Monthly Archives: January 2012


Time Magazine quotes Israeli defense official as saying that Israel can only delay Tehran’s nuclear program by several months, at most a year.


A senior Israel Defense Forces commander has said that Israel is unable to attack Iran’s nuclear program in a meaningful way, Time Magazine reported on Thursday.

According to the report, which is quoting an Israeli defense official, a senior IDF commander presented the cabinet of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a gloomy assessment last fall.

“I informed the cabinet we have no ability to hit the Iranian nuclear program in a meaningful way,” the official quoted the senior commander as saying. “If I get the order I will do it, but we don’t have the ability to hit in a meaningful way.”

The defense official told Time, that according to an estimate by the Atomic Energy Commission, Israel will only be able to push back Iran’s nuclear program by several months to a year, after taking into account the wide geographic dispersion of Tehran’s nuclear facilities and the the limits of Israel’s air force.

Earlier Thursday, former IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi said that Israel must do all it can to operate under the radar against Iran, but should simultaneously prepare for a possible strike against Tehran’s nuclear facilities.

“Israel must do all it can under the radar and combine that with paralyzing sanctions, but at the same time keep a reliable military option on the table with the willingness to use it if necessary,” Ashkenazi said.

“When the moment comes I don’t know if we won’t be alone, and for this reason Israel must also rely on itself,” he said.


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Defense Minister says Iran is soon reaching a point where even a ‘surgical’ military strike could not block it from acquiring nuclear arms.


Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Friday the world must quickly stop Iran from reaching the point where even a “surgical” military strike could not block it from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Amid fears that Israel is nearing a decision to attack Iran’s nuclear program, Barak said tougher international sanctions are needed against Tehran’s oil and banks so that “we all will know early enough whether the Iranians are ready to give up their nuclear weapons program.”

Iran insists its atomic program is only aimed at producing energy and research, but has repeatedly refused to consider giving up its ability to enrich uranium.

“We are determined to prevent Iran from turning nuclear. And even the American president and opinion leaders have said that no option should be removed from the table and Iran should be blocked from turning nuclear,” Barak old reporters during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

“It seems to us to be urgent, because the Iranians are deliberately drifting into what we call an immunity zone where practically no surgical operation could block them,” he said.

Barak called it “a challenge for the whole world” to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran but stopped short of confirming any action that could further stoke Washington’s concern about a possible Israeli military strike.

Separately, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged a resumption of dialogue between Western powers and Iran on their nuclear dispute.

He said Friday that Tehran must comply with Security Council resolutions and prove conclusively that its nuclear development program is not directed to making arms.

“The onus is on Iran,” said Ban, speaking at a press conference. “They have to prove themselves that their nuclear development program is genuinely for peaceful purposes, which they have not done yet.”

Ban expressed concern at the most recent report of the International Atomic Energy Agency that strongly suggested that Iran’s nuclear program, which it long has claimed is for development of power generation, has a military intent.

IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said at a Davos session that “we do not have that much confidence if Iran has declared everything” and its best information “indicates that Iran has engaged in activities relevant to nuclear explosive devices.”

“For now they do not have the capacity to manufacture the fuel,” he said. “But in the future, we don’t know.”

In spite of his tough words to Iran, Ban said that dialogue among the “three-plus-three” … Germany, France and Britain plus Russia, China and the United States … is the path forward.

“There is no other alternative for addressing this crisis than peaceful … resolution through dialogue,” said Ban.

Ban noted that there have been a total of five Security Council resolutions so far on the Iranian nuclear program, four calling for sanctions.

As tensions have been on the rise recently, some political leaders in Israel and the United States have been speaking increasingly of the possibility of a military strike to eliminate, or at least slow down, what they allege is a determined effort by Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.


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Emboldened by the sanctions regime, the Iranian government is preempting an EU embargo on their oil scheduled for this summer

Iran is preempting the European Union’s embargo on their oil, deciding to cut off exports to Europe six months before the embargo is set to take place.

The EU embargo on Iranian oil, pushed stringently by the United States, was delayed for six months to let economically troubled countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain find alternative supplies. Some 500,000 barrels arrive in Europe every day from Iran. But the U.S. had been successful in pressuring EU countries to inflict more economic pain on themselves by cutting off one of their main oil suppliers.

These measures aren’t only harming the EU economies, they are impoverishing the Iranian people. Jobs are being lost because the oil sector is weakened and rampant inflation caused by sanctions targeted on the central bank have pushed the price of meat and milk up 50 percent.

