Archive for November 22, 2020

Iran the big loser in Nagorno-Karabakh war

November 22, 2020

Things really aren’t going your way, are they Iran?

(Except the election of Biden of course).

https://www.arabnews.com/node/1762626

An almost three-decades-old conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh was brought to an end this week after 45 days of hard fighting.

The conflict had its origins in the collapse of the Soviet Union. During this period, ethnic Armenians living inside Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region tried to break away and join Armenia. Armenia took advantage of the chaos and invaded the region, capturing a sizable chunk of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory.

A ceasefire agreement was signed in 1994, which, for the most part, held — albeit there were occasional minor skirmishes over the years. That same year, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe established the so-called Minsk Group to help broker a final peace — but it failed to do so.

Having grown impatient over the lack of progress in peace talks and the bellicose rhetoric coming from Armenian leaders, Azerbaijan decided to act. Major fighting kicked off in late September and was brought to an end this week by an Azerbaijani victory. With the help of Turkish and Israeli drones, and a lot of bravery from its soldiers, Azerbaijan was able to liberate large swathes of its territory from Armenian occupation.

Armenia is estimated to have lost approximately 40 percent of its equipment, including hundreds of tanks, armored vehicles and pieces of artillery. It is likely that Azerbaijan ended up capturing more equipment from Armenia than it lost on the battlefield — probably one of the few cases in history of an army ending a war with more equipment than it started with.

Turkey and Russia played a big role in the conflict. Russia traditionally backs Armenia, but in this conflict took a standoffish approach to the dismay of Yerevan. Turkey has always been close to Azerbaijan and has been in a protracted geopolitical competition with Russia over places like Syria, Libya, and to a certain extent Ukraine in recent years.

The peace agreement announced earlier this week was brokered by Russia with Turkish influence behind the scenes. It led to the surrender of Armenian forces inside Azerbaijan and the deployment of a small Russian peacekeeping force to regions in Nagorno-Karabakh with a sizable Armenian minority. While a lot of the commentary has been focused on what Armenia’s defeat means for Turkey and Russia, one country that was a big loser in this conflict was Iran.

For historical reasons Iran sees itself as entitled to a special status in the South Caucasus. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan were once part of the Persian empire. Today, Armenia and Iran enjoy cozy relations.

Azerbaijan is one of the predominately Shiite areas in the Muslim world that Iran has not been able to place under its influence. While relations between Baku and Tehran remain cordial on the surface, there is an underlying tension between the two. During the war in Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s, Iran sided with Armenia as a way to marginalize Azerbaijan’s role in the region.

There are three reasons why Iran is a big loser in this conflict.

Firstly, it remains to be seen how Azerbaijan’s victory will play out with Iran’s sizable Azeri minority. Azeris are the second-largest ethnic group in Iran. During the conflict there was a lot of pro-Azerbaijani rhetoric and protests on social media and on the streets in support of Baku by ethnic Azeris. The Iranian regime was very careful to appear balanced during the conflict, but at the same time stifled many of these pro-Azerbaijani protests. There is a constant low-level push for self-determination and increased autonomy in northern Iran for the Azeri minority. Although this has not materialized into a mass movement for independence, it makes some in the Iranian leadership nervous.

Secondly, Iran will have to devote time, resources, and troops to adjust to the new geopolitical reality along its northern border with Azerbaijan. This could mean less Iranian focus on other places such as the Gulf and Syria. Part of the Azerbaijan-Iran state border has been under Armenian occupation since 1994. Now that this border is back under the control of Baku, a new security dynamic has been created between the two countries. Also, the presence of 2,000 Russian peacekeepers — now only 100 km from the Iranian border — is bound to make many in Tehran nervous. Although Russia and Iran have enjoyed good relations in recent times, the two have been rival powers in the region for centuries. Iran has already started to deploy more military assets along its northern border. It remains to be seen whether this is just a temporary measure or will become permanent due to the new security situation on the ground.

Finally, it is unclear how Azerbaijan’s success in the war will affect its bilateral relationship with Iran. Azerbaijan has strived to maintain cordial relations with Iran because it relied on access to Iranian airspace and territory to supply its autonomous region of Nakhchivan — an exclave of Azerbaijan nestling between Iran, Armenia and Turkey. In addition to transit rights, Azerbaijan also relied on Iran to provide natural gas to Nakhchivan. As part of the recent peace deal, Armenia is opening up a corridor through its territory to allow Azerbaijan to transport goods directly to Nakhchivan. In addition, earlier this year Turkey announced a new natural gas pipeline to supply Nakhchivan with energy. Iran is less important for Azerbaijan now and it is likely that the dynamics in the bilateral relationship will change in Baku’s favor.

