North Korea’s boast on March 8 of its ability to manufacture nuclear warheads small enough to fit onto ballistic missiles attracted eager interest in Tehran, DEBKA Weekly reports.
So, while US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry struggled to preserve the nuclear accord Iran signed with the world powers, and stall new sanctions to punish Iran for test-firing nuclear-capable Emad ballistic missiles, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Revolutionary Guard Corps appeared ready to leave the nuclear deal in the dust and move on.
Indeed, they are deep in secret negotiations with Pyongyang on two alternatives – either for the technology for installing nuclear warheads on missiles or five complete warheads.
The boast came from Kim Jong-un in person. He announced the “tremendous” achievement while visiting nuclear scientists. ”The nuclear warheads have been standardized to be fit for ballistic missiles by miniaturizing them,” KCNA quoted him as saying. “This can be called (a) true nuclear deterrent....Koreans can do anything if they have a will."
While Kim’s eye was on the US-North Korean exercise for practicing marine landings on North Korean beaches, his sales talks was aimed at Iran.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources report that the ayatollah swallowed the bait. Inferring that with North Korean technology, the Islamic Republic could do anything too, he sent negotiators post-haste to Pyongyang to bid a huge fortune of $8-10 billion for five of the new miniaturized warheads and/or the technology for their manufacture.
The Iranian delegation was authorized to assure the vendors that the money was ready in hand from formerly sanctioned funds that had been released by US and European financial institutions.
Before clinching a deal, Tehran wanted to be sure that North Korea did indeed possess the special warhead technology and that it was operational.
But negotiations have since advanced to the point of discussing how to transfer the goods to Iran undetected by spy satellites or other US surveillance measures designed to fasten onto radioactive materials transported by plane or ship.
They considered bringing over to the Islamic Republic complete teams of North Korean specialist nuclear engineers and technicians, or alternatively, sending Iranian specialists to Pyongyang to collect the technology.
With this transaction in the works, Iranian officials are throwing out hints about abandoning the nuclear accord altogether.
After meeting British Prime Minister David Cameron in London on March 16, Iranian president’s chief of staff, Mohammed Nahavandian said in a speech,“After this nuclear deal, there is a real, serious opening up in Iran for economic relations. If it does not happen, and tangible results do not follow, the damage will be out of any calculation.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi put it more bluntly, when he told a group of officials in Tehran on March 8: “If our interests are not met under the nuclear deal, there will be no reason for us to continue.”
DEBKA Weekly’s regulars wouldn’t have been totally amazed by President Vladimir Putin’s shock order Monday, March 14, to start pulling the bulk of Russian forces out of Syria, five-and-a-half months after they landed. Those readers would have had an inkling of the drama ahead from the way his understandings with Barack Obama, first revealed by our sources, unfolded.
(DW 685 of Dec. 4: The Secret Euphrates Pact between Obama and Putin)
This pact marked the Euphrates River as dividing Syria into two spheres of military influence: a US-dominated sector to the east, up to the Iraqi border, and a Russian-controlled sector to the west, up to the Mediterranean.
The Russians pulled out essentially from the western region, leaving the US to carry on the war on terror in the east.
Putin acted after his pact with Obama generated six developments:
1. Russian military intervention was able to stabilize President Bashar Assad’s regime in Damascus and roll the western coastal strip back under its control. In deference to Washington, Moscow avoided committing to Assad’s ultimate survival in power – only to prop up his regime and army.
2. The Russian military quit with two unfinished tasks in mid-stream: Aleppo’s capture in the north and Deraa in the south. (See attached map). But their air blitz softened opposition resistance enough to turn those tasks over to the Syrian army and its allies, Hizballah and the Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani Shiite militias serving under Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps command.
Putin left supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Assad and Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah with the responsibility to decide whether to go through with these major campaigns – or leave the two towns in rebel hands.
3. Up to 9,000 Russian air force sorties exhausted its list of targets in the western sector - and so, most of the 120 warplanes parked at the Hmeymim air base in Latakia could be shipped home. About 20 to 30 planes were left on standby for unforeseen military developments calling for Russia’s intervention anew.
Moscow is additionally returning to the Mediterranean the Russian fleet’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, it was announced on March 7. The vessel will soon dock at Tartous. The 40 warplanes on its decks will partially replace the bombers withdrawn from Hmeymim. They include SU-33, NIG-29 and SU-25UT fighters, as well as 24 helicopters.
