One of the most surprising discoveries made by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington, Tehran and the Gulf was this: Iran’s race for a nuclear bomb is not the main bone of contention between Iran and the United States, as generally assumed, although it is hugely important.
The crux of the dispute – which goes back years and was still being hammered out in the recent secret US-Iranian dialogue – is the Islamic Republic’s role in shaping Persian Gulf security and stability as the direct American military presence winds down.
American strategists concur that Tehran is aiming for the high goal of acceptance as the leading regional power – not just in the Gulf but the entire Middle East. But opinions differ on tactics for negotiating with the prickly Iranian rulers and their ultimate objectives.
One school in Washington holds that, if Iran gains the recognition it craves as a regional power its rulers will be less belligerent and more amenable to an accommodation on their nuclear program.
Another argues that Tehran with never relinquish its drive for a nuclear bomb because it is an essential appurtenance of big-power status and a ticket to the world’s most select group, the nuclear club.
Whether or not the Islamic Republic means to use the bomb to further its expansionist aspirations (shades of the ancient Persian Empire) is also subject to much debate among US decision-makers.
While consistently vowing to export Its Islamic revolution, Khomeinist Iran has so far leaned more toward imposing its will on its neighbors by the proxy method of sponsored Islamic terrorism rather than frontal aggression.
But there is no telling how a nuclear-armed Iran would behave.
Bush is not ready to grant Iran big power status
The argument over how to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran rising in the heart of the Middle East is therefore a function of the larger discussion of its status. At this time, the Bush administration is holding back from affirming Iran as a paramount regional power, preferring to lump it in with a Gulf collective that will promote regional security by consensus.
Once that is finalized, the Americans would hope for an accommodation on Iran’s nuclear aspirations within the framework of that consensus, rather than in direct bargaining between the US and Iran.
Both the US and Iran are anxious to avoid military confrontation.
The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm Mike Mullen said this week: “Opening up a third front (after Iraq and Afghanistan) right now would be extremely stressful for us. That doesn’t mean we don’t have capacity or reserve, but that would really be very challenging and also have consequences that are sometimes very difficult to predict.”
As for Iran, behind its military bluster most of its political and military elite are concerned to avoid a military clash, which everyone in Tehran admits would be suicidal.
The dialogue between Washington and Tehran is therefore pivoting on points of common interest. But, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iranian experts point out, this common ground does not promise the talks’ sustainability or happy end – especially when the two parties are sharply divided on the key question of Iran’s big-power status in the region.
The rulers of Tehran may conclude – which they have not done thus far – that without a nuclear weapon they cannot hope Washington will accept their supremacy.
It was therefore somewhat naive of Bush administration officials to look for the Geneva meeting between the six powers and Iran on July 19 to produce a dramatic breakthrough on the uranium enrichment question. The Iranians calculated that, while the administration may be eager for rapid progress, they can afford to wait out the five months left to Bush in the White House before making any commitments.
Tehran is betting on the next US president
They have found grist for their mill in the campaign rhetoric of both US presidential contenders, Senators Barack Obama and John McCain.
Both Obama’s pledge to withdraw US troops from Iraq within 16 moths and redeploy them against al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and McCain’s call for a US security surge in Afghanistan, fell alike on willing ears in Tehran.
The Islamic rulers welcomed the prospect of the American military onus being reassigned to Afghanistan, relegating Gulf security and oil routes to second or third place on the presidential agenda as of January 2009, for the following reasons:
1. Even a partial drawdown of the American military presence before a substitute is in place would force the region to submit to Iranian supremacy, even without Washington’s blessing.
2. One of the most steadfast objectives of Iran’s policy has always been the removal of the US military presence from the Persian Gulf. After joining the Bush administration in a series of ad-hoc understandings designed to help McCain win the race to the White House, Tehran has in the last week or two switched course in favor of Obama, because his pledge to pull the US army out of Iraq is more explicit than his rival’s.
3. The Islamic Republic’s progress towards big power standing in the Gulf will consolidate its strategic gains in other parts of the Middle East, such as Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, and extend its domination to that part of the region too.
