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March 27, 2015 / 7 Nisan, 5775
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Obama Administration’

US President Obama Punishes Israel for Re-electing PM Netanyahu

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

Punishment for Israelis who chose to re-elect Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu this week was not long in coming from U.S. President Barack Obama.

The Obama administration is now reportedly weighing the option of whether to agree to a draft resolution at the United Nations Security Council calling for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, as well as the withdrawal of Israel from Judea and Samaria, with mutually agreed land swaps.

The resolution would force Israel to enter immediate talks with the Palestinian Authority, in advance of a final status agreement for both sides.

Obama administration officials said Thursday the White House may support passage of this new resolution, according to a report published in the New York Times.

“We are now in a reality where the Israeli government no longer supports direct negotiations. Therefore we clearly have to factor that into our decisions going forward,” a White House official said.

Major differences have emerged between the two administrations over the question of how to deal with the constant threat posed by a Palestinian Authority that succors and glorifies the terrorists in its midst.

Future contacts between Israel and the United States would be managed by Secretary of State John Kerry and Pentagon officials, the White House official added, saying, “The president is a pretty pragmatic person and if he felt it would be useful he will certainly engage. But he’s not going to waste his time.”

For decades, U.S. presidents traditionally call the apparent victor of Israeli elections after the polls have closed to congratulate them on their win. Likud Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has received that call three times in the past, including from President Barack Obama, even during their most fractious relations – but not this week.

Instead, “the day after,” Netanyahu received a public scolding from Obama on his “divisive language” and a refusal by the American president to call his Israeli counterpart to offer the traditional congratulations. Secretary Kerry did make the call, per the tradition.

In an initial response to Israel’s election results, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that the U.S. would have to “re-evaluate” its position.

On Wednesday, the White House spokesperson talked about the president’s “deep concern” over the “divisive language” used by Netanyahu’s Likud party, claiming attempts to marginalize Israel’s Arab citizens in social media posts urging voters to get to the polls to offset a high turnout of more radical Arab voters supporting the united Arab party lists. “These are views the administration intends to convey directly to the Israelis,” Earnest said. Similar efforts by Obama during past presidential campaigns among targeted populations were seemingly forgotten.

During Obama’s own electoral campaign, as GOP Congresswoman Ileana Roz-Lehtinen of Florida pointed out, the president himself used divisive language while trying to whip up support from Latinos. “If Latinos sit out the election cycle, we’re going to punish our enemies and we’re going to reward our friends,” he said at the time — which she noted was a “pretty divisive kind of rhetoric” as well.

“The [Israeli] election is over,” Roz-Lehtinen told Fox News. “Let’s move on.”

But in fact, that’s not happening. “They’re really sticking it to Netanyahu to this day,” she added, “… but President Obama needs to understand that the United States Congress sides with Prime Minister Netanyahu on [Iran].”

The straw that broke the camel’s back for the president, apparently, was a remark by Netanyahu during his campaign in which he stated he would not allow creation of an Palestinian Authority state next to Israel due to what is now obviously a security threat.

Earnest, however, said the president still believes a “two-state solution” is best, even though top Israeli leaders warn that such a move would pave the way for an Iranian launching pad on Israel’s borders – or worse, an ISIS terror state right in Israel’s midst.

State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the administration would “absolutely” continue to push for an independent PA state.

Speaking on CNN, White House political strategist David Simas congratulated Israelis – but not Netanyahu – and noted the difficult process of coalition building still lies ahead.

“Sometimes that takes a couple of weeks and we’re going to give space to the formation of that coalition government, and we’re not going to weigh in one way or the other, except to say that the United States and Israel have a historic and close relationship and that will continue going forward.”

US Removes Iran, Hezbollah from National Intelligence Terrorist List

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

Both Iran and its Lebanon-based proxy, Hezbollah, have been removed from the National Intelligence list of terrorism threats – the most authoritative document produced by the National Intelligence Agency.

Fox NewsOn The Record with Greta Susteren reported late Tuesday on information found in the unclassified version of the report, the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Communities 2015 (PDF), dated February 26, 2015. An annual report, this one was delivered recently to the U.S. Senate by National Intelligence Director Lt.-Gen. (ret.) James Clapper.

The document noted Iran’s “intentions to dampen sectarianism, build responsive partners and de-escalate tensions with Saudi Arabia.” Also noted was the fact that “Iranian leaders – particularly within the security services – are pursuing policies with negative secondary consequences for regional stability and potentially for Iran… Iran’s actions to protect and empower Shia communities are fueling growing fears and sectarian responses…”

The intelligence report added that Tehran’s “overarching strategic goals of enhancing its security, prestige and regional influence” have led it to “pursue capabilities to meet its civilian goals and give it the ability to build missile-deliverable nuclear weapons, if it chooses to do so.”

