Archive for December 11, 2019

Off Topic:  IDF delegation sent to help Albania after earthquake – YouTube

December 11, 2019

 

 

Trump and nuclear Iran: What has the president gotten right or wrong 

December 11, 2019

Source: Trump and nuclear Iran: What has the president gotten right or wrong – Jerusalem Post

18 months after he pulled the US out of the 2015 nuclear deal: tactical successes, but apparent failure to stop Tehran’s march toward a nuclear weapon.

US President Donald Trump announces his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement during a statement in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, US, May 8, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST)
US President Donald Trump announces his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement during a statement in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, US, May 8, 2018
(photo credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST)
Three years into his presidency, 18 months after he pulled the US out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and six months after he ended sanctions waivers, we have a pretty good idea of what President Donald Trump has gotten right on the nuclear standoff with Iran and what he has gotten wrong.

In one line, Trump has succeeded in winning many tactical battles, but appears to be consistently failing at stopping Iran’s slow but steady march toward a nuclear weapon.

On the one hand, Trump gets accolades from much of the Israeli defense establishment for his maximum pressure campaign on Iran, including from officials such as former IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot, who might otherwise not be his natural supporters.

They say that once Trump snapped sanctions back onto Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hezbollah and some Iranian allies in Iraq started to feel the economic squeeze.

Many people attribute the protests against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Iraqi government to the success of the Trump pressure campaign in reducing the legitimacy of the Islamic republic’s radical adventurism in the region as well as that of its proxies.

Supporters of Trump’s Iran policy also note that the European Union has finally regained some backbone as France, England and Germany have called on the UN to condemn Tehran next week for its ballistic missile program.

Although, after the 2015 nuclear deal, the EU – and the US under the Obama administration – largely turned a blind eye to Iran’s ballistic missile program, now there is finally some pressure to crack down on it.The ballistic missile program is a hot-button issue, since it was technically exempted from the 2015 deal’s punitive provisions, based on Iran’s claim that the missiles are only for defense.

Israel, the Trump administration and now finally the EU, have pointed out that the ballistic missiles can be dual-use for nuclear warheads, so that testing those missiles moves Iran close to being able to deliver a nuclear weapon. They also note that the program violates broader UN resolutions, though technically there are currently no specific, punitive provisions for these violations.

Finally, the US-Israel confrontational approach, including a Mossad operation in 2018 revealing new nuclear sites, has moved the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) somewhat into confronting Iran about its Turquzabad nuclear facility and about traces of undisclosed nuclear material which the agency found there.

So Trump has gotten many things right about Iran.

BUT ON THE most crucial point – actually stopping the Islamic republic from getting nuclear weapons – he may be failing.

While the regime in Tehran is under pressure, it is nowhere near to be falling. Its proxies are under pressure, but are still making trouble.

The Islamic republic has used US actions as an excuse to violate the nuclear deal four times since May, and is expected to violate the deal again in the coming weeks.

These violations include enriching more uranium, enriching it to higher levels, activating more advanced centrifuges and some reduced cooperation with the IAEA, among other issues.

David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, told The Jerusalem Post that these violations have collectively brought Iran several months closer to a bomb than it was in May – and Albright was not a fan of the JCPOA.

He warned that if Tehran restarts a significant number of its IR-2m centrifuges (more advanced than the standard IR-1s), the time to make enough enriched nuclear material for a bomb could quickly drop to six months.

Bottom line: Iran is closer to a nuclear bomb now than it was in May, and may be closer than it would have been had Trump not pulled out of the deal.

In the midst of this deterioration, most observers also believe that Trump’s deterrence against Iran suffered after he failed to respond with even just a targeted use of force to the Islamic republic’s shooting down of an expensive US drone and Tehran’s striking Saudi oil fields.

These more aggressive activities by Iran were also likely brought on by the Trump pressure campaign – though in fairness to the president, Tehran was also getting away with arresting US sailors under the Obama administration without much consequence.

There are also warnings that Trump may seek to cut a new, weak deal to save face and get a good photo-op for his reelection campaign.

How did it come to this? What went wrong for Trump on Iran, despite some notable tactical successes?

THE OBAMA administration sealed the 2015 nuclear deal, making a number of bets. Its bet – that Iran would start behaving better to rejoin the world as a more normal actor – was wrong, and part of what Trump’s change in policy was designed to address.

But another bet the Obama administration made seems to have been correct: that they could only retain Chinese and Russian support for pressuring Iran up to a certain point.

Some in the Obama administration revealed quite frankly in the years after the deal that they might have liked to have pushed for a better deal in some areas, but believed that they would have lost Chinese and Russian support. They said that without that support, Iran would no longer be pressured.

When Trump pulled out of the deal and then ended sanctions waivers, he made the opposite gamble: that he could force China and Russia to toe the line longer than Obama did, to force Iran into cutting a better deal.

