Archive for September 2021

Iran suspected of damaging watchdog cameras to cover up 90pc weapons grade uranium enrichment – DEBKAfile

September 23, 2021

The gaps in the nuclear watchdog’s coverage of Iran’s nuclear operations were not assessed by the IAEA director Rafael Grossi when he announced in Tehran ten days ago that he and Iran had agreed to restore the cameras installed at sensitive sites. He did admit that some were damaged by mysterious explosions or were disabled, leaving a monitoring gap of several months. Grossi did not accuse the Iranians of deliberately damaging the cameras. He insisted however, that for him the new deal with Tehran was “a stopgap measure to allow time for diplomacy.”

However, DEBKAfile’s sources report that the cameras at the Natanz and Fordo uranium enrichment facilities are still not working. The new head of Iran’s nuclear agency Mohammed Eslami admitted later: “A large number of the cameras had been shut off.” No explanation was offered.
American and Israeli nuclear experts are convinced that they were deliberately vandalized to conceal the next stage of Iran’s progress towards weaponizing its nuclear program. Free of international oversight, that program is believed to have used the gap in surveillance to clandestinely jump its uranium enrichment from 60 percent grade to 90 percent, tantamount to weapons grade.

This stage of enrichment is easier to conceal than the early stages and has most likely been moved to small, secret sites not covered by 2015 nuclear accord that the Biden administration is seeking to renegotiate. In addition, the broad information gap of several months generated by disabled cameras leaves uncharted territory for any future diplomatic process with Iran alone in command of the true facts and no means of verification..

Mossad killed Iran’s top nuke scientist with remote-operated machine gun — NYT

September 20, 2021

From command center far away, Israeli team reportedly used AI-powered weapon built into abandoned-looking vehicle to take out Fakhrizadeh; hit would have needed Trump’s ‘assent’

By TOI STAFF18 September 2021, 5:32 pm  

The scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, a small city just east of the capital, in Tehran, Iran, on November 27, 2020. (Fars News Agency via AP); Inset: Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in an undated photo. (Courtesy)

The scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, a small city just east of the capital, in Tehran, Iran, on November 27, 2020. (Fars News Agency via AP); Inset: Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in an undated photo. (Courtesy)

Top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated in November 2020 in a sophisticated hit led by a Mossad team that reportedly deployed a computerized machine gun, required no on-site operatives, took less than a minute, and did not injure anyone else, including the scientist’s wife who was with him at the time.

According to an in-depth New York Times report published on Saturday, the weapon used in the high-profile assassination last year of Fakhrizadeh — regarded by Israel and many Western officials as the “father” of Iran’s nuclear weapons program — was a modified Belgian-made FN MAG machine gun attached to an advanced robotic apparatus and powered with artificial intelligence technology. The whole device weighed about a ton and was smuggled into Iran in small parts ahead of the operation and then reassembled.

The Mossad team handled the whole operation from a command center outside the country, according to the report which the publication said was based on interviews with American, Israeli and Iranian officials, “including two intelligence officials familiar with the details of the planning and execution of the operation.”

The report detailed how Israel had been closely following Fakhrizadeh’s career and movements since at least 2007 and began making preparations for an assassination operation in late 2019 and early 2020, following a series of meetings between Israeli officials led by then-Mossad director Yossi Cohen and high-ranking United States officials, including then-US President Donald Trump, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the CIA director Gina Haspel.

These preparations moved into high gear by the summer of 2020, according to the report, and Israel decided to press ahead, driven by two factors: Iran’s tepid response to the January 2020 killing of its top general Qassim Suleimani in a US drone strike facilitated by Israeli intelligence, and the rising likelihood that Trump would lose the national election that November to Joe Biden, who had indicated he would return the US to the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran.Get The Times of Israel’s Daily Editionby email and never miss our top storiesNewsletter email addressGET ITBy signing up, you agree to the terms

“If Israel was going to kill a top Iranian official, an act that had the potential to start a war, it needed the assent and protection of the United States,” the New York Times reported, noting how much Trump and then-premier Benjamin Netanyahu “saw eye to eye.”Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in an undated photo. (Courtesy)

“In Mr. Netanyahu’s best-case scenario, the assassination would derail any chance of resurrecting the nuclear agreement even if Mr. Biden won,” the report read.

Fakhrizadeh, 59, a physicist, an officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and a professor at the Imam Hussein University in Tehran, was killed on November 27, 2020, while en route with his wife from their vacation home on the Caspian Sea to their country house in Absard, east of Tehran. He was driving his own vehicle, a black Nissan Teana sedan, with his wife sitting in the passenger seat beside him and his bodyguards in separate cars behind him.

The report detailed how the scientist had disregarded warnings of a possible assassination attempt as well as the advice of his security team, insisting on driving himself in the unarmored car. He no longer took threats to his life seriously having been subjected to them for years. He had previously been targeted for assassination, most recently in 2009 when a hit team was ready to carry out its plan but the operation was called off as the Mossad feared an ambush, the report said.