Whether or not Iran would choose to do so it still not clear, according to the U.S. intelligence assessment. However, if the Iranian government decides to go ahead, there exist no “insurmountable technical barriers to producing a nuclear weapon,” American intelligence experts concluded, most likely to be delivered via intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Former U.S. Ambassador John Bolton told Fox News journalist Greta Susteren that he believes the removal of Iran and Hezbollah from the terrorist list was not a simple “format change” as reporters were told at a briefing, but rather a deliberate attempt by the Obama administration to deceive the American public.

“What we’re having now is an Orwellian example of disappearing references to Iran and its proxy Hezbollah from the terrorism report,” Bolton said, during an exchange with Susteren on Fox. “This was a concession, I think, by the administration relating to the nuclear negotiation. You will not find it in the signed deal.

“How many other concessions has the administration made that are not in the deal — that may not even be related to the nuclear program — in this desperate effort to get a deal?”

Meanwhile, Iran is moving to widen its sphere of influence in South America, where its diplomatic ties are already strong with Argentina and even warmer with Venezuela, which has the largest reserves of uranium in the Western hemisphere, outside of Canada.

Photos that flashed across Fox News during a report by Susteren showed a heavily guarded facility that was set up in Bolivia in 2011, allegedly with Iranian backing.

“There are elements of that facility which is supposed to be some type of military academy,” Susteren reported, “but is very heavily fortified. And the suspicion is that it’s being used by Iran as a way to have a footprint in Bolivia” which she described as “not a friend of the United States.”

Despite the disappearance of Iran from the terror map in the 2015 National Intelligence assessment, Fox journalist Cathern Herridge also noted that “the documents, the photos and Congressional testimony show that Iran is really effectively expanding its influence into South America, into our neighbor.”

In effect, Herridge said, Iran is “creating a launching pad into North America.”

Bolton concurred in his own remarks. “Look, Iran has terrorist networks all over this hemisphere,” he pointed out. “Remember, three years ago, the Justice Department indicted senior officials of the Revolutionary Guards Corps for conspiring to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States in Washington by infiltrating through the Mexican border.

“I think this is just another example of Iran’s activities.”

Obama Let 40-Year-Old Oil Supply Guarantee to Israel Expire in November 2014

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

Originally published at Liberty Unyielding

The Obama administration should give lessons in passive aggression.

Eying the impending Israeli election as a political influence operation wasn’t the only thing it was doing in November 2014. It was also letting a 40-year-old strategic guarantee to Israel expire.

The guarantee, which says the U.S. will ensure that Israel has access to oil in case of security emergencies, dates originally to September 1975, when Israel and Egypt were negotiating elements of an Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai after the 1973 War. Throughout those negotiations, which culminated in the 1979 peace treaty, the status of the Sinai oil fields was a core issue. Israel had obtained oil from them since occupying the Sinai after the 1967 War, when an Arab coalition attacked, and Israel seized territory to maintain a defensive perimeter.

The U.S. oil guarantee was instrumental in giving the Israelis a secure basis for withdrawing from the Sinai. The use of the oil fields was one aspect of that dynamic; another was Egypt’s closure of the Suez Canal from 1967 to June 1975. The Canal closure affected trade of all kinds, and specifically had the potential to disrupt Israel’s energy supplies – as effectively, by driving prices up, as they would be disrupted by an actual cut-off.

Because of this dual vulnerability, the U.S. guarantee looks not only at whether Israel is able to obtain oil, but how much it costs her to. The guarantee can kick in for either reason. (It entails ensuring that Israel can buy oil; it’s not a guarantee that the U.S. will supply oil for free.)

A Congressional Research Service study done early in 2014, before the most recent agreement expired, can be found here. It outlines the history of the guarantee. The agreement was formalized in 1979, with an initial period of 15 years, ending on 25 November 1994. It was extended twice after that, each time for 10 years, and most recently expired – without renewal – on 25 November 2014.

Interestingly, Reuters cited an unnamed State Department official on that date claiming that State was “working on” renewing the agreement. It never happened, however, and on 12 March, Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Mark Warner (D-VA) sent a letter to John Kerry requesting that he attend to the matter immediately.

It’s not clear what “work” would have to be done to renew this agreement. It is clear, on the other hand, that it’s an agreement that was made for important reasons, and that those reasons are not only still valid: they are more of a concern today than they were 10 years ago. Since the last renewal in November 2004, Israel has pulled out of Gaza; the Arab Spring has thrown the region into tremendous turmoil; the threat of terrorism and guerrilla action in the Sinai has increased; and Iran’s navy has extended its operations dramatically, into the Red Sea and even the Eastern Mediterranean. The potential threats to Israeli trade, and specifically to Israel’s energy imports, have increased significantly since 10 years ago.

Israel has huge reserves of natural gas, but remains dependent on foreign sources for oil. The U.S. guarantee has never had to be invoked, but keeping it in place is far from an academic exercise. The Globes report quotes an Israeli source:

Israel has never invoked the agreement, but Israel sources say that its importance lies in its very existence. An Israeli source compared the oil supply agreement to the loan guarantee agreement between the two countries that enables Israel to obtain commercial loans at low rates of interest. “Israel used the loan guarantee agreement very sparingly, but it is important that the loan guarantees agreement should exist, and the same applies to the energy agreement that guaranteed a regular supply of oil,” the source said, “We never used it, but it’s important that it should lie signed in a drawer.”

