In early September, President Barack Obama’s administration embarked secretly on a venturesome diplomatic initiative to engage Tehran in an ambitious give-and-take deal Iran on a wide variety of disputed issues. Washington was looking ahead to the security of the US units remaining in Afghanistan and Iraq after the bulk of US troops depart those countries in December 2011 and the summer of 2014, respectively.
Qatari ruler Sheik Ahmad bin Jasem bin Muhammad al-Thani was dispatched to Tehran on Sept. 3 with the following proposition:
Iran was asked to accept the presence of 15,000 American troops in Iraq and an undetermined number in Afghanistan after the US army wraps up its campaigns there and join forces with US counterterrorist efforts in both countries.
In Afghanistan, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) would cut off weapons supplies to the Taliban and its allies, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e Islami.
In Iraq, Gen. Qassam Soleimani, commander of the Al Qods Brigades, would rein in Shiite militias and the terrorist groups he runs and halt their terrorist activity.
Special attention must be given to curtailing the Shiite Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous) also known as Ahl al-Kahf. Its estimated 3,000 fighters have claimed responsibility for more than 6,000 attacks on US, coalition and Iraqi forces.
Another group run by Al Qods which Washington wants hobbled is the Iraqi Hizballah (Ketaeb Hizballah) which bombarded Kuwait's Great al Mubarak Port from Iraq with Scud missiles on Aug. 26.
Washington wants to see Tehran halting arms and explosives supplies to Al Qaeda, which has used them to double its strength and expand its attacks.
But most of all, the Obama administration wants assurances from Tehran that the 15,000 US troops remaining in Iraq are safe from attack.
US offers Iran military coordination in the Persian Gulf
In return, Washington offered to create a joint US-Iranian mechanism for coordinating the movements of US and Iranian military, air and naval activity in the Persian Gulf.
This mechanism would provide Tehran with a guarantee of immunity against American attack.
There was no mention in any of the American proposals of Iran's disputed nuclear program. This conveyed the impression to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources that Iran's nuclear weapon drive was no longer a core issue between Washington and Tehran.
Also on offer was American intelligence-sharing with regional states, including Iran and Turkey, on separatist terrorist movements and targets – meaning the Kurdish rebel PKK and PAJK.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 508 of Sept. 9: First US-Turkish-Iranian-Iraqi KRG Armed Alliance).
After listening to the Qatari ruler, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, launched into a harsh attack on America's role in the Arab Revolt. He singled out US inaction in the face of the Saudi army's takeover of Bahrain to subdue the uprising against the king.
On Syria, the Iranian president turned to threats. He warned Washington through the Qatari emir that if the US, Turkey or NATO intervened militarily in the revolt against Bashar Assad, Iranian missiles would blow up American bases in Iraq and Turkish military installations. But the first round of missiles would hit the Qatari capital of Doha.
Khamenei slams the door which Ahmadinejad left ajar
Although the Iranian president was clear about spurning the initial American proposition, he did not quite shut the door. “If the Obama administration agrees to coordinate its moves with us on Bahrain and Syria, Tehran would be amenable to accords with Washington on Iraq and Afghanistan,” he is quoted as saying.
But Sheik Al-Thani had had enough. On returning to Doha, he told the Americans to count him out of future missions to Iran.
Left with no middleman for contacts with Tehran – Turkey lost its credibility with Iran after denouncing the Syrian president's brutal suppression of dissent – Washington turned to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. This got complicated when the Shiite prime minister started behaving as though he was one of the sides in the exchanges and not just America's middleman vis-à-vis Tehran.
For example, he took it upon himself to tell the Americans to first deal with the Saudi takeover of Bahrain before any agreement is sought with Tehran, because he refuses to see Bahraini Shiites oppressed. Washington must assure them of a share in power befitting their majority status in the population.
The Obama administration's venture into dialogue with Tehran was then truly bogged down when the hardline Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei weighed in to shut the door the Iranian president had left ajar.
Addressing an International Islamic conference in Tehran Saturday, Sept. 17, he issued a strong warning to all Arab nations overtaken by uprisings against letting the US or NATO have a say in their post-revolution systems of government.
"Never trust America, NATO, and criminal regimes like Britain, France and Italy who for a long time divided and plundered your lands," said the Ayatollah. Hold [to your] suspicion of them and don’t believe their smiles. Behind those smiles and promises lie conspiracy and betrayal."
The Obama administration won't take Tehran's no for an answer
Translating his words into action, Iran sent Shiite demonstrators back on the streets of the Gulf island kingdom of Bahrain this week for a fresh outburst of protest.
Wednesday, Sept. 21, the Shiite protesters slowed traffic to a crawl on many Bahrain highways by flooding them with vehicles as a show of strength ahead of the kingdom's parliamentary elections Saturday. This was their answer to royal cautions not to disrupt voting in the kingdom.
Unfazed by these setbacks, the Obama administration has not given up: The Wall Street Journal reported Monday, Sept. 19, that the US is considering setting up a direct military hotline with Iran in order to defuse potential confrontations between the two countries’ military forces.
One plan would be to build a link between the Iranian navy and the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which is based in Bahrain. The newspaper said US officials are particularly worried about a fleet of speedboats run by Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard which, they say, "have been involved in several near-altercations."
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources say that the speedboat threat has been around for at least four years. Over time, US Navy commanders in America and the Gulf have said on occasion that the US Navy has developed methods for dealing with these speedboats and could handle them should the need arise.
Tehran shows it has a bigger stick than Washington
But the Obama administration appears nevertheless to be seeking a negotiated solution of the problem as a way to signal Tehran that the proposition delivered by the Qatari emir was still on the table and Washington was willing to explore it further.
At the same time, Obama's strategic planners refuse to learn from the numerous failures their policy of engaging Iran has encountered.
It happened again this week, when the Maliki government was finally persuaded by Washington to publish a strong condemnation of Syrian President Bashar Assad's brutal crackdown of his opponents Tuesday, Sept. 21. Washington and Baghdad sources disclose that the Iraqi prime minister extracted from the Obama administration guarantees of US military protection against potential Syrian economic and military punishment.
But Damascus was saved from responding.
The next day, after Maliki was whipped into line by Tehran, the Iraqi government denied it had ever condemned the Syrian ruler, proving that Iran wielded a bigger stick than America.
This episode demonstrated that Iran would never come to terms on security in Iraq and Afghanistan – or any of the issues troubling the Obama administration – until Washington reconciles itself to Tehran calling the shots in Baghdad.