Gulf allies turn their backs on Bush
By M K Bhadrakumar – January 16, 2008
So, it was Filipino Monkey, after all. The Pentagon has admitted that the footage of the famous incident of January 6 when five speedboats of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)"buzzed" three US Navy warships in the Strait of Hormuz could have been compromised.
"I am coming at you. You will explode in a few minutes" - that was what the American navy men heard. An indignant Washington announced the US Navy was on the verge of firing on the IRGC boats, but for the latter abruptly turning away. President George W Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates added their strident warning that Tehran would face dire consequences if "provocative actions" were repeated.
But the Iranian footage of the "incident" makes a laughing stock of the US administration. The funny thing is, it was an incident that didn't happen. Commander Lydia Robertson, spokeswoman for the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, put a brave face, while admitting, "We don't know for sure where they [threats] came from. It could have been a shore station." Chief of Naval Operations in the Pentagon, Admiral Gary Roughhead, backed up explaining, "Based on my experience in operating in that part of the world, where there is a lot of maritime activity, trying to discern is very hard to do."
"Filipino Monkey" is the code name given by the US Navy to a mysterious but profane voice which often challenges it in the Strait of Hormuz. The voice could be, if The Seattle Times newspaper is to be believed, "likely more than one person, who listens in on ship-to-ship radio traffic and then jumps in, shouting insults and jabbering vile epithets". US Navy women are said to suffer particularly degrading treatment.
ElBaradei counters Bush
Tehran has asked Washington to apologize for "attempts to mislead public opinion". Instead, Bush has lashed out at Iran during the various halts of his ongoing seven-nation Middle East tour. But here, again, there has been a problem. He has to make the Iranians look like the baddies on the basis of counter-terrorism. The Iranians have ensured that the counter-proliferation card in Bush's pack lacks punch.
Even as Bush was swinging his way through the Persian Gulf, the region had another distinguished visitor - the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei. The timing couldn't have been better fine-tuned. ElBaradei arrived in Tehran just as Bush was touching down in Kuwait. They could almost hear each other. Tehran rolled out a red-carpet welcome for ElBaradei, with senior officials repeatedly underlining that Iran's relations with the IAEA have entered a "new phase". ElBaradei's itinerary included a meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
IAEA spokeswoman in Vienna Melissa Fleming has since confirmed that ElBaradei's visit has been of a substantive nature, with Iran committing to answering all questions about its past nuclear activities within the coming four weeks, including activities that were alleged by the US as linked to a weapons program. Fleming revealed that ElBaradei was given information on Iran's "new generation of centrifuges", which was a topic of considerable interest to the IAEA for assessing the extent of Iran's technological advancement in the nuclear field. 
Fleming claimed ElBaradei was able to "press his case" with his hosts for a suspension of Iran's uranium enrichment. Conceivably, ElBaradei proposed to the Iranian side an exit strategy for the impasse that the United Nations Security Council currently faces. He told the media he discussed in Tehran "ways of solving the issue as well as ways to negotiate with the United Nations Security Council". He stressed his intention is "to find solutions for Iran's nuclear issue so as to turn the problem into a normal issue". The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Agency, Gholam-Reza Aqazadeh, also confirmed that "grounds are now being prepared" for resolving all issues and that Tehran has the "necessary political determination" in this direction.
Aqazadeh advised the West to seize the "existing positive atmosphere" and shift towards engaging Iran. The influential head of the Majlis (Parliament)National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, Alae'ddin Broujerdi, aptly summed up the dead seriousness with which the Iranian leadership approached the visit. He said the IAEA chief's visit was "important", "positive in principle" and "helpful for the country".
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, also welcomed the "constructive role" of ElBaradei, while the latter expressed the hope that a "breakthrough" in the Iran nuclear issue would be possible by March. Significantly, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad assured ElBaradei Iran was keen to resolve remaining issues with the IAEA. Tehran has no doubt given the utmost seriousness to packing ElBaradei's trip with content and substance with the objective of enabling a favorable IAEA report in March.
The meeting with Khamenei was most certainly intended to convey that the Iranian leadership is speaking with one voice. Khamenei stressed, "Iran has time and again declared that Islam prohibits the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons."