Meanwhile, that November, the Mossad’s computerized weapon was affixed to an abandoned-looking car, a blue Nissan Zamyad pickup truck, stationed by Iranian agents working with the Israeli agency at a junction on the main road where drivers heading for Absard had to make a U-turn, according to the report. The truck was laden with a camera and explosives so it could be destroyed after the hit.

When the team got word that Fakhrizadeh was heading out, “the assassin, a skilled sniper, took up his position, calibrated the gun sights, cocked the weapon and lightly touched the trigger” — all from an “undisclosed location thousands of miles away” and no longer in Iran.An illustrative photo of a Belgian FN MAG mounted on a Eurocopter EC 725 Cougar MkII at the 2007 Paris Air Show. (Jastrow – Own work, Public Domain, Link)

The hit team had to overcome several obstacles, including a slight time delay as well as the recoil of the weapon after a shot that could change the trajectory. The report said that “AI [articificial intelligence] was programmed to compensate for the delay, the shake, and the car’s speed,” without going into further detail.

Once Fakhrizadeh’s vehicle arrived at the junction, another vehicle with his bodyguards made way to the vacation home to inspect it before his arrival, leaving him exposed. The remaining vehicles in the convoy slowed for a speed bump just before the parked truck, at which point the operatives could positively identify Fakhrizadeh as the driver of the Nissan. They unleashed a hail of bullets, hitting the car below the windshield.

The report said that it was unknown whether Fakhrizadeh was injured but the car swerved and came to a stop, after which he stepped out and crouched down before the open door. He was then hit with three more bullets that “tore into his spine” and collapsed on the road.

The first bodyguard arrived at the scene with a weapon and “looked around for the assailant, seemingly confused.”

Fakhrizadeh’s wife ran to him and sat beside him on the road. The blue truck then exploded but most of the equipment remained largely intact though severely damaged.

A total of 15 bullets were fired and the whole assassination was over in less than 60 seconds, the New York Times reported. No one else was hit or injured.

The operation was deemed a success, according to the report, given “serious security failures by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, extensive planning and surveillance by the Mossad, and an insouciance bordering on fatalism on the part of Mr. Fakhrizadeh.”

“The souped-up, remote-controlled machine gun now joins the combat drone in the arsenal of high-tech weapons for remote targeted killing,” and is “likely to reshape the worlds of security and espionage,” the New York Times reported.

Iran could have enough enriched uranium for a nuke in a month – report

September 14, 2021

But experts say Tehran would still need more time before actually creating a deliverable weapon; estimate comes with talks stalled between US and Iran over new nuclear deal

By JUDAH ARI GROSS and AFPToday, 8:31 amUpdated at 9:09 am  

In this image, made from April 17, 2021 video released by the state-run TV station Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, various centrifuge machines line a hall at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility. (IRIB via AP)

In this image, made from April 17, 2021 video released by the state-run TV station Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, various centrifuge machines line a hall at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility. (IRIB via AP)

Iran may be able to amass sufficient weapons-grade uranium for an atomic bomb within a month, a new report warned Monday, as the Islamic Republic continues to ramp up its violations of the 2015 accord limiting its nuclear program for sanctions relief.

Critically, the estimate did not include the time it would take Iran to actually assemble a deliverable nuclear bomb — one that could be installed in a warhead on a ballistic missile — which would be far longer. Last month, the Israel Defense Forces assessed that the process would take at least several months and potentially up to a year.

The report released on Monday was written by experts from the Institute for Science and International Security, who examined a recent report by the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, concerning Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

“Overall, the IAEA’s latest report shows Iran’s rapidly advancing nuclear activities and steps to limit IAEA monitoring, while inspectors have a diminishing ability to detect Iranian diversion of assets to undeclared facilities. The IAEA is sounding an alarm to the international community accordingly,” the report warned.

The experts, led by former UN nuclear inspector David Albright, noted Iran has continued to grow its stockpile of highly enriched uranium in recent months, predicting that in “a worst-case breakout estimate” Tehran could have enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon in a month.Get The Times of Israel’s Daily Editionby email and never miss our top storiesNewsletter email addressGET ITBy signing up, you agree to the terms

After three months, the report said, Iran could have enough enriched uranium for two weapons; after five months, for three.Illustrative: IAEA inspectors at Iran’s nuclear power plant in Natanz on January 20, 2014. (IRNA/AFP Kazem Ghane/File)

Unnamed US federal officials would not confirm the possible breakout time, but acknowledged to The New York Times that Iran could have enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon in a few months.

Israeli officials have indicated a similar timeline. Last month, Defense Minister Benny Gantz warned that Iran was “only two months away from acquiring the materials necessary for a nuclear weapon.” He called for the international community to develop a “Plan B” should the stalled nuclear talks fail, including sanctions and the credible threat of military action.

