Khamenei's U-Turn: He Now Pushes for Military Reprisal
For supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Israeli president minister Shimon Peres and his huge party turning up this week at Iran's back door in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan was the last straw. Not only were they awarded state honors in Baku and Astana Monday and Tuesday, June 29-30, but the Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev and his Israeli visitor signed a one-of-a-kind space and aviation accord for granting Israel the use of facilities in the Soviet-era cosmodrome at Baikonur.
Deflecting the Israeli visits was important enough for Iran's chief of staff Maj. Gen. Hasan Firuzabadi to be dispatched to the two Central Asian capitals in mid-June, at the peak of the post-election demonstrations in Tehran.
Landing from a special flight to Baku, the Iranian general tried ordering the defense minister and army chiefs to get the visit cancelled. If not, Azerbaijan would suffer the consequences of its non-compliance. He did not elaborate, but in Astanan, Gen. Firuzabadi was more specific. He collared president Nazarbayev and Kazakhstan's military and security chiefs and warned them that if the space and aviation agreement went ahead and Israel gained the use of the Baikonur space center, Iran would throw all its military resources including missiles at the space center if war broke out – as though it were on Israeli soil.
Never before, even during the Cold War, had a space city come under direct military threat.
Nonetheless, when Tuesday, June 30, came around, the presidents of Israel and Kazakhstan signed and sealed the accord and Israel won the use of Baikonur's space installations.
Russia alerted Iran to Israel's role in the space city
Last April, Moscow alerted Tehran to the Kazakh bid for an Israeli role in running the legendary space city from which the Soviet Union put the first man in space. The breakup of the USSR left the space center outside Russia.
The Russians are busy building a new center for all their manned space programs on their own soil in the Pacific northeast at Amur, Vostochny, near their border with China. It will be finished by 2015 and operational five years later. Moscow hopes it will also serve Beijing. When it is ready, the Russians will finally abandon the space city they built in 1955. They have therefore informed Astana that they do not object to Israelis moving in to keep the space facility ticking over since the Kazakhs lack both the technological know-how and skilled personnel for operating it.
The Kazakhs hope to capitalize on Israel's know-how and business connections to attract space-age clients interested in launching satellites, like India, and make Baikonur a going concern.
They reckoned Israel's space agency and Air Force would find the Kazakh site more convenient for putting their satellites in space and launching missiles than its own base at Palmahim on the Mediterranean.
The Russian tip-off in April triggered a red alert in Tehran, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian and intelligence sources. As time went by, Iran's military chiefs grew increasingly worried about Israel's intentions. They now suspect the long-term space-cum-aviation accord between Israel and Kazakhstan masks permission for the Israeli Air Force to station aircraft and missiles at Baikonur. They figure that by flying over Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, Israeli warplanes can directly threaten northern Iran and the capital Tehran.
In addition, Iranian and Russian intelligence experts have determined that Israel can bring its powerful electronic surveillance systems that much closer to Iran's military and nuclear sites by locating them at the cosmodrome.
Iran fears an Israeli pincer movement
Four events this week raised Tehran's concerns to a new level.
First, the Israeli president and party, including three cabinet ministers, visited two key nations located on either side of the Caspian Sea and controlling most of its area. From Tehran, it looked as though Israel had established a military and intelligence position in both Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan as comeback for the Iranian-backed Arab extremist presence encircling the Jewish state from Syria and Hizballah to the north and Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, from the south.
Our intelligence sources say that Iran has long suspected that Israel had been allowed to set up an intelligence observation station on the Caspian Sea's western coast on the Azerbaijan-Iranian border.
With the new facilities in Kazakhstan, Israel appears to the Iranians to have completed a military-intelligence pincer movement around its northern and central regions.
Furious with Azeri president Ilham Aliyev, Tehran this week withdrew its charge d'affaires from Baku in protest against the Peres visit.
Second, Tehran is certain Washington gave the nod to the pacts Israel signed in Baku and Astana this week, which means that they also represented America's rejoinder to Iran's threatening stance against US naval control of the Persian Gulf and major oil routes.
These movements tell Iran's strategists that, should they let loose with missile attacks on Israel from Syria, Hizballah, Hamas or Islamic Jihad, Israel would strike back at Iran – not just from home ground, but by using missiles and aircraft based much nearer Tehran in Kazakhstan.
Baikonur might possibly take the place of the long-held air force bases in Turkey, which prime minister Recip Tayyep Erdogan shut off for Israel and the United States to use against Iran.
Tehran sees an Israel-US plot for regime change
Given these assumptions, Iranian intelligence experts conclude that, concealed among the 60 or so senior business and industry figures in president Peres' party were a number of covert space officials and high-ranking Israeli Air Force officers, there to tie up the final details of Israel's strategic deals with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.
Tehran refused to credit Azeri and Kazakh assurances that the Israeli visit was arranged months in advance and was therefore completely unrelated to Iran's presidential election on June 12 or the opposition turbulence that greeted its result.
Members of the Islamic regime have convinced themselves that all the comings and goings around them are part of an Israeli-American plot. They fear that this plot aimed at fomenting a coup which was designed to peak with opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi's assumption of the presidency, thereby effecting a change of regime while also undercutting Iran's strategic stature in the world.
This conclusion, for which the Iranians found confirmation in the Israeli VIP visits to their neighbors this week, has drastically changed Khamenei's thinking.
Last week, our Iranian sources reported to DEBKA-net-Weekly 402 (“Ali Khameni Close to Winning This Round”) that Iran's supreme leader was firmly resisting demands by president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Revolutionary Guards chiefs to go to war against US targets in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as Israel, as punishment for American-Anglo meddling in the protest movement which swept Tehran.
Now, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Tehran sources report, Khamenei feels the chips are down.
American military boils over Iranian meddling in Iraq
This week, he summoned military and security chiefs to his office for a secret conclave to work through the strategic implications of the fateful events of June. He ordered them to draw up plans for military operations and have them ready to submit at the second part of the conference next week.
The main challenge he put before them was: How can Iran pre-empt Israeli or American pre-emptive war action against itself, which his military advisers have assured him was in the works. And not only war action. This week, diplomatic moves built up to ostracize and clamp sanctions down on Tehran and Ahmadinejad in particular. Even the relatively mild European Union is under pressure from London to withdraw all its 26 ambassadors from Tehran in protest against the detention of British embassy local staffers.
Backed against a wall, the Islamic regime will be more inclined than ever to resort to military belligerence.
At an epic moment for the Middle East, American military resentment of Iran's machinations boiled over on June 30, the day US forces were withdrawn from Iraqi cities. The top US commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, bluntly accused Iran of supporting and training the terrorists responsible for the current wave of bombings in the country, including Baghdad.
“Iran is still supporting, funding and training surrogates who operate inside Iraq,” he told reporters. “They have not stopped and I don't think they will stop,” said Odierno and added: “I think many of the attacks in Baghdad are from individuals that have been in fact funded or trained by the Iranians.”
The US general's charge implicated groups supported by Iran in recent rocket attacks against the walled-off Green Zone in central Baghdad.
“Those are being done by groups that have been trained in Iran, been funded by Iran. Usually their leaders are still in Iran and they have surrogates doing operations in Iraq,” he said.
The thoughts and plans current in Washington and Jerusalem will be examined in the following articles.