A Big Deal: Bipartisan Senate Panel Investigates Obama Link to Anti-Netanyahu Electioneering

Monday, March 16th, 2015

{Originally posted to author’s website, Liberty Unyielding}

As Israel closes in on the national election scheduled for Tuesday, 17 March, Fox News has come out with an exclusive report.  The U.S. Senate has appointed a bipartisan panel to investigate the use of funds donated from the Obama State Department to the organization OneVoice, which in January partnered with an Israeli anti-Netanyahu group, V-2015 (or V15) to import Obama’s own campaign operatives for the election.  The goal of V15 and OneVoice:  to defeat Netanyahu’s Likud coalition in the Knesset.

That this inquiry has bipartisan agreement is obviously significant.  Senators on both sides of the aisle think something stinks — and that’s just the first-order conclusion.

The Fox story outlines the initial concern of the investigation: the $350,000 the State Department has funneled to OneVoice.  State says the funding is unrelated to the V15 effort in the Israeli election:

One expert told FoxNews.com earlier this month the State Department grants constituted indirect administration funding of the anti-Netanyahu campaign by providing OneVoice with the $350,000 — even though State Department officials said the funding stopped in November, ahead of the announcement of the Israeli election.

Fox quotes an NGO funding expert who considers that a bit disingenuous:

Gerald Steinberg, founder and president of NGO Monitor, which tracks money flows to unmask non-governmental organizations that deviate from their stated human rights or humanitarian agendas, said even ostensibly unrelated grants keep an organization going during periods it is not engaged in political activity.

But there’s another reason to parse the timeline closely here.

The timeline

The story has expanded since late January, with additional evidence that U.S. groups are involved in an effort to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu.  Alana Goodman reported at Washington Free Beacon in early February that a U.S.-based group called Ameinu (motto: “Liberal values; Progressive Israel”) sent out a fundraising memo on 17 December 2014, outlining a very Jeremy Bird-like plan to “get out the vote” and transform the Israeli political landscape.

The December memo cited consultation with “American experts,” including Obama campaign operatives.

We are already in touch with a highly talented combination of knowledgeable Israeli professionals and American experts with experience in similar recent operations, including the Obama presidential campaign.

Ameinu president Kenneth Bob told Free Beacon in February that Ameinu had indeed consulted with Bird and V15, but had since parted ways with them:

[Bob] later said that V15 and Bird’s consulting group 270 Strategies were involved in the discussions early on, but have since parted ways with Ameinu.

“When we first began soliciting funds for GOTV efforts ahead of the Israeli elections, we spoke to a number of entities with projects in mind, including Strategies 270, which ultimately became V15,” said Bob.

But that disclosure, even assuming it’s accurate, puts the State Department’s claim about when its funding for OneVoice stopped in an interesting light.  It’s obvious why the Senate thinks it needs investigating.

The State Department, as cited by Fox News, said its funding for OneVoice stopped in November (emphasis added):

State Department officials said the funding stopped in November, ahead of the announcement of the Israeli election.

The early election in Israel was announced on 2 December 2014, when Netanyahu’s governing coalition was officially dissolved.  That means interested parties – like V15, OneVoice, Jeremy Bird, and Ameinu – were certain, less than a month after the State Department funding to OneVoice stopped, that there would be an election.

That alone means it’s hard to make the case that State Department funding was irrelevant to a OneVoice project decision that could have been in progress no later than 2 December.  OneVoice clearly could have been using, in December – and probably in January and February – money it received from the State Department in November.

But OneVoice and its partners could very well have been eying an Israeli election project before 2 December.  And since we also know that Bird and V15 were discussing an election plan with Ameinu sometime before 17 December, it becomes, at the very least, increasingly unbelievable that the OneVoice funding Bird and V15 ultimately went with was on no one’s radar screen earlier than late January, when Bird and his cohort showed up in Israel.

The big picture

The announcement of an early Israeli election didn’t come out of the blue.  In fact, it had been talked about as a possibility for months, and was publicly discussed as likely throughout the month of November 2014.  From statements by cabinet ministers in September, to speculation in October about the meaning of early Likud primaries (see here as well), to MSM statements in November that the “smart betting” was on an early election, to pointed disclosures in mid-November that Netanyahu was telling Likud leaders to get ready for an early election, the word was out.

November, or even October, was when advocacy groups and full-time political professionals would have been putting their scope on an early Israeli election.

Indeed, the phrasing of Kenneth Bob’s statement about the discussions with Bird and V15 evokes a timeline that probably did start earlier than 2 December 2014 – a bare 15 days before the Ameinu fundraising memo went out with its shaping-the-vote plan.

