Tehran Turns the (Ultimatum) Tables on Washington

The Iranians have wriggled out of another Western ultimatum for a “reasonable answer” to its last offer of incentives for suspending uranium enrichment.

Instead of meeting the August 2 deadline for a reply, Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Thursday, July 30: “The language of deadline-setting is not understandable to us. We gave them our response within a month as we said we would; now they have to reply to us.”

This casts over the latest attempt at diplomatic engagement with Tehran more of the murkiness described in last week’s DEBKA-Net-Weekly (An Iranian Fog Descends on Washington). That was the situation after a high US official joined the European Union, France, the UK, Russia, China and Germany in a meeting with the Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalilee in Geneva on July 19.

But the supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei‘s words on Wednesday, July 29, were clear enough.

He said in a televised sermon: “Taking one step back against arrogant [powers] will lead them to take one step forward.” And “The idea that any retreat or backing down from righteous positions would change the policies of arrogant world powers is completely wrong and baseless.”

Our Iranian sources take this to mean that the supreme ruler has come down on the side of the regime’s naysayers in the internal debate over whether to continue to aim for middle ground in the formal and secret nuclear negotiations with Washington, or tough it out.

The second school is willing to gamble on the assumption that President George W. Bush and his administration are in such dire need of some breakthrough on the burning issues of oil pricing, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that they will ease up on pressure for Iran’s nuclear compliance and shunt the issue aside for the next White House tenant to resolve.


Is Iran leading the Bush administration by the nose?


Our Washington sources report that Bush and his advisers decided not to lose too much sleep over Khamenei’s negative message, because such histrionics were par for the course. They felt the rulers of the Islamic Republic needed to show a strong front to their own public before doing a deal with Washington from a position of strength. Therefore, the ultimatum laid down ten days ago will be met either with an Iranian demand for more time, or a further display of antagonism. But in the final reckoning, the Americans believe, the secret dialogue still running this week, will yield an understanding on the nuclear issue before the November 4 presidential election.

Many of DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East and Washington sources are convinced that the Bush administration is being led by the nose. They see the Iranians working to turn the tables against the United States. Instead of being cowed by the threat of more sanctions, they believe the clerical regime is wielding this very threat as a two-edged sword to break up the American-led front ranged against its nuclear aspirations.

This view is supported by the following factors:

1. Repeated warnings from key US officials, such as defense secretary Robert Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, that a war with Iran would be disastrous for the United States and the entire Middle East and Gulf region, are taken in Tehran to mean that Washington is shrinking back from the military option and clinging to a diplomatic resolution. The prospect of an American attack has faded far enough for them to ignore.

Ayatollah Khamenei’s assertion indicates that he has bought into the definition of the Revolutionary Guards, the radical clerical establishment and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that America is a paper tiger. Iran can therefore go forward with its nuclear plans without fear of military repercussions.

2. Iranian diplomats were much encouraged by the responses they met on their quiet rounds in Moscow, Beijing and Gulf capitals on the subject of harsh UN Security Council penalties for their defiance. Russia and China promised to block such resolutions, including one imposing a partial blockade on Iranian ports and a ban on sales of benzene and other refined oil products. (A joint US-UK-French naval maneuver in the Atlantic Ocean, ending July 31, practiced this maneuver.)

Gulf rulers assured the Iranian emissaries that, without a UN resolution, they would not cooperate with a unilateral American blockade.


Tehran sees its tough stance checks the military threat


3. Tehran was further encouraged to believe it could get away with mocking the six-power incentives package by the cold shoulder the Bush administration administered to a possible Israeli go-it-alone attack on Iran’s nuclear installations. Iran did not miss the procession of Israeli ministers and military chiefs traveling to Washington in the last ten days. They all came away empty-handed having failed to change administration officials’ minds.

President Bush did not bother to reply to Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert‘s note of complaint about the way his administration had ditched Israel on the peril from Iran without forewarning.

When Jerusalem warned that Iran would have the elements of a nuclear weapon ready for assembly by the end of 2009 or early 2010, US officials issued a contradictory statement.

And when an Israeli defense official sounded another alarm that Russia would deliver S-300 anti-air missiles to Iran by September, Washington came through and saved Moscow and Tehran the bother of a denial.

Last week, Israel’s defense minister Ehud Barak failed to break through the Bush administration’s impassive wall with his bitter recriminations to Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates.

Washington’s abrupt turnabout on Iran, he said, had left Israel in the lurch against grave strategic dangers. But all the Americans were willing to part with were devices to help Israel defend itself against Iran.

1. One is the transportable, forward-based FBX-T radar system built by Raytheon Co. which, by providing early and accurate target-tracing and signature data, enlarges the effective battle space of missile interceptors.

US officials say it can track an object the size of a baseball from about 4,700 km, and be launched from air, sea or land. It would allow the Israeli Arrow anti-missile system to engage an incoming Iranian Shehab-3 ballistic missile about halfway through its estimated 11-minute flight.


US aid to Israel – too little and too late


2. Increased access to its Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites for spotting missile launches, an arrangement approved in the Gulf War of 1991, when Saddam Hussein fired missiles at Israel and the Gulf. Access has hitherto been provided only as per request.

(More about this in HOT POINTS.)

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report that, even if Washington processed these items quickly for export, the earliest delivery date would be October or early November.

Israel would then need months to train crews to operate them and have the weapons integrated in its own Arrow anti-missile system. The radar systems would therefore not be ready for service before the January date of Bush’s handover to his successor.

Iran’s Islamic rulers were pleasantly surprised by the obstacles Washington planted in the path of a potential Israeli military strike on their nuclear facilities. They concluded that their nuclear intransigence had not only worked, but earned them the extra bonus of a cooling in the US-Israeli strategic-military alliance. So, they decided, why not keep up the stubborn front against Washington and so squeeze more concessions out of the Bush administration and have the Americans double the pressure on Israel to refrain from attacking Iran?

4. Finally, whatever the outcome of the big power ultimatum, Tehran will have the last word on the nuclear dispute with the West. Very simply, even if a deal is struck with the Bush administration to suspend its forbidden nuclear projects, this is not the end of the road. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that Iran is running two parallel nuclear programs, one open and one covert. Any deal with the West would apply only to overt projects like the enrichment factory in Natanz, while the secret installations would continue rolling unhindered and unmonitored.

Since there is a certain amount of overlap between the two, the secret program might be slowed somewhat. But that is a price well worth paying by Tehran for the easing of international pressure and sanctions and the economic and technological rewards offered in Geneva, including advanced nuclear know-how.

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