It now seems clear that Trump’s gamble on this issue was wrong.

China has periodically cut back business with Iran for months at a time, but has always counter-rallied to continue importing oil from the Islamic republic at some later date.

Likewise, Beijing has rescinded some very important public deals with Tehran, but has made a variety of off-the-books or untraceable economic deals with Iran to keep it afloat despite US pressure.

For example, China at one point reduced its purchasing of Iranian oil to almost zero, only to jump it later back up to 800,000 barrels per day in April.

China then briefly dialed down its purchasing of Iranian oil again after the US ended sanctions waivers in May, but has steadily increased back to 186,000 barrels per day, and is expected to continue increasing the oil imports.

There are also reportedly around 20 million barrels of Iranian oil in bonded storage off the Chinese coast, and Beijing and Tehran are using goods to effectuate trade that do not leave footprints the way currency transfers do.

Earlier this week, Iran announced that Russia would be extending to it a $5 billion loan.

Moscow also continues to be involved in a variety of aspects directly supporting Iran’s nuclear program, and Albright warned that it may even be giving Iranian scientists additional know-how that it is prohibited from giving.

As long as China and Russia have Khamenei’s back, it is very likely that Iran can ride-out the Trump pressure campaign just as it has for the last 18 months.

If Tehran no longer believes that Trump is willing to use military force against it, then there is also no reason for it not to continue creeping closer to the nuclear threshold.

This would leave Israel as the only party that could possibly block Iran with a military strike on the Islamic republic’s nuclear facilities.

All of this could come to a head in 2020 – whereas, if the nuclear deal had continued, it might not have come to a head until 2023, 2025 or even a bit later.

Some will argue that it was better to confront Iran earlier so that it could not “walk-out” to a nuclear weapon at the end of the 2015 nuclear deal, because the deal’s sunset provisions put no real limits on Tehran once it expires.

Whether this is true, the fact is that Trump’s notable tactical successes on Iran do not cover the strategic failure and, absent a major new development, the day when Israel will need to make its own fateful decision continues to creep closer.

 

In tacit threat, Israeli intel firm releases photo of suspected Iranian tunnel 

December 11, 2019

Source: In tacit threat, Israeli intel firm releases photo of suspected Iranian tunnel | The Times of Israel

Satellite images show apparent underground storage passage on an alleged IRGC base in eastern Syria, near the Iraqi border

Satellite images showing an alleged Iranian tunnel on a military base near the border crossing in Syria’s Boukamal region, near the Iraqi border, on December 10, 2019. (ImageSat International)

In an apparent threat, an Israeli intelligence firm on Tuesday released photographs of what it said is an Iranian tunnel being dug along the Syria-Iraq border to assist in the movement of weapons throughout the Middle East.

According to the private satellite image analysis company ImageSat International, the tunnel is likely being used to store Iranian missiles en route to Tehran’s proxies throughout the region.

In some cases in the past, suspected areas of Iranian military entrenchment have been identified and publicized by ImageSat International shortly before the sites were targeted in airstrikes attributed to Israel.

The tunnel, whose entrance can be seen in satellite images, is located on a suspected Iranian military base, known as the Imam Ali base, in Syria’s Boukamal region, near the Iraqi border. The base has been the site of several Israeli airstrikes in the past year, including some in the past few days, according to Syrian media.

Satellite images showing an alleged Iranian tunnel on a military base near the border crossing in Syria’s Boukamal region, near the Iraqi border, on December 10, 2019. (ImageSat International)

ImageSat said the tunnel appears to have been built in response to these airstrikes, as a means to protect high-quality munitions from Israeli attacks.

“Currently, the estimated tunnel’s width is 4-5 meters and its length is unknown. Due to the area’s rigid flat terrain, it is unlikely that the tunnel will be extended significantly,” it wrote in its report.

The firm said the capacity makes it large enough to “securely store weapon systems, possibly advanced, for protecting them from airstrikes.”

Satellite images showing an alleged Iranian tunnel on a military base near the border crossing in Syria’s Boukamal region, near the Iraqi border, on December 10, 2019. (ImageSat International)

The Boukamal region in Syria is seen as critical to Tehran’s effort to establish a land corridor from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, and out to the Mediterranean Sea in order to more easily move weapons and fighters throughout the Middle East. Israel has vowed to prevent Iran from establishing a military presence in Syria.

On Sunday, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said Israel was taking action to force Iran’s military out of Syria.

“We are telling the Iranians: Syria will become your Vietnam,” he said, referring to the disastrous American war.

“If you don’t leave, you will become entrenched and you will bleed because we will work without hesitation to remove aggressive forces from Syria,” Bennett said.

