Babylon the Great Prepares for Nuclear War

STRATCOM commander calls on Congress to update US triad as China’s nuclear program advances weekly

Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, testifies at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on April 20, 2021.

FROM A SASC VIDEO

The Chinese military’s nuclear capabilities are increasing rapidly and, for the first time, might be primed for use, the U.S. military officer in charge of America’s nuclear arsenal warned Tuesday as he urged Congress to upgrade America’s aging nuclear infrastructure.

In an effort to describe how quickly the Chinese nuclear program is advancing, Adm. Charles Richard, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he had just ordered all briefs on Beijing’s nuclear weapons contain no intelligence information vetted more than one month earlier “because it’s probably out of date” that quickly.

Richard testified Tuesday that China is capable of accurately deploying nuclear weapons anywhere within its region, and it “will soon be able to do so at intercontinental range.”

“I can’t get through a week right now, without finding out something we didn’t know about China,” Richard told senators in a hearing alongside Army Gen. James Dickinson, who leads U.S. Space Command. Dickinson also fingered China as among his top military concerns, as it rapidly advances its space-based military capabilities.

In a stark warning, Richard told lawmakers that he had seen indications China had moved at least some of its nuclear forces from a peace-time status to a so-called “launch-on-warning” and “high-alert” posture, in which weapons are armed for launch as soon as an incoming enemy missile is detected.

Yet, even as China’s nuclear weapons arsenal has grown dramatically, Russia remains the primary nuclear threat for the United States, Richard said. While the U.S. has yet to field any recent updates to its nuclear forces, Russia is about 80% complete in modernizing its nuclear capabilities, the admiral said.

“While we are at 0% [modernization], it is easier to describe what they’re [Russia] not modernizing — nothing,” he said. “What they are [upgrading] is pretty much everything, including several never-before-seen capabilities.”

Those increases among the primary U.S. adversaries come as Congress debates funding for long-planned upgrades to America’s nuclear triad — its system of intercontinental ballistic missiles and its fleets of nuclear-capable bomber aircraft and ballistic missile submarines — and as President Joe Biden’s administration reviews the nation’s nuclear strategies, as incoming administrations typically have done.

Richard said he supported the ongoing review, but he cautioned against some lawmakers’ recent targeting of the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, the planned $95 billion replacement for the military’s 1970s-era Minuteman III ICBMs, as a potential cut to save money. Several Democrats, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts on Tuesday, have questioned the need for upgraded intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The Minuteman III missiles must either be replaced by the GBSD or retired, Richard said, calling them “leftovers of the Cold War” that have become too obsolete to be life-extended with temporary fixes.

Without ICBMs, the United States would be forced to change drastically its approach to nuclear operations, Richard said. It could leave America entirely reliant on its submarine force to deter enemy nuclear activity because the United States since the end of the Cold War has not maintained bomber aircraft on nuclear alert.

“I’ve already told the secretary of defense that under those conditions, I would request to re-alert the bombers,” he told senators Tuesday, which would place some of the Air Force’s B-52 Stratofortress and/or B-2 Spirit bombers armed with nuclear weapons and prepared to fly at all times.

Richard urged senators to watch the actions of the Chinese and Russians to modernize their nuclear forces as they debate the future of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.

“It’s the only weapon system you don’t have to pull the trigger on for it to work,” he said of the nuclear weapons that he oversees.

dickstein.corey@stripes.com
Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

How to Start a Nuclear War: Revelation 16

How to Start a War

Wars often arise from uncertainty. When strong countries appear weak, truly weaker ones take risks they otherwise would not.

Sloppy braggadocio and serial promises of restraint can trigger wars, too. Empty tough talk can needlessly egg on aggressors. But mouthing utopian bromides convinces bullies that their targets are too sophisticated to counter aggression.

Sometimes announcing “a new peace process” without any ability to bring either novel concessions or pressures only raises false hopes — and furor.

Every new American president is tested to determine whether the United States can still protect friends such as Europe, Japan, South Korea, and Israel. And will the new commander in chief deter U.S. enemies Iran and North Korea — and keep China and Russia from absorbing their neighbors?

Joe Biden, and those around him, seem determined to upset the peace they inherited.

Soon after Donald Trump left office, Vladimir Putin began massing troops on the Ukrainian border and threatening to attack.

Putin earlier had concluded that Trump was dangerously unpredictable, and perhaps best not provoked. After all, the Trump administration took out Russian mercenaries in Syria. It beefed up defense spending and upped sanctions.

The Trump administration flooded the world with cheap oil to Russia’s chagrin. It pulled out from asymmetrical missile treaties with Russia. It sold sophisticated arms to the Ukrainians. The Russians concluded that Trump might do anything, and so waited for another president before again testing America.

In contrast, Biden often talks provocatively — while carrying a twig. He has gratuitously called Putin “a killer.” And he warned that the Russian dictator “will pay a price” for supposedly interfering in the 2020 election.

