Washington and Iran Are Talking Along Three Secret Tracks
The passage through the Strait of Hormuz by the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and three destroyers – one American, one British and one French, early Monday, Jan. 23 – surprised the world, but not apparently Tehran, which let the warships sail through without interference or incident.
Just two days earlier, Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) deputy commander Hossein Salami made an uncharacteristically mild comment: “US warships and military forces have been in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East region for many years, and their decision in relation to the dispatch of a new warship is not a new issue, and it should be interpreted as part of their permanent presence,” he said.
These events were the first outward sign of back-channel talks afoot between the emissaries of US President Barack Obama and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Earlier that day, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, posing in the uniform of an aircraft carrier officer, stood in the vast hangar of the giant Enterprise Carrier Strike Group and informed the 1,700 crewmen and women assembled there that their ship would be dispatched to the Strait of Hormuz in March.
Panetta said: “… We want them to know that we are fully prepared to deal with any contingency and it’s better for them to try to deal with us through diplomacy.”
The Abraham Lincoln carrier tested Hormuz waters
The White House, which had fully approved Panetta's gesture, decided not to wait until March but to put Salami's words to the test forthwith by sending the Abraham Lincoln through the Strait of Hormuz that very night.
But first, President Obama put in urgent calls to French President Nicolas Sarkozy and to British Prime Minister David Cameron, and obtained their approval for British and French warships to enter the strategic strait in convoy with the Lincoln. As an extra precaution against trouble, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources report that US Ambassador to Baghdad James Jeffrey contacted Hassan Danaifa, his Iranian opposite number in the Iraqi capital, and let him know that the US-led convoy would be crossing through the Strait of Hormuz shortly.
Ambassador Danaifar promised to pass the message to Tehran. When after a few hours, there was no answer from the Iranian government, Washington decided to take the silence as assent and ordered the Lincoln and escort to begin crossing through the Strait of Hormuz to the Persian Gulf.
The experiment paid off and Washington was encouraged to keep its secret exchanges with Tehran moving forward:
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report that those exchanges are advancing on three tracks:
Channels through Baghdad, Ankara, Vienna
1. The Baghdad Track: Ambassadors Jeffrey and Danaifar have taken to meeting in the Green Zone of Baghdad every few days. Their conversations are exploratory, with each side demanding good faith gestures from the other to jump the dialogue forward.
Sources familiar with this track report that Ambassador Jeffrey holds up President Obama's message to Khamenei last month (through Turkish intermediaries, according to some sources; through Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, according to others, including Iranians), which the Iranian leader neglected to answer. The American diplomat insists on the Iranian leader replying to the US president's missive and relating to his proposals before confidence-building gestures are discussed.
Iranian lawmaker Hussein Naqavai claimed this week, “Obama proposed a red telephone between Tehran and Washington. This is an admission that Iran should be consulted on major international issues."
But this is precisely what Washington wishes to avoid: Reciprocal confidence-building gestures are not intended to convey United States recognition of Iran's pretensions as a regional superpower.
And, according to a Western source in the Persian Gulf, the Obama administration is also refusing to succumb to Iran's bagaining tactics for selling Persian carpets, i.e. the more a buyer simplifies the transaction to lower the price, the higher the Iranians climb.
2. The Turkish track: Tehran is not happy with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan and his Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu acting as brokers, in view of their animosity towards Syria's Bashar Assad. However, they are keeping the Turkish track open in consideration of Erdogan's close ties with Obama, while at the same time stirring up trouble between him and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Tehran hopes that the dispute over the latter's persecution of Iraq's Sunni community will raise tensions enough to eventually undermine the Turkish track.
Back channels are not yet generating results
In the latest round of acrimony, Al Maliki accused Ankara of meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs, to which Erdogan retorted Tuesday, Jan. 24: “The idea that Turkey is interfering in your domestic affairs is a very ugly and unfortunate one. Mr. Maliki must know very well that if you initiate a period of clashes in Iraq based on sectarian strife, it is impossible for us to remain silent.”
3. The Viennese track: The miles of corridors at International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters in the Austrian capital, are an ideal venue for backdoor, off-the-record encounters between American and Iranian diplomats. There, ideas can be freely proposed and unofficial papers traded concerning Iran's disputed nuclear program.
The three tracks have yet to produce results, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington and Iranian sources report.
Just as President Obama was pushing tough sanctions hard, managing this week to get the European Union to approve an oil embargo on Iran and a freeze on its central bank's assets, Washington and Tehran came to a quiet understanding: The new US and EU sanctions would only start taking effect on July 1, leaving six months for negotiations to get underway.
But there is still a way to go before this happens.
And both Washington and Tehran are already girding up for the dialogue to break down even after it starts, according to sources familiar with the calculations on both sides. At that point, the military option will resurface at full blast.
US preparations for a military flare-up are covered in the first article.