Iranian president Mohammed Khatami, in an unprecedented diplomatic gesture, sent a private emissary to Jeddah with a message of top importance for relay to President George W. Bush via visiting US vice president Richard Cheney. The letter, delivered Saturday, March 16, was also addressed to Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.
Saudi intelligence chief Prince Nayyaf bin Abdulaziz put the message in Cheney’s hands. He passed it to Sharon when he arrived in Jerusalem two days later, on March 18.
This was disclosed to DEBKA-Net-Weekly by its most exclusive sources in Jerusalem.
The gist of the note is an attempt to persuade the United States and Israel that carrying out their plan to destroy Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr (as reported in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 48, on February 2, 2002) would be undeserved and counter-productive.
This was the first communication from Iran to a US leader since President George W. Bush included that country in his “axis of evil” and accused the Islamic Republic of sending Revolutionary Guards agents into Afghanistan to subvert the Karzai interim government.
It was also the first indirect message from Tehran to the Israeli government since the Palestinian arms ship Karine-A was captured on January 3 with a weapons cargo loaded up at an Iranian island.
Khatami disclaims at length any involvement by the Iranian government and armed forces in the smuggling of al Qaeda fighters out of Afghanistan to the Middle East. He places full responsibility for this operation squarely in the court of his colleague, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who, he says, ran it with the help of his private intelligence agents, militia and loyal Revolutionary Guard elements.
The Iranian president also claimed that the same parties managed the Karine-A arms smuggling project, and assured the US and Israel, that the vocal Iranian expressions of support for the Palestinian cause were meaningless.
For the first time, Khatami spoke of a bitter struggle power struggle in Tehran between his reformist faction, which seeks closer relations with the United States, and Khamenei’s hardliners, warning it could explode into street battles in the country’s main cities.
He explained that if Israel attacked the Bushehr reactor, he as head of Iran’s nuclear program, would be forced to step down, tipping the scales of power in Tehran in favor of the extremists.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Jerusalem add that upon receipt of the communication from Tehran, Sharon handed Cheney a confidential Israeli intelligence file documenting in detail the activities of Iranian intelligence networks across the Middle East and their efforts to stud the region with al Qaeda bases. The dossier offered a close-up view of the al Qaeda presence in Lebanon, mostly in Palestinian refugee camps, and in Cyprus, which has become a way station for terror operatives on the move and a logistical base whence they pick up funds and forged travel documents.
The top-secret documents pinned down the Islamic network’s hidden locations in Sudan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Ethiopia and Somalia. Sharon told Cheney that Israel knew all about the factional divisions in the top levels of government in Tehran. But Israeli intelligence thought Khatami was blowing them up as a form of spin. Every top political and military official in the Iranian regime rules a defined jurisdiction, which enables him to set up his own power base. The Iranian president, whose purlieu is outside national military and intelligence affairs, has no formal say in the formulation of foreign and defense policy. This enables him to hold clean hands up to the outside world and pose as the Islamic regime’s most ardent antagonist of the extremist sponsor of terror, Ayatollah Khamenei.
Israeli intelligence does not buy this pose, certain that Khatami knew and approved the helping hand Iran extended al Qaeda when its militants fled US attacks in Afghanistan. Israeli analysts note that the Islamic Republic takes all its key decisions in consultation among all the leadership factions, including the reformists. There was no way, Sharon told Cheney, that the Iranian president could have been oblivious of the presence in Tehran for most of January and February of Osama Bin Laden’s senior al Qaeda partner, the Egyptian Ayman al- Zuwahri.
Not only that. Another key al Qaeda operative, Abu Zubaideh, put his head together with al Zuwahri in the Iranian capital several times, to consolidate the network’s plan of action in the Middle East. Iranian military intelligence then arranged to move him from Tehran to Lebanon.
The Israelis accordingly believe that the Khatami note was a device cooked up by the Iranian leadership to head off an attack on the Bushehr nuclear facility by hinting at a desire for a rapprochement with the West.
Putin Drops out of Iran’s Nuclear Project
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s US and Israeli intelligence sources point to another unpublished cause of Tehran’s near desperation to keep the Bushehr facility safe from attack.
Construction work on the reactor was suddenly halted some weeks ago.
News from the site is sketchy but, according to our sources, Russian president Vladimir Putin, without a word to his closest associates in the Kremlin, secretly pulled Russia out of the Iranian nuclear project. Most of the 3,000 Russian engineers and technicians were told to return home at once; an estimated 750 Iranian scientists and technicians attached to Russian nuclear research institutes in Russian were given till the end of March to leave.
While both Moscow and Tehran are keeping this turn of events dark, Iran has cautioned Moscow that its failure to put the nuclear project back on track will lead to Tehran putting the huge arms deal signed with Moscow at the end of last year on ice. The transaction is worth $7 billion.
Putin acted in response to an insistent personal request from President George W. Bush, ahead of their summit meeting on May 25.
It marks a sea change in Russian policy. Bush achieved what the Clinton administration, in eight years of diplomatic acrobatics, failed to pull off: cancellation of the Russian-Iranian nuclear deal, under which Boris Yeltsin and later Putin undertook to supply, install and operate the Iranian reactor. Washington argued that the facility would enable the Iranians to develop operational nuclear weapons by 2005.
In sacrificing a major transaction of vital interest to Russia, its armed forces and its military and nuclear industries, the Russian leader has placed his trust in his personal ties with the US president and expects America to make proper restitution for Russia’s loss.
The Russian leader plans to announce the scrapping of the project during his Moscow summit with Bush on May 25. This would be an important feather in Bush’s cap, enhancing his leadership reputation at home and abroad, at the forefront of the worldwide campaign to punish both terrorists and rogue governments seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction.
The proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons will be a key issue on the Bush-Putin summit agenda. Putin is acutely aware that US CIA director George Tenet, in his recent appearance before the Senate’s armed services committee, said hard things about Russia’s continued sale of these systems to many countries, including Iran. By cutting off Russian assistance to Iran’s nuclear program, Putin shows Bush that Tenet’s comments were unfounded, uttered only to give voice to the opponents in Washington of the two presidents’ close working relationship.