While President Barack Obama's steadfast engagement policy on Iran may be popular in the West, particularly in the US, it evokes a sharp thumbs-down reaction in the Islamic Republic's immediate neighborhood. Ruling circles in Middle East and the Persian Gulf countries see it as broadcasting American weakness and the product of the US president's stubbornness in sticking to his guns irrespective of current events and regardless of the consequences.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak – and even Tehran's main ally Syrian president Bashar al-Assad – subscribe to this view.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report that the situation in Iran and America's non-intervention in a popular struggle against a rigged presidential election were the subject of an emergency consultation called by president Mubarak in Cairo for Sunday, June 21 with Egypt's defense minister, Gen. Hussein Tantawi, intelligence minister Gen. Omar Suleiman, and Israeli minister of defense, Ehud Barak.
The conference explored the potential fallout of the Iranian situation on Syria, Lebanon, the pro-Tehran Hizballah and the radical Palestinian organizations, Hamas and Jihad Islami, supported by Iran.
But most of all, they tried to second-guess Obama's reaction to the upheaval in Tehran, using his conduct on the North Korean nuclear crisis as their yardstick.
Iranian regime prepares to punish the US
In the intelligence input they traded was a piece of information, our sources report, according to which Iranian undercover agencies had made a list of American targets in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority, for reprisals against what Tehran views as American support for the dissident movement in the last two weeks. Clearly, Obama's protestations of US non-interference in Iran's internal affairs have cut no ice in Tehran.
Thus far, these plans are still on paper pending a go-ahead order from supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But, meanwhile, Iran is pumping increasing amounts of weapons and roadside bombs to the Taliban in Afghanistan and to anti-US Sunni militias fighting American forces, like “The Army of Muhammad” and the “Army of Islam”.
The participants at the Cairo meeting also reckoned that Tehran is quite capable of activating the troublemakers of the terrorist movements of Lebanon and in the Gaza Strip.
The Saudis may have been physically absent from the conference but were well represented by Gen. Suleiman, who has become a frequent flyer to Riyadh for discreetly coordinating the informal tripartite group's strategy with King Abdullah and Saudi intelligence chiefs.
This way, the Saudis are not seen in direct contact with Israel, least of all holding military and intelligence exchanges (although one or more secret rendezvous have taken place between Israel's Mossad chief Meir Dagan and Saudi intelligence director Prince Muqrin Abdalaziz).
The Cairo conference therefore saw the Middle East alliance between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel, which president Obama sought to derail when he visited the region earlier this month, swinging into action.
Obama slams the regime's legitimacy, but it's still business as usual
Three days later, their apprehensions about the Obama administration's policies were confirmed.
Tuesday, June 23, Obama was tougher than ever before in condemning the Iranian government's crackdown on dissidence: “We have seen courageous women stand up to brutality and threats, and we have experienced the searing image of a woman bleeding to death on the streets. While this loss is raw and painful, we also know this: those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history,” the President said.
These words placed Ali Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, the Revolutionary Guards, the Basij militia and the entire Iranian establishment squarely on the wrong side of history.
These words were enough to put up the backs of the very Iranian rulers whom the US president is committed to engage in dialogue on their nuclear activities up until the end of this year. They will no doubt exact a price and an apology from Obama before consenting to sit down with him.
With this in mind, the White House Wednesday, June 24, extended an unexpected olive branch to Iran's leading Middle East ally, an announcement that a US ambassador was to be sent back to Damascus, four years after he was recalled over the assassination of the Lebanese politician Rafiq Hariri.
The US gesture came 24 hours after the Syrian government gave its unreserved support for the efforts of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad to restore order in Iran and reaffirmed its undying friendship for the Islamic leadership.
The White House's decision to restore full diplomatic ties with Damascus was quickly interpreted in Middle East capitals – and by Iran's reformist protesters – as a mark of America's double standard and its willingness to carry on business as usual with a regime of questionable legitimacy.
Will Obama pass the North Korea test?
A further pointer to the US president's next moves was sought by Middle East leaders in a second problematic arena: Korea, as talks proceeded at the Pentagon this week between Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy and a Chinese military delegation headed by People's Liberation Army Lieut.-Gen. Ma Xiaotian.
In Riyadh, Cairo and Jerusalem, Washington's willingness to actually apply Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korea for its nuclear test is seen as a test case for the Obama administration's conduct toward Iran if negotiations run aground and harsh sanctions take their place.
Sunday, Obama said in this regard: “This administration – and our military is fully prepared for any contingencies.”
Military sources in Japan and South Korea report US satellites and the guided missile destroyer USS John S. McCain are tracking the North Korean vessel Kang Nam, which is hugging the Chinese coast shore on its way to deliver missiles to Myanmar. The ship will refuel in Singapore and then pass through the Strait of Malacca Strait on its way to destination. Since Pyongyang is forbidden to export weapons under Security Council sanctions, the assumption is that at some point the US Navy will intercept the Kang Nam and impound its cargo of missiles.
North Korea has warned that interdiction would be deemed an act of war and evoke military retaliation.
There was more saber-rattling from Pyongyang June 21, when the state-sanctioned weekly Tongil Sinbo wrote that the provision of “extended deterrence, including a nuclear umbrella,” promised South Korea by President Obama when he met South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak in Washington on June 16, was nothing but a plan for a nuclear war.
Hauling North Korea back to negotiations
All the highly-charged rhetoric coming from Washington, Seoul and Tokyo this week was expected by the Cairo conference Sunday to cool in the coming days. Its participants predicted that the US-Chinese talks would lead President Obama to back away from any plan to send the US Navy against the North Korean arms ship. He would again opt for diplomatic engagement.
And indeed, after the US and Chinese delegations got together again Wednesday, June 24, it transpired that the Americans had agreed to hold off military action until they held a second round of talks in Beijing in a month's time. It now appeared that Washington would be content if the Chinese had been able by then to haul North Korea to the negotiating table to discuss its nuclear projects with the United States.
On Tuesday, Gen. Ma Xiaotian said: “We hope for and encourage positive steps and more stabilizing measures regarding North Korea.”
The Chinese general was satisfied, in other words, that the US had called off its dogs for the time being and would not go through with the Security Council injunction to board and search the North Korean arms ship.