4. Putin never swerved from his initial decision against sending Russian ground troops into combat in Syria, insisting that his air and naval units could handle all the goals of the intervention. His motive, which overrode Moscow’s commitments to Iran and the Syrian ruler, was to prove that Russian air might was capable of accomplishing a strategic turnaround in the Syrian war within a short period, unaided by ground troops – in contrast to the below-par strategic achievements of the American aerial campaigns in Iraq and Syria, since September 2014.
This feat was meant to impress the Middle East and enhance Russia’s rating as a world-class military power.
5. The Kremlin is now turning to Geneva to join the Obama administration for the next stage of their plan, which is to push the warring sides into swallowing the Russian-US political solution for wrapping up the conflict.
By its partial military withdrawal, Moscow was writing a message in large letters for Khamenei, Assad and Nasrallah to digest. Now that their sharpest weapon was gone, their best bet was to follow Russia’s political script, i.e. use the military advantages the Russian air force had won for their armies and finish the two critical campaigns in short order, while at the same time taking the path to a negotiated accommodation with the opposition.
Bucking Moscow would have consequences, it was implied: Moscow is keeping its military options in reserve at Hmeymim and Tartous.
6. Although at the outset of its aerial bombardments on Oct 1, Moscow designated terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and Nusra Front as targets, they were left practically untouched apart from sporadic raids. That was because most of their strongholds are concentrated east of the Euphrates in the US-control sector.
Not all Russia’s missions were accomplished, as Putin boasted. The US-led coalition has, for its part, been left saddled with the main burden of the struggle to defeat the jihadists and root them out of their Syrian bastion at Raqqa.
How credible is the claim that the US was taken by surprise by President Vladimir Putin’s March 13 order to pull most Russian military forces out of Syria the next morning?
Or that the news caught Defense Secretary Ashton Carter off guard (at least according to reports) in the middle of a meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon at the Pentagon?
Does anyone believe that Israel’s Chief of Staff Lieut. Gen. Gady Eisenkot and the IDF were taken completely unawares?
So what was the play-acting about?
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources agree that the collective gasp of surprise was carefully staged, but are divided on the choreographer’s identity. Some name Secretary of State John Kerry, speculating that he organized the masquerade to disguise the closeness of US-Russian cooperation on Syria, even though he had a meeting with Putin in Moscow scheduled for next week.
Other sources attributed the performance to the White House National Security Council, as a smart move for President Barack Obama to feign ignorance about a Russian step, which put Tehran’s nose seriously out of joint. Deniability was intended to help Washington avoid sharing the flying flak.
It is hardly conceivable that any of the relevant parties was genuinely surprised, say DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources:
1. In the first week of March, US military satellites and Israeli surveillance aircraft spotted Russian preparations for evacuation at the Hmeineem air base near Latakia. The squadrons of Su-24 attack aircraft, Su-25 close air support aircraft and Su-34 fighter-bombers had stopped conducting air strikes (only partly because of the partial ceasefire), while air and ground crews were seen packing up equipment.
Last week saw the departure from Syria of the Tupolev Tu-214R, the most advanced Russian intelligence, surveillance, targeting, acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) aircraft, shortly after it arrived in Syria in February.
And last week, too, Moscow recalled the two Russian warships anchored at the Russian naval base in Tartous, leaving the base stripped of a Russian naval presence.
2. Prescience was hardly called for when, according to our sources, Russia’s Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev was instructed by Putin to give notice of the coming withdrawal on March 10-11 to US National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Syrian President Bashar Assad office and Israel’s newly-appointed National Security Advisor Avriel Bar-Yosef.
The Russian president pointedly refrained from warning Tehran of the imminent withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria. This was hardly surprising given the rupture in Russian-Iranian relations on the Syrian issue. The Iranians got the news before the event in a phone call from Assad to the offices of Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iranian forces in Syria.
They too were not taken by surprise.
During months of seeming harmony, Moscow and Iran were quietly jockeying for top position in the Syrian conflict and its aftermath, DEBKA Weekly reveals. When the rift became unbridgeable, President Vladimir Putin decided to take his winnings and run.
The partnership set out last year on a high note
Between April and October of 2015, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s forces in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, was a frequent visitor to Moscow for coordinating operations in Syria with the Russian military. At the time, Putin still entertained high hopes of Russia and Iran emerging from the conflict as the unchallenged top dogs of the Middle East.
