The budding entente between Washington and Tehran, which sprang from the understandings they reached with Moscow on Syria, sounded pretty cordiale this week.
On Sept. 10, Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani greeted the new UN General Assembly session opening in New York on Sept. 23 as “the perfect setting to reignite talks about Iran’s nuclear program.”
Washington reciprocated promptly by lifting a string of sanctions which had restricted humanitarian and athletic exchanges between US and Iranian NGOs and environmental projects.
By this good-will rejoinder, President Barack Obama kicked off his effort to translate the progress made with Moscow in relieving Syria of its chemical weapons into a big step toward a nuclear accommodation with Iran.
But the Iranian president also took two actions which showed his motives in quite a different light.
First, he declared that his country would not give up “one iota of its nuclear capabilities” and, second, he appointed a staunch hardliner, former defense minister Rear Adm. Ali Shamkhani, as Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.
Shamkhani, 58, commander of the Revolutionary Guards Navy before he took over as defense minister from 1997 to 2005, is a trusted military adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Another hardliner joins Rouhani’s cabinet
As head of the SNSC, it is Shamkhani’s job to keep national defense and security policies to the guidelines laid down by the supreme leader. In this capacity, he also dictates the tactics and endgame for Iran’s nuclear negotiations with world powers.
The rear admiral is a military man to the core whose loyalty to Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards knows no bounds. This appears to have made him an unlikely choice for Rouhani.
DEBKA Weekly’s Iranian experts say that, although the president said the new foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif would lead the forthcoming negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, it now turns out that he will be no more than a genial puppet, whose strings are pulled behind the scenes by the rigid ex-Revolutionary Guards officer.
The identities of the key go-betweens for the secret interchanges between Washington and Moscow are equally instructive, say DEBKA Weekly’s Iranian sources.
One was the Sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said Al-Saidis, who carried messages from President Obama to Ayatollah Khamenei and Hassan Rouhani – and back from Tehran to Washington.
The secret postman for Tehran’s messages to and from Moscow and Damascus is Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs.
This official has spent all his time in Damascus ever since the chemical outrage of Aug. 21 and he talks to Bashar Assad several times a day.
Tehran dogs US-Russian steps on Syria
He also accompanied Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem when he traveled to Moscow on Sept. 8 for an update from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the deal for Syria struck between the Kremlin and the White House in Washington.
Abdollahian was kept abreast of every twist and turn in these exchanges. He reported back to Tehran and was able to inform the Russian and Syrian ministers which points met with Iran’s approval and on which the leader demurred.
Against President Obama’s consent to ditch the Syrian rebel movement and rescue the Assad regime, Tehran agreed to let Syria’s chemical and biological arsenals go by the board to buy American flexibility on the Iranian nuclear program.
This quid pro quo was integrated in the understandings they reached.
By the third week of September, when the Iranian president arrives in New York to attend the UN General Assembly, the US president will have to decide whether to go through with this transaction or not, depending on the implementation of his deal with Russia’s Vladimir Putin for the dismantling of Assad’s chemical program.
If that goes forward satisfactorily, Washington and Tehran will move on to the next stage of the trilateral US-Iranian-Russian understandings, and give Iran its easiest ride ever on its nuclear program.
But if not, Obama will have to decide whether to back out of those understandings and start afresh.
For now, he is moving along the track marked out for him by Putin and Ali Khamenei.