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Analysis: Iran to take wait-and-see approach

For now, Iran can be expected to adopt a waitand- see approach without significant reaction to US President Donald Trump’s decertification of the 2015 nuclear agreement and his speech outlining an aggressive new posture against the regime in Tehran.

“At this stage, the Iranians have no interest in initiating anything by themselves,” said Yoel Guzansky, an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies. “They have an interest in showing that the Americans are the ones causing the problems, that the US is moving away from the agreement and that they are the well-behaved children fulfilling it.”

Raz Zimmt, also an analyst at INSS, said: “The Iranians know that what is important is what actually happens, not the speech itself. They will be watching what happens in the US regarding the agreement. We are just at the beginning of the process. It can end with the withdrawal of the US from the agreement or, more likely, without something substantial. In that case, the Iranians don’t have to do anything because they have the Europeans on their side.”

Neither scholar believes Iran will agree to reopen the agreement itself.

“In the atmosphere that has been created, there is no chance [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani can do such a thing and there is no reason he will do it because no one besides the Americans is demanding it.”

However, with sufficient pressure on Tehran, Guzansky said it might be possible “to reach side agreements with Iran possibly on missiles and regional topics.”

For this, he said, “you would need to unite the international community around you and Trump has not done this.”

Zimmt, however, ruled out Iran being amenable to such side agreements.

In fact, he said, on the issue of missiles, Trump’s posture will likely drive the Iranians to be even more determined than before to pursue their ballistic missile program, which Trump declared is “so totally important” to stop.

“It’s not just that they won’t give up on it, it’s that the current circumstances are of escalation,” said Zimmt. “From the Iranians’ viewpoint, this requires them to strengthen their missile program, which they view as a factor deterring American aggression. The moment the American military threat increases, it’s not a time they would be ready to stop.

In some instances they may try to lower the profile, but with the threat increasing from their standpoint, I don’t see them taking their foot off the gas pedal.”

Zimmt is also not sanguine about a major change in Iran’s regional strategy of expanding its influence resulting from Trump’s posture. His assumption is that the US does not want to take steps that would amount to a declaration of war on Iran.

“That leaves us with economic and pinpoint means that don’t have the ability to significantly alter Iran’s policy.

It won’t change the Iranian worldview.

I don’t see an overall change in behavior although there could be some degree of limiting,” he said.

“What is viewed by us rightfully as Iranian provocations are, in their view, vital interests: their missile program; their involvement in Syria; the help to Hezbollah, they don’t see this as aggression or something illegitimate so there is no reason they would give up on it,” he continued.

Zimmt noted that two months ago there were reports Rouhani was interested in weakening the influence of the Revolutionary Guards, but now with Trump targeting them for further sanctions and putting them at the center of his denunciation of the Iranian regime, this has become impossible.

“Rouhani now has to stand behind the guards whether he likes it or not,” he said.

Zimmt indicated that Trump’s speech contained positive elements such as his declaration that Iran would never be allowed to attain nuclear weapons, but he stressed that “the path the Americans are going on is wrong. They shouldn’t think even for a moment of leaving the agreement. The main effort should be to invest in the next stage, to the time when the restrictions are going to be lifted. For this stage, the US needs understanding with its partners in the world. Taking unilateral action leads to American isolation and endangers the ability to reach an international consensus, which is crucial to the next stages.”

Guzansky said it was too early to pass judgment on Trump’s policy: “There are positive things in what he is doing and there is also danger and brinkmanship. We’ll have to wait and see.”

Article source: http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Iran-News/Analysis-Iran-to-take-wait-and-see-approach-507422

Erbil tells Peshmerga to be ready to defend Kurdistan against Baghdad

The Peshmerga General Command released a statement on Friday, urging its forces to be ready to defend Kurdistan against the central government.

“Last night, the forces of Hashd al-Shaabi [Popular Mobilization Units] and some Iraqi forces started moving and getting ready to attack the places under the control of Peshmerga around Kirkuk,” the statement read.

On Friday night, there was gunfire in Tuz Khurmatu, south of Kirkuk, with reports of several killed and wounded.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters it was essential “we keep any potential for conflict off the table.” US advisers and special forces soldiers serve with both the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi security forces.

The tensions come more than two weeks after Iraq’s Kurds held an independence referendum. Since then, the Iraqi government has signaled to the Kurds that it will not accept any kind of secession, by threatening to close the borders between the autonomous region and Iran and Turkey, and shutting down the two international airports in the region.

On Wednesday, the Kurdistan Region Security Council tweeted that Iraqi forces, including the Shia militias called Popular Mobilization Units and the Federal Police, were “preparing a major attack in South/West Kirkuk and North Mosul on Kurdistan.”

Overnight, one road linking Mosul and the Kurdish region was temporarily blocked amid fears of conflict. The area around Kirkuk is particularly sensitive because Baghdad claims Kirkuk should not be part of the Kurdish autonomous region. Kirkuk is one of the largest oil producing areas in Iraq, and as such the conflict is not only ethnic and sectarian, but also a strategic one for Baghdad.

