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IRAN: U.S. Covert Ops versus Sanctions?

At the same time that it is working with the Senate to gain flexibility in pushing Iran sanctions, the Obama administration seems to be upping the potential for covert operations in the region.

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Inter Press Service

President Barack Obama's efforts to gain greater flexibility in dealing with Iran received a small but potentially important boost here Tuesday when a key Congressional committee announced that the deadline for a unilateral U.S. sanctions package will be put off until next month.

The Democratic co-chairs of the "conference committee" charged with reconciling competing versions of a sweeping sanctions bill passed by the two legislative chamber s earlier this year said the new deadline for Congressional passage of a final bill will be the end of June rather than this week.

"We have always said that tough multilateral sanctions are the most effective means to persuade Iran to cease its efforts to develop a nuclear weapons capacity," Sen. Christopher Dodd and Rep. Howard Berman told reporters.

"With the progress in negotiations at the (U.N.) Security Council, we believe that our overriding goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability is best served by providing a limited amount of time for those efforts – and expected follow-on action by the EU (European Union) at its mid-June summit – to reach a successful conclusion before we send our bill to the President," they added.

They were referring to last week's announcement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the five permanent members (P-5) of the Security Council – Britain, France, Russia, and China, as well as the U.S. – had reached agreement on a fourth round of sanctions on Iran which Washington says it expects to be approved next month.

While falling far short of the much harsher sanctions originally sought by the U.S. and Britain, the proposed package includes penalties for companies or banks allegedly involved in Iran's nuclear programme or in helping it obtain heavy conventional weapons. It also authorises countries to inspect ships they believe may be carrying banned cargo to or from the Islamic Republic.

More important to the administration, however, is that the package's approval will help highlight what in their view is Iran's increasing international isolation, as well as provide multilateral "cover" for much stronger unilateral sanctions – such as those already approved by the two Congressional chambers – by the U.S. and its closest allies, including the EU and Japan.

The administration of President Barack Obama had been concerned that passage now of a tough unilateral sanctions bill – particularly one that doesn't given him the authority to waive sanctions on companies from key countries, such as China – could undercut its efforts to rally international support at the Security Council.

It remains uncertain, however, whether the package touted by Clinton will be further watered down – or indeed even approved – between now and the end of next month.

Last week's agreement between Iran, Turkey, and Brazil on a plan for Tehran to ship roughly half of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to Turkey for reprocessing, a variation on a proposal put forward by the P5 and Germany last October, has raised the possibility of a new round of negotiations between Iran and the "P5+1".

Washington has so far appeared to reject the deal as an effort to derail the sanctions drive at the Security Council; Clinton herself described it as a "ploy" during a brief exchange with the press in Beijing Tuesday.

But both Turkey and Brazil, non-permanent Security Council members, have embarked on a diplomatic campaign to gain support for the proposal which, they insist, would eliminate the need for additional sanctions now.

Backed by Turkey and Brazil, Iran formally submitted the plan to the so-called Vienna Group – the U.S., Russia, France, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – Monday for its reaction.

Anything less than a complete rejection – which hawks in Congress and within the Obama administration reportedly favour – could effectively open a new round of negotiations over Iran's nuclear programme that would make swift action by the Security Council less likely.

The latest developments on the sanctions front come amid a flurry of reports that are likely to heighten tensions with Iran and possibly strengthen hard-line factions there.

Earlier this week, Debka, a news service with close links to Israeli intelligence community, reported that the Obama administration had had ordered a "massive U.S. Air-Sea-Marine build-up" in the Mediterranean and Gulf regions, suggesting that it was part of a plan to ratchet up military pressure on Iran. Pentagon sources denied that the deployment detailed by Debka was anything more than routine rotation.

At the same time, however, Washington confirmed that it planned to upgrade an airbase in southwestern Afghanistan only 30 kms from the Iranian border over the next year in what influential mainstream commentator, Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, predicted would be seen a provocation by Iran.

On Tuesday, the New York Times disclosed that the chief of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, had ordered a broad expansion of covert military operations throughout his region – which includes the entire Middle East, Central Asia, and the Horn of Africa, including Iran – last September.

The directive "appears to authorise specific operations in Iran, most likely to gather intelligence about the country's nuclear programme or identify dissident groups that might be useful for a future military offensive," the Times reported.

The story has given rise to a flurry of speculation about its provenance and intent – that is, whether the leak on which it was based was authorised at the highest levels of the administration or whether it was provided by officials unhappy with the directive for bureaucratic reasons, such as protesting the military's encroachment into areas traditionally overseen by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), or for policy reasons.

"In any event, it's certainly going to make an impression on the Iranians," said Gary Sick, a Columbia University professor who worked on Iran in the White House in the 1970s and early 1980s.

He suggested the leak will likely not only increase suspicions about U.S. intentions toward Tehran and make it more difficult for the two countries to engage diplomatically, but it could also undermine efforts to rally support for sanctions at the Security Council.

"I can't see how this helps the administration unless it's designed to show Congress how tough it is on Iran, that it's doing a lot of things Congress doesn't know about, and that therefore Congress shouldn't enact sanctions without giving the president a lot of flexibility (in applying them)," he said. "I don't think that's a very likely explanation, but it's conceivable."

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to IPS Right Web (http://rightweb.irc-online.org/). He blogs at http://www.lobelog.com/.

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