Well ahead of the public announcements, senior US and Iranian diplomats were already facing each other across a table in a small hotel outside Zurich, Switzerland, Sunday or Monday, March 19-20. President George W. Bush had lost no time in taking up the suggestion made by his ambassador to Baghdad, Salmay Khalilzad, to get talks with the Iranians on the Iraq issue up and running without delay, as soon as Iran’s supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave the nod.
But he directed the American team to stick to Iraq – and nothing but.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington and Tehran sources report the Swiss venue is provisional; the talks will relocate to Baghdad when an Iraqi government is in place. In the hotel’s reading room, four American officials are talking to an Iranian delegation of five. To preserve complete secrecy, the American embassy rented the entire hotel for two weeks with an option for a further period.
The makeup of the delegations resembles that of the teams which two years ago discreetly sought understandings and common denominators for Iraq in Swiss and Cypriot venues. Semi-retired CIA and National Security Council officials man the American delegation, giving Washington the freedom to repudiate the enterprise as a private initiative should things go awry.
Tehran is represented by members of the Supreme National Security Council appointed last week by its director Ali Larijani in consultation with Khamenei.
The agreed objective of the negotiations is a formula that will ensure Iraq stability from now up until the end of 2008.
Therefore, Bush’s assertion Tuesday, March 21, that “US forces will remain in Iraq for years and it will be up to a future president to decide when to bring them all home” was not off the cuff. The negotiators were already engaged in Switzerland. The US president was in fact laying down the objectives sought by Washington.
US wants a deal with Iran to hold up till 2008
1. American forces will stay in Iraq to secure the Iraqi government in Baghdad for the duration of the US-Iranian accord, even though substantial strength will be pulled back from extensive tracts of the country. He was stipulating, in other words, that any deal concluded with Iran must be valid until a new president took office in the White House.
2. The deal is strictly limited to Iraq to the exclusion of all other issues. There is nothing else on the table, including Iran’s controversial nuclear program and the spread of its tentacles and terrorist proxies across the Middle East in places like Syria and Lebanon.
The US president is hedging his bets over the Zurich talks with Iran.
If they go well and achieve a breakthrough, the administration can upgrade the event up from a noncommittal to a higher official level. Ambassador Khalilzad will then take over and lead formal talks with Iranian representatives invited to Baghdad.
If the talks go badly and the Iranians treat the American delegation in the same cavalier fashion as they do the European powers – the UK, France, Germany and Russia – in their nuclear negotiations, Bush will call it a day having lost nothing.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington and Tehran report that the Bush administration were not bowled over when the Iranians first angled for an opening to tie an Iraq understanding with the US to a broader deal.
At the outset of the Zurich talks, Tehran took the bargaining position that the extent of Iran’s military and intelligence presence in Iraq and its influence in the Iraqi Shiite community are such that it stands in no need of accommodations with the Americans. Tehran, in short, maintains its cards in Iraq are stronger than the deck held by the Americans.
Therefore, the Americans have nothing major to offer Tehran in exchange for concessions to meet their demands.
The American side aims at bargaining the Iranians down from this position, which they have adopted as a springboard for opening up other issues.
Our sources recall that, at their secret talks two years ago, Iranian negotiators put forward the same grand strategy as they are presenting today. They maintain that Iraq’s future must be determined – not just by Iran and the US but a bloc of five involved regional powers – Russia, India, Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan – as the only framework able to guarantee stability in Iraq and the Middle East at large.
Tehran does not include Israel or Saudi Arabia in this group.
This alliance would be competent to settle such strategic issues as the distribution of control over the region’s natural resources and determine, for instance, what oil pipelines should be laid and their ownership.
Tehran sees regional concord as key to halting terror
With this bloc in the decision-making saddle, says Tehran, regional funding would no longer be available for terrorism, because the component powers would cease wielding terrorist groups against each other. A broad concord, the Iranians promised, would also put an end to the religious and ideological strife which feeds the terrorist movements in the region.
Thus far, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, Tehran has not indicated what quid pro quo it expects for consenting to a deal on Iraq.
However, those sources note, Iran owns a strong interest in four primary issues aside from the nuclear controversy.
1. Having the Americans and British call off CIA and MI6 backing for minority uprisings and guerrilla operations against the Iranian government – the ethnic Arabs of oil-rich Khuzestan, the Kurds, the Azeris and the Baluchis.
2. Western credit lines or US cooperation for a large-scale modernization program of Iranian oil fields and industry. Their condition is ruinous for lack of financing and technology.
3. A deal on Caspian Sea oil.
4. The release of frozen Iranian assets in the United States, which have been blocked since the start of the Islamic revolution in 1979. The amounts run into tens of billions of dollars.
The US president’s injunction not to depart one whit from the Iraqi question has so far prevented the bargaining in Zurich from touching on these issues. The result has been slow progress – and an indirect Iranian initiative revealed in a separate article in this issue.