4. The refocusing of American policy goals on the radical Sunni Muslim al Qaeda and Taliban, Shiite Iran’s sworn religious foes – espoused by both US presidential contenders – suits Tehran’s strategic aspirations in the Muslim world down to the ground. The ayatollahs look forward to a mutual war of attrition pursued by America and al Qaeda, while Iran keeps its powder dry.
Bush runs out of patience, veers towards military action
Iran was left alone to mull its options in peace until last week, when President George W. Bush, racing against the clock, ran out of patience with Tehran’s shifting maneuvers for promoting its long-term goals.
Suddenly, the military barometer switched to red and a new scenario began to unfold.
Sunday night, July 20, at 0200 hours Middle East time, Israel’s national radio started its hourly news bulletin with word from an “Israeli political-security official” that the nuclear talks between six world powers and Iran, which had broken up in Geneva a few hours earlier, far from promoting accord, had advanced the prospect of an American military operation against Iran’s nuclear installations.
The official was quoted as stressing that if Tehran failed to meet the two-week deadline laid down by the US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany for accepting a uranium enrichment freeze in return for US-European incentives, the US president would carry out his pledge to Middle East leaders not to leave the White House without resolving the Iranian nuclear dilemma. A military operation would accordingly be scheduled for the months between the November election and the January swearing-in of the next US president.
This news item was broadcast in seven consecutive night-time bulletins before it disappeared from the 0900 Monday morning broadcast.
It was never mentioned again – even in commentaries and newsreels.
Operation Brimstone launched
This bizarre event had two possible explanations, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources:
Either Israel was pressuring Washington to make a move after the disappointment of the Geneva meeting;
Or Washington was signaling Tehran through the Israel-sourced broadcast that its failure to reciprocate for the US gesture of sending under secretary of state William Burns to Geneva would not go unanswered. The military option had risen to the top of the agenda. Two could play the confrontation game.
The next day, Sunday, July 20, Adm. Mullen was on the air again, this time to reinforce the August 2 deadline.
He told Fox News “I fundamentally believe that they’re [Iranians] on a path to achieve nuclear weapons some time in the future. I think that’s a very destabilizing possibility… I will obviously watch what happens in the next two weeks to see if they come further or if they walk away.”
The admiral certainly took into account that the military step contemplated in Washington if the Geneva talks failed – a partial naval blockade for turning away supplies of benzene and other refined oil products bound for Iran – would elicit military action to break the blockade.
In 24 hours, a military clash between the US and Iran had hoved in sight.
Monday, July 21, the US, Britain and France embarked on a naval exercise dubbed Operation Brimstone in the Atlantic Ocean. It was scheduled to end July 31, two days before the expiry of the six-power ultimatum to Iran. The USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group and the USS Iwo Jima expeditionary strike group are taking part in the maneuver.
An American military spokesman made a point of mentioning that both flotillas would soon be heading for the Middle East.
Rice assigned to muster Gulf-Arab backing for partial blockade
That same day, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned Iran it faced punitive measures. She was on her way to Abu Dhabi for a meeting with the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council plus Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.
Tuesday, July 22, she told reporters: The meeting sent a “very strong message to the Iranians that they can’t go and stall… and that they have to make a decision… we will see what Iran does in two weeks.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Gulf sources learned from sources conversant with the meeting that the atmosphere there was solemn. The US Secretary warned the Arab officials gathered there to get ready to take part in the embargo of benzene and other refined fuels. If the UN did not endorse the operation, she said, the United States, Britain, France – and possibly other European nations too – would go ahead anyway as soon as October or earlier, if warranted.
She asked the participants to hold these fuel products back from Iran for the duration of military tension which could stretch to two months at least, until Iran comes to heel and consents to seriously discussing the six-power incentives offer to freeze sanctions in exchange for an Iranian enrichment suspension.
In her briefing to Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan of Abu Dhabi, which supplies most of Iran’s benzene, our sources report, Rice acknowledged that Iran had set up a network of smugglers and small craft in the oil principalities.
This fleet is also used to smuggle Iraqi oil to Iran.
The Secretary of State stated explicitly that Washington would not think twice about cracking down on the smuggling rings.