There are plenty of indications, short of formal corroboration, that a Washington-Tehran understanding has been brokered by Saudi Arabia. They peep out from behind the thick curtain screening the Bush administration’s motives for springing on the world on Dec. 3 a highly controversial National Intelligence Estimate holding that Iran put its nuclear weapons program on hold four years ago.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington and Gulf sources pull together the contours of this scenario:
1. Juxtaposition leads the way. The White House released the intelligence report, which contradicts its own 2005 assessment, backed by a presidential statement on Iran, Monday, Dec. 3. It was the week after the US-hosted Middle East conference at Annapolis, which the Bush administration and media touted as assembling key moderate Arab governments in an anti-Iran front that would draw on progress in Israel-Palestinian diplomacy for its momentum.
2. More juxtaposition. President George W. Bush launched his intelligence shocker at the very moment that, 6,911 miles away, the Gulf Cooperation Council rulers were holding a summit in the Qatari capital of Doha. Iran had been invited for the first time.
The high point of the occasion was the smiling entrance of the three star figures: Saudi King Abdullah, hand in hand with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was flanked by Sultan Qaboos of Oman.
This wordless picture said it all: The purported anti-Iran Arab front had melted away and an Arab-Iranian front had taken its place.
Annapolis as front for the Bush U-turn on Iran
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources conclude that the first front unveiled in Maryland was a piece of theater staged to disguise the intense work underway on a Saudi-mediated accommodation between Washington and Tehran.
The conference had to go ahead in Maryland because too much American diplomatic prestige had been invested in the event for it to be called off, and because Saudi-led Arab demands for concessions to the Palestinians had to be met, for the new secret policy initiative to take off.
3. There is ample evidence that the Saudi initiative was longstanding, according to our Middle East sources.
In early 2007, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, then national security adviser to King Abdullah, and Prince Muqrin Bin Abdulaziz, director of Saudi General Intelligence-GPI, were assigned with the mission of bringing the US and Iran together for an understanding built around a central theme: Washington must take its military option off the table in return for Iranian concessions on its nuclear activities, especially its banned uranium enrichment production.
The two mediators proposed then that Lebanon would provide a testing ground for the two powers’ ability to reach an accord.
At that time, Riyadh’s efforts ran foul of the US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice‘s race in the opposite direction; she was determined to curb the expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East and confident she could put together an anti-Tehran front of so-called moderate Arab nations. Her quest was squashed by King Abdullah at the Riyadh Arab summit at the end of March 2007.
In late October, the Saudis were again hawking their services as honest broker. By then, Prince Bandar had lost his high position at the royal court and therefore as mediator, but the Saudi objective was unchanged: America must renounce its military option, Iran would give ground on its nuclear ambitions and aggressive expansionism, and Lebanon would serve as testing ground for the parties’ bona fides.
4. By then, the Bush administration was more amenable.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington and intelligence sources report that in early November, the White House informed the Saudis there was a chance of moving forward on their initiative, provided Tehran undertook to halt its arms smuggling into Iraq, guaranteed non-interference in the election of the next Lebanese president later that month and tacitly approved Syrian participation in the Middle East conference at Annapolis. Furthermore, Iran must promise not to torpedo the event, to which the administration attached the highest importance, by unleashing its terrorist pawns against Israel.
Meeting those conditions would be deemed in Washington as the starting-point for US-Iranian negotiations on other issues, along with a willingness to hold the threat of US military action in abeyance.
US commitment to lift military option binding on Israel too
The US willingness to accommodate Tehran on this point had a rider: an additional pledge to Riyadh and Tehran that the suspension of the US military option would apply also to Israel. Washington insisted on Riyadh kick-starting the entire gambit by dispatching a senior Saudi minister to the Annapolis conference.
5. A nail-biting interregnum followed, as Washington and Riyadh waited for Tehran to come through. With only a few days to go before the Nov. 26 opening of the conference, Prince Muqrin had still not heard from Iran. In a state of near hysteria, Washington had no notion up until the last moment which Arab nations would be represented in Maryland, at what level or even the shape of the agenda.
Aware that the entire Bush administration was on tenterhooks, Tehran came up with the demand for a public US affirmation that Iran was not engaged in developing a nuclear weapon. The Iranians, seconded by Riyadh, maintained that such a statement was their only real guarantee that Washington would stick to its bargain and refrain from military aggression.
They claimed they had met the US halfway and it was now up to the Bush administration to make the running.
The rapid exchanges had foreign minister Saud al-Faisal flying back and forth for meetings with Rice in Washington, New York, Cairo and Riyadh.
Taking the Iranian side, he maintained that Tehran had made four major concessions:
First, Iran, Syria and Hizballah had accepted the candidacy of Lebanese chief of staff Gen. Michel Suleiman as next president, thereby breaking a long and dangerous deadlock in Beirut, which threatened to split government into two administrations and plunge Lebanon into civil strife.
