A Digest of DEBKAfile Round-the-Clock Exclusives in Week Ending January 12, 2012

January 6, 2012 Briefs
• Two Russian warships expected in Syrian port of Tartus Saturday in apparent show of support for Assad. They are destroyer Admiral Chabanenko, Frigate Yaroslav Mudry.
• US Navy rescues 13 Iranian sailors held hostage by Somali pirates. The incident took place opposite Oman in the Arabian Sea. A destroyer from the USS Stennis strike group carried out the rescue.
• Tehran's announced closure of the Hormuz Strait to the USS Stennis has sparked a major crisis.
• Suicide bombing Friday kills 26 people in central Maidan district of Damascus near a security building. Two weeks ago, explosions in Syrian capital killed 44 people.

US troops land in Israel. Aircraft carrier coming soon

6 Jan. The first of 9,000 incoming US troops have arrived in Israel – not just for the joint Austere Challenge 12 exercise but for a longer stay. They are part of the joint US-Israel deployment ready for a military engagement with Iran and its possible escalation into a regional conflict. A US aircraft carrier will soon dock in Israel for joint missions with the Israeli Air Force. Most of the US arrivals are airmen, missile interceptor teams, marines, seamen, technicians and intelligence officers. The decision to bring them over now although the war game is scheduled for April was taken in consultations among US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the two army chiefs, US Gen. Martin Dempsey and Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz.
British Defense Minister Phillip Hammond, on a visit to Washington, was brought into the discussion.
The handout circulated to US correspondents from Hammond's talks in the US capital affirmed that Britain stands ready to strike Iran if the Strait of Hormuz is closed.
However, that phrase was omitted from the British minister's remarks at a news conference, following a last-minute request from Panetta, signifying the Obama administration's interest in keeping a low profile on plans for attacking Iran.

January 8, 2012 Briefs
• US top soldier Gen. Dempsey: Iran has ability to block Strait of Hormuz "for a period of time". We are invested in capabilities to ensure we can defeat that."
• At Jenin checkpoint, Israel border police detain four Palestinians carrying 12 explosive devices, an improvised firearm, ammo and a commando knife.
• Next Iranian exercise will practice Strait of Hormuz closure in Persian Gulf.
• High Gulf tension delays construction of UAR oil pipeline planned to bypass Hormuz sea passage.
• At least 11 killed Sunday in Syrian army clashes with deserters in Deraa area.

Generals' handover to Islamists wrecks New Egypt hopes

8 Jan. Washington and Jerusalem were dismayed to discover last week that Egypt's transitional military rulers (SCAF) were preparing to drop the reins of government and hand them over – lock, stock and barrel, including the armed forces – to civilian rule, i.e., the Muslim Brotherhood, at the earliest opportunity.
This decision upends the Obama administration's plans for post-Mubarak: The military rulers were to have stayed in place until a new, democratic constitution was drafted and a moderate president acceptable to the Egyptian people elected.
But the generals seem to have despaired of getting Egypt back on its feet after the turmoil of the 12-month uprising and are anxious to escape the country's plunge into chaos, economic breakdown and the uncertainties of an approaching Middle East war.
By staying mute while this process ripened, Israel emboldened Muslim Brotherhood leaders to reiterate that they were not bound by any pledges to Washington to uphold the 1979 peace treaty and held the door open to relations of cooperation between Islamist Cairo and Washington.

Iran crosses another nuclear red line.

8 Jan. Iran has crossed another red line in its drive for a nuclear weapon with the announcement Sunday, Jan. 8 that the underground uranium enrichment site at Fordo near Qom goes on stream soon. debkafile's military sources: uranium enriched to 60 percent can be produced at this facility – just one step before weapons grade. Israel has warned that once Fordo is operational, Iran's nuclear bomb program will be immune to attack and hidden from Western surveillance.
Tehran has clearly not been deterred in its drive for a nuclear weapon by the stiff sanctions the US and European Union began imposing in the past week against Iran's oil exports and its central bank.

