US Ultimatum in Secret Talks with Iran: Give Up Nuclear Weapon Goal or Face an Arab Race for an N-Bomb
The US-Iran nuclear dialogue launched earlier this month in tight secrecy passed this week to a higher, decision-making plane. It was opened up to bypass stalled European diplomacy, Russian initiatives, UN paralysis and the limping American-Iranian negotiations in Baghdad, and is humming along. This week, the American side laid great stress on the steps taken by two Arab nations, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to throw their nuclear ambitions into the ring.
The Iranian side was thus confronted with the daunting prospect of a Middle East arms race being triggered by its nuclear weapons aspirations and branching out from the Iran-US, Iran-Israel tracks to co-opt Arab players.
In a further development disclosed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly, Moscow has put in its oar with a new plan for bringing Iran’s uranium enrichment project under international supervision.
(In past issues, DEBKA-Net-Weekly traced the early stages of these processes:
On March 17 and March 24, DNW 246 and 247 detailed the first direct US-Iran encounters – which began over Iraq. On April 7, DNW 249 revealed that the Saudis were developing a nuclear program, including uranium enrichment – just in case Iran makes the final leap to a bomb.)
In this issue, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s exclusive sources and analysts attempt to pierce the dense blackout cast over the Washington-Tehran talks to discover who is acting for the prime movers, their hidden venues and the cards they are laying out on the table.
THE UNITED STATES
This week, the head of the White House National Security Council Stephen Hadley sent his senior deputies to meet in Washington with Mohammad Nahavandian, adviser on economic and technology issues to Ali Larijani, the powerful head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) and its lead nuclear negotiator.
US sources say Nahavandian entered the US around April 6 and stayed for an unspecified time. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources, he got together with American officials on April 17. Rumors going around the US capital the next day about the arrival of a high-ranking Iranian official brought forth a statement by State Department spokesman Sean McCormack that no visa had been issued for Nahavandian. He also denied that he had had meetings with anyone in the US government.
After this breach of secrecy, the talks were promptly moved to a West European capital where they are still going on – some sources say with Hadley himself taking part.
The information pieced together by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s most reliable sources sheds light on the four US objectives in the talks:
1. To build a route detouring the faltering Baghdad track.
Our sources report that an Iranian delegation has spent several days in the Iraqi capital. It is led by a member of the Iranian SNSC Ali Hosseini-Tash and Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a close adviser to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. According to one report, one of the two also attended the Washington talks.
The US-Iranian talks on the Iraq government seem to be stuck. The Iranians offered to replace the Shiite Ibrahim Jaafari as nominee for the premiership with the deputy leader of his Dawa party Ali al-Adib. US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad turned them down.
2. To break the monopoly Moscow has been striving to establish as the sole middleman for diplomacy between the West and Iran.
3. To undo the former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani‘s pitch in a tour of Arab emirates which attempted to depict his country’s nuclear enterprise as an Arab Nuclear Program, thus gaining Gulf support.
Saudis and Egyptians set to match Iran’s nuclear progress
4. To lay the groundwork for an alternative Middle East nuclear bloc hinging on Saudi Arabia and Egypt, i.e. a rival Arab nuclear program for bringing Tehran up short. Iran was to be given to understand that if it goes all the way and builds a bomb, so too will its Arab opposite numbers. This race carried the extreme potential of pitting Sunni and Shiite nuclear powers on a course of collision.
With these four objectives in mind, the American delegation made the Iranians an offer:
Iran had shown the world with a theatrical flourish that the Islamic Republic was able to bring uranium enrichment to an industrial level and demonstrated to the Iranian and Muslim public that it was capable of completing the nuclear fuel cycle. Now, therefore, Tehran could afford to stop spinning the centrifuges and abandon its weapons program.
If not, Washington would deliver threefold punishment: A. By keeping up the heat for UN Security Council sanctions; B. Letting the Saudi and Egyptian nuclear programs move forward. If Iran produced enriched uranium for weapons, Saudi Arabia and Egypt would keep pace with Tehran by building facilities for processing, or acquiring, weapons-grade nuclear fuel. And if Tehran starts building a weapon, both these Arab states will either produce or buy a nuclear weapon from countries like Pakistan. C. Lining up an anti-Iran nuclear-armed Middle East front, including Israel. Moscow and Beijing would then do well to rethink their support for the Islamic Republic and decide whether it is worth the price of lost points in the Arab world and Persian Gulf.
In view of these three options, Washington advises Tehran to take up its proposal.
In the face of the American ultimatum, Tehran’s clerical rulers have not backed down but are taking their time to weigh their options. In the meantime, they have adopted four courses, revealed here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iranian sources:
1. Supreme ruler Ali Khamenei, while letting president Ahmadanijed continue to rant and rave in public, tightened his grip on the national nuclear program. The president has been cut out of any say in the ongoing diplomatic talks with the Americans.
2. Khamenei has assigned Rafsanjani to deal with the Iraq issue and relations with Arab governments, while Larijani is now in charge of contacts with the Americans, the Russians and the Europeans.
3. As a counterweight to the American track, Iran has entered into negotiation with Moscow on a secret new Russian plan for international oversight of its enrichment activities. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources have not yet discovered the substance of this plan; they report it was a focal item on the Iranian-American agenda this week, as well as figuring large in the Moscow talks held by the five permanent Security Council members and Germany this week. Iran has not announced its acceptance of the Russian draft – only that it can serve as the basis for further negotiations.
4. Rafsanjani was dispatched on a tour of the Arab emirates to calm their fears of Iran’s nuclear motives and invite them to lend their support to its nuclear option. Our Gulf sources report that he failed in his mission. Aside from Damascus which was his last stop, the emirates presented a solid wall of resistance to any thought of an Iranian nuclear bomb.
Moscow came up with its new plan for international oversight of Iran’s enrichment activities under several compulsions: to preserve its key position as the West’s front man in diplomacy with Iran, to prevent a sanctions debate at the Security Council and to safeguard its profitable trade ties with the Islamic Republic.
Russia’s three strategists on these issues, President Vladimir Putin, foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and the head of the Russian energy commission Sergey Kirienko, were faced with an urgent need to prevent Iran’s isolation and the breakdown of diplomacy, because Moscow would then be left high and dry as Iran’s lone champion. Russia might then find itself lined up with Shiite Iran against the Sunni-Arab world, at the cost of a role which it has been at great pains to foster, of middleman between the Islamic nations and the West.
Putin, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Moscow, is also working hard to sort through the effect of his pro-Tehran stance on his relations with Washington.
The only Middle East nation to have developed nuclear armaments, Israel has been completely passive in these events. Under the direction of Ariel Sharon, reaffirmed by his successor as prime minister Ehud Olmert, no Israeli minister, intelligence official, general or national nuclear energy commission member has been permitted to utter a word on the Iranian nuclear issue. Official Israel holds dumb even in confidential diplomatic exchanges with Washington on the prospect of the Saudis or Egyptians laying the basis for building nuclear weapons. From the 1990s, Israel’s strategists became resigned to not being left alone forever as the sole Middle East nuclear power. The new situation has at least one redeeming feature: it relieves Israel of some of the pressure for dismantling its nuclear installations or placing its program under international control in a denuclearized Middle East. The balance of nuclear terror looks like shifting now to another arena, Arabs versus Iran.