US President Barack Obama has sharply whittled down his advisory team on foreign affairs. Since early this year, he is playing a lone game of diplomacy – first on the Syrian chemical issue and latterly for nuclear Iran – holding his cards very close to his chest.
Last week, top White House Iran adviser, a key member of the US negotiating team, Puneet Talowar, was kicked sideways. Dropped as National Security Council Senior Director for Iran, Iraq and Persian Gulf after five years, Puneet was appointed Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs.
Former White House coordinator for WMD, Gary Samore, who left the Obama administration early this year, has not been replaced.
New National Security Adviser Susan Rice is far from happy about being sidelined in Syrian and Iranian diplomacy (as DEBKA Weekly reported in its last issue).
The US President appears to depend on two tight teams of advisers – an inner group headed by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al-Said, his go-between with Tehran.
“Heroic Leniency” means marching orders for Revolutionary Guards
This week, Obama decided his secret dialogue with Tehran had matured sufficiently for a summit to be held with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the UN General Assembly in New York in the last week of September.
Obama’s efforts on the Iranian front bore first fruit Tuesday, Sept. 17, when Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s virtual dictator, announced: “We are against nuclear weapons – not because of the US or other countries, but because of our beliefs. And when we say no one should have nuclear weapons, we definitely do not pursue it ourselves either (sic).”
Khamenei went on to say he is “not opposed to proper moves in diplomacy,” and “I agree with what I called ‘heroic leniency’ years ago, because such an approach is very good and necessary in certain situations, so long as we stick to our main principles.”
The sour faces of the high-ranking Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) chiefs in his audience showed they needed no translation for the term “heroic leniency.” Instead of the usual applause and shouts of support, these hawks greeted Khamenei’s speech with sullen silence and only a faint rattle of clapping which quickly died down.
For this hawkish backbone of the Islamic theocracy of Iran, the message was clear: The masters of Tehran had decided to put the national nuclear program on hold for a while as a pragmatic concession to Washington, before the IRGC had gained a well-packed arsenal of nuclear bombs and warheads. The officers who had devoted their lives to this goal and the struggle against America were out in the cold.
Khamenei and Rouhani conduct an internal coup
That affront followed swiftly on President Rouhani’s stern caution to the IRGC Monday, Sept. 16, to stop meddling in politics, just five years after they rescued the ayatollahs regime from mass riots across the country.
This double blow amounted to a quiet internal coup against the powerful Guards and their displacement as custodians of the national nuclear program. According to DEBKA Weekly’s Iranian and intelligence sources, all sensitive nuclear installations were previously purged of Guards personnel who were not trusted for blind obedience to the new custodians, Khamenei and Rouhani, whose security was beefed up.
IRGC chiefs were given to understand that they had done their bit in bringing the Islamic Republic’s nuclear capabilities up to scratch. Now, it was time for them to step aside with pride in their accomplishment and leave it to the appointed guardians of state to decide if and when to go forward and build an operational nuclear weapon.
The realignment of the power balance in Tehran had become imperative for the reopening of the diplomatic track with Washington, which after years of empty palaver had run out of steam and needed new impetus.
Obama sends Tehran the key for talking business
Robert Einhorn, another senior nuclear negotiator recently disposed of by Obama, remarked on Sept. 12 that “President Obama’s flexibility on Iran” will be affected if the Syrian chemical weapons disarmament plan goes awry.”
Addressing the Atlantic Council chapter in DC, he said, “If Assad and the Russians deliver on the plan,” it could have “very positive implications” for Iran talks and make it easier for the Obama administration to risk making concessions to Tehran.”
According to Einhorn, it would be unfortunate if the American people made it more difficult for Obama to appease Iran. He offered advice on “the most productive way” forward as being “for the US and Iran to sit down and explore what’s possible… a frank give-and-take about what each side is really seeking in these negotiations.”
Proposals could then be drafted and presented to the permanent members of the UN Security Council-plus-Germany group for approval.
Einhorn implied that when Obama zigzagged on Syria, he was in fact thinking of Iran.
And indeed, DEBKA Weekly reports that Obama played his part by sending Tehran the key for opening the door to talking business.
He sent a message to Iran’s leaders by the hand of Oman’s Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Sayyid Badr bin Saud Al Busaidiat. It was delivered quietly while, publicly, the parties signed a mutual memorandum of understanding for boosting cooperation between Muscat and Tehran in education, sports and culture.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources in Washington and the Gulf disclose its content:
The US president said that for an understanding to go forward, the supreme leader must convene the IRGC chiefs and inform them that they were no longer in charge of the country’s national nuclear assets. If that condition was met, Obama would make the gesture of meeting President Rouhani at UN HQ this month.
Two concessions for Tehran from Washington
And in fact, Monday, Sept. 16, the Omani minister informed the White House that Khamenei had agreed to take this step the next day, as reported above.
Obama reciprocated – first Tuesday night by asserting in an interview to the Spanish language Telemundo network that he was willing to open dialogue on Iran’s nuclear program if its leaders demonstrated their own “seriousness by agreeing not to weaponise nuclear power.”
He went on to say: “There is an opportunity here for diplomacy. I hope the Iranians take advantage of it. There are indications that Rouhani, the new president, is somebody who is looking to open dialogue with the West and the United States in a way that we haven’t seen in the past. And so we should test it.”
The first gold nugget for Tehran in these remarks was the US president’s acquiescence to Iran’s nuclear bomb capabilities so long as its leaders, specifically supreme leader Khamenei, agreed “not to weaponise nuclear power” – at least in the three and a half years remaining of Obama’s term in office.
The second was the Obama-Rouhani summit.
The areas of agreement and discord in his dialogue with Khamenei and Rouhani will be itemized in the next article.