For Tehran, the Russian vote with the US and China at the UN Security Council on June 9 in support of a new round of sanctions was a most painful and surprising diplomatic affront. Up until the last moment, Iran's leaders did not believe Moscow would line up against them on its nuclear program.
Deepening US-Russian strategic cooperation in the aftermath of the vote has the Islamic Republic even more worried. Its rulers have woken up to find they could face a foreign attack on their nuclear installations from four possible directions.
In the south, America continues to pile up air, naval and marine forces off the southern Iranian coast. This week the USS Nassau and two escort ships, the USS Mesa Verde and USS Ashland moved in with 4,000 Marines, including special commando units trained to operate behind enemy lines. They joined two more carriers, USS Dwight D. Eisenhower Strike Group and the USS Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group, with another approximately 6,000 Marines on board.
Since June 20, Iran has been massing military units in West Azerbaijan, braced in the expectation of a possible American or Israeli offensive from the Caspian Sea area from the north and northwest, particularly from Azerbaijan and Georgia.
Fear that Israel could drop bombs from outside Iranian air space
Neither is Tehran ruling out a US or Israel strike from the Arabian Sea, where the Eisenhower and Truman are deployed; from the Gulf of Aden, where the Nassau has taken up position; or from Azerbaijan, where, according to the Revolutionary Guards regional commander Brig.-Gen. Mehdi Moini: "The (Iranian) mobilization is due to the presence of American and Israeli forces on (our) western border."
Finally, Iranian war planners acknowledge a possible Israeli air strike with missiles launched from great distances – by submarine, warplanes or even from outside Iranian air space.
(See the first item in the most recent DEBKA-Net-Weekly issue 450 of June 25: Closed Air Corridors, Open Space).
Iran fears Washington-Moscow collaboration on sanctions is the outer manifestation of a broader deal brewing up behind its back for cooperating in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Tehran suspects Moscow has agreed to look the other way in the event of a US-Israel attack on its nuclear facilities.
Three more incidents have pushed the Islamic rulers' alarm buttons:
1. Sunday, June 27, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said a CIA report that Iran had enough low-enriched uranium to build two atom bombs was "worrying." He was speaking in Toronto at the end of the G20 summit in response to CIA Director Leon Panetta comment to ABC television that Iran probably has enough low-enriched uranium for two nuclear weapons.
Tehran is fully aware that Moscow likes the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran as little as Washington does.
Too many of Iran's foes are "in sync"
Two days later, on Tuesday, June 29, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, after visiting Israeli president Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, confirmed Panetta's assessment adding that Iran has 2,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium in stock, enough for two bombs. But he voiced the hope that Iran would agree to stop enriching uranium.
He heard the same intelligence assessment from Peres, together with the remark that not only the Israelis, but the Russians too face sleepless nights.
2. The mere fact of the Russian foreign visitor's visit to Israel made Tehran uneasy – especially when he arrived just 24 hours after Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, held an impromptu session in Tel Aviv with the IDF high command after talking to defense minister Ehud Barak.
With no real explanation offered for his unscheduled visit, Mullen rounded it off by saying: "I try to see threats and challenges from the Israeli perspective."
Another 24 hours went by and America's top soldier had more words of discomfort for Tehran:
Addressing the Aspen Security Forum, he said it would be "incredibly dangerous" for Iran to achieve nuclear weapons, and that there's "no reason to trust" Iran.
Asked if he thought Israel would give the United States time to see whether tougher sanctions or talks would produce more cooperation from Iran, he would only say he believed the US and Israel were "in sync" with their current policies.
This was taken to mean that further negotiations with Tehran are pointless because Iran is on a fixed course toward a nuclear weapon. Mullen's stress on the military cooperation between the US and Israel is what has Iran's rulers worried most of all.
Obama-Medvedev amity makes Tehran acutely uncomfortable
3. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources say that this US-Israeli military partnership, which could menace Iran from the south and west, is perceived by Iranian rulers as complementing the deepening US-Russian diplomatic and military cooperation to the north, i.e. from Azerbaijan and Georgia and farther afield, from Kyrgyzstan and Armenia.
In the past two weeks, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has led urgent high-level consultations about the troubling possibility that the US and Russian presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev were putting together a joint strategy for combating terrorism in Central Asia and the Caucasus. With the chances of the US-led NATO force winning the Afghanistan and defeating the Taliban almost down to nil, they believe the two presidents resolved to get down to addressing the likely Islamist spillover into the lands abutting Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As we closed this issue, the Russian defense industry spokesman Vyacheslav Dzirkaln said Thursday that Moscow was willing to provide heavy-lift Mi-26T Halo transport helicopters to assist the NATO-led military fighting Taliban in Afghanistan, thereby strengthening Iranian suspicions of developing military cooperation between Moscow and Washington.
