Obama and Barak discuss dwindling anti-Iran strike options as the US exits Iraq
US President Barack Obama's half-hour tête-a- tête with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Washington Friday, Dec. 16, was vitally concerned with the coming steps in the Syrian showdown and the latest developments in the controversy over Iran's nuclear weapons program, debkafile's Washington and intelligence sources report.
Their conference was urgent because key events in the Middle East this week made early decisions necessary on both these issues.
Termination of the US military mission in Iraq has powerful ramifications for Israel, Iran and Syria as well as Iraq itself.
From Tehran's standpoint, the US military departure has removed a formidable obstacle from Israel's path to an attack on its nuclear installations: the US Air Force's control of Iraqi skies. Cleared of this shield, Iraqi air space offers Israel an open corridor for its air force to reach Iran without hindrance. Overflights through any other country, such as Saudi Arabia, would have been contingent on their governments' cooperation in the anti-Iran offensive.
Tehran delayed releasing word of the capture of the US stealth RQ-170 drone until Dec. 4, timing it for the final month of the US troop drawdown from Iraq, in order to demonstrate to Israel – and not just America – that the sophisticated electronic resources which downed the RQ-170 over the Afghanistan-Iranian border were still available to Tehran for downing Israeli flights entering Iraqi air space. Therefore, Israel's air force could no longer be sure of safely breaching Iraqi air space for its attack.
To put another spoke in Israel's plans for striking Iran, Tehran used Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's visit to Washington (Dec. 12-13 ) for sending the US President a conciliatory message: The Islamic rulers were willing to clear the air with the Obama administration and broach areas of discord – notwithstanding the ill will generated by the allegations of an al-Qods Brigades plot to murder the Saudi ambassador to Washington and the captured American stealth drone's intrusion into their airspace.
Iran reinforced the message of good will posted through al Maliki by four additional steps:
1. Monday, Dec. 12, its intelligence minister Heider Moslehi traveled to Riyadh and held talks with Saudi Crown Prince Nayef and intelligence chief Prince Muqrin. This was Tehran's way of informing Washington, say debkafile sources, that Saudi Arabia was acceptable for a role in helping to reset the relationship, while Turkey, Obama's choice, was not.
The US preference for Turkey as its main Middle East facilitator was underlined in the two days US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta spent in Ankara Thursday and Friday.
2. Wednesday, Dec. 14, a Revolutionary Guards officer Gholamreza Jalali announced that most of ran's nuclear facilities had been relocated underground. Therefore, "Our vulnerability in the nuclear area has reached the minimum level," he said.
This information was intended to strengthen the Obama administration's argument that the odds on an Israeli attack on Iran having useful results had plummeted again.
3. Friday, Dec. 16, Iran's foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi stated: "Within the next two months, the first fuel plate which is produced with the 20 percent enriched uranium will be placed in Tehran's research reactor."
Translation: Iran is complying with President Obama's requirement that Iran's highly-enriched uranium be set aside for research – not a nuclear bomb.
4. Saturday, Dec. 17, North Korea was reported to have agreed to suspend its enriched-uranium nuclear weapons program and Washington agreed to provide Pyongyang with up to 240,000 tonnes of food aid.
Since Iran and North Korea habitually walk in step on their nuclear strategy, Pyongyang's compliance with Washington's key demand may be taken as a pointer to the Islamic Republic's willingness to slow uranium enrichment in stages that match the lifting of sanctions.
The Syrian question loomed large in the Obama-Maliki talks this week because the US military's exit from Iraq opens another corridor, this one for Iran to exploit for the convenience of a direct military route to Syria for its warplanes and military vehicles.
The US president insisted emphatically that the Iraqi prime minister must not let this happen. Maliki refused to give any promises, excepting only that Baghdad would line up behind Arab League policy on the Assad regime and not violate the sanctions the League has imposed on Damascus.
In his briefing to Tehran, Maliki was able to report that while Obama was willing to look at Iran's proposals for slowing uranium enrichment, he would not hear of easing the pressure on President Bashar Assad.
What this means is that the door has been opened for Tehran to try and mend its fences with Washington – provided the ayatollahs are willing to throw Assad to the wolves. Before moving ahead on this, the Iranians will no doubt demand guarantees against an American or an Israeli attack on their nuclear program.
Israel's strategic state of health has taken a serious beating from these developments, its options against Iran shrinking substantially and the opening for military action narrowing.
The removal of most of Iran's nuclear facilities below ground, President Obama's willingness to heed conciliatory feelers from Tehran, and Baghdad's assumption of the role of go-between for Washington and Tehran are all bad news for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his defense minister.
Iran has again contrived to buy time and leeway for bringing its nuclear weapons program to completion.
Even the option of a clear run through Iraq for Israeli warplanes to strike Iran is likely to be short-lived: Tehran, which controls the Iraqi prime minister, will lose no time in placing its electronic warfare and intelligence systems in position for shutting that corridor to Israel.
Israel's vanishing options on Iran topped Ehud Barak's conversation with Barack Obama in Washington on Friday.