Two weeks before Iran’s electronic airlift to Damascus, a smaller Iranian air convoy put down quietly at Damascus airport carrying extra teeth for President Bashar Assad in his so-far verbal duel with the United States.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources, the cargo included several hundred shoulder-held anti-aircraft and surface missiles. We can name the short-range Zelzal-2/Mushak-200 missile, several types of which Tehran delivered to build up its ally’s armory. This weapon is the Iranian version of Russia’s Luna-2, better known as the FROG-7, a surface-to-surface missile with ranges of 120, 150 and 200 kilometers (70, 90 and 120 miles).
Iraqi insurgents would be happy to get hold of them for escalating their combat against American forces, especially in the still unpacified north and the central Iraqi province of Anbar.
The Zelzal2/Mushak-200 is also effective for striking deep inside Israel, capable of reaching targets south of Tel Aviv.
Iranian largesse has its limits. The Syrians were turned down when they asked for permission to draw on the same type of missile stored in the Lebanese port cities of Tyre and Sidon under the tight and exclusive control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards units stationed there. These weapons are Tehran’s reserve arsenal in forward position should the Hizballah decide to open a front against Israel from South Lebanon.
The highest level of the Iranian leadership decided to launch this strategic airlift even before – and without reference to – the official visit Syrian prime minister Mohammad Naji al-Otari paid to Tehran last week, in search of aid and support against the charges flung at Damascus of orchestrating the murder of Lebanese former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
Our Tehran sources report that Iran’s supreme ruler, Ali Khamenei, in marathon sessions with senior government officials and members of the Supreme Security Council, decided to offer Syria every possible assistance to withstand an American attack.
Tehran: It is in Washington‘s interest to strike Syria rather than Iran
But the real point of this benevolence is Iranian self-interest rather than concern for the Bashar regime. In closed sessions, Iranian rulers maintain that crafty foreign policy manipulations might convince Washington that Syria would be an easier mark than the Islamic Republic. Arming Syria makes sense to Iranian decision-makers on the grounds that the longer Assad’s army – boosted by Iranian missiles and early warning stations – holds out, the more pain it would inflict on the Americans and the less danger of them turning on Iran.
This conclusion stems from Iranian officials’ peculiar method of reasoning which argues – albeit only in closed meetings – that the Bush administration might get away with a military operation against Syria in terms of world opinion, whereas it would encounter much less tolerance in going to war against Iran – for the following reasons:
A. Syria is in hot international water for flouting the UN Security Council resolution demanding the pullout of its army from Lebanon. Iran has never been branded an occupying power.
B. Syria has been established in American and many European minds as a sponsor of international terrorism. Damascus defied a UN resolution in this respect, refusing to stop terrorist organizations operating on its soil.
The same allegations against Iran were never highlighted in this way. During his European tour this week, President George W. Bush called on Tehran to cut its ties with terrorist organizations in general terms, citing only its relations with the Lebanese Hizballah. But he ignored the Revolutionary Guards’ terrorist units and the private “security” militias employed by top men of the regime.
The US president made no mention even of al Qaeda’s use of Iran as sanctuary, base and escape route.
C. Europe would not object as it has little to lose from American military action against Syria, whereas striking Iran would damage its extensive economic interests in that country. Tellingly, Germany’s Schroeder proposed just before Bush’s visit in Mainz Wednesday, February 23, that European countries sell Airbus A320s to Iran as an incentive to persuade the Islamic Republic to accept curbs on its nuclear program.
Syria is Middle East bad boy anyway
D. A US attack directed solely against Syria might cause some Iranian casualties or loss of equipment, but would not affect the flow of oil exports from the Gulf. Iran, on the other hand, would retaliate immediately by blocking the vital Straits of Hormuz, so cutting off the Gulf oil artery at this narrow point of exit. Saudi Arabia would have to make do with siphoning oil through its Red Sea port of Yanbu, and the United Arab Emirates, with terminals outside the strategic waterway.
E. Syria’s international standing as bad boy of the Middle East plummeted further as a result of the Hariri murder in Beirut, while Iran was untouched.
At the same time, Tehran is bound by its new military pact to come to Syria’s aid if attacked. Therefore, on the heels of the airlifted missiles, Iran’s intelligence units are organizing a sealift to ferry quantities of heavy weapons to Syria to withstand aggression. Because the heavy Iranian weapons transports could not be flown over Iraq or Turkey, the consignment of tanks, rockets, drones and a mass of ordinance – all made in Iran – were loaded aboard two freighters. They are about to set sail from the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean, circumnavigate Africa and reach Syria through the Straits of Gibraltar. The voyage of three or four weeks will bring the hardware to its destination in mid-March. The vessels wills avoid the shorter route through the Suez Canal to avoid detection or even having their cargoes impounded en route by the Egyptians or Americans.
Iran is also offering Syrian units special training in suicide terror and guerrilla tactics, in which it has much expertise. Syrian officers are invited to take courses in Iran, while their subordinates will be instructed in Iranian camps in Lebanon.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that three Iranian military delegations are now in Damascus, deep in discussion on ways of cooperating and compiling together possible scenarios for action against America. When they are done, the Iranian officers will return to Tehran taking with them a high-ranking Syrian delegation for the final okay on the plans.
Bring Lebanon into Iran-Syria Pact
This week too, Tehran sent another delegation to Beirut, purportedly to offer condolences to the family of the murdered Lebanese politician Rafiq Hariri, but in reality to lift the spirits of the pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud in view of the rising clamor against his administration. Iranin vice president for legal and parliamentary affairs Hojjat-Ol-Eslam Majid Ansari headed the delegation. His real function behind this grandiose title is intelligence executive, specializing in paramilitary and guerrilla tactics. Ansari promised Lahoud to make available any material, military or diplomatic assistance his government might need. He also cautioned the Lebanese president that no attempt to break up the Hizballah would be tolerated.
What the Iranian delegation hoped to achieve in Beirut was to co-opt Lebanon to the Iranian-Syrian military cooperation pact. In the climate of crisis and fury besetting the country in the wake of the Hariri assassination, both sides decided to shelve the issue for the time being.
The Iranian officials’ visit also occasioned joint planning with the Hizballah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah and its operations chief Imad Mughniyeh on a round of terrorist attacks to be launched on American targets.