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April 18, 2015 / 29 Nisan, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘terrorism’

Bibi, Iran’s Nukes, and Military Force in a Changed Middle East

Friday, January 30th, 2015

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

Over at The Atlantic, there’s a comprehensive worldview being built on the question of whether there’s a “military solution” to the Iran nuclear problem, and how Benjamin Netanyahu has Israel positioned vis-à-vis the problem in general.

Jeffrey Goldberg thinks Netanyahu has Israel positioned very poorly indeed.

James Fallows’ conclusion, agreeing with Goldberg on the worldview, is encapsulated in a quote from a war-game director and retired Air Force officer in 2004:

“After all this effort, I am left with two simple sentences for policymakers,” our main war-game designer, retired Air Force colonel Sam Gardiner, said at the end of our 2004 exercise. “You have no military solution for the issues of Iran. And you have to make diplomacy work.” That was true then, and truer now.

I don’t doubt at all the sincere belief Fallows has in this conclusion.  But if you unpack the work that led to it 2004, you find that it was based on a fatally flawed premise. (More on that in a moment.)

Moreover, the situation of 2004 no longer obtains.  That means that the calculations of two major players must now be different.  One is Israel; the other is the United States.  The calculations I refer to include not merely the consequences of each party’s actions, and whether the parties’ capabilities are sufficient for the necessary task.  They also include what the threat has become, and the fact that it is graver now than in 2004.

Don’t make assumptions about what I mean by that.  It may not be what you think.

Why the 2004 conclusion about “military force” is flawed

I’ll begin by explaining my point that the premise of the 2004 war game sponsored by The Atlantic was flawed.  There are several criticisms that can be levied, but this is the one that matters most.  (And I don’t mean to impugn the care and diligence that went into the war game.  You’ll see, however, why I found it fatally flawed at the time – before I was an active blogger – and still do.)

To illustrate what I’m talking about, I’ll quote a key passage from the 2004 war-game summary.  Several players were assembled to act out the roles of the Principals Committee of the National Security Council, and James Fallows narrates the events of the game:

The President wanted to understand the options he actually had for a military approach to Iran. The general and his staff had prepared plans for three escalating levels of involvement: a punitive raid against key Revolutionary Guard units, to retaliate for Iranian actions elsewhere, most likely in Iraq; a pre-emptive air strike on possible nuclear facilities; and a “regime change” operation, involving the forcible removal of the mullahs’ government in Tehran. Either of the first two could be done on its own, but the third would require the first two as preparatory steps. In the real world the second option—a pre-emptive air strike against Iranian nuclear sites—is the one most often discussed. Gardiner said that in his briefing as war-game leader he would present versions of all three plans based as closely as possible on current military thinking. He would then ask the principals to recommend not that an attack be launched but that the President authorize the preparatory steps to make all three possible.

The fatal flaw here is posing the problem set by the president as one of creating options for a “military approach” to Iran.  That’s why the options end up being, respectively, useless, vague, and appalling.

Asking what a “military approach to Iran” would look like is asking the wrong question.  The first question – the right question – is always what the objective is.  If you read through the war-game summary, I believe you’ll agree with me that no strategic objective was ever set for the players.  The three options outlined above imply three different objectives.  If I were the president, and those three options were presented to me, I would ask what could have possessed my staff to forward options one and three.

Fallows relates that the Principals Committee players spent most of their time thinking of reasons why option three was bad.  Of course they did.  But why they were even discussing it is the real question.

They spent very little time on option two, according to Fallows, which is the only option that would have fit the objective as most Americans understood it: to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons by inflicting destruction on her nuclear program.  This is his account of the time they gave to it:

The participants touched only briefly on the Osirak-style strike [i.e., option two] during the war game, but afterward most of them expressed doubt about its feasibility.

This is by no means the only reason to dispute the conclusion the war-gamers came to.  But it’s the most important one.  They were not asked to respond to a specific objective with options for accomplishing it.  In particular, they weren’t told to focus on the objective that was relevant and widely understood to be the potential purpose of military operations – and they didn’t focus on it!

They were asked, in the absence of a specific objective, to discuss some random options for using military force.  That tells us nothing about the efficacy of military force.  It tells us that the planning process asked the wrong question.*

Fast-forward to 2015

In 2015, we are no longer in the situation of 2004.  Three important conditions have changed since then.  The importance of these conditions can’t be overstated, in fact, because they change both what’s possible, and what matters.

