Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad travelled urgently to Damascus on February 25 to tighten the nuts and bolts of Iran's military-strategic coordination with its allies, Syria, Hizballah and the Palestinian extremist Hamas, in readiness for a showdown against Israel. Their insistent queries had called for on-the-spot answers at the highest Iranian level.
The Iranian president brought with him a sizeable assortment of Revolutionary Guards chiefs, national security experts and strategists, commanders of the al-Qods Brigades guerilla units, officers acting as military intelligence liaison with the Damascus-based Palestinian organizations Hamas and Islamic Jihad, along with some economic advisers.
Ahmadinejad's key conference with Syrian president Bashar Assad was followed in the short hours of his stay in the Syrian capital by meetings with Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah, his deputy Naim Qassem, a flock of top Hizballah operatives called especially to Damascus, as well as Hamas' politburo chief Khaled Meshaal who is based there.
The Iranian president planned the morning after his return home Thursday night to report on his talks in Damascus to a special session of the Iranian National Security Council. It was also decided to summon to a conference in Tehran Saturday, Feb. 27 the heads of Hizballah, Hamas, Jihad Islami and the other Iran-sponsored radical Palestinian factions to discuss their next instructions.
As DEBKA-Net-Weekly Iranian sources reported in recent issues, Tehran is now convinced an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities is unavoidable and wants its allies to embark on pre-emptive action. Last week, a team of military and intelligence experts appointed by the president presented its report to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. They warned that Israel's war preparations were close to completion after certain sensitive issues concerning its military cooperation with the US had been ironed out.
Tehran sees danger in late March or early June
The experts fixed on late March as a probable timeline for an Israeli strike or alternatively early June.
On March 22, Iran celebrates the New Year with masses of ordinary people and most military and government officials going off on a five-day vacation and bringing the country to a standstill. Iran intelligence believes Israel may use this window for its surprise attack.
Tehran takes as confirmation of this tight time frame the fresh warnings picked up from high-ranking Israeli officials, deputy prime minister Sylvan Shalom and former Israeli Chief of Staff and current minister for strategic affairs Moshe Yaalon, that it had become critically important for Israel to make up its mind about how to handle the Iranian nuclear threat in the coming days.
Their words were taken in Tehran to confirm the imminence of an Israeli decision to go on the offensive unless the nuclear controversy is resolved quickly.
And on Thursday, Feb. 25, as Ahmadinejad sat down with Assad in Damascus, the Israel military completed a five-day command-and-control practice of the worst-case scenario of a four-front war.
Iranian eyes are also glued on the intense official traffic tramping back and forth between Jerusalem and Washington in the belief that each visit adds a brick to the military coordination structure rising between the two allies and the finishing touches to Israel's buildup for war.
Note was taken of CIA chief Leon Panetta's unofficial visit to Jerusalem in late January, followed last week by Chairman of the Joint US Chiefs of staff Adm. Mike Mullen, and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak's visit to Washington this week and his talks with American Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
Wednesday, Feb. 24 a high-ranking US State Department-Pentagon-NSA delegation arrived to resume the US-Israel strategic dialogue in Jerusalem. This round was to focus on Iran.
Then, on March 8, US Vice President Joe Biden is due in Jerusalem.
The Iranians link the movements of additional high-ranking travelers to a run-up to a Middle East war: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the rounds of the Gulf in mid-February, prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu traveled to Moscow last week and Israel central bank governor Stanley Fisher and Minister Yaalon chose this moment to go to China.
New Israeli super-drone is a game changer
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources, it is suspected in Tehran that the flood of conflicting American statements on Washington's next moves against Iran are deliberate attempts to misdirect and deceive: In public, Gates talks out against the military option, but does not take it off the table, while Admiral Mullen, they point out, stated clearly when he visited Israel that this option is still in force. He only hedged that bombing Iran's nuclear facilities would not wipe them out, only temporarily hold back Iran's attainment of a nuclear weapon for a while.
CENTCOM chief US Gen. David Petraeus was more explicit when he commented last week that the US military was set and ready to launch an offensive if and when the President so ordered.
Israel contributed to the perturbation in Tehran by announcing Sunday, Feb. 21, that its new “Eitan” drone had gone into service. This Heron-TP type unmanned aerial vehicle, dubbed a super-drone, has a wingspan of 26 meters (85 feet) like that of a Boeing 737, is 24 meters (79 feet) long and weighs 4.5 tons.
Most tellingly, it can stay aloft for more than 24 hours, which means it can reach Iran. Reports published in Tehran emphasized that the new Israel super-drone can stay that long over Iran at an altitude of 45,000 feet, the while monitoring Iranian military activity and instantaneously reporting back to headquarters in Tel Aviv.
"Eitan" can also carry a ton of ordnance and be fitted out for firing missiles.
The Iranians fear Israel would not have gone public unless it had a fleet of the new Herons ready for its opening move in the coming attack; some of the unmanned craft would be used to paralyze Iran's air defense and radar systems, others to inflict the initial strike against Iran's nuclear facilities and clear its skies for incoming Israeli bomber squadrons.
These bombers, the Iranians fear, would be supplied by the Herons with enough data to destroy the missiles while still deployed on their pads for launching against Israel or US Gulf targets.
Iran's Shehab-3 solid-fuel propelled Shihab-3 missiles are only present in limited numbers; the others would take 20 hours to fuel, time enough for Israeli bombers to locate and destroy them on the ground.
The introduction of the Eitan drone means that even the solid-fuel missiles might not escape Israeli bombing raids because the two to three hours needed for their positioning would be enough to expose them to danger.
Iran must commit forces to get allies to act
In several conversations this past week, the Iranian president pressed the leaders of Syria, the Lebanese Hizballah and Palestinian Hamas to go ahead and initiate military action against Israel without waiting for the Jewish state to complete its preparations to strike Iran. Each had his own casus belli, he argued: Hizballah had still to avenge its legendary commander Imad Mughniyeh two years after he was killed in Damascus, while Hamas is on a vendetta for the death of its senior officer Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai last month.
The Iranian president dangled the prospect of Israel's eradication: "If the Zionist regime should repeat its mistakes and initiate a military operation, then it must be resisted with full force to put an end to it once and for all.”
In their public statements, Tehran's allies sounded as though they were just as impatient to punish the Jewish state.
Syrian foreign minister Walid Moallem said ominously that the next war would see Israeli cities blown away by Syrian missiles; Hizballah's secretary general Nasrallah warned that Israel would pay in equal measure for every attack on Beirut's Shiite Dahya district or its international airport, while Hamas leader Khaled Meshal said any Israeli attack would trigger a regional war.
Hizballah lawmaker Navaf Al-Moussavi this week called on Syria and Iran to strengthen Lebanese armed forces and prepare them to confront Israel.
But Tehran was not satisfied with the heated rhetoric and ensuing war fever. Ahmadinejad went to Damascus to demand action not just words. He was given to understand that none of Iran's Arab associates would move unless Iran went first. Their discussions Thursday focused therefore on how many and when Iran would post expeditionary forces to Syria ahead of the coming showdown with Israel, their military framework and precise operational missions. No less important, they needed to define the exact circumstances warranting the crossover of Iranian troops from Syria into Lebanon.
The four-way Damascus talks therefore took the prospect of a Middle East war out of the realm of general speculation and into the field of practical operational planning.