Peshmerga fighters have been defending Kirkuk and the areas around it from Islamic State for three years.

As ISIS was defeated south of Kirkuk in 2016, Kurdish forces in areas around the province, such as at Tuz Khurmatu, came face-to-face with the Iranian- backed Shia militias that have been assisting Baghdad against ISIS. Clashes between Kurds and Shia Turkmen killed dozens. Since then, many of the Shia militias have become officially part of the Iraqi security forces, making any combat more than just a local issue.

On October 4, Iraqi forces, including the Popular Mobilization Units, drove ISIS from Hawija, one of the Sunni jihadists’ last strongholds in Iraq. Kurdish fighters that hold positions overlooking Hawija watched as the Iraqis cleared out ISIS. Many ISIS gunmen fled and surrendered to the Kurds, fearing reprisals from militias.

This has created a combustible situation, with Baghdad threatening Kurdistan and condemning it for the referendum; there are large numbers of armed fighters from numerous groups and units west and south of Kirkuk. The Peshmerga have sent thousands of men to bolster the area around Kirkuk. Video showed armored vehicles and tanks with Shia flags driving through villages close to Peshmerga positions.

After the Kurdistan Region Security Council claimed there was a “significant Iraqi military and PMU [Popular Mobilization Units] buildup” south of Kirkuk, US Army Maj.-Gen. Pat White, commander of the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command, tweeted on Thursday that he had “zero proof that any senior Iraqi government has sent threatening messages to Kurds.”

The “plan all along has been to mass Iraqi security forces close to the Pesh [Peshmerga] and PUK [another unit of Peshmerga]; to close the distance and deny Daesh [ISIS] freedom of maneuver,” White added in a press conference.

“PUK” refers to Peshmerga forces aligned with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the largest political parties in the Kurdish region that dominates parts of the Kirkuk area. The increase in Iraqi forces near the Kurdish region was therefore a natural outcome of the Hawija battle, in the US-led coalition’s view.

Despite the conflicting statements, the Kurds continued to warn that Iraqi tanks, Humvees and mortars were being moved close to oil fields and an air base between Taza and Tuz Khurmatu. The BBC’s Orla Guerin filmed masses of Iraqi forces on the road to Kirkuk who told her, “God willing, we are going to Kirkuk, we will crush them [Kurdish forces], the city belongs to Iraqis.”

On Friday the Peshmerga, including local political leaders from the PUK, urged Baghdad and Erbil to solve the crises through negotiation.

At the same time, Kurdish forces around Taza and the village of Bashir quietly withdrew from several positions to what they said were better prepared defensive lines.

Photos showed them in new positions next to a bridge at the Makhtab Khalid checkpoint, only 10 kilometers from Kirkuk.

Photos and video circulating on social media showed Shia militias walking around the former Kurdish positions.

They wrote graffiti on Kurdish flags, and one soldier from Iraq’s Emergency Response Division was photographed in an office next to a banner depicting the late Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani. A sign indicating the area had been a headquarters for the “5th Battalion” of a Peshmerga unit was shown knocked on the ground.

In Tuz Khurmatu the local PUK office came under gunfire and reports said 70 Kurdish families were expelled by the Shia militias. This will stoke anger in the Kurdish region and demand a response.

For the US-led coalition, any fighting between its partners in Erbil and Baghdad would be a huge crisis.

This comes as Washington seeks to pressure Iran over the 2015 nuclear deal and the activities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

The IRGC and its commanders such as Qasem Soleimani, play an influential role in Iraq.

The US-led coalition wants to concentrate on destroying ISIS in western Iraq’s Anbar province, the terrorists’ last stronghold. “ISIS is on its heels,” tweeted White on Thursday. He pointed out that “we continue with training the Peshmerga to better enable the Iraqi security forces to defeat Daesh.”

Article source: http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Erbil-tells-Peshmerga-to-be-ready-to-defend-Kurdistan-against-Baghdad-507412

Salman’s state visit to Moscow: Has America been caught napping again?

King Salman bin Abdulaziz arrived in Moscow on October 5 for an official visit, the first ever for a Saudi monarch. It had not been an easy decision but Washington’s puzzling lack of action had left him no choice.

It was time to start talking to Russia, now fast becoming a decisive player in the Middle East in the political and military arena to the extent that it would have to be part of any solution. Prominent on the king’s agenda was the need to convince his hosts of the danger Iran constituted for all the countries of the region, including the Gulf states.

He was very clear on that point during his conversation with President Putin. Also on the agenda – reaching a better coordination on determining oil prices in response to sudden political or economic changes as were seen in recent years. Furthermore, establishing economic ties with Russia is part of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman plan (Saudi Vision 2030) to diversify his country’s economy and lessen its dependence on oil. For President Putin, solidly entrenched in Syria while developing his political, military and economic cooperation with Egypt, which is toeing the Russian line regarding Syria and helped him extend his influence in Libya, Salman’s surprise visit was just icing on the cake.

