Monday, 14 October 2013

Thwarting Iran: the secret alliances

           There are two distinct groupings of interests opposed to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but each – to misapply Oscar Wilde’s aphorism – is “a love that dare not speak its name.”

            Benjamin Netanyahu has been taking the lead for one of these covert community of interests.  Ahead of the 6-party diplomatic talks taking place in Geneva on October 15 and 16, where Iran is facing the US, Russia, the UK, France, China and Germany, Netanyahu has been undertaking a diplomatic and media blitz.  He’s been on a whirlwind tour, both of TV studios and the world, voicing the case for maintaining the sanctions pressure on the Iranian regime until soft words are matched by hard action.  He does not oppose diplomatic initiatives to avert a nuclear Iran but, like the range of states and groupings he implicitly represents, he fears that the international community will accept a compromise on this issue, allowing Tehran to avoid dismantling its nuclear weapons facilities and having its stocks of enriched uranium removed from the country.

            His fears seem all too justified, for behind his back and the backs of most European and Gulf state leaders it seems as though a secret deal on Iran’s nuclear program has already been worked out between the White House in Washington, the Kremlin in Moscow and the Tehran office of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  This US-Russian-Iranian grouping represents the second secret alliance – though how far it will go towards curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions remains to be seen.

Sergei Kiriyenko, director of the Russian Atomic Agency Rosatom and the builder of Iran’s first nuclear reactor at Bushehr, is one of Putin’s most trusted advisers on nuclear affairs.  Reports indicate that he has been in Iran for most of the summer and that, under his guidance, the text of a nuclear accord was drawn up by a team of Farsi-speaking Russian nuclear scientists for Tehran and Washington to sign.

Drafts of this text, which was modeled on the US-Russian accord for the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons, were then passed between the US and Russian presidents until they saw eye to eye, and finally it was referred to US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, to be shaped into a document that can be put on the negotiating table at Geneva as agreed proposals.

It is reported that President Obama has briefed Netanyahu in detail on the understandings reached with Tehran, including Iran’s concessions on its nuclear program. Obama has also informed him that Washington will soon start easing certain economic sanctions against Iran. Neither European nor Gulf leaders, including Saudi Arabia, had been let in on the scale of reciprocal concessions approved between Obama and Iran’s Supreme Leader, although by now an indication has probably leaked out via the diplomatic grapevine. Certainly the Wall Street Journal on October 8 reported, one assumes from informed sources, that Iran will offer to limit its operational centrifuges, cease 20 per cent uranium enrichment and agree to greater international supervision of its nuclear program, in return for a lifting of sanctions on its financial system and oil market.  On October 14 the London Daily Telegraph reported that Iran had drawn the line at removing all the uranium already manufactured in its facilities, and insisted on keeping access to nuclear enrichment – since that would leave the potential for a relatively short dash to build a nuclear weapon.  They seem to have won the day.

“Western diplomats have indicated privately,” said the Telegraph, “a deal is likely to include access to limited enrichment.”

Whether it was a done deal before the principals ever took their places at the negotiating table, time will tell.  What is certain is that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have not been party to any backstairs discussions, and that they view the apparent success of Iran’s charm offensive with alarm.  Their concern is for their regional interests.  They fear that Obama may be tempted to strike a deal allowing Iranian allies to go on dominating Arab countries such as Lebanon, Syria and Iraq in return for Iran’s agreeing to inspections of its atomic sites.  They are also desperately concerned about Iran’s ambition to achieve hegemony over the Gulf, and its continuing effort to orchestrate political foes across half a dozen Arab countries.

All this fear was revealed in the 250,000 confidential US documents that were published in November 2010 by WikiLeaks. They showed that, contrary to their public positions, Arab leaders strongly supported, and indeed campaigned for, a US attack on Iran’s growing nuclear programme.  According to the leaked documents Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah “frequently exhorted” the US to bomb Iran and “cut the head off the snake.”  He warned Washington that if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, “everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia.” Abu Dhabi’s crown prince said that Iran was seeking regional domination, and urged Americans to “take out” its nuclear capacity, or even send ground troops.  Iran “is going to take us to war … it’s a matter of time.” The king of Bahrain said the US “must terminate” Iran’s nuclear programme, “by whatever means necessary”.   Zeid Rifai, then president of Jordan’s senate, said: “Bomb Iran, or live with an Iranian bomb.”  Hosni Mubarak, then President of Egypt, expressed a “visceral hatred” for the Islamic Republic.  

         In short, no Arab government accepted Iran’s claim that its nuclear programme was merely peaceful.  More to the point, perhaps, the WikiLeaks documents revealed that Iran loomed as the largest source of concern to the Arab world.  As far back as summer 2010
Dubai's chief of police, Dahi Khalfan, one of the most outspoken security officials in the United Arab Emirates, warned of an "international plot" to overthrow the governments of Gulf Arab countries. Then United Arab Emirates officials announced that authorities were investigating a foreign-linked group planning "crimes against the security of the state."

This perhaps explains reports that Israel has recently been holding a series of meetings with prominent figures from a number of Gulf and other Arab states, supervised directly by PM Netanyahu. The Arab and Gulf states involved in the talks have no diplomatic ties with Jerusalem, the report noted. What they share with Israel is the concern that Iran’s President Rouhani’s new diplomatic approach will fool the US and lead to a US-Iran diplomatic agreement which provides for “less than the dismantling of the Iranian nuclear program.”

Which, as it now appears, and with Russia’s blessing, is indeed the most likely outcome.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 14 October 2013: 
Published in the Eurasia Review, 15 October 2013: 
Published in The Commentator, 10 November 2013:

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