US President Barack Obama's Middle East peace round table project is taking shape. DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources in Washington report that the White House his preparing his winter trip to the Middle East for some time between November 2009 and January 2010 to wind up his first year as president.
Nothing is final, but Obama would like to kick off his tour in Damascus followed by trips to Jerusalem, Ramallah and, then, Amman, Jordan.
Depending on security considerations, he may squeeze Beirut between the Syrian and Israeli capitals. He would become the first US president to visit Syria or Lebanon. A second visit to Cairo would depend on whether Hosni Mubarak is still president by the end of the year.
(See separate article on Mubarak's plans for stepping down.)
The year's-end Obama tour will be billed as the inauguration of a historic process for ushering in peace between Israel and its neighbors, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians. It will be launched at a multinational conference, which the US president will ceremonially open (as we reported in the last issue of DEBKA-Net-Weekly, No. 407 of July 31.)
Its agenda will also cover the issues of arms control and water-sharing in the Middle East.
The centrality of the Syrian-Israeli peace track will depend on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad proving he has severed his ties with Tehran and stopped supplying Hizballah with arms. In that case, Washington will move into a more active role.
US calms Middle East concerns: Iran's nuclear program is on hold
Obama's intermediaries on the Syrian track will be special presidential envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell and his staff, headed by Fred Hoff, who for years quietly kept America's backdoor open for contacts with Syria's political and intelligence establishments.
But the US president's top priority is preventing a nuclear arms race from developing in the Middle East and his administration is already working hard towards this goal. Washington hopes that its tough new policy for Iran (as outlined in the previous article) will hold the race in check until the president visits the region.
Their efforts focus on three directions:
- Allaying worries in Gulf, Middle East and Israeli capitals about the Iranian nuclear threat;
- Direct pressure on them to refrain from nuclear program start-ups or building atomic reactors;
- US disincentives for providers of nuclear equipment, especially in Europe, to deter them from selling their wares to any Middle East client.
To ease concerns, US emissaries are hawking around the region intelligence input as evidence that Iran has not accelerated the pace of uranium enrichment either at Natanz or any of the sites under the control of the Iranian Defense ministry's secret agency Amad (Supply in Farsi). This unit is headed by Mohsin Fakhri Zadeh, a physics professor and senior member of the Revolutionary Guards Corps Council.
After enriching 1,010 kilograms of uranium to 3.9 percent, sufficient for 30 kilograms of weapons-grade (95 percent) fuel, the Iranians are able to build “only” one bomb, say the US envoys.
Furthermore, the Americans deduce from two pointers that Tehran is not at present trying to build a stockpile of bombs and warheads:
First: Centrifuge production for speeding uranium enrichment has not increased;
Second: No signs of nuclear collaboration between Iran and Pakistan are visible in Tehran or Islamabad. Therefore, Iran has not turned to Pakistan for aid and advice for expediting its program.
Jimmy Mubarak is determined to bring nuclear power to Egypt
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources, Washington has sent out warnings to Arab rulers and Israel in the last fortnight to avoid “sudden and imprudent” actions for acquiring nuclear assets for fear of jerking Tehran into switching its program to fast forward.
We are in a very delicate stage of the nuclear arms race, explained the Americans, and any sudden move could upset the region's nuclear status quo.
In general, Washington is saying that while Iran has mastered the technology for building nuclear bombs and warheads, its rulers have not yet decided to go into production. The US believes this go-ahead will remain in abeyance for a year or two – or more – just as long as no one rocks the boat by redrawing the region's nuclear landscape.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly intelligence sources, the US secretly approached Egypt and Jordan with a request to suspend their plans for building nuclear reactors. President Mubarak, in particular was asked to stop work on five nuclear power plants at Inshas, near Alexandria. This placed him in a quandary. The Egyptian president is in the process of retiring and handing the presidency over to his son Gemal (Jimmy), who has made the nuclear power plants project his pet scheme.
(The next article discusses this transition)
Three years ago, in September 2006, Gemal Mubarak told the general convention of the ruling National Democratic Party: “The whole world – I don’t want to say all, but many developing countries – have proposed and started to execute the issue of alternative energy,” he said. “It is time for Egypt to put forth, and the party will put forth, this proposal for discussion about its future energy policies, the issue of alternative energy, including nuclear energy, as one of the alternatives.”
He added a sly dig at the Bush White House: “We do not accept visions from abroad that try to dissolve the Arab identity and the joint Arab efforts within the framework of the so-called Greater Middle East Initiative.”
The incoming Egyptian president is now being asked to conform with President Obama's new Middle East policy, especially on nuclear restraint.
Washington leans hard on Jordan, France, Israel
The administration is now leaning hard on Abdullah, king of Jordan, to give up his planned nuclear reactor at Mafraq in the southern part of the kingdom and curtail uranium exploration.
Jordan's 1.2 billion tons of phosphate reserves are estimated at 130,000 tons of uranium, which in its enriched form fuels nuclear plants.
Obama made a personal appeal to French president Nicolas Sarkozy to stop French companies constructing a nuclear reactor in Jordan and restrain the French nuclear giant Areya from prospecting for uranium in the central region of the Hashemite Kingdom. Brussels was asked to keep the hands of Tractebel Suez-GDF off the Jordanian nuclear program.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report that the Obama administration took a different tack with Israel. As a friendly nation, it was asked like other Middle East capitals to entrust the handling of Iran and its nuclear program to the United States and was offered cutting-edge US technology and weaponry for keeping a low profile on the nuclear issue.
Like Egypt and Jordan, Israel was asked to call off its plans to build its first nuclear power plan on the Nitzanim coast in the south.
On the other hand, the administration has promised to put up all the funds necessary for completing the development of Israel's anti-missile Arrow-3 interceptor and starting work on Arrow-4. The Obama administration also waived its objections to advanced Israeli avionics being installed in the new US aircraft on order for the Israeli Air Force, the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F–22 Raptor and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) stealth aircraft.