In that light, the timing of State’s last release of funds to OneVoice – according to State, in November 2014 – might even look like a severance for appearances’ sake.  If the Fox News report conveys the Senate’s concerns accurately, one of them seems to be with the coincident timing of Marc Ginsberg’s resignation announcement from OneVoice.  Ginsberg made that announcement on 11 November 2014.

By 11 November, as the links above illustrate, it was received wisdom in MSM reporting that Netanyahu would call for an election in early 2015.  But 11 November was also less than two weeks after the Obama administration had thrown its infamous tantrum by “leaking” the news that someone in its ranks thought of Bibi as a “chickens***.”  Moreover, 11 November was one week after the Democrats lost the Senate to a Republican wave in the mid-term election, and Obama thus lost Congress for the balance of his presidential term.

At that point, Obama’s actions on more than one front – e.g., executive amnesty; executive restrictions on firearms; ignoring Iran’s violations of the 2013 “nuclear deal” in order to press ahead with ill-advised negotiations – were beginning to show an increasing recklessness and disdain, not only for public opinion but for the prerogatives of Congress.  It would actually have been quite in character for the administration’s post-election agenda to include a strategy to campaign against Netanyahu in the widely anticipated Israeli election.

Congress may or may not be able to turn anything up with this investigation.  The Obama administration is likely to stonewall, as it so often does, and the non-profits involved may be able – ironically enough – to hide behind the IRS in declining to reveal their financial information.  (This although it may well be a violation of IRS regulations for OneVoice to fund V15’s activities in the first place – a point Ted Cruz has twice made official inquiries about.)

Apparent certitude and unity in the Senate

The fact that this is a bipartisan investigation is telling, however.

Senate Democrats aren’t moving to protect the administration from scrutiny.  That may represent fall-out from the administration’s thinly-veiled attack on New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, the Democrat who has opposed Obama on both his Iran and Cuba policies.  In part, at least, Senate Democrats are probably sending a signal of their own to the Obama White House.

But this goes beyond not protecting Obama.  The Democrats could have simply not participated, and thereby split the baby: neither protecting Obama nor helping the Republicans put his officials in the hot seat.

Instead, they’ve signed up for a legitimate inquiry: an inquiry whose outcome will matter.  The Fox story indicates that the investigation has been ongoing, apparently for some weeks before the public heard about it.  It’s possible – even likely – that the senators know things we don’t (not yet, at any rate).  And the Democrats, at least, can’t be in this just for the theater.

It would be remarkable for both parties to undertake an investigation they didn’t think anything would come of.  The opposition party (the GOP, in this case) would still be motivated to try to air improprieties in the president’s administration.  But the president’s own party doesn’t have a motive to involve itself, if it doesn’t expect to achieve anything more than that.

It’s not clear precisely what’s going on.  News of the bipartisan panel has been leaked just three days before the Israeli election.  The Senate is well aware that that, too, is political timing.  Whatever’s going on, it seems to be something big.

Reaction to GOP Letter Exposes Attempt to Outfox Congress on Iran Deal

Friday, March 13th, 2015

Reactions to the letter by Republican senators to Iran that a deal on its nuclear deal could require Congressional approval have exposed the Obama administration as possibly being involved in international moves to make an agreement binding through the United Nations.

The United States and other world powers have been secretly talking about going to the U.N. Security Council to lift U.N. sanctions if the P5+1 powers strike a deal with Iran over its nuclear program.

The possibility of a Security Council resolution being considered legally binding would make the Obama administration’s statement to the contrary look ridiculous.

The open letter to Iran from the senators underlined what U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and told Congress – that a deal would not be binding on future presidents.

“If there’s a nuclear deal, and that’s still a big ‘if’, we’ll want to move quickly on the U.N. sanctions issue,” an unnamed official told Reuters.

“There is an interesting question about whether, if the Security Council endorses the deal, that stops Congress undermining the deal,” the news agency quoted a Western diplomat as saying.

Iran was quick to pick up the thread,

Supreme leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, who apparently is far from critically ill or and certainly not dead, as reported last week, scoffed at the threat in the letter that Congress could alter any possible nuclear deal between the US administration and Iran. He said:

According to international norms, governments are bound to their commitments and those rules cannot be breached with the change of governments.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is also the country’s top negotiator in talks with powers, mocked the United States for acting as if it is equal to the world and stated:

I should bring one important point to the attention of the authors and that is, the world is not the United States, and the conduct of inter-state relations is governed by international law, and not by US domestic law…..

I wish to enlighten the authors that if the next administration revokes any agreement with ‘the stroke of a pen,’ as they boast, it will have simply committed a blatant violation of international law….

Congress may not ‘modify the terms of the agreement at any time’ as they claim, and if Congress adopts any measure to impede its implementation, it will have committed a material breach of the US obligations.

Omri Ceren, press director for The Israel Project, stated, “The letter forced the administration to explain why they’re icing Congress out of Iran negotiations, and now that explanation has ignited a firestorm.

“The administration looks like it intentionally chose a weaker, non-binding arrangement, rather than a treaty, to avoid Senate oversight.”