ElBaradei being in Tehran has major implications. In Iranian politics itself, it becomes a boost for Ahmadinejad's standing and is bound to cast its shadow on the parliamentary elections of March 14. The continuing cooperation between Iran and the IAEA makes it virtually impossible for the Bush administration to rake up the matter in the Security Council. The indications are that Paris senses that President Nicholas Sarkozy needlessly antagonized Tehran. European rhetoric on the whole has diminished. Russia and China are able to dig in with greater conviction on the issue in the Security Council, while at the same time they feel more comfortable in pressing ahead with their strategic cooperation with Iran.
All eyes are now on the report of ElBaradei at the IAEA meeting in March. Tehran, naturally, is pinning high hopes that the Iran nuclear file may become a routine affair involving a nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty member country. But the most important outcome of the ElBaradei visit is perhaps its impact in molding regional opinion in the Middle East and in the Persian Gulf region.
It gives the decisive push to the "pro-West" Arab regimes to turn their backs on Bush's desperate pleas to join an anti-Iran coalition. Even for the most ardent "pro-West" Arab regimes, there is a serious problem now in identifying with the US-Israeli chorus. Equally, this "new thinking" will have implications for the Palestine-Israel peace process, as well as the situation in Lebanon and Iraq. Simply put, Tehran may be on the verge of breaking through to mainstream Arab regional politics - a historic breakthrough.
ElBaradei appeals to Arab opinion
ElBaradei further chipped in by giving an exclusive interview just before his departure for Tehran to the Saudi-owned newspaper published from London, al-Hayat, which is widely read in the region. It is significant he chose al-Hayat, and, more important, al-Hayat took such an initiative.
In the interview, he put the problem in a historical perspective as an "issue of distrust" ensuing from the West's abrupt boycott of Iran following the revolution in that country in 1979, which only prompted Tehran to keep up its so-called fissile cycle through covert means after all Iranian attempts to "build bridges of trust with the West" failed. Therefore, "There is a process of distrust and the only solution to build trust in the future is through negotiation because the Security Council can impose sanctions, but these alone cannot reach a complete solution for this problem," he explained.
ElBaradei said Iran is still years away from being able to make a nuclear weapon; that he drew a "deep sigh of relief" when the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE)was released in Washington in end-November, which "eliminated the element of urgency from the Iranian file and created an opportunity to start a serious dialogue to resolve the problem through negotiation"; that the Iranian nuclear program "cannot be separated from the security process in the Middle East" The most significant portion of the interview related to ElBaradei's passionate call for a security system in the Middle East where the initiative rested with the Arabs. In this he virtually echoed a long-standing Iranian stance. "We [Arabs] have to be involved, and we should know that we have to be in a leading position in any matter that has to do with our security. We cannot leave our fate, security, future and civilization to be the subject of discussion in European and American councils. We cannot sit back and wait for the outcomes of what they decide for us. If this continues, our existence will never be recognized. As the Koran says, God does not change the condition of a people until they change the condition of their own selves," he concluded.
Tehran ignores Bush rhetoric
There is no need to second-guess what could be the impact of the interview on Arab opinion, specially the elite in the Middle East which respects ElBaradei as a world statesman commanding immense prestige. Tehran correctly estimated that it didn't need to add a comma to what ElBaradei said in his outspoken interview. During the talks with ElBaradei, none of the top leaders in Tehran bothered to match Bush's rhetoric. They seem to have decided that the best thing is simply to ignore the US president.
A sole exception is the main speaker at a Friday prayer meeting on January 11 in Tehran, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami. The senior cleric said the Arab regimes in the Persian Gulf region knew "it would be in their best interests to be friends with powerful Iran". He expressed the hope they would be "wise enough not to let a bankrupt and helpless president decide their fate in the last year of his government, as just one more year remains of Bush's presidency and he is at the end of the line."
But short of rhetoric, Tehran has effectively undercut Bush's diplomatic moves in the region. The Iranian Foreign Ministry announced on Sunday the first session of an Iran-Kuwait joint commission will be held in Tehran this week at the level of the foreign ministers. The deep irony cannot be lost on the region. Bush will still be in the region when the foreign minister of one of Washington's key allies in the region will be visiting Tehran, breaking fresh ground for cooperation with Iran.
