The Barack Obama administration's consent to scrapping the US plan for missile interceptors and radar in Poland and the Czech Republic, released Thursday, Sept 17, was born of the determination shared by Washington and Moscow to avert an Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear installations and its threatened fallout.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and Washington sources disclose that the release climaxed Washington's secret diplomatic offensive of the last two months to coax Russian into lining up with a tough Six-Power front against Iran – starting in Oct. 1 when their talks begin in Istanbul.
Deputy US army chief, Gen. James Cartwright and defense secretary Robert Gates said a new and better anti-missile missile system would be deployed in Israel, “where it is already working perfectly,” and at a base in the Caucasus.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources identify the site as a Russian base in Azerbaijan.
He was referring to the advanced American FBX-T radar system deployed last year in Israel's Negev base at Nevatim, which is capable of tracking a missile launched from the Persian Gulf, the Middle East and beyond.
The administration's diplomatic offensive proceeded through tense backdoor exchanges from July with Moscow, Berlin and Jerusalem. It aimed first of all at confronting Iran's negotiators with a stiff united demand for his government to suspend its uranium enrichment activity for a finite period of at least six weeks forthwith. The qui pro quo would be the suspension of all UN and unilateral sanctions for a comparable period.
However, the White House in Washington had no illusions about Tehran submitting to this offer, unless it was backed by an American guarantee against an Israeli attack on its program.
The Arctic Sea Mystery: Solved
At the same time, administration officials were certain Israel would not drop its military option without receiving a corresponding guarantee that Iran was suspending enrichment and freezing its plans to build a nuclear weapon.
Even for holding off a military strike without abandoning its planned operation altogether, Israel would demand harsh sanctions against Iran, ranging from an embargo on gasoline and refined petrol products, up to and including a naval blockade on its shores.
For weeks, US administration officials shuttled back and forth and the wires hummed for secret continuous discussions with Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
French president Nicolas Sarlozy and British premier Gordon Brown were kept in the picture.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly outlines those steps.
At the outset, Obama informed the two Russian leaders of his decision to ditch the missile shield scheme for East Europe. They responded with an offer to cooperate in measures against Iran, including stiffer sanctions. But asked to be explicit about the severity of the sanctions they would commit to, Putin and Medvedev turned evasive. They also rejected the US president's request to stop selling Russian weapons to Iran.
In mid-July, a major crisis placed the entire undertaking in jeopardy:
The Israeli Mossad intelligence agency learned that a ship, Arctic Sea, was being loaded at Kaliningrad Port on the Baltic Sea with anti-missile missile batteries, including S-300 anti-missile and anti-aircraft cruise missiles, for Iran.
Netanyahu told Obama what was happening and warned him that if the Russians were using their exchanges with Washington as a chance to get hardware to Iran for foiling an Israeli attack, then none of Putin and Medvedev's promises could be trusted.
Chancellor Merkel steps in, saves the day
The US president Obama then rang Putin and demanded explanations.
Our sources in Moscow report that Putin said this was the first he had heard of any missile shipment to Iran and promised to check the story and get back to Obama with an answer.
After investigating the incident for a few days, the Russian president informed the American president that senior executives at Rosoboroexport, Moscow's sole agent for the export and import of defense, nuclear and military technologies, had arranged the consignment for Iran without his knowledge.
In the next stage, US and Russian officials got together on ways and means of stopping the ship and preventing its missile cargo reaching Iran.
On July 23, Arctic Sea sailed from Kaliningrad. It was at sea for 25 days with orders from Moscow not to put in at any Syrian port. If allowed to unload the missiles in Syria, they would have reached Iran by air and the US-Russian house of cards would have caved in.
At this point, German Chancellor Merkel stepped in..
In discussions which she and heads of the BND, Germany's secret services, held with Putin, Medvedev and their advisers, the Russians were persuaded to send a warship to intercept the Arctic Sea and bring it and its cargo intact back to Russia.
