Israel bombs Iranian base in Syria, as Kerry admits many govts urged Obama to bomb Iran’s nuke program

December 03, 2017


Above photo by Agence France-Presse (AFP) taken on Nov. 29, 2017: One of thousands of malnourished children and babies in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta.

There has in general been very little reporting in the international media on the siege in Eastern Ghouta, which has been continuing for over six years.

As was the case with Barack Obama, the Trump administration has also declined to air drop food and medical supplies in to starving Syrian civilians there, although it would have been much easier for Obama to have done so in the years before Russia become involved in the air, and while the citizens were only being besieged by Iranian-orchestrated ground troops.

UN envoy Jan Egeland has again called the Syrian government to cease the “starvation and aerial bombardment of Syrian civilians” in Eastern Ghouta, as Iranian-controlled militia propping up the Assad regime refused to allow in aid workers or food to help the 400,000 residents trapped there.

“There has been massive loss of life – hundreds and hundreds,” said Egeland, describing Eastern Ghouta as an unfolding “catastrophe.”

Hundreds of Syrians, mainly civilians, have also been killed by the military actions of Syria, Iran and Russia during recent days.

Amnesty International reported Thursday that Syrian aircraft had attacked Eastern Ghouta with cluster bombs and accused the Assad government of committing “war crimes on an epic scale.”

“Malnutrition amongst kids, children and the elderly is a common sight, and anyone with chronic disease is just counting the days, dying slowly,” the New York Times quoted an aid worker inside the besieged suburb.

-- Tom Gross



[Notes by Tom Gross]

There has been relatively muted reaction in the western media to the reported Israeli missile strike over the weekend on an Iranian military base being built near Damascus.

The Iranian facility near the Syrian city of al-Qiswa, located only 31 miles from the Israeli border, is viewed as a grave threat to the Jewish state.

Its existence was publicly revealed in October after the BBC reported, citing “a Western intelligence source,” that Iran is building a permanent military base in Syria. The BBC broadcast a series of satellite pictures that showed widespread construction at the site.

Israel fired five missiles at the base very early Saturday morning, reportedly destroying a massive arms depot. Some Arab media reports say up to 12 members of Iran’s feared revolutionary guards corp. were killed in the strike. This has not been verified.

A Sky News Arabic report also said that the Israeli missiles were fired from within Lebanese airspace.

My sources tell me that the strike likely had the complicit backing of some Sunni government and military officials in a number of Arab countries.

There has been no official Israeli comment.

“At half past midnight [on Friday-Saturday night], the Israeli enemy fired several surface-to-surface missiles at a military position in Damascus province,” Syria’s state SANA news agency reported. “The air defenses of the Syrian army were able to deal with the attack… destroying two of the missiles,” it said, adding that the attack did cause “material damage.”



Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly warned that Israel will not allow the Iran Islamic regime to establish a permanent presence in Syria threatening Israel, from which it could in the future potentially station nuclear weapons.

Among the warnings, in his speech to the UN in September, Netanyahu said: “We will act to prevent Iran from establishing permanent military bases in Syria for its air, sea and ground forces. We will act to prevent Iran from producing deadly weapons in Syria... And we will act to prevent Iran from opening new terror fronts against Israel along our northern border.”

In addition to inland military bases, Iran is reported to be looking to set up a Mediterranean naval base in Syria, and uranium mining concessions



Russian sources told the Lebanese news outlet Al Mayadeen that Russian air defense systems downed one of the rockets fired by Israel.

“The Bantseer-S-1 air defense systems, supervised by Russian military experts in Syria, downed one of the two rockets launched by Israel after midnight on targets in the Al-Kaswa area of Damascus countryside,” a field correspondent quoted reliable sources in Russia as saying.

In Arabic here:

Iran’s Fars news agency also admits some of “the missiles hit their intended target” while not mentioning the targets were Iranian.

In English here:



In September, another large armaments factory in Syria, with connections to Iran, was bombed from the air. The bombing was attributed to Israel, which did not comment.

There are currently several hundred Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Syria, some in combat or political roles, others serving as commanders guiding the many thousands of Shi’ite militia fighters (mainly from Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan) who have been recruited and are paid by Tehran, partly with money released to Iran under Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal.

Iran’s Shia militias (including Hizbullah) have been responsible for a large part of the killing of hundreds of thousands of Sunni civilians in Syria these past 6 years.

It may even be the case that the Assad regime itself is not entirely opposed to Israel having hit the Iranian base in Syria since some in the regime are wary of the extent to which the Iranian regime is now trying to control Syria.


I attach nine articles below from recent days.

In the first, John Kerry admits that not only Israeli PM Netanyahu but “a number of kings and foreign presidents told [Obama] that bombing was the only language Iran would understand [to stop it nuclear weapons program].”