“People are buying less because the prices have gone up,” Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari said. “That affects the shopkeepers. It’s a vicious cycle.” An Iranian interviewed on the subject said, “People are hungry and this is why crime has gone up.”

The move to cut off exports to the EU before the embargo sets in is an illustration of how poorly the sanctions program on Iran has worked. Instead of pressuring the Iranian government to conform to the wishes of the U.S. and its western allies, it has emboldened the regime.


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The EU has decided on sanctions that Tehran has long said would represent a declaration of war. What will follow?

The decision to impose an EU oil embargo on Iran, agreed on Monday by European foreign ministers, sets a potential bomb ticking, timed to detonate on 1 July.

On that day, according to the package of measures on the table in Brussels, Europe will stop importing oil from Iran, about a fifth of the country’s total exports. At about the same time, US sanctions targeted at the global financing of Iran’s oil trade will also kick in. Iran could still export some of its oil to Asia, but at big discounts.

Unlike previous sanctions on Iran, the oil embargo would hit almost all citizens and represent a threat to the regime. Tehran has long said such actions would represent a declaration of war, and there are legal experts in the west who agree.

The threat of an immediate clash in the Gulf appeared to recede over the weekend when the USS Lincoln aircraft carrier and its task force, including the British frigate HMS Argyll and a French warship, travelled through the strait of Hormuz without incident. This was despite warnings earlier this month from the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that it would oppose the return of a US carrier to the region.

But tensions are almost certain to build again as the effective date of the oil sanctions approaches. The US has already begun beefing up its military presence in the region, and the IRGC is planning new naval war games next month. Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi told the Fars news agency earlier this month that the upcoming exercises, codenamed “the Great Messenger”,  would be different from previous war games, without going into detail.

Iran’s oil supply

The strait of Hormuz is the kink in the hose of the Gulf’s oil supply to the world. A small amount of pressure can have a disproportionate effect, sending world crude prices soaring and starving the world’s oil-dependent economies.

At its narrowest point, between the Oman peninsula and the Iranian islands off Bandar Abbas, the strait is 20 miles wide, but the channels down which more than a third of the world’s ocean-borne oil flows – 17m barrels a day – are even more tenuous. The tanker lanes going in each direction are just 2 miles wide in parts, through the deep water off Oman and then again, further west, inside Iranian territorial waters.

This is where oil tankers are most vulnerable to an Iranian attempt to turn off the global petrol pump. It was enough for an Iranian official to simply raise the prospect of closing the strait, in retaliation for the threat of sanctions, for the world price of crude to rise to $115 (£74) a barrel. Maintained over the long term, that is costly enough to strangle any hint of a global economic recovery.

That is what makes Iranian naval action in the Gulf such a potent weapon. But it is a decidedly double-edged one, potentially more lethal to Iran than its adversaries. For, while Saudi Arabia can bypass the strait by pipeline, all of Iran’s oil terminals are west of the choke point. Iran would cut off its own lifeblood, which accounts for more than 60% of its economy.

Furthermore, the US has made clear that interruption to sea traffic in the Gulf would be a “red line”, triggering an overwhelming military response in which Iran’s nuclear facilities would be on the target lists. Until now, the US military has ruled out strikes on the nuclear programme, as the costs of starting a war with Iran outweigh the gains of setting the programme back, in defence secretary Leon Panetta’s estimation, one or two years at most. But if the US was going to war anyway over oil, that cost-benefit analysis would change.

So closing the strait outright would be – if not suicidal – an exercise in extreme self-harm for Iran. But the choice facing Tehran is not a binary one.

There is a spectrum of options falling well short of total closure; forms of harassment of the oil trade that would drive the price of crude up and keep it up, very much to Iran’s benefit, but fall short of a casus belli for war. However, exercising such options requires subtlety and fine judgment on all sides and that is by no means a given.

In a period of sustained high tension, an over-zealous Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander could seize his moment to start a war, or a nervous American captain, his vessel just seconds from Iran’s anti-ship missiles, could just as easily miscalculate. The last time Iran and America played chicken in this particular stretch of water, in 1988, a missile cruiser called the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian Airbus, killing 290 civilians including 66 children.

The shadow of Iran Air 655 hangs over the current standoff, as a reminder of how even the world’s mightiest and most advanced militaries cannot necessarily control a situation in which tensions have been allowed to escalate.