Saudi Arabia is the leader of the Sunni world and the keeper of the two holiest sites of Islam. The Soviet Union had been driven away from the Middle East following the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, the growing disenchantment of most Arab states, and finally its own disintegration, but now Russia is back in force.

This is a challenge for Riyadh, which has depended on US support for 72 years – since Ibn Saud’s legendary meeting with president Roosevelt in February 22, 1945, on board the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal. The American president was on his way back home from the Yalta summit.

America pledged to support Saudi Arabia militarily and politically in return for a steady oil supply and embracing its policy on the region.

Diplomatic relations established in 1926 between the Soviet Union and Ibn Saud, then king of Hejaz, were severed in 1938.

The Saudis were afraid of the spread of communism and did not approve of the secular nature of the Soviet Union which furthermore oppressed its Muslim populations.

The two countries often found themselves on opposite sides. While America fought to defeat Soviet intervention in Afghanistan starting in 1980, Saudi Arabia helped by providing massive financial aid to the anti-Russian insurgents.

The Afghan fiasco contributed to the disintegration of the Soviet Union; however Saudi “assistance” included promoting Wahhabism and its extreme form of Islam in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, leading ultimately to the emergence of the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Moscow and Riyadh reestablished diplomatic relations in 1991. By 2011 they were again on collision course, this time about Syria. While the kingdom was helping Sunni Islamic militias fighting the regime, Russia tried to bring about a deal which would leave Bashar Assad in place.

When president Obama failed to act after one redline after the other – such as the use of chemical weapons – was crossed, Putin felt free to intervene openly. Russia and Syria signed a military assistance agreement that ensured the survival of Assad’s regime – and let Moscow establish a naval basis in Tartous and an air force base north of Latakia in the Alawi canton. Russia now had achieved its longtime ambition of having a permanent foothold on the Mediterranean.

But there was a price: Russia agreed to cooperate with Iran, which had come to Assad’s rescue from the beginning. In October 2012 Tehran ordered Hezbollah militiamen to fight the rebels; later it established the so-called popular Shia militias aiding the Syrian regular army. Russia found itself helping these motley forces by launching air attacks from its Syrian bases and firing missiles from its naval vessels in the Black Sea and in the Mediterranean. Its airplanes could also take off from Iranian bases for their bombing missions.

None of this could have happened without the gradual disengagement of America from the Middle East during the Obama years. Russia and Iran hastened to fill the vacuum, each for its own ends.

Tehran sees in Assad’s survival the continuation of its penetration of the country, the reinforcement of its Hezbollah ally and a direct threat to Israel. Russia needs Assad to maintain its foothold on the Mediterranean. Can their cooperation, based on a common interest, last? Israel has warned the Russians that it will not let Iran establish a military presence near its border on the Golan and that it will act if it feels threatened. Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, has said that his country has to take Israeli interests into account. Washington is yet to say anything on the subject, though it is expected that its relations with Tehran will deteriorate because of Donald Trump’s position on the 2015 nuclear deal. It is not clear how Russia would react if the US-Iran conflict escalated.

At this point Saudi Arabia concluded that it was time to hedge its bets. It remains close to America and stands by its commitment to buy $110 billion of arms and other military equipment; however, the Sunni coalition against Iran, which was to have been set up after Trump’s trip to Riyadh last May, never got off the ground. Qatar, which has close links to Iran and supports the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and extremist militias in Syria and Libya, would not have been a willing participant, and America, which maintains its largest air force base in the small emirate is not flexing its muscles to make it join. Egypt, while paying lip service to the projected coalition is conflicted because of its growing ties with Russia.

In short, Saudi Arabia felt it had to go it alone and turned to Moscow, which received King Salman with all the pomp and protocol it could muster. No fewer than 15 agreements were signed on issues ranging from security to space, energy, trade and communications. A billion dollar investment fund was set up in Russia. Riyadh undertook to buy the Russian S-400 anti-missile system, Kornet antitank missiles, missile launchers and Kalashnikov assault rifles – with the proviso that they could be manufactured in Saudi Arabia.

At the same time, Washington authorized the sale of its THAAD missile defense system to the kingdom, perhaps as a last-ditch effort to prevent its ally from acquiring the Russian system, which would entail close military and technological communications between Russian and Saudi forces.

None of the aforementioned agreements is final. Rather they are mere declarations of intent; their implementation may well depend on Russia’s answers to Riyadh on the Iranian threat.

The civil war in Syria is still raging. Though Islamic State is virtually extinct, the threat of an independent Kurdistan can still fan the flames; Turkey is poised to intervene. In the words of an Egyptian commentator, when the (American) eagle flies away, the (Russian) bear lumbers in. Will Washington wake up at last and take a more proactive role in the region?

The writer, a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.

