Wednesday, May 12, 2010

With an Assist From Tehran

In case you haven't noticed, the "war of words" in the Middle East has ratcheted up in recent days.

Barely a week ago, Vice Prime Minister and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon assured an audience in Herzliya that Israel has the "know-how" to hit Iran. Ya'alon, a former Chief of Staff for the Israeli Defense Forces, was unusually candid in a speech before the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies. According to Haaretz, the Vice Prime Minister said that Israel is already in a state of conflict with Tehran:

"There is no doubt, looking at the overall situation, that we are already in a military confrontation with Iran," he said. "Iran is the main motivator of those attacking us, with its funding and training of Hezbollah," Ya'alon said.

"There is no doubt that [Israel's] technological capabilities, which improved in recent years, have improved range and aerial refueling capabilities, and have brought about a massive improvement in the accuracy of ordnance and intelligence," he said. "This capability can be used for a war on terror in Gaza, for a war in the face of rockets from Lebanon, for war on the conventional Syrian army, and also for war on a peripheral state like Iran."

Israeli officials have rarely used the term "war" in discussing possible options for dealing with the Iranian nuclear option. And, for good measure, Mr. Ya'alon emphasized that offensive action might be preferable for countering Tehran, rather than defensive measures:

"As far as I'm concerned, offense remains the best form of defense," Ya'alon said, adding that the anti-missile system being developed by the defense establishment "can make things easier for the public, but won't keep Israelis out of shelters in their hour of need. It will, however, significantly reduce the damage caused."

A spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later said that Mr. Ya'alon was talking in "generalities" and was not referring to specific strike plans. But there was little doubt the Vice Prime Minister was delivering a sobering message--aimed specifically at Tehran.

And, Israel's words of warning didn't end there. Just yesterday, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman accused North Korea of supplying Syria with weapons on mass destruction. In a meeting with Japan's Prime Minister, Lieberman said Pyongyang's actions threaten to destabilize regions far beyond its borders:

"The cooperation between Syria and North Korea is not focused on economic development and growth but rather on weapons of mass destruction" Lieberman said.

In evidence he cited the December 2009 seizure at Bangkok airport of an illicit North Korean arms shipment which US intelligence said was bound for an unnamed Middle East country.

Lieberman said Syria intended to pass the weapons on to the Lebanese Hezbollah militia and to the Islamic Hamas movement, which rules Gaza and has its political headquarters in Damascus.

"This cooperation endangers stability in both southeast Asia and also in the Middle East and is against all the accepted norms in the international arena," Lieberman was quoted as telling Hatoyama.

Israeli commandos reportedly captured nuclear materials from a secret Syrian research complex near the Euphrates River in 2007, just before the complex was bombed by the IAF. Despite that raid--and threats from Tel Aviv--Pyongyang and Damascus have continued their relationship. As proof of those ties, Mr. Lieberman cited the 2009 seizure of 30 tons of weapons at the Bangkok, Thailand airport. The weaponry was discovered on board a North Korean jet bound for Damascus.

But no WMD material was found during that seizure, conducted by Thai authorities on a tip from the U.S. Lieberman's comments suggest that American and Israeli intelligence agencies have uncovered new information about more deadly cargoes being shipped from the DPRK to Syria. Those shipments may include additional rockets and missiles (some capable of carrying chemical warheads); precursor agents for chemical agents and materials and technology destined for Damascus's fledgling nuclear program.

There's likely an Iranian connection in those transfers as well. Much of the weaponry and other materials are shipped on IL-76 Candid transports, which are operated by the Syrian, North Korean and Iranian Air Forces. Most IL-76 variants can fly 3600-3900 miles unrefueled, but when you add a 20-30 ton cargo, their range is between 2500-3000 miles. In case you're wondering, it's about 4,200 NM from Pyongyang to Damascus.

That means Candid flights between North Korea and Syria (typically) involve a refueling stop. In some cases, the aircraft take a less direct route, trying to use airports--like Bangkok--that are less likely to arouse suspicion. There are also reports that some IL-76s on the Pyongyang-to-Syria route stop at airfields in western China. But the most common refueling point (you guessed it) is in Iran.

From Tehran's perspective, the arrangement is extremely beneficial. Iran is also a customer of Pyongyang, so the flights often include shipments for both Tehran and Damascus. More importantly, airfields in Iran offer a safe haven for the aircraft, their crews and their cargoes. There's no way for international inspectors to "get at" the IL-76s during their stopovers in Iran, allowing them to refuel--or unload their cargo--without interruption.

As we've suggested before, there is one way to stop these flights (or at least make them much more difficult). The Obama Administration should lead an international effort to declare an air embargo against North Korea, pressuring nations like China (and its neighbors in Southeast Asia) to deny overflight rights to any cargo aircraft heading to/from the DPRK. That would force Pyongyang to use water shipments which are more time-consuming, and in many cases, easier to track and interdict.

Of course, reaching that sort of consensus is almost impossible. And, the process is further complicated by the occasional use of private air cargo firms, which handle some of the shipments. Many of those firms are based in Russia; as you might imagine, Moscow has never voiced any support for the idea of an air embargo.

In the meantime, the flights continue and Israel's patience is (obviously) growing thin. IL-76s on an airfield parking ramp would present a rather inviting target for a future IAF raid.

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