Obama’s back-channel to Tehran bypasses allies Erdogan and Netanyahu
US President Barack Obama this week gave his two allies, the Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu, a lesson in the politics of expediency, when Tuesday, March 20, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced exemptions for 11 nations from new US financial sanctions against countries that don’t reduce the Iranian oil purchases by June 28.
The countries benefiting from this concession are Britain, Germany Belgium, France, the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Spain, Holland, Poland and Japan.
The news flew over the heads of Israelis who were too completely caught up in the terrorist attack on the Jewish school in Toulouse for it to register. Ankara took note – and umbrage. It was a cold shower on the high hopes Prime Minister Erdogan had entertained for his meeting with President Obama in Seoul, South Korea Sunday, March 25.
Their conversation was allotted six hours! The Turkish prime minister took that as a sign that he would be handed the starring role of Washington’s senior broker in the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program. This would be tantamount to US recognition of Turkey as the leading Middle East power bar none.
Erdogan also counted on his services in this regard winning US recognition by Turkey’s addition to the list of 11 nations enjoying exemptions from the new sanctions. Ankara needs this concession in view of the large quantities of oil it continues to import from Iran, and the use Iran makes of Turkish banks to facilitate its international oil sales.
Above all, Ankara is deeply engrossed in an effort to have the new Iranian and Iraqi pipelines to Europe routed through Turkey, reducing the Strait of Hormuz’s crucial importance as a primary route for the world’s oil supplies. This pipeline would also hurt Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf oil producers, all of whom are dead set against Erdogan’s hegemonic aspirations in the Middle East.
But for now no exemption appears to be on offer to Ankara.
debkafile’s intelligence sources report that Erdogan had planned to fly straight from his long conversation with Obama to Tehran and hand Iran’s leaders a Turkish formula counter-signed by the US president for digging the nuclear dispute out of its crisis.
This might still happen. But, when he returns home, the Turkish prime minister will still have to explain why Turkey was left off the exemptions list.
Even worse, it only dawned on Erdogan belatedly that Ankara was not Washington’s main channel to Tehran as he had believed. In the past month, he had sent Hakan Fidan, the Director of Turkish intelligence, MIT, traveling in and out of Tehran to tie up the last ends of their understanding ready for his summit with Obama. Certain he would be the bearer of tidings, he was brought up short by discovering that the Obama administration and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s office had been in dialogue through a separate secret channel for some time.
On March 12, a close Obama associate, the former US Senator Chuck Hagel, virtually gave the game away when he said in an interview: “There may be back-channel talks, I don’t see any other way around this.”
Israel did not fare any better than Turkey at Obama’s hands.
While Defense Minister Ehud Barak stressed in an interview Thursday, March 22 that America and Israel were in close accord on intelligence evaluations of the state of Iran’s program, he omitted mention of the intelligence gap on the hidden US-Iranian negotiating track.
Hagel was also revealing on another question. Asked by the interviewer: So does this mean “Bomb Iran or live with Iran with a bomb?” He replied: "Exactly. We may eventually wind up with those choices. But I don’t think we’re there now.”
What he was saying was that the secret US-Iranian channel has not yet run its course. This may explain why no date has been set for the Six Power talks with Iran in Istanbul next month.
At all events, the Obama administration appears to be rethinking sanctions as a bludgeon for turning Tehran away from its nuclear weapon aspirations.
Those second thoughts were closely reflected in a new assessment coming from London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies Friday, March 23, which asserted that sanctions were having an effect – “but just not the effect they were supposed to have.”
They have made the Iranians more not less committed to pursuing a nuclear weapon, it was said, and “had the knock-on effect of pushing oil prices to levels threatening the global economy.”
To put things into perspective, Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said Saturday, March 24, that the Six Power nuclear talks with Iran next month will be the last attempt to persuade Tehran to give up is nuclear weapon program by talks.