Iran has many problems. A stagnant economy, political unrest at home, the fallout from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the never-ending costly interventions in places such as Syria and Iraq. The last thing Tehran needs right now is a change to the cozy status quo it has enjoyed in the South Caucasus for the past three decades.

Unfortunately for Iran, this is exactly what is happening.

Pompeo to ‘Post’: All options still on the table to counter Iran

November 22, 2020

Bit late now…

https://www.jpost.com/middle-east/pompeo-to-post-all-options-still-on-the-table-to-counter-iran-649725

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to The Jerusalem Post, November 20, 2020 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrapped up a visit to Israel, replete with dramatic policy announcements, with a conversation with The Jerusalem Post on Friday.

Just the day before, Pompeo became the first US secretary of state to visit a West Bank settlement, as well as the Golan Heights. And while he was at the Psagot Winery in Sha’ar Binyamin, he announced that products exported by Israelis in Judea and Samaria to the US would be labeled “Made in Israel,” and that the US would consider the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to be antisemitic and all funding would be revoked from its affiliates.

But there are many more issues regarding Israel on the agenda, from continuing the maximum pressure campaign on Iran to the momentum created by the Abraham Accords.

Pompeo wouldn’t quite admit that his time in office is, in all likelihood, ending in two months – in keeping with his boss US President Donald Trump’s continuing challenge to the election results that are in favor of Democratic candidate Joe Biden. But much of his remarks still had the air of a retrospective, of someone looking back at a job that he considered to be well done.

The following is a complete transcript of the interview, edited for clarity.

See here:

https://www.jpost.com/middle-east/pompeo-to-post-all-options-still-on-the-table-to-counter-iran-649725

Will Biden follow Obama’s path on Iran or forge his own?

November 22, 2020

Surely he can’t be as bad as Obama… Here’s hoping he isn’t.

https://www.jns.org/will-biden-follow-obamas-path-on-iran-and-return-to-negotiations/

Israel’s security establishment is worried that another Obama-esque approach to Iran will fail a second time and will once again result in a triumphant Iran flush with billions of dollars in cash. Then again, Joe Biden is not Barack Obama, and the world is in a different place.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden, delivers a statement on the Iran nuclear agreement in the East Room of the White House on July 14, 2015. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

(November 12, 2020 / JNS) One of the top foreign-policy issues President-elect Joe Biden will be forced to address upon taking office in January will be the Iranian threat.

During the campaign trail, in what was seen as a dig at U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to apply maximum pressure on Iran through sanctions, Biden said he would handle Iran “the smart way” and would give Iran “a credible path back to diplomacy.” Biden has also said that the United States could rejoin the deal “as a starting point for follow-on negotiations” if Iran commits to full compliance.

But Israel’s security establishment is worried that another Obama-esque approach to Iran will fail a second time and will once again result in a triumphant Iran flush with billions of dollars in cash. Any letting down of the guard could also embolden world leaders eager to turn a blind eye to Iranian violations and hegemonic ambitions in order to seal a deal, regardless of Israeli or Gulf state fears.

Asaf Romirowsky, executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and a senior non-resident fellow at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center, told JNS that Biden will “have a hard time disregarding the renewed sanctions on Tehran and their effects.”

“As a veteran politician, Biden has a greater appreciation of the U.S.-Israeli alliance and will not compromise Israeli security,” said Romirowsky. “Moreover, his history with Israel will contribute to his attitude that would presumably be less acrimonious as it was during the Obama years.”

Biden, however, may indeed feel the need to revert back to his old boss’s methods of diplomacy in order to appease Iran.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, quoted by the state-run IRNA news agency, said the next U.S. administration must “compensate for past mistakes” and “return to the path of complying with international agreements through respect of international norms.”

