Iran’s secret pipeline into the U.S.

Iran’s secret pipeline into the U.S.

August 18, 2010 – 5:02am

AP: a5bae176-185b-4b86-a2c3-55708af8f7cd

FILE — In a Feb. 11, 2008 file photo Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaks during a rally to celebrate the 29th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution at Azadi Square, Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian/file)

J.J. Green, wtop.com
WASHINGTON – Iran Air 744 is a bimonthly flight that originates in Tehran and flies directly to Caracas with periodic stops in Beirut and Damascus. The maiden flight was Feb. 2, 2007.

The mere existence of the flight was a significant concern for U.S. intelligence officials, but now a broader concern is who and what are aboard the flights.

“If you [a member of the public] tried to book yourself a seat on this flight and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a week before, a month before, six months before — you’ll never find a place to sit there,” says Offer Baruch, a former Israeli Shin Bet agent.

Baruch, now vice president of operations for International Shield, a security firm in Texas, says the plane is reserved for Iranian agents, including “Hezbollah, the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) and other intelligence personnel.”

Current and former U.S. intelligence official fear the flight is a shadowy way to move people and weapons to locations in Latin America that can be used as staging points for retaliatory attacks against the U.S. or its interests in the event Iranian nuclear sites are struck by U.S. or Israeli military forces.

“My understanding is that this flight not only goes from Caracas to Damascus to Tehran perhaps twice a month, but it also occasionally makes stops in Lebanon as well, and the passengers on that flight are not processed through normal Venezuelan immigrations or customs. They are processed separately when they come into the country,” says Peter Brookes, senior fellow for National Security Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

The 16-hour flight typically leaves Tehran and stops at Damascus International Airport (DAM), which is Syria’s busiest. In 2009, almost 4.5 million passengers used the airport.

After a 90-minute layover, the flight continues the remaining 14 hours to Venezuela’s Caracas Maiquetía International Airport (CCS). Upon arrival, the plane is met by special Venezuelan forces and sequestered from other arrivals.

“It says that something secretive or clandestine is going on that they don’t want the international community to know about,” says Brookes, a former deputy assistant defense secretary for Asian and Pacific Affairs and CIA employee.

“The fact that there is a flight is of course of interest, but the fact that not anybody can gain access to this flight or buy a ticket for that flight is of particular curiosity and should be of concern to the United States.”

In addition to speculation about who is aboard, there are significant concerns that the Boeing 747SP airplane might be transporting uranium to Tehran on the return flight. The U.S. government has enacted strong sanctions against Iran because of its nuclear program and there are worries the flight might provide an opportunity to skirt the embargo against materials that might be used for the program.

“Clearly, Iran has been a sponsor of Hezbollah, and clearly Hezbollah profits from this relationship,” former CIA Director Michael J. Hayden says.

“It would be too much to say that Hezbollah is a puppet of the Iranian state, but one way of looking at this relationship is that the Iranian state might rely on Hezbollah as a strategic weapon — its weapon for global reach.”

Hayden, now a principle in the Chertoff Group, says the CIA has been aware of the activities for several years.

“Fundamentally, the thing that first and very solidly caught our attention at the Agency was the inauguration of direct air flight between the two capitals. Here was a conduit that people could travel from Iran into the Western Hemisphere, into Latin America in a way that would be very difficult for American intelligence services to detect and to understand.

“Right there at that very simple level, just the direct flight is something that we would be and should be concerned about.”

Brookes says the passengers “may not even need visas because they are special passengers. That obviously is of concern because there is no transparency about who the people are coming in and going out of the country. Of course there is concern that these folks may be Iranian special agents.”

Beyond concerns about Iranian intelligence flooding the west, Brookes and others worry that Iranian special advisers are schooling the Venezuelan military and may be involved in plans to move Iranian agents inside the U.S.

“It’s certainly a possibility. Would the agents that come into Venezuela be able to find their way to the United States? That’s certainly possible. You see the drug smugglers today using submersibles to move drugs to the U.S. and other parts of the Caribbean which is a real challenge. So why wouldn’t they be able to do the same with persons?”

A U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity says there are concerns about the relationships between Iran and Venezuela, but you have to keep it in perspective.

“The problems both countries face internally, and their own regional priorities closer to home, limit the amount of trouble they can cause together. But it’s something you have to watch, whether it’s the potential for government-to-government mischief or the possibility of something involving Iran’s friends like Hezbollah.

