A uniformly surly front greeted the two high-ranking US delegations, who dropped in on Middle East and Persian Gulf capitals in the past week to allay rising fears with regard to US president Barack Obama's policy of diplomatic engagement with Iran and its allies.
The first was led by Dennis Ross, special adviser to the US secretary of state for South Asia and Gulf affairs; he was followed by US defense secretary Robert Gates.
While working hard to set Middle East rulers' minds at rest, both US officials were treated to an exceptionally harsh message from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and all six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) emirates warning President Barack Obama that they would not put up with any bilateral diplomatic or military deals cut with Tehran without their approval.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources report that the harshness of the language was as exceptional as the degree of unity among its users.
Even the Qatari ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifah al-Thani, who hitherto stood out as Tehran's friend in the Gulf, joined in.
Our Gulf sources disclose the content of the warning addressed by this formidable bloc of Arab rulers to President Barack Obama:
– Forget about deals with Tehran behind our backs and against our wishes. Our consent must first be obtained.
– The Middle East and Gulf are first and foremost a cohesive Arab continuum with no room for an overpowering Iranian presence or influence.
– No US accommodation with Iran or any other party is acceptable if it leaves Tehran in possession of nuclear weapons.
– The Obama administration must understand that the Mideast and Gulf states will resist any arrangement that leaves Iran free to persevere in its expansionist and subversive drives against Arab nations.
Candor gains over diplomacy
Our sources report that this message was approved unanimously on Wednesday, May 6, by a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh.
The summit was formally convened to approve the group's first regional central bank as a gateway to greater economic integration. But most of its deliberations behind closed doors were devoted to Saudi King Abdullah's presentation of the above message as a GCC resolution, before he handed it to Gates who flew in from Cairo to Riyadh that same night.
In a separate briefing to Arab correspondents Abdulrahman bin Hamad Al Attiyah, the GCC's secretary general, relayed the substance of its non-economic resolutions:
Council members voiced the hope that US-Iranian diplomatic engagement would not come at the expense of Gulf states. Furthermore, Gulf rulers would not consent to the presence of nuclear weapons anywhere in the region that were not covered by the oversight of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.
President Obama was thus advised that the nuclear demilitarization of the Middle East region as a whole, including Israel, was the GCC's preferred solution for Iran's nuclear weapons challenge.
(Obama's attitude on Israel's nuclear assets is covered in a separate article in this issue.)
The administration should not have been surprised by the antagonism shown by the rulers of the Arabian Gulf.
Exactly a week earlier, on April 30, Dennis Ross, accompanied by the deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, Lt. Gen. John R. Allen, and National Security Council official Puneet Talwar, found grim faces when he landed in Riyadh to meet Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal.
The prince did not mince his words. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Gulf sources, he accused Washington of handing the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Lebanon to Iran and Syria on a silver platter.
The Saudi government would not stand by and watch its Middle East and Gulf status melting away, he said, but would fight back tooth and nail – not directly against the US, its ally, but against US-Iranian steps in the different Middle East arenas. It has been a long time since Americans heard talk this tough from Riyadh.
Ross warns of irreparable damage to US-Arab ties
But more was to come. The Ross delegation heard the same tune as it wended its way from Bahrain through Oman to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Gulf foreign ministers had only cynical distrust and skepticism for the delegation's contention that the Gulf too could expect to benefit from US engagement of Iran. Last weekend, Ross reported back to Washington that the foreign ministers he met were not authorized to handle high-powered topics such as Iran and its nuclear issues. His advice was to raise the level of exchanges with Gulf governments before US relations in that region suffered irreparable damage.
The envoy also warned his principals that the Saudis planned to exploit the Gulf Cooperation summit of May 6 in Riyadh to denounce the Obama administration's intended dialogue with Iran.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources report that the Ross report was put before President Obama Friday, May 1. After consulting with defense secretary Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he decided to consign Gates to the Middle East forthwith; he would set out Sunday, May 3.
Appointments were rushed through with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Saudi King Abdullah, whom Ross had tagged as the spearheads of regional opposition to American-Iranian talks.
It so happened, therefore, that two US delegations were present in Cairo at the same time, both shooting the same line and finding it falling on deaf ears. In fact, from one interview to the next, Arab hostility gained instead of being allayed by their efforts.
No cracks in Egyptian, Saudi resistance
On Monday, May 4, the Ross delegation called on Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Abu al-Gheit. Their conversation produced a statement from Abu al-Gheit expressing hope for American success in changing Iran's behavior in the Middle East. He called Iran's attitude negative in the extreme and “unhelpful for security, stability and peace in the region.”
A polished diplomat, the Egyptian foreign minister found smooth words to voice his lack of faith in the outcome of President Obama's policy of engagement with Tehran.
The next day, Tuesday May 5, Gates was received by President Mubarak.
After this interview, the American held the stage. The defense secretary referred the correspondents in his party to “some exaggerated concerns, some notion here in the region that there might some grand bargain between the United States and Iran that would suddenly be sprung on them.”
Such concerns, Gates said, were “completely unrealistic.”
He promised Washington would keep its allies posted on the US bid to enter into dialogue with Iran for the first time after three decades with an assurance that no deal would be hatched in secret.
“We will keep our friends informed about what is going so that nobody gets surprised,” he said before leaving for Riyadh, where he was nonetheless met by a furious king when he arrived Wednesday night, May 6.
Abdullah pointed to another US mission, this one to Damascus the following day, as a betrayal of that assurance.
He was referring to Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and White House Middle East envoy Daniel Shapiro whose arrival in the Syrian capital on Thursday May 7 was taken in Riyadh as blatantly signifying that the Obama administration had no intention of taking Saudi and Egyptian opposition into account in its dealings with Syria and Iran.
Thursday night, debkafile revealed exclusively that a third US delegation had been sent to circulate the Gulf – this one in secret. Its mission was to persuade Gulf rulers to draw on their oil fortunes and stake substantial funds for the US and global economic recovery.
(Read more in HOT POINTS at the bottom of this issue)
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad turned up in Damascus Tuesday, two days before the Americans envoys, Feltman and Shapiro.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources report that his urgent trip to Damascus was staged to cover up certain embarrassments.
1. Hours before Ahmadinejad was scheduled to land in Brasilia for a triumphal visit to sign contracts for the purchase of Brazilian uranium, President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva suddenly developed cold feet about treading in Hugo Chavez's virulent anti-US footsteps. He cancelled the invitation without warning.
Since Tehran could not afford to lose face, no explanation was offered for the cancelled trip.
2. Iran decided to show the flag in Damascus in a bid to pull Bashar Assad back from flirting with the Arab front, an effort in which Washington failed.