In their different ways, the rulers of Iran, North Korea and Syria this week tried to throw US President Barack Obama off balance by exploiting the foreign policy balls he is juggling to win the November election – a combination of tough talk and maneuvers to avoiding military confrontation.
Wednesday, April 11, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad chose Abu Musa island near the Strait of Hormuz to offer the Arab Gulf rulers a piece of advance: “…they should take a look at the map of Iran so that they understand about which great and powerful country they are talking.”
Turning to threats, he said: “Some of these countries give their oil money to the arrogant powers so that it can be used against another country. But they must be aware that their days are numbers and one day, the oil money will be used against themselves.”
Was he setting the tone for the resumed nuclear talks opening in Istanbul Saturday, April 14, between his government and six world powers (US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany)?
Or reminding them that when sanctions were first imposed on Iran to counter its nuclear program oil sold at $25 the barrel whereas it has since soared to $110?
As for Iran’s Arab neighbors across the Gulf, Ahmadinejad was giving them an ominous geostrategic lesson: Saudi Arabia was 1,034 kilometers away from Abu Musa and the Hormuz waterway which carried their oil to market, whereas Abu Musa was only 183.5 kilometers and bristling with a profusion of Iranian military hardware, notably sea-mines, explosives-packed speedboats and shore-to-sea missiles. They are all in position to block the Strait of Hormuz and strike at the lifelines of Gulf oil producers, their wells and infrastructure. No need to wage full-blown war on Saudi Arabia to bring disaster down on the world’s key oil-producing region.
Therefore, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remark Thursday, April 12, that Tehran has sent “mixed signals, hinting toward a compromise” hardly connects with reality, unless she was referring to signals filtered
through secret channels.
The Iranian president was obviously crowing over Tehran’s success in preserving Syrian President Bashar Assad in power and vowing to make Gulf nations pay for backing his enemies.
A large Saudi delegation headed by Defense Minister Prince Salman visited London and Washington this week. In addition to their top-level talks with President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron and their heads of defense, they also talked to British and US army chiefs dealing with the military side of the Persian Gulf. In London, Prince Salman had a long conversation with Air Chief Marshal Sir Simon Bryant and later in Washington with Gen. James Mattis and the president’s adviser on terror John O. Brennan.
Their focus of concern appeared to have shifted from a possible US or Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program and its consequences over to a potential clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
On Syria, Obama and Saudi King Abdullah are at odds. The former stands solidly against US military intervention against the Assad regime, whereas the latter is pressing for heightened Western and Arab military involvement in Syria including a supply of heavy weapons for the rebels fighting government forces. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was in Riyadh Wednesday but failed to convince the king to line up behind the Washington-Ankara policy on Syria.
With Iranian and Russian support, Assad has managed to turn the tables on Turkey. Friday’s Saudi newspaper Shawq al–Awsat mocked Ankara and its oft-repeated, never-fulfilled proposal to set up a buffer zone in Syria for refugees with a sarcastic headline: “Did al-Assad set up a buffer zone in Turkey?”
The first two days of the Syrian ceasefire, which was declared as part of UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan, were encouraging in that the number of deaths from violence declined from the horrendous norm. At the same time, outbreaks here and there were still current and Syrian troops and heavy weapons remained in the cities.
The UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon and peace envoy Kofi Annan are convinced that rushing UN observers into Syria and getting them on the ground will stabilize the ceasefire. But most Syria watchers are skeptical. Assad is firm in the saddle.
As for the Istanbul talks, debkafile’s military sources report the conviction in the State Department that Iran is not coming to the table to resolve its nuclear dispute with the world, but rather as a toe in the water to gauge the strength of Obama’s resolve to terminate its nuclear program. Iran’s resolve is unquestioned. As Ahmadinejad put it, “Iran will not retreat one iota from its nuclear rights.”
Like Syria and North Korea, Iran is gambling on Obama dropping back in time to avoid real confrontation with the Tehran-Moscow-Beijing line-up.
debkafile’s military sources report that North Korea is playing on the same pitch. Despite the breakup of the Unha-3 carrier rocket, supposedly to boost a satellite into orbit, shortly after takeoff from Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Tongchang-ri Thursday, April 13, North Korea has established four facts:
1. It is very close to the capacity for building multistage intercontinental ballistic missiles and will keep on conducting tests until the technology is fully mastered:
2. Pyongyang is set for its third nuclear test;
3. It is well on the way to an ICBM with a nuclear warhead capable of reaching Washington and not just Tokyo;
4. As it forges ahead, North Korea displays extreme indifference to the threats of world powers, United Nations censure or even the cancellation of US food aid just announced.
Its rulers are bucked up by the information reaching them about the mood in Washington – not from Chinese intelligence but American mainstream media. They agree that President Obama aims to woo the American voter by sounding tough but staying clear of military confrontations with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Bashar Assad and Kim Jong-un.
This posture was summed up succinctly by Leslie H. Gelb in the Daily Beast: “Typically, Mr. Obama is reacting like almost all his predecessors in presidential-election years: he is trying to simultaneously show strength and avoid war. He is walking the familiar tightrope…”
Going into critical talks in Istanbul Saturday with a tough customer like Iran on a tightrope, the US president wobbles over dangerous waters, say DEBKAfle’s sources: A misjudgment could suddenly make him lose his balance; Iran, Syria or North Korea may push him off-balance; in his anxiety to avoid war, he may, as is often the case, cause one – maybe without American involvement but most certainly one that sets up high turbulence across the entire Middle East.