Article source: http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Salmans-state-visit-to-Moscow-Has-America-been-caught-napping-again-507411

Iran expert: Tehran has ‘zero motivation’ to renegotiate nuke deal

There is zero chance that Iran will agree to renegotiate its nuclear deal with the West, an Iran expert told The Jerusalem Post Friday responding to US President Donald Trump’s decertification of the deal.

Iran-Israel Observer Editor and IDC Herzliya Iran expert Meir Javedanfar said that, despite decertification, Trump has no leverage over Iran since he lacks global support for “snapping back” any serious sanctions.

For Iran, he said “there is no need for them to renegotiate and there is nothing America can do to force them…America will not be able to impose…sanctions again because America will be isolated and the Europeans will not support” reimposing sanctions.

“As long as those sanctions will not be reimposed with European backing, Iran will have zero motivation to want to renegotiate anything,” he said.

To date, among the countries signing the Iran deal, only Trump has argued that Iran has violated the spirit of the agreement with its missile testing and military adventures in the Middle East — with France, Germany, England, Russia, China and the IAEA all saying Iran is in compliance.

Iran was compelled to make concessions as part of the deal not merely by the sanctions on its oil sector, but by the SWIFT banking sanctions that isolated its central bank from the world banking system, Javedanfar said. These sanctions that really hurt Iran are not on the table without EU support, he said.

But Trump’s lack of leverage by decertifying the deal does not mean the US and its allies could not work together in the future to pressure Iran on issues related to its nuclear program that were not part of the deal.

“Missile testing is different. There could be some negotiations about missile testing, but again that is not going to be part of decertification – what Trump is doing…for now Iran is not going to negotiate on those either, but you have to wait and see if the financial sanctions can be reimposed against Iran with the help of the Europeans,” he said.

Still, he stated the EU working with Trump to press Iran about its ballistic missile testing “is unlikely because Trump is now distancing the Europeans. He is pushing them away with the decertification…The chances of renegotiation over Iran’s missiles are now less than before. Trump is weakening the coalition against Iran with his move.”

Other fallout issue on the Iranian side of decertification, he said, was that Trump was strengthening “hardliners in Iran. It will weaken the moderates. We already see this in process,” noting that a member of Iran’s nuclear deal negotiating team has been accused by Iran’s hardline elements of spying for the West.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps has also accused other negotiators of spying, he said.

“All of this is to isolate [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani and to punish him for the JCPOA [nuclear deal]…We are going to see the hardliners isolating the moderates even more and the moderates will have to fall in line much more with the hardliners…Rouhani who criticized the IRGC before is already complimenting them,” he said.

Iran may also just wait and see what Congress decides to do over the next 60 days, in which it can either try to reimpose US sanctions on Iran (even without allied support), take a pass or leave the issue open indefinitely.

In a rare interview, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told Politico on October 2 that if Trump tried to unravel the deal, Iran would consider everything from “walking away from the deal to somehow accommodating Europe.”

Zarif also said that Iran was more focused on Congress than Trump saying, “It’s up to Congress to adopt any decision, or not to adopt any decision, and I believe in the past a Republican Congress had this idea to let the nuclear agreement stay, as did our Parliament…It had decided in the past not to take action; it can decide again.”

Article source: http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Iran-expert-Tehran-has-zero-motivation-to-renegotiate-nuke-deal-507364

Eighty-five percent of Raqqa liberated from ISIS

Islamic State’s Syrian capital of Raqqa has been largely conquered by the Syrian Democratic Forces supported by the US-led coalition. Around 100 ISIS fighters surrendered on Saturday, and 1,500 civilians have fled unharmed in the last week, coalition spokesman US Army Col. Ryan Dillon said.

The battle for Raqqa began in early June and has dragged on for more than four months. By late June ISIS was surrounded in the city, its forces occupying about 3 square kilometers. By mid-September it had been pushed back to a small pocket in the center and north of the city.

Nevertheless the SDF, which is composed of forces including the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), continued to face a difficult enemy.

On August 28, Abnan Abu Amjad, a well-known commander of the SDF’s Manbij Military Council, was killed fighting in the city. ISIS counterattacks also inflicted casualties. On October 4, Jac Holmes, a British volunteer serving with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), estimated it could still take up to two months to take the city, when he held a live Facebook session to answer questions about the battle.

Dillon told Reuters on Saturday that “we still expect difficult fighting in the days ahead.”

Since October 5, the coalition has carried out almost 150 air strikes in and around Raqqa, according to its daily press releases. Most strikes in recent days targeted ISIS “fighting positions,” but the coalition does not specify precisely where. The congested space in the jihadist-held part of the city, about a kilometer square, make air strikes difficult. What gives hope to the coalition and SDF is the surrender of 100 ISIS fighters in the last days.

There is no agreement for the exit of ISIS from the city, Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a Kurdish affairs analyst in Syria, wrote on Twitter that SDF commander Rojda Felat told him on Thursday.

However, the SDF and coalition have been attempting to let civilians flee. “Daesh [ISIS] is on the verge of being finished. Today or tomorrow the city may be liberated,” Nouri Mahmoud, a spokesman for the YPG, told Reuters on Saturday.