‘Not fully cooperating with the IAEA’s investigation’

According to the latest report by U.N. inspectors, Iran has 2,440 kilograms of enriched uranium stockpiles, which far exceeds the 300 kilograms allowed under the 2015 nuclear deal. Experts say that is enough material to make at least two nuclear weapons. The report said that Iran is also enriching uranium to as much as 4.5 percent purity, which is also higher than the limits in the deal. Additionally, Iran has also completed the transfer of a cascade of advanced centrifuges from a plant above ground to an underground site, which can protect the plant from aerial attacks.

What has Israeli experts worried is Iran’s blatant non-compliance with the deal and clear interest in pursuing nuclear weapons. It continues to install advanced centrifuges and is developing its intercontinental ballistic-missile program.

Iran’s lies and deceptions with regard to its intent for its nuclear program, which it says is for peaceful purposes only, have been handily proven by Israel in a number of instances. But each time Israel requested that the international community investigate, Israel was met with a slow reluctance to comply.

In 2018, Mossad agents broke into Iran’s secret nuclear archives in the heart of Tehran and walked away with about 50,000 pages and 163 compact discs worth of intelligence proving Iran had misled the United States and Europe about its intentions even while it negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was slow to respond.

In his 2018 address to the U.N. General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the international community to investigate what he said was a secret nuclear facility in the Turquzabad district of Tehran.

Again, the IAEA took its time investigating, but eventually, it did demand an explanation from Iran over why traces of nuclear particles were discovered at the site.

According to the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), “besides its public denials, Iran does not appear to be fully cooperating with the IAEA’s investigation into the site.”

The USIP also said that the IAEA “continues to question Iran about the site,” but the agency had “not received an entirely satisfactory reply.”

Yet even with clear evidence of Iran’s rogue behavior, Romirowsky said Biden, like Obama, “believes that a deal is still the best way to prevent a nuclear Iran.”

Romirowsky warned that Biden is entering “a very different Middle East landscape that he and his advisers cannot ignore, specifically regarding Israel, and its newfound Arab relations and collaboration in particular, as it relates to the threat of Iran illustrated by security and military ties between Israel, the Egyptians and the Saudis.”

‘Their best interests in mind’

Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, told JNS he is concerned that Israel will soon find itself “at the eleventh hour” with regard to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. “We are in a very delicate situation,” he said.

He noted Biden’s intentions to negotiate with Iran, as well as Tehran’s eagerness to reach an agreement due in part to its poor economic plight.

“The question is what sort of agreement Biden has in mind,” said Rabi. “Will it have modifications with regard to Iran’s ballistic-missile program, Iran’s aggression in the region and bringing in more monitoring? That would be great.”

The JCPOA ignored or mismanaged all three of these issues.

Rabi said he hopes that the Americans have “learned a lesson from what happened before” regarding Iran’s disingenuous approach to negotiating. He also said the Americans “cannot get to the negotiating table and play it by ear. They must have a clear end game.”

He explained that the important elements that were left out of the deal, such as Iran’s ballistic-missile program, its hostile behavior in the Middle East, and improved inspections, should be included in any new agreement.

“One should hope that Biden and his team is coming up with a fresh approach about how to deal with Iran,” he said.

Rabi said that behind the scenes, Gulf state leaders fear that Biden will follow Obama’s appeasement approach and will want to lift sanctions and reduce pressure on Iran.

This mistaken approach could have a negative “snowball effect,” he warned. “Biden should bear this in mind and internalize what has happened in the Middle East.”

Ultimately, said Rabi, this is Biden’s “litmus test.”

“If Biden performs in a successful way when it comes to the Iran file, that will make life easier for everyone in the Middle East, including the United States. If the opposite happens, you can definitely expect a negative snowball effect,” he stated.

Rabi echoed Romirowsky, suggesting that Israel needs a joint agreement with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates by which they can influence some changes to any new Iran deal if and when it happens.

In order to try and be involved in any new negotiations, Israel and its Arab partners should “strive for a dialogue with those in the future Biden administration,” said Rabi.

Romirowsky added that “Iran and its proxies are still the largest destabilizing factors to the region.”

As such, he said, “a Biden administration will contend with a more unified Middle East—a Sunni Crescent that includes Israel. This will require an understanding of Israeli deterrence bolstered by an Israeli Qualitative Military Edge. Trump’s policies towards Israel gave Israel a sense of relief and gratitude post-Obama.”

According to Romirowsky, moving forward, Biden will need to “convince Israelis that he will have their best interests in mind when it comes to Iran.”

