Iran Deploys Long-Range Missiles to Fordo Nuclear Site

Fordo nuclear site
Fordo nuclear site

Tehran has deployed a recently delivered Russian-made long-range missile system to central Iran to protect its Fordo nuclear facility, state television said Sunday.

Protecting nuclear facilities is paramount “in all circumstances” General Farzad Esmaili, the commander of Iran’s air defenses, told the IRIB channel.

“Today, Iran’s sky is one of the most secure in the region,” he added.

A video showed an S-300 carrier truck in Fordo, raising its missile launchers toward the sky, next to other counter-strike weaponry.

Russian built S-300 missile system
Russian built S-300 missile system

The images were aired hours after supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a speech to air force commanders, including Esmaili, in which he stressed that Iranian military power was for defensive purposes only.

“Continued opposition and hype on the S-300 or the Fordo site are examples of the viciousness of the enemy,” Khamenei said.

“The S-300 system is a defense system not an assault one, but the Americans did their best for Iran not to get hold of it.”

Location of Fordo nuclear plant
Location of Fordo nuclear plant

The Fordo site, built into a mountain near the city of Qom has stopped enriching uranium since the January implementation of a nuclear deal with world powers.

Under the historic accord, Iran dismantled most of its estimated 19,000 centrifuges — giant spinning machines that enrich uranium, keeping only 5,000 active for research purposes.

Iran and the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia negotiated for more than two years before signing a historic July 2015 agreement that removed some international sanctions in return for curbs on Tehran’s controversial atomic program.

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Iran’s New, Domestically Built Missile Defense System

The Iranian Bavar 373 missile defense system
The Iranian Bavar 373 missile defense system

Last Sunday, Iran released the first pictures of its independently built missile defense system, according to a French news outlet. The defense system was developed when the international sanctions were imposed on the country. According to the Iranian news outlet that first published the photos, President Hassan Rouhani and Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan unveiled the new Bavar 373 missile defense system.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani

The defense system is designed to intercept cruise missiles, drones, fighter aircraft and ballistic missiles. According to the news report, the Bavar 373 is equivalent to the missile defense system that Iran is in the process of receiving from Russia, the S-300 system. The Iranian system was developed when the international community halted the delivery of the Russian missiles to Iran in 2010.

“We didn’t intend to manufacture an Iranian version of the S-300, we intended to create an Iranian missile defense system and this is what we built,” said Dehghan to an Iranian news agency. According to Rouhani, the defense budget this year is double that of the previous year. “If we can now meet with the world powers at the negotiations table, it is only because of the strength of our nation and our unity,” stated the Iranian President.

State Dept Warns That Iran Is Seeking to Capture U.S. Citizens

US Department of State SealThe State Department issued a warning urging U.S. citizens to avoid traveling to Iran, which has made the detention of Americans a priority.

The latest travel advisory, which emphasizes Iran’s desire to capture U.S. citizens, comes on the heels of a growing scandal over the Obama administration’s decision to pay Iran $400 million in cash on the same day that it freed several U.S. hostages.

The payment has been cast by lawmakers and others as a ransom payment and prompted concern among U.S. officials that Iran is making arresting Americans a priority.

The travel warning is meant to “highlight the risk of arrest and detention of U.S. citizens, particularly dual national Iranian-Americans,” according to a State Department announcement. “Foreigners, in particular dual nationals of Iran and Western countries including the United States, continue to be detained or prevented from leaving Iran.”

Map-of-Iran-in-Iranian-flag-colors“U.S. citizens traveling to Iran should very carefully weigh the risks of travel and consider postponing their travel,” the warning adds. “U.S. citizens residing in Iran should closely follow media reports, monitor local conditions, and evaluate the risks of remaining in the country.”

“Iranian authorities have detained and harassed U.S. citizens, particularly those of Iranian origin,” the travel warning states. “Former Muslims who have converted to other religions, religious activists, and persons who encourage Muslims to convert are subject to arrest and prosecution.”

The Obama administration expressed particular concern about commercial airlines doing business with Iran. This warning comes as American companies such as Boeing continue to pursue million-dollar business deals with the Islamic Republic.

“The U.S. government is concerned about the risks to civil aircraft operating into, out of, within, or over Iran due to hazards from military activity associated with the conflicts in Iraq and Syria,” the warning states. “The FAA has advised U.S. civil aviation to exercise caution when flying into, out of, within, or over the airspace over Iran.”