-- Tom Gross adds


* You can also find other items that are not in these dispatches if you “like” this page on Facebook


1. “Israel, Egypt pushed U.S. to bomb Iran before nuclear deal, John Kerry says” (Associated Press, Nov. 30, 2017)
2. “With victory assured, why is Assad suddenly wary of Iran’s embrace?” (By Avi Issacharoff, Times of Israel, Nov. 28, 2017)
3. “Putin’s Syria illusion: healing historical wounds, resetting the course of history” (By Yigal Carmon, MEMRI, Nov. 29, 2017)
4. Russia: Unrealistic to demand that Iranian militia units leave Syria (Tass, Russian news agency, Nov. 28, 2017)
5. Iranian Navy to deploy in Atlantic Ocean (Fars news agency (Iran) Nov. 28, 2017)
6. “Russia: Egypt will allow us to deploy military planes on its soil” (Reuters, Nov. 30, 2017)
7. “Russia and Egypt move toward deal on air bases” (By David D. Kirkpatrick
NY Times, Nov. 30, 2017)
8. “For Westerners Imprisoned in Iran, New Signs of a Deal” (NY Times, Nov. 30, 2017
9. “High-level contacts between North Korea and Iran hint at deeper military cooperation” (By Jay Solomon, Washington Institute, Nov. 27, 2017)




Israel, Egypt Pushed U.S. to Bomb Iran Before Nuclear Deal, John Kerry Says
The Associated Press
November 30, 2017

Speaking at a Washington forum, the former secretary of state John Kerry said both Israel and Egypt pushed the United States to “bomb Iran” before the 2015 nuclear deal was struck.

Kerry defended the deal during a forum in Washington, where he said that a number of kings and foreign presidents told the U.S. that bombing was the only language Iran would understand.

Kerry said that in his opinion it was “a trap” because the same countries would have publicly criticized the U.S. if it did carry out a bombing of Iran as they were secretly supporting.

Kerry said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was “genuinely agitating toward action.”

Kerry said he didn’t know whether Iran would resume pursuing a nuclear weapon in 10 to 15 years after restrictions in the deal sunset, but he said it was the best deal the U.S. could get.

In October, lawmakers in the United States approved four different pieces of legislation targeting Iran and its proxy terror group in Lebanon, Hezbollah, after U.S. President Donald Trump refused to re-certify the nuclear deal, leaving its fate to Congress.
At the time, Netanyahu congratulated Trump for what he called his “courageous decision” not to recertify the nuclear deal with Iran.

“He boldly confronted Iran’s terrorist regime,” Netanyahu said. “If the Iran deal is left unchanged, one thing is absolutely certain. In a few years’ time, the world’s foremost terrorist regime will have an arsenal of nuclear weapons. And that’s a tremendous danger for our collective future.”

Netanyahu said Trump has created an “opportunity to fix this bad deal, to roll back Iran’s aggression and to confront its criminal support of terrorism.”

“That’s why Israel embraces this opportunity,” Netanyahu said.



With victory assured, why is Assad suddenly wary of Iran’s embrace?
Having fought and bled for the regime’s survival, Tehran looks to cash in its support for a Mediterranean naval base, air bases and even uranium mining concessions
By Avi Issacharoff
Times of Israel
November 28, 2017

A little over a month ago, the Iranian chief of staff, Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, paid an unusual visit to Damascus. It was intended as a display of Syrian-Iranian amity, an expression of the excellent cooperation between the two partners in the drawn-out fight against opposition fighters and the Islamic State group.

Bagheri took the trouble to announce that the objective of his visit was to strengthen coordination in the war against “the enemies… be they Zionists or terrorists.” He added that he and his Syrian counterpart, Gen. Ali Abdullah Ayoub, had sketched out the “basic principles of this cooperation.”

Yet, from Iran’s perspective, Bagheri’s visit to the Syrian capital was not a success. Damascus was less than eager to accede to the list of demands reiterated yet again by Iran: a 50-year lease on a Mediterranean naval base, the establishment of air bases on Syrian soil, phosphate mining concessions including for uranium, and so on.

Syria did not reject the Iranian requests outright, but, in a surprise move for Israeli observers, it did make clear that it prefers to advance slowly and cautiously when it comes to submitting to Iran’s embrace.

There are a number of reasons for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s wariness in the face of Tehran’s demands. Love of Israel is not among them.

That isn’t to say the Syrian president has suddenly developed a backbone vis-a-vis his Iranian benefactors. But Assad does seem to understand that a tight embrace from Tehran could come at a great cost – both in terms of his enemy, Israel, and his most powerful ally, Russia.

Tehran had good reason to hope Assad would green-light the long list of demands it has presented in recent weeks to Damascus. In many ways, Assad owes his survival to the Iranians and their proxy, the Hezbollah terror group. Dozens if not hundreds of Iranian soldiers have been killed over the past six years of fighting in the Syrian civil war, as well as some 2,000 members of Hezbollah, which is mostly funded by Tehran. This was in addition to the efforts of thousands more Shiite fighters sent to Syria by Iran and mercenaries hailing from Iraq, such as the members of the al-Nujba militia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Although the Iranian demands may sound preposterous to Israeli ears, they can seem eminently reasonable when one considers what the Russians got out of Assad, including a naval base on the Mediterranean, an air base and more.

