Even after first informal talks were attempted with Tehran. President Donald Trump and his team can’t put their finger on supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’send game. Neither do they know on whose desk the messages sent through intermediaries landed in Tehran.
Two weeks ago, DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources report, a high-powered White House team selected Arnold Henninger, a senior member of the Swiss foreign service as their conduit to Tehran. The team was made up of State Department National Security Council and CIA officials, headed by Brian Hook, whose title consists of US Special Representative for Iran and Senior Policy adviser to the Secretary of State.
The Swiss embassy in the Iranian capital has represented US interests since relations were severed after the 1979 Islamic revolutionaries toppled the Shah.
In the second week of May, the White House deposited with the Swiss authorities a phone number through which Iranian leaders could reach President Trump. But the Swiss only agreed to pass it on upon a request from the Iranian government.
On May 16, Swiss President Ueli Maurer paid a surprise visit to the White House. During a long talk on the matter with Trump and his advisers, it was discovered that Washington’s message had been sent to the Abbas Araghchi at the Iranian foreign ministry who is close to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. The next part was hazy. No one could say whether Rouhani had actually seen the messages, or what he had done with them.
Did he share the information with senior Iranian officials, or much less probable, did he refer them to the supreme leader? But, anyway, on Monday, May 20, Rouhani shut the door on further contacts by stating that he favors talks and diplomacy, but not under current conditions. “Today’s situation is not suitable for talks and our choice is resistance only,” thereby echoing the hardline supreme leader’s stiff comment on the question.
One theory based on intelligence data is that Rouhani, who was instrumental in pushing through the 2015 nuclear pact, may have shared the notices from the US with the Chairman of Iran’s Nuclear Energy Commission, Ali Akhbar Salehi. But no word on this has come from Tehran.
Hoping to nudge Tehran into a response, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during his visit to Baghdad on May 8,made a point of meeting Iraqi President Braham Salih, as well as the prime minister. Pompeo planned to take advantage of Salih’s excellent contacts in Tehran to reach the highest echelons of the regime and eventual dialogue between the White House and Ayatollah Khamenei’s bureau.
But President Salih made it clear that his reach into the Iranian regime went no higher than Ali Akbar Velyati, Khamenei’s senior adviser on international affairs. It was assumed in Washington that Velyati communicated the White House messages to the supreme leader, but that path also ran out of steam. No word has come from the supreme leader’s office and the Americans are still clueless about his intentions.
High-ranking regime officials say that this is par for the course. For years, they have become used to the same deadpan treatment. When they put a plan or proposal before the ayatollah, he gives them a small smile without a yes or a no. Most of them have learnt to interpret his sphinxlike manner as meaning that he has already made his decision, issued the appropriate orders to military or intelligence chiefs and wants no further discussion.
In the dark over the supreme ruler’s game in escalating the crisis with the US, the Americans, Saudis, UAE and Israeli intelligence were rocked back unpleasantly by the attack Iran engineered on four oil tankers off the UAE coast on May 12, and the drone strike two days later on two desert pumping stations on the main Saudi east-west pipeline.
Notwithstanding a willingness to open indirect talks with Tehran, the Trump administration this week brusquely rejected Oman’s foreign minister Yusuf bin Alawi offer of his services as mediator. The Omani diplomat has often acted as discreet broker in past US-Iranian crises and played a critical role in the back-door dialogue that led to the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Tehran in 2015. But the Trump administration has a large bone to pick with Muscat.DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources disclose that Oman plays an important role in Tehran’s intervention in the Yemen war by providing a transit route for Iranian weapons supplies to reach the Houthi rebels next door. The US has repeatedly asked Muscat to stop this traffic to no avail. Still, the Omanis are still in the market for the broker’s job. On Monday, May 20, Alawi paid a visit to Tehran and was received on the spot by Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif.