US races headlong for final nuclear deal with Iran – irrespective of program’s military dimension

Iran and the six world powers embarked Tuesday, April 8, on two days of negotiations in Vienna for a final and comprehensive nuclear accord, with both the US and Iran resolved start drafting the document for resolving the long-running dispute in mid-May. DEBKAfile reports that in its haste for progress, the Obama administration has set aside consideration of the Iranian nuclear program’s military dimensions. As a senior Israeli security official put it: “The Americans are ready to take Tehran’s assurance that its program is purely peaceful at face value.”
Israel Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Monday, April 7 in a brief comment that what concerns Israel is that the negotiations have not so far addressed Iran’s nuclear weapons program or delivery systems – a reference its nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.
DEBKAfile’s sources note that “concern” was an understatement of Ya’alon’s views following his falling-out with Washington for his outspoken remarks on US policies both on Iran and the Middle East peace process.

His comment also paled compared with the sharp exchanges between Israel’s defense chiefs and Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs, during his three-day visit last week. Those exchanges brought to the surface the profound US-Israeli differences on the state of Iran’s nuclear program and the scope of its threat.
When he visited Riyadh on March 28, President Barack Obama tried to reassure Saudi King Abdullah that “the United States would not accept a bad nuclear deal with Iran.”

Gen. Dempsey too sought to allay Israel’s fears about the final nuclear accord under discussion between the six world powers and Iran.
Neither Riyadh nor Jerusalem was convinced. They agreed to couch their rift with Washington diplomatically as “tactical differences.” But the Saudis and Israelis also agreed to continue working together on the Iranian nuclear question.
No sooner had Obama departed Riyadh and Dempsey Jerusalem, than a US spokesman issued an upbeat  statement that no second interim nuclear accord would be necessary after the one signed last November, and there was no bar to getting down to drafting the final accord document and have it ready for signing by July 20.
This optimism seemed to have no visible rationale, but the Iranians saw their chance of a fast deal for major sanctions relief.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif endorsed this tight timetable when he arrived in Vienna Tuesday: “We will finish all discussions and issues this time,” he said, “to pave the ground for starting to draft the final draft in Ordibehesht (an Iranian month that begins in two weeks).”

Washington also brushed aside the warning heard form Russia’s senior negotiator Sergey Ryabkov that Moscow might “take the path of counter-measures” on Iran if pushed too far on Ukraine. On arrival in Vienna, he said stiffly that Russia not involved in the Iran talks “to please the Americans or Iranians” but because it “meets the national interest” to find a solution. But, he added, Russia has no special expectations from this round of talks.

The standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine cast a heavy cloud over the Vienna meeting. But Washington refused to be put off its diplomatic stroke by this impasse, or even the mammoth $50 billion barter deal  Moscow and Iran are near closing for Iran to sell Russian 550,000 barrels of oil per day in lieu of various Russian goods, including foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals.
US spokesmen first denied knowledge of this transaction, which once it goes through will undermine the sanctions and oil embargo the US and Europe have imposed on Iran as a lever to curtail its nuclear weapons drive. Then, on Tuesday, Western sources at the Vienna session said it was not feasible because Russia and Iran had no direct pipeline connections across the Caspian Sea.
However, DEBKAfile’s sources mooted another option: Moscow could leave the oil it procures in Iran as a strategic Russian reserve, available for resale to a third party.

The opening session in Vienna saw US and Iranian positions far apart on the key issue of the quantity of low-grade enriched uranium Iran will be allowed to produce. The Americans want this quantity curtailed to prevent Iran stockpiling sufficient material for a short hop to weapons-grade for a nuclear bomb. Iran maintains its right to enrichment as endorsed in the interim accord concluded with the six powers last November.

Our military sources say that the argument is irrelevant, because it does not take into account the low- and high-grade enriched uranium the Iranians are keeping concealed as part of their military program.