When Raqqa falls it will be largely symbolic, because there are not thought to be major ISIS leaders in the city which once served as the capital of the black flag-waving extremists. However, the long battle has been a major but costly victory for the SDF and is part of the successful policy the US has hit upon of leveraging local forces to defeat ISIS.

The battle for Raqqa has been eclipsed now by the race for the Iraqi border taking place 160 km. down the Euphrates River, as the SDF and the Assad regime seek to fill the space left by ISIS retreating. In the long run the issue of who gets to the Iraqi border and whether the US chooses to challenge Iranian influence and stick with its local allies, will be more important than the fall of Raqqa.

Article source: http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/ISIS-Threat/Eighty-five-percent-of-Raqqa-liberated-from-ISIS-507392

Islamic State ‘on the verge’ of Raqqa defeat

BEIRUT – Islamic State is on the verge of defeat in Syria’s Raqqa and the city may finally be cleared of the jihadists on Saturday or Sunday, the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia said on Saturday.

“The battles are continuing in Raqqa city. Daesh (Islamic State) is on the verge of being finished. Today or tomorrow the city may be liberated,” YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud told Reuters by telephone.

The YPG dominates the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Arab and Kurdish militias that has been battling since June to defeat Islamic State at Raqqa, which served as the jihadist group’s de facto capital in Syria.

An activist group that reports on Raqqa, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, said on its Facebook page on Saturday that dozens of buses had entered Raqqa city overnight, having traveled from the northern Raqqa countryside.

The Britain-based Observatory said Syrian Islamic State fighters and their families had already left the city, and buses had arrived to evacuate remaining foreign fighters and their families. It did not say where they would be taken to.

The Observatory said the evacuation was taking place according to a deal reached between the SDF and the US-led coalition on the one hand, and Islamic State on the other.

The US-led coalition and SDF officials could not immediately be reached for comment on the Observatory report.

During the more than six-year Syrian war, the arrival of buses in a conflict zone has often signaled an evacuation of combatants and civilians.

In August, Islamic State fighters agreed to be evacuated from a Lebanon-Syria border area, the first time the militants had publicly agreed to a forced evacuation from territory they held in Syria.

Civilians have been making perilous journeys to escape Islamic State-held areas as SDF forces advance. The SDF says it helps transport them away from the fighting after they flee.

The offensive to drive Islamic State out of Raqqa, its de facto Syrian capital which it seized in 2014, has long outlasted initial predictions by SDF officials who said ahead of a final assault in June that it could take just weeks.

The US-led coalition could not immediately be reached for comment.

Article source: http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Islamic-State-on-the-verge-of-Raqqa-defeat-507375

What does the IDF really think about decertifying the Iran deal?

In February 1979, then-US defense secretary Harold Brown visited Israel and met with the country’s top leadership: prime minister Menachem Begin and defense minister Ezer Weizman.

It was just over a month after the shah had been deposed from Iran and the Islamic Revolution was moving full-steam ahead. Like today, the Middle East was changing before the world’s eyes, and Brown had come to try to get Israel and Egypt to finalize their peace treaty. He was also holding arms talks with Saudi Arabia.

During his meeting with Weizman, Brown made Israel an offer it couldn’t refuse. While the Israel Air Force had already ordered a few dozen F-16s, the first planes weren’t supposed to arrive until 1981.

Iran, it turned out, had also ordered a batch of the fourth-generation multi-role combat aircraft, and America now had to decide what to do with the planes that would soon be coming off the assembly line. Brown offered them to Israel.

Weizman asked for some time to consider the proposal.

He called IAF commander Maj.-Gen. David Ivry to ask what he thought. “Grab them,” Ivry said, while thinking in the back of his mind that the planes could potentially be used for a secret operation he had been tasked with preparing – the bombing of Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear reactor outside of Baghdad.

The first four F-16s – two single-seat A models and two tandem-seat B models – arrived at Ramat David Air Force Base in northern Israel in the summer of 1980. A year later they made history, when they flew to Iraq and destroyed its nuclear reactor.

Earlier this year, after nearly four decades of nonstop operations, those planes were retired from service.

Part of the reason the IAF decided to decommission them was because of their advanced age, but also due to the changing Middle East.

While the retirement of the F-16A reduces Israel’s overall number of fighter jets, it is temporary. The IAF has ordered a similar amount of F-35 stealth fighter jets, five of which have already arrived. The rest are to come within the next couple of years.

However, there was another factor that played into the IAF’s consideration: the ever-changing Middle East. While the regional upheaval presents Israel with a host of challenges and threats, the Jewish state also finds itself today the strongest it has ever been in its almost 70 years of independence.

With the Syrian military completely disintegrated and peace with Egypt and Jordan still strong, there is no current conventional military threat against the State of Israel.

What this means in practical terms is that not one of Israel’s enemies can invade the country and conquer territory. This is a dramatic change for Israel, which until just a few years ago still trained its forces for a possible conventional war with Syria.

