The eastern Mediterranean was badly overcrowded this week with military traffic: Three world powers chose the same time for air and naval maneuvers which are still ongoing as this issue of DEBKA-Net-Weekly appears Friday, April 6.
The cross currents these movements are generating in this jam-packed water are further churned up by the crossed signals coming in from the Obama administration. Dangerous misunderstandings are occurring in the affected capitals, such as Tehran, Riyadh, Ankara and Jerusalem, as they jump to diverse, often mistaken, conclusions.
The first bubble in this round of turbulence boiled up around a secret energy event – not in the Gulf oil region this time but the Mediterranean: Thursday, March 29, at the Astir Palace Hotel in Vouliagman, one of Europe’s most sumptuous upscale estates, 20 kilometers south of Athens, three partners, Greece, Israel and Cyprus, signed tripartite energy accords in the presence of Richard L. Morningstar, the US Secretary of State's Special Envoy for Eurasian Energy.
(A separate item provides exclusive disclosures on the content of the accords and their sweeping ramifications.)
Even before any details emerged, the ceremonial signing itself set alarm bells ringing in Moscow, Tehran and Ankara. They wanted quick answers to two troubling questions:
Gazprom loses its bid to Americans
1. Why was this highly critical document signed at a location favored by global plutocrats for cutting their most secret business deals and not at a government office in Athens? What were the signatories hiding?
2. What was Morningstar doing away from his usual beat covering European, Central Asian, Russian and other political and business power moves in the energy sector?
Moscow feared he was there to strike America’s brand on the Israeli and Cypriot oil and gas finds well ahead of their estimated development into Europe’s primary source of gas by 2020-2025. In that case, Washington would have got in on the ground floor for controlling the new resources by financing or underwriting the future gas pipeline network linking the deep-sea Mediterranean wells and the European consumer.
Putin had hoped to get in first and cut America out of the new Mediterranean bonanza.
The last round of negotiations on the Russian bid took place March 21 in London among representatives of Gazprom, the Israeli energy companies staked in the Mediterranean field and the Texas-based Noble Energy Mediterranean Ltd.
Nine days later, the Israel-Greece-Cyprus accord was signed and sealed and Gazprom’s bid scrapped.
Erdogan felt cheated by Obama
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was upset by the deal at least as much as the Russians.
The news reached him that same Thursday during his 1,000-kilometer flight from Tehran to the northern Iranian town of Mashhad to deliver a message of top importance from US President Barack Obama to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The message laid out American positions ahead of the resumed nuclear talks with the six major powers on April 13-14 in Istanbul. (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 535 of March 25: Same Obama message for Putin and Khamenei: Give Me Space).
Turkish leaders could not understand how President Obama could on the one hand entrust their prime minister with such a critical mission while, on the other, ally himself with his worst foes, Greece, Cyprus and Israel, and undercut Turkey’s strategic, economic and military interests in the Mediterranean.
One theory advanced in Ankara was that this was the US president’s punishment for its refusal to join US-led sanctions against Iranian oil and its national bank-CBI.
In the same week, US Special Coordinator for the Region Frederick Hoff was in Beirut where he advised the Lebanese government that this was their big chance to jump aboard a major energy enterprise about to be signed by the three Mediterranean powers and develop their own energy potential with their cooperation. Now was the moment, he said: if Beirut missed its chance now, it would have no cause for complaint later.
Lebanese officials explained glumly that while the offer was attractive, Iran and Syria would never let them go into any enterprise in which Israel was a partner.
Deep concern in Moscow, Ankara, Tehran over US-Israeli naval exercise
Erdogan was still more shaken up to discover that on that same March 29, not only did three of his rivals sign an energy accord despite his threats, but that US, Israel and Greece had together launched a large-scale air and naval exercise in the eastern Mediterranean called Noble Dina 12.
Because it was spread over a vast stretch of sea – from Crete to waters opposite Turkey and Cyprus, all the way to Israeli naval bases in Haifa and Ashdod, Moscow, Tehran and Ankara decided that the US and Israel were conducting a practice drill in preparation for an operation in a comparable area, the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Aden – in other words, war on Iran,.
And when they heard that the US-Israeli-Greek war game vessels were receiving assistance and backup from British naval ships near the Strait of Gibraltar, the Russians surmised that Noble Dina 12 had the dual purpose of practicing a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities and military intervention in Syria, or the imposition of a naval blockade. Both nations enjoy Moscow’s backing.
The missile carrier Smetliviy was accordingly dispatched from its home port of Sevastopol to Tartus, Syria for a Russian maneuver in the eastern Mediterranean.
When Monday, April 2 Russian strategists saw no one in the West, or even in Washington, was paying any attention to its maneuver, Putin took advantage of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s trip to the Armenian capital Yerevan to issue Washington and Jerusalem with a very strong warning.
Russia and Turkey exercise countermeasures
Lavrov used the ceremonies in Yerevan marking the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Russia and the Republic of Armenia for two other errands: One was to check out Russian intelligence’s theory that the Black Sea nation of Georgia was a more likely Israeli confederate for an attack on Iran in preference to Azerbaijan which US sources had postulated; and, second, to use Yerevan for a double-purpose threat that could be interpreted equally as menacing US oil interests and influence in Central Asia.
So on Monday, Lavrov warned that any type of preemptive attack on Iran would be a violation of international law and direct violation of the UN Charter, words with strong Cold War overtones.
Classical Moscow diplomatic parlance makes it legal for Russian to respond as it deems necessary to “the violation of international law,” whereas “violation of the UN Charter” portends a Russian military response within a short time.
On the same Monday, Ankara decided that it could not afford to stay silent in the face of American, Israeli and Greek provocations and announced that Turkey’s Anatolian Eagle war game would be expanded out of central Anatolia and for the first time include naval exercises in the Mediterranean.
Turkish military sources made it clear that Ankara was acting to counter the US-Israeli-Greek Noble Dina 12 exercise.
Erdogan figured that his failure to initiate military countermeasures without delay would lead his joint strategy with President Obama for Iran into a blind alley. He wasn’t far wrong, as a separate article in this issue shows.