Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | July 6, 2009

IO! IO! Off to Natanz They Go?

It doesn’t sound like the Times of London had to work very hard to find out that Israel’s Mossad has been working with its Saudi counterparts to arrange overflight permission for the IAF in Saudi airspace.

“The head of Mossad, Israel’s overseas intelligence service, has assured Benjamin Netanyahu, its prime minister, that Saudi Arabia would turn a blind eye to Israeli jets flying over the kingdom during any future raid on Iran’s nuclear sites.”

This forthright statement, unattended by any boilerplate caveats about its provenance, comes off as a bit pat.  It sounds true.  It just doesn’t sound like a big scoop, like it had to be pried out of anyone.  If I had to guess, I’d say the Israeli and Saudi governments both want it to be known, and are engaged in information operations (“IO”) designed to influence events in Iran.

This does not mean I assess the announced overflight permission would not be used.  It does mean that the mere intention to provide or use it doesn’t justify letting it be known that the agreement has been reached.  In fact, from a tactical standpoint, the secrecy and success of any imminent operation are jeopardized by making this agreement public.  If it is a guide to imminent intentions, the release of this information has told Iran exactly where to look for incoming Israeli bombers.  The Israelis are better at keeping secrets than this.

My estimate would be that the overflight agreement was leaked deliberately, as a means of exerting influence on Iran’s – and perhaps Russia’s – thinking, at a level higher than tactical.

The electoral situation in Iran remains unresolved, and took a significant turn on 4 July with the declaration of the senior clerical establishment in Qom, the Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qom, that the 12 June election was illegitimate.  The very fabric of legitimacy for the “Islamic Republic” of Iran has been interwoven since the revolution with clerical backing and approval, and this action by the clerics of Qom (Iran’s seat of religious authority) is a severe blow to Khamenei’s theocratic leadership and Ahmadinejad’s position of power.  Khamenei has ordered regime forces to “totally shut down the protests,” with a series of draconian measures, by 11 July.  In the context of that order, and of a mass demonstration announced by Moussavi and Kourrabi for 9 July, the statement by the clerics portends a pitched battle for control of the country.  It will almost certainly force Ahmadinejad to choose between backing down, and openly fighting to retain power.

Ahmadinejad backing down would be the first choice of virtually everyone in this situation:  certainly that of Israel, the Saudis (and the other Arab nations), and the majority of Americans.  It would not be the Russians’ first choice, and they are the wild card.  I suspect both Jerusalem and Riyadh believe they need persuading:  to stay out of developments in Iran, even if Ahmadinejad asks for their help.

It is in this context that we must evaluate today’s news about the Saudi overflight posture.  Leaking the news that Riyadh will allow Israel to fly through Saudi airspace for a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities sends more than the simple signal that this route is available.  It also signals that Israel has more than one option.

The route long considered the most likely, over Turkey, has appeared to be in jeopardy since mid-January 2009, when Ankara began publicly taking Israel to task for Operation Cast Lead, and repudiated Israel in hostile terms at the Davos Conference.  The 1996 military cooperation agreement between Israel and Turkey, which includes IAF use of Turkish airspace for training, has been thought of as a particular lubricant to an Israeli strike path through Turkey.  Such a path raises the fewest diplomatic obstacles altogether, in terms of both third-nation notifications, and of the latitude of operations for US air forces.  If Israel did have to undertake a strike mission without prior US approval, Turkey is the best route; having to go through Iraqi or Kuwaiti airspace, or overwater in the Persian Gulf, would create more diplomatic issues.  (See here for a more in-depth analysis of an Israeli air strike on Iran, and the benefits of the approach through Turkey.)

Israel and Turkey exchanged significant diplomatic concessions a couple of months ago, when Turkey’s parliament, on 30 April, dropped its consideration of whether Israel was committing “genocide” in Gaza, and Israel’s Knesset decided a week later against consideration of a similar measure (a long-recurring one, of course), declaring the Armenian slaughter of 1915 to be a genocide.  As much as these dueling threats might seem to be mere gestures, they are significant to the progress of Israel-Turkey relations, and the fact that both sides backed down is a valid sign that these relations are not as strained as they seemed earlier in the year.  Nevertheless, the rift between Israel and Turkey – attributed primarily to the growth of radical Islamism among Sunni Turks – has been a persistent theme in regional news and analysis.

