Iranian and American officials fell over themselves last weekend to obscure the real story behind the forcing of the chartered Fly Dubai airplane to land in the Iranian town of Bandar Abbas Friday night, Sept. 5, with 140 American and other NATO officers and troops aboard. That story was loaded with the potential for more than a passing diplomatic incident. It might have blown sky high the fledgling US-Iranian military and strategic partnership taking its first tentative steps in Iraq and Syria – or even their bilateral dialogue on the nuclear issue.
The first Iranian version went like this: The plane which entered Iranian air space did not match the specifications declared and “due to inconsistencies in the provided information, the pilot was asked to make landing at Bandar Abbas Airport.”
That is not how it happened. DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources reveal that the plane was not “asked to make landing,” but intercepted by a pair of Revolutionary Guards Air Force jets while over the Afghan city of Kandahar. They escorted the civilian airliner across the border and forced it to land in Iran.
Three days later, on Sept. 8, Brig Gen. Farzad Esmaeili, Commander of the Khaatam-ol-Anbiya Air Defense Base, more or less let the cat out of the bag, when he said that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Army had been involved in the landing at Bandar Abbas of a chartered aircraft carrying about 100 Americans from the US air base at Bagram, Afghanistan.
The general disclosed that IRGC and Army fighters had tracked the plan and forced it to land. But he did not explain why.
Washington over-reported the incident as a cover-up
This did not stop the US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf from saying that contrary to some media reports, “No Iranian jets were scrambled in this situation.”
That was not the end of it. A rash of wildly inconsistent accounts of the incident popped up all over the media. One claimed that the plane had intruded on Iranian airspace without permission. Another, that permission was obtained, but the airliner delayed its takeoff from Afghanistan by several hours and, by the time it was aloft, its registration had fallen off the Iranian control tower’s log.
Then, Jassem Chador, the governor of the Hormozgan district of southern Iran, piped up with his version of the episode: When the pilot was asked by the Iranian control tower for identification, he provided incorrect particulars that did not match Iranian data. The request was repeated with the same result. The pilot was then told to return to Bagram. When he said he was short of fuel for the return run, he was allowed to land at Bandar Abbas.
Gulf: A set-up to hijack the plane with the pilot’s connivance
The truth was that the episode began when the airliner was still in Afghan air space. It could have come down at Kandahar air field, only it didn’t get the chance; IRGC jets forced the plane to land on the Iranian side of the border.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources report the most widely-accepted view in Gulf intelligence circles is that the entire incident was set up in advance with the Fly Dubai airline – or even some of its pilots on the regular routes to Dubai and Iran. Those pilots or the airline were said to have been given generous payoffs by IRGC agents to tip them off when they touched down at Bagram military airport and relay information on the identities of the passengers and types of cargo aboard their flights.
The Guards’ plan was to intercept one of those flights to provoke a major crisis in relations between Washington and Tehran, the Gulf sources believe.
This particular flight was tailor made for the scheme, since it carried a large group of American and other NATO military personnel.
Intriguingly, the governor of Hormozgan seemed to know more about the incident than anyone else, although he is situated at a distance from Bandar Abbas, and the passengers were clad in civilian dress, except for army boots, and therefore difficult to pin down as soldiers.
Rouhani in row with Revolutionary Guards to end the incident
But it was President Hassan Rouhani who moved fastest to smooth over a potential diplomatic furor. Fearing another 1979 US hostage crisis, he ordered the airport to refuel the plane and send it on its way without delay.
Nonetheless, the plane was delayed on the tarmac of the Iranian airport for another six hours and not released before each passenger’s identity and the cargo were meticulously checked.
During those hours, a heated debate raged between Rouhani, whose demand for the plane’s immediate release was challenged by members of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s bureau and Guards chiefs. They insisted that the passengers’ identities must be confirmed as a matter of national security, because secret agents among them might be part of a conspiracy for an air attack on Iran’s nuclear sites.
Confined to the grounded plane for hours, some of the passengers sent text messages to worried relatives. One reported that the airliner had been forced to land and “a group of unfriendly looking soldiers were headed towards the aircraft.”
In the end, President Rouhani’s moderate voice prevailed and early Saturday, Sept. 6, the plane was allowed to take off for its destination.
This was clearly just one chapter in the epic tussle afoot in Tehran between the pro-diplomacy and extremist camps over two dominant issues: Iran’s nuclear program and the reconciliation between the Islamic Republic and the United States. The struggle being fought in the corridors of power in Tehran burst into the open over a Revolutionary Guards’ scheme to force their radical stamp on the two issues: by disrupting ties with Washington, they planned to shorten the distance to an Iranian A-bomb.
Tehran power struggle may sabotage US-Iranian military ops in Iraq
The president eventually won this round, but there are undoubtedly more to come in the titanic clash rending the Iranian regime, with the supreme ruler playing both sides to his advantage.
Our Iranian and intelligence sources confirm that President Barack Obama is adhering strongly to his plan for military and intelligence collaboration with Tehran in the campaign against the Islamic State.
He is even amenable to American ground operations as a joint effort of Iranian – mostly Revolutionary Guards – and American special forces, although, in the light of the Fly Dubai incident, US special operations troops on the spot would do well to beware of Afghanistan-type “insider” attacks by their partners.
Furthermore, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources have disclosed the onset of secret talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s envoys for coordinating their efforts to eradicate the Islamist State, whose seized territory straddles Syria and Iraq.
These talks are taking place under the eye of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Al Qods Brigades, the Revolutionary Guards’ arm for external espionage and terror, whom Khamenei has put in charge of Iranian operations in Syria.
The involvement of this hard-line Iranian general in the US campaign against IS magnifies the peril of a recurrence of the Dubai airliner incident in the course of the joint battle against al Qaeda.
Kerry leaves Iran out of his bid in Jeddah to enlist Arab leaders
Undeterred by this prospect, some of the president’s close advisers are reported by our Washington sources to have provoked a major row shortly before he unveiled his strategy for fighting IS in a speech to the American nation Wednesday night, Sept. 10. A group of aides argued against Secretary of State John Kerry’s mission to Jeddah to persuade a group of Muslim nations to join the president’s broad coalition for fighting IS – unless the Iranian foreign minister was invited to join the meeting.
This group maintained that – if the Obama strategy for tackling Al Qaeda’s Iraqi branch proceeds according to plan – Saudi special forces will inevitably find themselves fighting cheek by jowl with Iranian fighters at some point. Those aides advised putting this eventuality squarely before Saudi King Abdullah and his government in advance, rather than putting it off until it comes to light at a later stage, possibly six months away, with unforeseeable damage to the coalition effort.
President Obama supported this approach at first. But then he reconsidered and ordered Kerry to set out for Jeddah and confine his meeting to the Arab leaders of Saudi Arabia Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
Clearly Iran’s presence would hardly be conducive to persuading these Sunni Muslim leaders to join President Obama’s plans for a global military campaign against the Islamic State.
So it was decided that Iran would only be asked to attend a parallel international parley with the same theme – this one organized by Iraqi President Fuad Masum, to take place in Baghdad early next week. French President Francois Hollande will also be attending.