Even the most evasive Iranian diplomats found it hard not to betray gratification over the results thus far of their clandestine nuclear negotiations with the Obama administration.
When Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehman-Parast was asked at a Tehran press conference on Tuesday, May 1, what Iran would put before the Six Powers at their next meeting on May 23 in Baghdad, he declined to answer, referring questions to Said Jalili, senior negotiator and head of the National Security Council.
But before clamming up, he quoted Iran’s ambassador to Moscow, Mahmoud-Reza Sajjadi as conceding last week that Iran is taking a positive look at the Russian compromise “step by step” plan, which proposes that Iran match its nuclear concessions to the tempo at which the West revokes sanctions.
In Tehran as in Washington, there is high expectation that the Baghdad meeting may even occasion a breakthrough toward resolving the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran’s qui pro quo: Help in resolving Afghan and Iraq crises
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources, Tehran feels it has drawn ahead of the game thanks to the Obama administration coming around to their step-by-step formula suggested by Moscow, which is simply this: The more Washington eases up on its demands for Iran to forego its nuclear aspirations, the more help Tehran will render the Obama administration for solving its military, security and political predicaments in Iraq and Afghanistan and stemming terrorist threats from those countries.
More specifically, Tehran would help bring about quiet understandings between Washington and the Taliban -and even al Qaeda elements – as well as guaranteeing to oversee their implementation.
Our sources in Tehran find further confirmation for the exclusive reports appearing in debkafile on April 18, and DEBKA-Net-Weekly 537 April 20 (Iran Plays the American Game to Win, Obama's Proposals Are Primed to Pre-empt War – Not a Nuclear-Armed Iran).
We reported then: President Obama has decided to quietly give up on his demand that Iran "come clean" on its nuclear activities and open up to international inspection. As one Washington source put it, this is a gesture Tehran can hardly resist. It would … make it worth Iran's while to accept the US framework package in toto. Without International Atomic Energy Agency or any other oversight, Iran's nuclear weaponization would no longer be hampered from achieving its end within 36 months.
Tehran is satisfied, but wants more
Tehran concludes, our Iranian sources report, that for the sake of a helping hand in clearing away the obstacles to settling the Iraq and Afghan predicaments, the Obama administration will come to terms with Iran continuing 5-percent uranium enrichment and allowing IAEA inspectors "free" access only to "declared" nuclear sites.
Washington can be counted on buying this formula, the Iranians believe, because President Obama’s strategic advisers consider it a double win: It offers him a chance to tout his achievements to the American voter in resolving the intractable crises in Afghanistan and Iraq; and, moreover, oil prices would start falling once the West and Iran were seen closing in on a deal with Iran and ending oil sanctions.
But the Iranians, satisfied with their gains to date, are confident they can get more out of Washington, including approval for 20 percent enrichment of uranium, confining IAEA inspections to “official” nuclear sites, and the lifting of sanctions in three phases over a maximum of six months.
According to our Iranian sources, the talks Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki held in Tehran last week addressed two issues closely related to the evolving Iranian-US give-and-take:
Iran prepares to pull Al Qods terrorist networks out of Iraq
1. The Iraqi government must ease the exit of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) gangs from the country by removing all obstacles, in particular, the military and security checkpoints impeding their passage into Syria.
The Shiite Maliki had no objections to this request: He is in fact glad to be rid of the Al Qaeda elements terrorizing Baghdad and Shiite centers with multiple suicide bombings and attacks. Their departure furthermore removes a key domestic Sunni weapon for undermining his rule.
2. The Iraqi prime minister’s Iranian interlocutors trod carefully on the second issue: As part of their quid pro quo for the American side, Tehran must disband the terrorist networks it is running in the Shiite regions of Iraq.
At the same time, the paranoid Maliki must not be given cause to suspect Iran was ditching him, which he would if Al Qods began pulling its agents out of Iraq without prior warning or coordination with Baghdad.
The Iranians explained to their Iraqi visitor that the removal of their clandestine networks from his country would not weaken his regime but strengthen it, because it would herald Iranian-American cooperation for propping him up.
Since this article deals with Tehran’s perception of its back-door nuclear deal with Washington, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counterterrorism sources have no Iranian quotes on their readiness to sacrifice their senior Middle East ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, by placing his regime at the mercy of al Qaeda fighters exported from Iraq. However, this deal shows how far Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is ready to go to procure US recognition of Iran’s nuclear program. That program apparently comes out on top when weighed against the fate of the Syrian ruler.
The Baghdad meeting – a formality
For two weeks, Iran’s leaders have been deep in conferences on tactics for the Baghdad talks, including three private meetings between Khamenei and nuclear negotiator Jalili.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was not invited to any policy-making sessions.
After two years of boycotting the Expediency Discernment Council, headed by his bitter foe Hashemi Rafsanjani, he suddenly turned up for a discussion on Iran’s nuclear policy. Not only did he take part in the discussion, he smilingly shook Rafsanjani's hand.
Jalili was instructed by Khamenei to follow a simple strategy in Baghdad: give very little away while projecting an air of flexibility, goodwill and optimism. Major decisions must continue to be avoided – as they were in the first round of talks with the six world powers in Istanbul. The session must be directed to focus on procedural matters, modalities and a timetable for the next meeting.
The delegations participating in the talks will most likely go along with this since they are perfectly aware that the real decisions and bargaining are taking place directly between Washington and Tehran.
Tehran is keen on spinning the formal dialogue out – if possible, for more than a year – during which Iran will lend all its might to getting rid of sanctions in phased steps.
Khameini and Jalili considered exploring the option of “suspending” 20 percent enrichment in return for a pledge to lift all sanctions, the most painful of which disrupt Iran’s banking industry and insurance cover for its oil exports. The ayatollah finally vetoed this option.
Another forbidden facility moved to a secret site
Tehran was considerably bucked up to find Obama’s emissaries in sympathy with the Islamic regime’s reluctance to bow low under international pressure and give up their nuclear program, a source of national revolutionary pride on which tens of billions of dollars have been lavished.
Iran’s negotiators explained that by surrendering, their regime would lose face to the point of risking its survival. They would however be amenable to showing the world that they accepted close supervision and were not taking the path of North Korea.
The American demand that Iran sign the additional protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty granting nuclear watchdog inspectors the right to spot inspections without prior notice is not taken too seriously.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's US and Israeli military and intelligence sources see it as no more than a fig leaf to cover substantial concessions. In addition to the underground enrichment facility at Fordow near Qom, Iran is known to be running several more clandestine nuclear development sites to which international monitors can only dream of access, even if they discover their existence.
Iranian crews are frantically scrubbing the Parchin military base and suspected site of experiments on explosives in a Tehran suburb, after removing its contents to a secret site. All traces of forbidden weapons testing are being erased ready for international inspection.
Our sources report exclusively that the new site is secretly located in the vast wastes of the Dasht e-Kavir or the Great Salt Desert south of Tehran, which is 800 kilometers long, 320 kilometers broad and 77,600 square kilometers in area, covering one-third of Iranian territory.