In light of this development, then, the disclosure of Riyadh’s tacit permission for Israeli overflight indicates that the IAF has an alternative to Turkish airspace.  But even more subtly, and just as significantly, it indicates that Israel might very well have access to both paths into Iran.  In signaling that an IAF attack has the option of multi-vector complexity, the Saudi overflight disclosure signals that it would be harder for Iran to defend, and would have a better chance of success.

Right now, hard on the Qom clerics’ statement delegitimizing the 12 June election, is clearly the time to send this signal.  No one wants to have to conduct an airstrike on Iran, including Israel.  Far better for everyone if the Iranians change their own regime:  remove Ahmadinejad from power, and become a different sort of polity, a consensual and liberalizing one that can pursue nuclear power peacefully.  The analysis at work, in Jerusalem and Riyadh, may well be that no signal would communicate the wisdom of getting on with that program, to the reformers on Iran’s Guardian Council, as effectively as the information that Israel is ready to strike, and Saudi Arabia is ready to let her.

It remains to be seen what kind of deterrent this signal may be to Russia.  We could not expect anything Russia did, in support of Ahmadinejad, to have a broadly detectable footprint.  At the outset, any action Russia might take would almost certainly be visible only to national intelligence services.  This would make generating popular outrage against intervention by Moscow difficult, particularly in the US.  Many Americans, including the president’s political party and much of the news media, would be inclined to dismiss or disbelieve any reporting on this head.  In the absence of tanks rolling through Turkmenistan flying the Cross of St. George, or Russian bomber jets plying the airspace over the Caspian Sea, there is a large segment of America that would probably choose to ignore less visible Russian involvement – or, ultimately, to find justifications for it, if ignoring it became impossible.

There is no guarantee that Russia would choose to make even a subtler commitment to intervening on Ahmadinejad’s behalf.  But this possibility cannot be discounted, by any means.  My own opinion is that Israel and Saudi Arabia have made their disclosure of the overflight permission in part because they do think Russian support to Ahmadinejad is a probability, and they want Moscow to know there is regional unity on keeping Ahmadinejad corralled, and denied his nuclear swagger stick.

There is another aspect of this dynamic that must command our attention, one little noticed in the West.  The indispensable Amir Taheri identified an emerging pattern last year, of Ahmadinejad appearing to appeal to Russia for military intervention, in the case of Iran being attacked from without, by invoking old, long-forgotten – but never formally abrogated – treaties between Russia and Iran.  The history of the two treaties in question (the first of them signed in 1921) is fascinating, but most importantly, their implication is that if Russia feels her security menaced by the invasion of Iran by a third party, Iran agrees to military intervention by Russia.

Taheri offers no analysis of Moscow’s take on this rhetorical campaign of Ahmadinejad’s, but we may be sure Putin and Medvedev did not miss its significance.  We should not miss it either:  it implies unmistakably that Ahmadinejad would indeed be prepared to request Russian assistance in the event of an attack on Iran.  We can assume that an airstrike by Israel (or the US, for that matter) would qualify as the pretext.

We can also assume that by far the most important factor in Russia’s decision, if Ahmadinejad made such a request, would be what the US was doing, and what Moscow estimated our reaction would be.  We may also be reasonably sure that Russian analysis of this factor is undergoing a transformation, with each passing week of President Obama’s tenure in office.

Neither the Israelis nor the Saudis would be unaware of this thrust of Ahmadinejad’s diplomacy in the last couple of years.  It is likely to affect any decision by Israel to attack Iran, or at the very least, to motivate Israel to study Russia’s posture before undertaking this effort.  And of course, the potential for Ahmadinejad to request Russian intervention means Israel and Saudi Arabia are motivated to deter Russia, as well.