IDF says it bombed barracks of top Iranian officers in Syria to ‘send message’

November 22, 2020

Lots of messages being sent at the moment… all to Iran.

(Note this article is dated 18 November).

https://www.timesofisrael.com/idf-says-it-bombed-barracks-of-top-iranian-officers-in-syria-to-send-message/

Military says Iranian command base near Damascus airport also among targets hit overnight in response to attempted border attack; army goes on high alert for possible retaliation

Syrian air defenses respond to alleged Israeli missiles targeting south of the capital Damascus, on July 20, 2020. (AFP)

The Israel Defense Forces said a round of airstrikes it carried out in Syria on Wednesday morning was meant to send a message to Iran to leave the country, specifically the border area, following an attempted attack on the Golan Heights that was thwarted this week.

In the predawn hours of Wednesday morning, Israeli fighter jets struck eight targets in Syria — roughly half near Damascus and half along the Golan border — in response to an Iranian-directed effort to set off anti-personnel mines against Israeli troops, IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman said. The explosives were disarmed on Tuesday morning.

According to the spokesman, the strikes targeted a number of facilities controlled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ expeditionary Quds Force, which commands and supports proxy militias in Syria. In addition, the Israeli fighter jets bombed a Syrian military base, as well as several Syrian anti-aircraft batteries that fired at them.

The Syrian state news agency SANA said three soldiers were killed and one was injured in the attack, which it said targeted sites in southern Syria. There were no immediate reports of casualties from the IRGC.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition organization based in the United Kingdom, said 10 people in total were killed in the Israeli strikes, some of them Iranian. This could not be immediately confirmed. The Observatory has in the past been accused of inflating and even inventing casualty figures. In general, Israel does not intentionally target people in its strikes, instead focusing on infrastructure, as this has been found to reduce the likelihood of retaliation by Iran and its proxies.

Zilberman told reporters that the retaliatory attack was intended as both a message to Iran that “we won’t allow Iranian entrenchment at all and next to the border specifically,” and a message to Syria that it will be held responsible for allowing Tehran to maintain a presence in its country.

The spokesman said that Israel tried to send a similar message to Iran and Syria in August after a previous attempt to plant bombs along the border, but it evidently “wasn’t received.”

Zilberman said the military was prepared for the possibility of retaliation from Iran or Syria, with Iron Dome and other air defense systems on high alert.

Israel views a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria as an unacceptable threat, which it will take military action to prevent.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz threatened further action if Iran again attempted to carry out attacks on Israeli forces or continued to establish a permanent military presence in Syria.

“The IDF last night struck military targets belonging to the Iranian Quds Force and the Syrian military in response to the planting of bombs on the Syrian border within Israeli territory. I say again to our enemies: Israel will not accept violations of our sovereignty anywhere, and we will not allow a dangerous force build-up on any border,” Gantz said in a Hebrew video statement.

Zilberman did not reveal the nature of all eight targets of the predawn attack, but said they included: a military base used by Iran to direct its forces in the country located just next door to Damascus International Airport; a secret barracks used by top Iranian commanders in Syria, which is also used to host visiting delegations from Tehran, southeast of Damascus; a base of the Syrian military’s 7th Division, which cooperates widely with Iran; and mobile Syrian surface-to-air missile batteries.

According to the spokesman, the military knew there were Iranian officers in the barracks when the attack was carried out, but did not specifically target them or the areas in the building where they were located.

In addition, the IDF said it targeted arms warehouses in Syria. Zilberman did not comment on the nature of the sites that were bombed on the Golan border.

The Syrian state news outlet also said Syrian air defenses shot down several incoming Israeli missiles, though war analysts generally dismiss the regime’s regular claims of interceptions as false, empty boasts. Zilberman said the military was still reviewing the results of the attack so he could not say definitively if the claim was true, but that if the Syrian military had succeeded in downing any incoming missiles, it was “extremely marginal if it happened at all.”

Though Israel officially maintains a policy of ambiguity regarding its activities in Syria — in the hopes of not giving Iran and Syria a pretext to respond — the IDF consistently acknowledges carrying out airstrikes on targets in Syria that either are in response to specific attacks from the country, as was the case this week, or were attempts to preempt and prevent such attacks.