Unfortunately, Biden’s bombast follows four years of a Russian-collusion hoax, fueled by a concocted dossier paid for by the Democratic National Committee and the campaign of 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Biden and others claimed Trump was, in the words of Barack Obama’s former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, a “Russian asset.”

If Biden is seeking to provoke a nation with more than 6,000 deliverable nuclear weapons, he is certainly not backing up his rhetoric with force.

Biden may well decrease the Pentagon budget. He also seems to have forgotten that Trump was impeached for supposedly imperiling Ukraine, when in fact he sold Ukraine weapons.

While Biden was talking loudly to Putin, his administration was being serially humiliated by China. Chinese diplomats dressed down their American counterparts in a recent meeting in Anchorage, Alaska. They gleefully recycled domestic left-wing boilerplate that a racist America has no moral authority to criticize China.

If Trump was unpredictably blunt, Biden is too often predictably confused. And he appears frail, sending the message to autocracies that America’s commander in chief is not fully in control.

Biden has not, as he promised, demanded from China transparency about the origins of the COVID-19 virus in Wuhan. By summer, that plague may have killed 600,000 Americans.

More disturbing, as Russia puts troops on the Ukrainian border, China is flying into Taiwanese airspace, testing its defenses — and the degree to which the United States cares.

For a half-century, American foreign policy sought to ensure that Russia was no closer to China than either was to the United States. Now, the two dictatorships seem almost joined at the hip, as each probes U.S. responses or lack thereof. Not surprisingly, North Korea in late March resumed its firing of missiles over the Sea of Japan.

In the Middle East, Biden inherited a relatively quiet landscape. Arab nations, in historic fashion, were making peace with Israel. Both sides were working to deter Iranian-funded terrorists. Iran itself was staggered by sanctions and recession. Its arch-terrorist mastermind, General Qasem Soleimani was killed by a U.S. drone strike.

Under Trump, the United States left the Iran nuclear deal, which was a prescription for the certain Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon. The theocracy in Tehran, the chief sponsor of terror in the world, was in its most fragile condition in its 40 years of existence.

Now, U.S. diplomats bizarrely express an interest in restoring cordial relations with Iran, rebooting the Iran deal, and dropping sanctions against the regime. If all that happens, Iran will likely get a bomb soon.

More importantly, Iran may conclude that the United States has distanced itself from Israel and moderate Arab regimes. One of two dangers will then arise. Either Iran will feel it can up its aggression, or its enemies will conclude they have no choice but to take out all Iranian nuclear facilities.

Biden would do well to remember old American diplomatic adages about speaking softly while carrying a big stick, keeping China and Russia apart, being no better friend (or worse enemy), and letting sleeping dogs lie.

© 2021 The Center for American Greatness

US nuclear arms posture sends misleading signals to trap the other nuclear horns: Daniel

US nuclear arms posture sends misleading signals to trap adversaries

By Wei Dongxu

A screengrab of US Strategic Command’s Twitter post

US Strategic Command issued a posture statement preview on Tuesday, saying “The spectrum of conflict today is neither linear nor predictable. We must account for the possibility of conflict leading to conditions which could very rapidly drive an adversary to consider nuclear use as their least bad option.” This is not only a warning signal meant for US policymakers, but also a tactic to try to trap its “adversaries,” such as China and Russia, into a nuclear arms race.

This posture statement preview is mainly aimed at Russia because it has updated its nuclear weapons with brand new nuclear strike approaches. For instance, the Petrel, a nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed cruise missile, is claimed to have virtually unlimited range. And Poseidon, a massive nuclear torpedo, can reportedly carry a nuclear warhead with a yield of up to 100 megatons to most parts of the world while remaining extremely deep beneath the surface.

As the US does not possess weapons with such capabilities, it is anxious.

The preview sends two messages. The US hopes to promote its defense capabilities to counter Russia’s new weapons as well as boosting its own innovation in nuclear weapon development. Meanwhile, it shows that the US attaches great significance to its own nuclear power, and it will keep investing in and upgrading its nuclear arsenal. This is a warning toward the outside would.

As a matter of fact, the possibility of an outbreak of direct nuclear conflict between the US and Russia is very low, as both countries have a considerable number of powerful nuclear weapons. If there is a nuclear clash, it will be catastrophic for both countries. Therefore, the US will definitely not make a nuclear threat against a major nuclear power. It might only aim at small- and medium-sized regional military powers. The US will probably use tactical nuclear weapons rather than weapons of mass destruction.

However, the Pentagon, including US Strategic Command, is exaggerating the possibility of a nuclear war with its rivals. They are hyping that such a nuclear war is just around the corner to get more funds to build up the US’ nuclear arsenal and develop new weapons.

Nevertheless, ties between the US and Russia do confront challenges, and the biggest stems from the breakdown in military communication. Washington has withdrawn from agreements such as the Treaty on Open Skies and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. That being said, there is basically no military communication mechanism between Washington and Moscow. As the hostility and suspicion toward each other spirals up, some senior officials from the Pentagon consider Russia to be increasingly dangerous. In their opinion, some of Moscow’s innovations regarding nuclear weapons are directed against Washington, and the weapons may even be used against the US at any time.