Jeffrey Goldberg wrote the following on Tuesday (emphases below are added by James Fallows):

Whatever the case, the only other way for Netanyahu to stop Iran would be to convince the president of the United States, the leader of the nation that is Israel’s closest ally and most crucial benefactor, to confront Iran decisively. An Israeli strike could theoretically set back Iran’s nuclear program, but only the U.S. has the military capabilities to set back the program in anything approaching a semi-permanent way.

Fallows disagrees with him, invoking the 2004 war game to assert that “military force,” per se, just can’t get the job done:

Israel doesn’t have the military capacity to “stop” Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and neither does the United States, at least not in circumstances short of total war.

The key problem with working off of either of these premises, Goldberg’s or Fallows’, is that their framing is stuck in 2004.  Here are the three conditions that have changed since then:

(1)  The U.S. no longer has the conventional military capability to “set back Iran’s nuclear program in something approaching a semi-permanent way.”  This is a relative condition, and it’s because of the loss of readiness in our armed forces, independent of any other reason.

(2)  Iran’s nuclear program is considerably advanced from 2004, and setting it back has a different definition now.  This doesn’t mean it’s infeasible, but it does mean that no one now has the capability to use a conventional strike campaign to set Iran’s program back to where it was ca. 2004 or earlier.  A setback can only be to some much more advanced point in Iran’s progress.

(3)  Iran’s geopolitical posture in the Middle East has changed materially since 2004.  The regime’s intentions have never changed, but the facts on the ground about what territory Iran can use to menace her neighbors – as well as U.S. interests – have changed dramatically.

I’ll discuss each of these factors in turn.

Decline in U.S. military capabilities

Here is the thing to keep in mind about U.S. capabilities.  In 2004, it was correct to say that the capabilities we had were sufficient to contemplate destroying every Iranian facility related to the nuclear weapons program, using conventional means.  Not only did we have the weaponry; the weapon systems were in a readiness state high enough to be deployed and used.

There was a political question, certainly, about how hard we wanted to hit Iran.  There were a number of factors to consider, and valid reasons why it was not done.  But it was feasible to do it, with the arsenal we had readily available.

In 2015, we could no longer conduct that same attack: the attack that was necessary in 2004, against a smaller and less advanced nuclear program.  We don’t have the same assets available now, because our strike-fighters, in the Air Force and Navy, are unable to maintain the same level of force-wide readiness they could in 2004.  When they’re not deployed or within 3-5 months of deploying, our strike fleet aircrew and aircraft now fall to the lowest level of readiness, and can’t be “worked up” on a short timeline.

There are no extra ready squadrons to call on today, and fewer are routinely present in the CENTCOM area of responsibility than in 2004.  The same is true of aircraft carriers and Tomahawk missile shooters.  (Read more about how we got to this point here, here, here, here, and here.)

If the president wanted to assemble a force to attack Iran, the force would be smaller than what he would have had in 2004, and any “build-up” would involve pulling assets off the front line in other theaters: Europe, where NATO is trying to deter Russia with an enhanced military presence, or the Far East, where we are trying to deter North Korea and China.

Alternatively, the president could ask Congress for the funding to increase force readiness so that there would be more of the strike fleet available at a given time.  Implementing that approach would take at least six months to see the first effects: e.g., one or two squadrons at improved readiness.  The issue isn’t just things like pilot qualifications; it’s things like non-deployed aircraft being cannibalized for parts, and the whole fleet being backed up with deferred maintenance.

We continue to keep our global strategic bombers – B-2s and B-52s – at a generally higher level of readiness, and could use them to attack Iran with conventional ordnance.  Their operations would be constrained, however, by the limitations of strike-fighter readiness and specialty aircraft (e.g., the Navy F/A-18 “Growlers” that provide electronic warfare support).  The bombers need escorts, as they need in-flight refueling; having enough ready bombers isn’t the same thing as having enough ready capability.