To promote his plans, he set Tehran the task of getting Russia an air base in Iraq, preferably at Habbaniya west of Baghdad (the main US air facility in Iraq), corresponding to the Hmeymim air base in Western Syria he had obtained from Bashar Assad.
The Russian military would then hold the two bases as the opposite ends of a land bridge, that would give Iran direct access to Syria and the Mediterranean, in the same way as the US opened up the Persian Gulf to Tehran.
The difference was that Putin intended Moscow to stay in the region and work with Tehran to build a twin power hub - unlike Washington, which turned away and left Iran to cope with Israel and Saudi Arabia on its own.
Soleimani at the time assured the Russian president that he was doing his utmost to persuade Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to give the Russians the use of the air facility. When it was refused, he explained that the Iraqi leader had buckled under strong American pressure.
The Kremlin initially believed him, DEBKA Weekly’s sources in Moscow and Washington report. But when the US and Russian presidents began working in close harness in Syria, Tehran was caught out as having torpedoed the Putin plan – not the Americans, although they too were not too enthusiastic about having to share their Iraqi air facility with the Russians.
The stumbling block it turned out had been planted by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who saw no reason why Russia should control the Iraqi-Syrian land bridge, when it should be the other way round: Russia and Iraq should have to depend on Shiite Iran for access.
By then, relations between Moscow and Iran were fraying at the edges. They were wrangling sharply over ground forces for buttressing the Syrian army’s struggle against the rebels.
Putin quoted Gen, Soleimeni, who a year ago (as reported by DEBKA Weekly’s sources) presented a formula which the Kremlin had accepted: the Russian air force would control Syrian skies, while Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps would provide the ground forces for turning the war around to victory.
When Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu demanded those troops, Soleimani, in his capacity as coordinator, personally guaranteed Tehran’s compliance with its side of the bargain.
In the event, Russian warplanes went into action over Syria, whereas the promised Iranian ground forces never materialized and therefore never followed ;up on the successful Russian air strikes.
When Gen. Shoigu approached his Iranian colleague on the subject, he met with evasions and pretexts.
At length, Tehran finally delivered the ground forces – only they were not Iranian combatants, but hurriedly mustered Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani Shiite militiamen, armed with scrappy, outdated firearms and no combat experience.
The crisis between the two governments came to a head in the second half of February, when the two defense ministers exchanged visits to each other’s capitals. Iran stood by its refusal to send troops to Syria. A few days later, Putin decided to pull back a large part of the Russian contingent from Syria.
A deep sigh of relief swept through top Israeli government and military circles Monday, March 14, when they heard about the withdrawal of most Russian forces from Syria. One military official explained in answer to a question from DEBKA weekly: “The Syrian war is back to square one. The Russians tried to help the Syrian army, the Iranians and Hizballah to capture Aleppo, Idlib and the entire north, as well as Daraa and the entire south. Now that won’t happen.”
Another source put it this way. “What we care about most is South Syria. Had the Russian game plan played out in full, we would have been stuck with the Syria army, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hizballah sitting right on our northern border (the Golan) and the Jordanian frontier as well. Thankfully, that danger is past.”
Israel was further encouraged to hear from Moscow a commitment to remove the high-grade S-400 air defense missiles from Syria in the not-too-distant future, as soon as the Saudi and Turkish “threats” to intervene in Syria expire.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was somewhat less sanguine than Israel’s generals. He saw a major political drawback coming out of Moscow’s retirement from the lead military role on the Syrian stage. President Vladimir Putin’s close association with Tehran served as a useful inhibitor for containing Tehran’s drive for expansion in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The deep rift between Moscow and Tehran (more about which in a separate article), culminating in Russia’s virtual walkout, removed that lever. Taken in conjunction with America’s fading influence in the Middle East and the Obama administration’s lax handling of Tehran, it leaves Netanyahu bereft of buffers against Tehran and its designs.
The Russian military intervention in Syria in the second half of September 2015 was seen by and large in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in a positive light - albeit with a dash of sentimentality, always a mistake in political relations.
It opened up a dialogue between Israel and a major world power, which was especially welcome when the Obama administration was withdrawing from most Middle East affairs. Israel headed the queue for a joint mechanism with Moscow for coordinating their air force operations. Netanyahu was gratified by the friendship Putin showed him and Israel’s security concerns, betokened by the direct line he was given to the presidential office in the Kremlin when those concerns were impaired.
But Russia’s intervention in Syria was as much a mixed blessing as its exit.