So this preview is made based on mistrust and suspicion toward Russia. Such sentiment could lead to a nuclear arms race.

Besides, the US Strategic Command has also been hyping up the possibility of a nuclear war with China. In February, head of the command Charles Richard warned that “there is a real possibility that a regional crisis with Russia or China could escalate quickly to a conflict involving nuclear weapons.” As China develops its conventional military power and Moscow restores its, Washington’s conventional forces are losing their overwhelming advantage compared with the other two.

Out of fear that the US could be defeated in a future large-scale conventional war, the country is turning to focus more on nuclear options. This reflects the US’ lack of confidence in its conventional military forces.

The US does want to provoke a nuclear arms race. The cost of a full-scale nuclear upgrade is astronomical. If more advanced nuclear weapons are produced,  maintenance and security costs are also high. The US has enough budget, plus it enjoys its dollar hegemony and can print money at any time when needed, so it hopes to provoke the race and draw China and Russia in. Such a race will consume a large proportion of their military spending, and might even undermine their economic strength.

However, China and Russia are not buying it. Taking China as an example, its nuclear weapons are designed for defense. It is not interested in competing with the US in terms of quantity or performance of the nuclear weapons. This US strategy once wore down the Soviet Union during the Cold War. China will not be fooled by the same trick.

The author is a Beijing-based military analyst. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

The Russian nuclear horns new Bomber: Daniel 7

How Russia’s new strategic bomber PAK DA will look like

The Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation approved early April the final appearance of the stealth bomber, known as the Advanced Long-range Aviation Complex (PAK DA in Russian codification). It is being developed by Tupolev with the creation priority given to reducing the visibility of the aircraft and the usage of long-range weapons.

At the moment the bureau works on creating the first full-size prototypes of the bomber.

The new bomber will be built according to the “flying wing” aerodynamic scheme. (without the tail unit and a fuselage that is separated from the wings) and will be able to fly at subsonic speeds of up to 1,190 km/h; 740 mph). This is significantly less than the speed of the Tu-160 strategic bomber that the new PAK DA is supposed to replace in Russia’s air force.

The machine will use only intra-fuselage weapons in order to decrease its visibility on radars. These weapon systems include advanced long-range cruise missiles and hypersonic missiles. 

‘The onboard equipment of the aircraft is automated as much as possible. Engineers now experiment on using it in unmanned mode. It is also assumed that the bomber will be able to control groups of unmanned aerial vehicles and will be able to use the entire range of air – to-air missiles’ told Russia Beyond Vadim Kozulin, a professor at the Academy of Military Science.

What’s also important is that the priority in the PAK DA concept is given to «stealth» technologies with the appropriate tactics of use including long-range weapons 

‘Today, Russia’s air force has received the powerful X-555 and X-101 long-range missiles that can fly 5,000 km (3,106 miles), which is why there is no more need for long-distance bombers. Now the strategic bomber can carry out its mission basically without leaving Russian borders and remaining under the protection of air defense systems’ mentioned Kozulin.

As previously reported by Russian media, special models and individual full-size elements of the bomber were already created and passed a series of bench tests to assess radar visibility.

Russian Defense Ministry

‘In particular, it was confirmed that with the use of certain tactics, the PAK DA will be able to overcome the advanced air defense lines of NATO countries unnoticed’ added Kozulin.

The expert also states that each PAK DA will carry up to 40 tons of ammo, as all other modern strategic bombers. This weaponry consist of all types of modern nuclear and conventional bombs: armor piercing, penetration, cluster and others

Each plane’s minimum service life time is supposed to be no less than 12 years, with prolongation to 21 years after service maintenance procedures.

The new bomber is being developed by Tupolev. It is expected to be put into service until 2027. It is expected that the aircraft will replace the Tu-95MS missile carriers in the Aerospace Forces.

Rockets hit Iraqi and Babylon the Great

Rockets hit Iraqi air base, 2 security forces wounded

Updated 13 sec ago AP April 18, 2021 19:54

BAGHDAD: Multiple rockets hit an Iraqi air base just north of the capital Baghdad Sunday, wounding two Iraqi security forces, an Iraqi military commander said.

In comments to Iraq’s official news agency, Maj. Gen. Diaa Mohsen, commander of the Balad air base, said at least two rockets exploded inside the base, which houses US trainers. The attack comes days after an explosives-laden drone targeted US-led coalition forces near a northern Iraq airport, causing a large fire and damage to a building.

Mohsen said the attack resulted in the injury of two security forces, one of them in serious condition and the other only slightly. There was no material damage inside the base from the attack, he added.

The incident was the latest in a string of attacks that have targeted mostly American installations in Iraq in recent weeks. There was no immediate responsibility claim, but US officials have previously blamed Iran-backed Iraqi militia factions for such attacks.

American forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 but returned in 2014 at the invitation of Iraq to help battle Daesh after it seized vast areas in the north and west of the country. In late 2020, US troop levels in Iraq were reduced to 2,500 after withdrawals based on orders from the Trump administration.

Calls grew for further US troop withdrawals after a US-directed drone strike killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and an Iraqi militia leader in Baghdad in January 2020.

Last month, a base in western Iraq housing US-led coalition troops and contractors was hit by 10 rockets. One contractor was killed.

Iran identifies Mossad member behind blast at Natanz nuclear site

Iran identifies suspect behind blast at Natanz nuclear site

April 17, 2021

TEHRAN: Iran on Saturday named a man it wants arrested in connection with a recent explosion and power outage at its main Natanz nuclear plant, as talks got underway in Vienna to try to save Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

“Reza Karimi, the perpetrator of this sabotage […] has been identified” by Iran’s intelligence ministry, state TV said. It said the suspect had fled Iran before last Sunday’s blast that the Islamic Republic has blamed on arch-foe Israel.

Officials from the remaining parties to Iran’s nuclear deal began a formal meeting in Vienna, suggesting that this round of talks which began on Thursday was wrapping up.

The television showed what it said was a photograph of the suspected perpetrator on a red card that had “Interpol Wanted” written on it. The card listed his age as 43.

“Necessary steps are underway for his arrest and return to the country through legal channels,” the report added.

State TV also aired footage of rows of what it said were centrifuges which had replaced the ones damaged in the blast at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant.

It added that “a large number” of centrifuges whose enrichment activity was disrupted by the explosion had been returned to normal service, the report said.

Iran and global powers are meeting in Vienna to try to rescue the 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by Washington three years ago. The talks are potentially complicated by Tehran’s decision to ramp up uranium enrichment and what it called Israeli sabotage at the Natanz nuclear site.

Meanwhile, a source, echoing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s stance, reiterated Iran’s demand for the removal of all sanctions imposed under former President Donald Trump.

“In Tehran, nothing will be accepted but the removal of all sanctions, including those related to the JCPOA (nuclear accord), reimposed and relabeled during the Trump era,” the unnamed source told Iran’s state-run Press TV.

Israeli media outlets have quoted unnamed intelligence sources as saying the country’s Mossad spy service carried out the Natanz sabotage operation. Israel — the only Middle Eastern country with a nuclear arsenal — has not formally commented on the incident.

Attacks Increase in the Iraqi Horn: Daniel 8

Iraq attacks deepen security woes as global, local rivals clash

By John Davison and Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – A series of attacks in Iraq this week illustrates the increasingly dangerous tangle of local and regional rivalries confronting the country’s security in an election year, Iraqi security and government officials say.

The violence appears linked to militias seeking to help ally Iran oppose Western and Gulf Arab adversaries in a tussle for influence playing out across the Middle East, as well as to growing domestic strains head of elections in October, they say.

Drone and rocket attacks in northern Iraq by pro-Iran groups indicated that militias are expanding the arsenal they are prepared to deploy against U.S. forces stationed in the country.

The strikes also for the first time killed a Turkish soldier, and a rare car bomb blast in Baghdad afterwards showed that security forces are struggling to keep a lid on local violence after years of relative calm in the capital.

Rivalry between Iran and the United States remains the biggest destabilising factor, despite the departure of former President Donald Trump and his tough rhetoric and fresh talks on Iran’s nuclear programme among world powers, the officials said.

Wednesday’s attack on U.S. forces at Erbil International Airport was the first time an explosives-laden drone was used against a U.S. target in Erbil, an Iraqi security official said.

“Drone use is a worrying development. We’re seeing a change in the way (U.S.) targets in the Kurdistan region are hit, as a message that these groups can choose the time and place of their assaults without being stopped,” the official said.

The security official, an Iraqi military officer and a government official all blamed militia groups supported by Iran for the attack.

They said it was likely retaliation for a recent attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility, widely believed to be carried out by U.S. ally Israel. Israel has not formally commented.

“This was related to the Natanz incident, and the negotiations with the United States. It’s to show Iran’s ability to strike back and the need for negotiations to bear fruit – that there’s a cost for Israeli attacks against Iran and a cost for negotiations going nowhere,” the government official said.

Militia supporters cheered the attack but no group has claimed it so far.

Iraqis often pay the price for escalating U.S.-Iran tension, said Jassim al-Hilfi, an Iraqi lawmaker. “This is the second time in just a few weeks that (pro-Iran) militias have been able to target Erbil. They don’t want Iraq to be secure,” he said.

Iran and the United States this month agreed to indirect talks over Tehran’s nuclear programme, eyeing a possible return to an international pact that Trump abandoned in 2018 before piling sanctions on Iran and killing its top commander Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike in Baghdad last year.

Since President Joe Biden took office, Iraqi militias have pressed their demand that a remaining force of 2,500 U.S. troops leave Iraq, and have continued attacks against the United States and its regional allies, deploying more sophisticated weaponry.