Moreover, the U.S. could expect to have limited access to airfields in the Persian Gulf region.  It became clear as early as 2010 that Gulf nations would seek to restrain U.S. operations against Iran from their bases, and today, we should expect the Gulf emirates to be very picky about what they allow.  They won’t buy into tentative, non-decisive military operations that leave Iran able to retaliate against them.  If they fear that we aren’t going to act decisively enough, it’s likely that all three of our major hosts – Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait – would deny us the use of their bases for an operation against Iran.

That limiting condition would take out the Air Force as a source of strike-fighters, and make it much harder to operate tankers, reconnaissance aircraft, and AWACS.

Add in factors like the uncertain future of the Tomahawk missile (the Obama administration proposed to end production in 2014), and what we have today is a much more limited set of options than we had in 2004.  Although we still have a capability to attack Iran’s nuclear-related facilities, we can’t mount the kind of crippling attack we could have in 2004.  What we could achieve now is limited to a smaller effect.

Put it this way: in 2004, the five-day attack described in option two of the Atlantic war game was less than what was needed to impose that “semi-permanent setback” referred to by Jeffrey Goldberg.  But we could have mounted that option two attack with negligible inconvenience to ourselves.  It was well within our capabilities.  We also had the means, by deploying more force, to bring off the larger attack required to administer the “semi-permanent setback.”

In 2015, something like the five-day attack is the very most we could bring off.  It was less than what was needed to achieve a semi-permanent setback to Iran’s program in 2004 – and today, it is far less.

Advances in Iran’s nuclear and missile programs

Iran has made significant advances in her nuclear and missile programs since 2004, demonstrating the ability to enrich uranium to near-weapons-grade purity; demonstrating the ability to enrich uranium on an industrial scale; acquiring enough enriched-uranium stock for 7-8 warheads; and demonstrating the ability to boost a payload into orbit, and therefore, inevitably, a ballistic missile to ICBM ranges.  Iran had none of these capabilities in 2004, and in fact was not even close to having them.

(It is worth noting that the January 2015 appearance in Iran of a launch platform capable of supporting an ICBM has occurred right on schedule, in terms of when analysts in the last decade thought it would.  As of 2015, we have seen most of the developments that were predicted in the Iranian nuclear program in the 2005 NIE – see here as well – and the missile-system developments predicted in that NIE and an East-West Institute analysis published in 2009.)

ICBM-capable launcher observed near Tehran in Jan 2015. (Israel Ch. 2)

ICBM-capable launcher observed near Tehran in Jan 2015. (Israel Ch. 2)

The Iranians have also installed missile silos for their medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) – hardening them against attack – and, according to British intelligence, successfully launched a solid-fuel mobile MRBM to a range of 2,000 km (1,200 statute miles) in 2011.  The latter feats mean Iran has a no-notice, shoot-and-scoot MRBM capability that can reach well into Europe.

These various advances, and other related ones, have two significant implications.  One is that the “bottleneck” of Iran’s nuclear weapons program – the part of it we would get the highest payoff from attacking – has shifted.

There are other, related implications, such as the right way to attack elements of the program.  It wouldn’t be enough today to simply blast away at the Natanz uranium enrichment complex, for example; we would have to follow through afterward and actively prevent Iran from rebuilding a uranium enrichment capability, which the Iranians now have more than ample expertise to do.  In 2004, it would have been a tremendous setback to them to lose Natanz.  They still couldn’t absorb such a loss easily, but their recovery now would be a matter of time and money, not rebuilding from scratch.

At any rate, the bottleneck, or critical node, in their program shifted some time ago, from uranium enrichment, which Iran has mastered, to weaponization of a warhead: that is, fitting a functioning warhead to a delivery system (presumably a ballistic missile, at least to begin with.  Cruise missiles would come later).  Although we have a reasonable idea of which sites to hit to attack that “weaponization” bottleneck, it is the most shadowy aspect of the Iranian nuclear program.  Our confidence in what to hit is slightly lower than it is for the uranium chain or the missile design and production chain.

The other key implication about Iran’s advances is, of course, that the threat has increased.  It is greater today, and it’s more imminent.  We can less afford to do nothing about it than we could in 2004.

And what that means is that even if we can only do less now than we would prefer, the urgency of doing it has increased.

Iran’s geopolitical posture and the resulting threat

That is one facet of the situation faced by Israel.  It’s also a situation faced by the United States, now that Iran is ten years closer to having an ICBM capability, and at the very least could soon be able to hold every partner we have in the Middle East hostage with nuclear-armed MRBMs.

