January and early February, 2007: Heading for a security crackdown in Baghdad, the Bush administration adopted a confrontational stance towards Iran. The operation was aimed at stamping out sectarian warfare and Iran’s meddling therein. The president ordered US commanders in the field to brook no further Iranian interference in the conflict. If the supplies of weapons, sophisticated roadside bombs and agents continued to flow to Shiite and Sunni insurgents for killing American soldiers, commanders would be authorized to conduct cross-border military strikes inside Iran.
(See DEBKA-N et-Weekly 289 of Feb. 9: Iraqi Military Sweep is off and Running – Unannounced.)
However, like similar threats against Syria in the past, this one too was never carried out.
The capture of Iranian agents of subversion and officers in Baghdad and Irbil was begun and not followed up.
The first cracks also appeared in the military appreciation of the Baghdad operation’s prospects. The commander of US forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, maintained that the campaign had good prospects but results should not be expected before September of this year, whereas Admiral William Fallon, the Central Commander chief, argued that a string of limited local military successes could not substantially change the situation in Baghdad or Iraq.
Cornering Tehran for diplomacy on US terms
February 20: US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and two Saudi princes, Bandar bin-Sultan, national security adviser, and Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, intelligence chief, unveiled a new joint strategy marked by a tough anti-Iran line. It was presented to a conference of Saudi, Jordanian, Egyptian and UAE security chiefs meeting in Amman.
A new Arab alliance, based on this Arab Quartet and backed by American military might, was to be formed for containing Tehran’s expansion in the Middle East and its nuclear aspirations.
This was supposed to corner Iran into kowtowing to the US-Saudi line – first in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories – then along the entire front, including its nuclear activities. Failing to do so would bring Iran into isolation and confrontation with the American military front and an inter-Arab alliance, which was on the way to developing a combined nuclear program.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 290 of Feb. 23: Rice Chairs a Pivotal US-Arab Intelligence Summit in Amman)
To drive the no-holds-barred message home, Rice asked the White House to order Vice Adm Patrick Welch, commander of naval forces in the region, to expose the naval movements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Gulf waters and issue a warning that the US was preparing counteraction.
Acting on the Amman conference’s recommendations, the US poured heavy Marine and aerial reinforcements into the Gulf region.
February 26: Six days later, Vice President Dick Cheney was in Oman to lead a one-day conference of American military commanders and Omani army and intelligence leaders on an operation to wrest the strategic Omani Musandam Peninsula from the hands of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and their replacement with US forces.
US muscle-flexing against Iran was gaining momentum.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 291 of March 2)
First telltale omens of Saudi perfidy emerge in Palestinian arena
At that point, the White House was still certain the US-Saudi partnership for a new strategy at the head of an axis of anti-Iran moderate Arab nations was in business. Tehran would be made to come round and talk on Washington’s terms, rather than face its neighbors’ cold shoulder.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East sources note with hindsight that this plan was never credible. The Washington strategists who recommended this course to the Bush administration – first and foremost Condoleezza Rice – omitted to factor in the standing principles, character and political guile of their co-planner, King Abdullah.
1. The Saudi monarch had disapproved of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 like the First Gulf War in 1991. He did not share his predecessor King Fahd‘s fear of Iran’s annexation of southern Iraq. When he condemned the illegitimacy of the American occupation of Iraq at the March Arab summit, those who knew him were not surprised.
2. Washington was misled into believing a royal consensus backed the joint US-Saudi strategy. While the Sudeiri Prince Bandar pushed it, Muqrin went to Amman with a watching brief on behalf of the rival branch headed by the king. As DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Saudi experts cautioned at the time, Riyadh’s external policies are habitually dictated by internal rivalries at court rather than keeping faith with a foreign ally.
(DEBKA-Net-Weekly 291 of March 2: Washington Can Trust Saudi Mediation – But only for the Short Term)
3. The first telltale omens of Saudi future perfidy appeared in the Palestinian arena. On Feb. 8, at the Palestinian reconciliation conference in Mecca, Abdullah forced the Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas to swallow a power-sharing deal between his Fatah and the radical Hamas.
Prince Bandar explained to Secretary Rice that this was a device for pulling Hamas away from its association with Tehran. Bandar was not in the picture. Muqrin was. He knew the king had decided to strengthen Hamas’ pro-Iranian anti-American wing led by the hardline Khaled Meshaal in Damascus.
His action was welcomed in Tehran as betokening Saudi willingness for a secret understanding behind American backs.
March 10: The first Iraqi Neighbors’ Conference took place in Baghdad.
At that point, the White House was still satisfied that all was going according to plan. Iran sent its foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki to the conference. Washington saw this as testing the ground before Tehran adjusted to the US-led diplomatic and military master plan. At the same time, there was no let-up in the passage of fighters, weapons and sophisticated bombs from Iran and Syria to Iraq.
Second thoughts began creeping in at the decision-making levels in Washington.
The Europeans and Admiral Fallon suggested that engaging Iran might be a better course than a military showdown. Rice took issue with this position.
March 23: An Iranian vessel captured at gunpoint 15 British marines and sailors in the northern Persian Gulf. Bush rejected British premier Tony Blair‘s plea for US intervention in the crisis. This was taken by the Saudis and its Gulf neighbors as a step back from White House anti-Iran intransigence.