TURKEY TENSION RISES

Several Western officials, one Iraqi militia official and an Iranian security source said a thwarted drone attack against Saudi Arabia in January was launched from Iraq, part of an increase in attacks by Iranian proxies against the Gulf kingdom.

Iran has not commented on recent attacks against U.S. forces, but has previously denied involvement in such strikes.

Several little-known pro-Iran groups have released statements claiming some previous attacks against U.S. targets.

The killing on Wednesday of a Turkish soldier in a rocket attack on Turkish troops stationed in northern Iraq – a separate attack to Erbil but at around the same time – also complicates Iraq’s fragile security.

Turkey has been waging a campaign against separatist Kurdish PKK militants who operate in southern Turkey but are based in the mountains of neighbouring northern Iraq. The PKK has Iraqi allies aligned with the Iran-backed paramilitaries.

Iran-backed militias this year ramped up their rhetoric against the Turkish presence, calling Turkish troops an occupying force which, like the Americans, must leave. No group immediately claimed the attack that killed the Turkish soldier, but analysts say it was carried out by pro-Iran militias.

“Militias seem to have opened a new front with Turkey and drew blood. They might be inviting trouble,” said Bilal Wahab, a Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Iran’s proxies see Turkish incursion there as a threat to their gateway to Syria, a key smuggling route for weapons, personnel and goods.

Iran and Turkey might not have the appetite for escalation. “We’ll see if this attack on a Turkish base is swept under the rug, or whether it will be a game-changer,” Wahab said.

Turkish authorities did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

EMBATTLED IRAQI GOVERNMENT

The increasingly complex strategic picture heaps pressure on Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who has tried in vain to curb militia power and wants a peaceful, free general election in October. Added to his plate are domestic rivalries in a country where violence has often spiked during election years.

In January, Baghdad’s deadliest suicide bombing for three years, claimed by Islamic State, ripped through a central market killing more than 30 people.

On Thursday, a car bombing killed at least four – the second incident to shatter the relative calm Baghdad has enjoyed since Islamic State’s 2017 defeat. No group claimed Thursday’s blast and security forces have not yet publicly identified a culprit.

Some Iraqi politicians say the blast was Islamic State trying to cause chaos. Others say it could be rival Shi’ite armed groups seeking to intimidate each other ahead of the vote.

Either way, it shows armed groups can move weapons around Baghdad under the noses of security forces, analysts say.

“The government … has neither the political ability to deter militias from carrying out attacks nor the security wherewithal to stop them and hold them accountable when attacks happen,” Wahab said.

A spokesman for the Iraqi government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by John Davison, Ahmed Rasheed; writing by John Davison, Editing by William Maclean)

Iran: nuclear talks intensify domestic power struggle

Iran: nuclear talks intensify domestic power struggle

Having survived Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’, hardliners seek to ram home their political advantage over reformist rivals

April 15, 2021

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei used to only wear the chequered keffiyeh scarf on special, mainly military, occasions: visits to war fronts with Iraq in the 1980s or army ceremonies. But since 2000, Iran’s supreme leader, the highest authority in the country for more than 30 years, has rarely been seen in public without it draped over his shoulders.

His adoption of the symbol of Palestinian nationalism — chaffiyeh in Persian — was triggered, says a relative, by the surprise 1997 victory of the reformist president Mohammad Khatami who swept to power promising political development at home and detente with the west. The scarf has subsequently become an outward symbol of resistance in Iranian minds — a resolute defence of Islamic ideology at home and abroad covering everything from its nuclear programme to regional and military policies and relations with the west.

Given the strain that Tehran has been under for the past three years, Ayatollah Khamenei could have been forgiven for wearing two keffiyeh at once. The country has weathered the most extensive sanctions in its history — costing the economy at least $200bn according to officials and hurting ordinary Iranians — as well as constant rhetoric around US military strikes.

But the regime — at least its hardline elements — have in many ways been emboldened by surviving the “maximum pressure” policy of Donald Trump’s administration without the system collapsing and millions of protesters pouring on to the streets in mass demonstrations.

In 2018 Trump withdrew the US from the nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — signed with world powers three years earlier to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Despite Iran’s compliance Washington accused it of violating “the spirit” of the agreement, through its regional and military policies. It imposed sanctions that fuelled Iranian suspicion that the US wanted regime change in Tehran.

There followed a series of tit-for-tat military attacks with Iran shooting down a US drone alleging that it crossed into its airspace. It also launched a missile strike on a US military base in Iraq last year in retaliation for the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander, by the US.

“He will keep wearing chaffiyeh as long as he thinks the Islamic republic is being threatened by radical reforms to show he will not compromise on principles,” says Ayatollah Khamenei’s relative. “And will not allow the US and Israel and reformists to push Iran back in the region, undermine the [ballistic] missile programme or question his absolute authority.”