Given all these factors, officials in Tehran might reasonably view their demands for cellular phone tenders, phosphate concessions or a Mediterranean naval base as entirely sensible.

But the Iranians apparently did not take into account the fact that Assad owes just as much, and perhaps more, to Moscow. And while Russia and Iran share an interest in Assad’s survival, their interests diverge when it comes to the degree of clout Tehran can be allowed to wield over Syria. Iranian influence is seen in many capitals around the world as a destabilizing factor in the region – and thus is an indirect threat to Assad’s survival.

The heavy price Iran has paid in blood and treasure drove a complex debate in Tehran over the Syrian question. The Iranians believe their entry into the civil war was meant, first of all, to ensure the survival of an ally. But as time went on and the death toll and expense of the venture rose, an appetite developed in Tehran to find ways by which Assad’s survival could be made to serve additional Iranian interests – not just Russian or Alawite ones.

For their part, the heads of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard see in the conclusion of the Syrian war a one-off opportunity to create an Iranian land bridge from Tehran to the Mediterranean.

On the other hand, the camp of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has urged a much more careful approach. His allies argue that Iranian over-involvement in the Syrian crisis could bring the international community to zero in anew on Iran’s negative influence in the region, and could even harm the Iranian economy by triggering new economic sanctions.

For now, it seems the Revolutionary Guard is winning the argument. Tehran’s efforts to completely absorb Syria into the Iranian sphere of influence are continuing apace, and even accelerating. One of the last bastions not under Iran’s direct influence lies on Syria’s eastern flank, where battles still rage between Islamic State, the Syrian Democratic Forces (mostly Kurds supported by the United States), Shiite militias and the Syrian army. If the Americans scale back their presence there, the Iranians may finally achieve their long-sought land bridge.

Yet, even if that happens, Assad, like his allies in Moscow, understands from messages passed directly and indirectly by Israel that acquiescing fully to Iranian pressure could lead to escalation and even war with the Jewish state.

Israel has already characterized the establishment of rocket manufacturing facilities in Syria as an unacceptable development. If Moscow’s overriding interest in Syria is to ensure Assad’s survival, it understands that it may be necessary to limit Iran’s influence to the extent required to prevent Israel from stepping in with its own designs.

In the meantime, Israel doesn’t seem to believe that Assad’s goodwill is sufficient to ensure that this doesn’t happen. Assad needs the Iranians, and even if he is loath to grant them their every desire, he is nevertheless certain to concede a great deal.

He already permits the use of Syrian soil for explicitly anti-Israel activities, granting Hezbollah and other Shiite militias the right to operate in his territory, giving them free access to war materiel, and so on. The Shiite militias, meanwhile, are openly taking advantage of this largess to build up capabilities against Israel on Syrian soil, with a focus on developing military assets on the Syrian Golan that could threaten Israel – an act that carries the very real threat of escalation.

Recently, representatives of various Shiite militias (the Fetamiyun, Haidariyun and Zaynabiyun) visited Lebanon. Why would commanders from far-flung Iraq or other Middle Eastern countries be visiting the country? The most likely answer is also the most obvious: They seem eager to establish a presence on the Golan Heights.

Last week, Hashem Musawi, a spokesman for the al-Nujba movement (another name for Iran’s Iraqi Shiite militias), announced that his movement planned to establish a “Syrian Golan Liberation” brigade, and that the move was in coordination with the Syrian government. If Israel were to launch a war with Lebanon, he pledged, the brigade’s men would join the fight against Israel at Hezbollah’s side. For all his caution, Assad may already be on the path to an Israeli intervention.



Putin’s Syria Illusion: Healing Historical Wounds, Resetting The Course Of History
By Yigal Carmon
The Middle East Media Research Institute
November 29, 2017 putins-syria-illusion-healing- historical-wounds-resetting-course-history

The November 2017 summit of the Russian, Iranian and Turkish presidents in Sochi is a contemporary Yalta Conference, but one in which Washington was relegated to the role of an extra while Moscow enjoyed top billing. That is how the Russian pro-Kremlin researchers and commentators summed up the Sochi summit, in which Putin presided over talks to decide Syria’s future.

Indeed, Russia’s leadership is having a corrective emotional experience, imagining that the defeat of ISIS (which, by the way, has not yet been accomplished) is equivalent to the defeat of the Axis powers, and that the future settlement in Syria will be a replay of the partition of Europe at the 1945 Yalta Conference. This leadership feels that the insult and shame inflicted upon the Soviet body politic – namely the dismemberment of Yugoslavia by American/NATO power and the bombing of Belgrade, a kindred Slavic capital, while Russia looked on helplessly – is now avenged.