From that point on, Washington’s Iran policy began to split and zigzag between opposite poles. Rice stuck to the previous no-holds-barred line against Tehran, even after she saw it upended at the Arab League summit in Riyadh, while other quarters in Washington dropped hints that a softer line was in the works.
Confrontational Iran policy founders when Saudis back off
March 28: It was the Arab League summit in Riyadh which dealt the final coup de grace to the US-Saudi diplomacy-cum-muscle-flexing strategy against Iran and its sidekick Syria.
Rice waited for the promised Saudi-led moderate Arab bloc to debut, as pledged. She was dismayed to see the Saudis pandering to their most honored guest, none other than Iran’s foreign minister, and an Arab group formed to dovetail Iranian and Saudi Middle East policies.
Syrian president Bashar Assad was similarly pampered with a royal embrace by King Abdullah and a seat on all the inter-Arab sub-groups dealing with the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The Saudi monarch summarily ruled out any contacts with Israel.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 295 of March 30: Al of a Sudden – a Saudi Letdown)
Prince Bandar’s fall from grace and his exclusion from the tight circle determining Middle East policy are confirmed by reports reaching DEBKA-Net-Weekly this week from Riyadh.
It is foreign minister Prince Saud al Faisal, who now calls the shots.
In his view, the kingdom must stay clear of “the American downfall in Iraq.” Riyadh must focus on building up indigenous Iraqi Sunni tribes and factions (though not al Qaeda) into a power base capable of offsetting Tehran’s Shiite bastion in Baghdad. Instead of confronting Tehran, Riyadh must seek mutual understanding on a joint battle against al Qaeda.
King Abdullah accordingly stood the Rice-Bandar strategy on its head. He went into solo exchanges for mutual understanding with Tehran, leaving Washington out in the cold and backing away from the formation of an anti-Iran Arab bloc.
Looking back, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Saudi experts find that Saud al-Faisal’s view of the conflict was more compatible with the king’s perception of Iran’s place in the Arabian Gulf than that of Bandar, which reflected a Sudeiri cast of mind.
Gates unveils the next grand US strategy
Washington was now faced with the urgent need for damage control. Something must be salvaged from America’s hobbled position in Iraq and the Gulf. Lining up with the new Saudi posture emerged as a tempting option.
Defense secretary Robert Gates was given the assignment.
April 16, 2007: He touched down in the region with guidelines for a grand new American strategy. Washington would grant Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikdoms a massive injection of military aid for standing up to Iran’s armed forces, including its Revolutionary Guards.
The US would match this effort by doubling its two-carrier Gulf presence to four and establishing a new string of air and ground bases in Oman, Kurdistan and Jordan.
The object of the exercise was for future Saudi-Iranian understandings over Iraq and the Middle East at large to be based on American military might. This might, intertwined with local military forces, would be the watchdog for safeguarding Washington’s interests in the region.
The US defense secretary used the military component of the Rice-Bandar plan as a nucleus, then enlarged it and sought to sell the repackaged deal to Arab rulers in the region.
The elements of the Gates package were revealed in a five-part treatment run by DEBKA-Net-Weekly 298 on April 27).
The presentation to Saudi king Abdullah was made by the State Department’s Iraq policy coordinator David Satterfield at a nocturnal session on April 18. Typically, the monarch was vague about his impressions. Other Arab rulers complained the Gates plan was too general and lacked a clear timeline. They were left guessing when they put key questions, such as: When will American forces begin to be pulled out of Iraq and in how many stages? Has Washington finally taken the military option off the table with Iran? How will the Bush administration handle the local conflicts expected to erupt in the region?
The red dress and Iran’s document of intent
May 3-4: This trail of uncertainty about Washington’s intentions was compounded by Secretary of State Rice’s posture at the second Iraq security conference in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Rice behaved as though nothing had happened to overturn her original strategy; Washington and Riyadh were still walking hand in hand and Gates had never come forward with a rewritten US military agenda.
At the conference, the Saudi foreign minister stuck glumly to his demand for a place in the Iraqi sun for Sunni Arabs, while the Iranian foreign minister waited impatiently for a signal from Tehran about his tensely-awaited get-together with the US secretary of state.
In the event, Mottaki sent Syrian foreign minister Wallid Muallem to talk to her.
The minister came back reporting that Rice had not eased her tough stance by an iota.
Mottaki decided that there was little point in their meeting face to face after all.
The too-revealing red dress of the Egyptian violinist entertaining the conference’s gala dinner on May 3 gave him the pretext for walking out and avoiding taking his seat opposite the US secretary.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources have learned that the red dress incident was pre-arranged to indicate that an encounter was to take place after all, albeit not between Mottaki and Rice, but at a different level.
Friday, May 4, American and Iranian officials sat down at the conference site for an interview that Tehran counted too important to forego. It took place between US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and deputy Iranian foreign minister Abbas Aragchi.
Assistant secretary of state David Satterfield was also present.
Aragchi handed the Americans a document prepared ahead of the conference setting out the lines of a possible Iranian-US entente in Iraq, the Persian Gulf and the Middle East.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Gulf sources reveal that Tehran passed a copy of the document, whose highlights are revealed in the next article, to the King of Saudi Arabia.