In shadowy diplomatic corners, some Arab intelligence operatives believe the US is quietly cooperating with Iran to quell violence in Iraq.
Arab intelligence sources believe the US and Iran have reached a tentative “Grand Bargain” that has already influenced the presidential election. Marked Iranian restraint in Iraq, they say, is one of the reasons the “surge” is working in Iraq—and the success of the surge has been central to John McCain’s rise from the ashes.
Is Iran this year’s “October Surprise”?
President Carter’s bid for reelection in 1980 was doomed when the Iranians failed to release American hostages in Tehran. They were freed the day President Reagan took the oath of office. The Reagan administration strenuously denied that the Republicans had made a secret deal with the Iranians for this to happen.
Arab countries, such as Jordan, Kuwait and Egypt, have expressed worries the US may strike a deal with Iran at their expense.
But they were unable, six years later, to deny the Iran-Contra Affair—the diversion of Israeli weapons to help Iran in its war with Iraq, in return for the release of US hostages in Beirut. The October Surprise was never proven, but the Iran-Contra affair established, at least, that secret deals did indeed take place. Several top US officials were eventually indicted and convicted in the scandal.
In the shadowy world of secret diplomacy, the evidence often remains circumstantial, but there have been dramatic changes in Iran’s conduct in Iraq since last year, all of which have helped McCain and put Barack Obama on the defensive. (Recently, having attacked the surge as destined to fail, Obama was forced to concede it had succeeded “beyond our wildest dreams”.)
My intelligence sources credit a number of factors, in addition to the rise in US troops, for the success in stabilizing Iraq—the Anbar Awakenings of Sunni tribal sheikhs against Al Qaeda; the increased size and competence of Iraqi forces; and the counter-insurgency tactics of General Petraeus. But these sources emphasize that the Iranian factor, as they call it, has been crucial.
(Forget the anti-American diatribe by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the United Nations, that’s boilerplate rhetoric).
Here are the pointers that convince my sources there is an understanding with Iran:
- Saudi officials have been involved in secret mediation between the US and Iran.
- Despite the Bush administrations protestations that Iran remains a nuclear threat, the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in December, 2007 downplayed this and undermined the main justification for a US or Israeli strike, thus paving the way for a “dialogue” that seems to have gone beyond the two meetings that had already taken place between the US and Iranian ambassadors in Baghdad.
- Shortly after the US surge, which preceded the NIE report by a few weeks, Iran’s Al-Quds force in Iraq almost totally ceased attacks against US troops.
- The Al-Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia backed by Iran, declared a six-month truce last fall, then another open-ended one. Not all followers of its leader, Muqtada Al-Sadr, complied, so Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki attacked in Basra, Sadr City and other parts of Baghdad, killing 700 to 800 of Mahdi Army militants. The truce, tacitly endorsed by Tehran, freed Maliki’s hands and U.S. forces to target remnants of Al Qaeda fighters in Anbar and Mosul. Simultaneously, Syria, an ally of Iran, tightened its border controls, making it harder for Al Qaeda’s foreign fighters to get into Iraq.
- Two militants, Emad Mughniah and Mahmoud Kolaghassi, involved in recruiting and training Shiite militias and Al Qaeda fighters sent to Iraq, respectively, were assassinated in Syria. The Syrians want to prevent the possible indictment of Syrian leaders by the international tribunal in the Hague, which is about to start prosecuting suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Harriri.
- Arab countries, such as Jordan, Kuwait and Egypt, have expressed worries the US may strike a deal with Iran at their expense, and have expressed concerns published in the Arab media over a probable “Grand Bargain.”
- Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, in a July 19 commentary for Project Syndicate, lent credence to these fears, concluding: “If Iran is serious [in pursuing talks with the Bush administration], the result may be nothing less than the long awaited ‘Grand Bargain’—a regional reconciliation of interests between Iran, on one side, and America, Europe, and the region’s U.S. allies on the other.”
- Israeli officials, who reject the findings of the NIE, accuse the US of striking a deal at Israel’s expense. On July 26 in Debkafile, a pro-Israeli website with links to Israeli intelligence, Prime Minister Olmert is reported to have protested to President Bush that the administration “had violated its understandings with Israel on Iran and Bush’s personal promises to the Prime Minister (of Israel) earlier this year.”
- David Wurmser, former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, told a Brussels conference two weeks ago that Bush would not use military force against Iran. "The feeling to a large extent now is that diplomacy is working, that there is a trend in the regime toward moderation, that pressure is building on the regime.”
People who bought into the conspiracy theory of an October Surprise in 1980 will be intrigued to note a remarkable coincidence. One of officials in the Iran-Contra deal, by which the US offered arms to “moderates” in Iran in return for getting hostages freed in the mid-1980s, was Elliott Abrams. He was convicted in 1991 of two misdemeanor counts of unlawfully withholding information from Congress during the Iran-Contra Affair investigation, but has since returned to government. He now serves in the current Bush White House as Deputy National Security Advisor for Global Democracy Strategy in the Bush White House.
On the Iranian side, the man who brokered the deal was Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashimi Rafsanjani, who later became president of Iran. Rafsanjani, who lost the last presidential elections to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was elected in September, 2007 to the influential post of Chairman of the Assembly of Experts and head of the Expediency Council of Iran.