US military options

There is no doubting the overwhelming firepower at America’s disposal. The US Fifth Fleet, whose job it is to patrol the Gulf, is expected to be beefed up from one to two aircraft carriers. Meanwhile, as it has pulled its troops out of Iraq, the Pentagon has quietly boosted its army’s presence in Kuwait. The Los Angeles Times reported that it now has 15,000 troops there, including two army brigades and a helicopter unit. The US is also bolstered by the significant naval presence of its British and Gulf allies.

The Iranian military looks puny by comparison, but it is powerful enough to do serious damage to commercial shipping. It has three Kilo-class Russian diesel submarines which run virtually silently and are thought to have the capacity to lay mines. And it has a large fleet of mini-submarines and thousands of small boats armed with anti-ship missiles which can pass undetected by ship-borne radar until very close. It also has a “martyrdom” tradition that could provide willing suicide attackers.

The Fifth Fleet’s greatest concern is that such asymmetric warfare could be used to overpower the sophisticated defences of its ships, particularly in the narrow confines of the Hormuz strait, which is scattered with craggy cove-filled Iranian islands ideal for launching stealth attacks.

In 2002, the US military ran a $250m (£160m) exercise called Millennium Challenge, pitting the US against an unnamed rogue state with lots of small boats and willing martyr brigades. The rogue state won, or at least was winning when the Pentagon brass decided to shut the exercise down. At the time, it was presumed that the adversary was Iraq as war with Saddam Hussein was in the air. But the fighting style mirrored that of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

In the years since, much US naval planning has focused on how to counter “swarm tactics” – attacks on US ships by scores of boats, hundreds of missiles, suicide bombers and mines, all at once.

“Every couple of weeks in Washington you can go to a different conference on swarming,” said Sam Gardiner, a retired US air force colonel who has taught strategy and military operations at the National War College. “War games have shown that swarming, missiles and mines all together put a strain on the capacity of ships to defend themselves. Your challenge is how to protect your minesweepers from swarming techniques.”

One of the US naval responses has been to develop a new kind of fighting vessel, the littoral combat ship (LCS), tailor-made for countering Iran’s naval tactics. The LCS is sleek, small and agile with a shallow draft and high speeds, allowing it to operate along island-pocked coastlines.

At the low-tech end of the scale, the Fifth Fleet is reported to have deployed a significant number of dolphins trained to seek out mines.

Ultimately, the US response to swarming will be to use American dominance in the air and multitudes of precision-guided missiles to escalate rapidly and dramatically, wiping out every Iranian missile site, radar, military harbour and jetty on the coast. Almost certainly, the air strikes would also go after command posts and possibly nuclear sites too. There is little doubt of the effectiveness of such a strategy as a deterrent, but it also risks turning a naval skirmish into all-out war at short notice.

Iranian tactics

For that reason, most military analysts argue that if Iran does decide to exact reprisals for oil sanctions, it is likely to follow another route. Gardiner believes the most likely model will be the “tanker war” between Iran and Iraq from 1984 to 1987. The aim would be to raise insurance premiums and other shipping costs, and so boost oil prices as a way of inflicting pain on the west and replacing revenues lost through the embargo.

“They wouldn’t necessarily do anything immediately. If they do what they did in the tanker war, a mine would be hit and it wouldn’t be clear exactly how long it had been there. Things like that push up the price of oil. People talk about a spike in oil prices, but it might be more like a plateau,” Gardiner said.

“The answer is not to escalate. You start protecting tankers and searching for mines.”

Even if Iran decides on retaliation, there is no reason for it to be confined to an immediate response in the strait. It could target the oil price with acts of sabotage aimed at Arab state oil facilities along the southern shore of the Gulf, or western interests could be targeted anywhere around the world, months or years after the imposition of an embargo.

Adam Lowther, of the US air force’s Air University, pointed out recently on the Diplomat blog that Iran’s “ministry of intelligence and national security (MOIS), Iran’s espionage service, is among the most competent in the world”.

“Over the past 30 years, MOIS agents have successfully hunted down and assassinated dissidents, former officials of the shah’s government, and real or perceived threats to the regime. MOIS is still capable of carrying out assassinations, espionage, and other kinetic attacks against government and civilian targets. The spy service is also likely to have covert agents in the United States,” Lowther said.

Ehsan Mehrabi, an Iranian journalist specialising in military and strategic issues who recently left the country, wrote on the Inside Iran website: “I recall a famous Iranian idiom that was quite popular among the military officials: ‘If we drown, we’ll drown everyone with us’. They were pretty clear about their intention. If attacked by a western power, the war would not be contained within the Iranian borders. The entire world would become Iran’s battleground – at least this was their thinking.”

