George W. Bush‘s eight-day Middle East tour set off seismic shifts across the region – but not exactly in the directions he would have wished.
Before he touched down for his first 50 hours in Israel and the Palestinian Authority on Jan. 9, and in the course of his tour, Al Qaeda, Tehran and Moscow each fed into his program scenes from local reality shows in progress.
Iran’s production grabbed the most publicity.
Sunday, Jan. 6. Five Revolutionary Guards Corps naval speedboats zoomed towards a US Navy convoy heading into the Persian Gulf through the strategic Strait of Hormuz. It consisted of the USS Ingraham frigate, the USS Port Royal cruiser and the USS Hopper destroyer.
After dropping unidentified boxes in the water, an Iranian sailor yelled: I’m coming at you and you will blow up in a couple of minutes.”
The Hopper bridge: “This is a coalition warship, I am engaged in transit passage in accordance with international law, intend no harm.”
The American ships were about to open fire when the Iranian craft turned tail and disappeared.
Considering that President Bush declared Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps a global terrorist organization more than a month ago, US warships might have been expected to respond more forcibly to this sort of provocation. The unresponsiveness of US leaders and its commanders to an imminent threat – beyond verbal recriminations – was taken in Tehran as a sign of weakness.
Had those boxes contained explosives, as suggested by the Iranian sailor, America would have lost a warship or two, a very expensive loss compared with the easily disposable Iranian speedboats.
Tehran encouraged to try more provocations
Two days after the incident, the US military released video- and audio-tapes recording the Iranian boats’ harassment and the exchanges between the Iranian and American commanders. Iranian belligerence was highlighted, in contrast with US forebearance and responsible restraint.
This is not how the episode was seen in the countries Bush plans to visit, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. They perceived the Iranians as showing willing to confront the United States and the Americans backing off.
In those capitals, no one doubted that the IRGC craft instigated the provocation – possibly even without the knowledge of supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as a test of American resolve in face-to-face encounters with Tehran. They found Washington wanting. This will register in Bush’s talks with their rulers.
Keeping up the belligerent tone, Tehran countered with its own taped version of the incident. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Tehran believe the video war is not the end of the episode. Iran will keep the ball rolling with more provocations, possibly during the Bush tour of Gulf capitals.
A senior military source in the Persian Gulf told DEBKA-Net-Weekly:
“Had the incident occurred in an obscure corner of the Persian Gulf, America’s slow response would have been accepted – but not on a waterway which carries a quarter of the world’s crude oil supplies. When America lets them get away with it, what message does it convey to Middle East nations facing Tehran’s drive to dominate the Gulf?
(See a separate article on the power struggle in Tehran)
That same source made this point: The world media underestimated the episode by describing the five small Iranian boats as speedboats, suggesting a sort of flimsy sporting craft. But everyone in the region knows they were explosives crafts used by IRGC suicide units trained to ram and sink the largest vessels in the US Navy, including aircraft carriers and giant oil tankers.
Al Qaeda takes its turn to blight Bush tour
Like Tehran, Al Qaeda launched the first of its well-orchestrated steps, Jan. 6, two days before Bush landed:
1.American Islamic convert and indicted traitor, Adam Gadahn, called on “our brothers the Mujahedin, mainly in Palestine and the Arabian Peninsula, and in the region in general, to be ready to welcome the Crusader, the butcher Bush… not by flowers and applause, but with bombs and car bombs.” He quoted Osama bin Laden’s Dec. 30 taped warning to Iraqis against backing their US-backed government and vowing to “liberate every inch of Palestine.”
2. Two days later, on Jan. 8, al Qaeda’s new operational arm, the Palestinian Fatah al-Islam, fired three small 107 mm Katyusha rockets from Lebanon at the small northern Israeli town of Shlomi.
The Israeli military took a leaf out of America’s refusal to be goaded into action by Iranian naval harassment and also sat on its hands. However, the American ships at least saw the Iranian boats coming, whereas Israel’s early warning system on the Lebanese border was caught napping. They heard about the rocket attack only after the event when alarmed citizens of Shlomi complained about mysterious explosions.
Hizballah and the Palestinian terrorist groups operating out of Lebanon, including al Qaeda and its affiliates, can only interpret this lapse as meaning that the Israeli border is as wide open now as in July 2006 when Hizballah commandos’ unopposed crossing triggered a war.
3. A few hours later, a roadside bomb blew up a UNIFIL vehicle in south Lebanon, not far from the Israeli border, injuring two Irish peacekeepers.
That the two attacks were coordinated and premeditated was confirmed the same day from Iraq: In a 50-minute tape on one of al Qaeda’s main web sites, Fatah al-Islam chief Shaker al-Abessi, now based in Iraq, claimed responsibility for both. He added they were the opening shots of his next campaigns in Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories, during the Bush Middle East tour.
4. In Iraq, the level of al Qaeda’s suicide, murder and kidnappings began to climb again, focusing on disrupting the Sunni watch committees (Awakening Councils) working with US forces. Wednesday, Jan. 9, the day of the US president’s arrival, nine American soldiers died in two separate attacks in Iraq, warning him that US military gains in Iraq may prove evanescent.
Moscow makes its presence felt in the Mediterranean
A big Russian combined air and sea exercise moved from the North and Barents Seas this week to the central Mediterranean, where Tuesday, Jan. 8, Russian Navy carrier Su-33 aircraft and combat helicopters began a training exercise.
The Russian convoy of warships, the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier, the Udaloy-Class anti-submarine ship Admiral Levchenko, and the Sergei Osipov auxiliary vessel, is performing multiple missions. It is expected to wind up at the military port facilities Russian has marked out in Syrian Tartus.
The multiple-function Su-33 (NATO-coded Flanker-D) is the Admiral Kutznetzov‘s main fixed wing aircraft. As well as strike, air defense and air support functions, the Su-33 also carries out reconnaissance and hunts marine mines.
The two-month Russian war game, which began on Dec. 5 and encompassed 12,000 miles, “aims at ensuring a Russian naval presence in key areas of the world oceans,” said a Russian Navy commander Capt. 1st Rank Igor Dygalo Tuesday.
Its previous stages were executed by the same warships plus seven vessels of the Russian Northern, Black Sea and Baltic Fleets, and 47 airplanes and 10 helicopters.
Its latest Mediterranean stage dovetailed perfectly with the US president’s presence in the region.