Satellite images showing ongoing construction at an alleged Iranian military base near the border crossing in Syria’s Boukamal region, near the Iraqi border, on December 10, 2019. (ImageSat International)

The defense minister’s comments came shortly after reports emerged of an airstrike on three Iranian-controlled weapons depots the night before, which killed several members of Tehran-supported militias, according to Syrian media outlets.

The outlets said the attack was carried out by unidentified aircraft, though many analysts speculated that Israel was behind the raid.

The Israeli military as a rule does not comment on specific airstrikes in Syria, save for those that are in retaliation for attacks on Israel.

Some news sites reported that four fighters were killed in the strike, while others said five. The Syrian government did not immediately release an official tally.

According to the Syrian Step News agency, the airstrikes occurred around 10 p.m. on Saturday, targeting three munitions storehouses. The outlet cited “well-placed sources” as saying that the four people killed were guards at the storehouses who were members of militias backed by Iran.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said that at least five militiamen were killed in the strike.

New Defense Minister Naftali Bennett (R) meets with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi on November 13, 2019. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry

The Saturday night strikes came days after reports of a similar raid in the same region.

Last Wednesday, unidentified aircraft bombed other Iranian-controlled weapons storehouses in Boulkamal, causing a massive explosion, according to Step News.

The outlet reported that the planes fired several missiles at warehouses belonging to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps at the al-Hamdan airport, outside Deir Ezzor. Troops on the ground fired anti-aircraft weapons at the attacking planes, the news site said. There were no reports of casualties in that raid.

Satellite image showing the aftermath of an overnight airstrike on an alleged Iranian military base in Syria’s Boukamal region, near the Iraqi border, on September 9, 2019. (ImageSat International)

Last month, Iranian troops fired several rockets at northern Israel from Syria and the Israel Defense Forces retaliated with a series of airstrikes on Iranian and Syrian military targets.

According to a Syrian war monitor, at least 23 combatants were killed in those strikes, 16 of them likely Iranians. An Israeli official said the military believed that to be an inflated number, with the actual death toll estimated to be closer to 10.

Though it does not generally comment on specific attacks, Israel has generally acknowledged carrying out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria against Iranian targets over the last several years. Iran has forces based in Syria, Israel’s northern neighbor, and supports Hezbollah and Gaza terrorists.

 

New Jersey kosher supermarket shooters ‘targeted the location,’ mayor says

December 11, 2019

Source: New Jersey kosher supermarket shooters ‘targeted the location,’ mayor says | The Times of Israel

Off Topic:  At least six dead in gun battle; two identified as store owner Leah Minda Ferencz and Moshe Deutsch, both Hasidim; police officer also killed

Law enforcement personnel walk near the scene of a shooting in Jersey City, New Jersey, Dec. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

Law enforcement personnel walk near the scene of a shooting in Jersey City, New Jersey, Dec. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

Investigators believe that the gunmen in a Tuesday shootout at a kosher supermarket in New Jersey deliberately attacked the store, though there was no immediate word on their suspected motive.

“Based on our initial investigation (which is ongoing) we now believe the active shooters targeted the location they attacked,” Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop said.

Authorities had initially said that they did not believe that the JC Kosher Supermarket had been singled out. Fulop did not elaborate on why authorities now believe the market was targeted.

The gun battle left at least six people dead — three bystanders, one police officer and two suspected shooters.

Authorities have not released information on the bystanders or gunmen who were killed, but Chabad identified two of the dead as store owner Leah Minda Ferencz and Moshe Deutsch, both members of the local Hasidic community.

The slain police officer was identified as Detective Joseph Seals, 40.

Steven Fulop

@StevenFulop

The shooting took place at multiple locations, starting at a cemetery, where the officer was gunned down, and continuing at the kosher supermarket about a mile away, where five more bodies were found, Jersey City Police Chief Michael Kelly said.

Fulop said that there were no signs of further threats, although earlier reports had said a third gunman may have escaped the scene, and said he had been in close contact with Jersey City’s Jewish community following the attack.

“I know the entire Jersey City community stands together with the Jewish Community during these challenging times,” Fulop said.

Next to the store, the only kosher supermarket in the area and a central fixture for the growing community, are a yeshiva and a synagogue. Around 100 Jewish families live in the area in the city’s Greenville neighborhood, with most of the families having moved there from Brooklyn in the last few years.

Chabad Rabbi Moshe Schapiro, who shops at the store and attends the synagogue next door, said he spoke with the store owner, Moishe Ferencz, before Ferencz learned that his wife had been killed in the attack.

“He told me he had just walked out of the store into the synagogue not five feet away just before this happened, and then he couldn’t get back for hours,” Schapiro said. “His wife was inside the store. He said, ‘I hope my wife is safe.’”

New York City councilman Chaim Deutsch, a member of the city’s Jewish caucus, said that New York City police was providing extra security to synagogues and other sites.