January 9, 2012 Briefs
• Israel and Cypriot defense ministers, Ehud Barak and Demetris Eliades signed two accords in Tel Aviv Monday. They concerned defense cooperation at jointly developed Mediterranean gas and old fields.
• Tuesday, Barak travels to Athens to confirm Israeli-Greek-Cypriot joint aerial-naval defense of the offshore energy sites.
• Bill Daley resigns as Barack Obama's chief of staff, replaced by Jacob "Jack" Lew, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget – ABC. Last year, Daley replaced Rahm Emanuel, since elected Chicago Mayor.
• US condemns Iranian allegations that Amir Mirzaei Hekmati was a CIA spy – for which an Iranian court sentenced him to death – as false. Washington demands the former US marine's release without delay.
• EU brings forward key meeting to approve embargo on Iranian oil to Jan. 23.
• UN nuclear watchdog sources in Vienna confirm that uranium enrichment has begun Iran's Fordo underground site.
• FM Lieberman throws cold water on second Israel-Palestinian Amman meeting Monday. He told Knesset panel not to expect breakthrough because Palestinians have not abandoned violence. They only agreed to talks to gratify Jordan's king.
• Noam Shalit will run for a place on the Israeli opposition Labor Knesset list. He is the father of the soldier freed in a recent prisoner swap with Hamas.

Russian, French aircraft carriers off Syria, Iran, US drones over Iranian coast

9 Jan. US, Russian, French and British air and naval forces are gathering around the Syrian and Iranian coasts on guard for fresh developments at the two Middle East flashpoints. The Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov put in earlier than planned at Syria's Tartus port Sunday, Jan. 8, together with two more Russian warships, the destroyer Admiral Chabanenko and frigate Yaroslav Mudry.
British and French warships head to the Persian Gulf, while the giant US RQ-4 Global Hawk drone took off from the USS Stenning aircraft carrier to monitor Iranian shores.
This was the first time the US has deployed an unmanned aerial vehicle over Iran since its RQ-170 stealth drone was shot down by Iran on Dec. 4. Sunday, too, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the US Chiefs of Staff, warned that Iran has the ability to block the Strait of Hormuz “for a period of time.” But, he added in a CBS interview: “We’ve invested in capabilities to ensure that if that happens, we can defeat that.”

January 10, 2012 Briefs
• US Navy chief Adm. Jonathan Greenert says he is losing sleep over preparing for a potential conflict in the Strait of Hormuz.
• US Air Force Chief Gen. Norton Schwartz: The Air Force will clearly play a role in potentially unblocking the Strait of Hormuz.
• Israel is preparing for refugees from Assad's Alawite sect to mass on Golan border when he falls in a couple of months – Gen. Benny Gantz.
• At least 11 Arab League monitors slightly injured by protesters near Latakia.
• Egyptian police battle robbers at Taba Hotel on Israeli border as Israeli visitors leave.
• Bashar Assad: I will leave the presidency when everyone in Syria wants me to do so. He blamed conspiracy of regional and foreign powers to destabilize Syria. But I will never relinquish control. Syria is mine, he said, and victory will come very soon. He condemned Arab League for creating chaos in Syria instead of fighting Israel.
• On a visit to Israel, Indian External Affairs Minister S,M, Krishna vowed to upgrade relations, including a joint strategy to "checkmate" the scourge of terrorism. He and his Israel hosts are also working on a free trade agreement to upgrade last year's bilateral trade figure of $5 billion.