Albright said Iran’s recent conduct suggested it is trying to improve its hand at the negotiating table under new hardline President Ebrahim Raisi, with the aim of securing more favorable terms in talks on restoring the 2015 agreement following former US president Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the deal and reimposition of sanctions on Tehran.

“We have to be careful,” he was quoted as saying at a Friday press conference by the Times, “not to let them scare us.”

Former Israeli national security adviser Yaakov Nagel, who is generally considered to be hawkish on Iran, issued a similar warning in an interview on Army Radio on Tuesday after the report was published, alleging that the findings in the Times article were political spin by the US government.

“All of the information that was revealed by the New York Times came from American government officials because now there is pressure to return to the nuclear accord and even to improve the conditions for Iran,” he said.

President of the Institute for Science and International Security David Albright, left, accompanied by Former State Department Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan speaks during a hearing on Iran before the House Foreign Affairs Committee at Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

The report came a day after the IAEA and Iran clinched a deal over access to surveillance equipment at Iranian nuclear facilities.

The footage will be handed over to the IAEA if and when there is an agreement between Iran and world powers on the revival of the 2015 nuclear pact.

Talks to revive the agreement are currently stalled, with Iran warning it may be months before they restart.

Little progress has been made on another issue relating to longstanding questions the IAEA has had about the previous presence of nuclear material at undeclared sites in Iran.

The agency has said in numerous reports that Iran’s explanations about the material have not been satisfactory.

IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi told reporters Monday at the start of a meeting of the agency’s board of governors that it was a delicate moment for international diplomacy on the Iranian nuclear issue.

Asked whether now was the time to be tougher with Iran on the issue, Grossi replied that “from day one I have had an approach with Iran which is firm and fair.”

Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Mariano Grossi, from Argentina, addresses the media during a news conference regarding the agency’s monitoring of Iran’s nuclear energy program at the International Center in Vienna, Austria, on June 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)

In the run-up to this week’s board of governors meeting there had been speculation that Western countries may push for a resolution censuring Iran, but a diplomatic source told AFP that the deal struck over the weekend had “in principle removed” that possibility.

Iran’s conservative press, meanwhile, on Monday celebrated the weekend’s deal.

The Javan daily said it meant “Iran had not revealed its secrets to the agency,” while the Vatan-e-Emrouz newspaper titled its coverage “Eyes wide shut.”

Asked how difficult it would be to reconstruct information once the IAEA gains access to the footage, Grossi admitted that “it’s something that has to a certain extent never been done before but it’s not… beyond the capacity of my technical teams.”

However, he confirmed that the agency still has access to footage “as often as required” from sites such as Iran’s enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordo.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report

Iran could have enough enriched uranium for a nuke in a month – report

September 14, 2021


But experts say Tehran would still need more time before actually creating a deliverable weapon; estimate comes with talks stalled between US and Iran over new nuclear deal

By JUDAH ARI GROSS and AFPToday, 8:31 amUpdated at 9:09 am  

In this image, made from April 17, 2021 video released by the state-run TV station Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, various centrifuge machines line a hall at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility. (IRIB via AP)

In this image, made from April 17, 2021 video released by the state-run TV station Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, various centrifuge machines line a hall at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility. (IRIB via AP)

Iran may be able to amass sufficient weapons-grade uranium for an atomic bomb within a month, a new report warned Monday, as the Islamic Republic continues to ramp up its violations of the 2015 accord limiting its nuclear program for sanctions relief.

Critically, the estimate did not include the time it would take Iran to actually assemble a deliverable nuclear bomb — one that could be installed in a warhead on a ballistic missile — which would be far longer. Last month, the Israel Defense Forces assessed that the process would take at least several months and potentially up to a year.

The report released on Monday was written by experts from the Institute for Science and International Security, who examined a recent report by the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, concerning Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

“Overall, the IAEA’s latest report shows Iran’s rapidly advancing nuclear activities and steps to limit IAEA monitoring, while inspectors have a diminishing ability to detect Iranian diversion of assets to undeclared facilities. The IAEA is sounding an alarm to the international community accordingly,” the report warned.

The experts, led by former UN nuclear inspector David Albright, noted Iran has continued to grow its stockpile of highly enriched uranium in recent months, predicting that in “a worst-case breakout estimate” Tehran could have enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon in a month.Get The Times of Israel’s Daily Editionby email and never miss our top storiesNewsletter email addressGET ITBy signing up, you agree to the terms

After three months, the report said, Iran could have enough enriched uranium for two weapons; after five months, for three.Illustrative: IAEA inspectors at Iran’s nuclear power plant in Natanz on January 20, 2014. (IRNA/AFP Kazem Ghane/File)

Unnamed US federal officials would not confirm the possible breakout time, but acknowledged to The New York Times that Iran could have enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon in a few months.

Israeli officials have indicated a similar timeline. Last month, Defense Minister Benny Gantz warned that Iran was “only two months away from acquiring the materials necessary for a nuclear weapon.” He called for the international community to develop a “Plan B” should the stalled nuclear talks fail, including sanctions and the credible threat of military action.