The victory over ISIS celebrated by Iran, Syria and Russia is a sham in itself. Russia and its allies in Damascus and Tehran did not bear the brunt of the fight against ISIS. It was American warplanes in the air, and the US-equipped and US-advised Iraqi Security Forces and Syrian Democratic Forces on the ground, that defeated ISIS in Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul, Kobani and Raqqa. In the meanwhile, Russia, Syria, Iran and Hizbullah spent much of their time fighting everyone but ISIS.

However, Russia is now claiming victory in Syria in order to flaunt its role as a global power on the world stage. It is even celebrating the eventual humiliating ouster of the Americans from Syria. It matters little that Trump, whether in collusion or not, is more or less volunteering to give Putin the concessions he wants.

Such happy days for Russia! Trump is effectively ensuring Putin’s reelection by making him look like a national hero. The current Russian leadership, which swore it would allow no more Kosovos and color revolutions and calls itself “the axis of order”, can now claim to be implementing this policy in Syria. This is sweet vengeance for a country that suffers from extreme weakness and military and technological inferiority and which, by mental gymnastics (thank god for Trump), can now visualize itself as a massive global power.

Unfortunately for Russia it is nothing of the sort. To cite retired Russian General Staff Colonel Mikhail Khodarenok: “we have 200 warplanes while NATO has 3,800; we have 1, 600 armored vehicles and APCs while NATO has more than 20,000, and the situation is similar in all other domains.”

In the naval arena the picture is indeed similar: the US has 19 aircraft carriers, 10 of which are Nimitz-class nuclear powered supercarriers, while Russia has one smoke-belching old carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov.

Once the Russians emerge from their make-believe world, they will be forced to acknowledge the bitter reality: that Russia lacks the staying power to impose any solution in Syria, and that Turkey and Iran are not allies but rivals when it comes to Syria’s future.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia has established a new alliance of Sunni states that supports the anti-Assad opposition, and Israel threatens to puncture the entire balloon if Iranian forces approach its borders. The ultimate irony is that Putin, the supreme constitutionalist, is trying to push Assad – he too a fastidious constitutionalist – into accepting a constitutional solution and free elections in Syria, and expects Iran, which paid a steep price in order to export its revolution to Syria, to acquiesce to this. This grotesque parody could morph into a tragedy even greater than what Syria has experienced until now, as states and regular armies take up the roles heretofore played by rag-tag terrorist groups.

Putin’s political theater is always good for surprises. At the peak of his apparent victory – and after the statement issued by the “victors” at Sochi emphasized only the Astana process, brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran, while making no mention of the UN-sponsored Geneva process – the helmsman Putin has made an about-face and now wants to return to the Geneva process. What does Russia have to gain at Geneva? Why not let Assad remain in power with the explicit acquiescence of the Europeans? Why not allow Syria to be partitioned into Turkish and Iranian influence zones? That way, Russia will have its Mediterranean bases, and that will be the end of the story. Israel and the Saudis will have to accept the new political reality, unless they want to unleash total war for the sake of themselves and the West (a move that a diffident and distracted West will never forgive them for).

That may still occur by default, but Putin is nevertheless trying another approach that he hopes will maximize Russia’s gains. What Russia hopes to gain is a chance to cash in its Syrian chips in exchange for winnings in Europe. Russia seeks to revive its century-long aspiration of redrawing the map of Europe according to the vision of “Eurasia from Lisbon to Vladivostok”, as Putin and his former foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, called it. It is in Europe and Europe only – not in the Middle East swamp – that Russia can and wishes to restore its bygone glory. The Geneva process may serve to restore Russia’s global status, and as a side benefit, may also unlock European reconstruction money for Syria that Russia cannot hope to supply on her own.

The Russian gambit goes even further. In early 2017, in various articles, pro-Kremlin Russian thinkers and analysts gave broad hints that Russia was eager for a grand bargain: giving up its alliance with Iran in return for the removal of what truly pains it: the sanctions and NATO’s eastward expansion.

Back then the bargain failed to go through. Nevertheless, in late 2017, from its new perch as the victor in Syria, Russia is again nursing this idea, in the hopes that its empowered status will yield a different result. For example, Kirill Semyonov, head of the Center for Islamic Studies at the Institute for Innovative Development and analyst at the Russian Council for International Affairs, commented that the convergence of Russia’s and Iran’s interests is only “temporary” and “apparent,” and connected to the crisis with the U.S. He stressed that Russia’s rapprochement with Iran is not “irreversible,” since it is merely tactical, and that Moscow’s policy may therefore change.

But sadly for Russia, the grand bargain is not likely to go through in 2018 either. Trump simply cannot deliver the goods Russia needs, however much he hankers for a successful deal with Russia. In fact, Putin will be unable to make this deal even with the Europeans, no matter how sorely they are tempted to accept this Faustian bargain.