President Hassan Rouhani surveys Iran’s new nuclear achievements in Tehran earlier this month © AP

No room for major compromise

Iran last week joined talks in Vienna with the other signatories of the nuclear agreement — the EU, Germany, France, the UK, Russia and China — on the future of the accord. It declined the chance to speak directly to the US. The chances of a lasting breakthrough, however, seem remote. An apparent cyber attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility last Sunday and Tehran’s announcement this week that it plans to increase the purity of its enriched uranium have heightened suspicions on both sides.

Even before that Tehran’s message appeared clear: there is no room for major compromise with western states or pro-reform forces at home. The regime fears that any U-turn could be interpreted as a sign of weakness jeopardising the survival of the Islamic republic and the loyalty of proxy forces in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Palestine.

Joe Biden’s entry to the White House has in some ways complicated matters. The US president and European states want to restart the nuclear accord as does Tehran which wants sanctions lifted. But the US wants to attach conditions to any final agreement: a curb on Iran’s ballistic missile programme and its expansionist regional policies.

“After our success in neutralising the US sanctions, Iran’s political position is much stronger than before,” says the relative of the leader. “The US is no longer in a position to set conditions.”

The spectre of direct contact with the US over the nuclear deal has intensified the power struggle in Tehran and further complicated Iran’s political scene ahead of presidential elections on June 18 which reformists fear will be dominated by hardliners and could see the lowest turnout in the country’s recent history. Such an outcome could limit the room for negotiation over the nuclear deal after the election.

The poll comes as the various factions — hardliners, reformists, Revolutionary Guards, judiciary — all jostle to influence any succession battle that would follow the death of the 81-year-old supreme leader.

“Our challenges with the US and Israel are eternal,” says a regime insider close to hardline forces. “The US is like a trailer truck which likes to go into a 4 sq m alley [Iran] and turn. This is possible only if the surrounding buildings [the republic] are destroyed. Why should we let the US into our alley?

“Trump did whatever he could including bringing down our oil exports to almost nothing but the Islamic republic did not collapse,” he adds. “No reformist can even dream of rolling back strategic policies. Relations with western states are not part of our security and economic doctrine. Even Europe is not attractive to us any more as they have no power.”

Representatives at the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015, including Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif © AFP via Getty Images

‘Addicted to sanctions’

Ayatollah Khamenei has made the path to reviving the nuclear deal clear to hardliners — mainly in the Revolutionary Guards, the judiciary and parliament — as well as pro-reform forces linked to the government of Hassan Rouhani.

He has said the country — which never officially left the nuclear accord — will fully comply with the treaty only if the Biden administration takes the first step and lifts all sanctions. Once satisfied, Iran would then roll back its nuclear advances since 2019 including uranium enrichment at higher volumes and purity and installation of more advanced centrifuges. He has also made it clear that there should be no discussions with western powers on non-nuclear issues.

Washington says it wants to strengthen the deal. But Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, has also promised Congress he will look to curtail Iran’s missile programme and its support for regional militias as part of any extended agreement.

The US welcomed the Vienna talks as a positive step but officials have already expressed frustration. “[We] think it would be better if we could sit down with the Iranians,” a senior Biden administration official said after the first round of talks, adding that indirect negotiations “really makes it slower and more and more complicated”.

The US has yet to specify which of more than 1,500 sanctions the Trump administration imposed on Iran it would lift, but has said it would not remove all of them.

A street market in Tehran in 2019. Inflation in Iran has risen from 8.2 per cent in May 2018 to 48.7 per cent now © AFP via Getty Images

“The problem in the United States and it doesn’t matter which administration . . . is that the US is addicted to sanctions . . . to pressure . . . to bullying,” Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister who negotiated the nuclear deal told local media in February. “They do not have any leverage over Iran. They have made us rely on an oil-less economy, oil-free economy. Now our reliance on oil is below 20 per cent. That is a major gain.”

Zarif may be the best hope for the reformists if he stands in the June 18 poll. But first he would have to navigate the powerful institutions that often weed out candidates from the race long before election day. Hardliners fear a combination of a pro-reform government in Tehran and a Democratic administration in Washington — as it was in the final years of Barack Obama’s presidency — believing it could pave the way for future US intervention in Iran.

“A chance was given to the US once which will not be repeated,” says a hardliner. “It was our good luck that Trump was elected otherwise reformists would have been turned into giants by now.”

The reformist camp fears that a hardline government in Tehran would feed hawkish views in Washington, as well as regional powers like Israel and Saudi Arabia, which could potentially mean more economic pressure on Iran. “Hardliners say they can continue talks but how can they sit at the negotiating table with the US when their main value is strategic hostility toward the US?” asks a member of the reformist camp. “The world would not talk to them and sanctions will continue.”

Demonstrators burn a US flag in Tehran in 2019. The previous year, President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the nuclear deal © AFP via Getty Images

Rouhani — who has to step down after two terms in office — said in February that “the revolution’s principles . . . are fixed but approaches [to implement them] are not fixed” hinting at little room for manoeuvre if he is succeeded by a hardliner.

