Iran has recalled from Syria the Iraqi Shiite militias fighting in support of the embattled Bashar Assad, DEBKA Weekly's intelligence sources report. Tehran has decided their presence on home ground essential to accomplishing three missions:
1. To make sure Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki remains in power, regardless of the outcome of Iraq’s April 30 elections. Some 22 million Iraqis registered to vote in the first parliamentary elections since the withdrawal of US troops three years ago amid tight security at the 50,000 polling stations against the rising tide of violence. Cars were banned in Baghdad for fear of attacks, as Maliki fought to clinch a third term in office amid a growing insurgency in the west of the country.
2. To defend Baghdad against Al Qaeda’s siege forces and the large Sunni tribal militias advancing on the capital from the west.
Evidence of Al Qaeda’s growing presence in Iraq’s sectarian fray came in the two bombing attacks staged on April 26 by its Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) that killed at least 33 at a Baghdad rally of the Iran-backed Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq party which supports Assad.
3. The defense of major Shiite urban centers in southern Iraq from surprise Al Qaeda attacks. The southern cities of Najaf and Karbala, both holy to Shiites, are in the sights of the Sunni jihadists. Iranian intelligence fears they may use the high state of alert in Bagdad as a diversion for a surprise offensive on the oil-rich, pro-Iranian south.
Iran buttresses two Arab governments plus Hizballah in Beirut
In support of the ground effort, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are using drones to track al Qaeda movements in eastern, central and western Iraq and passing the intelligence they gather onto Maliki to help him shore up his defenses.
Another fleet of unmanned Iranian aerial vehicles is patrolling Syrian-Iraqi airspace, taking off from Syrian air bases. Their input was put to use by the Iraqi assault helicopters which Sunday, April 27 struck an ISIS convoy before it could cross from Syria into Iraq with a supply of fuel for jihadist units in the Iraqi Sunni town of Fallujah.
In the past two years, Tehran has taken it on itself to defend pro-Iranian governments in two Arab capitals – Damascus and Baghdad.
It might even be said to be protecting the ruling clique of a third Arab country, Lebanon, if one considers Tehran’s ongoing efforts, dating from late 2013, to halt suicide bombings targeting Hizballah’s political and military command centers in Beirut and the Beqaa Valley. Some of the attacks on Hizballah came from Al Qaeda and some originated with Gulf intelligence agencies.
In other words, non-Arab Iran has overtaken Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Gulf states – including Qatar – as the dominant power in the Arab arena.
The Al Qods Brigades chief is Iran’s supreme regional commander
Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the secretive Al Qods Brigades of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), heads Tehran’s regional command center in a configuration that recalls Centcom – the US Central Command. As such, he is responsible for more troop movements across the region than any other military power, the Americans included.
A close second is Al Qaeda, which shuttles fighters back and forth between Iraq and Syria and other parts of the region.
ISIS has in the past week been deeply involved in pitched battles for wresting control of the southeastern Syrian oil fields, a lucrative source of revenue, from the indigenous al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat a-Nusra.
Iran’s intense military movements would not be feasible without Washington’s tacit support. The Obama administration has chosen to turn a blind eye to Tehran’s activities despite Iran’s goals of perpetuating Maliki’s rule in Baghdad and Assad’s in Damascus.
It was surely no coincidence that Assad waited for Tehran’s green light before, on April 28, declaring his candidacy for Syria’s June 3 presidential elections. While six other candidates have announced their intention to run, Assad is widely expected to easily brush them aside and handily win a third seven-year term, especially when no one would dare oppose him in districts controlled by the Syrian Army, Hizballah and Iraqi Shiite militias.
Even before the Syrian war, in the 2007 presidential poll, Assad took more than 97% of the vote.
With Maliki’s reelection and Assad’s continued rule in Syria, Tehran will have guaranteed territorial contiguity for the Tehran-Damascus-Baghdad-Hizballah axis.
Nuclear deal to solidify regional split
The Obama administration is making every effort to bring nuclear negotiations with Iran to a speedy conclusion, with a fall end-date looking likely. After this deal recognizes Iran as a “nuclear threshold” nation – meaning one with the capacity to build a bomb within six months to a year – Tehran will further entrench itself as a regional power second to none.
After pulling this off, the Saudi success in bringing Gen. Fattah El-Sisi to the Egyptian presidency in the May election will be worth no more than a consolation prize for Riyadh. It matters enormously to Egypt but its wider regional significance for the Middle East will be overshadowed by Iran’s feats in Baghdad and Damascus.
So Middle East elections in the next four weeks will be profoundly important in that they stand to cleave the region into two major blocs.
The pro-Tehran grouping, backed by Washington, will be comprised of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
The pro-Saudi group, in opposition to Tehran and US policies in support of the Islamic Republic, will be made up of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt.
Israel looks like falling into the familiar category of odd man out in the evolving regional conformation.
Saudi war games no match for Iranian nuclear autonomy
Saudi Arabia used its April 29 military parade to show off long-range Chinese-made DF-3 nuclear missiles.
Although the DF-3 missiles were purchased in 1987, this was their first public airing. It was also the first time a Middle Eastern country displayed long-range missiles that can carry nuclear warheads – these have a 2,650-kilometer range and can carry 2,150-ton warheads.
This ageing weapon system is no match for Iran’s nuclear threshold status – although, by putting the older technology on show, Riyadh intimated that it had already acquired more advanced weaponry.
For the past two years, Saudi officials have been visiting Beijing to discuss the purchase of Dong Feng 21 (DF-21) medium range missiles. The DF-21 has a range of 1,700 kilometers and can hoist warheads, including nuclear, of up to 300 kilograms. The missile also boasts a terminal radar guidance system that guarantees accuracy. The West has no intelligence about if and when the missiles have arrived in Saudi Arabia.
Ultimately, however, the Saudi show of nuclear muscle will have little bearing on the unfolding US-Iranian strategic cooperation.
The visible presence of Pakistan’s Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif at the Saudi parade was a clue to where the country might turn to militarize its missiles – Islamabad’s nuclear storehouses.
This only served to underscore Saudi dependence on outside parties when it comes to nuclear matters – which may prove unreliable in the event of war – when all the time its rival, Iran, edges ever closer to an independent nuclear strike capacity.