In less than three weeks, President Nicolas Sarkozy has made impressive, though controversial, inroads on some of the toughest issues troubling the Middle East: Lebanon and the case of the Bulgarian medics in Libya.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reveals that the envoys he appointed to work with Iran on the Lebanon problem, foreign minister Bernard Kouchner and ex-ambassador to Syria, Jean-Claude Cousseran, have brought home a multi-level formula ready to put before the White House in Washington for its consideration.
These are its high points:
1. Tehran has performed a policy somersault. Its rulers have agreed to drop their campaign to engineer an armed conflict in Lebanon. This is a major departure from the objectives of its premier ally, Syria, and not the only one.
2. In a second departure, the regime in Tehran has pulled Hizballah out of the opposition camp which has been marching to oust Fouad Siniora‘s pro-Western government and the anti-Syrian parliamentary bloc led by Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt.
Hizballah’s Hassan Nasrallah is now under orders to join the very government he has been fighting.
3. This government is to be remolded under the Iranian-French master plan into a Lebanese national unity government of 30 ministers. Hizballah and its allied factions will hold 13 portfolios, which endows them under the Lebanese constitution with veto power over government decisions.
4. Paris and Tehran are now discussing which issues Hizballah will be authorized to block and which must be allowed to go through to enable effective governance.
5. The same formula promises to disentangle the knotty issue of electing a president to succeed the pro-Syrian Emil Lahoud, whose tenure runs out in September, 2007. France and Iran have reportedly agreed, with Washington’s tacit approval, to nominate the Lebanese chief of staff, Gen. Michel Suleiman (a Maronite Christian) as his successor. Under the Lebanese constitution, the offices of chief of staff and president are reserved for the Christian community.
They also agreed to make the transition quick and seamless.
Assad rejects Tehran’s sweeteners
6. To smooth the path for these measures, Tehran undertook to clear them with Damascus, offering even to twist the arms of the Syrian ruler and Hizballah until they accepted as an accomplished fact the establishment of an international tribunal for prosecuting the assassins of the Lebanese politician Rafiq Hariri.
According to our sources, the French-Iranian deal gave UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon the impetus to move ahead on a venue for the court and secure facilities for witnesses and suspects.
Monday, July 23, Ban sent a letter to the Dutch prime minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, asking him to consider hosting the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. “The secretary general hopes that the government of the Netherlands will give serious consideration to the request,” he wrote.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East sources report that President Sarkozy advised the Bush administration that the deal his emissaries cut with Tehran is, in the opinion of French intelligence experts, the best possible option for Lebanon in the present circumstances, given their assessment that none of the three anti-Syrian leaders, Hariri, Siniora or Jumblatt, would survive an outbreak of armed hostilities.
To round off the deal with France, Tehran was faced with some fast explaining to the Syrian president to account for breaking away from its pledge of support against the establishment of an international court.
This mission was entrusted to Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during his visit to Damascus Thursday, July 19, at the head of a large group of top military brass.
In face-to-face conversation with Assad, the Iranian president offered to coat the bitter pill with two sweeteners:
One: Hizballah ministers would be told to veto the handover to the court of Lebanese suspects who collaborated with Syria in the Hariri murder. This would force the trial’s annulment for lack of evidence.
Our sources report the Syrian president did not buy this argument.
Two: Iran would do everything in its power to guarantee the survival of Assad’s regime. As a token of good faith, two elite Revolutionary Guards brigades would be deployed in Damascus. Prospective aggressors such as Israel would be given to understand that an attack on Syria was tantamount to an attack on the Islamic Republic.
Assad dismissed this proposal too, contending he did not need Iranian forces to defend his regime.
France oils Libyan machinery for releasing Bulgarian medics
The Syrian president is therefore holding out stubbornly against the French-Iranian initiative for Lebanon. By sticking to what he calls “his right to defend Syrian interests in Lebanon,” Assad is capable of blowing their Lebanon gambit out of the sky.
In comparison, Hizballah was a walkover. The Iranian president summoned Nasrallah to meet him in Damascus and put him and the Shiite group’s military leaders aboard the presidential flight to Tehran. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iranian sources report that as far as is known, they were still there on Monday July 23, receiving a detailed briefing on their roles in the unfolding Lebanese scenario.