Seals was credited by his superiors with having led the department in the number of illegal guns removed from the streets in recent years, and might have been trying to stop an incident involving such weapons when he was cut down by gunfire that erupted near the cemetery, authorities said.

The bullets started flying early in the afternoon in the city of about 270,000 people, situated across the Hudson River from New York City. Seals, who worked for a unit called Cease Fire, was shot around 12:30 p.m. The gunmen then drove a stolen rental van to another part of the city and engaged police in a lengthy shootout.

Kelly said that when police responded to the area of the kosher store, officers “were immediately engaged by high-power rifle fire.”

“Our officers were under fire for hours,” the chief said.

Inside the grocery store, police found the bodies of who they believed were the two gunmen and three other people who apparently happened to be there when the assailants rushed in, authorities said. Police said they were confident the bystanders were shot by the gunmen and not by police.

A police officer pushes pedestrians back from the scene of a shooting in Jersey City, New Jersey, Dec. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The shooting spread fear through the neighborhood, and the nearby Sacred Heart School was put on lockdown as a precaution.

SWAT teams, state police and federal agents converged on the scene, and police blocked off the area, which in addition to the school and supermarket included a hair salon and other shops. Dozens of bystanders pressed against the police barrier to capture the action on their cellphones, some whooping when bursts of fire were heard.

Video shot by residents recorded loud volleys of gunfire reverberating along one of the city’s main streets and showed a long line of law enforcement officers pointing guns as they advanced, yelling to bystanders, “Clear the street! Get out of the way!”

US President Donald Trump said he had been briefed on the incident, which he called a “horrific shootout,” adding that the White House would be monitoring the situation and assisting local officials.

“Our thoughts & prayers are w/ the victims & their families during this very difficult & tragic time,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the men and women of the Jersey City Police Department, especially with the officers shot during this standoff, and with the residents and schoolchildren currently under lockdown.”

“I have every confidence in our law enforcement professionals to ensure the safety of the community and resolve this situation,” Murphy said.

Police officers arrive at the scene of a shooting in Jersey City, New Jersey on December 10, 2019. (Kena Betancur/AFP)

One umbrella US Jewish group, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, released a statement Tuesday expressing “solidarity for the Jewish community and all the residents of Jersey City, where it appears members of the community were wounded by gunfire, as were members of the police force responding to gunfire from active shooters. We do not know at this point if the kosher supermarket from which they were firing was an intended target. We pray for the safety of all those involved.”

Israel’s consul general in New York, Dani Dayan, praised Seals for making “the ultimate sacrifice.”

“His life was inspirational. His death was heroic. He will be remembered,” Dayan said.

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said he was “heartbroken by the loss of life.”

Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said she was “deeply saddened by the horrific loss of life.”

Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour, who is from New York and is a supporter of the boycott movement against Israel, said she was “praying this wasn’t a hate-filled act. Unfortunately, there have been instances in the near past that keep our communities on edge especially our Jewish neighbors.”

Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker, a senator from New Jersey, said that “once again, we’re faced with scenes of carnage, fear, and loss. It’s reprehensible that in America, residents are shot while grocery shopping.”

Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang similarly condemned the attack.

 

Iran shuts south Syrian command center opposite Golan, consolidates Abu Kamal hub – DEBKAfile

December 11, 2019

Source: Iran shuts south Syrian command center opposite Golan, consolidates Abu Kamal hub – DEBKAfile

DEBKAfile Exclusive: Iranian Revolutionary Guards Al Qods Brigades have just finished emptying out and shuttering Al Kiswah, their main command center in southern Syria.

Our military sources report that this command post, situated 15km south of Damascus, was the Iranian military’s nearest point to Israel’s Golan border. In 2017, the IRGC invested substantial resources in expanding the facility to accommodate 500 combatants with covered sheds for vehicles and ammo stores. Some of those structures recently stood empty, apparently for fear of Israeli air strikes.

In the last six months, an Al Qods unit was deployed to Al Kiswah armed with medium-range surface rockets. The base was targeted by the Israeli air force when the first rockets were fired against the IDF’s Mt. Hermon outposts.

According to our sources, the pullout from Al Kiswah takes place amid Iran’s overall troop drawdown from Syria, in response to the pressure to economize on funds that are sharply depleted by U.S sanctions. Around 50 percent of Iran military manpower in Syria has been sent home, reducing the total to the unprecedented level of 2,300-2,500.

Shutting down Al Kiswah is also part of a revised strategy by Tehran to pull its forces back from proximity to the Syrian-Israeli border and focus instead on concentrating its limited resources on deployment in the eastern regions near the Iraqi border. Our military sources report that the strategists in Tehran stand by their decision to build up the IRGC complex near Abu Kamal, regardless of continuous air attacks. They are also planning to augment this hub of operations with small air bases for different types of drones for use by the Iraqi Shiite militias posted there.