This does not mean that the coast is clear. Far from it. Hezbollah has more than 130,000 rockets and missiles capable of striking anywhere inside Israel with unprecedented precision and devastation.

Hamas has about 30,000 rockets of its own and somewhere, someone is planning a 9/11-scale attack against Israel.

But while these groups can destroy infrastructure and kill civilians, they cannot conquer, and hold onto for an extended period of time, a single kibbutz along the northern or southern border. For all their rockets and tunnels, they do not pose an existential threat to the State of Israel.

This is important to keep in mind as we consider US President Donald Trump’s reported decision to decertify the nuclear deal with Iran. While the deal was bad to begin with – mostly because at the end of 10 years Iran will have zero breakout time to obtain a bomb – it also provides the IDF with a sense of temporary quiet.

This is a sharp break from 2010 to 2013, when the IDF was hard at work preparing and sustaining a long-range strike capability against Iran’s nuclear facilities. This not only ate up budgets, manpower and other resources, but was also a constant diversion of the General Staff’s attention.

Every decision the IDF made at the time needed to be considered through the prism of an attack on Iran, which everyone assumed would spark a war with Hezbollah and possibly Syria as well. This impacted training, procurement and just about everything else.

When the P5+1 talks started and later when the deal was reached, parts of the IDF including Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot breathed a sigh of relief. While Iran is still an extreme and destabilizing force in the region – mostly for its role in Syria and support of Hezbollah – the threat of imminent war was postponed.

This does not mean that Eisenkot or his generals do not support exerting more pressure on Iran. They do, and for that reason Israel is behind Trump’s decision to decertify the deal and potentially use the move to impose new sanctions against Tehran for its support of terrorist groups and continued development of ballistic missiles.

Israel is mostly fine with decertification, since on its own, this doesn’t immediately impact the deal itself. While certification wasn’t mandated by the agreement, it was ordered by Congress, which passed a law requiring the president to decide every three months whether Iran is abiding by the deal and whether that deal remains a national security interest for America.

This means that, even if the deal is decertified, it doesn’t fall apart and Israel still has the breathing room to focus on other important military and diplomatic challenges. There are also five other countries which were partners to the deal that announced they would stick to it regardless of what Trump decides. This means that, even if the US snaps back sanctions, they will not have the same effect they had in the past when Europe and Asia were on board.

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed that, if America decertifies and imposes sanctions, the rest of the world would follow, this is not necessarily the case. Trump has shown a severe handicap in his ability to muster domestic support for his legislative agenda, let alone international support for a move most of his allies diametrically oppose.

Trump’s challenge is living up to his campaign promise to overturn what he called “the worst deal ever” and an “embarrassment.” Decertification would allow him to show his supporters that he follows through on campaign promises. From a narrow political perspective, what happens next might be less important.

For Israel, however, it is. Concerned with Iran’s growing presence in Syria and continued supply of advanced missiles to Hezbollah, Israel would like to see more action taken to restrain Iran. This could be in the form of economic sanctions, as well as the designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. In other words, anything that would put pressure on Iran and get it to potentially reconsider its own course of action.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that Israel wants the nuclear deal overturned. It wants it improved, sharpened and made more effective. It would like to see it revised, for example, to have the “sunset clause” – under which some restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program expire from 2025 – canceled.

But Israel also benefits from the existing deal. It gives Israel quiet and lets the IDF focus on other challenges while distributing its budget more rationally.

This sentiment is shared by the Pentagon. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said last week that he believes the US should stick with the deal as long as Iran meets its conditions. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford took a similar position, telling the Senate that the deal had “delayed the development of a nuclear capability by Iran.”

In their next phone call, Trump should ask Netanyahu what happened in 2012 when he failed to get the security cabinet to approve a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. The move, at the time, was thwarted by the heads of the IDF, Mossad and the Shin Bet, who fiercely opposed unilateral Israeli action.

It was a lesson in the limits of power, something Trump is experiencing right now: If your defense chiefs oppose military action, it is going to be hard pushing it through.

Article source: http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Editors-notes-Decertifying-a-bad-but-quiet-deal-507289

Advocates for Americans held in Iran worried by Trump’s hard line

WASHINGTON – Advocates for Americans imprisoned by Iranian authorities said on Friday they were concerned the Trump administration’s hard line on Iran would close off the chance for talks to secure the prisoners’ release.

In a major shift in US policy, President Donald Trump announced he would not certify that Iran is complying with a 2015 nuclear deal and warned that he might ultimately terminate the agreement.

The administration also designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the dominant player in the country’s security, economy and politics, as a terrorist group, a move one expert said would make the group less willing to negotiate over the prisoners.

Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter who was detained by Iran for 18 months, said on Twitter that Trump’s Iran strategy “will only hurt American hostages being held in Iran.”