The possibly hapless statement by Vice President Biden on 5 July that Israel must, as a sovereign nation, decide for herself what to do about Iran’s nuclear weapons program, does not necessarily clarify who stands where on this regional crisis-in-waiting.  As an apparent contradiction to Obama’s previous warning to Israel not to take any unilateral action, Biden’s thrice-repeated formula might be seen as confusing.

If there was behind-the-scenes coordination among the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, the Biden statement could be read as part of a unified approach to influencing the resolution of Iran’s internal regime battle.  It is not clear, however, why the US diplomatic method of conveying this message would be so indirect as to appear coy.  The indirection, if that’s what it is, is less likely to be productive, in terms of influencing Iran, than a more direct approach – one in which we communicated an unmistakable position, and demonstrated both unity (even if on separate axes) with Israel and Saudi Arabia, and leadership of the problem.

As it is, the absence of US leadership is clearly being felt.  The initial consequence, of Saudi Arabia and Israel leaking information on a common objective and tacit agreement on means, may not seem to Westerners like a bad thing.  Indeed, many would look at this first-order consequence and suggest that Obama’s passivity is inducing historic new partnerships in the Middle East.  This superficial take will turn out, unfortunately, to be tragically mistaken.  It will not be good for anyone, for America to retire from leadership and allow herself to be marginalized in the region.  A Middle East in which our erstwhile clients have to turn to each other, and eventually to other outside patrons, will degenerate more quickly than we can imagine into a dangerous place – one we will have to fight our way through, if we seek to stay there for commerce and diplomacy, and whose instability will ripple outward across Asia, Europe, and Africa.

Perhaps, if we are greatly blessed, the IO gambit of Israel and Saudi Arabia will work, and Iran’s Guardian Council will choose, at this critical watershed in Iran’s history, to marginalize and suppress Ahmadinejad.  And perhaps it will succeed.  We can hope so.  We would be acting more like a world power if we were endeavoring to make it so, rather than merely affirming, with a bizarrely passive neutrality, that all the sovereign nations are at liberty to make whatever decisions they deem necessary.


  1. Your analysis is being stressed by your position about the irresolution and ineptitude of the Obama administration, in my less than estimable opinion.

  2. Not much to work with there, fuster. Do you have a substantive criticism of the analysis to advance?

  3. I wasn’t aiming to make you defend the analysis as much as suggesting that you start questioning the assumptions through which you filter events.

    I would also like you to consider that our objective in dealing with the Iranians is nothing more or other than frustrating their efforts at obtaining nuclear weapons.
    Toppling their front man is not of primary import.

  4. I think it’s more important for you to question YOUR assumptions, fuster.

    There. Now that we’ve had a substantive exchange of views on the issues, I can move on to pointing out that Iran has a historic opportunity at this moment to change the character, and not just the “front man,” of her system of government. That potential change in character could change the entire situation, including the concern of other nations about Iran’s nuclear programs.

    There is no one who actually wants to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. A change of government that could obviate the need to fear weaponization would be the best of all possible outcomes. We need not misread Moussavi’s brand of “moderation” to recognize that if he took the aspirations of the Green Movement reformists seriously, he would be a very different quantity from Ahmadinejad.

    It is obvious at this point, especially after the Qom clerics’ declaration, that there is a rift that matters among Iran’s governing elites. The superficial analysis from 3 weeks ago, that Moussavi would just be Ahmadinejad with different letters in his name, is increasingly being proven invalid. If anyone other than Ahmadinejad ends up in power at the end of this drama, the developments to date make it ever clearer that that leader will represent a genuine break with the past.

    We should absolutely want that outcome — for the Iranian people, for ourselves and our allies in the region — rather than Ahmadinejad coming out on top. That result would guarantee a showdown on nuclear weaponization.

  5. Thanks, it’s a suggestion that I welcome, as you might surmise by my readership here.

    One point that I would make that it there is a fair likelihood of coordination between the Israelis, our government and the Saudis.
    I would think it to be not all that indirect and far from coy.
    I might guess that a further message to Iran is being passed through the Russians.