Iran plans one-kiloton underground nuclear test in 2012

10 Jan. Tehran plans an underground test of a one-kiloton nuclear device during 2012, debkafile reports. Underground facilities are under construction in great secrecy behind the clamor raised by the start of advanced uranium enrichment at Iran's fortified Fordo bunker-site. Yet, according to a Tel Aviv University think tank scenario, Israel is resigned to a nuclear Iran and would accept a US defense pact instead of retaliating. debkafile's Washington sources refute this: Barack Obama is resolved to use force to preempt a nuclear Iran, says his former senior adviser Dennis Ross.
Iran's acquisition of a nuclear bomb and conduct of a nuclear test would hurt his chances of a second term. The race is therefore on for an American strike to beat Iran's nuclear end game before the November 2012 presidential vote.

January 11, 2012 Briefs
• French TV cameraman Gilles Jacquier of France-2 TV was first Western journalist killed in 10-month Syrian uprising Wednesday. Eight Syrians killed with him in a barrage of grenades during a government-sponsored press tour in Homs.
• Assad made a surprise appearance at a rally in Damascus.
• The White House condemned the killing of a Iranian nuclear scientist by a car bomb Wednesday. The NSC spokesman said the US had absolutely nothing to do with the attack.
• Fourteen Pakistani soldiers killed after gunmen ambushed security patrol in southwest province of Baluchistan.
• Pakistani PM Gilani fired defense minister for "gross misconduct" in growing conflict between government and military.
• India tells refiners to cut down on Iranian oil imports and find alternatives. Delhi is Tehran's second largest crude buyer after China, importing 350-400,000 bpd worth $12 bn annually.
• India's external affairs minister visited Israel this week and discussed upgrading bilateral trade.

Senior Natanz executive slain in Tehran. US Navy, Air chiefs on Hormuz readiness

11 Jan. Forty-eight hours after Iran embarked on advanced uranium enrichment at the Fordo bunker, Prof. Mostapha Ahmadi-Roshan, deputy director of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, was killed early Wednesday, Jan. 11 by a sticky bomb planted on his car by two motorcyclists. It exploded near the Sharif technological university in northern Tehran. In Washington, US Navy and Air Force chiefs leveled on plans for unblocking Hormuz, part of President Obama's effort to persuade Saudi Arabia that US was serious about military action against Iran.
debkafile’s Iranian sources report that Tehran is thinking in terms of a partial and selective closure of the Strait of Hormuz – rather than full-blown military action – in the certainty that the US and West will not attack Iranian oil tankers. Partial action, the Iranians believe, will be enough to trigger a steep spike in world oil prices, send insurance rates for oil tankers sky high and bring the world's energy markets under intolerable pressure.

January 12, 2012 Briefs
• President Obama phoned PM Netanyahu Thursday night. The call lasted half an hour. An official statement promised later. USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and its strike group reach Persian Gulf. It takes over from USS Stennis which returns to the US after being denied by Iran Strait of Hormuz transit.
• In the Gulf of Aden too, the USS Battan amphibian copter carrier is replaced by the USS Makin Island group.
• Israeli AMAN chief Maj. Gen. Kochavi: Iran and Hizballah are directly supply Assad with aid for repressing Syrian uprising.
• Second Arab League monitor quits as Syrian troops continue to shoot protesters.
• Japan follows India in pledging concrete action to cut Iranian oil imports to support sanctions.

Turkey halts Iranian arms corridor to Syria, balks at Iranian nuclear weapon

12 Jan. When IDF Military Intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi accused Iran and Hizballah Wednesday, Jan. 11of of supplying Bashar Assad with arms for suppressing protest, Turkey had just closed the Iranian corridor carrying those arms through its territory after it contributed to the Syrian army's success in beating down Hama, Homs and Idlib. debkafile discloses that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also warned Tehran that Ankara would not tolerate a nuclear Iran. It would retaliate by posting NATO troops on the Iranian border. Iranian officials the next day, Wednesday, Jan. 11, ordered Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to shut the Iraqi-Jordanian border to convoys carrying Turkish export goods to Persian Gulf destinations.
The following day, Thursday, Iran's Speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani, turned up in Ankara to try and sort things out between Iran and Turkey before they got out of hand.

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