How tightly the Shiite revolutionaries of Tehran are hugging their nuclear arsenal was brought home to the Bush administration at secret parleys between US and Iranian representatives in Athens from Sunday, May 11 to Tuesday, May 13.
The United States was represented by President George W. Bush’s personal envoy for Afghan and Iraqi affairs, Zalmay Khalilzad, and a group of officials from the Iran desks of the national security council and the CIA.
Mohsen Rezai, a former commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and current secretary of the hard-line Expediency Council, led the Iranian side. Rezai is close to former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, the most influential figure around Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. All three are Shiite radicals, but Rezai, like Rafsanjani, is in favor of strategic understandings with the United States on three conditions:
1. Washington must bolster Khamenei’s faction in the Iranian regime and Rezai’s clique in the Revolutionary Guards.
2. The United States and Iran will split control of oil and other natural resources in the Caspian Sea region.
3. America must accept Iran as a member of the nuclear club alongside India, Pakistan and Israel.
The US-Iranian meeting in Athens took place at a gathering dubbed euphemistically an academic symposium on the Iraq War’s impact on the region. In fact, the meeting discreetly brought together officials from most Middle East secret services, including Israel’s Mossad, under Washington’s aegis to explore which agencies were willing to work with the Americans and synchronize action among themselves in support of the Bush administration’s geo-strategic objectives in the region.
The American delegation countered Tehran’s demands with conditions of its own:
1. Iran must abandon its nuclear weapons program forthwith, dismantle production facilities, discontinue uranium enrichment processing and promise not to buy an atomic bomb or nuclear materials from North Korea.
2. Iran must reform its regime along democratic lines. DEBKA-Net-Weekly 109 ran an article last week headlined “To Please Washington, Ayatollahs Decentralize Regime”. Those reported concessions are not sufficient. Washington is seeking a reform program broader than the one on offer.
3. The US-Iran agreement banning Iranian subversive activities among Shiites in Iraq must be extended for the long term. Thus far, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report Iran has abided by its commitment in full.
4. Iran must cut off all ties with Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, also disarm the Hezbollah and remake the Lebanese terrorist-military organization as a political movement.
Washington opts for hard-liners
The inescapable conclusion from the four American demands is that Washington has opted for Khamenei’s hard-line faction as its strategic partner in Tehran rather the reformist party. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington, the crucial decision was prompted by the realization that the reformists, although the largest faction in the Majlis, stand no chance of removing the radicals and ruling in their stead. All their efforts to attain power are foredoomed to failure by the indecisiveness and ineptitude of their leader, President Mohammed Khatami. Although well into his second term in office, he has never become a force for change in Iran.
The Bush administration has also elected the radical Revolutionary Guards, the military arm of the Khomeinist regime, as the sole effective military force in Iran today, rather than the armed forces.
This combination suits US objectives in one important respect: Since Rafsanjani and Rezai both prefer cooperation with Washington to confrontation, regime reform in Tehran could become feasible in harmony with the current rulers without resorting to violent confrontation or ousters.
The Athens meeting registered some progress. Rezai was willing to accept all America’s conditions with one notable exception; Tehran insisted on retaining its nuclear weapons program as part of its strategic collaboration understanding with the United States.
The American delegates swiftly discovered the Iranian official losing no time in building up the pressure on Washington by agilely pursuing alternative avenues. In Athens, he spent more time huddling with Arab security chiefs than with the US delegates. To the Egyptian representative Rezai proposed a united Iranian-Egyptian front to defeat Washington’s plan for disposing of Mohammed ElBaradei as director of the International Atomic Energy Agency and replacing him with Jordan’s prince Hassan.
(The planned US move was reported exclusively in an article headlined “Payback Time” in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 107, May 2, 2003).
Tehran clings to nuclear option
The Americans soon realized that Teheran had already focused its campaign for acceptance of its nuclear weapon on the IAEA meeting called in Vienna for June 16 to discuss Iran. Washington is counting on the international agency finding Iran in violation of its commitments under the nuclear non-proliferation treaties it has signed. The issue can then come before the UN Security Council with possible sanctions against Teheran on the table.
However, the Iranians trust in their ability to mete out to the United States a diplomatic defeat at the IAEA comparable to the reverse Washington suffered at the Security Council before the Iraq War. If that happens, then Tehran believes the Americans will be forced to turn aside from their nuclear demands and engage instead in bilateral negotiations that leave Iran holding on to a nuclear bomb or at least a nuclear option.
To bend the Americans to their will, the Iranians will not scruple to wield the three weapons they believe they command: Al Qaeda’s presence in Iran, Iraq’s Shiites and the Hizballah.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources have found Al Qaeda rings operational in three Iranian locations – two in the province of Khorasan and one in Baluchistan near western Afghanistan.
In Khorasan, some 600 Al Qaeda men have taken up positions in a base in Tayebat, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the Afghan border, and in the suburbs of the city of Gonabad, about 140 kilometers (85 miles) from the frontier. Senior Al Qaeda personnel in Iran have moved into the town of Garmab, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Mashad, the provincial capital.
In Baluchistan, Al Qaeda personnel are operating in two bases near the cities of Zabul and Zahedan. All of three bases are directed by the Nasr command of the Iranian Revolutionary
Guards, the arm dedicated to exporting of Iran’s Islamic revolution.
The existence of those bases is known in Washington. They were discussed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly several times last year. In the spring of 2002, US special forces gathered in bases outside the Afghan city of Herat near the Iranian border were ordered to strike at the Al Qaeda bases and choke off continuous cross-border traffic, including lucrative drug smuggling. A deteriorating security situation at the time in other parts of Afghanistan – mainly in the capital, Kabul – along with the approaching war in Iraq caused some of the special forces contingents to be transferred to places where they were more urgently needed. The Al Qaeda bases in Iran were left intact and fully operational.