The warning emphasizes that “the U.S. government’s ability to assist U.S. citizens in Iran in the event of an emergency is extremely limited.”

Did Obama administration pay $400M ransom to Iran?

An unmarked cargo plane loaded with $400 million in foreign currency was sent to Iran as four Americans detained in Tehran were released — but the U.S. denies the delivery was a ransom payment.

The claim dated back to an arms deal conducted right before the Iranian revolution, which saw the ouster of then ruler of Iran Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi and the installation of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The claim was negotiated in the international court in The Hague.

Iranian state television broadcast this image of a shipping pallet stacked with cash in February as part of a propaganda film
Iranian state television broadcast this image of a shipping pallet stacked with cash in February as part of a propaganda film

Officials said that wooden pallets stacked with euros, Swiss francs and other currencies were secretly flown into Iran on the plane in January, the same day the U.S. exchanged seven Iranians for four American citizens who had been detained.

The settlement was announced one day after the prisoner exchange and days after the U.S. and five other countries reached a landmark nuclear deal with Iranian officials.

Amid all of the wheeling and dealing, Obama failed to mention the $400 million payoff.

“For the United States, this settlement could save us billions of dollars that could have been pursued by Iran,” Obama said in January. “So there was no benefit to the United States in dragging this out. With the nuclear deal done, prisoners released, the time was right to resolve this dispute as well.”

U.S. authorities insist that the negotiations regarding the prisoner exchanges were completely separate from the nuclear deal and the settlement, but questions remain about the timing of the secret payment.

“As we’ve made clear, the negotiations over the settlement of an outstanding claim at the Hague Tribunal were completely separate from the discussions about returning our American citizens home,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement Tuesday.

The claim dated back to an arms deal conducted right before the Iranian revolution, which saw the ouster of then ruler of Iran Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi and the installation of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The claim was negotiated in the international court in The Hague.

U.S. officials have admitted, however, that Iranians demanded the payment so they could say that Iran had gained “something tangible” from the prisoner exchange, despite the fact that the U.S. released seven Iranians detained or indicted in the U.S. for sanctions violations. Six of the Iranians released by the U.S. were dual citizens.

President Obama approved the shipment of the nearly half billion dollars and the State and Treasury departments set about untangling the logistics, the newspaper reported.

For the cash payment, which was reported in the Iranian press as a ransom payment, the U.S. had to reach out to the Swiss and Dutch governments and transfer the equivalent of $400 million to their central banks. The money was then converted into other currencies, loaded onto a nondescript plane and airlifted to Iran.

Wolf Blitzer
Wolf Blitzer

State Department spokesman Mark Toner told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer the United States cannot rule out that the $400 million in cash the Obama Administration gave to Iran will be used to fund terrorist activities.

Blitzer asked Toner if there were any restrictions on how the Iranians could use the funds.

“I can’t speak to what restrictions that may be in place regarding that,” he said. “That is Iran’s money. But, what we have seen, and I think some U.S. officials have spoken to this, is that the money has not been used–as far as we can see, for any nefarious purposes. It has been used for infrastructure improvement, development projects, et cetera.”

He then pointed out that Iran could possibly use the money to conduct “bad behavior” in the Middle East.

“We haven’t seen it used,” he said. “Now, we can’t rule that out again because we’ve seen Iran continue to exercise bad behavior in the region. We can’t change that overnight.”

Blitzer noted that the Iranian government “has still been providing military financial aid” to groups that the U.S. considers terrorist organizations or destabilizing forces, such as Lebanese Hezbollah and the Assad regime in Syria, among others.

Four Americans being held on false charges were released in the deal as well as a fifth person who was not known to the international press.

Those freed included:

  • Jason Rezaian,Washington Post reporter and Tehran’s bureau chief, whom Iran convicted of being a spy. In a bizarre and secretive trial, Rezaian was tried and sentenced but the sentence was never made public. The State Department called the charges “absurd,” as did the executive director of the Post, who also said the charges were “the product of fertile and twisted imaginations” of Iranian officials. Rezaians’s wife, Yeganeh Salehi, who is a journalist for the National, an English-language newspaper in the United Arab Emirates, was also arrested but later released. She was previously not allowed to leave the country but is expected to be able to leave with her husband.
  • Amir Hekmati, a Marine veteran and translator, who went to Iran to visit his grandmother and other family members (as he had done twice before). Hekmati was accused of being a spy for the CIA and sentenced to death. Although his conviction was overturned three months later, Hekmati remained imprisoned.
  • Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American pastor from Boise, Idaho, who  was arrested for setting up an orphanage. Abedini, who had visited Iran many times previously, was convicted in 2013 on charges of threatening Iran’s national security (due to his alleged participation in home churches, which are illegal in Iran).
  • Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, who was unknown until the prisoner release. Khosravi-Roodsari remains a mystery to the international media.
  • Matthew Trevithick, a student, who went to Iran in September to study Dari in a center affiliated with Tehran University. Trevithick was held for 40 days and released separately. He was reported on his way home January 16.