US arms Syrian rebels with first heavy weapons, anti-tank BGM-71 TOW missiles – raising war stakes

Two Syrian rebel militias judged moderate in Washington have in the last few days taken delivery and begun using – mostly in the Idlib region – the first advanced US weapon to be deployed in more than three years of civil war, DEBKAfile’s military sources reveal. It is the heavy anti-tank, optically-tracked, wire-guided BGM-71 TOW, which is capable of piercing 500mm thickness of Syrian tank armor and Syrian fortifications at a range of 4 kilometers. Armed with this weapon now are Brig-Gen. Abdul-Hila al Bashir, the new commander of the rebel Free Syrian Army, which is headquartered at the Golan town of Quneitra, and Jamal Maarouf, head of the rebel Syrian Revolutionary Front fighting in the north.

The appearance of this advanced missile radically alters the balance of strength on the Syrian battlefield. It also denotes a striking change in Obama administration policy, which hitherto flatly resisted every demand to provide Syrian rebel groups with the heavy arms essential for them to have any chance of standing up to Bashar Assad’s superior military strength.

Our sources report that in the last few days, the new weapons are being airlifted in through two routes: the southeastern Turkish town of Diyarbakir on the Tigris, and the giant northern Saudi King Faisal Air Base at Tabuk near the Jordanian border.
US Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, arranged during his visit to Israel last week for the Netanyahu government to waive a standing agreement between the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel, whereby Saudi Air Force F-15 fighters are not stationed in Tabuk given its proximity to Israeli air space.

Dempsey explained that they were needed as air cover for the American transports flying the new weapons in via Saudi, and the convoys ferrying them onward from the Saudi base to their destination in southern Syria through Jordan. Stationed at the Tabuk air base too is a squadron of French fighter jets.

The route from Turkey to Syria runs through the “Kilis Corridor”, which is a narrow rebel-controlled strip 40 kilometers long from the southern Turkish town of Gaziantep up to the big Syrian town of Aleppo.

From his headquarters at Quneitra, opposite IDF positions on the Golan, Gen. al Bashir commands most of the Syrian forces fighting Bashar Assad’s army in the south.

Maarouf and his Syrian Revolutionary Front operate from a base in the southern Turkish town of Antakya.

In the last of his recent press interviews on April 2, Maarouf disclosed that some of the Front’s operations against the Syrian army were carried out in conjunction with al Qaeda’s Jabhat al Nusra.
Our military sources report that Syrian tank armor is not thick enough to withstand the BGM-71 TOW rockets. To save his tanks, Assad has shifted the brunt of his anti-rebel operation to heavy air force bombardments, which claim a heavy toll among civilians.

Washington is therefore confronted with its next decision about whether to give the rebels sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons as well.
According to our sources in Washington and Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov obtained from US Secretary of State John Kerry a commitment, when they met in Paris last week, not to supply the rebels with hand held anti-aircraft missiles.

Options for Mid East talks: Carrying on, interim deal, or a turn to the Saudi-UAE-Egyptian bloc

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, nearing 80, has proved time and again in the last two decades that he will never put pen to paper on an accord for ending the dispute with Israel. If he really wanted an independent Palestinian state, he could at any time have followed the path to self-determination chosen by David Ben Gurion, when he declared Israeli statehood on May 14, 1948 in Tel Aviv. Had Abbas (known mostly as Abu Mazen) formally convened an assembly of Palestinian community and institutional leaders at the Palestinian parliament building in Ramallah and proclaimed statehood, there would have been very little Israel could have done.
But that is not his way and never has been, because for him Palestinian independence is no more than an abstract slogan which must never come to earth.

In 1995, Abbas and the dovish Israeli politician Yossie Bailin jointly drafted a document, which later carried their names, offering  a formula for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli dispute – except that he never signed it. He couldn’t bring himself to this commitment, because it conflicted with his fundamental principles and put his political survival at risk.
Today, too, the rise of a Palestinian state would end Abbas’s career as Palestinian leader. He holds sway over the six West Bank towns which passed to Palestinian Authority control without a legal mandate. The last Palestinian elections in 2006 gave his Fatah party only 48 seats compared with 76 netted by the rival Hamas.

Israel, the United States and Europe therefore respect as their legitimate Palestinian partner for peace negotiations a figure who is unelected and whose rule is buttressed by seven Palestinian security battalions, which America and Europe agreed to bankroll to the tune of $2 billion, after the cutoff of Arab aid. Another three battalions are due to be added to the force.

