Two men, a Russian and an Omani, run the secret diplomatic track between the White House and the office of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. One is Sergei Kiriyenko, director of the Russian Atomic Agency Rosatom, and the other, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources in Moscow and Tehran describe Sergei Kiriyenko, Prime Minister of Russia from March 23 to August 23, 1998, under President Boris Yeltsin, as President Vladimir Putin's most trusted adviser on nuclear affairs.
During July and August, he divided his time between Tehran, Bushehr and Moscow.
In the southern Iranian town of Bushehr, where the Russians built Iran’s only nuclear reactor, Kiriyenko has set up a center staffed with Farsi-speaking Russian nuclear scientists for start-ups of joint Russian-Iranian nuclear projects. Those scientists are the only foreigners personally familiar with all the key players of Iran’s nuclear program, including those known to Russian intelligence to be engaged in weapons work.
According to our sources, President Vladimir Putin has drafted this Russian team of experts into the project for drawing up, under Kiriyenko’s guidance, the text of a nuclear accord for Tehran and Washington to sign.
This text will be modeled on the US-Russian accord for the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons that Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov concluded in Geneva on Sept. 14.
Diplomatic ping pong refereed by Moscow
Then, too, a Russian team was employed through the month of August to collate all the US, Russian and Syrian position papers on the subject, translate them into diplomatic language and compile accords, most of whose sections remain classified up to the present, except for those applying to implementation in the field.
That team was headed by Russian deputy foreign minister Sergey Ryabkov, senior holder of the Syrian portfolio in the Russian foreign ministry, in Putin’s Kremlin bureau and in the Russian intelligence service.
A tight veil of secrecy has been drawn by Washington, Moscow, Damascus and Tehran over these Russian expert teams and their mode of operation.
However, DEBKA Weekly’s sources can reveal how this mechanism works for the production of a US-Iranian document of understanding:
Presidents Barack Obama and Putin first agree on a general framework for the handling of Iran’s nuclear program. Putin passes it on to Kiriyenko, who directs his team to break it down into segments or topics according to subject.
Each segment is analyzed critically in the light of the current state of Iran’s nuclear program.
The Russian nuclear experts then sit down with their Iranian counterparts and discuss the sections one by one, until they hammer out an agreed Russian-Iranian text.
At this point, Sergei Kiriyenko goes into action for the two tasks assigned him by Putin:
1. To bring the Russian-Iranian draft in line with the US-Russian accord.
2. If it proves to be incompatible and the Iranian side balks, Kiriyenko refers the issue to higher authority in Tehran, such as President Hassan Rouhani, or Ali Akbar Alehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran-AEOI.
Obama and Putin highly satisfied with mechanism
If they too withhold approval of the draft, Kiriyenko returns to President Putin’s office to report on Iran’s demurrals and cavils.
The Russian president puts them before Obama and they go back to the drawing board for a revised version of the projected accord. When the two presidents see eye to eye on a text, it is referred to Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov, who convert the points of assent into working papers for the two leaders to sign.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources say that if Iran still holds out against the revised document too, Obama will ask Sultan Qaboos to go straight to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for adjudication.
This process goes forward in such deep shadow that not even Kerry and Lavrov know precisely how the mechanism works and why some points of accord go through and others do not.
Our sources in Washington and Moscow report that both presidents are highly satisfied with their collaborative diplomatic procedure. Each now has a vested interest in keeping their relationship alive, and making sure it is fruitful and their system is available for future issues in other fields.
Netanyahu’s vote of no-confidence
The snag is that it is deeply unsatisfying to US political, military and intelligence establishments, who find themselves cut adrift from the secret diplomatic process on both the Syrian and Iranian issues, with all the field work relegated exclusively to Russian teams of experts.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is conspicuously silent on these US policies, notwithstanding the heavy stakes for America’s national security.
Pentagon officials have been heard grumbling privately about President Obama’s actions, which have pushed the US military out of positions of influence, and deny them access to his consultations on the Syrian crisis and the Iranian nuclear program.
This sense of being left out of a game which vitally affects their security is likewise resented in European capitals, and in Jerusalem, Riyadh and the Gulf emirates. It was the cause of the deep differences of opinion over Iran’s nuclear program which clouded President Barack Obama’s conversation with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the White House Monday Sept. 30, and stirred Netanyahu into a truculent speech at the UN General Assembly the next day, in which he declared Israel would not allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon even if it stood alone.
He was sounding a blunt vote of no-confidence in Obama’s pledge to exercise the US military option against Iran if needed, and making it clear that Israel does not trust the secret diplomatic exercises going back and forth among the US, Russia, Iran and Syria, to guard its interests.