Tehran into action. Feelers went out for an urgent meeting between the powerful national security adviser and nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, and an American representative in Munich, Germany, where the 43rd Conference on Security Policy takes place on Feb. 9-11. Present there are ministers and leaders from the United States, Russia and the European Union. Defense secretary Robert Gates leads the American delegation.
Is Tehran’s milder tone for real or a trick?
Larijani has denied he wants to meet American officials on the conference’s sidelines, but DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that Tehran is pushing hard for him to get together with a member of Gates’ Pentagon party.
In fact, Aftab News, a Web site representing former president Hashemi Rafsanjani‘s faction not only confirmed that a meeting was sought, but revealed that Larijani had an offer ready for presenting to the American side for immediate negotiations without pre-conditions on Iran’s nuclear program.
Hossein Sobhani-Nia, a member of the parliamentary foreign affairs and security committee, told DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Tehran sources that he fully expects Larijani to be granted an interview with a US official. But even if it works out, our Iranian experts do not expect anything much to come of it, because the US and the European Union are adamantly opposed to talks before Iran calls off its current nuclear activities, particularly the enrichment of uranium.
It cannot be denied that Tehran sounds as though it is tempering its tone and diplomatic tactics, departing sharply from the boastful bellicosity typical of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
This change of tune is also evident in Lebanon.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that last week, Iran ordered its pawn, Hizballah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah, to cool his normal inflammatory rhetoric and rein in ongoing demonstrations against the anti-Syrian government. In fact, he was told to shelve plans to topple the pro-Western prime minister Fouad Siniora.
Since then, tens of thousands of Hizballah and other pro-Syrian demonstrators have been left to shiver in tents parked in the Lebanese capital in freezing, wet weather.
To stop them going home, Nasrallah has been delivering a nightly sermon over Hizballah’s Al Manar television station. His tone is surprisingly mild. Gone are the fiery attacks on the United States, Siniora and the anti-Syrian camp in Lebanon; even the bloody Sunni-Shiite war in Iraq is presented as a propagandist bid by unnamed enemies of Islam to divide the ranks of the faithful.
Has Tehran changed its policy objectives – or only its tactics?
Ways and means to avert sanctions
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iranian experts, after dissecting the debates in progress within the regime, opt for the latter.
They report Iran’s leaders are frantically casting about for ways and means for putting off the tough sanctions which the UN Security Council is expected to impose on Feb. 21 in response to the UN nuclear watchdog’s report on Tehran’s non-compliance with previous resolutions. In their secret conclaves, regime heads have decided that the way to ward of this evil is to send fresh diplomatic momentum in motion to provide a pretext for postponing the council session.
Another option under scrutiny is Tehran’s acceptance – in principle – of the tradeoff proposal put forward by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s director, Muhammed ElBaradai, for Iran to halt enrichment in return for a halt in sanctions and the restart of negotiations. Some Iranians, like the two ex-presidents, Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, are worried enough to accept this stopgap as long as it buys time and wards off tough sanctions. They have no intention, however, of abandoning their designs or letting up on progress in research on uranium enrichment.
Khamenei has not made up his mind but leans towards accepting this plan.
Ahmadinejad is flat against any cessation of work at the Esfahan plant, where uranium ore is being converted to UF6 gas, and the uranium enrichment facility in Natanz.
The faction favoring ElBaradei’s proposal argues that it does not demand total cessation of all nuclear programs and there is a good chance that Iran will be able to get away with continuing laboratory-scale experiments amid future negotiations on its nuclear program. In any case, Iran is still stalled by formidable technical problems and needs more time for research.
Our experts believe that if Tehran succeeds in duping the nuclear watchdog into averting a showdown and buys the weeks it needs to assemble all 3,000 centrifuges, its tone will revert to the old intransigence.
The US military threat is taken very seriously
A third, way-out option, revealed exclusively by DEBKA-Net-Weekly, postulates the establishment of an international concern on Iranian soil for the production of enriched uranium. Ahmadinejad, Larijani and the director of Iran’s nuclear agency, Gholam-Reza Aghazadeh, who have got together on this scheme, propose offering the five Security Council permanent members partnerships in the concern, together with concessions and other perks.
They maintain Iran would profit from this venture by –
1. The removal of the UN sanctions threat.
2. Acquisition of Western technology for uranium enrichment.
3. The quiet continuation of its clandestine program and research for developing a nuclear bomb.
4. The international concern would be shut down after Iran had milked it dry of equipment and technology for short-cutting progress toward its first atomic bomb.
No one else in Tehran seriously believes the West will go for this scheme.
Regarding the other options, the debaters inside the regime are making the following points:
First: The US military threat is extremely serious and should be treated as such. Tehran is getting nervous about the buildup of American strength in and around the Persian Gulf, the US campaign against its clandestine operations in Iraq and capture of eight agents, and the persecution of Moqtada Sadr’s Shiite militia. Iran is also hurting from the harsh economic sanctions by international financial institutions and banks, US encouragement for Iranian opposition and even the pledge by presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to keep up the military pressure on Iran.
Second: Tehran had better not read too much into Russian and Chinese sympathy. Both will only stand behind Iran as long as it serves their own interests.
Third: Iran’s Arab neighbors are growing increasingly hostile to Shiite Muslim potency in the Middle East. In the final reckoning, they may jump aboard an American military or diplomatic initiative and leave Tehran isolated.
Fourth: Popular disaffection is mounting over the failure of president Ahmadinejad’s economic policies to improve life in the country. The regime’s declining popularity will egg the Americans on to military action and investing more in the opposition.