So Abu Mazen keeps up the masquerade of striving for Palestinian independence and staying in the talking shop for two purposes: It keeps him in power by dint of international recognition, and donations continue to roll in to feed his corrupt regime and cover the payroll of his security force.
Not much is left to trickle down to the ordinary Palestinian family.

To buy a small measure of street credibility, Abbas must show the people that he is the only leader able to force Israel to release Palestinians from long prison sentences. He achieves this by making this his price for not walking away from the table
So long as the money flows in and Palestinians are sprung from Israeli jails, no voices are raised in circles that count in Ramallah against the corrupt practices eating away at the regime.

Abbas therefore ranted and raved when Israel’s cancelled the fourth batch of 26 Palestinian prisoners due to be released March 30, to punish him for sending applications to 15 UN agencies and conventions for membership to bypass the negotiations. Israel also hit back at Abbas with a threat of sanctions – some directed against his personal business interests.

US Secretary of State John Kerry’s hard work as would-be peacemaker was not just thrown back in his face but drew criticism at home from his colleagues in the White House and State Department. He tried Thursday to speak to both Israeli and Palestinian leaders in what was described as a desperate bid to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table.
The US Secretary rebuked both the two leaders equally for engaging in “tit-for-tat” tactics, but he knew exactly which side had caused the rupture. Kerry must by now realize that Abu Mazen’s history of withdrawing from any fruitful dialogue for peace made this outcome inevitable. Had he gone for interim accords, which he never considered, rather than final solutions, he might have bought a few years’ lull in the dispute, although this too would have come apart over the same Palestinian dynamic.

In the past, Abu Mazen had to contend with only one effective dissenting voice. It came from his bitter rival, Mohammed Dahlan, who ended up quitting his comfortable berth on Palestinian Authority and Fatah councils in Ramallah and going into exile. There, too, he landed on his feet.
Some 30 years younger that Abbas, Dahlan has been a persona non grata for Israel as former Gaza strongman and innovative terrorist.

He is problematic on at least three more counts:

1. Seven years ago, he extracted from the US government a huge sum – estimated at $1 billion – for promising to rid the Gaza Strip of Hamas rule. He never delivered and refused to refund the money.

That is one US count against him. In addition, he has thrown in his lot with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and their offensive against Obama administration Middle East policies.
2.  Because of his unbridled criticism of Mahmoud Abbas and calls for his removal, Dahlan is on the run from his enemies who have sworn to destroy him.
3.  Dahlan has managed to win the sympathy and patronage of powerful Gulf rulers. With their help, he established himself three months ago in Cairo within the Egyptian strongman Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi’s inner circle of advisers on the Palestinian question. This explains why Abbas gives Cairo a wide berth.
The Palestinian renegade gained this position through the influence of UAE Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who is one of El-Sisi’s most generous bankers and who stands at the forefront of the Saudi-UAE life-and-death campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood.
The talk of Ramallah this week was not the breakdown of talks, which surprised no one there, but interest in the way the Palestinian fate could be profitably drawn into the Saudi-UAE-Egyptian war on the Muslim Brotherhood and its offspring Hamas – away from the American ken.

Abbas’s rival Dahlan is shaping up as facilitator.

This trend appears to have been picked by some Israeli government and intelligence circles, judging by a comment heard from Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman Wednesday, April 2, during an office party on Passover Eve. He remarked that the ball is now in the Palestinian court. “Irrespective of the negotiations, Israel has found an attractive political horizon in such places as the Arab oil emirates and Saudi Arabia,” he said, adding: “If Abu Mazen is willing to follow us in that direction, fine. If not, we don’t need him.”
This comment suggested that Israel has thoughts of linking up with the emerging Saudi-Egyptian-UAR bloc and bringing the Palestinian issue on board.  Whether or not these thoughts crystallize into hard policy, they hint at an alternative Israeli approach to the Palestinian question.