    While it would be lovely if the Iranian government was transformed immediately, that seems unlikely.
    Less likely still is the idea that the government will be swiftly transformed in response to overt pressure from outside, short of war. The Iranian people are going to have to continue to struggle against the repression before it will lift. That’s for them to achieve.
    Our goal is containment.

    (Have you heard anything about the Turkish helicopter purchase?)

  6. We clearly see this in different terms, fuster. Whether there was multilateral coordination of a US-Saudi-Israeli position or not, it is still not directly informative about the US posture for Biden to reiterate a formulaic truism about Israel, as a sovereign nation, making her own decisions.

    From that statement, the US posture must be deduced. The fact that there has been so much speculation in all quarters about what it means should clarify that it did not convey a clear meaning.

    If you think the Russians would be passing messages from us to the Iranians at this point, in the sense of being an honest broker of such messages, it’s obvious to me that we do see things differently. You won’t be surprised to learn that I think you are wrong.

    The comments on it being a lengthy process for the Iranians to change their government have meaning only in particular contexts. Iranians could actually change their government enough for the urgency of the nuclear weapons problem to recede, on a shorter timeline than you seem to suppose. That other aspects of a transformation in governance might take them longer doesn’t mean that all prospects for regime-change there are too far in the future to matter.

    I do appreciate you advancing substantive comments for discussion, even though the differences in our perspectives make it unlikely that we will come to an agreement. Refresh me on the Turkish helicopters?

  7. You were saying that the Obama administration, as part of their retreat from ME hegemony, was denying the Turks the purchase of some (navy?) copters and that the Turks were looking to Russia for the supply.

    I’m sure that we will disagree on many things, but don’t think that you can’t learn, opticon. Stay optimistic and believe in yourself.

  8. My apologies for not getting back sooner on the Turkish helicopters question. Real life does tend to interrupt blogging.

    I don’t recall saying that Obama is denying Turkey helicopters as part of the retreat from ME hegemony — but rather saying that being dilatory or foot-dragging on weapon sales to long-time allies can be seen as the harbinger of a retreat from hegemony. I believe I linked to a piece by a regional observer, which had the implication that Turkey’s percolation over US helos versus the Russian Mi-28 signalled a shift in regional associations and influence.

    At any rate, the situation has not been clarified since then (the piece was posted 17 June). There were reports in June that Turkey was planning to buy the Russian helos, and also that the Defense Minister was visiting the US hoping to buy the AH-1 Cobras. Neither sale has been officially announced.

    Turkey has just (this week) agreed to send more troops to Afghanistan, so we may see the Cobras sprung loose.

    Russia is courting Turkey hard in the last 10 days, offering Ankara a stake in the “South Stream” pipeline that is intended to rival the EU-backed Nabucco pipeline, which in its turn is intended to break Russia’s near-monopoly on natural gas to Europe. Big stakes there, and reportedly Russia reiterated her offer to build Turkey 4 nuclear power plants, and consider selling her the newest Russian air defense system.

    The rumor is that Turkey is throwing her weight behind the EU, by joining the Nabucco pipeline consortium. No coincidence that the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has simultaneously underwritten the first-ever loan to Turkey denominated in Turkish lira (a major cost concession to Turkey).

    Still not clear, with all the candy and flowers being flown daily to Ankara, how the helo sale will shake out. A fresh Cobra sale to Turkey would still have to clear the US Senate, where there will be pressure from Kurds and Armenians to block it. Understandable pressure, I might add.

  9. Thanks (and esteem)for the effort and the additional thoughts and info about Turkey.

    OT- I hope that you’ll consider joining with MacLeod in considering taking the contention comments off-Broadway.

  10. Fuster…Can I go, too.

    Steven from Indiana

  11. Hello, Steven.
    I suggest that you contact Macleod or address opticon here. I’m, at best, peripheral.

  12. The Turks are back for another basketful of Cobras.
    Will this third (?) time prove charmed?
    Global Terrorism Analysis says they alsow want Reapers.

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