A disappointed Russia will be forced back to the Middle Eastern swamp, and will be cut down to its true size as a rogue regime aligned with other rogue regimes whose hands are dripping with the blood of their own peoples.



Russian envoy comments on opposition’s demand for Assad’s exit
Tass (Russian news agency)
November 28, 2017

GENEVA, November 28. /TASS/. Russia has called on partners in Geneva to bring the Syrian opposition down to earth as its demand that President Bashar Assad must go does not contribute to a constructive dialogue, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Geneva office and other Geneva-based International Organizations Alexei Borodavkin said.

“All this is very alarming and will hardly contribute to a constructive dialogue in Geneva,” Borodavkin said. “During the meeting (of representatives of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council) Russia turned to its partners at the UN and Western delegations, which have influence on the opposition, so that they try to bring the opposition down to earth as their position is not in line with the real situation,” he said.

Kremlin reiterates Assad’s future role will be decided by Syrian people

The document adopted by the Syrian opposition at its Riyadh meeting, which contains a demand for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s resignation, is contradictory, he went on.

“The document that opposition adopted in Riyadh, cited by the opposition delegation which has arrived in Geneva, is very contradictory,” Borodavkin said. “On the one hand, the document says that the opposition is not setting any preconditions, but on the other hand, there is a demand for Bashar al-Assad’s resignation in the very beginning of the transition period. What is that if not a precondition?” the Russian envoy said.

“They also demand that Iranian militia units lave Syria, which is also unrealistic,” Borodavkin pointed out. “It is unclear how the opposition members plan to hold talks with representatives of the Syrian government if the delegation coming from Riyadh views them almost as criminals with whom it is impossible to talk,” he added.

Moscow believes the decision by the Syrian government delegation to travel to Geneva for the eighth round of the intra-Syrian consultations was the right move. “That’s the right decision. It’s very good that the Syrian government delegation will come to Geneva, because this will make it possible for Damascus representatives to express their point of view and come up with the relevant assessments,” the diplomat stressed.

Earlier reports said that, because of the opposition’s demands seeking the resignation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the beginning of the transition period, the official Damascus delegation put off its visit to the November 28 negotiations. UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, confirmed on Tuesday that the Syrian government representatives would arrive in Geneva on November 29.



Supreme Leader Stresses Iranian Navy’s Continued Deployment in Int’l Waters
Fars news agency (Iran)
Nov 28, 2017

TEHRAN (FNA)- Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei ordered senior Iranian Navy commanders to continue military advances and presence in the high seas.

“The Navy is in the frontline of defending the country with important regions, such as Makran, the Sea of Oman and the international waters, in front of it; presence in free waters should continue similar to the past,” Ayatollah Khamenei said in a meeting with a number of high-ranking Navy commanders in Tehran on Tuesday on the occasion of Navy Day in Iran.

He underscored the need for increasing the Navy’s capabilities to produce equipment and combat power and use different bodies in Iran to obviate the shortages, and said, “A good growth and move has started in the Navy and today, the Navy is more advanced and capable compared with 20 years ago but this level of advance is not convincing and a high-speed move should be pursued with determination, high morale, lots of efforts, innovation and action.”

In relevant remarks last Saturday, new Commander of the Iranian Navy Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi had announced that his country is serious about sending its fleet of warships to Latin America and the Gulf of Mexico despite the US opposition.

“We are not faced with any restriction for deploying in the seas, and anywhere we feel that we have interests to develop ties… we will certainly deploy there and we enjoy this power too,” Rear Admiral Khanzadi was quoted as saying by the Iranian media.

“We will berth in the friendly states in Latin America and the Gulf of Mexico in the near future by deployment in the Atlantic Ocean,” he added.

“The Americans had somewhere said that the Iranians cannot sail 9,000 miles from Bandar Abbas to the Gulf of Mexico, given their capabilities, but we will certainly prove them this capability and will contact our friends (in Latin America),” Rear Admiral Khanzadi underlined.



Russia: Egypt Will Allow Us to Deploy Military Planes on Its Soil
November 30, 2017

Russia’s government published a draft agreement between Russia and Egypt on Thursday allowing both countries to use each other’s air space and air bases for their military planes.

The government decree, signed on November 28, orders the Russian Defense Ministry to hold negotiations with Egyptian officials and to sign the document once both sides reach an agreement.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Cairo for talks with Egypt’s political and military leadership on Wednesday and the decree said the draft had been “preliminary worked through with the Egyptian side” and approved by Medvedev.

Russia launched a military operation to support Syrian President Bashar Assad in September 2015 and there are signs it is keen to further expand its military presence in the region.

U.S. officials said in March that Russia had deployed special forces in Egypt near the border with Libya, an allegation Moscow denied.

Russia has cultivated close ties with powerful Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar, who held talks with Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, via video link from a Russian aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean this year and visited Moscow.

Russian and Egyptian war planes would be able to use each other’s air space and airfields by giving five days advance notice, according to the draft agreement, which is expected to be valid for five years and could be extended.