Obama administration officials believe that last year’s Washington bomb plot, in which Revolutionary Guard officials are alleged to have planned to kill the Saudi ambassador to the US by blowing up his favourite restaurant in the American capital, could have been an attempt to settle scores for some past incident.

Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA official said recently at a seminar in Washington organised by the Atlantic Council: “One of the ways Iran can hurt us which is not often talked about is Iranians’ capacity to hurt us in Obama’s war, in Afghanistan. The Iranians are already superbly placed to make the war in the Afghanistan – which is already difficult – impossible.”

All these options however represent high-risk strategies, fraught with risks of miscalculation. In the tanker war scenario, maintaining the line between war and peace would, in effect, be delegated to relatively junior officers, forced to make high-stakes decisions in a matter of seconds, the exact set of circumstances that led to the 1988 Airbus disaster. Even if Washington and Tehran remain determined to avoid an all-out war, with every passing month there is a rising chance of one breaking out by accident.

• This article was amended on 24 January 2012 to clarify that the 17m barrels of oil flowing through the Strait of Hormuz is a daily figure.


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Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia is standing firm on blocking any U.N. sanctions against Syria, its longtime ally and a significant arms customer, saying that any resolution by the world body must exclude the possibility of international military involvement such as in Libya.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday that U.N. approval for sanctions against Syria mirroring those by other nations would be “unfair and counterproductive.”

The U.S., the European Union, the Arab League and Turkey all have introduced sanctions against Damascus in response to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s violent crackdown on opponents. The uprising has left more than 5,400 people dead, according to the U.N. estimates.

The U.N. Security Council has been unable to agree on a resolution since the violence began in March because of strong opposition from Russia and China.

Russia, resistant to what it believes to be Western hegemony, characteristically opposes interventionism and the imposition of sanctions. This week, it harshly criticized new European Union sanctions against Iran regarding its nuclear program.

Lavrov said Russia’s own draft of a U.N. resolution regarding Syria, which circulated earlier this month, remains on the table, and that Moscow is open for any “constructive proposals.” The draft calls on all parties to stop the violence, citing the “disproportionate use of force by Syrian authorities” and urging the Syrian government “to put an end to suppression of those exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.”

But Western diplomats said the Russian proposal falls short of their demand for a strong condemnation of the Syrian regime’s crackdown.

Lavrov affirmed that any U.N. resolution must say clearly it “couldn’t be interpreted to justify any foreign military interference in the Syrian crisis.”

“We believe that our approach is fair and well-balanced, unlike the attempts to pass one-sided resolutions that would condemn only one party and, by doing so, encourage another one to build up confrontation and take an uncompromising stance,” Lavrov said after talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. “We have seen that in Libya, and we will not allow repetition of the Libyan scenario.”

Russia abstained in the U.N. vote authorizing military intervention in Libya, but harshly criticized NATO for what it saw as an excessive use of force and civilian casualties during the NATO bombing campaign against Moammar Gadhafi’s regime.

Rebels eventually overthrew Gadhafi with enormous military support from the Western alliance. NATO jets flew 26,000 sorties against Libya in 2011, destroying about 5,900 military targets.

Russian officials have strongly warned the West against emulating the Libyan strategy in Syria.

Lavrov called for a quick start of talks between the Syrian government and the opposition, suggesting they could be hosted by Egypt, the Arab League, Turkey or Russia.

Asked about the Arab League’s call Sunday for a unity government in Syria in two months, Lavrov said Russia believes the talks between the Syrian government and the opposition should start without any preconditions.

“We proceed from the assumption that all participants in such dialogue would seek to reach accord and show responsibility for the fate of the country and its people,” he said.

Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia have pulled out of the Arab League’s observers mission in Syria, asking the U.N. Security Council to intervene. But such action is unlikely with Russia’s opposition to sanctions.

Russia hosted some Syrian opposition leaders last fall, but its efforts to encourage them to sit down for talks with the government have brought no results.

Russia has been a strong ally of Syria since Soviet times, when Syria was led by the president’s father, Hafez Assad. It has supplied Syria with aircraft, missiles, tanks and other heavy weapons. The 27-nation EU, in contrast, has imposed an arms embargo against Syria.

Earlier this month, a Russian ship allegedly carrying tons of munitions made a dash for Syria after telling officials in EU member Cyprus, where it had made an unexpected stop, that it was heading to Turkey. Turkish officials said the ship went instead to the Syrian port of Tartus.