 

Egypt Marks Anti-Mubarak Uprising by Freeing his Sons and Killing 20

Monday, January 26th, 2015

Egypt has freed the sons of Hosni Mubarak from jail while security forces killed around 20 people, mostly Islamists, protesting on the fourth anniversary of the anti-Mubarak uprising that has left the country with the same kind of dictatorship under a different name.

Gamal and Alaa Mubarak had been in jail for nearly four years until a judge last week ordered them to be freed after they were exonerated on charges of embezzlement

Their father Hosni Mubarak had ruled Egypt with an iron fist until the “Arab Spring” swept into Egypt in the middle of the winter four years ago and, with the open support of the Obama administration, forced him to resign.

A temporary military regime replaced him and continued his legacy of murdering opponents. The Muslim Brotherhood, again with the blessings of Washington, took over after “democratic” elections that to this day are questioned concerning the veracity of the results.

Another uprising forced out the Muslim Brotherhood regime, and Egypt now is under the thumb of former general and now President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, whose security forces “celebrated” the uprising for freedom earlier this week by killing 19 or 20 protesters, depending on which report you want to believe. A policeman also was killed.

Sisi last year announced an outline for democratic reforms, which apparently do not allowed for street demonstrations against his regime.

Now that Mubarak’s sons have been cleared of charges of corruption, the most glaring results of the uprising are more than a thousand graves in the cemetery.

An Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program in What was Formerly ‘Syria’

Sunday, January 18th, 2015

{Originally posted to author’s website, Liberty Unyielding}

Note: This analysis takes on renewed significance in light of the Iranians’ announcement this week that they intend to build two new nuclear reactors, and the Obama administration’s insistence that such a clear expansion of the Iranian nuclear program does not constitute a violation of the Joint Plan of Action to “freeze” the program while its ultimate status is being negotiated.  The facts on the ground are busy changing under our feet, with almost no notice by the Western media.

It was evident a year and a half ago that there would be no restoration of Syria, as we know it, under the Assad regime.

That reality is something the mind of a global public hasn’t really caught up to yet.  But it is reality – Syria, as delineated after World War I, has fallen apart – and it should color our perception of a report from 9 January that remnants of Assad’s nuclear program are still alive and well.

We should not overestimate what’s going on with those remnants, which don’t have anyone close to a nuclear breakout.  The remnants are real – Western intelligence agencies think so – but the evidence of where they have been relocated is indirect, and mostly non-specific.  Assuming they are there, the best estimate would be that they are in approximately the same state they were four years ago: elements of a program not much degraded, perhaps, but not much advanced, if at all, from its earlier condition.

What matters more, however, is that if the analysis of experts is correct, the physical “stuff” in question was moved from one major battle site in Syria to another one, in 2012 and 2013, and ended up in a region on the border with Lebanon now controlled by Hezbollah and Iran.

In other words, the stuff was present in at least one and possibly two areas being fought over by Assad’s forces and rebel forces.   Natural-uranium stock and uranium fuel rods, for example, could have fallen into the hands of foreign jihadis, and/or the Al-Qaeda-backed Al-Nusra Front.

Now those materials, and probably others (including processing equipment), are thought to be stored in an area seized by Hezbollah in 2013, under the direction of the Iranian Qods Force.

This should alarm us.  While Assad controlled Syria, his nuclear aspirations were a big but boundable problem.  Now that he no longer controls Syria, what has happened to the elements of his nuclear program is likely to have non-boundable implications.  At the very least, it has the potential to empower Iran, Hezbollah, or both, with materials held in locations whose political control and accountability will be uncertain – from an official international standpoint – for the foreseeable future.

It’s a nightmare:  the very real potential for the most dangerous kind of nuclear proliferation.

The nuclear problem

Readers will remember that in September 2007, Israel attacked a nuclear reactor being constructed, with the help of North Korea, at al-Kibar in northeastern Syria.  No follow-on construction resumed at the reactor shell itself, although it was quickly covered with tarps and temporary structures after the strike, to frustrate foreign intelligence collection.

The type of reactor being put up was assessed to be a gas-graphite reactor like the one in Yongbyon, North Korea, which would produce enough plutonium as a byproduct for one to two plutonium bombs per year.

The gas-graphite reactor is different from Iran’s at Bushehr (a “light-water” reactor cooled by pressurized water), which would not be a significant source of plutonium.  Iran’s main path to nuclear weapons has been the separate one of uranium enrichment, with a uranium bomb as the end-product.  The enrichment path involves direct enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade purity, using centrifuge cascades as the principal method (although Iran is also thought to be working with laser enrichment).  No reactor is involved in the production of material for the weapons per se.

That said, Iran does have a heavy-water plutonium-producing reactor under construction at Arak, and is thus pursuing both paths to weaponization.

All of this matters, because it affects two things: the footprint of Assad’s nuclear program – what physical clues we have to look for – and the utility of his program to revolutionary Iran’s aspirations.