The next episode in the French diplomatic episode was written in the Libyan capital, Tripoli. It linked tangentially with the Lebanon issue.
After Bashar Assad resisted all their blandishments, French diplomats sought to isolate Damascus in the Arab arena. One way was to halt Libyan funding for pro-Syrian Palestinian radical groups, such as Ahmed Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine- General Command. French intelligence came up with the information that the Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi‘s son, Seif al-Islam, is the chief contributor to this group. Three rounds of talks between the French diplomats and Qaddafi Junior yielded a circular transaction in three stages:
Stage One: Libya would cut off aid to the Palestinian terrorist groups operating in Lebanon on Damascus’ behalf, such as the PFLP-GC.
Stage Two: The five Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor held eight years in Libya on the charge of infecting more than four hundred Libyan children with HIV would be freed.
Stage Three: France and the European Union would pay into a Libyan foundation for helping these children the sum of one million dollars in compensation for every victim. This arrangement gave Seif al-Islam control of a fund running into more than $400 million. As a matter of course, France and EU officials deny paying ransom for the six medics whose release was broadcast live worldwide on July 22.
This opened the door for France to win important sales of military and nuclear desalination technology to Libya, transactions which Sarkozy signed the next day in Tripoli.
UNIFIL is caught between conflicting interests
This transaction has given France brilliant kudos in the European Union and the eastern countries in particular. The president’s wife Cecilia Sarkozy debuted on the international stage as the key to the dramatic rescue of six medical workers from a terrible ordeal. The presidential palace in Paris signaled that Mme Sarkozy would be an active First Lady.
While acting to undercut terrorist groups allied with Syria, France’s deal with Iran entails support for the legitimacy of another wing of the Middle East terrorist movement, Tehran’s super-violent Lebanese surrogate, Hizballah. French diplomacy is helping to elevate this group to the center of the Lebanese government.
The UN force in South Lebanon, which includes a large French contingent, will be taxed with an impossible conflict of interests. Mandated by the UN Security Council to distance Hizballah forces from the Israeli border and prevent its rearmament with smuggled hardware from Syria and Iran, UNIFIL is instructed by UN Security Council Resolution 1701 to cooperate with the Lebanese government and army.
This government will soon have a veto-wielding Hizballah component in a position to hand out orders to the UN peacekeepers, which means they have no way of keeping faith with their commitment to the world body.
Sarkozy’s path with Iran is littered with four recent failures
Sarkozy’s first steps in the Middle East look promising. Their sheer speed has taken regional players aback. But he has no more guarantee of success in this minefield than any of the diplomatic innovators who went before him. Syria’s President Assad is unlikely to sit still for being upstaged and separated from his only ally, Iran, by a European power. The new boy on the block may provoke resentment in regional capitals and disruption by terrorists lurking around every corner.
Tehran too may change course and decide not to follow through on its partnership wit Paris. The Bush administration may decide to reject the neatly-tied Lebanon package as long as Iran and Hizballah are blowing up Americans in Iraq and subverting US interests in many other places.
Angela Merkel, soon after her election as German Chancellor, tried her hand with Iran. She appointed German’s leading expert on Iranian and Shiite affairs, Ernst Uhrlau, chief of German intelligence-BND to promote relations with Tehran. She paid several visits to Beirut in the hope of fostering a Lebanese political and military establishment capable of standing up to Iran and Syria with the backing of German military and naval forces serving in UNIFIL. This plan soon petered out.
An attempt by Britain’s Tony Blair to open the same door was soon blocked by Iran, for historical reasons and because of the British role in Iraq. The Iranian navy’s capture of 15 British Marines in March 2007 hoisted a keep out sign for Britain.
Italian prime minister Roman Prodi was quickly tripped up before getting very far. And, the Saudi venture, mentioned earlier, lasted no more than three months.
Sarkozy therefore treads ground well littered with the recent failures of four of his peers. They are all watching and waiting to see if he too falls flat on his face, while Washington is also standing back to see how he fares.