Albright said Iran’s recent conduct suggested it is trying to improve its hand at the negotiating table under new hardline President Ebrahim Raisi, with the aim of securing more favorable terms in talks on restoring the 2015 agreement following former US president Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the deal and reimposition of sanctions on Tehran.

“We have to be careful,” he was quoted as saying at a Friday press conference by the Times, “not to let them scare us.”

Former Israeli national security adviser Yaakov Nagel, who is generally considered to be hawkish on Iran, issued a similar warning in an interview on Army Radio on Tuesday after the report was published, alleging that the findings in the Times article were political spin by the US government.

“All of the information that was revealed by the New York Times came from American government officials because now there is pressure to return to the nuclear accord and even to improve the conditions for Iran,” he said.President of the Institute for Science and International Security David Albright, left, accompanied by Former State Department Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan speaks during a hearing on Iran before the House Foreign Affairs Committee at Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

The report came a day after the IAEA and Iran clinched a deal over access to surveillance equipment at Iranian nuclear facilities.

The footage will be handed over to the IAEA if and when there is an agreement between Iran and world powers on the revival of the 2015 nuclear pact.

Talks to revive the agreement are currently stalled, with Iran warning it may be months before they restart.

Little progress has been made on another issue relating to longstanding questions the IAEA has had about the previous presence of nuclear material at undeclared sites in Iran.

The agency has said in numerous reports that Iran’s explanations about the material have not been satisfactory.

IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi told reporters Monday at the start of a meeting of the agency’s board of governors that it was a delicate moment for international diplomacy on the Iranian nuclear issue.

Asked whether now was the time to be tougher with Iran on the issue, Grossi replied that “from day one I have had an approach with Iran which is firm and fair.”Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Mariano Grossi, from Argentina, addresses the media during a news conference regarding the agency’s monitoring of Iran’s nuclear energy program at the International Center in Vienna, Austria, on June 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)

In the run-up to this week’s board of governors meeting there had been speculation that Western countries may push for a resolution censuring Iran, but a diplomatic source told AFP that the deal struck over the weekend had “in principle removed” that possibility.

Iran’s conservative press, meanwhile, on Monday celebrated the weekend’s deal.

The Javan daily said it meant “Iran had not revealed its secrets to the agency,” while the Vatan-e-Emrouz newspaper titled its coverage “Eyes wide shut.”

Asked how difficult it would be to reconstruct information once the IAEA gains access to the footage, Grossi admitted that “it’s something that has to a certain extent never been done before but it’s not… beyond the capacity of my technical teams.”

However, he confirmed that the agency still has access to footage “as often as required” from sites such as Iran’s enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordo.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

IDF chief says Israel accelerating Iran strike plans, acting throughout Mideast

September 8, 2021

Aviv Kohavi also defends top brass amid anger over border cop’s death: ‘If we don’t back them up we’ll end up without commanders’

By TOI STAFF7 September 2021, 2:19 am  

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi during a graduation ceremony at the National Security College in Glilot, central Israel, July 14, 2021 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi during a graduation ceremony at the National Security College in Glilot, central Israel, July 14, 2021 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Israel has “greatly accelerated” preparations for action against Iran’s nuclear program, military chief Aviv Kohavi said in an interview published Monday.

Kohavi told Walla news that “a significant chunk of the boost to the defense budget, as was recently agreed, was intended for this purpose. It’s a very complicated job, with much more intelligence, much more operational capabilities, much more armaments. We’re working on all these things.”

The head of the Israel Defense Forces said the military’s current main objective is “minimizing Iranian presence in the Middle East, with an emphasis on Syria…but these operations take place throughout the Middle East. They’re also against Hamas, against Hezbollah.”

Kohavi said Israeli strikes and other operations had “greatly diminished Iran’s presence and weaponry in the northern arena, certainly in comparison to what they sought.” He said the army was “very active in disrupting the smuggling routes of Hezbollah, of Hamas, of Iran, in all regions.”

The IDF “is operating at much greater depths, at 360 degrees throughout all the Middle East. It doesn’t wait for the threat to come. It prepares, it meets [the threat] head-on, neutralizes it, roots it out.”Get The Times of Israel’s Daily Editionby email and never miss our top storiesNewsletter email addressGET ITBy signing up, you agree to the terms

Defense Minister Benny Gantz also issued threats against Iran last month, telling foreign diplomats that Israel may have to take military action against Iran.An F-35 fighter jet takes off during a surprise exercise, ‘Galilee Rose,’ in February 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

“The State of Israel has the means to act and will not hesitate to do so. I do not rule out the possibility that Israel will have to take action in the future in order to prevent a nuclear Iran,” Gantz said.

“Iran is only two months away from acquiring the materials necessary for a nuclear weapon. We do not know if the Iranian regime will be willing to sign an agreement and come back to the negotiation table and the international community must build a viable ‘Plan B’ in order to stop Iran in its tracks towards a nuclear weapon,” he added.

