The Bush administration has concluded that turning back the clock on an Iranian nuclear bomb is no longer realistic. Washington is therefore bending all its diplomatic and intelligence-related resources to the goal of delaying the actual production of the bomb. The tough decision of what to do about the looming danger will be left to the next US president.
This is where the Bush White House stands on the issue, according to the latest update from DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington.
US president George W. Bush’s position is dictated by the conviction that time is running out too fast for preventive action to take effect. US intelligence estimates that the Islamic republic will have its bomb within 18-24 months.
The current key factors in the Iranian nuclear equation are as follows:
1. The bottom has fallen out of the European Union’s E-3’s diplomatic strategy, the keystone of Washington policy for pre-empting Iran’s development of a nuclear weapons capability. This was evident when E-3 foreign ministers Jack Straw, Michel Barnier and Joschka Fischer held a hurriedly scheduled last-ditch meeting in Geneva with senior Iranian nuclear negotiator Hassan Rohani, after a six-month crisis-ridden hiatus. The Iranians steadfastly refused to abandon uranium enrichment in return for any incentives the Europeans could offer.
German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was the first of the three European powers to back down. Were it not for his domestic woes and an impending snap election, either he or his foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, would have been on the next plane to Tehran to announce Berlin’s surrender to the inevitability of Iran’s nuclear weapons goal.
In London, the position is hardly better. President Bush’s staunchest ally, prime minister Tony Blair, is hanging on by a thread to their joint position that Iran must be stopped from developing a nuclear bomb – by UN sanctions, if diplomatic engagement fails. No other British politician stands with him. Even his own foreign secretary, Jack Straw, gave the Iranian negotiators to understand when they met in Geneva that Blair was left pretty much high and dry on the issue.
UN sanctions face Chinese and/or Russian veto
Paradoxically, French president Jacques Chirac is the only European leader willing to line up with Bush, just as he did in the crisis over the expulsion of Syrian troops from Lebanon.
2. However the Bush administration now computes as nil the chances of carrying UN sanctions against Iran that will bite, namely an oil embargo. A Chinese veto would almost certainly be slapped down to defeat a sanctions resolution. First, Beijing sees itself becoming a big buyer of Iranian oil and a leading partner in developing the Islamic Republic’s oil resources. Second, after informing Washington of its refusal to support an oil embargo against North Korea, China can hardly back sanctions against Iran.
Washington also has reason to believe Moscow too would veto a Security Council punitive resolution against Tehran.
3. Iran is well plugged into developments on the North Korean nuclear scene.
Some nuclear experts believe Iran and North Korea secretly keep each other well abreast on their nuclear programs and have reached partial understandings as well as attaining a measure of coordination.
Tehran has grasped that the Americans may talk tough, but when it comes to options, they are reduced to seeking an under-the-table or overt deal with Pyongyang to at least head off nuclear arms sales to a third party, whether a nation or a terrorist group.
The Bush administration believes North Korea might be amenable to doing business if the price was right and delivered in the coin of oil supplies, food or money.
Iranian leaders see that Washington has no choice but to come to terms with North Korea after it attained nuclear weapons. And, in the wake of the E3's diplomatic fiasco, they see the Americans forced into going through the same process with Tehran after the Islamic Republic produces its first atomic bomb.
4. Iran's powerful military-intelligence-terrorist network in Iraq figures large in both Washington’s and Tehran’s calculations on the nuclear issue.
Iran has held back from activating its vast network of tens of thousands of officers, fighters and agents planted in Iraq since the US-led 2003 invasion. .As in Lebanon, the ayatollahs limited themselves to fortifying rather than activating their embedded networks with trained personnel, upgraded weapons systems and better logistics.
Washington worried about “unpredictable Sharon”
Our sources in Iraq reveal that the US military command has repeatedly warned Washington that terrorist attacks and casualties in Iraq would skyrocket should Tehran decide to let its networks off the leash against US or Iraqi targets.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iran experts note that while US strategic thinkers regard the presence of substantial American military strength on Iran's borders as an important asset gained from the Iraq war, Tehran sees the US army as its hostage in the nuclear standoff.
In recent weeks, our sources learn of secret contacts between Americans and some of the presidential hopefuls competing in Iran’s June 17 election. The frontrunner, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has signaled that “Tehran and Washington would have something to discuss” after the election.
It is worth noting that in Rafsanjani is no fly-by-night candidate. He is a former president who, in 1985, helped arrange with the Reagan administration the clandestine trade of US arms for Iran's help in freeing Americans held hostage by Iranian-backed militants in Lebanon.
The Bush administration has picked up on Rafsanjani's trial balloon.
Some US officials say a dialogue with Iran is vital, given the unpredictability of none other than Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.
It seems that the Bush administration is far from sure it is fully apprised of Israel's plans to foil Iran's bid for the bomb. No one in Washington appears to know if or when Israel means to act. Just a few months ago, US vice president Dick Cheney said on American television that Israel “might well decide to act first” to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.