Russia and Egypt Move Toward Deal on Air Bases
By David D. Kirkpatrick
New York Times
Nov. 30, 2017

LONDON – In an apparent snub to the Trump administration, Russia said on Thursday that it had reached a preliminary agreement with Cairo that would allow its military jets to use Egyptian air bases and airspace.

The draft agreement, released by Moscow and confirmed by an Egyptian military official, would mark the latest extension of Russian power in the Middle East, in this case through cooperation with one of Washington’s closest Arab allies. The United States has provided Egypt more than $70 billion in military aid over the years, and supporters of the aid program often argue that one of its main benefits to Washington is allowing the American military to use Egyptian airspace and air bases.

Egypt has been receiving about $1.3 billion a year in United States military aid since the late 1980s. Earlier this year, the Trump administration cut or withheld $291 million in aid because of concerns over President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s human rights record and his ties to North Korea. Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s foreign minister, called the move a “misjudgment.”

Under the terms of the preliminary agreement with Russia, Egypt would gain only the reciprocal right to use Russian bases. It was unclear early Thursday how the United States would respond to the agreement.

Russia has been pushing to expand its influence in the Middle East, which had diminished with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War and the expansion of America’s military presence. Many of Russia’s moves have dovetailed with the priorities of Mr. Sisi’s government.

Most prominently, Russia has carried out an aggressive air campaign in Syria that has fortified the rule of President Bashar al-Assad against the militant Islamists and American-backed rebels challenging him, cementing his position as a client of Moscow.

Egypt under Mr. Sisi, a former general who took power in the military ouster of an Islamist president in 2013, has also sometimes shown sympathy for Mr. Assad as a fellow strongman defending the status quo and fighting political Islam. Cairo’s position toward Syria has even put it in rare disagreement with its Persian Gulf patrons, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which view the fight against the Assad government as a proxy war against their biggest regional ally, Iran.

In Libya, meanwhile, both Cairo and Moscow have backed the forces of Gen. Khalifa Hifter in his ongoing battle for control of the country. That has put Egypt at odds with the United States and other Western powers, which have backed a unity government in an attempt to end the fighting.

General Hifter has sometimes appeared to model himself after Mr. Sisi, battling militant Islamists for control of the city of Benghazi and portraying his conflicts with the unity government as part of his fight against political Islam.

Mr. Sisi has also sought to cultivate closer direct ties to Russia and the Russian military as a partial hedge against the dependence of Egypt’s military on American aid, equipment and maintenance.

Former President Barack Obama temporarily suspended United States military aid to Egypt after Mr. Sisi’s government killed more than a thousand opponents in a series of mass shootings in the summer of 2013. Mr. Sisi responded by upgrading cooperation with Moscow. In the process, he has revived ties that ended when President Anwar Sadat shifted Egypt’s allegiance to Washington almost 40 years ago.



For Westerners Imprisoned in Iran, New Signs of a Deal
New York Times
Nov. 30, 2017

One American prisoner has lost six teeth from malnutrition. Another tried to kill himself. A third, a Briton, is traumatized by the possibility her sentence could be doubled.

They are among the foreign nationals incarcerated in Iran on spying or sedition charges, a continuing source of tension in that country’s relations with Western nations, particularly the United States and Britain. Many are Iranians with dual citizenship.

Now, the prisoner issue is heating up as President Trump threatens to derail the nuclear agreement with Iran and possibly revive onerous American sanctions.

Nearly two years after a group of American captives in Iran was freed when the nuclear accord took effect – in return for the release of a group of Iranians held in the United States – there is speculation that another prisoner exchange may be sought.

The Iranians have been dropping hints recently that they are prepared to make a deal, even as the Trump administration increasingly shows its antipathy to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his subordinates. Like the last deal, this one might involve clearing of old debts owed to Iran from the period before its 1979 revolution.

Each side, in effect, has prisoners to use as a bargaining chip.

The Iranians say at least 14 Iranians have been unfairly imprisoned or prosecuted by the United States or its allies, mostly on what they call specious accusations of sanctions violations. The list includes a friend of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and a pregnant woman held in Australia who could be extradited to the United States.

Last week, in what has been widely seen as a way of telegraphing a possible prisoner exchange, Iranian state television broadcast reports on two Western prisoners held in Iran: Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 38, a Briton of Iranian descent employed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, who was sentenced to five years, and Xiyue Wang, 37, an American of Chinese descent working on his Ph.D. in history at Princeton University, who was sentenced to 10 years.

On Tuesday, a State Department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, condemned the videos and reiterated the American demand for Iran to release all prisoners who are “unjustly detained, in particular American citizens.” She did not answer when asked about the possibility of a dialogue with Iran on the prisoner issue.

Hua Qu, Mr. Wang’s wife, said in a telephone interview that she thought the television broadcast was “a step forward,” although she implored the Trump administration to do more to help free her husband and other incarcerated Americans.