Though Iran is believed to be two months away from obtaining the fissile material needed for a bomb, the IDF has assessed that it would take at least several more months from then before Tehran would be capable of producing a deliverable weapon, needing that time to construct a core, perform tests and install the device inside a missile.

On Sunday Kohavi visited the home of a Border Police sniper fatally wounded during a riot along the Gaza border last month to express his condolences to the fuming family.

Barel Hadaria Shmueli was shot in the head at point-blank range by a Palestinian gunman on August 21 and succumbed to his wounds just over a week later. On Friday, the IDF released the initial findings of its investigation into Shmueli’s death, blaming it principally on the way in which troops were deployed along the Gaza border barrier during the riot.IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi pays a condolence call on September 5, 2021, to the home of Barel Hadaria Shmueli, a Border Police officer who was shot dead by a Gaza gunman at the border last month (Via Facebook: צועדים בדרך בראל)

His family, along with right-wing activists and opposition lawmakers, accused the military of issuing overly restrictive rules of engagement that they claim prevented troops from keeping the rioters away from the border fence. Shmueli’s father has suggested Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and top military commanders should resign over the incident, his mother has said she does not trust the government or the army, and the family has rejected the IDF’s investigation, demanding an independent inquiry.Barel Hadaria Shmueli, a Border Police officer who was shot dead by a Gaza gunman at the border in August 2021 (Courtesy)

The IDF has denied that the open-fire regulations were to blame — noting that Shmueli himself fired at the rioters when they rushed the border — and said that at issue was the way in which troops were deployed.

In Monday’s interview, Kohavi said that while mistakes “will happen” in combat, the military must back its officers or it will remain without any.

“There was a mistake in the way we prepared from the moment the rioting began,” Kohavi told Walla of the Gaza riot. “The initial preparation was very good. There was a mistake there, a mistake that occurred as a result of decision-making in real-time, under pressure, in conditions of uncertainty. This has happened, does happen and will happen in any war.”

But, he said, “We remember that [commanders] also make a great many good decisions that protect Israeli citizens… Mistakes can happen but we need to remember to back them up. If we don’t back them up we’ll end up without commanders. Without anyone to guard the borders.”

His comments were similar to ones he made in a letter to commanders Sunday.

“A society that does not back its soldiers and commanders, including when they make mistakes, will discover that it has nobody to fight for it,” Kohavi wrote in his missive.

It was the IDF’s obligation to thoroughly investigate, “to get to the truth and learn the lessons, but mistakes of judgment on the battlefield are not matters for blame and punishment,” he declared.

Israeli strikes said to target Syria, blasts heard near Tel Aviv

September 3, 2021


IDF reportedly investigating if errant Syrian air defense missile caused blast near center of Israel; no injuries or damage reported

By TOI STAFFToday, 2:49 am  

Illustrative: In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows missiles flying into the sky near international airport, in Damascus, Syria on Jan. 21, 2019. (SANA via AP)

Illustrative: In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows missiles flying into the sky near international airport, in Damascus, Syria on Jan. 21, 2019. (SANA via AP)

Israeli planes carried out airstrikes near Damascus early Friday, Syrian state media claimed, and sounds of explosions were heard in central Israel shortly after.

It was not immediately clear if the two events were linked, but the Israeli military was reportedly investigating whether the explosions were the result of errant air defense missiles.

Syria reported that missiles fired from the direction of Lebanon targeted Damascus, but claimed most were shot down by its air defenses.

A short time later, residents near Tel Aviv reported hearing at least one blast.

The Israel Defense Forces said it was investigating the possibility that a Syria air defense missile that missed its target had landed in the area or off the coast, Hebrew language media reported.Get The Times of Israel’s Daily Editionby email and never miss our top storiesNewsletter email addressGET ITBy signing up, you agree to the terms

No sirens sounded and there were no reports of injuries or damage in Israel.

Syrian air defense missiles have in the past accidentally shot down a Russian military plane and have also reached Cyprus in error.

The IDF did not comment on the alleged strikes in Syria, as per its policy.

Video published by SANA purported to show an air defense missile being fired into the air. A blast could be heard shortly after.

The Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights reported that weapons development centers near Damascus used by Iran-backed militias had been targeted in the alleged Israeli strikes.

On August 19, Syria reported alleged Israeli airstrikes from the direction of Beirut.

To take on Iran, Lapid sketches out vision for a regional ‘alliance of life’

September 2, 2021

Foreign minister’s ambitious plan would establish a broad axis stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic, but can he make it happen?

By LAZAR BERMAN1 September 2021, 10:40 pm  

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks at a ceremony with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita in Rabat, on August 11, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks at a ceremony with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita in Rabat, on August 11, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

Speaking at a Casablanca hotel last month during his first visit to Morocco after Jerusalem and Rabat reestablished relations last year, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid laid out his vision for a coalition that would bring hope and prosperity to the region.