Israeli Defense Minister: Israel Can’t Rely on Obama on Iran

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon

Israel cannot depend on the United States to lead any action against Iran’s nuclear program and can only rely on itself, the country’s defense minister said in remarks published Tuesday.

The comments by Moshe Yaalon came as world powers and Iran were about to start a new round of talks over Iran’s contested nuclear program.

The West fears the program could be used to make a nuclear weapon and seeks to scale it back. Tehran denies the program has a military dimension and insists it is for peaceful purposes only, such as power generation. If a deal with world powers is reached, sanctions imposed on Iran over the nuclear program could be lifted.

Israel has criticized the ongoing talks with Tehran, saying an interim nuclear deal, struck last November, has left Iran’s military nuclear capabilities largely intact while giving it relief from some economic sanctions.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

At the same time, Israel’s strongest piece of leverage, the threat of a military strike on Iran, has taken a back stage to the talks despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence it remains on the table.

Yaalon’s remarks seemed to underscore that insistence.

“We thought that the one who needs to lead the campaign against Iran is the U.S.,” Yaalon was quoted by the daily Haaretz as saying during a lecture at Tel Aviv University on Monday.

Instead, Yaalon said, the U.S. began negotiations with Iran and Iran gained the upper hand in the talks.

“If we wished others would do the work for us, it wouldn’t be done soon, and therefore in this matter, we have to behave as if we can only rely on ourselves,” Yaalon said.

Yaalon’s office confirmed his remarks but refused to comment whether he was advocating an Israeli strike on Iran. Netanyahu’s office also declined to comment.

Yaalon criticized the West, saying its leaders prefer to avoid confrontation with Iran. As for the U.S., the defense minister alleged American influence is waning in other parts of the world, such as Ukraine over the crisis there.

“Weakness certainly does not pay in the world,” he said. “No one can replace the U.S. as the world’s policeman. I hope the U.S. will come to its senses.”

Yaalon has made controversial comments about Washington in the past. In January, he was quoted as saying that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was “obsessive” and “messianic” over his Mideast peace efforts. The comments triggered an angry response from the U.S., Israel’s most important ally.

Iran ‘May Send Forces Into Pakistan’

Captured Iranian border guards
Captured Iranian border guards

Relations between Iran and Pakistan are growing strained over the kidnapping of five Iranian border guards in Iran’s Sistan Baluchistan region by the Iran-based Sunni militant group Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice). The five guards are now suspected to be in Pakistani Balochistan.

Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli
Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli

In response to the kidnapping, Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli told Iran’s Mehr news agency that “If Pakistan doesn’t take the needed steps to fight against the terrorist groups, we will send our forces into Pakistani soil. We will not wait for this country.”

The minister noted that should Pakistan refuse to treat the case “strongly and seriously,” it must allow Iran to secure the region against what it perceives to be a significant domestic terrorist threat. “Otherwise we do consider it our own right to intervene and create a new security sphere for our safety,” he said.

According to other Iranian sources, an Iranian delegation visited Pakistan in order to secure the guards’ release. Iran Students News Agency reports that Iran has summoned Pakistan’s ambassador to the country twice already over the issue.

Iran - Pakistan border mapIn response to the Interior Minister’s comments, Pakistan warned Iran not to send its troops across their shared border in Balochistan. A Pakistani government statement warned that “Iranian forces have no authority to cross our borders in violation of the international law. We must respect each other’s borders.” The incident threatens to flare up sectarian tensions in bilateral relations between Iran’s largely Shia rulers and Sunni Pakistan.

The statement added that “The government of Pakistan regrets the suggestions of negligence on its part over the incident, especially when Pakistan’s active support against terrorists groups in the past is well-known and acknowledged by Iran.”

Jaish al-Adl has posted photographs of the five guards in an unknown location, showing them to be restrained but unharmed otherwise. According to the BBC, one of the guards, Sgt Jamshyd Danaifard, said they were “safe and sound” via a video broadcast on al-Arabiya TV.