“I hope I’m wrong, but it looks to me as though Americans being held hostage in #Iran were just abandoned by @realDonaldTrump,” Rezaian wrote, using Trump’s Twitter handle.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment. A State Department official said the United States calls for the “immediate release” of US citizens held “unjustly” in Iran.

The seven known American citizens and permanent residents who have been detained in the last two years in Iran are businessman Siamak Namazi and his 81-year-old father Baquer Namazi; Princeton doctoral student Xiyue Wang; art gallery owner Karan Vafadari and his wife Afarin Niasari; Robin Reza Shahini, an Iranian-American from California; and Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese national with US permanent residency.

“My biggest frustration is still the US government has no plan for how to resolve this, and my husband has been in prison for 15 months,” Wang’s wife, Hua Qu, told Reuters.

She said the new US sanctions made her “afraid” for her husband’s fate, because they show “that the relationship is deteriorating.”

Wang was arrested in August 2016 while doing dissertation research and has been sentenced to 10 years in prison on espionage charges, allegations his family and university deny.

“I don’t know when the US government is going to engage Iran,” Qu said. “He is living in this terror everyday. He is in despair.”

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said on a conference call with reporters that designating the IRGC as a terrorist group would “make it far more difficult to have a direct line of communication with them.”

“The IRGC is going to be in much less of a mood to engage in a serious negotiation with the United States after this,” said Sadjadpour, a friend of Namazi.

In January 2016, the Obama administration secured the release of five Americans imprisoned in Iran by agreeing to a much-criticized prisoner swap after protracted direct talks with Iran.

In the months following the swap, the Iranian government arrested several more Americans. The IRGC is typically the entity that has detained and interrogated the Americans, according to their family members and human rights groups.

Jason Poblete, a US-based attorney for Zakka, said the sanctions could be helpful “if it gets these parties talking to each other.”

He criticized the Obama administration’s approach to Iran as not being focused enough on “the unconditional release of hostages.”

“Anything that moves us to speaking clearly with one another, which is what the president’s doing, is much better than all this flimsy talk that had been taking place until now,” Poblete said.

Article source: http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Advocates-for-Americans-held-in-Iran-worried-by-Trumps-hard-line-507365

Tensions flare between Kurds and Baghdad

Over the last 48 hours, tensions and rumors of conflict have risen between Baghdad’s central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s autonomous region.

This comes more than two weeks after Iraq’s Kurds held an independence referendum. Since then, the Iraqi government has signaled to the Kurds that it wouldn’t accept any kind of secession, by threatening to close the border and shutting down two international airports in the Kurdish region.

On October 11, the Kurdistan Region Security Council tweeted that Iraqi forces, including the Shia militias called Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and Federal Police, were “preparing a major attack in South/West Kirkuk and North Mosul on Kurdistan.” Overnight, one road linking Mosul and the Kurdish region was temporarily blocked amid fears of conflict. The area around Kirkuk is particularly sensitive because Baghdad claims Kirkuk should not be part of the Kurdish autonomous region.

But Peshmerga forces have been defending Kirkuk and the areas around it from the Islamic State for three years. As IS was defeated in Kirkuk in 2016, Kurdish forces in areas around the area, such as at Tuz Khurmatu, came face-to-face with the Iranian-backed Shia militias that have been assisting Baghdad against IS. Clashes between Kurds and Shia Turkmen killed dozens. Since then, many of the Shia militias have become officially part of the Iraqi security forces, making any clashes more than just a local issue.

On October 4, Iraqi forces, including the PMU, drove ISIS from Hawija, one of its last strongholds in Iraq. Kurdish forces who hold positions overlooking Hawija watched as the Iraqis cleared IS. Many IS fighters fled and surrendered to the Kurds, fearing reprisals from militias. This has created a combustible situation, with Baghdad’s rhetoric threatening Kurdistan and condemning it for the referendum, there are large numbers of armed fighters from numerous groups and units west and south of Kirkuk. The Peshmerga have sent thousands of men to bolster the area around Kirkuk.

After the Kurdistan Region Security Council claimed there was a “significant Iraqi military and PMU build up” south of Kirkuk, US Major General Pat White, commanding general of the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command, tweeted on October 12 that he had “zero proof that any senior Iraqi government has sent threatening messages to Kurds.”

The “plan all along has been to mass Iraqi security forces close to the Pesh [Peshmerga] and PUK [another unit of Peshmerga]; to close the distance and deny Daesh [IS] freedom of maneuver,” he added in a press conference.

“PUK” refers to Peshmerga forces aligned with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the largest political parties in the Kurdish region that dominates parts of the Kirkuk region. The increase in Iraqi forces near the Kurdish region was therefore a natural outcome of the Hawija battle, in the US-led coalition’s view.

Despite the conflicting statements, the Kurds continued to warn that Iraqi tanks, Humvees and mortars were being moved close to oil fields and an air base around Tuz Khurmatu, near a village called Bashir.

Kirkuk is one of the largest oil producing areas in Iraq, and as such the conflict is not only ethnic and sectarian, but also a strategic one for Baghdad.