Second, Tehran had signaled Syrian president Bashar Assad that it had no objections to a Syrian delegate attending the Maryland conference.
Bush was told to deliver or forget Annapolis
Third, Iran had slowed down the smuggling of weapons including roadside bombs to insurgents in Iraq. This would stop altogether, the Saudis indicated, once the deal was in the bag.
Fourth, The Iran-affiliated Palestinian terrorist organizations, Hamas and Jihad Islami, had been told to cancel their plans for massive terrorist attacks against Israel ahead of Annapolis.
How about it now? Prince Saud asked the Americans, less than a week before the conference. If they failed to deliver, he warned, Iran would stop all four concessions in midstream; Annapolis would not take off, or else it would go ahead without Saudi Arabia and other Arab League nations.
6. Finally, our sources report, in the third week of November, when suspense was at screaming pitch, the White House gave in. The Saudis were instructed to inform Tehran that its demand for a public announcement affirming that Iran is no longer engaged in developing nuclear weapons would be forthcoming as a guarantee against military attack.
Behind the hectic last-minute arrangements in Annapolis, Bush advisers sat down to build a document to satisfy Tehran.
It was released exactly a week after the Middle East conference in Annapolis, attended by 40 nations including Saudi Arabia and key Arab governments.
Thus, on Dec. 3, in keeping with the Bush commitment to Tehran, a US National Intelligence Estimate on behalf of 16 US agencies stated that Iran had stopped developing its military nuclear program in 2003. The Bush White House had embarked on the last lap of its Middle East policy with a complete U-turn of its 2005 appraisal of the Iranian nuclear arms ambitions and threat of a third world war.
Explaining the reversal to a puzzled world audience, President Bush said American citizens were entitled to up-to-date information on the state of Iran’s nuclear program. He failed to explain why it had been necessary to rush to publicize this highly sensitive document only a few days after his own briefing.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources comment: A close reading of the document reveals the hand of politicians or legal experts rather than intelligence analysts.
Our military and Middle East sources note that the Bush administration never explicitly and formally committed itself not to attack Iran – thus far. Both Tehran and Riyadh are counting on the near-impossibility of mounting such an attack after the US publicly affirmed that Iran had halted its military program in 2003. Even tough sanctions have become a problem.
All President Bush could say Tuesday, therefore, without losing face, was that if Iran re-starts its weapons program, “all options remain on the table.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources learn that, although Iran did resume its military program in 2006, it has now advised Washington and Riyadh that the program will be suspended for an undefined period of months. This arrangement may be formalized in more advanced stages of the negotiations.
The US president is perfectly aware that the Iranians cannot be trusted to stand by their commitments. He can only hope that when they finally go back to developing nuclear arms, as they certainly will, he will have departed the White House.
The deal the Saudis brokered therefore offers the Bush administration a timely exit strategy from the Iranian nuclear imbroglio.
Israel’s case is different, though tied in. Its own intelligence findings flatly contradict the NIE’s conclusion that Iran has frozen its weapons program since 2003. Israeli intelligence officials categorize the US estimate as incorrect and a travesty of intelligence. With the Iranian threat hanging over their heads, they see no reason to be bound by Washington’s surrender to Iranian-Saudi stipulations for a waiver of military action.
Israel on the horns of a dilemma, Tehran squeezes Washington on Lebanon
American, Saudi and Iranian decision-makers are acting on the assumption that the Israeli military is incapable of going solo against Iran’s military nuclear infrastructure. They believe Israel would not venture on independent action, without American military back-up, like its raid against Syria’s nuclear facility on Sept. 6.
But none of them will swear that this assumption is absolutely waterproof, or that Israel will not go on the offensive against Iran in one form or another. For the moment, an Israeli scenario is not on the cards, but it has been factored in under a question mark in the list of the pitfalls ahead of the latest Bush policy venture.
Washington, Tehran and Riyadh have a great many issues to hammer out – Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Palestinian demands – before they can produce a consensual formula for the next stage of Iran’s nuclear program. Most of all, they must agree on the measure of Iran’s progress on the road to a nuclear bomb which the US is willing to tolerate.
Just before this issue closed, DEBKA-Net-Weekly learned that Tehran again upped its demands as a result of which the presidential election in Beirut scheduled for Friday, Dec. 7, was postponed yet again.
The Iranians, having won a pro-Syrian Hizballah sympathizer as sole candidate for president, are now pressing for the appointment of pro-Syrian, pro-Hizballah ministers to key posts in the pro-Western Siniora government.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report that they are demanding foreign affairs – to gain control of Lebanese foreign policy for the first time; interior, which controls the intelligence and security apparatus; and justice. With its own man in the justice department, Tehran can get its ally Bashar Assad off the hook of the international tribunal for trying the plotters behind the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
Washington has not so far responded to Tehran’s squeeze. But US Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman has been called home from Beirut for consultations.