For Israel, however, it isn’t possible to separate the security implications of the nuclear-missile problem from the geopolitical problem.  Both work together to change Israel’s security conditions – which is what Iran intends.

Jeffrey Goldberg wrote his piece Tuesday as if nothing has changed for Israel, other than that there are now face-to-face negotiations between the U.S. and Iran.  But since January 2011, Israel’s security situation has changed significantly, and Iran is one of the biggest factors in that.

Graphic used by retired Gen. Jack Keane to brief Congress 27 Jan on 4-fold increase in radical Islamic threat since 2010. (Graphic: Institute for the Study of War; CSPAN video)

Graphic used by retired Gen. Jack Keane to brief Congress 27 Jan on 4-fold increase in radical Islamic threat since 2010. (Graphic: Institute for the Study of War; CSPAN video)

It’s particularly meaningful to frame the issue by starting from the fact that Israel’s capability against the Iranian nuclear program has always been more limited than America’s.  (Stay with me; this does relate to the Iranian geopolitical posture.)  It’s possible for America to recover the ability to pressure and intimidate Iran into a level of compliance, along the lines of the strategy outlined in my footnote below.  It will never be possible for Israel to do that.

If Israel is going to act, it will have to be with an actual attack.  And that means that what Iran has to do is make it as hard as possible for Israel to bring off such an attack.  That is a driving facet of the geopolitical problem Iran sets for herself.  Iran has larger designs on the region; her plans against Israel “nest” into them.  But the focus on Israel is unmistakable, and one of the key reasons is that hemming Israel in with threats will dilute Israel’s capability to mount an attack against Iran’s high-value facilities.

As little as five years ago, Iran’s options for servicing this requirement were quite limited.  Hamas and Hezbollah could launch rockets and dig tunnels from Gaza and southern Lebanon.  Hezbollah had successfully used an Iranian-supplied anti-ship missile in 2006, but there was little likelihood of such an attack being brought off again.

Iran, however, had begun sending warships to the Horn of Africa for antipiracy operations as early as December 2008, and with the onset of the Arab Spring, her military profile across the region metastasized.  The presence of Iranian warships has become routine in the Red Sea, and in 2011, Iran sent warships through the Suez Canal for the first time since the 1979 revolution.  Iran has announced deploying submarines to the Red Sea as well.  Every new weapon the Iranian navy tests or drills with in the Persian Gulf – including cruise missiles and high-speed torpedoes – it intends to use in its forward patrol areas, which now include the waters of the Red Sea, and potentially the Eastern Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, Iran now has Special Forces deployed in Iraq, as well as wherever the Assad regime is in (nominal) control of territory in Syria.  There is intriguing evidence that the Iranians have taken over a nuclear-related facility in western Syria: in fact, that they arranged for Hezbollah to “liberate” it from Sunni jihadists because it’s a nuclear facility, and is being used for Iran’s purposes.

Iran’s aggressively expanding posture across the region. (Google map; author annotation.)

Iran’s aggressively expanding posture across the region. (Google map; author annotation.)

And earlier this month, the Iranians sent a very high-level military delegation to perform reconnaissance in the Golan Heights – just one of the recent pieces of evidence that Iran wants to open a new front for Israel to have to defend.  The Iranians want to preoccupy Israel’s military, and increase her insecurity overall by forcing Israel to counterattack into Syria, thus creating the ongoing danger of escalating an already unstable situation.
(Google map; author annotation. Inset: Wikimedia Commons, author annotation)

(Google map; author annotation. Inset: Wikimedia Commons, author annotation)

It’s important to understand that Iran’s campaign serves multiple purposes, because its implications for Israel are therefore bigger.  Israel isn’t just concerned now about Iran’s nuclear program.  Netanyahu has to be concerned about what Iran, with or without nuclear arms, will do with her expanding territorial leverage in the region.  Iran gaining a foothold in Yemen with the Houthi coup there is the latest disturbing development, one that could give the Iranians a base from which to deploy midget submarines into the Red Sea, for example, or base military aircraft, or position missile launchers to complicate Israel’s missile defense picture.  Yemen could certainly become a waypoint for the flow of illicit arms from Iran to a variety of recipients.  Where once Israeli intelligence could focus on ports in Sudan, it now may have the entire western coast of Yemen to contend with.