On October 13, the Peshmerga General Command released a statement urging Peshmerga forces to be ready to defend Kurdistan.

“Last night, the forces of Hashd al-Shaabi (PMU) and some Iraqi forces started moving and getting ready to attack the places under the control of Peshmerga around Kirkuk,” the statement read.

The Peshmerga urged Baghdad to solve the crises through negotiation.

At the same time, Kurdish forces around Tuz Khurmatu quietly withdrew from several positions to what they said were better prepared defensive lines.

On October 13, photos and video circulating on social media showed Shia militias walking around formed Kurdish positions. They graffitied Kurdish flags, and one soldier from Iraq’s Emergency Response Division was photographed in an office next to a banner of the late Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani. A sign indicating the area had been a headquarters for the “5th battalion” of a Peshmerga unit was shown knocked on the ground.

These kinds of images will stoke anger in the Kurdish region and demand a response.

But the fact that no shots have been fired between Kurds and Iraqi units shows the calls for calm from both sides and fears of what a conflict might bring are holding sway for now.

For the US-led coalition, any clashes between its partners in Erbil and Baghdad would be a huge crises. The coalition is seeking to destroy IS in western Iraq’s Anbar province, it’s last stronghold.

“ISIS is on its heels,” tweeted Major General White on October 12. He pointed out that “we continue with training the Peshmerga to better enable the Iraqi Security Forces to Defeat Daesh [IS].”

Article source: http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Tensions-flare-between-Kurds-and-Baghdad-507368

Israel buoyed by Trump tack against Iran deal, but sees a long way to go

Israel was upbeat about US President Donald Trump’s anticipated announcement on Friday of major steps against the international nuclear deal with Iran, but voiced doubt that the tougher tack by Washington could turn around Tehran.

While the White House’s distaste for the 2015 pact may be sweet to the ears of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his government is mindful of the limits of any unilateral US action in the face of dissent from other big power signatories.

Some Israeli officials quietly question whether Washington has the will to follow through, noting what they deem insufficient US efforts to stem the entrenchment in next-door Syria of Iran-allied forces helping Damascus in the civil war.

Trump was expected to say in a 1645 GMT speech that he will not re-certify the nuclear agreement in light of Iran’s ballistic missile projects and involvement in regional trouble-spots. That would give the US Congress 60 days to decide whether to reimpose sanctions on Tehran that were suspended in return for it rolling back technologies with nuclear bomb-making potential.

Netanyahu spokesmen declined to comment on the pending speech. A veteran Israeli cabinet minister from Netanyahu’s Likud party sounded cheered by Trump’s resolve, but appeared to note the depth of partisan rifts around the US administration.

“The outcome that could happen, and this is the only positive outcome we can see at this stage, is that Congress manages to come together around new, significant sanctions,” the minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, told Tel Aviv radio station 102 FM.

“(That) will confront a lot of gigantic international companies which are today streaming to the Iranians … with a dilemma of having to choose between the Iranians and trading with the world’s biggest economy, which is the United States.”

“FIX IT OR NIX IT”

Netanyahu has lobbied hard against the Iran deal, delivering a speech in Congress shortly before it was signed that angered then-US President Barack Obama.

Addressing the UN General Assembly last month, Netanyahu urged world powers that negotiated the deal to “fix it or nix it.” He called specifically for cancelling a core “sunset clause” that removes caps on Iran’s nuclear projects after a number of years.

Netanyahu says US should lead the way in ‘setting clear boundaries’ for Iran

Asked about the sunset clause in the radio interview, Hanegbi gave no indication Israel believed it would be reviewed. He noted the resistance that Trump’s new measures faced from European powers, Russia and Iran, which has threatened to quit the nuclear deal if the US imposes new sanctions against it.

Iran, Hanegbi assessed, “will not yield at all – period – in other words, not just not within 60 days, but neither within 60 months or 60 years, because they really do not believe that the world will reverse course. They look rather mockingly at the United States.”

But he added, “If the United States reverses course and begins a process of building delegitimation for the agreement, it could be that the world, part of the West, will join it in a process that could take time … There is still a long way to go until the dangers of this deal pass.”

There has been dissent within Israel over the nuclear deal, with several Netanyahu ex-advisers grudgingly coming out in its favor. His former defense minister, Ehud Barak, told the New York Times on Wednesday: “Like many Israelis, I think the Iran deal is a bad deal. But it is a done deal.”

Barak warned that any US withdrawal from the agreement would not be followed by other world powers and could prompt Iran – which denies seeking nuclear weapons – to work on a bomb.

Hanegbi dismissed such predictions as “nonsense.”

“Iran has no interest in withdrawing from the agreement (because that) would immediately unite Russia and China to the United States” against it, he told the radio station. He noted – as have UN nuclear inspectors – that the Iranians “have not budged a hair’s breadth from their commitments under the deal”.

Article source: http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Iran-News/Israel-buoyed-by-Trump-tack-against-Iran-deal-but-sees-a-long-way-to-go-507346