In Syria, we are not looking for centrifuge facilities like the vast enrichment complex at Natanz in Iran, or the smaller facility at Fordo, near Qom.  We will be looking instead for plants where yellowcake is converted to a usable form (in this case, uranium tetrafluoride, or UF4) and is metalized into fuel rods for the reactor.  We will also be looking for a facility at which plutonium can be separated out – harvested, essentially – from the spent fuel rods after they are removed from the reactor.  In North Korea, this process occurs at the “Radiochemical Laboratory” at Yongbyon, a six-story industrial building.

Reporting from February 2011 – the very outset of the Arab Spring – identified a probable uranium conversion plant at a Syrian military base, Marj as-Sultan, just east of Damascus.  The site had come under IAEA suspicion as early as 2008.  Specific types of major equipment present there were named in a 2011 report from Suddeutsche Zeitung, cited extensively in analysis by experts at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS).

Syria-nuke-map-1

In January 2013, an article at Financial Times (subscription required; see link in ISIS’s link in this report) indicated that “unusual activity” had been taking place at the suspect area of Marj as-Sultan, where the equipment, along with 50 tonnes of uranium and possibly more than 8,000 fuel rods, were thought, based on earlier intelligence, to be stored.

The unusual activity at the suspect site was probably a consequence of the fighting in the area between regime and rebel forces, which occurred at the same time: in the autumn of 2012.  More on that in the next segment.  The point here is that there is good reason to believe that some of the remnants of Assad’s nuclear program – at a minimum uranium stock, fuel rods, and conversion equipment – were still at the Marj as-Sultan site sometime in 2012.

This brings us to the report by Der Spiegel last week, which indicated that a site in Qusayr, Syria, on the border with Lebanon between Damascus and Homs, has been identified as a nuclear-related site.  Spiegel cites government intelligence sources who have studied activity at the site since 2009, when work on it began.  The site appears to be an underground facility for which the excavation was carefully disguised:

According to intelligence agency analysis, construction of the facility began back in 2009. The work, their findings suggest, was disguised from the very beginning, with excavated sand being disposed of at various sites, apparently to make it more difficult for observers from above to tell how deeply they were digging. Furthermore, the entrances to the facility were guarded by the military…

The most recent satellite images show six structures: a guard house and five sheds, three of which conceal entrances to the facility below. The site also has special access to the power grid, connected to the nearby city of Blosah. A particularly suspicious detail is the deep well which connects the facility with Zaita Lake, four kilometers away. Such a connection is unnecessary for a conventional weapons cache, but it is essential for a nuclear facility.

Syria-nuke-Qusayr

Beyond the observed developments at the site, Spiegel quotes a source as offering communications intelligence confirmation:

But the clearest proof that it is a nuclear facility comes from radio traffic recently intercepted by a network of spies. A voice identified as belonging to a high-ranking Hezbollah functionary can be heard referring to the “atomic factory” and mentions Qusayr. The Hezbollah man is clearly familiar with the site. And he frequently provides telephone updates to a particularly important man: Ibrahim Othman, the head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission.

There is, moreover, an intriguing possibility suggested by the disappearance of the North Korean scientist, Chou Ji Bu, who has been most closely associated with the Syrian nuclear program.  The possibility is that Chou has been in Syria since sometime in 2007Spiegel again:

Chou was long thought to have disappeared. Some thought that he had fallen victim to a purge back home. Now, though, Western intelligence experts believe that he went underground in Damascus.

In sum: prior to the Arab Spring, Syria had accumulated important elements of a program to build a working reactor like the one at Yongbyon and produce material for plutonium bombs.  Although Israel destroyed the reactor itself while it was under construction, several elements of the program remained intact in Syrian hands.  It is not clear what progress, if any, has been made with them in the nearly four years since the Arab Spring began, but there is credible evidence not only that the nuclear program continues, but that the previously-accumulated elements of it are still in Syria.

The question, however, is who is really in charge of them at this point.

The political control problem

That a Hezbollah operative is making reports on the “atomic factory” to the godfather of Assad’s nuclear program – Ibrahim Othman – is hardly meaningless.  It means at least that Iran still works through Assad in Syria, for important purposes.  There is still a convention of gestures between the two governments.  Othman himself, as we should expect, retains a unique significance.

But given everything else about this situation, including the location of a suspect site at Qusayr, and the history of the site at Marj as-Sultan in the civil war, we would be wrong to think of the nuclear program in Syria as still being Assad’s nuclear program, to do with as he wants.  Like the territory of Syria itself, the true ownership of the nuclear program is now a question more of who has local control – and who will set boundaries for Assad, since he is unable to reconsolidate “Syria” in his own power.

First, we must stipulate that the activity at the Qusayr site, which began in 2009, was directed originally by the Assad regime.  Revolutionary Iran has always had an interest in Assad’s nuclear program, and some degree of influence over it, but in 2009, Assad was still making his own decisions.

