The day before Americans elected Barack Obama president, Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki visited Damascus for the avowed purpose of showing solidarity with Damascus over the US commando raid of northern Syria.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and Iranian sources, Mottaki’s errand was quite different. He carried a private message from Iran’s supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warning Syrian president Bashar Assad against entering into a trilateral negotiating process with the United States and Israel without advance coordination with Tehran.
Mottaki also wanted to know exactly with which of Barack Obama’s people the Assad regime was in contact. He also asked if it was true that the indirect Syrian-Israeli peace talks brokered by Turkey were about to recommence, as Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was saying.
In his conversations with Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem, the Iranian foreign minister commented dryly that his principals were aware of three steps involving Damascus:
1. The Assad regime has been closeted with members of Obama’s Middle East team.
2. Damascus and Jerusalem agreed when they recessed their indirect talks in Istanbul in September to bring answers on two key questions to their next session:
Olmert promised to map out Israel’s peace border with Syria
Israel would specify the border concessions it was willing to offer for the sake of a peace accord. This meant that Olmert would be sending maps with borderlines marking off the territory on offer for peace.
Syria would specify to what degree it would sacrifice its strategic and military partnership with Iran and Hizballah for the sake of peace.
3. The next negotiating session would be attended for the first time by an American official, according Tehran’s information. He would be representing Obama. This means that the Syrian side could no longer get away with vague statements about maintaining normal relations with Iran like any other nation. There would have to be an explicit Damascus commitment to give up its special bond with Tehran.
On no account does Tehran agree to Syrian officials making such a statement in the presence of an Obama representative, Mottaki insisted, because it would rebound on the dialogue the US president-elect has said he will seek with Tehran. Iran knows all about the incoming US president’s plan to draw Syria out of the Iranian orbit and he warned Muallem that Syria must not fall into the trap. It would be better, he said, if Damascus held off returning to the talks with Israel – at least until there is a timetable for the Tehran-Washington talks.
The Iranian foreign minister also disclosed that president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would reject any dialogue unless Washington waived its pre-condition for a deadline. It was not possible for Iran to accept this, he said.
Our Middle East sources report that Mottaki left Assad with a tough dilemma.
Assad takes up Israel’s offer and risks Tehran’s ire
He had planned an early return to the Turkish negotiating table with Israel. But after being warned off this track without prior coordination with Tehran, the Syrian president is not sure how to proceed.
On the one hand, the Israeli and Turkish prime ministers are pushing hard for the process to be restarted without delay, especially since Olmert’s days as prime minister are numbered by Israel’s general election in February.
Our sources report that Erdogan told Assad that he had heard from Olmert that the negotiating team was standing ready to fly to Turkey with an answer on the borders of the Israeli withdrawal. The Turkish leader advised him not to miss this opportunity: For the first time, an Israeli leader is willing to draw the lines of Israel’s future withdrawal from territory – in the teeth of wall-to-wall resistance from all Israel’s main parties.
Assad is sorely tempted to go for the prize Damascus has been after for decades, especially when Olmert in his last days as prime minister has made no demands any real Syrian military or strategic quid pro quo.
But on the other hand, he was being warned off in the clearest terms by Khamenei in person.
Mottaki was not to know that before his Damascus visit, Assad made a significant gesture to the US, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly reveals here: He passed a detailed document to Washington listing in full the Syrian bargaining positions in the negotiations with Israel, in order to achieve two objectives:
1. He wanted his version of the talks put before the Americans in case it was not fully represented by the Turks and Israelis.
2. He sought to establish a direct channel of communications with the White House’s present and future occupants.