“What we are creating here, and what we have been creating over the past few months, is essentially a political axis,” Lapid told journalists.

“Think about it as a sort of alliance consisting of Israel, Morocco, Egypt, and Jordan, and in some ways one can also add Cyprus, Greece, Bahrain, the UAE — all the nations that are moderate religiously with truly limitless economic potential… An alliance of life in the face of the alliance of death of Iran and its emissaries.”

The remark didn’t cause much of a stir during Lapid’s Morocco trip, and it remained below the radar when he revisited the theme last Sunday during a meeting with his Greek and Cypriot counterparts.

The trilateral alliance, Lapid said, was “a key part of something bigger. A moderate, pragmatic and forward-looking alliance. A growing group of countries working together with a shared vision. From the UAE and Bahrain in the Gulf, Morocco in North Africa, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East, Cyprus and Greece in the Mediterranean, and others that are joining all the time.”Get The Times of Israel’s Daily Editionby email and never miss our top storiesNewsletter email addressGET ITBy signing up, you agree to the terms

An “alliance of life” that spans from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean seems to be the essence of Lapid’s emerging vision for the region: the next phase of the Abraham Accords process that Israel — and the foreign minister himself — hopes to lead.Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (center) with his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias (right) and Cypriot counterpart Nikos Christodoulides, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, August 22, 2021. (Foreign Ministry)

Facing Turkey and Iran

Though Lapid largely focuses on uncontroversial initiatives like cooperation on agriculture, water, and technological innovation, there is an undeniable geopolitical — even national security —  element to the growing partnerships.

There are two very different regional powers that are of concern to members of Lapid’s “alliance of life”: Iran, certainly, but also Turkey, which is seeking to expand its power and influence at the expense of its neighbors.

But interests within Lapid’s desired assortment of partners are tangled and complex, based on countries’ individual concerns.

This is especially apparent in the Gulf, where Saudi Arabia and the UAE — both Western-allied hereditary Sunni regimes with growing ties with Israel — do not see eye-to-eye on their primary foe Iran. For the Saudis, the Iranians represent the main security threat, while the UAE sees the Muslim Brotherhood — and the Turkey-Qatar axis backing it — as its foremost adversary.Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir (L) speaks with UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (C) as Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa (R) looks on following a meeting with foreign ministers and military officials from the Saudi-led coalition, in Riyadh, on October 29, 2017. (AFP Photo/Fayez Nureldine)

“You see this different emphasis,” says Brandon Friedman, director of research at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University. “Whereas the Emiratis are very much concerned and cognizant of wherever the Muslim Brotherhood seems to be rearing its head in the region, the Saudis ––while certainly seeing the Brotherhood as a threat internally — externally I think have a less aggressive approach to the Brotherhood outside of Saudi borders.”

While the Saudis have worked closely with the US and Israel to counter Iran, the Emiratis maintain open diplomatic channels to Tehran along with a healthy trade relationship.

Meanwhile, Greece and Cyprus are overwhelmingly focused on Turkey. Besides being a historical enemy with which a series of wars have been fought, Turkey has been flexing its muscles over gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean while holding the threat of renewed Muslim immigration into Greece and Europe over Athens’ head.Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (R) welcomes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) prior to a Greece-Israel-Cyprus summit for talks on offshore oil and gas in the eastern Mediterranean and environmental issues in Thessaloniki on June 15, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / SAKIS MITROLIDIS)

In Lapid’s view, there is enough of a common perception of regional threats among Israel’s partners for an alliance to hold. All the countries he names seek regional stability, accept neighboring actors with different views and are not looking to export their religious brand.

Old, cold friends

Egypt and Jordan have had diplomatic relations with Israel for decades, but both countries have maintained a cold peace with the Jewish state, and especially its people.

Israel’s relations with Amman were particularly problematic of late. In March, years of Jordanian frustration with then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu boiled over as officials in Amman appeared to accuse him of endangering the region for political gain and alleged that Israel had violated agreements with them.

The Bennett-Lapid government seems determined to change the dynamic. There has been a flurry of high-level contacts between the two neighbors since the new government took office, as well as new economic deals.

The government is also hoping to make headway with the Egyptians, with which Israel enjoys close security cooperation. Last month, Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate chair Abbas Kamel visited Jerusalem for talks with Bennett and Defense Minister Gantz, and extended an invitation for Bennett to make an official visit to Egypt within the next few weeks. The visit would be the first public visit by an Israeli premier since 2011.

Positive energy

Energy resources are another pillar of Lapid’s vision.