The brewing crisis in the Golan may by itself be enough to present Israel with a matrix of game-changing decision points in the next 12 months.  There’s a limit to how much harassment Israel can afford to live with and retain viability as a free and secure nation, making a good life possible for her people.  The confrontation with Iran is growing in more than one dimension, and Israel can’t treat the Iranian nuclear program as a theoretical, specialized threat, separate from the overall menace Iran presents to her.

At right, IRGC General Mohammad Ali Allahdadi, one of two IRGC general officers and six Iranians conducting reconnaissance in the Golan Heights on 18 Jan 2015, when their convoy was struck by (presumably) the IDF. Allahdadi is seen here hanging with former President Khatami in 2009. (Image: Iranian TV via Twitter)

At right, IRGC General Mohammad Ali Allahdadi, one of two IRGC general officers and six Iranians conducting reconnaissance in the Golan Heights on 18 Jan 2015, when their convoy was struck by (presumably) the IDF. Allahdadi is seen here hanging with former President Khatami in 2009. (Image: Iranian TV via Twitter)

 

It’s not 2004 anymore

The profile of Iran’s activities makes it abundantly clear that none of what she does is “about” Israel making concessions on West Bank settlements, or otherwise falling in with proposals made by the Obama administration for a final status agreement.  Iran is all over the region – Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Sudan – taking advantage of the opportunities created by the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

Jeffrey Goldberg suggests that Israel should strengthen Obama’s negotiating position by making more concessions to the Palestinian Arabs.  But in 2015, nothing in the region’s main dynamic is even about that anymore.  The main dynamic is the feeding frenzy for the territory of Syria and Iraq.  The various actors are shaping up to be Iran, ISIS, the Kurds, and some combination of others who still retain a legacy set of “status quo” objectives (including, e.g., the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and perhaps Turkey).

Not one of those actors can be deterred or influenced by artificially forced developments in the now-defunct Oslo process.  But at least two of the actors – Iran and ISIS – will exploit Israel however they have to, to gain advantage for themselves.  That’s what Iran is doing with her foray into the Golan, which gives “top cover” to her nuclear program, but also has the real potential to become as much of an existential threat to Israel as an Iranian bomb.

Israel can’t afford to ignore the fact that the whole unfolding strategy interlocks.  In essence, Iran has already begun a new phase in her long-running campaign against Israel, and the Obama administration is asking Israel to behave toward the negotiations with Iran as if that hasn’t happened: as if it’s still 2004, and everyone still has the same situation and the same options.

An emerging trigger point

Israel doesn’t.  It’s not 2004 anymore.  There was a time, as little as a year ago, when the triggers for Israel to have to attack boiled down mainly to these two: either Iran was about to cross the “red line” Bibi briefed to the UN in 2012, or the Iranians were about to deploy a modern anti-air missile system that would make it too difficult for Israel to pull the attack off, once it was in place.

But we’re past that point now.  Developments in the nuclear program, or inside Iran, aren’t Israel’s only concern.  The Israelis may well have to execute a preemptive strategy that baffles and blunts Iran’s whole package of activities in the Israeli security perimeter.  Attacking the Iranian nuclear program – facilities in Iran – will probably form some element of that, but it won’t be enough.

And the trigger matrix has changed.  The intolerable juncture for Israel is likely to be connected with Iran’s emerging campaign in the Golan.  Neither the prompts for military action, nor its purpose and targets, will be bounded by the old outlines of the “Iranian nuclear” problem.  The problem is bigger now: simultaneously more threatening and immediate, and more diffuse.  A strike campaign against Iranian nuclear facilities, with F-15s, is no longer the main mental picture we should have.

Like the Oslo-legacy negotiations, the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran have little relevance to the security conditions Israel faces today.  One of the most important things the U.S. could do to reset the clock is now out of reach: that is, pacify and effectively settle the situation in Syria and Iraq, where Iran, like ISIS, is gaining strength and position from conflict.  The Obama administration doesn’t seem aware that the situation has changed, and with it the motives and concerns of everyone in the region.  Netanyahu has to deal, nevertheless, with a reality that’s changing under our feet with each passing day.

