Iran's presidential election and its turbulent aftermath have placed Washington and the president's commitment to dialogue with Tehran in a tight spot. On the other hand, the rogue giant has shown it has clay feet.
This unease was apparent in President Barack Obama's remarks to the CNBC network on Tuesday, June 16 that “The difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as has been advertised,” he said. “Either way we are going to be dealing with an Iranian regime that has historically been hostile to the United States.”
Since then, the Islamic regime has been busy beating back an uprising.
Three days earlier, Obama sounded rather more upbeat about saving the situation when he commented: “Whoever ends up winning the election in Iran, the fact there has been a robust debate hopefully will advance our ability to engage them in new ways.”
The White House faced the crisis unfolding in Tehran after being misled by the intelligence briefings he received up to the day before and the morning of the June 12 election, which predicted president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's defeat and Mir Hossein Mousavi's victory.
The reports were compiled and processed by the Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, the president's envoy for Iran, Dennis Ross and top Iran negotiator William Burns.
These intelligence czars further predicted that the unelected supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had determined not to influence the outcome by rigging the election against Ahmadinejad's challengers Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi and Mohsein Rezai, because he had decided to reduce his dependence on the incumbent president and his tough Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) backers.
Mousavi's victory supposedly in the bag
Khamenei would therefore let Mousavi win. Obama's intelligence advisers recommended that he take credit for this dramatic change of power in Tehran and hail it as the outcome of his policy of engagement with Iran's leaders. The president should waste no time, they said, in offering to enter into immediate negotiations with the new Iranian president, even if this meant a departure from Obama's former plan for the US-Iranian dialogue to proceed on several levels and stages, culminating in a summit with Khamenei.
This prediction misfired badly.
But before it did, it fertilized a scheme already afloat for a realignment of Washington's Middle East options. DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports that nine days before the Iranian election, President Obama was in Riyadh and put before Saudi king Abdullah the idea of a possible tripartite US-Saudi-Iranian axis for taking the lead in Middle East military and diplomatic affairs.
This would have meant the Sunni Saudis taking leave of their traditional perception of all Shiites as enemies to be fought. Obama suggested that the Saudi monarchy distance itself from its Sunni allies and forge an alliance with the most powerful Shiite force in the Muslim world, Iran.
Through this alliance and cooperation with the United States, Saudi Arabia would hoist itself to world power stature and, furthermore, have a good chance of drawing Iran away from its nuclear aspirations.
This scenario was the brainchild of Dennis Ross, who developed it in detail after he started traveling around the region in May as the Obama administration's envoy for Iran.
Its core was a quid pro quo: Iran would confer on the Saudi royal house Shiite endorsement of its status as Custodian of Islam's Holy Sites in Mecca and Medina; Saudi Arabia would reciprocate with recognition of Iran as a regional power and provide funding for developing its rundown oil and gas industry.
The United States would oversee the process and maintain equilibrium between the two partners.
A US-brokered Sunni-Shiite alliance mooted
The scheme in outline was brought to Tehran's attention at around the same time it was put before Abdullah, but drew no reaction. King Abdullah was taken aback but did not say no, only that he needed time to think it through.
The Ross plan gained traction in Washington from the rising expectation of a Mousavi victory in the June 12 election, according to our sources. It came to be touted as an ideal diplomatic platform from which the new Iranian president would launch his term with a promising debut.
As Iran's poll drew near, the certainty that a Mousavi win was in the bag gained momentum in the Obama administration, in intelligence quarters and among Iranian academics. Administration officials were confident enough to share sections of the Ross plan with a group of pro-Mousavi Tehran University professors on a secret visit Washington in the first week of June, asking them to bring it to the attention of the future president.
This message must have given Mousavi the impression that his candidacy was promised US backing.
But Washington's belief in a Mousavi victory only galvanized Tehran's rulers into making sure of the incumbent Ahmadinejad's re-election.
From that point on, the situation went from bad to worse.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources report that the administration erred by ignoring the signs that its plans were going seriously awry.
American Iran watchers missed Tehran's comprehensive plan to steal the election on a scale unheard-of even in Iran (as reported in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 400 of June 12), and hold the Revolutionary Guards ready in the wings to move in if this failed.
They also took no notice of the internal opinion poll run by the regime in Tehran, which predicted a 50 percent win for Ahmadinehad in the first round to secure a second term.
The ordinary voter has no real say against unelected ayatollahs
Above all, Obama's advisers and strategists did not get the point that in Iran, like most parts of the Middle East, the people do not determine who gets elected; that decision is made by the head of the tribe, in this case the unelected supreme ruler Ayatollah Khameinei.
They were not the only ones to misread the Iran scene. The head of Israel's Mossad external security service Meir Dagan, addressing the Knesset foreign affairs and security committee on Tuesday, June 16, underestimated the strength of popular dissent in Iran when he said the street demonstrations would pass in a few days.
He was also way off the mark when he remarked: “The forgeries in the Iranian elections were no more than usual in any democratic country in the world” – clearly to distract attention from Israel's own failure to appreciate the strength of the Islamic Republic regime's determination to keep Ahmadinejad in power.
With Tehran still in turmoil, President Obama and his advisers must postpone their plans for dialogue with Iranian leaders on their nuclear plans until it is clear where the contest in Tehran is heading. For now, it is clear that the clerical rulers of Iran are beset by deep rivalries which are overshadowed by turbulent unrest in the street.
The first victim of this fallout was Dennis Ross. On Monday, June 15, Washington awoke to news that “The Obama administration's point man on Iran will be moving to the White House with what appears to be an expanded portfolio.”