Iran's rulers are ever conscious of their country's history of suppression at the hands of world powers in the 1940s and 1950s. It is high in their strategic thinking, alongside their radical Shiite Islamic goals and the revolutionary tenets laid down by Islamic Republic's founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Surprisingly for many Americans, Iran's incumbent rulers see similarities between Obama's Russian policies today and Franklin Delano Roosevelt's approach to Soviet Russia in the 1940s. In his belief the antagonism between the two superpowers derived from misunderstanding and the dominance of stereotypes, FDR set out to fix the problem by offering the hand of friendship to the nascent Communist state – in the same way, so the Iranians believe, as Obama is offering Medvedev that same hand.
In the absence of solid intelligence data, Iranian leaders find confirmation for this thesis in two indicators:
In quid pro quo, a big US air facility in Fizuli, a second Russian base in Kyrgyzstan
First, Neither Washington nor Moscow has intervened in the turbulence sweeping Kyrgyzstan – even after at least 3,000 deaths. Tehran believes they have secretly agreed to keep their hands off the conflict in this strategically placed land and let a bunch of fractious politicians battle each other in the October general election.
Iran is not alone in assuming that that Washington is deliberately turning a blind eye to Russia's plans to build a second military base in Kyrgyzstan – either in Osh or Jalalabad – even though it would expand Russian influence in Central Asia and bolster its standing vis-à-vis both the United States and China.
Second, In an apparent quid pro quo, Moscow has not stood in the way of an Obama administration plan to establish a big new air base at Fizuli in southwestern Azerbaijan, one of the seven Armenian-controlled enclaves around the breakaway Republic of Nagorno Karabakh. Fizuli is separated from Iranian Azerbaijan by the river Araz.
Up until now, Moscow vehemently objected to a US military presence in any part of Armenia or Armenian-controlled territory, regarding them as historically within Russia's political, military and intelligence orbit. Now, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources, the planned Russian and US bases in these highly sensitive and unstable regions are shaping up on the ground – across from Iran's northern borders.
American Engineering and Air Force units have arrived in Fizuli and begun preparing the ground for the first take-off and landing runways of the new base, while Russian construction crews are preparing to go to work in Kyrgyzstan.
An air base in Fizuli will not only plant a US military foothold in Armenia, but also restore US military credibility in Georgia north of Armenia after the setbacks of the August 2008 war, in which the Russians crushed the Georgian Army and used their victory to expand their military and naval strength through the Caucasian and Black Sea regions.
Medvedev and Clinton split up fence-mending tasks
Seen from Tehran, an American air base at Fizuli adds a valuable link to its military and intelligence encirclement of the Islamic Republic from the direction of the Black Sea. Whereas before, the threat of US air strikes was limited to American aircraft carriers afloat in the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf, from now on, this peril has been extended to US bases in the Caucasian and Central Asia.
Tehran sees a further dip in its fortunes in Moscow's perceived shift away from its strenuous objections to US military action against its nuclear sites. Iran thinks Russia is now willing to accept the Obama administration's resort to a military solution of the nuclear dispute – albeit on the quiet.
This conviction was strengthened by a comment this week by Gen. Nikolai Makarov, Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. He said that the intelligence in his possession indicated the mounting imminence of a US strike against Iran. In his view, this would be suicidal for America, because US armed forces are not capable of waging three wars simultaneously in Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran.
The Russian general did not speculate about the timeline of such a strike, but Tehran views US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's whirlwind trips to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, starting July 1, as fitting into Washington's overall Iran's strategy.
Part of that strategy too, for Iran, is the concerted US-Russian effort to bring to an end the 22-year-long war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh.
That war is intermittently ongoing, with Fizuli stuck in the line of fire. Monday and Tuesday this week, June 28-29, saw the eruption of heavy shooting in some of the local villages as the Armenians and Azerbaijanis maneuvered to improve their positions ahead of the US-Russian conciliation bid.
On June 17, Medvedev collared the Armenian and Azerbaijan presidents at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum for a discussion on how to resolve the Karabakh conflict.
Hillary Clinton, for her part, is trying to get to grips with issues left over from the Russian-Georgian 2008 conflict and present in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute during her five days of talks in the capitals of Poland, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia.