US Sets the Scene for Regional Military Action against Iran
Ostensibly, there was nothing to connect the two affairs that exploded on the same day, Tuesday, Oct. 11, in Washington, Riyadh, Jerusalem and Cairo: One was tidings of an Egyptian-brokered deal for Israel and Hamas to swap 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for Gilad Shalit; the other, exposure of an Iranian-directed plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
But they had this in common: They both opened up two new fronts of action against Iran with key roles for the US, Israel and Egypt.
As Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu pushed the prisoner deal through a full cabinet session in Jerusalem – contentious because it would set free 287 Palestinian multiple killers serving life, US Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller stood up in Washington to publicly accuse New York resident, the Iranian-American Mansour Arbabsiar, 56, of plotting as an undercover agent of the Iranian al Qods Brigades to assassinate Ambassador Adel al Jubei. He was caught handing a US DEA agent posing as a Mexican drugs cartel member a down payment of $100,000 for the job with a pledge from Tehran of another $1.5 million.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded that Iran be held accountable for "a flagrant violation of international and US law." And by portraying Iran as an outlaw state that threatens global security, the US laid the groundwork for much more than multilateral sanctions; it provided legitimacy for war action against the Islamic Republic.
Breaking the Shalit impasse was part of a bigger US picture
The prisoner deal with Hamas, stalled for five years, suddenly sailed through as both sides showed exceptional willingness to let go of long-withheld concessions. The deal became possible, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources report, because it was part of a bigger picture, namely, President Barack Obama's decision to take advantage of the seven-month civil war in Syria for whisking the radical Palestinian Hamas's political command out of its Damascus haven.
If the prisoner swap goes through next week as expected in Israel, Syria, Iran and Hizballah stand to lose control of their prime lever of influence in the Palestinian camp.
Tuesday night, debkafile broke the story that US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in his previous post as CIA Director, secretly established contact with Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal earlier this year, after hearing through intelligence channels that Meshaal and his bureau were anxious to shake the dust of Damascus off their shoes to avoid being drawn into supporting the brutal crackdown pursued by their host and patron, President Bashar Assad, against civilian protesters.
The US official and Hamas leader stayed in touch and finally clinched a deal that was sealed during Panetta's visits to Israel and Egypt Sept. 3-4
Breaking the Shalit impasse opened a corridor for Washington to advance on four strategic objectives:
Obama's opening to the Muslim Brotherhood is jumped forward
1. As a subsidiary of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Meshal must seek its approval on matters of importance such as releasing the Israeli soldier confined in the Gaza Strip and establishing ties with the United States where Hamas is listed as a terrorist organization.
Panetta's secret communications with Meshaal were instrumental in opening the Obama administration's door to the Brotherhood in Cairo.
2. Because the Supreme Council of Armed Forces was very active in the negotiations for Shalit's release, mostly through Egyptian intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Murad Mowafi, the process broadened out into a three-way dialogue between the US, Hamas and Egypt's military rulers, and so helped jump forward Obama's plan for bringing the Muslim Brotherhood into government in Egypt.
(More about this in a separate article in this issue.)
3. In his quiet exchanges with US officials, Meshaal agreed to downgrade his organization's ties with Iran in stages adjusted to the rising levels of American support. Reducing the Palestinian group's dependence on Tehran would open new policy vistas for the Obama administration: Already, for the first time since Iran snatched control of Lebanon in 2010, Washington was able to put a spoke in Tehran's rolling expansion across the Middle East. And Hamas' removal from the Syrian orbit would further weaken its ruler, robbing him of his Palestinian instrument for affecting the course of events in the region.
Military teeth for the diplomatic pressure on Tehran and Damascus
4. The understanding forged between Washington, Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinian Hamas has also diminished the rival Palestinian Fatah and its leader, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. On this new stage, Abbas' bid for UN recognition of Palestinian statehood within 1967 borders in defiance of US objections looks not just hopeless but irrelevant.
Whereas in Hosni Mubarak's day, Egypt was virtually his only reliable Arab sponsor, US diplomacy has turned his rival Hamas into Cairo's reigning Palestinian favorite. To stay afloat, the PA chairman must scramble to line up with the new setup shaped by Washington and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.
So when he joined Hamas in Cairo Thursday, Oct. 13, for the umpteenth round of talks on reconciliation and power-sharing, he sat on a lower chair than his rival.
To add salt to his wounds, Hillary Clinton remarked Wednesday that turning to the United Nations would not give the Palestinians a state.
Whereas the Shalit deal gave the Obama administration a jumping-off point for its next Middle East gambit, exposure of the foiled Iranian bid to assassinate the Saudi diplomat gave Washington legitimacy for military action to sharpen the edge of the heavy diplomatic pressure the West is already bringing to bear on Tehran and Damascus, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report.
Although no administration official has said so in plain language, dozens of CIA and FBI officers have pointed out in interviews that had the Iranian-engineered plot succeeded in murdering the Saudi ambassador in a Washington restaurant as planned, the US government would have treated it as an act of war.
In the view of some of those officers, evidence that Mansour Arbabsiar and his accomplice Gholam Shakuri were acting for the Al Qods Brigades, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' external terrorist arm, was in itself tantamount to a declaration of war on the United States.
New Obama policy to back regional military strikes against Iran
Highlighting the war option was not meant to indicate that Washington was about to go to war on Iran. It was rather intended to bring home to Saudi Arabia, the party most injured in this episode, that the time had come to flex its military muscles against Iran and not just talk tough. The Obama administration was also letting Riyadh know that it can count on a US air and naval umbrella as well as all the missile defenses it needs if Saudi Arabia does indeed embark on a military reprisal against the Islamic Republic.
To underline this message, Washington went public on the assassination plot just days after Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef warned rioting Shiites in the oil-rich Qatif province against acting "at the behest of a foreign country" (coded reference to Iran). He threatened to "strike with an iron fist" to preserve the kingdom's security and stability.
If the iron fist was applicable to the unruly Shiite minority, how much more deserving of punishment was Iran for plotting the murder of a close adviser of King Abdullah himself? This was Obama administration thinking in its bid to egg Saudi Arabia's royal rulers on to carry out a punitive strike against Iran and thereby generate the circumstances for US and Saudi leaders to bury the hatchet.
The Obama administration's switch to a policy for promoting military action against Iran by regional powers with US support was also evident in the proposition the US Defense Secretary brought to Jerusalem on Oct. 3 for an Israeli strike against the Iranian naval vessels cruising the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden (as outlined in the next article in this issue).