The state of the secret dialogue ongoing between Washington and Tehran since early December emerges from the following remarks:
US Iraq commander General David Petraeus on Jan. 12: Insurgent attacks against American forces in Iraq using Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFP) supplied by Tehran have risen “by a factor of two or three” in January.
Whereupon on Jan. 14, Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki said: “It seems that the Iraqi people are experiencing better conditions since last summer. Iraq-related issues are so delicate and sensitive that Tehran-Washington talks in this regard should be taken seriously requiring the US obligation to its outcomes.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources learn from this grumpy exchange that the top-secret US-Iranian dialogue brokered by Saudi Arabia is still bumpy. Both sides sense that the other is not fully meeting the obligations undertaken in the framework of understanding achieved last December (and first revealed in DEBKA-Net-Weekly Issues 328-332 from Dec. 7, 2007 to Jan. 11, 2008).
Petraeus and Mottaki appear to have been given their respective orders in advance of President George W. Bush‘s talks in Riyadh with Saudi King Abdullah Tuesday, Jan. 15: The general was to air a grievance about a fresh infusion of Iranian EFP supplies to Iraqi insurgents after several weeks of suspended shipments; Mottaki was told to answer back that Washington was not holding up its end of their deal and therefore the general had better not complain.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Gulf sources report that, notwithstanding the acid exchanges – or even the near-clash between Iranian speedboats and US warships in the Strait of Hormuz on Jan. 6 and Bush’s condemnation of Iran as the world’s number one sponsor of terror from Abu Dhabi – the US president and Saudi King are determined to stick to their course of secret diplomacy with Tehran.
They are even resolved to try and take it further to cover the most sensitive and incendiary issue of all, Iran’s covert military nuclear program.
Gulf rulers were not fooled
But meanwhile, circles in the Gulf have got wind of the hush-hush track and drawn their own conclusions. On Jan. 11, when Bush was heading for Kuwait after talking to Israeli and Palestinian leaders, unidentified sources in the Gulf, claiming to be Russian, Swiss and Arab, “discovered” that US defense secretary Robert Gates and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had signed a non-aggression pact.
They were said to have met for this purpose on Dec. 3, just hours before the Pentagon and the CIA released the highly controversial US National Intelligence Estimate affirming the suspension of Iran’s military program in 2003.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly has no information about such a meeting. Neither can our sources in Tehran or the Gulf confirm that a non-aggression pact was actually signed between Washington and Tehran.
But the motivation for pumping out this rumor appears to be an indirect message from Gulf rulers that they are not fooled by public US condemnations of Iran.
Employing hyperbole and misdirection to cover their tracks, ruling elements in the Gulf got the word out before Bush landed that they are onto the top-secret, high-level exchanges between America and Iran. And they had moreover tumbled to Ahmadinejad’s personal involvement in the secret track and the understandings reached – whether directly or through his representatives at the meetings with high-level US officials.
Those sources were telling Bush and the rest of his party, Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley, not to bother trying to explain the NIE because the reason for its release was transparent: US-Iranian understandings were in the bag, or nearly there.
Picking up the message, the US president made hardly any reference to the intelligence estimate in his Gulf talks, although in Israel he labored the point that the NIE did not mean Iran was no longer a threat.
Israel had its own way of indicating it was onto the American game.
Stigmatizing “ultra-extremists” out in Tehran
A few hours before Bush arrived in Jerusalem on Jan. 9, the former Israeli Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen (Res.) Aharon Zeevi, presented a position paper entitled: An Israeli Perspective on the US National Intelligence Estimate, which represented the real thinking in Israel’s policy-making, military and intelligence levels.
This was the key paragraph:
The NIE has clearly weakened international support for tougher sanctions against Iran, and it closes off any military option for the Bush administration. The NIE has sent a signal to Tehran that the danger of external sanctions has ended. Furthermore, the NIE has weakened Turkey and the moderate Sunni countries in the region that were seeking to build a coalition against Iran. So, ironically, the NIE opens the way for Iran to achieve its military nuclear ambitions without any interference.
Unlike the Gulf sources, the Israeli intelligence whiz did not try to explain American reasoning for generating this state of affairs.