On August 17, Russian forces accordingly intercepted the ship near Cape Verde off the African coast and the crisis was over.
But now Netanyahu stepped up his demand for waterproof assurances from both Washington and Berlin that if Israel were to suspend its impending attack on Iran, Moscow must pledge that such incidents would not recur and moreover halt its supply of sophisticated weapons to Iran or to Syria for transshipment.
In addition, the Israeli prime minister wanted to be absolutely sure that even if Russia backed out of tough sanctions, the US and Germany would carry them through without Moscow, but with France. Sarkozy had already promised Netanyahu he would go through with penalties for Iran.
Crisis over: Project resumes
On August 27, Netanyahu arrived in Berlin for a two-day visit. He thanked Chancellor Merkel for her help in preventing the missile cargo reaching Iran and in keeping the diplomatic momentum rolling against Tehran.
She told her Israeli visitor that the Russian prime minister was willing to meet him anywhere in Russia and deliver the pledges demanded of him in person.
Merkel explained that Putin knew Israel had received German guarantees underwriting his assurance to play fair in keeping Russian hardware from Iran. He could be trusted, she said, because he would not wish to prejudice his friendship with her and Russia's important relations with Germany.
Satisfied with the chancellor's assurances, Netanyahu said he had no objections to the US-Russian talks going back on course. He and Merkel phoned Obama in Washington from the chancellor's office to inform him the crisis was over.
That day, by an odd coincidence, a leading Polish daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, citing Polish defense department sources, disclosed that the US had decided against stationing the American anti-ballistic intercept missiles and their attendant radar systems in Poland and the Czech Republic and was exploring alternative sites with Israel, Turkey and some Balkan countries.
A Pentagon spokesman did not confirm or deny the report, saying only that “the missile shield plans were still being reviewed. No final decisions have been made regarding missile defense in Europe.”
The Polish report was the first outward sign that an understanding was unfolding between the US, Russia and Israel.
Monday, September 7, prime minister Netanyahu flew secretly by private aircraft to Russia to receive the Kremlin's assurances from Putin in person. They talked only briefly, just over an hour, after which the Israeli leader returned home. There, he fell prey to domestic politics. Word of his Moscow trip leaked to the media and was presented as a personal fiasco, whereas he got exactly what he wanted from Moscow.
For the first time in its 61 years as a state, Israel obtained formal Russian guarantees of its commitment to steps against Iran's nuclear program and the curtailment of its weapons exports to the Middle East.
Moscow and Washington are agreed. No word from Tehran
September 16, the first signal of a Russian U-turn came from Medvedev.
Speaking in Moscow, he went out of his way to be conciliatory to the West. He said: “Sanctions are not very effective on the whole, but sometimes you have to embark on sanctions and they can be right.”
Last week, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, said sharply that Moscow would not back any new rounds of tough sanctions against Iran at the UN Security Council and dismissed a US timetable for ending its nuclear-fuel program.
Obviously the Putin-Medvedev understanding with Barack Obama is not to everyone's liking in the Kremlin.
Treating this as a domestic difficulty which the two leaders can sort out, the White House decided to forge ahead with their agreed program.
September 17, Washington released its plans to shelve the deployment of anti-ballistic interceptor missiles in Eastern Europe on the grounds that Iran's long-range missile program has not progressed as rapidly as previously estimated, reducing the threat to the continental US and major European capitals.
Our sources note that this wording was designed to show Moscow that Washington had accepted the argument that the Iranian missile program does not pose a real threat to its strategic interests, while also warning Tehran of the united front it faces in Istanbul.
But most significantly, DEBKA-Net-Weekly Iran sources note, no signal of any sort has come from Tehran. Neither Washington nor Moscow has the slightest inkling of any Iranian intention of reversing its flat refusal to discuss the suspension of uranium enrichment or its military nuclear program.
So, there is a still a long way to go before the US-Russian understanding can be translated into a nuclear deal with Iran – if ever – and therefore, before Israel abandons its military option against the Islamic Republic.