“They have promised many times it’s their first priority, to bring back our hostages,” Mr. Wang’s wife said. “My husband has been behind bars for 16 months; he has arthritis in both knees, back pain, headaches.”

Earlier, in an interview with NBC News, she said her husband was “extremely stressed, he has depression and he attempted to commit suicide.”

At least four American citizens and two permanent residents of the United States are known to be held in Iranian prisons. A fifth American, Robert A. Levinson, has been missing in Iran for more than a decade.

Besides Mr. Wang, speculation about a possible exchange also has centered on Baquer and Siamak Namazi, a father and son who are each serving 10-year terms.

Considerable diplomatic pressure has been exerted on Iran concerning the older Mr. Namazi, a former Unicef diplomat who is about to turn 82 and suffers from a number of maladies, including heart disease.

Jared Genser, a lawyer in Washington for the Namazi family, said Tuesday that their conditions of confinement had improved compared with a year ago. That being said, he added, the Iranian government had recently “taken a tougher line,” possibly in connection with the Trump administration’s hostility.

“Baquer has lost six teeth from malnutrition,” Mr. Genser said, adding that while his client had been fitted for implants, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which controls the wing of Evin Prison where he is confined, “have refused to allow the implants.”

Still, Mr. Genser said, the prison authorities have permitted cardiologists to install a pacemaker in the father – a possibly telling indicator of his worth to them as a bargaining chip.

“I hope the government of Iran appreciates that the value that Baquer Namazi might serve is dependent on his being alive – particularly if there was a prisoner swap,” Mr. Genser said. “If he were to die, the consequences would be severe, and no government in the world would defend Iran.”

Mr. Wang was arrested last year while researching public records in Iran for his doctoral thesis on an Iranian dynasty that ended last century. He was accused of passing documents to the State Department.

Iranian state television’s broadcast about Mr. Wang, on Sunday, showed him wearing a white prisoner uniform while under interrogation. He explains that he visited several archives. “That’s it,” he is heard saying.

The authorities have alleged that he illicitly scanned 4,500 pages of digital documents, paid thousands of dollars to access archives he needed and sought access to confidential areas of Tehran’s libraries.

Princeton repeatedly has asserted his innocence and said that he had received government permission for his research. In an emailed statement on Monday, Daniel Day, a Princeton spokesman, said the Iranian broadcast had been “filled with false and misleading statements about Mr. Wang and about Princeton.”

The television broadcast on Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, last Thursday, included close-ups of an April 2010 pay stub from her previous employer, the BBC World Service Trust. Iran is suspicious of the BBC because it broadcasts a Persian-language satellite television channel that competes with state television.

The Iranian broadcast included a June 2010 email, found in her inbox by interrogators from the Revolutionary Guards, in which she wrote about the “ZigZag Academy,” a BBC World Service Trust project, which trained “young aspiring journalists from Iran and Afghanistan through a secure online platform.”

Both her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, and Thomson Reuters repeatedly have emphasized that she was not training journalists or involved in any work regarding Iran while there. But their assertions were undermined a few weeks ago when Boris Johnson, Britain’s foreign secretary, told Parliament in an apparent gaffe that Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been “teaching people journalism.”

Mr. Johnson, who is scheduled to travel to Iran in the coming month, retracted the remark, but Iranian state television described it as proof of her “crimes.”

Mr. Ratcliffe has said his wife is now worried that because of Mr. Johnson’s remarks, her five-year sentence could be increased to 10 years. She has a second trial scheduled on Dec. 10.

Iranian and British officials in the past months have hinted there could be a compensation of about $500 million for a decades-old dispute over roughly 1,500 British Chieftain tanks, paid for by Iran but never delivered after the 1979 revolution.

Officials from both countries insist Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case is not related to the debt repayment. But on Tuesday, Iran’s Judiciary spokesman, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, seemed to draw a connection.

Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been held in Iran since April 2016, could be granted “conditional release” if she qualifies for it, he was quoted as saying by ISNA, the semiofficial student news agency.

Asked whether Britain’s payment of its debt to Iran could play a part in the case, Mr. Ejei was quoted as saying that any country would try to secure the release of its citizens imprisoned in another country and that “we would do the same if we have any imprisoned abroad.”



High-Level Contacts Between North Korea and Iran Hint at Deeper Military Cooperation
By Jay Solomon
Washington Institute
November 27, 2017

Pyongyang has emerged as a critical partner in Tehran’s ‘Axis of Resistance,’ and officials warn that their joint efforts may extend to weapons of mass destruction.

High-level meetings between North Korean and Iranian officials in recent months are stoking concerns inside the U.S. government about the depth of military ties between the two American adversaries. In September, President Trump ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to conduct a fresh review of any potential bilateral nuclear collaboration. Yet officials in Washington, Asia, and the Middle East who track the relationship indicate that Pyongyang and Tehran have already signaled a commitment to jointly develop their ballistic missile systems and other military/scientific programs.