According to Zilberman, the three Claymore-style mines planted along the border were set there by Syrian nationals who live near the border, at the instruction of the IRGC Quds Force. The mines were uncovered in a buffer zone near the border that is under Israeli control but is on the Syrian side of the security fence, where the IDF regularly conducts patrols, indicating that the explosives were meant to be used against soldiers.

It was the same area where Iranian-backed Syrian operatives tried to plant mines in August, though in that case the four men were spotted by the IDF at the time and killed.

Since that attempt, the IDF has more closely monitored the area to prevent a similar attack.

Zilberman said the military did not yet know when the three mines were planted along the border, but that it seemed to have been several weeks ago. The IDF was investigating how the Iranian-backed operatives were able to evade detection and plant the bombs.

On Tuesday morning, the IDF sent a team of combat engineers into the area to disarm the mines.

Zilberman said the military called on the UN peacekeeping force that is meant to maintain the 1974 ceasefire between Israel and Syria to prevent such attacks in the future.

The IDF has launched hundreds of strikes in Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011 against moves by Iran to establish a permanent military presence in the country and efforts to transport advanced, game-changing weapons to terrorist groups in the region, principally Hezbollah.

Message to Iran: B-52 bombers deployed to Middle East | Fox News

November 22, 2020

Trump admin announced a drawdown of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq Tuesday

By Paul BestLucas Tomlinson | Fox Newshttps://static.foxnews.com/static/orion/html/video/iframe/vod.html?v=20201112170543#uid=fnc-embed-1

Pentagon announces plans to cut troop levels in Afghanistan, Iraq

Fox News senior strategic analyst Gen. Jack Keane (Ret.) joins ‘Fox News @ Night’ with reaction

The U.S. military deployed B-52 bombers to the Middle East Saturday, just days after the Trump administration announced a partial withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. 

U.S. Central Command said the U.S. Air Force B-52H “Stratofortress” aircrews conducted the mission on “short notice” to “deter aggression and reassure U.S. partners and allies.”

“The ability to quickly move forces into, out of and around the theater to seize, retain and exploit the initiative is key to deterring potential aggression,” said Lt. Gen. Greg Guillot, 9th Air Force commander.

“These missions help bomber aircrews gain familiarity with the region’s airspace and command, and control functions and allow them to integrate with the theater’s U.S. and partner air assets, increasing the combined force’s overall readiness.” 

ACTING US DEFENSE SECRETARY CHIEF LAUDS ‘STALWART AND CAPABLE ALLY’ UK FOR INCREASE IN MILITARY SPENDINGhttps://platform.twitter.com/embed/index.html?dnt=false&embedId=twitter-widget-0&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1330212506703368196&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.foxnews.com%2Fus%2Fus-military-deploys-b-52-bombers-middle-east&siteScreenName=foxnews&theme=light&widgetsVersion=ed20a2b%3A1601588405575&width=550px

President Trump’s new acting defense secretary Christopher Miller announced Tuesday a drawdown of troops to 2,500 in Afghanistan and 2,500 in Iraq by Jan. 15 of next year. There are roughly 4,500 troops in Afghanistan and 3,000 in Iraq right now. 

“In light of these tremendous sacrifices, and with great humility and gratitude to those who came before us, I am formally announcing that we will implement President Trump’s orders to continue our repositioning of forces from those two countries,” Miller said Tuesday

“This is consistent with our established plans and strategic objectives, supported by the American people, and does not equate to a change in policy or objectives.”

US TO DRAW DOWN TROOPS IN AFGHANISTAN, IRAQ BY JAN. 15, PENTAGON SAYS

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Doha, Qatar, Saturday to take part in what could be his last round of negotiations with the Taliban and Afghan government about a peace deal. 

Violence in Afghanistan soared this year, as eight people were killed just hours before peace talks were set to begin Saturday when mortars hit a residential area of Kabul. 

A B-52H "Stratofortress" at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota Friday.

A B-52H “Stratofortress” at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota Friday.

It is unclear where the B-52H bombers went in the Middle East Saturday, but they left from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota.

CLICK HERE TO GET THE FOX NEWS APP

Minot Air Force Base is the only base in the United States that houses both intercontinental ballistic missiles in underground silos as well as a fleet of bombers also capable of carrying nuclear warheads

It marks the first B-52 mission to the Middle East in several months. In January, after the U.S. military’s elite Joint Special Operations Command killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike, six B-52 bombers were dispatched to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.