“Why are we scared of talking? We are powerful . . . and able to negotiate with the US,” the Iranian president said on Wednesday. “Don’t be scared of the Vienna talks . . . don’t worry that the talks could bear fruit early enough to create problems in the elections.”

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After being strengthened by the nuclear pact as his signature achievement, Rouhani promised Iranians that he would strike similar international deals in other fields. This was interpreted by hardliners as an attempt to persuade the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards to let him strike a grand bargain with the US. But the policies of Trump effectively torpedoed the Iranian president’s efforts.

Rouhani denies there was ever any grand plan but the mistrust between the hardline and reformists camps — always high — is much greater now making the June election critical after more than 20 years of reformists disrupting hardliners’ plans in national polls.

As a result the Revolutionary Guards — legally responsible to “safeguard” the Islamic system and “its achievements” — will have a stronger say ahead of this election and any future talks with the US. It has become the most organised and powerful institution under the Islamic republic due in large part to an economic empire that stretches into all aspects of the economy and a fearful intelligence service leading some to speculate that a military government could take power.

Iran launched a missile strike on a US military base in Iraq in January 2020 © AFP via Getty Images

But Saeed Hajjarian, who was once dubbed the “reformists’ brain”, told the Financial Times, in a written interview due to ill health, that the establishment of a military government under Ayatollah Khamenei was unlikely. “The guards’ role will weaken [in the long run] in particular considering that its power in the region is decreasing and the US is earnestly seeking to undermine the guards’ regional role.”

Hajjarian — who was shot in the head in a vigilante attack in 2000 — says that the reformist camp will not be silenced even if its politicians are pushed to the sidelines after the election. 

It is a view echoed by others: “Iranians will not let one group be the dominant force,” says one reformist. “The guards already have a strong presence everywhere and act like a government in shadow but it is not easy for them and hardliners to take over all the institutions.”

Turnout fears

The priority for the guards — and the other powerful factions — is to influence the transition of power once the supreme leader dies. The guards are mandated to ensure political divisions do not disrupt the process and that the country — about half of which is home to non-Persian ethnicities including separatists — does not fall under the control of the US.

Yet perhaps the biggest threat to all the factions is a low turnout at the June poll. Estimates suggest it could be as low as 40 per cent with a young educated population extensively using social media to express discontent over corruption, the state of the economy and the regime’s wider policies. Since 2009, there have been at least three major outbreaks of unrest across the country.

And while hardliners in the regime might have been emboldened by surviving sanctions, the economic reality for ordinary Iranians has been very different. Iran says sanctions have cost the country $200bn directly and much more indirectly. Inflation rose from 8.2 per cent in May 2018 to 48.7 per cent now, according to official figures, and the national currency has lost its value by four times since then. The IMF estimates that Iran’s gross official reserves declined from $122.5bn in 2018 to just $4bn in 2020, although this is disputed by the central bank. 

As a result, the number of Iranians experiencing extreme poverty has risen by five times to more than 20m people, economic analysts say. Meanwhile, tens of billions of dollars of the country’s revenues are frozen and beyond reach in overseas banks due to sanctions making the system unable to support businesses. The pandemic has compounded the situation claiming more than 65,000 lives — the highest in the Middle East.

Iranian women hold pictures of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the late Iranian major-general Qassem Soleimani © Majid Asgaripour/Reuters

Economic hardships have demotivated voters. Many of those who voted for Rouhani in 2013 or 2017 are unwilling to even go to a polling station this year, politicians say.

“Even if [former reformist president] Khatami runs for president, I will not vote for him,” says Homeyra, a 50-year-old housewife who has voted in national polls since she was 16. “It makes no difference to us as they are all the same and we become poorer every day.”

Reformists hope that a deal with the US and any relaxation of sanctions over the next two months could help reverse that sentiment before the election. “The reformists’ main rival is not a hardline candidate for now,” says Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former reformist vice-president. “It’s the low turnout. Even if the political system allows senior reformists to run, which is not yet clear, the main challenge remains.”

Analysts suspect Ayatollah Khamenei has concluded that an embarrassingly low turnout, anything below 50 per cent, would damage his regime’s credibility at home and Iran’s negotiators in any talks with the US. He has encouraged high turnout — even though that is likely to benefit a reformist candidate — and said not “one hour” should be wasted in the efforts to have sanctions lifted: a direct challenge to hardliners who had wanted to block any new agreement before polling day.

In a public speech in March with keffiyeh on his shoulders, he described the election as “an investment” for the future. He added that “the higher the turnout, the bigger the benefits” would be for the country as a whole in its efforts to “push away the enemy”.

Additional reporting by Katrina Manson in Washington

Another attack on Babylon the Great

Drone Attacks Iraq Airport Housing U.S. Troops

One building damaged, no casualties reported in attack on Erbil airport

By Ghassan Adnan and

Updated April 14, 2021 5:56 pm ET

Erbil airport in northern Iraq as seen in 2014.

