US and Iranian Representatives Will Talk Amid Military Brinkmanship

The announcement by US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice of Tuesday, Feb. 27 supporting invitations for Iran and Syria to a “neighbors meeting” in Baghdad on March 10, represented Washington’s go signal for the Saudi game plan to get the US and Iran to the negotiating table.

She said: “We hope that all governments seize this opportunity to improve their relations with Iraq and to work for peace and stability in the region.”

(The Saudi initiative was first revealed in DNW Issue 290 on Feb. 23: US and Saudi Arabia team up against Iran: Rice Chairs a Pivotal US-Arab Intelligence Summit in Amman).

Suddenly, Thursday, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced an unprecedented visit to Riyadh “to discuss regional affairs” this Saturday, March 2.

The United States will be very much present in Baghdad, albeit as one of the five invited UN Security Council members. Riyadh made it clear that all its groundwork for building a diplomatic edifice (see separate articles in this issue) would go for nothing without the Baghdad conference taking it to the next level. That conference in nine days time therefore launches the Saudi-brokered US-Iranian negotiating track.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that US President George W. Bush was persuaded to reverse his flat refusal to engage Iran and Syria on Iraq by the Saudi proposal to act as middleman and bargaining buffer.

The final plan was presented to Rice by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, national security adviser, and Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, head of the General Intelligence Presidency, in Amman on Feb. 19, the day before the US-Arab intelligence summit. It has nothing to do with last year’s recommendations from the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Team, which the Bush administration rejected.


Multiparty talks modeled on successful North Korean mechanism


The negotiating mechanism which appeals to the White House is the six-party framework in Beijing which persuaded North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons. This time, Saudi Arabia is taking on China’s role as facilitator.

Bilateral US-Iranian meetings will be left to the latter stages of the mediated process – as in the case of North Korea.

The Saudi plan calls for a high-degree of US muscle-flexing, military, economic and subversive, to hard ball Iran into turning away from its nuclear aspirations and accepting a modus vivendi in Iraq. A nerve-wracking process is therefore in store of intense bargaining amid diplomatic and military brinkmanship that will keep the Middle East constantly on edge with volatile war tension.

The Iranians are past masters of the bazaar game and will twist and turn on one issue after another to raise the price for the slightest concessions on the road to an accommodation. This is where the Saudis, no slouches in the arts of haggling, come in.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report they have let Washington know that the Iranians will take the process to extremes. But they too have a red line: They will shrink back from action that leads to their total isolation by the Sunni Arab world as a Shiite power in the Middle East.

This chink in Iran’s armor the Saudis advise Washington to exploit.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly sums up the six American military and clandestine steps underway -or approaching execution – which must keep step with the Saudi mediation effort and the forthcoming direct encounter in Baghdad.

Additional articles in this issue will survey the preparatory ground dug over by the Saudi go-betweens and the joint US-Saudi strategies drawn up for Iran, Syria and Lebanon. Events in these five places in the coming weeks – together with Iraq – will predetermine Saudi chances of fast-talking Tehran into coming to terms with Washington on the interlinked issues of its nuclear program and its role in bringing stability to Iraq.

Our Saudi experts round off this series with an assessment of Riyadh’s reliability in its function as broker. They conclude that Saudi princes have so far done well but are capable of opting out of their foreign enterprises when challenged with domestic or other unforeseen troubles.


The importance of drawing American lines in Hormuz Strait waters


1. In Amman on Feb. 19, Rice was so startled by the Bander-Mugrin presentation, especially by the disclosures by their intelligence sources of Iran’s military activity in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, that she put in a call to the White House to recommend immediate action. She said Washington must act forthwith to show the Iranians that America would not let them get away with doing whatever came into their heads in the strategic maritime oil route.

President Bush responded at once.

Later that day, Vice Adm Patrick Walsh, top US Navy commander in the Middle East, arranged a hurried interview with Associated Press to bare confidential data normally kept under wraps about Iran’s military activities.

The key sentences of the interview: “They threaten to use oil as a weapon. They threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz. And so it is the combination of the rhetoric, the tone, and the aggressive exercises in very constrained waters that give us concern.”

Walsh said it was doubtful that Iran could physically block the entire six-mile lanes with mines – but hitting only a few vessels with missiles and mines would “terrorize” shipping and have the same effect.

“It’s more the threat of mines than the threat of closing the straits. That would have a dramatic effect on markets around the world,” said the vice admiral.

(Walsh was relieved of his command of the Fifth Fleet February 27 and promoted to chief of naval operations at the Pentagon, the Navy's No. 2 post. He is replaced by Vice Adm. Kevin J. Cosgriff.)

His speech was exactly what the Saudi intermediaries were hoping for. It told the Iranians in no uncertain terms to stop deluding themselves that America was uninformed about their activities, intentions and limitations. Washington is fully aware that Tehran does not command the military firepower for closing the Strait of Hormuz. The Iranians must therefore resort to such terrorist tactics as sea mines and possibly missile action to scare oil shippers – and only then, if they are sure there is no risk of the US drawing the line by military action.


US-backed minority unrest in Iran as a factor in diplomatic equation


2. The Saudis obtained an American promise to bolster the naval buildup in the Gulf, spearheaded by the USS Stennis Strike Force, with a further infusion of large-scale air units to be based at the Udeid base in Qatar and the Manama headquarters in Bahrain. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report the extra strength will arrive soon.

3. More massive US naval strength and special forces will soon be speeding to Oman for deployment on the strategic Musandam Peninsula at the northeastern tip of the emirate, which constitutes the western shore of the Strait of Hormuz and is separated from it by the UAE.

(See map –

DEBKA-Net-Weekly discloses that Vice President Dick Cheney went to Oman Monday Feb 26, to head a conference of Omani heads of state and military brass with senior US commanders on where to position American forces on the western shore of the Hormuz Strait and how best to coordinate their operations with the Omani army, air force and navy.

4. Saturday, Feb. 24, an Iranian military helicopter crashed near the Iranian-Turkish border killing all 13 soldiers aboard including two Revolutionary Guards commanders. Iranian Kurdish liberation fighters claimed to have shot the plane down from the ground. On Feb. 15, Balochi guerrilla fighters attacked a Revolutionary Guards bus in Zahedan, in southeast Iran and killed 11-18 passengers.

Two days later the Balochis clashed with RG units in the southeast Iranian town. Tehran blamed Pakistani elements linked to the United States for supplying the rebels with arms and explosives.

DEBKA-net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources reveal that the Central Intelligence Agency has been directed to stir up the Kurds, the Arabs of oil-rich Khuzestan, the Balochis and the Azeris in minority regions to launch attacks on Revolutionary Guards units.

5. US undercover units have recently become engaged in similar operations among Syria’s restive minorities, starting with the largest, the Kurds. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that the Turkish-Kurdish rebel movement, the PKK, is spreading its wings with clandestine American encouragement.

Iraqi Kurdish leaders, national president Jalal Talabani and regional president Masoud Barzani, for the first time ever named a Syrian Kurd as new PKK military commander so as to expand the terrorist group’s operations from Turkey into Syria as well as Iran. His nom de guerre is Baoz; his real name Fimhan Hossein.

6. The Saudis asked the Americans to step up their arms deliveries to the Palestinian Fatah leaders, Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Mohammed Dahlan. Riyadh says their contingents on the West Bank and Gaza Strip need more help to defeat Hamas which is backed from Iran.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources calculate that the US president has at most a year for playing the Saudi diplomatic card. If subtle, undercover diplomacy fails, Bush will be back to square one and the real prospect of a military clash with Iran.

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