US defense secretary Robert Gates said Monday April 21 that he believes Iran is “hell bent” on acquiring nuclear weapons. He then warned that another war in the Middle East is “the last thing we need and, in fact, I believe it would be disastrous on a number of levels.”
Gates was addressing the US Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
But then he went on to say that he favors keeping the nuclear option against Iran on the table, “given the destabilizing policies of the regime and the risks inherent in a future Iranian nuclear threat – either directly or through proliferation.”
That statement was the strongest refutation heard yet from the Bush administration of the judgment by the National Intelligence Estimate of December 2007 that Iran had given up its nuclear weapon program in 2003.
It was also the strongest affirmation that Washington had not discarded its military option. Gates’ words were given substance by the signs that that US navy and air force might is again foregathering in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East for purposes that may cover action to terminate Iran’s military nuclear plans.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report that the USS Harry S. Truman Strike Group has just taken up position in Persian Gulf waters. It consists of 12 warships led by the giant LSD-41 class USS Whidby Island landing craft, submarines and eight assault squadrons. The legend on their banner is: Give ’em Hell.
Another nuclear aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, will soon set out for the region from the South China Sea, along with two more US naval strike forces: the USS Kitty Hawk and the USS Nimitz.
Braced for a summer 2008 war
The triple strike flotilla is only waiting for the new Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou to be sworn in on May 20 before departing for the Persian region to arrive late May, early June.
Our Middle East sources are looking at June or July – or August at latest – as likely dates for potential military action, starting according to their scenario with a US attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities and followed by an Israeli attack on Hizballah in Lebanon and Syria.
Our Iranian sources also view the US military buildup as geared to the summer 2008 timeline. They draw their confirmation from three additional American military activities.
1. The Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Adm. Gary Roughead, has just completed a tour of US Fifth Fleet installations at their Bahrain headquarters and bases in Oman and Kuwait, as well as the US warships anchored at United Arab Emirates ports. The US Naval Operations Chief also visited the Harry S. Truman.
To Tehran this tour looked suspiciously like an advance checkup of American Gulf forces’ operational preparedness for an assault on Iran.
2. Both Iran and Syria are eyeing the USS Nassau Expeditionary Strike Group’s movements in the big NATO Phoenix Express 2008 naval exercise in Souda Bay off Crete.
This group joined the exercise from its deployment opposite Lebanon and Syria and is destined to return there after it is over – or head for the Persian Gulf.
3. The US secretary of the Navy Dr. Donald C. Winter paid a three-day working trip to Israel March 26-30.
Tehran took note of three occurrences in the course of that trip:
One: Dr. Winter held talks with the entire Israeli political and military leadership, working his way down from prime minister Ehud Olmert, defense minister Ehud Barak and chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi.
He spent a whole day inspecting Israel’s assault Dolphin submarines, Israel’s longest military arm opposite Iran which carry nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. It was the first time a foreign military figure was allowed access to Israel’s long-range nuclear capability.
Moscow holds back advanced weaponry and nuclear fuel
Syria too is showing signs of stress.
On April 15, a week before Gates’ remarks at West Point, a large Syrian military delegation arrived in Tula, the railway and highway hub of the Moscow industrial region’s manufacturing center, to find out what had happened to the Pantsyr-S1 advanced self-propelled, short range missile air defense system on order from Russia.
Iran had made a down-payment of close to $1 billion dollars for the system’s delivery to Syria during 2007 and 2008; part of the shipment was to be consigned to Iran through Syria.
The first 10 batteries were shipped to Syria in mid-August last year; six were transferred to Iran. However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources disclose that, since then, the consignments have dried up. Although the Russians accepted Iranian and Syrian teams last year to train at their bases in operating the missile, they shipped no more missiles to Syria.
And the delegation returned to Damascus from Tula empty-handed.
Moscow also put on hold with no explanation the dispatch of SA-300 air defense missiles and the nuclear fuel rods promised Tehran for the $1 billion Russian built Bushehr nuclear reactor 400 kilometers southwest of Tehran.
The rods were promised on December 17, 2007 when Moscow announced after several delays that the first nuclear rods for fueling Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr had been dispatched. Atomstroyexport, the Russian nuclear power equipment and service export monopoly, promised Iran would receive 180 nuclear fuel rods in January-February 2008.
For Putin, the Cold War is over
In late February, Moscow leaked veiled hints that the promised rods had been delivered.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iranian and intelligence sources confirm that all Tehran has received thus far is two shipments of 50 rods, not enough to power the Bushehr reactor. The rest are still held back.
Our Moscow sources confirm that this sort of decision is taken at the highest Kremlin level, namely by President Vladimir Putin in person.
His action has two possible explanations:
One is that Russian intelligence has never wavered from the view, which was accepted by Putin, that President George W. Bush would meet his commitment not to exit the White House without solving the Iranian nuclear problem, i.e. by an American or Israeli military strike to destroy its installations.
The other possibility is that, regardless of whether or not the US decides to make war on Iran, Putin is not willing to risk Russian air defense weapons being used to hit American warplanes or missiles dispatched against Iran, or down Israeli warplanes or missiles fired at Syria.
This firm position was articulated by the Russian leader on April 4, when he dismissed concerns that the world is sliding into a new Cold War between East and West.
While criticizing NATO’s eastward expansion, he insisted: “None of the global players – Europe, the United States or Russia – is interested in returning to the past.”