Center, with scarf: Iranian Qods Force commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani, with local Iraqi military leaders in Iraq in 2014. A U.S. defense official said in 2013 that Soleimani was “running the whole Syrian war by himself.” (Quoted by Dexter Filkins in “Shadow Commander,” The New Yorker, 30 Sep 2103. Image via Twitter)

Center, with scarf: Iranian Qods Force commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani, with local Iraqi military leaders in Iraq in 2014. A U.S. defense official said in 2013 that Soleimani was “running the whole Syrian war by himself.” (Quoted by Dexter Filkins in “Shadow Commander,” The New Yorker, 30 Sep 2103. Image via Twitter)

* I’m fully aware, incidentally, that policy is sometimes made in just this way.  But that doesn’t mean that we can accurately judge whether military force would be effective by approaching our evaluation through an inherently flawed policy-making process.

An objective and a strategy

For what it’s worth, this is what I would have asked the NSC and principals to look at back in 2004.  The strategic objective would have been to rope Iran into a heavily and genuinely supervised mode with her nuclear program, understanding that political change in Iran might be encouraged that way (alongside other methods), through frustrating the regime and weakening its reputation, but would ultimately have to come in other ways from the Iranian people.  Outreach to reformers in Iran would have been the highest American priority overall.

The objective of using military force would have been to set Iran’s nuclear program back significantly – by at least 24 months – and inflict some level of additional damage as a deterrent, against both immediate retaliation and future activities.

I would have wanted a process of escalating pressure on Iran with a concurrent military build-up in the Gulf region, designed to force Iran to open up all the facilities identified by the IAEA and Western intelligence as suspect.  If Iran didn’t comply in good faith by a deadline, the strikes would start.  The strike threat would have been implied, not spelled out.  The deadline would have been a short one (30-45 days), only long enough to accommodate the build-up, but not so long that Iran could change all her program arrangements to evade attack.

The scope of military strikes for which the build-up was designed would have included the significant “bottleneck,” or critical node, of Iran’s program at the time – the uranium enrichment complex at Natanz – as well as the suspicious special-use facilities in the Parchin area southeast of Tehran.

There would have been some other targets in the nuclear and missile programs, but those two installations would have been the top priorities.  Equally important targets would have been the IRGC assets most useful for projecting power outside Iran’s borders, including ballistic missiles, coastal cruise missiles, and submarines, as well as the IRGC’s paramilitary organization.  Attacking the air defense network and national command and control nodes would have been necessary to hold air superiority for U.S. forces while they were operating in Iranian air space.

Ideally, the preparations for this, and the escalating pressure on Iran (very possibly including intense economic pressure), would have gotten Iran to make some meaningful concessions at the time.  We need not oversell what we could have wrested from Iran without an attack, but odds were better than even that we could have gotten meaningful concessions: concessions that justified the effort, even if they weren’t everything we wanted.  Rinsing and repeating would almost certainly have been necessary.

My own preference would be for an extended process in which we could force Iran’s program more into the open, and keep pushing Iran back, without having to strike.  Instead of letting Iran play for time, we should be playing for time: time for Iranian reformers, who poked their heads up in 2009, and who are still there to be worked with.

Brother, Sister Caught with Knives

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

An Arab woman and her brother, Palestinian Authority residents from the Gush Etzion region, were arrested Wednesday. The two are suspected of planning a terrorist attack.

The woman was caught after throwing rocks at soldiers. Her brother was arrested later, when he was found with a knife at the Gush Etzion junction south of Jerusalem.

Last month IDF soldiers foiled a planned terrorist stabbing in the Gush Etzion region. There have been multiple terrorist attacks in the area in recent weeks, including the murder of 26-year-old Dalia Lemkus.

Breaking News: Two IDF Soldiers Killed by Hezbollah

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

The IDF announced that two Israeli soldiers were killed as a result of the Hezbollah terror attack earlier today.
In addition, seven other IDF soldiers were injured; injury levels vary from light to moderate.

Obama’s Policies Bring the Golan to a Boil

Sunday, January 25th, 2015
The attack in the Golan this week, on a convoy of

Hezbollah operatives and Iranian military officials, is a sign that things are going to get worse in the volatile area that encompasses southern Lebanon, Syria, northern Jordan, and northern Israel.  (See also here and here.)