Lavrov said last week that Moscow doesn’t consider it necessary to offer an explanation or excuses over the incident, saying that Russia was acting in full respect of international law and wouldn’t be guided by unilateral sanctions imposed by other nations.

On Monday, a top Russian business daily reported that Moscow had signed a $550 million contract to sell 36 Yak-130 combat jets to Syria. The Russian state arms-trading company declined comment.

Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs magazine, said the deal represented an eleventh-hour attempt by Moscow to take advantage of its role of Syria’s monopolist weapons supplier.

“Anticipating different possible scenarios, Russia is in a hurry to use the current status quo to pursue its commercial interests,” Lukyanov told the AP. “It would be a good contract if Assad stays on.”

He added that Russia realizes that its power is limited but has decided to back Assad, its last remaining ally in the region.

“An attempt to abruptly shift side and take a different stance in a hope to preserve some ground will be useless,” he said. “Even if Russia now backs the Syrian opposition, the new authorities wouldn’t need Russia anyway.”


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Iranian President says Islamic Republic will not suffer over West’s financial sanctions; adds Tehran willing to resume nuclear negotiations

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Thursday that the Islamic republic will not be hurt by newly imposed Western sanctions, Iran’s state television website reported.

On Tuesday, the European Union adopted an oil embargo on Iran, while the US blacklisted Tehran’s third-largest bank.

“Once our trade with the Europe was around 90% but now it has reached to 10%… Experience has shown that Iranian nation will not be hurt,” Ahmadinejad said.

“For the past 30 years the Americans have not been buying oil from us. Our central bank has no relations with the US,” he added.

The Iranian president further added that Tehran was ready for talks with western powers over its nuclear program.

Ahmadinejad also agreed to increase interest rates to 21%, reversing his opposition to the move economists said was crucial to supporting the Iranian currency.

The move came as the rial, under pressure after new sanctions targeting Iran’s Central Bank, shed about 50% of its value relative to the dollar in the span of a month.

The depreciation built on already mounting worries over the country’s growing international isolation over its controversial nuclear program. The European Union earlier this week approved an oil embargo on Iranian crude.

“The president has fully approved” the increase in bank interest rates, Economy Minister Shamseddin Hosseini said.

Also on Thursday, China criticized the EU’s sanctions on Iran, saying the measures were “not constructive.”

“To blindly pressure and impose sanctions on Iran are not constructive approaches,” China’s Foreign Ministry said.

Beijing’s economic ties with Tehran have expanded in recent years, partly thanks to the withdrawal of Western companies in line with sanctions against the Islamic republic over its nuclear drive.   The Asian powerhouse also depends a lot on Iranian oil, and has strengthened its presence in the country’s oil and gas sector by signing a series of contracts worth up to $40 billion in the past few years.

Iranian officials downplayed that the latest sanctions were affecting the currency or the economy. In an indication of the growing rift in Tehran, however, Bahmani acknowledged with rare candor earlier this month that the “psychological effects” of sanctions are partly behind the pressure on the currency.


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Gabi Ashkenazi says Israel needs to do all it can to operate under the radar against Tehran, but stresses that military option must be on the table.


Former IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi said Thursday that Israel must operate under the radar against Iran, but it should also prepare for a possible strike against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities.

During a lecture at the Institute for National Security Studies, Ashkenazi stressed that Israel’s strategy on Iran must be a combination of several approaches.

“Israel must do all it can under the radar and combine that with paralyzing sanctions, but at the same time keep a reliable military option on the table with the willingness to use it if necessary,” Ashkenazi said.

“When the moment comes I don’t know if we won’t be alone, and for this reason Israel must also rely on itself,” he said.

During his term as IDF chief, Ashkenazi was considered a supporter of a more moderate approach on Iran, in which all diplomatic options must be exhausted before any attack is launched.

Earlier Thursday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the new round of economic sanctions by the European Union will be “futile,” and added that his country was ready to resume nuclear talks with the six world powers – the U.S., China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany.

Ahmadinejad appeared to downplay the impact of a new round of EU sanctions on Iran, including a ban on oil imports, saying that trade with EU states made up only $23 billion of Iran’s $200 billion annual trade volume.

“Aren’t you ashamed to get together and make such statements. Where do you think you can get with these steps?” Ahmadinejad said.

“They are saying they (EU) do not want to harm the Iranian people, but the steps they take and the language they use are all against the people,” he added.

The EU sanctions, as well as similar measures taken by the United States to force Iran to curb its nuclear activities, are believed to have already had an impact on the Iranian economy, with the national currency, the rial, falling drastically in recent days.


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