“Talks could begin as soon as Iran suspends enrichment and reprocessing activities,” said US president George W. Bush in a keynote address to graduates of the US Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, Long Island, on June 19.
Three days later, standing in Vienna alongside the Austrian chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel and President of the EU Commission Jose Manuel Barroso
Bush again referred to these talks.
However a week earlier, on June 12, a couple of Middle East players joined the show, which had until then been run by the five big shots of the UN Security Council and Germany.
Saudi Arabian foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal arrived in Tehran on a visit. Before seeing anyone, he stepped forward and affirmed: “Iran is responsibly conducting nuclear activities and Saudi Arabia supports Iranians’ right to access peaceful nuclear technology.”
He dropped another spanner in the US president’s works by advising his Iranian hosts to take all the time they needed before responding to the big powers’ proposal. President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad may have taken this advice. In any event, he announced this week that Iran will not have its answer ready before mid-August. President Bush retorted that this was too long to wait.
The next Arab visitor to Tehran was the Omani foreign minister Yousif bin Alawi, a 320-year fixture on the job and the longest-running foreign minister in the Arab world. He owes his long tenure to the respect he enjoys among Gulf emirs and Saudi royals – and their intelligence services – as a top expert on Iran bar none.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Tehran and Gulf sources report that the two Arab foreign ministers’ mission in Tehran was to find out how far the Iranian-American secret bilateral dialogue – held presumably at some hideout in Switzerland – had progressed towards an accord and on which items.
(See DNW 257 of June 16 Americans and Iranians are Talking)
The Saudis asked Sultan Qaboos of Oman to let Yusif bin Alawi have a go after their own foreign minister failed to winkle any answers out of his Iranian hosts.
The Saudis most fear a US-Iranian deal on Caspian oil
Our Riyadh sources say that it is hard to say what worries the Saudis most: Iran’s ambition to attain a nuclear weapon somewhere down the road, or a Washington-Tehran deal for halting Iran’s military nuclear advance and paying for it with a new US-Iranian strategic partnership for the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea regions, where most of the world’s oil reserves are to be found.
The Saudis entertain a third possibility.
Never having trusted Tehran’s word on any issue, including matters of security, they do not rule out Iran cheating on a deal concluded with the Americans. They may suspend uranium enrichment and the military aspects of their nuclear program for a while, but then when they judge the moment opportune, they are capable of reverting to these forbidden activities.
At the same time, our experts believe the Saudis have come to terms with the worst-case scenario. They have decided in principle that if Iran goes forward with its nuclear weapons program, Riyadh will develop its own option, either by making its own or buying from outsiders. This leaves the Saudi royal rulers with the potential US-Iranian accord for the sharing out of Caspian Sea oil riches as their primary concern. They believe with most Gulf energy experts that if this transaction comes into being, it will pave the way to a short cut for rapid transfer of oil from Central Asia via Iran to the Persian Gulf and on to the Indian Ocean and the Far East.
The psychological element in the Saudi animus to such a deal must also be considered.
If American sinks tens of billions of dollars in prospecting for new Iranian oil fields and refurbishing its decrepit oil industry – as promised in the incentives package the big powers have offered Tehran – Iran will be able to raise its production and export level to 5 to 6 million barrels a day by 2018-2020. Even then, the Iranians will not threaten Saudi primacy as the world’s leading oil supplier. But the Saudis are also jealous of their standing as America’s closest regional ally and have always been loath to see any new favorite make the grade in Washington. The Saudis have been known to gum up the works to spoil the chances of a prospective rival.
Iraqi Kurds fear Washington will drop them for the sake of a nuclear deal with Iran
Saudi Arabia and Oman are not the only forces in the region which have got the jitters over the secret Washington-Tehran talks. The two Iraqi Kurdish leaders, President Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barzani, also look askance at the prospect of a rapprochement between America and the Islamic Republic.
Both Kurdish leaders confided to recent Western visitors to Kurdistan their fear lest their friendship with Washington be sacrificed to buy Iranian concessions on its nuclear program. They would not be surprised if this happened, they say, because however highly the Bush administration rates its Kurdish allies, nipping Iran’s nuclear ambitions in the bud before it threatens America’s regional interests clearly ranks far ahead of Kurdish interests on Washington’s scale of priorities.
Therefore, Talabani told his visitor, “The Kurds must make ready to defend their gains and their territory,” against an American-Iranian deal. His people, said the Iraqi president, may again find themselves squeezed and menaced from Iran in the east, the Turks in the north and the Syrians in the West.
The Iraqi Kurdish leader pointed to certain dangerous developments already underway::
1. Turkey has moved two armored divisions from positions just inside the frontier of Iraqi Kurdistan to points further south. According to Talabani, the Turkish divisions are now deployed between 20 and 30 km inside Kurdistan. He is quite sure that the Turkish troop movement is designed to forestall an American-Iranian deal and a probable understanding on the Kurdish question.
2. Talabani is also deeply disturbed by the Iranian-Syrian military cooperation treaty signed by the two defense ministers Mostafa Najjar and Hassan Turkman in Tehran Thursday, June 15.
(A full expose of this secret pact is to be found in a separate article in this issue.)
This treaty, taken in conjunction with a potential US-Iranian accord, could land Iraqi Kurdistan between the Iranian hammer on its forward lines in the east and the Syrian anvil in the West.