US President Donald Trump’s proposed summit with Iran with “no preconditions” did not come out of the blue. It was the fruit of a secret diplomatic initiative, led by Defense Secretary James Mattis through Omani mediation, for renegotiating the nuclear accord with Iran.
But before this process got off the ground, obstacles began looming. On Friday, July 27, Australia’s ABC TV cited “senior figures in the Turnbull Government” as saying “they believed the United States is preparing to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, perhaps as early as next month, and that Australia is poised to help identify possible targets.” A reference was made to “intense sabre-rattlng by Trump and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani.”
The Australian TV “senior source” emphasized the big difference between “providing accurate intelligence and analysis… and being part of kinetic mission.”
This report was quickly denied by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull who said he had no reason to believe the US was preparing for a military confrontation with Iran. And that day Mattis, too, dismissed the news, saying,” “I have no idea where the Australian news people got that information,” he said. “I’m confident it is not something that’s being considered right now, and I think it’s a complete – frankly, it’s – its’ fiction.”
Fiction or not, DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources report that the Australian network must have been fed by a source it considered reliable. The leak’s purpose must have been to plant in Iranian minds a suspicion that the secret contacts ongoing with the Trump administration were an American red herring to cover up US preparations to attack their nuclear sites this month. This would have strengthened opposition in Tehran to any sort of diplomacy with Washington.
In the event, the Iranians, themselves wizards in the black arts of disinformation and fake news, were not taken in. Their contacts with Mattis continued as before through the mediation of Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah.
Still, the identity of the saboteur who planted the false report in ABC is worth investigating. Was it some official US “senior source” – and if so which? A Saudi? Or an Israeli? Many people in Washington believe that it is a mistake for Trump to go anywhere diplomacy with Tehran before North Korean leader Kim Jong un proves real intent to dismantle his nuclear and ballistic programs, as he promised Trump in Singapore. That is still in question.
The leading opponents to a Trump summit with Rouhani may well be Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton. Since neither is likely to leak information to the Australian TV, some members of their staffs may have taken it upon themselves to act as saboteurs. This would explain why President Trump entrusted the defense secretary with the delicate though weighty Iranian diplomatic channel rather than the more obvious candidates, Pompeo or Bolton. Pompeo is supremely qualified for the mission – not just as top US diplomat but also by his familiarity with the Iranian dossier as recent director of the CIA. Trump may also have reckoned that Pompeo has his hands full with the North Korean dossier.
At the same time, the opening to Tehran is fraught with abundant complications. It goes far beyond the Iranian nuclear and ballistic missile programs to the very heart of America’s military and strategic posture and interests in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. Trump would hope that a renegotiated nuclear deal would also encompass US-Iranian understandings and security arrangements covering the flaming frictions in the Gulf, the Red Sea and Syria. It would enable him to dilute the US military presence in these regions or even bring all the troops home. Trump may see Mattis as a better candidate for carrying this broad-based mission forward than either Pompeo or Bolton.
Alternatively, the leakers may have come from Saudi and Israeli intelligence. Both their governments share a strong interest in keeping Washington and Tehran well apart for fear of forfeiting the protection innate in President Trump’s anti-Iran policy. (See more about this in another article).
In Tehran, too, certain high-ranking factions resorted to direct action, not just intrigue, to abort the secret US-Iranian diplomatic track. DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources revealed last Saturday, July 28, that the Yemeni Houthi attack on two Saudi super tankers on the Red Sea three days earlier was engineered by the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) spy ship, the Saviz. Disguised as a cargo vessel, the advanced surveillance and tracking gear hidden in its hold for shadowing Red Sea shipping movements, gave the Houthis the signal to strike. The Saviz is in fact the IRGC’s command or mother ship in the Red Sea.
The next day, the IRGC’s al Qods chief, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s supreme Middle East commander, was brutally clear about the object of the attack: “The Red Sea which was secure is no longer secure with the American presence,” he said. This threat was not just addressed to Washington; it warned the Tehran factions who favor rapprochement with the US that if the secret process was successful, he. Gen. Soleimani, in person, would carry on the IRGC’s war and challenge the Americans on all fronts, whether in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon or Palestine.
Soleimani got his answer on July 28, when Parliament Speaker, Ali Larijani, who ranks high in the Islamic regime for his close relations with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said, “If the entire establishment makes a decision about it, we can negotiate with the US.”
Larijani was the first senior regime official to state this position in public. His words brought to light a serious rift in the ruling establishment between the hard-liners opposed to any dealings with “Big Satan” America and the factions in favor of an accommodation with Washington. One lawmaker said negotiations under sanctions with the US would be “a humiliation.” On, Aug. 6, the Trump administration is due to start re-imposing a full set of sanctions, promising another blow to the Iranian currency which has lost two-thirds of its value in six months.
DEBKA Weekly reports that, in the midst of these drawbacks and impediments, quiet, semi-official exchanges continue between the Trump and Khamenei administrations’ emissaries. They are testing the ground for fresh negotiations to revise the nuclear accord, which the US president dumped in May pending amendments. A preparatory conversation took place in Washington on Sunday, July 27, between Mattis and the visiting Omani foreign minister. The first exploratory contacts precipitated a welter of hindrances. How many more stumbling blocks may pile up if, or when, those contacts blossom into substantial common ground.