Shortly after Bush's comments in Israel, another facet of the evolving US-Iranian relationship came to light; the US Treasury Department clamped new economic sanctions on a top Iranian general and three exiled Iraqis based in Iran and Syria for fomenting violence in Iraq.
The top Iranian general was Brig. Gen. Ahmed Foruzandeh, who is in charge of the al Qods Force’s operations in Iraq. Al Qods is the Iranian Revolutionary Guards elite arm for directing terrorist operations in foreign countries. He was described in the sanctions order as responsible for initiating a long list of violent and destructive acts, such as assassinations of Iraqis, provoking sectarian violence by targeting Shiite and Sunnis and financing both their operations against US forces in Iraq.
Gen Foruzandeh was also accused of driving explosives and other war materiel into Iraq for use in suicide bombings.
Stuart A. Levey, US undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, commented: “Iran and Syria are fueling violence and destruction in Iraq.”
Nuclear watchdog chief roped in to test Iran’s intentions
It was noted in the region and Israel too that the new sanctions order specifically targeted the IRGC al Qods officer managing Tehran’s destabilizing activities in Iraq – not his boss, the al Qods supreme commander, Gen. Qasem Suleimani, who is one of Ahmadinejad’s most loyal adherents. The blame for violating US-Iranian understandings in Iraq, which Gen. Petraeus hinted at, devolved on a subordinate of Suleimani.
Our Gulf sources were therefore not surprised to hear an intelligence estimate from Washington this week that the incident between Iranian speedboats and US Navy warships in the Strait of Hormuz was engineered by “extreme elements” of the Revolutionary Guards bent on compromising the Iranian president.
The Revolutionary Guards as such and even Ahmadinejad were surprisingly not counted in the “extreme elements” definition. This was another indication, albeit by default – that the president and his following were secret parties to the accord developing between the US and Iran.
Iran’s leaders also stepped out of character.
Instead of snapping back, supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the powerful ex-president Hashem Rafsanjani – and even the vocal Ahmadinejad himself, were strangely silent over Bush’s rounds of the Middle East “to contain Iranian influence” – even when, in Israel he called Iran a threat and, in Abu Dhabi, the world’s Number 1 sponsor of terror.
And in an effort to squeeze the nuclear controversy into the nascent US-Iranian package, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Vienna report that the nuclear watchdog agency’s director, Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei was roped in.
He arrived in Tehran the day before the Bush-Abdullah talks in Riyadh with tough questions about concealed facets of its nuclear arms program, uranium enrichment and plutonium production for military use.
Tehran is upbeat, Washington still wary
Nevertheless, the IAEA director found a welcome mat in Tehran.
According to our intelligence sources in the Gulf, the trip was initiated by Bush and Abdullah to test how far Tehran was willing to go beyond the first phase of their understandings, which was limited to the cessation of Tehran’s meddling in the Iraq and Afghan conflicts.
Iran and its nuclear activities were therefore high on the Bush-Abdullah agenda alongside oil prices.
Our sources report the impression gained by the Saudis that Bush and his top aides were encouraged by ElBaradei’s upbeat report on its talks in Tehran and the prospects of moving forward, even on the hyper-sensitive enrichment process. They therefore believe that the US president may now be ready to consider opening overt high-level talks with Iran on the nuclear issue, with the Saudis or another GCC representative sitting in.
Iranian officials sounded uncharacteristically optimistic too.
Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Ali Bagheri told reporters after the visit of the UN watchdog director that the international crisis over his government’s nuclear activities would soon be resolved “once and for all.”
He also cited the US Intelligence Estimate which concluded that Tehran had shelved its nuclear weapons program in 2003 as further evidence that a solution was in sight.
US and Saudi strategists are not as optimistic as Ali Bagheri. Plenty of obstacles face the talks on the road ahead. Most of all, they point to the “extremists,” the most wild-eyed elements of the Iranian establishment – the likes of the al Qods Iraq chief, Gen. Forunzandeh and the hard-core ayatollahs, who will do everything they can to disrupt any process of reconciliation with Washington.
But for the moment, all three, the Americans, Saudis and Iranians, are satisfied that they can see a way forward.