Among those killed were high-ranking Iranian officials connected with Hezbollah’s use of Iranian-supplied ballistic missiles, and with Iranian Special Forces units that focus on raids and small-unit tactics.  In the words of a retired Israeli general (see first link, and below), this was a very high-level convoy, clearly preparing for serious incursions against northern Israel.

Meanwhile, we’ve reached the point in the post-Arab Spring Middle East at which many of the spin-off developments – perhaps most of them – are a consequence of the policies followed by the Obama administration.  Although there have been long-term policy failures, it’s a specific, proximate policy failure that opened the door to the current result in the Golan Heights.

Because of the strategic importance of the terrain, Iran and Hezbollah have been building infrastructure there for some time.  But their interest in the Golan skyrocketed in December.

A door opened by the Obama administration

The reason: ISIS gained a foothold there when the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade of the Free Syrian Army “defected” from the de facto alliance with the U.S.-Arab coalition against Assad, and declared its allegiance to ISIS.  The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade had been one of the most active rebel factions holding territory directly adjacent to the “area of separation” between Syria and Israel administered (in theory) by the UN.  In particular, it has held the southern line of confrontation with Syrian regime forces, in the transit corridor leading to the Quneitra border crossing.

That defection didn’t happen in a vacuum.  It happened because in early December, the Obama administration disclosed (through the back door), after more than two years of cooperation with the FSA, that it would not be working with them to build a defense force in Syria.

Situation in the Golan and southwestern Syria. (Map source: Wikimedia Commons; author annotation)

Situation in the Golan and southwestern Syria. (Map source: Wikimedia Commons; author annotation)

The point here is not that Obama should have stayed with the wrong allies.  The point is that passivity, lack of leadership, and ally-hopping have consequences.  Part of picking allies is shaping who they are and what expectations they have.  It starts with having common and enduring goals with those allies, which keep both sides committed.  These things matter to a responsible power, at any rate.  The Obama administration has consistently failed to exhibit signs of being one.

The failure has had a game-changing result in the Golan.  Now ISIS is there, with an entrenched infrastructure handed to it by FSA factions, and Iran can’t afford to ignore that.  Iran isn’t going to let ISIS build up a stronghold of its own on the Syrian border with Israel.

But don’t imagine that that means Iran and ISIS will be having at it.  Think Persian.  Certainly, the Iranians and Hezbollah want to be able to operate in the Golan, and attack Israel from it.  But Iran and Hezbollah don’t want to invite retaliation from Israel on southern Lebanon, where it’s important to them to protect their own stronghold.  Iran would like to get Israel shooting into Syria.

Israel has so far managed to keep that necessity limited.  Until very recently, the impression of the situation in the Golan has been that it is relatively stable: worrisome, but not unstable to the point of being an exploitable opportunity for one or more bad guys.  Iran would like to change that, in part because preoccupying the Israelis with self-defense is the key to limiting Israel’s strategic reach against Iran.  The objects of that reach include, but are not limited to, the nuclear and missile programs inside Iran.

Dan Co. Bus Driver Regains Consciousness

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

Herzl Biton, the bus driver who was stabbed multiple times in Wednesday’s terror attack in Tel Aviv, has regained consciousness, and is now out of life-threatening danger.

Biton was stabbed numerous times in the stomach, and despite his serious wounds, he managed to stop the bus and open the door on his Dan company bus #40 to let the passengers escape from the knife wielding terrorist.

He is hospitalized at Ichalov hospital in Tel Aviv.

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).

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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.

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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.

Never a Dull Moment in Paris with Multiple Terror Scares on Friday

Friday, January 16th, 2015

1) A Paris metro station was closed on Friday afternoon following a bomb threat. The bomb squad is presently on site.

2) Overnight, French security personnel arrested 10 people who were suspected members of a Jihadi terror network. They were arrested in simultaneous raids around the city.

3) An armed gunman took multiple hostages in a Colombes (northwest suburb of Paris) post office on Friday, using a Kalashnikov rifle and grenades.

The man eventually surrendered to police after a standoff that lasted hours.

The man has a criminal record for petty crimes, and when he surrendered he was said to have been “speaking incoherently”, according to an AFP report.

French police now believe it was a robbery, and not terror related.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/news/breaking-news/never-a-dull-moment-in-paris-with-multiple-terror-scares-on-friday/2015/01/16/

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