Iran was clearly uppermost in the mind of the US Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus when he was interviewed Sunday, March 7, by CNN's by Fareed Zakaria. Some of his remarks, though sparsely reported, were unexpectedly revealing on the political situation in Tehran, the point its nuclear program had reached and the likelihood of a US and/or Israel attack on its facilities.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly quotes the most telling of Petraeus's remarks:
Well, first, I think you're absolutely right to say that the security elements in Iran, particularly the Revolutionary Guard's corps, the – the Quds force and the Basij, the militia, have had to focus a great deal more on internal security challenges than they did in the past. And, indeed, I think you've heard it said by pundits that Iran has gone from being a theocracy to a thugocracy, that it has frankly become much more of a police state than it ever was in – in the past since the Revolution.
Turning to the Iranian military nuclear program, he said:
I think it's something slightly different, actually. I think, first of all, that there can be a debate about whether or not the final decision has been made. I think in fact probably that final decision has not been made by the Supreme Leader, and that will be his decision to take.
But that's a little bit immaterial at this point in time because all of the components of a program to produce nuclear weapons, to produce the delivery means and – and all the rest of that, all of these components have been proceeding as if they want to be in a position where he can make that decision, having reached the so-called threshold capability. And that is, of course, what is so worrisome to the countries in the region, and, of course, above all, to – to Israel and obviously to the United States and the countries of the west.”
Some Gulf leaders even hope for an Israeli strike
Discussing a possible attack on Iran, which would fall under the CENTCOM commander's jurisdiction, Gen. Petraeus said:
Well, I think, first of all, you have to ask a country that is most directly concerned about this, and that would be Israel. And, at the end of the day, what we might want with a slightly detached perspective than the other western countries. What the Gulf States and others might be willing to accept –
And by – by the way, there is no uniform or universal acceptance of what you had just laid out. In fact, it's quite the contrary in many of the countries, and there's quite a –
ZAKARIA: Meaning what? They – they want the United States to strike?
PETRAEUS: Well, there are some that are very, very, very, very concerned about the developments in Iran and they find that very –
PETRAEUS: – difficult.
ZAKARIA: What does that mean? They want – they want the United States to strike?
PETRAEUS: Well, it's interesting. I think there – there is almost a slight degree of bipolarity there at times. On the one hand, there are countries that would like to see a strike, us or perhaps Israel, even. And then there's the worry that someone will strike, and then there's also the worry that someone will not strike. And, again, reconciling that is – is one of the challenges of operating in the region right now.
Our job right now is to ensure that we're prepared for any contingencies, that we can support in deed, with the diplomatic efforts, to transition now to the pressure track and so forth.
Petraeus lets the cat out of the bag
The Obama administration – particularly its Iran strategists – would have preferred three of the American general's utterances to have remained unsaid in public, DEBKA-Net-Weekly military and intelligence sources note:
1. By calling Iran a “thugocracy,” Petraeus publicly stigmatized Iran's dominant Revolutionary Guards, indirectly criticizing the Obama administration for seeking to engage this highly disreputable organization in dialogue for political-military understandings.
2. He rendered the debate within the administration over whether or not Iran is resolved to develop a nuclear weapon academic by delineating Iran's progress toward that goal: "…all the components of a program to produce nuclear weapons, to produce the delivery means, have been proceeding…" ready for that decision.
3. On the chances of a military strike on Iran's nuclear sites, Petraeus made a disclosure which neither Washington nor Jerusalem is keen to bring to the knowledge of their publics. He noted that some Persian Gulf states – without naming them – were worried enough about a nuclear-armed Iran to hope for a military strike to smash its program, regardless of whether it was carried out by the US, Israel, or both.
The American general confirmed that the biggest danger hanging over Iran's nuclear program came from Israel.
The CENTCOM commander made these remarks just two days before US Vice President Joe Biden began visits to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Biden's primary mission was to make sure Israel did not embark on unilateral military action against Iran without prior clearance from Washington.
Arabs frown on Obama's secret talks with Revolutionary Guards
Shortly before his arrival, our Washington and Jerusalem sources report, unofficial US emissaries brought Jerusalem the news – a shocker – that the Obama administration had launched secret talks with Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps representatives – despite its history as architect and sponsor of terror – and was maneuvering for more time to properly explore this track.
The message was delivered to a number of prominent, non-official Israelis for relaying to prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and defense minister Ehud Barak.
But it did not stop there. Jerusalem and Cairo are coordinated on military efforts against Iran. Through Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia are also linked by a more serpentine thread. Therefore, Washington assumed that after word reached Israel, it would not be long before it hit the Persian Gulf and the rest of the Middle East.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources in the Gulf and the Middle East report that the Egyptians, Saudis and Gulf emirs reacted to the news with strong disapproval. Resentment in Cairo and Riyadh simmered amid the fear of disastrous repercussions. They suspected the US of not merely giving up on stopping Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, but feared Washington was about to embrace this prospect and then offer the moderate Arab nations the protection of an American nuclear umbrella. The sense in Riyadh is that the Obama administration is looking past next year's US troop withdrawal from Iraq, and acting to bolster America's permanent military presence and influence in the Gulf region.
They fail to see how Washington can tame the al Qods Brigades, the IRGC's operational arm for running terrorist and intelligence networks around the Persian Gulf and Middle East. Seen from Riyadh, the US diplomatic venture is a threat in that sense because it will let al Qods off the leash and free to enhance its potential for troublemaking among Saudi Arabia's Shiite minority (10 million), which inhabits the oil-rich Eastern Provinces.
Israel in shock
Israeli political and military leaders were dismayed to learn of the Obama administration's secret dialogue with Iran's Revolutionary Guards representatives.
Their first thought was that this step had put paid to the prospect of harsh sanctions, since Washington had repeatedly singled out the IRGC as its main target for penalties against Tehran, and would therefore promise the Guards full or partial immunity to keep the talks going..
Their second thought was that the Obama administration, still guided by the determination to prevent an Israeli attack on Iran, had in fact shortened Israel's timeline for a decision on whether to go ahead with its military option against America's wishes.
The Netanyahu government therefore jumped as though bitten by a snake when Vice President Biden started his visit to Israel on Tuesday, March 9, by stating: “I can promise the people in Israel that we will confront as allies every security challenge that we will face.”
This statement was interpreted as a warning that America would only help those who toe Washington's line on policy-making, emphasizing that the US was there to decide when Israel was in danger and determine the appropriate response.
The Netanyahu government first kicked back with a clumsy gesture of self-assertion. A local planning authority granted initial approval to a long-term plan for adding 1,600 housing units to the Ramat Shlomo suburb of East Jerusalem. This action succeeded in putting up every back, whether American, Palestinian or European, at the very moment that the Palestinians had been talked round into participating in US-mediated indirect peace talks with Israel, after stalling for more than a year.
Biden was furious. Although this mini-crisis was patched up before he ended his visit, differences between Washington and Jerusalem linger, and more upsets may be expected.