In his thirteen-and-a-half months in office, President Barak Obama has never stopped looking for Iranian partners to engage in diplomacy for reining in its nuclear program. Spurned time and time again, he is now on his fourth try.
His administration started out with the working hypothesis that Iran's supreme ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were not, despite their often wild rhetoric, total lunatics but political pragmatists who would eventually come around to a deal on their nuclear program.
A plan was devised to let them off the hook of the international ban on uranium enrichment, and allow them to continue the process and go after the technology for building a nuclear weapon.
It was assumed that the Iranians would stop short of actually assembling one. On this assumption, the Obama administration refrained from throwing its moral weight behind the protest movement when it sprang up in June over the alleged falsification of the presidential vote face of brutal suppression.
When Tehran remained impervious to this inducement and diplomatic persuasion, Obama set September 2009 as the first deadline for Iran to comply with UN Security Council resolutions on enrichment and level with the International Atomic Energy Agency on its clandestine projects.
He pushed the deadline back to December, when Tehran joined talks with representatives of the 5+1 (the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany) on a fresh plan for the transfer of most of Iran's low-grade enriched uranium stock to Europe for further processing as fuel for medical research.
Courting the Revolutionary Guards
December went by without a formal Iranian response to the Six-Power plan – and so did January.
Yet Washington still waited. Then, in early February, Ahmadinejad announced proudly that Iran would begin enriching uranium to 20 percent grade on its own. Still, Obama did not rule out another engagement bid. In answer to a question put to him on Feb. 9, he said: "At this point, it seems they have made a decision, but the door is still open.”
Meanwhile, a US effort to bring Russia aboard a Security Council sanctions motion sank almost without a trace.
The Obama administration's fourth move is revealed here for the first time by DEBKA-Net-Weekly Washington sources: Since the last week of February, US emissaries have been engaged in a hush-hush quest for a deal with Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps leaders, with a view to distancing them from their loyalty to president Ahmadinejad, a former member.
In secret encounters with IRGC high-ups in Tehran and European cities, administration envoys made the following pitch:
The Obama administration is not after regime change in Tehran; it has proved this by withholding its support from the opposition's campaign of anti-government street protests in the heart of the Iranian capital in the last six months. In the meantime, US intelligence currently estimates that Iran's opposition Green Movement is fading and no longer a threat to the regime.
How about a lame-duck president?
The Americans are also naturally au fait with the Revolutionary Guards' internal affairs and therefore aware of the fundamental change in emphasis it is undergoing, gradually evolving from an organization geared to military functions to one dominated by the financial interests of its huge business empire.
This dynamic was exhibited most prominently in the low profile its leaders maintained during the months of domestic upheaval besetting the government. Only rarely did a corps figure speak out in defense of the president or spiritual ruler. Indeed, note was taken in Washington that since January 2010, too, not a single commander has voiced support for Ahmadinejad.
The Obama administration deduced the Guards had come to regret engineering his re-election as president in June 2009. Washington hoped that this disenchantment stemmed from the same disappointment as the Obama administration felt in Ahmadinejad's continued pursuit of the most radical path in all circumstances, rather than opting for a more pragmatic nuclear policy vis-à-vis the US.
Inferring a common interest, White House strategists drew up a four-point plan for a joint US-IRGC effort to sideline the president.
1. Neither believe it is possible to oust the troublesome Iranian president or force him to resign before his term is up in 2013. Therefore, what the US is proposing is that the IRGC clip his wings and make him a lame-duck president for his remaining three years in office.
The IRGC would be first in line for sanctions
2. The Revolutionary Guard high command should take into account that harsh sanctions against Iran, whether imposed by the UN Security Council or unilaterally by the US and its allies, could cripple up to one-third of the Islamic Republic's economic activity. The Corps' business bodies would be first in line for penalties that would seriously stunt its financial growth pattern.
If, on the other hand, sanctions could be averted by becoming superfluous, the Guards' economic base and its profitability would retain its robustness and continue to expand unhindered.
3. The Guards must pick a new candidate for president and groom him for election in 2013.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources discuss the candidates proposed.
The administration's Iran experts are confident the Revolutionary Guard command would not want to see another extremist like Ahmadinejad's mentor, the radical Ayatollah Messabah-Yazdi, replacing him, especially after Yazdi wrote in a political-religious work that it was incumbent on Iran to obtain nuclear arms, which he called a "special weapon of war." Iran's clerical elite rarely refers to the nuclear program in these terms in public.
They would much prefer a realistic politician like the former president Hashem Rafsanjani or a seasoned diplomat like the Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani.
IRGC reps listen and report back
Because the bellicose ayatollah's words have given wings to Tehran's drive for a nuclear bomb, the US emissaries urged the Guards to start looking for a new presidential candidate right now and start preparing the ground for his ascent to office.
4. Touching on the most sensitive part of their mission, the men from Washington said the US is reconciled to Iran attaining a military nuclear capacity so long as it does not the cross the threshold and actually assemble or build stocks of atom bombs. Accepting that the IRGC is in control of the two key branches – the nuclear weapons program and the production of missiles for their delivery – Obama's messengers proposed that both continue to be developed up to a point mutually agreed between Washington and the Guards.
The US administration is still waiting for the Revolutionary Guards' high command to respond to its proposals which its representatives promised to pass on to their superiors. But Washington is optimistic about an affirmative reply to its offer of cooperation. Indeed, the few administration insiders privy to the plan have been advised that moves are afoot to strip Ahmadinejad of his (Revolutionary Guard) armor.
As for its al Qods Brigades external terrorist arm, the administration hopes that as ties of cooperation evolve, the IRGC can be weaned from its rampant relations with the most radical terrorist organizations in the Middle East. Obama and his aides are not deterred by the failure of this tactic when they tried to engage Syrian Bashar Assad. He cheerfully continues to host myriad terrorist organizations and arm Hizballah, while Hizballah itself used Western tolerance to lever itself into the Lebanese government without relinquishing its smuggled missile arsenal or dismantling its militia.
Nuclear watchdog grants Obama five months for his new tack
President Ahmadinejad chose Saturday, March 6, to heap insults of exceptional virulence on the United States: "September 11 was a big lie paving the way for the invasion of Afghanistan under the pretext of fighting terrorism," he ranted, making sure the quote was aired in a state broadcast.
He went on to call the al Qaeda hijackers airborne strikes on the World Trade Center's twin towers a "scenario and a complex act of intelligence services."
This unbridled attack was taken in Washington to indicate that Ahmadinejad had got wind of the new diplomatic feelers Washington had sent out to the Revolutionary Guards and would not take them lying down, any more than he would give up his verbal abuse of Israel.
Wednesday, March 10, the Iranian president landed in Kabul for added provocation. Addressing the media, he accused the US of playing a double game by establishing terrorist organizations, then fighting them.
The impact of Obama's latest venture on the political equilibrium of the Islamic Republic's ruling regime has yet to be assessed. In the meantime, Washington has won some months for pursuing its latest diplomatic track. The gift came from Vienna Monday, March 8, when International Atomic Energy Agency director Yukiya Amano said the agency's board would resume its consideration of Iran's nuclear program and reach decisions only in five months' time.
July 2010 is therefore the US president's next deadline for making headway on the Iranian nuclear controversy with its newest diplomatic partner, the Revolutionary Guards Corps, an internationally listed terrorist organization. He has five months to explore this channel.