Fast-forward, however, to the critical period in 2012 and 2013 when the nuclear program was imperiled by local fighting in the civil war.  The regime’s air base at Marj as-Sultan was endangered by fighting in the larger Eastern Ghouta area in 2012, and rebel forces made significant headway there throughout the year.  In late November 2012, they overran the air base as part of their campaign in Eastern Ghouta.  Later reporting revealed that Assad’s forces had evacuated the operable military equipment from the base before it was overrun; that information, and the imagery observation of unusual activity at the suspect nuclear site, support the assessment that the nuclear-program material was also removed.

The Telegraph’s characterization (link above) was the common one at the time: the rebels, making gains in Eastern Ghouta, just outside Damascus, were “tightening the noose” on Assad.  The period from late 2012 to mid-2013 was actually a critical inflection point in the fortunes of the Syrian civil war.  Assad was on the ropes, losing strategic ground in the north as well as around Damascus.

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A big part of what changed the momentum in his favor was a decision in the early spring of 2013 to shift regime forces from the Qusayr area, where they were in a standoff with the Al-Nusra Front, and bring them to Eastern Ghouta and Daraya, east and south of Damascus.  This shift enabled the turning tide that saw regime gains later in 2013, a campaign that included the battle in Eastern Ghouta in which Assad is alleged to have used chemical weapons.

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Qusayr would not be left to fall, of course.  Situated at the north end of the Beqaa Valley, Qusayr commands the approach from Lebanon to Homs, and must be held in order to keep the entire province secure, and prevent Homs from being cut off from Damascus.

But this feature of the campaign is where the sand shifted under Assad’s feet, so to speak.  He couldn’t regain momentum in Damascus and also establish control of Qusayr.

Iran and Hezbollah, executing an Iranian plan, stepped in to do the fighting and defeat the rebels at Qusayr.

The Hezbollah campaign at Qusayr in the spring of 2013 marked a significant break in Hezbollah’s level of political and military involvement in the Syrian civil war, which had hitherto been minimal – a fact quickly noted by analysts.  There was no question who had seized control of Qusayr when the battle was won: Hezbollah was in charge, not the forces of the Assad regime.  In fact, when the defeated rebels sought safe passage out of the city, their flight was negotiated by Lebanon’s Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a long-time associate of Hezbollah in the ever-shifting politics of Beirut.

Some of the impact on Lebanon of the disposition of Qusayr, and Hezbollah’s control of the city, is hinted at by this brief report from April 2014, which notes the arrest by the Lebanese army of a “military council leader” from Qusayr.  The report suggests he was engaged in arms trafficking; he would have been a Hezbollah operative.  Hezbollah has been an encroaching force in Lebanon for decades, controlling parts of the country and resisted in others.  With Assad’s status on the other side of the border increasingly subject to an Iranian veto, Hezbollah is on the cusp of holding a worrisome new strategic advantage.

A new picture emerges

It is no accident that the site of a nuclear facility in Syria has ended up under the control of Hezbollah and Iran.  It’s a question for another time what the Assad regime’s original purpose was in locating it in Qusayr, but we do know that in 2013, the commander of the Iranian paramilitary Qods force, Qassem Soleimani, is reported to have fully orchestrated the Hezbollah takeover in Qusayr:

According to Will Fulton, an Iran expert at the American Enterprise Institute, Hezbollah fighters encircled Qusayr, cutting off the roads, then moved in. Dozens of them were killed, as were at least eight Iranian officers. On June 5th, the town fell. “The whole operation was orchestrated by Suleimani,” [said former CIA officer John] Maguire, who is still active in the region. “It was a great victory for him.”

There has been extensive recognition of Iran’s involvement in Syria; see here, here, and here, for example.  Much of that discussion has already understood that the battle of Qusayr was both a turning point in the civil war and a key feature of the Iranian strategy.  But the emerging information about the nuclear site at Qusayr sheds a new light on the strategic import of the Iranian involvement, and on the critical inflection point in Assad’s fortunes in late 2012 and early 2013.

Qusayr’s geographic features are an important reason for Hezbollah to have wanted to make an investment there.  But the existence of a nuclear site would have intensified Iran’s interest, explaining the focus Tehran put on orchestrating a victory there – a victory by Hezbollah, and not by Assad’s forces.  The before-and-after implied in that sentence speaks volumes.

Put that development in the context of growing recognition that there is no “Syria” anymore – see, for example, the treatments here and here – and a new picture begins to emerge of what Iran is really doing in what used to be Syria.

Take that picture, moreover, and add to it data points from the last few days.  After the Spiegel piece came out, members of the Free Syrian Army in the Qusayr area reported on 12 January that Iranian officers were there supervising the suspect facility, and that Hezbollah was mounting an “unprecedented” security presence for it.

[FSA official] Al-Bitar said the Friday report [in] Der Spiegel has been discussed at length in command meetings of rebel factions in the Kalamoon area.

He went on to say that “what can be confirmed is that what’s going on there is happening under direct Iranian supervision and the Syrian regime is only a cover-up for this.”

On 13 January, Adam Kredo reported at Washington Free Beacon that Iran acknowledges building missile manufacturing plants in Syria.