The Kuwaiti foreign minister's visit to Tehran comes within a day of Bush's call on Persian Gulf countries to "confront this danger [posed by Iran] before it is too late". Indeed, Kuwait was Bush's first halt in the Persian Gulf during the current tour. What emerges once again is that, frustrated with US regional policies, a key ally is breaking loose and pursuing its own diplomatic drive towards Iran.
Saudis spurn anti-Iran coalition
Reactions coming from Saudi Arabia, which has been projected by Washington in recent months as the linchpin of the Bush administration's efforts to put together an anti-Iran coalition, have been even more revealing. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said on Wednesday Riyadh's national interests came first when dealing with Tehran. "We have relations with Iran and we talk with them, and if we felt any danger we have links ... that allow us to talk about. So we welcome any issue the president [Bush] raises and we will discuss them from our point of view," he said. Such bluntness is unprecedented in US-Saudi relations.
Again, on the eve of Bush's arrival in Riyadh on Monday, the leading pro-government newspaper, al-Riyadh, which reflects the views of the Saudi authorities, said Saudi Arabia refused to be drawn into wars or tensions with Iran and the Iran nuclear issue should be solved through diplomatic means and dialogue. It advised Bush that he was "welcome as a man of peace, but not as a man of war" and that if he sought Arab solidarity, then "he must focus rationally on the most important issue which is the question of peace".
Al-Riyadh urged Bush "not to preoccupy himself with a danger which the US intelligence has qualified as non-existent in the short term", a reference to the NIE report that said Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program years ago.
Similarly, influential Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi said on Sunday, "Iran and Saudi Arabia can turn into a proper model for the rest of the Islamic world through mutual cooperation and with the help of other regional states." He said recent developments such as the Saudi invitation to the Iranian president to participate in the hajj were "clear indications of a deepening of Riyadh's relations with Tehran".
Setback to US standing
Bush's Persian Gulf tour has suffered erosion from various quarters. ElBaradei's visit to Tehran virtually pre-empted any attempt by Bush to stoke the fires of the Iran nuclear issue. Ahmadinejad chose the exact median point of Bush's regional tour to send a communication to the heads of the six Gulf Cooperation Countries ( GCC - Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) states recalling his proposal at the Doha summit of the regional body on December 2. This was to the effect that the security of the region is best addressed via greater political, security, economic and cultural cooperation between Iran and those countries. Ahmadinejad exhorted the GCC to hold more such meetings with Iran, while he assured his Arab counterparts of Iran's cooperation.
But the proverbial last nail on the coffin of American credibility in Arab opinion would have been the sensational report appearing in the Sunday Times on January 13, quoting Iraqi government sources, that the head of the IRGC, Major General Mohammed Ali Jafari, had slipped into the so-called Green Zone of Baghdad last month. Jafari apparently passed through checkpoints on his way to the fortified enclave that contains the American Embassy, even though he is on Washington's "most wanted" list.
Arab regimes will be wondering what Washington is really up to by holding secret talks with a high-ranking Iranian official while Bush makes incessant demands that they must confront Iran. Besides, only a few months ago, the Bush administration declared the IRGC as a "foreign terrorist organization" and imposed sanctions on it. It is immaterial whether the Sunday Times report turns out to be substantiated or not. Either way, US standing in the region suffers.
In the Arab world, perceptions matter the most, and nothing hurts more than being made to look foolish. The Filipino Monkey and Jafari have caused havoc on US standing in the Persian Gulf. Washington looks foolish. The Arabs have assessed that the right thing to do is to bide their time until a new president moves into the White House - which is also what Tehran's substitute Friday prayer leader Khatami advised them to do.
1. The agreement ElBaradei carried away with him from Tehran on January 13 deals with two issues. One relates to so-called military-linked studies. These include indications that Iran was examining how to convert uranium dioxide into a semi-refined product called UF4, which can be refined further into gas suitable for an enrichment cascade; and among other things, that Iran was studying designs for missile re-entry vehicles. The second issue relates to radioactive contamination found at an Iranian technical university. The IAEA wants to know how this uranium contamination got there, and it wants access to the individuals working at the university, as well as to the equipment that was used. These two areas that Iran has agreed to explain within a month are the remaining unanswered questions on a "work plan" formulated by the IAEA last year, and endorsed by the agency's Board of Governors on November 15, 2007. - Radio Free Europe
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/JA16Ak02.html
Last updated 17/01/2008