Iran did not need the unspecific US press reports last week that the Barack Obama administration planned to step up its Predator missile attacks on Taliban targets in and around the Baluchi capital of Quetta to grasp the true extent of US military involvement in Pakistan. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources, hundreds of Iranian agents are spread out across Baluchistan and the rest of Pakistan for the sole mission of monitoring US special forces and CIA operatives working under cover with the various Baluchi liberation movements.
More than 11 million Baluchi tribesmen call the Iranian Plateau their home, spanning the borders of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Their southern reaches are confined by the Arabian Sea.
Some 60 percent, concentrated in Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan Province, are campaigning for autonomy.
Another 2-3 million live under severe political and cultural oppression as a Sunni Muslim minority in Shiite Iran, clustered around Zahedan, the capital of Sistan-va-Baluchistan. In southwestern Afghanistan, 1 million Baluchis and their Hanafi school of jurisprudence are more in tune with the Sunni majority.
Tehran's agents confirm that the Americans are using Pakistani Baluchi territory to secrete sabotage squads into Iranian Baluchistan for attacks on government installations as well as spies to gather data on Iranian military and strategic targets. The Baluchis are paid in cash and military aid for their separatist movements.
Iran, for its part, runs large spy networks in the al Qaeda and Taliban bases in Baluchistan, finding them no less dangerous than the US interlopers.
Some Western intelligence sources claim that Iran's undercover agencies know more about the inner workings of Taliban and al Qaeda in Baluchistan that the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency with whom the Americans collaborate.
Iranians fear a four-front US clamp
The intensified US military involvement in Baluchistan is seen by Tehran and many others in the subcontinent as more than pressure on Taliban and Al Qaeda, but rather as a bid to gain political and military influence in this mineral-rich (mostly gas) region measuring 350 thousand sq. km. – in case Pakistan itself collapses into civil war and falls apart as a unified country.
Iran fears it would then be besieged by the U.S. military on four fronts: From the west by the American army in Iraq and the U.S. Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea fleets; from the north, by U.S. forces in western Afghanistan, where the Americans are constructing very large bases in the vicinity of Herat near the Iranian border, and from the south by the American military and intelligence presence in Baluchistan.
Tehran found its apprehension borne out by an order issued March 17 at the direction of US Central Command (CENTCOM) chief General David Petraeus conferring on US commander in Afghanistan Gen. David D. McKiernan authority over all special operations units stationed in the whole region, including Pakistan. For the Iranians, this order signified that Washington and the U.S. military now regard Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single front and were about to beef up and expand their military operations in Baluchistan, building up a direct menace to the Islamic Republic on its doorstep.
Iran wants assets unfrozen, sanctions lifted – not “words”
American actions in Baluchistan account partly for the strong dismissal by spiritual ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of the New Year's greeting recorded and broadcast by President Obama to the Iranian people on Thursday, March 19.
The ayatollah, refusing to acknowledge the gesture as signifying the new US president's desire to improve relations, rather picked on America's sins of omission in the eyes of Tehran.
“Have you (Obama) released Iranian assets?” demanded Khamenei (a reference to over seven billion dollars, confiscated by Washington in 1979, upon the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The US had pledged to return the money 29 years ago when the embassy hostage crisis was resolved and this was a broad hint that Washington is not honoring its own commitments to Iran).
He went on: “Have you lifted oppressive sanctions? Have you given up mudslinging and making accusations against the great Iranian nation and its officials?”
Khamenei asked his rhetorical questions in a speech in the northeastern city of Mashhad as the crowd chanted “Death to America.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources note that Khamenei might well have gone on to ask rhetorically: Has the US stopped subverting us in Khuzistan (the Arab-majority region, home to most of Iran's petrol reserves) in the southwest and Baluchistan in the south?
Accept our nuclear program if you want rapprochement
When he said that a change in America's words was not enough, Khamenei was in earnest. “We (Iran) will watch and we will judge (the new U.S. administration) … You change, our behavior will change,” he said. He meant that the Islamic Republic's leaders must be convinced that the change in Washington is real and solid before responding to Barack Obama's offer of dialogue.
Many US pundits interpreted his rebuff as a typical Iranian bargaining tactic.
This was not what Tehran intended, and the wide gap in perception symbolizes the gulf between the two nations' mindsets. Iran was not looking for an opportunity for dialogue with Washington, but rather seeking to have its concerns addressed over US actions.
This gulf was manifest in an address by Zbigniew Brzezinski to the U.S. Senate's Foreign Committee: “Iran loudly proclaims that it doesn't want or need nuclear weapons and that its religion actually forbids them.”
It doesn't matter whether those words are credible or not, said the former national security adviser to president Carter; those words offer the US an opening for negotiation.”
The difference here was that the American was ready to be won over by words; not so the Iranian who said “Words are not enough.”
Will President Obama's dramatic proposal, reported exclusively by DEBKA-Net-Weekly as the main feature of this issue, generate a shared interest in fighting terror instead of promoting it? Are Ayatollah Khamenei and Iran's leaders likely to accept this conversion and abandon their revolutionary Islamic ethos?
Our Iranian experts have one answer: Much depends on the degree to which the Obama administration is willing to resign itself to Iran's nuclear weapon aspirations and swallow the Brzezinsky proposition that the use of nuclear weapons is against the precepts of Islam.