Photo: joel saget/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

BAGHDAD—A drone carrying explosives attacked a U.S. air base in northern Iraq on Wednesday, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.

No casualties were reported in the attack on the airport in Erbil, which doubles as a base for U.S. troops, according to the interior ministry of the Kurdistan Regional Government and the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq.

The attack on the military section of the airport was carried out by a drone carrying explosives, according to a statement from the interior ministry. The drone landed on a storage hangar at the air base, causing a fire that was later extinguished, according to the U.S.-led coalition.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. Sabreen, a news agency that supports Iranian-backed paramilitary groups, shared news of the attack.

It follows months of tensions between the U.S. and Iran, whose allied militias in Iraq have launched a series of attacks on U.S. bases in the country.

An attack on the Erbil airport in February killed a contractor working for U.S. forces.

A pro-Iranian militia group claimed responsibility. In retaliation for that attack, the U.S. launched airstrikes on Iran-allied militant groups in Syria.

“It seems the same #militia who targeted the airport two months ago are at it again. This is a clear & dangerous escalation,” tweeted Iraq’s former foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari.

A separate rocket attack on a Turkish military base in northern Iraq on Wednesday killed a Turkish service member, Turkey’s Defense Ministry said. No one claimed responsibility for the attack.

The attacks come as the Biden administration is attempting to re-engage Iran, sending officials to another round of indirect talks in Vienna this week aimed at reviving the 2015 agreement that limits Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

But an apparent attack on Iran’s main nuclear facility has threatened to derail those talks. Iran accused Israel of carrying out an act of sabotage at the Natanz nuclear facility on Sunday. Israeli media reported that the attack was carried out by the nation’s Mossad intelligence agency, though Israeli officials declined to comment.

Following the attack on the nuclear facility, Iran said it would begin enriching uranium to 60% for the first time.

Write to Jared Malsin at jared.malsin@wsj.com

The Chinese nuclear horn commands space: Daniel 7

China intends to militarize space, displace US power: intel report

By Mark Moore

April 13, 2021 | 1:10pm

China is working on militarizing space and matching or exceeding US technology in the coming years, the US intelligence community said in its Global Risk Assessment report.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s report says that China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army, is poised to become the US’ greatest rival in space, setting far-reaching and ambitious goals “to gain the military, economic, and prestige benefits that Washington has accrued from space leadership.”

The report, released last Friday, said Beijing “has counterspaceweapons capabilities” enabling it to target satellites belonging to the US and its allies.

“Beijing continues to train its military space elements and field new destructive and nondestructive ground- and space-based anti – satellite weapons ,” the report said, adding that China already has ground-based anti-satellite missiles and lasers “probably intended to blind or damage sensitive space-based optical sensors ” on US spacecraft.

It predicted that China will have an operational space station in low Earth orbit between 2022 and 2024, and will continue to conduct exploratory missions to the moon with the aim to establish a robotic research station on the lunar surface as a precursor to an “intermittently crewed” base.

China aims to establish a crewed base on the surface of the moon in the future.

AFP via Getty Images

The Chinese Communist Party “ will continue its whole-of-government efforts to spread China’s influence, undercut that of the United States, drive wedges between Washington and its allies and partners, and foster new international norms that favor the authoritarian Chinese system.”

Chinese leaders probably will, however, seek tactical opportunities to reduce tensions with Washington when such opportunities suit their interests ,” the intelligence report said.

While working on the space-based initiatives, China will maintain its “major innovation and industrial policies” to reduce reliance on foreign technologies, to develop military upgrades, to continue economic growth, with the goal of ensuring the country’s survival.

China’s military is poised to become the US’ greatest rival in space.

China National Space Administration

“Beijing sees increasingly competitive US-China relations as part of an epochal geopolitical shift and views Washington’s economic measures against Beijing since 2018 as part of a broader US effort to contain China’s rise ,” the ODNI report said, referring to the tariffs former President Donald Trump placed on Chinese goods being sold in the US.

As part of its long-term goals, China is consolidating its military power with its economic, technological and diplomatic strengths to “secure what it views as its territory and regional preeminence, and pursue international cooperation at Washington’s expense .”

China’s goal is to “foster new international norms” by undercutting the prominence and power of the US.

AP

Beijing will tout its success responding to the coronavirus pandemic as “evidence of the superiority of its system” and will use “vaccine diplomacy” to its advantage.

China will also extend its influence in the region, including its claims of sovereignty over Taiwan and the bolstering of its naval presence in the South China Sea “to signal to Southeast Asian countries that China has effective control over contested areas.”

O n nuclear weapons, the report said China is not interested in abiding by any arms control agreements that will hamper its future plans and will not engage in negotiations with Russia or the US that preserve their nuclear advantages.

Beijing intends to “at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile” in the next decade.

“China is building a larger and increasingly capable nuclear missile force that is more survivable, more diverse, and on higher alert than in the past, including nuclear missile systems designed to manage regional escalation and ensure an intercontinentalc second-strike capability ,” the report said.