Saturday, March 10, 2007

Word from Saudi insiders who were privy to recent talks in Riyadh between King Abdullah and Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is encouraging, but it will almost surely disappoint those who favor bombing Iran’s nuclear installations. Speaking privately, not for attribution, one Saudi topsider confided the Iranian president flew back across the Gulf “a much chastened and worried man.”

The seven hours Mr. Ahmadinejad spent with King Abdullah on his first visit to the kingdom were cut in half by time needed for translation, as they don’t speak each other’s languages (Farsi and Arabic). But the talks had been well prepared by national security advisers from both countries. Iran’s Ali Larijani and Prince Bandar bin Sultan shuttled back and forth between Tehran and Riyadh.

Mr. Ahmadinejad even pledged “to cool things down in both Iraq and Lebanon,” where Iran has more influence than any other power or combination of powers — in Lebanon through Hezbollah and in Iraq through a Shia-led coalition government and Shia militias, armed, trained and funded by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

He remained adamant on the nuclear issue — no turning back from uranium enrichment — but then, unlike President Bush, he is not the chief “decider” in Tehran. Assuming the Saudis read Mr. Ahmadinejad’s “chastened mood” accurately, it remains to be seen how much influence the diminutive hothead can exercise over the key instruments of Iranian power he does not control.

Anything that matters in Iran is the purview of the Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the 86-man Council of Guardians, chaired by Mr. Ahmadinejad’s arch rival Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, himself president for 8 years following the 1980-88 war with Iraq. Mr. Rafsanjani has been openly critical of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s travels abroad where he threatened death and damnation on the remaining “evil empire,” the United States, and its “devil incarnate,” Mr. Bush.

There is a growing chorus of public and private protest in Tehran against Mr. Ahmadinejad’s extremist soundbites that only further isolate Iran abroad. His wild utterances sparked anti-Shia sentiments throughout the Middle East and mobilized Arab opinion against Iran.

King Abdullah apparently convinced Mr. Ahmadinejad that a U.S. bombing campaign on Iran would not be limited to the nuclear sites dug deep underground. The Iranian was made to understand if Mr. Bush opts for an air campaign, Iran would become the target for hundreds of bombing sorties against key installations across its length and breadth. Not only would Iran be set back several years, but the entire region would most probably explode against all the countries that have sided with the United States.

While such a scenario might appeal to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s vision of the Apocalypse Now, which his own strain of Shia anticipates will be the prelude to the return of the 12th Imam, or Mahdi, who will then lead a dominant Islam to a new age of peace and plenty, his clerical superiors do not look forward to being bombed back to the Stone Age. Nor does any rational Muslim look forward with equanimity to a regional religious war of Shia Islam vs. Sunni Islam, in effect a war between Iran and the Arab world.

The compromise now being bruited among European diplomats who work the Iranian file would allow Iran to move to the tipping point of a nuclear weapons manufacturing capability — but then refrain, under U.N. verification, from actually producing them.

In return, sanctions would be lifted, and the U.S. would agree to restore diplomatic relations with Iran, lift all sanctions, and pledge nonaggression. This would be a page from the Libyan playbook when Col. Moammar Gadhafi agreed to turn over all the nuclear bomb-making equipment purchased from Pakistan’s Dr. A.Q, Khan in return for normalization with the U.S. and U.K. But from here to there is still a long, arduous diplomatic journey strewn with booby traps and war drums calling for “Bombs Away” over Iran.

The Bush administration — through the voices of Condoleezza Rice and Bob Gates — has made clear the U.S. is not looking for a pretext for war with Iran, “nor do we desire war with Iran.” But U.S. military clout is all around Iran, by air, land and sea, should Iranian entities not controlled by Mr. Ahmadinejad (e.g., Revolutionary Guards, Quds commandos, intelligence assets) push their luck in aiding anti-American insurgents in Iraq.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid says the president lacks authority to launch attacks against Iran without congressional approval. The White House, on the other hand, believes it can invoke the right to self-defense under Art. 51 of the U.N. Charter if Iran doesn’t cease and desist clandestine assistance to the insurgency.

The Saudi monarch made clear the kingdom would not stand idly by if Iran continued to harass and thus impede a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Unknown amounts of secret Saudi financial assistance has already gone to Sunni insurgents. Covert U.S. and Israeli aid has also found its way to anti-regime militants in Iran.

Diplomacy moved center stage in Baghdad March 10 for a regional security conference with a plethora of players, ranging from Iraq’s seven neighbors to the Arab League, the U.N., Russia, the U.S., and EU.

China, with a large stake in steady, uninterrupted oil supplies, also wants a seat in any forum concerned with Middle Eastern security. The prospect of a gigantic upheaval in the Middle East, triggered by a combination of Iran pushing its luck in Iraq and Lebanon and the U.S. retaliating militarily, put Saudi diplomacy to the test. So far, it’s a Saudi success story.

Iran’s leaders won’t soon forget Saudi financial clout. During the Iran-Iraq war, Saudi Arabia mobilized tens of billions of dollars from all the Arab Gulf countries — to assist Saddam Hussein. This time, King Abdullah has decided his kingdom will not tolerate an Iranian nuclear weapons capability, a few miles away across the Gulf. Neither will the Bush administration. Nor will Israel.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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