A Digest of debkafile Round-the-Clock Exclusives In Week Ending August 27

Iran Bullies Israel’s Strategic Friends – with Eye on Washington

22 August: Amid a spate of threats and warnings delivered from Tehran, debkafile‘s intelligence and military sources uncover determined Iranian steps worldwide to undermine Israel’s strategic positions by engendering its international isolation, a tactic reminiscent of the excesses of the Arab boycott. Iranian officials are going around capitals on three continents telling governments friendly to Israel to chill their military and other ties.

When Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan visited Tehran in late June, he was informed by spiritual ruler Ali Khamenei and president Mohammed Khatami that if he wants good relations with the Iranian regime with concomitant economic benefits, such as cheap oil and gas, he must end Turkey’s military ties with Israel. Erdogan agreed to bar Turkish air space to Israeli warplanes stationed in Turkey or incoming from Israel for use as a corridor for striking Iranian nuclear and military installations.

The Turkish prime minister did not inform either Jerusalem or Washington of a step that robbed both of Israel’s key strategic deterrent card against Iran and Syria. Erdogan’s high-profile re-orientation away from Ankara’s traditional ties with Washington and Jerusalem in pursuit of closer relations with the Arab and Muslim world was abruptly signaled earlier this year by his condemnation of Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians as “state-sponsored terrorism.”

A high-level Turkish government delegation is due in Jerusalem for some damage control, necessary to assure Turkish generals who are keen on the military partnership with Israel that nothing is amiss and to soften the ground ahead and appease the US ahead of Erdogan’s visit next month to Damascus, where Turkey and Syria will declare the start of military cooperation.

In late July, Iran’s president Mohammed Khatami paid a formal visit to Baku. He was followed last week by a senior delegation of Iranian intelligence officers who presented Azeri president Aliyev with a demand to shut down the Israeli Mossad station in Baku, dismantle the electronic listening stations the Israelis set up along the Caspian and the Iranian border and stop visits by groups of Israeli military and intelligence officers.

Tehran believes it can make short shrift of Israel’s military links in the region before tackling the major issue of the US military presence in the same countries. Once Israeli military officers and experts are out, Iran will press for the Americans to go too.

Bush and Sharon Play to Their Galleries on Settlement Growth

22 August: Bush administration officials say the US could agree to some new Israeli settlement construction on the West Bank, provided it does not step outside the boundaries of existing locations – a departure from the freeze demanded till now. Israel, for its part, has promised there would not be territorial expansion, only construction to accommodate natural population growth.

With Labor in revolt against joining his government, no cabinet or Knesset majority and a party divided against him, Sharon finds his disengagement plan blocked at every hand.

He is therefore dodging between two urgent needs: to placate his own wayward party, which is on the verge of a split, while drumming up the semblance of momentum to avoid a humiliating climb-down over his defeated disengagement plan. Washington’s “flexibility” has therefore landed in his grasp in the nick of time as a sorely-needed prop.

Since the determination of boundaries is pivotal to both these nagging disputes, a pointer to Washington’s real, rather than pre-election, intentions will come from the guidelines handed to the team of technical experts, which has been assigned to Israel next month to record the boundaries and make sure they are not stretched to permit outward expansion beyond already built-up areas. The team’s task is therefore a weighty – almost historical – one: setting the borders of the Jewish presence on the West Bank.

A key question is will President Bush instruct the team to also mark out the final route of Israel’s security fence.

The fence is the sine qua non of Sharon’s disengagement plan. Bush and Sharon would certainly prefer to take it out of the hands of the judges of the International Court and Israel’s supreme court in Jerusalem. The whole issue of boundaries is tightly bound up also with the 43 illegal outposts on the West Bank.

By determining which of the outposts falls under the new policy of flexibility with regard to settlement growth, the experts from Washington will not only override the two courts but also the joint US-Israeli group headed by US ambassador Dan Kurtzer, which is bogged down in its selfsame appointed task. If armed with a broad enough remit, therefore, this State Department team can help Sharon overcome some of the obstacles on the road to disengagement and the removal of the Gaza settlements. The alternative mandate for the experts from Washington is to treat their mission as no more than a bridge to span the gap up to the November election. The third option is for the White House to bury the team’s conclusions. It has happened before, as the former CIA chief George Tenet, General Anthony Zinni and former senator George Mitchell can attest.

Putin’s Sochi Residence Targeted by Hijacked Russian Plane

25 August: Russian president Vladimir Putin was faced with a tough dilemma early Wednesday, August 25: to shut down all of Russia’s airports and air space, or clear only the skies over the main cities, like Moscow and St. Petersburg, to prevent a 9/11 type assault.

By morning it was apparent that the two airliners which crashed within minutes of each other after takeoff from Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, one bound for Volgograd the second for the Black Sea resort of Sochi, had been hijacked by terrorists. None of the 89 people aboard survived. Among them were 5 members of Russia’s Federation of Jewish Communities. Russian security service sources, in their first reaction over Russian TV Wednesday, characterized the disaster as typical of al Qaeda’s mode of operation.

debkafile‘s counter-terror sources believe, in fact, that the Tupolev-154 which blew up in mid-flight near Rostov was destined for Sochi, further to the south, where Putin was vacationing at his holiday residence. The first doomed craft, a Tuopolev-134 that crashed near Bushelaki in the Tula province may also have been originally aimed at a Russian city and not made it.

Putin finally opted to clear the airspace over Russia’s main cities, not the whole country, on the assumption that the two-plane assault was the end of the current terror offensive. He hoped that the announcement of tightened security at Moscow’s airports would put off any more terrorists who might be heading there for further air hijacks. Russian Air force fighters scrambled to patrol skies across the country, armed with unpublished orders to shoot down any identified aircraft, even if it was a passenger plane. In addition, Moscow quietly asked neighboring Ukraine, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to go on counter-terror air alert.

debkafile‘s sources add that Russia’s overnight emergency triggered elevated levels of security at the international airports of Europe and Israel, focusing mainly on passenger planes incoming from Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Israel’s Ben Gurion airport security is also carefully screening flights from eastern and southern Europe, Turkey, Hungary and Bulgaria.

The United States too, three weeks after raising terror alerts in New York, Washington and New Jersey over a threat to its financial sector, has also instituted extra-special precautions. American security authorities decided to be on the safe side and act as though the Moscow hijackings were the start of a series in places other than Russia, especially in view of their timing – four days before Chechnya’s presidential election on Sunday, August 28 and five days before the Republican National Convention opens in New York to nominate President George W. Bush as party’s presidential candidate and Vice President Richard Cheney his running mate.

Al Qaeda has issued threats against both events.

Security services in the West are now braced to see whether the double airline attack in Russia is followed by sequels anywhere else.

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