Israeli launches spy satellite after US refusal to push for Iran’s weapons program’s dismantlement

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided not to delay the launch of Israel’s improved Ofek 10 spy satellite Wednesday night April 9, hours after the six powers and Iran wound up another round of talks in Vienna on comprehensive accord on its nuclear program. Israel decided to show some muscle over the Obama administration’s consent to raise Iran’s weapons program at the next round of nuclear negotiations next month, DEBKAfile’s Washington and Jerusalem sources report. But this assurance, relayed also to the Saudi government, was not accompanied by information on the points to be raised, or the US response if Tehran continued to maintain that its weapons program is non-existent and therefore not up for negotiation with the world powers.

Neither did Washington reply to questions from Jerusalem about how US negotiators would act in the light of the latest intelligence data supplied by Israel, Britain and Holland attesting to accelerated Iranian work on its putatively non-existent weapons program.  The Israeli prime minister is still waiting for an answer from Washington. But at least one American official admits to knowing the truth.
“It would take Iran just two months to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon,” US Secretary of State John Kerry told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday in a downbeat assessment of efforts to curb Tehran’s nuclear program.
High-ranking US and Israeli sources told DEBKAfile early Thursday April 10 that it is becoming harder than ever, in the context of US-Israel relations, to disentangle the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from the ineffectual nuclear talks with Iran.
The top level of the US administration appears to have fallen into two factions pulling in opposite directions: One group, led by President Barack Obama and National Security Advisor Susan Rice, wants Israel to carry the can for progress or for obstacles in negotiations with the Palestinians, while appeasing the latter and letting Iran off the hook on the concerns of Israel (and other Mid East nations).

The opposing group, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, favors more flexibility and is trying to mediate between the White House and Jerusalem.
National Security Adviser Rice is the toughest nut to crack in this regard.
The rift between the two factions led to the cancellation of Kerry’s White House meeting with the president that was scheduled for Tuesday, April 8 for an evaluation of the Israel-Palestinian peace track and whether or not to end US involvement.

Rice would have urged the US to pull out and lay the blame squarely at Israel’s door.

By postponing this confrontation, Kerry bought time for another bid to salvage the negotiations. And indeed, his envoy Martin Indyk has kept low-profile talks going between the two sides.

There is every indication that Prime Minister Netanyahu is at the end of his tether on what he regards as the Obama administration’s unfair appreciation of the concessions Israel made to keep the talks alive in the face of Palestinian negativism. Sources in Jerusalem say White House lenience toward the Palestinians hardens the intransigence of their leader Mahmoud Abbas and so undermines the entire peace effort.
At least for now, Netanyahu is taking a hard line himself, DEBKAfile’s Jerusalem sources report. Wednesday, Netanyahu punished Abbas for his unilateral application to 15 UN agencies to bypass negotiations with a dose of his own medicine. He ordered all Israeli ministerial contacts cut off with their Palestinian peers and the cancellation of VIP privileges for Palestinian high-ups.

For a show of Israeli muscle, he ordered the Israel military spy satellite Ofek-10 to be launched from the Palmachim air base Wednesday night. By Thursday morning, it was circling in earth orbit every 99 minutes from an altitude of 600 kms. Ofek-10’s improved surveillance capabilities include high-resolution cameras able to distinguish between objects of half a meter and operate in varying lighting and weather conditions.
That afternoon, the entry of the Samson cargo plane, the new Super Hercules C130J, into service with the Israeli Air Force took place in a public ceremony. Samson markedly extends the IAF’s ability to carry troops forces and hardware over any point in Iran. It was the first of six giant air transports to be delivered by the end of next year. The message the show was meant to convey was that Israel is again preparing to conduct a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program after being pressed by Obama into holding back for some years.

The old confrontation between Obama and Netanyahu is therefore back in full force. Will the Israeli prime minister continue to tough it out on either or both the Palestinian and Iranian nuclear tracks? That is anyone’s guess. But Wednesday, he was heard to say that a sovereign nation has the right to say no.

Cairo The War Dog

When U.S. President Barack Obama went to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, for a highly publicized but very private meeting with the commando team that killed Osama bin Laden, only one of the 81 members of the super-secret SEAL DevGru unit was identified by name:  Cairo, the war dog.

Cairo, like most canine members of the elite U.S. Navy SEALS, is a Belgian Malinois.  The Malinois breed is similar to German Sheperds but smaller and more compact, with an adult male weighing in the 30-kilo range.

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