The East Mediterranean Gas Forum, or EMFG, which includes Israel, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and the Palestinian Authority, and is in the process of expanding, has become a de facto outgrowth of one of the regional splits, which has seen Turkey and Qatar leading a pro-Islamist faction, and Egypt siding with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in a pro-Western camp that has increasingly included Israel.This photo taken on August 23, 2019, in Istanbul shows Turkish General Directorate of Mineral research and Exploration’s (MTA) Oruc Reis seismic research vessel docked at Haydarpasa port, which searches for hydrocarbon, oil, natural gas and coal reserves at sea. Greece on August 11, 2020 demanded that Turkey withdraw a research ship at the heart of their growing dispute over maritime rights and warned it would defend its sovereignty, calling for an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers to resolve the crisis. (Ozan KOSE / AFP)

Turkey insists that its exclusive economic zone stretches across the entire Mediterranean, thanks to a maritime border deal with Libya that would essentially block Israel and Egypt’s access to Europe, potentially upending the EMFG’s plans.

In the Mediterranean, Egypt has aligned itself with Greece and Cyprus, longtime rivals of Turkey that accuse it of illegally drilling for natural gas in their exclusive economic zones. Israel has signed a series of agreements with EMFG countries, especially Greece and Cyprus.

Bringing the alliance to life

The pressing question for Lapid now is how he turns his vision into reality.

Ties between the countries’ civil societies and private sectors in the countries in the axis are a major component of the vision, it is clear. Lapid seems determined to avoid the mistakes made in Israel’s relationships with Jordan and Egypt — and to some extent Turkey — which were mostly based on security ties.

There is also the important question of the role the US will play in firming up such an alliance.President Reuven Rivlin and US President Joe Biden in the White House on June 29, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

As has been on clear display in Afghanistan, Biden is accelerating the bipartisan trend of US withdrawal from the region, hoping to focus on the competition with global powers Russia and China and to deal with domestic challenges.

The Biden administration also doesn’t seem particularly motivated in promoting the Abraham Accords and expanding the countries normalizing relations with Israel. The administration did not call attention to the recent one-year anniversary of the agreements, and Biden’s spokesmen still won’t use the term “Abraham Accords” in describing the pact sealed by the previous administration.

Still, Israeli government officials insist that their US interlocutors have been supportive of both deepening ties with countries that recognize Israel and expanding the existing accords to new countries.

If Lapid, with US support, is able to move his “alliance of life” beyond statements and symbolic agreements, and to create a new, broad and deep coalition, it would certainly be a game-changer. With a reduced US regional presence, such a union would supply a new path for countries to limit Turkish and Iranian ambitions in the region.From left: US President Donald Trump, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Alzayani, and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talk at the White House at the ceremony for the signing of the Abraham Accords between them, September 15, 2020 (Avi Ohayon/GPO )

It also holds the potential to create new opportunities for the young generation in the countries of the alliance, as they deepen their economic, technological, and educational relationship.

That is not to say there won’t be surprises or difficulties for the countries making up the coalition. For Israel, certainly, a new flare-up in Jerusalem or Gaza would strain ties with its new Arab friends.

But the deeper and more varied the ties, the more stress the relationships will be able to bear.

On DC trip, Bennett’s approach to Iran – and governing – took amorphous shape

September 1, 2021


Premier points at wisdom of his multi-faceted effort against Tehran and spirit of unity in his coalition, but he’ll have to show more boldness going forward if he intends to lead

By LAZAR BERMANToday, 3:22 am  

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks as he meets with President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House, on Friday, August 27, 2021, in Washington, DC. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks as he meets with President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House, on Friday, August 27, 2021, in Washington, DC. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Naftali Bennett’s first visit to Washington as prime minister was a fairly low-stakes affair.

He came at a time when US government and media attention were focused elsewhere, on the unfolding disaster in Afghanistan and the latest COVID-19 wave. Moreover, his goals in his first meeting with US President Joe Biden were modest: establish a personal connection, present a strategy to stop Iranian nuclear and regional ambitions, advance a visa waiver program and secure a replenishment of Iron Dome missiles.

In this subdued context, Bennett revealed the contours of both how he intends to deal with Iran and how he will lead his unwieldy coalition in general — in each case a low-key approach that hopes to be effective without rocking the boat too much.

Some might say his policy is an example of prudent, cautious statesmanship; others that he’s given up on his principles in order to secure two years as prime minister with no particular goals in mind other than remaining in power.

Death by a thousand cuts

The major international challenge facing Bennett is the Iranian nuclear program.Get The Times of Israel’s Daily Editionby email and never miss our top storiesNewsletter email addressGET ITBy signing up, you agree to the terms

After expectations that the Biden administration’s eagerness to secure a return to the 2015 deal — known formally as the JCPOA — would lead to easy negotiations with the Islamic Republic, that accord is becoming ever more elusive. Iran’s moderate then-president Hassan Rouhani introduced a number of demands to the Vienna talks that he knew the US could not accept, and his hardline successor Ebrahim Raisi will likely take an even more aggressive approach.Iran’s new president Ebrahim Raisi speaks at his swearing-in ceremony at the Iranian parliament in the capital Tehran, on August 5, 2021. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

While Bennett’s predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu was willing to irreparably damage ties with Barack Obama’s White House and possibly with the Democratic Party in his fight against the emerging JCPOA, Bennett reportedly pledged to Biden that despite opposing an American return to the deal, he will not wage a public campaign against it.