IRGC Aerospace Commander Haji Zadeh touted Iran’s capabilities and bragged that Iran has gone from importing most of its military hardware to producing it domestically, as well as for regional partners such as Assad.

“A country such as Syria which used to sell us arms, was later on to buy our missiles,” Zadeh was quoted as saying earlier this week by the Young Journalists Club. “Right now the missile manufacturing firms in Syria are built by Iran.”

Iran’s involvement in weapons manufacturing in Syria was already well known.  But the statement by Zadeh is a reminder of the scope of what Iran does in Syria – and the potential created by that array of activities for hemispheric power projection, through terror and intimidation.

The beauty of the territory of “Syria” for Iran is not only that it is in political turmoil.  It’s also that Syria is a wedge into the West, with a coastline on the Mediterranean: on the “other side” of both Israel and the Suez Canal from Iran’s regional encroachments on the Red Sea.  Under today’s chaotic conditions, Iran has an “interior” line of communication between her territory and Syria.  She can move men and material in and out of Syria via that LOC for many purposes, without being interdicted.  Eventually, Iran can foresee consolidating her position on the Syrian Mediterranean coast, and using it for purposes that can’t be accomplished without that unfettered access to points west.

Opportunity for Iran

All that said, however, Syria is now uniquely important to Iran’s nuclear aspirations because of the internal turmoil.  There is no meaningful mechanism for enforcing “national” Syrian accountability to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.  This is an ideal situation for Iran, and is only enhanced by the fact that the Syrian nuclear program has been on the alternate path to a plutonium bomb, as opposed to Iran’s well-advanced path to a uranium bomb.

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Omri Ceren, an analyst with The Israel Project, made the following point in correspondence with me this week:

Between Hezbollah and the IRGC, Syria hasn’t existed as Syria for a long time. Even without the IRGC and Hezbollah physically there – which they are – a Syrian nuclear plant is an Iranian nuclear plant. The Iranians are building redundancy into their program. They’re just putting some of their facilities across what used to be the Syrian border. It’s the equivalent of building a new plant inside northern Iran, except it’s a little farther out in their frontier.

It’s actually better than building a new plant inside Iran.  It’s taking the work already done in Syria under Iran’s wing, and, by keeping it geographically distinct, putting a whole segment of the Iran-supervised effort outside any reasonable prospect of international inspection or accountability.

The State Department made it clear on Monday that the Obama administration has no intention of pursuing this as an issue with Iran.  Under questioning from reporters, Marie Harf was adamant about that (emphasis added):

QUESTION: On the Spiegel story, you said you’re seeking – who are you seeking more – I mean, you know – you should know this area better than anybody –

HARF: Yes.

QUESTION: — certainly better than a German, although highly respected, news magazine

HARF: I would agree with you that we probably have information they don’t.

QUESTION: So who are you seeking information from or are you —

HARF: Seeking internally or from our partners to see what more we can – if we can cooperate this, but again, not sure we can.

QUESTION: Is that – well, you couldn’t corroborate it because of intelligence reasons or because the story’s false and you want to leave it out there?

HARF: We don’t know yet. We just saw the reports and we’re looking into it.

QUESTION: Will you discuss this issue with the Iranians in the upcoming talks?

HARF: No. The upcoming talks are about the Iranian nuclear program.

QUESTION: Yeah, but if they are helping the –

HARF: Yes, but we don’t discuss other issues with them at those talks, as you all know.

QUESTION: But if they are –

HARF: Let’s move on to North Korea and let’s —

QUESTION: But if they are helping the Assad regime to build a nuclear facility –

HARF: I just said we’re not going to. I’m not sure what you don’t understand about that. We’re moving on to North Korea.

Not only will we not address this with Iran: we have only long-term and ineffectual plans to address the turmoil in Syria.  Our plan to train and equip an opposition force capable of fighting either the ISIS jihadi group or the Assad regime hasn’t even started yet.  It is, in any case, a plan with a long lead-time – at least a year – which the Obama administration does not intend to accomplish through its longstanding association with the Free Syrian Army.  (See here as well.)  Just this week, the commander of Special Operations Forces in CENTCOM met with Syrian opposition leaders to begin laying out a strategic vision.

The plan, moreover, doesn’t envision pacifying or unifying Syria, or taking territory from Assad or ISIS.  It’s a wholly defensive plan, which will apparently result only in setting up defended enclaves in a Syria left divided and unsettled.

In other words, nothing we plan to do will make the slightest headway against the very real problem of Syria as an unsupervised storage shed and back-room manufactory, for Iran or for whoever can manage to get hold of its contents.  Some of those contents are still from the Assad regime’s nuclear program.  It’s by no means impossible for ISIS to get hold of them; we don’t know where everything from the old program is.

If they are under the active supervision of Iran today, and are incorporated in a strategic plan of the mullahs’ devising, it is suicidal to be complacent about where they may end up, or how they may be used.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/analysis/j-e-dyer/an-iranian-nuclear-weapons-program-in-what-was-formerly-syria/2015/01/18/

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