The shambles at the resumed nuclear negotiations between six world powers and Iran in Baghdad (May 23-24) reflected the profusion of secret diplomatic steps rushed forward this week to prepare the way for an accord. These exchanges took place, often at cross purposes, between the US and Russia, Russia and Iran, Iran and the US, Europe and Iran and Israel and the US.
The four key events prior to the meeting’s failure Thursday are uncovered here for the first time by DEBKA-Net-Weekly.
1. Saturday, May 19, at the G-8 summit at Camp David, President Barack Obama turned to Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev without warning and informed him that he had decided to bring Moscow in on the back-channel dialogue Washington had been conducting with Tehran since March.
Taken aback, Medvedev politely asked how this would be accomplished. Obama said he wanted to start relaying his secret messages to the Iranian leadership via Moscow.
Obama’s decision was reported to the Kremlin by two members of the Russian delegation, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov and Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Russia's Federation Council Mikhail Margelov, who is Moscow’s senior policy-maker on Iran’s main ally, Syria.
They came back with the answer that Russian president Vladimir Putin was not opposed. If this is what Obama wanted, then fine, he said
Thereupon, Obama moved fast, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington.
He handed Medvedev a note addressed to Iran’s leaders in Tehran with the following message: If after reaching understandings or agreements in nuclear negotiations, Iran continues to cheat, President Obama will shut down all negotiating channels and leave the military option as the sole remaining course.
Russia tags its comments onto Obama’s note to Tehran
The Russian prime minister then informed Obama that Sergey Ryabkov had been given the task of carrying communications to Tehran. He did not reveal that a Russian postscript had been attached. It came to light when the messenger, Ryabkov, said to reporters on the plane flying the Russian delegation back to Moscow Sunday night, May 20: "It is one of many various signals coming from various sources that the military option (against Iran) is considered as realistic and possible," he said. "We are receiving signals, both through public and intelligence channels, that this option is now being reviewed in some capitals as more applicable in this situation. We are very worried about this. We do not want the region and the world to fall into new divisions and bitter political arguments."
Moscow did not mind performing this postal service for the US president for various reasons, especially as it offered an opportunity for tagging on exegesis to enlighten Tehran on the Russian standpoint.
It was no coincidence that after two false starts, the Baghdad talks ended Thursday night, May 24, with agreement to reconvene next month in Moscow – but not much else.
In Washington this week, theories abounded to explain the president’s turn to Russia. Some insiders suggested he was angling for the revival of Putin’s former partnership in US policy on Iran; others called it a misstep on the same lines as the Afghanistan blunder he made at the NATO summit in Chicago by presenting his pact with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai as a success when everyone present knew it had crashed before the ink dried on their signatures.
Tehran uses nuclear talks for free-for-all on Afghanistan, Arab revolts
2. The Iranians did not leave Obama without an answer. On Tuesday, May 22, using the new Russian channel he established, Tehran sent him a detailed reply. But it omitted to address any nuclear issues. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Tehran and Moscow reveal exclusively that the message addressed Iran’s deep concern about the situations in Afghanistan and the Arab world.
The letter, most probably dictated by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for his own convoluted reasons, carried an explicit threat: If the US persists in its Afghan policy – which Tehran views as helping the spread of Taliban – Iran will step into the conflict and perform actions which the Americans have avoided.
This was taken by US sources as an unprecedentedly blunt Iranian threat of military intervention in Afghanistan even before the departure of US and NATO troops at the end of 2014.
The same message also reviled the US policy of encouraging Arab revolts, accusing Washington of helping to bring Muslim extremists to power. Any connection between the Arab revolutionaries and the Taliban in Afghanistan was termed "toxic."
As we wrote this, the nuclear talks in Baghdad broke up. Experts in Washington were trying meanwhile to decipher Iran’s important letter and plumb the message it sought to convey to the Obama administration.
Even without expert analysis, the note should have alerted the six powers at the talks to Iran’s surprise tactics: Of the five points nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili put on the table in Baghdad, only two addressed the nuclear controversy and three concerned international issues, including Afghanistan.
Israel revives its military option for 2012
3. Kept at arm’s length from diplomacy, Israel has gone back to its threat of a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear program in the coming months, i.e. before the US presidential elections in November. This was first reported exclusively by debkafile Thursday, May 24. (See HOT POINTS below)
Israel never pledged formally to allow Barack Obama to campaign for reelection undisturbed by an Israeli-Iranian war. But it was tacitly agreed between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, at the top level, and between Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, at the operational level, that Israel would not surprise Washington with an attack during the campaign.
But Israel decided to abandon this unwritten pledge when the Netanyahu government was informed through Panetta that President Obama had vetoed all Israel's demands of the negotiations: a total halt of Iranian uranium enrichment from 3.5 to 20 percent; the removal of highly-enriched uranium stocks from Iran, and the closure of the Fordo underground nuclear plant.
Netanyahu assigned Barak to notify the Obama administration that those conditions were sine qua non for Israel. If they were denied through or in the course of negotiations, Jerusalem would go back to its military option, with or without the United States.
Obama’s diplomatic maze leads to confusion
4. President Obama established a diplomatic network of multiple paths planned to converge at the Baghdad talks as a neatly-tied, agreed package for the coherent resolution of the nuclear controversy with Iran.
But the objective got lost in the maze of secret channels winding in too many directions and the talks broke down without accord.
Wily Iranian strategists found all these intersecting paths fair game for use in sowing confusion and planting misinformation in the US and Western capitals.
Jalili was in fact asked by US and European officials what had become of the secret US-Iranian accords negotiated privately between Washington and Tehran. They referred to the secret meetings in Paris led by Dr. Ali Bagheri, Deputy Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and closely involved in Iran's nuclear diplomacy, and Mohammad Hoseyn Moussavian. They also wanted to know what had happened to the accords Hassan Rohani finalized with US officials in Vienna.
Jalili simply shrugged and said he didn't know what they were talking about.
After three months of hard, back-channel White House negotiations ended in the debacle in Baghdad, and all his diplomatic forays on Iran and Afghanistan led to dead ends, will Barack Obama finally review his tactics for resolving international issues?