In the five and-a-half months of the Russian military presence in Syria, Putin bent an ear to Israel’s arguments. But that’s as far as it went. In at least four instances, cited here by DEBKA Weekly’s Moscow and Jerusalem sources, the Russian leader heard Israeli requests and then did just the opposite, haring off in pursuit of his own agenda.
1. In the face of Israel’s objections, Putin deployed advanced S-300 and S-400 antiaircraft missiles to Syria.
2. He kept his promise to Netanyahu not to let Russian warplanes interfere with Israeli air force flights over Syria, but reneged on his commitment to keep them from intruding into Israeli airspace.
Some of those flights were undoubtedly reconnaissance missions to appraise the preparedness of Israel’s air defense systems.
3. Putin broke his promise to keep Iranian and Hizballah forces at a distance from the southern Syrian borders of Israel and Jordan. Russian officers on the spot let them pass through.
4. Putin promised to preclude terrorist groups’ deployment in southern Syrian for attacks against Israel. But Russian officers – with or without his knowledge – permitted Revolutionary Guards Corps and Hizballah officers to set up a Palestinian terror network in southern Syria for the object of infiltrating Israel for attacks.
The reduction of Russia’s military presence in Syria has done little all in all to scale down the perils that the Syrian conflict has generated for Israel. They loom large from the unresolved war situation in southern Syria and the arrival of Iranian and Hizballah forces on its border, under cover of advanced Russian air defense missiles.
Yemen’s Houthi rebels are pressing forward with Saudi Arabia to build on their shaky, partial ceasefire accord – called “calm border” - for direct talks to end the bloody civil conflict. The rebels have risked going over the head of their sponsor, Iran, a move understandably welcomed by Riyadh.
The limited nature of the ceasefire was demonstrated on March 14, when Saudi-led coalition warplanes struck a market in the Mustaba district of Haija province, leaving 41 people dead and scores injured.
The targeted area was outside the “calm border” zones, which cover Houthi-controlled border areas in Yemen and obliges them to discontinue cross-border Scud missile strikes and ground attacks on military bases and transportation routes in southern Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis, for their part, undertook to halt air and artillery attacks on Houthi border areas.
The rest of Yemen, including its big towns, is outside the Saudi-Houthi deal, which DEBKA Weekly’s sources say, has carved out a sort of safety zone for Houthi forces to stay clear of the raging civil war in the rest of the country.
This week, the rebel leaders sent a delegation to the border to meet Saudi officials and launch negotiations for a truce. Some sources claimed that Oman brokered the encounter with Tehran’s support, when in fact it was the outcome of direct contacts between Houthi leaders and Riyadh. The two sides decided to dispense with all foreign third-party intercession. They arranged their meeting through intelligence channels with the help of local tribal chiefs, who had stayed neutral in the war.
Iran was firmly excluded from the picture.
Tehran was not surprisingly outraged at Houthi perfidy and tried to strike back.
Deputy chief of staff, Gen. Masoud Jazayeri announced March 15, that Tehran was prepared to deploy military troops and advisers to assist the Houthis in the war against Saudi Arabia “in any way we can, and at every level necessary”
He drew a parallel between Yemen and Iran’s intervention in Syria to buttress Bashar Assad.
This proposal was taken as a threat to introduce Iranian troops to the Yemen-Saudi border and an attempt to sabotage the Houthi peace track with Riyadh.
Senior Houthi official Yousef Al Feshi responded by publicly rebuking Tehran in a Facebook post: “Iran should shut up and leave off exploiting the Yemen file,” he said.
In Tehran, this comment went down as crass impudence - equal to Hizballah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah, or a senior aide, daring to tell Iran in public to hold its tongue and stay out of Lebanese affairs.
The Houthis are not put off from the resolve to go ahead with the Saudis in an effort to expand their “calm border’ ceasefire to the rest of Yemen.
Other interested parties are trying to get in on the act.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was rumored to have put a proposition to Iran when he visited Tehran last week: Iran would try and mediate the Russian quarrel with Ankara, he suggested, while Turkey would reciprocate by acting as peacemaker between Iran and Saudi Arabia on such issues as Yemen.
A DEBKA Weekly investigation found that the rumor had no basis in fact.
And indeed how could Tehran patch up the Russian-Turkish quarrel, when Iran itself was at extreme odds with Moscow on the Syrian conflict? And how could Ankara mend fences between Iran and Saudi Arabia, after the Saudis and Houthis had together hung a “Keep out” sign for Tehran?