Iran has accused Pakistan of ignoring the threat posed to it by Jaish al-Adl in the past. In a letter to the president of the UN Security Council in October 2013, Iran’s Permanent Representative to the UN Mohammad Khazaei noted that Jaish al-Adl carried out terrorist attacks from eastern Pakistan.

Iran and Pakistan signed a security agreement in February 2013 which included counterterrorism measures. In October 2013, Iranian officials urged Pakistan to follow up on the commitments made in that agreement. “We urge the Pakistani government to take more measures than before to seriously tighten control over its borders,” said Iranian Deputy Interior Minister Ali Abdollahi at the time.

The Iranian interior minister’s comments over the latest incident are the product of over a year of frustration in Tehran that Pakistan is unable or unwilling to regulate its Balochistan border with Iran.

Iran and Pakistan’s Coming Clash

Iran and Pakistan appear to be on a collision course that will in all likelihood leave relations severely strained in the years ahead.

Iranian Border Guards Being Held Captive in Pakistan
Iranian Border Guards Being Held Captive in Pakistan

The most visible sign of strain in the bilateral relationship is also in many ways the least serious. Specifically, last month five Iranian border guards in Iran’s Sistan Baluchistan region were kidnapped by the Iran-based Sunni militant group Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice). However, according to the Iranian government, they were then brought to Pakistan and are being held in Pakistan’s Balochistan province.

In the immediate aftermath of the kidnappings, the Iranian government expressed indignation at the Pakistan government for its failure to do more to curb the tide of Sunni Islamists in the country. Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli went so far as to threaten to send Iranian troops into Pakistan to secure the border guards’ release.

This prompted Islamabad to respond by saying, “Iranian forces have no authority to cross our borders in violation of the international law. We must respect each other’s borders.” It also added, “The government of Pakistan regrets the suggestions of negligence on its part over the incident, especially when Pakistan’s active support against terrorists groups in the past is well-known and acknowledged by Iran.”

Tensions have largely subsided since then, however, even though the five border guards remain in captivity. Last week an Iranian spokesperson said: “Based on the information available, all abducted Iranian border guards are in good health.” Other Iranian officials confirmed that they were engaged in talks with Pakistani officials to secure the border guards’ release, and Tehran has said it hopes to return them to their families in the near future. Still, tensions over the border region will continue to periodically spark crises between Pakistan and Iran for the indefinite future.

Syria 5Pakistan - Iran flagsA more serious flashpoint between Pakistan and Iran is taking place farther away in Syria.

Specifically, numerous media outlets and private intelligence firms have confirmed that recent Pakistani-Saudi Arabian defense cooperation meetings have been aimed at reaching an agreement whereby Riyadh would purchase military arms from Islamabad for Syrian opposition forces. According to the reports, Saudi funds will be used to purchase Chinese shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank missiles—among other weapons—that will be smuggled into Syria via Jordan.

Such a deal would place Pakistan and Iran closer to direct confrontation as Iranian troops and their Hezbollah allies have long been operating in Syria in an effort to shore up the Bashar al-Assad government. Should Pakistani supplied arms bring down an Iranian transport plane, for example, Tehran would be hard pressed not to retaliate against Pakistan in some fashion.

Besides being a potentially far more dangerous flashpoint, the dispute over Syria is likely to persist for two reasons. First, the Syrian civil war is unlikely to subside anytime soon.

Certainly, it looks to continue long after the dispute over the border guards has run its course. Additionally, the Pakistani-Iranian collision course in Syria is in many ways a microcosm of the larger problems over Pakistan’s support for Saudi Arabia and Iran’s reaction to it. As Saudi Arabia and Iran’s longstanding rivalry likely intensifies in the coming years, Tehran is almost certain to become more concerned about Islamabad’s ties with Riyadh. This trianglular relationship is likely to have interesting implications for some of the world’s major powers, among them the United States, China and India. It’s one reason, among many, why Iran and China are likely to clash in the coming years and decades.

One battleground where this trianglular relationship in general, and the Pakistani-Iranian rivalry in particular, is likely to play itself out in the near future is Afghanistan. The withdrawal of NATO combat forces this year is likely to prompt regional powers like Iran, Pakistan, India, China and Russia to assert themselves in Kabul.

Pakistan and Iran have nearly diametrically opposed interests in Afghanistan, which will make it a prime contender for the biggest flashpoint in the bilateral relationship in the coming years. And Saudi Arabia and India will also be right in the middle of this flashpoint. China might also find itself getting pulled in as well.