Instead, Bennett is opting for a broad approach that looks to counter Iran beyond its nuclear program. He intends to push back on its proxies, on its maritime attacks, on its economy and on the stability of its regime.

The idea, said his advisers last week in Washington, is to push on a number of weak spots simultaneously, in the hope that enough pressure will cause the Islamic Republic to collapse.

Bennett returns to two historical analogies to explain his strategy. He argues that the Middle East is in a Cold War scenario, with Israel playing the role of the US and Iran — a rotting regime hated by most of the population — akin to the Soviet Union. Enough pressure on multiple fronts, Bennett argues, will cause the system to eventually collapse.Illustrative image of a German WWII era U-Boat (CC BY Werner Willmann, Wikimedia commons)

The other analogy he uses is the Battle of the Atlantic in World War II. In order to stop the German U-boat attacks devastating Allied shipping, the US, UK, and Canada developed a range of tactics and technologies to ultimately take control of the North Atlantic. The “little bit of everything” approach that dispersed the Nazi wolfpacks, he says, can also halt Tehran’s nuclear program and possibly even bring the Islamic Republic to its knees.

This approach can be seen as patient and appropriately cautious. While maintaining the goodwill of Israel’s most important ally, Israel will work to covertly present Iran with a range of challenges, forcing it to defend itself everywhere all the time until the whole edifice collapses.

On the other hand, it is hard to describe Bennett’s proposed approach to Iran as much of a strategy. Like many of Israel’s responses to threats, it is a series of impressive tactical efforts without a clear logic uniting them into a properly conceived campaign. Airstrikes and sabotage can certainly be helpful, but on their own they are not going to cause Iran to withdraw its support for armed proxies or compel the supreme leader to suspend his nuclear research program.Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addresses the nation in a televised speech marking the anniversary of the 1989 death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, in Tehran, Iran, June 3, 2020. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

The new spirit of unity

“I come here from Jerusalem, our eternal capital,” said Bennett after his one-on-one conversation over coffee with Biden last Friday, “and I bring with me a new spirit, a spirit of goodwill, a spirit of hope, a spirit of decency and honesty, a spirit of unity and bipartisanship of folks who, as you suggested, harbor very different political opinions, even opposing.

“Yet we all share the deep passion to work together to build a better future for Israel,” he told the president in their joint press appearance. “And that’s what Israel is about. We’re out to be good, to do good.”US President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on August 27, 2021. (Nicholas Kamm / AFP)

Bennett and his staff repeated this message throughout the visit — that he has been able to bring together Israeli politicians with very different worldviews around professional, non-ideological discussions to find solutions to the country’s pressing problems like COVID-19, climate change, and the state budget.

Supporters would argue that Bennett’s uniting approach to governing is a welcome and timely change from the partisan bickering Israelis have grown used to in their politics. What’s more, a pandemic like COVID-19 is beyond politics and ideology, and cooperation is required to cope with a disease that has killed 7,000 Israelis.(From left) Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett, Gideon Sa’ar and Merav Michaeli sit together after their new coalition wins Knesset approval, June 13, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

The flaw in this approach, as nice as it may sound, is that it is incoherent. There is no politics without ideology, just as there is no ideal solution to any challenge.

Take the coronavirus pandemic. Goals need to be defined and weighed against each other: protecting lives, protecting the economy, protecting civil rights, protecting education. Without ideology, there is no way to prioritize and no way to make the difficult choices necessary to craft a policy around a set of goals.

More broadly, there is no objective definition of the “better future” for Israel Bennett described to Biden. Every shekel invested in new capabilities to counter the potentially existential threat from Iran is a shekel not invested in the potentially existential threat from climate change. A larger welfare budget means a smaller education budget, and money sent to strengthen Jewish identity in the Diaspora is not spent on combating violent crime in Arab cities.

On policy issues, a leader is expected to wisely balance the competing needs and interests of various constituencies, and come to a coherent policy that reflects the values, desires, priorities, religious sensibilities and rights of most of the public.Protestor holds image of Muhammad Abdelrazek Ades at a Tel Aviv protest against surging crime and violence in Arab communities, March 13, 2021 (Flash90)

The coalition can hold fast and “muddle through,” in the words of a senior Israeli official, for only so long. At some point, Bennett will have to point at real goals based on an underlying worldview, and he may well be forced to do so in the face of a challenge that threatens to rip the government apart.

Avoiding dramatic moves might seem like the right approach for the anti-Netanyahu coalition governing the country. But real threats and problems will arise, and playing small ball for two years is no way to solve them.

The “new spirit” of cooperation is nice, but Bennett will have to start expressing his government’s principles and goals if he wants to be a leader worthy of the name.