North Korea has vastly expanded its nuclear and long-range missile capabilities over the past year, developing intercontinental ballistic missiles that could potentially target the western United States with nuclear warheads. Over the same period, U.S. intelligence agencies have spotted Iranian defense officials in Pyongyang, raising the specter that they might share dangerous technological advances with each other. “All of these contacts need to be better understood,” said one senior U.S. official working on the Middle East. “This will be one of our top priorities.”


In early August, Kim Yong-nam, North Korea’s number two political leader and head of its legislature, departed Pyongyang amid great fanfare for an extended visit to Iran. The official reason was to attend the inauguration of President Hassan Rouhani, but the length of the visit raised alarm bells in Washington and allied capitals. North Korean state media said the trip lasted four days, but Iranian state media said it was ten, and that Kim was accompanied by a large delegation of other top officials.

Kim had last visited Tehran in 2012 to attend a gathering of the Non-Aligned Movement, the Cold War-era body composed of developing nations that strived to be independent of Washington and the Kremlin. Yet he skipped most of the events associated with that conference, instead focusing on signing a bilateral scientific cooperation agreement with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. According to U.S. intelligence officials, that pact looked very similar to the one Pyongyang inked with Syria in 2002; five years later, Israeli jets destroyed a building in eastern Syria that the United States and UN believe was a nearly operational North Korean-built nuclear reactor. Notably, one of the Iranian officials who attended the 2012 gathering with Kim was Atomic Energy Organization chief Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, who was sanctioned by Washington and the UN for his alleged role in nuclear weapons development.

Similarly, Kim’s latest trip focused on more than just lending support to Rouhani, according to North Korean and Iranian state media. Kim and Vice Foreign Minister Choe Hui-chol inaugurated their country’s new embassy in Tehran, a symbol of deepening ties between the two governments. They also held a string of bilateral meetings with foreign leaders, many from countries that have been significant buyers of North Korean weapons in recent decades (e.g., Zimbabwe, Cuba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Namibia). The Trump administration has been intensifying diplomatic pressure on all these countries to cut their economic and military ties with Pyongyang in response to the regime’s barrage of nuclear and missile tests this year.

Regarding missile development, Iran and North Korea presented a united front against Washington during Kim’s stay. Like Pyongyang, Tehran has moved forward with a string of ballistic missile tests in recent months, despite facing UN Security Council resolutions and condemnation by the Trump administration. After meeting with Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani on August 4, Kim declared, “Iran and North Korea share a mutual enemy [the United States]. We firmly support Iran on its stance that missile development does not need to be authorized by any nation.”


The meetings that have gone unreported in state media are even more worrisome for allied governments. In recent years, U.S. and South Korean intelligence services have tracked a steady stream of Iranian and North Korean officials visiting each other in a bid to jointly develop their defense systems. Many of the North Koreans are from defense industries or secretive financial bodies that report directly to dictator Kim Jong-un, including Offices 39 and 99 of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea.

Last year, U.S. authorities reported that missile technicians from one of Iran’s most important defense companies, the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group, had traveled to North Korea to help develop an eighty-ton rocket booster for ballistic missiles. One of the company’s top officials, Sayyed Javad Musavi, has allegedly worked in tandem with the Korea Mining Development Trading Corp. (KOMID), which the United States and UN have sanctioned for being a central player in procuring equipment for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. For example, Shahid Hemmat has illegally shipped valves, electronics, and measuring equipment to KOMID for use in ground testing of space-launch vehicles and liquid-propellant ballistic missiles.


North Korea has emerged as a critical partner in the alliance of states, militias, and political movements known as the “Axis of Resistance,” which Tehran developed to challenge U.S. power in the Middle East. Pyongyang has served as an important supplier of arms and equipment to Iran’s most important Arab ally, Syria’s Assad regime, during the country’s ongoing war. And Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have procured weapons from North Korea in their efforts to topple the internationally recognized government in Yemen, according to current and former U.S. officials.

Moreover, Kim Yong-nam’s August trip appeared to have official support from Russia and China. On his way to Iran, he first flew to Vladivostok on Air Koryo, the North Korean airline that the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned in December 2016 for financially aiding the Kim regime and its ballistic missile program. He then flew on to Tehran via Russia’s state carrier, Aeroflot, passing through Chinese airspace.

Going forward, the most pressing question is whether a smoking gun will emerge proving direct nuclear cooperation between Iran and North Korea. The U.S. government and the International Atomic Energy Agency say they have yet to see such conclusive evidence. But Iranian opposition groups allege that senior regime officials have visited North Korea to observe some of its six nuclear weapons tests. Chief among these officials, they add, is Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an Iranian general whom the UN has accused of working closely with Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani on secret nuclear weapons research. Current and former U.S. intelligence officials say these accusations cannot be ruled out, so all known contacts between the two regimes need to be scrutinized closely.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.