“You can ask what a self-proclaimed Bolivarian socialist has in common with a bunch of theocratic thugs in Iran. The answer is ‘not much,’ beyond a taste for repression and a shared desire to make life difficult for the United States and its allies.”

On Friday, the next flight is expected to take off. While U.S. intelligence may be able to track the flight, there appears to be little more they can legally do to determine what or who is on board.

“American intelligence services have a lot of things on their plate. The fact that I can tell you that we’re really interested in that direct flight tells you that it was on our scope — something that we are sensitive to,” Hayden says. “Are we doing enough about it? I would have to say ‘no,’ because it’s a very challenging menu that American intelligence has to deal with.”

In a statement, the State Department says, “Nations have the right to enter into cooperative relationships with other nations.”

Neither the Iranian nor the Venezuelan governments responded to request for reaction before this article was published.

You can follow WTOP’s J.J. Green on Twitter.

Brittany Zickfoose contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2010 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

J.J. Green, wtop.com

WASHINGTON – Iran Air 744 is a bimonthly flight that originates in Tehran and flies directly to Caracas with periodic stops in Beirut and Damascus. The maiden flight was Feb. 2, 2007.

The mere existence of the flight was a significant concern for U.S. intelligence officials, but now a broader concern is who and what are aboard the flights.

“If you [a member of the public] tried to book yourself a seat on this flight and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a week before, a month before, six months before — you’ll never find a place to sit there,” says Offer Baruch, a former Israeli Shin Bet agent.

Baruch, now vice president of operations for International Shield, a security firm in Texas, says the plane is reserved for Iranian agents, including “Hezbollah, the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) and other intelligence personnel.”

Current and former U.S. intelligence official fear the flight is a shadowy way to move people and weapons to locations in Latin America that can be used as staging points for retaliatory attacks against the U.S. or its interests in the event Iranian nuclear sites are struck by U.S. or Israeli military forces.

“My understanding is that this flight not only goes from Caracas to Damascus to Tehran perhaps twice a month, but it also occasionally makes stops in Lebanon as well, and the passengers on that flight are not processed through normal Venezuelan immigrations or customs. They are processed separately when they come into the country,” says Peter Brookes, senior fellow for National Security Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

The 16-hour flight typically leaves Tehran and stops at Damascus International Airport (DAM), which is Syria’s busiest. In 2009, almost 4.5 million passengers used the airport.

After a 90-minute layover, the flight continues the remaining 14 hours to Venezuela’s Caracas Maiquetía International Airport (CCS). Upon arrival, the plane is met by special Venezuelan forces and sequestered from other arrivals.

“It says that something secretive or clandestine is going on that they don’t want the international community to know about,” says Brookes, a former deputy assistant defense secretary for Asian and Pacific Affairs and CIA employee.

“The fact that there is a flight is of course of interest, but the fact that not anybody can gain access to this flight or buy a ticket for that flight is of particular curiosity and should be of concern to the United States.”

In addition to speculation about who is aboard, there are significant concerns that the Boeing 747SP airplane might be transporting uranium to Tehran on the return flight. The U.S. government has enacted strong sanctions against Iran because of its nuclear program and there are worries the flight might provide an opportunity to skirt the embargo against materials that might be used for the program.

“Clearly, Iran has been a sponsor of Hezbollah, and clearly Hezbollah profits from this relationship,” former CIA Director Michael J. Hayden says.

“It would be too much to say that Hezbollah is a puppet of the Iranian state, but one way of looking at this relationship is that the Iranian state might rely on Hezbollah as a strategic weapon — its weapon for global reach.”

Hayden, now a principle in the Chertoff Group, says the CIA has been aware of the activities for several years.

“Fundamentally, the thing that first and very solidly caught our attention at the Agency was the inauguration of direct air flight between the two capitals. Here was a conduit that people could travel from Iran into the Western Hemisphere, into Latin America in a way that would be very difficult for American intelligence services to detect and to understand.

“Right there at that very simple level, just the direct flight is something that we would be and should be concerned about.”

Brookes says the passengers “may not even need visas because they are special passengers. That obviously is of concern because there is no transparency about who the people are coming in and going out of the country. Of course there is concern that these folks may be Iranian special agents.”

Beyond concerns about Iranian intelligence flooding the west, Brookes and others worry that Iranian special advisers are schooling the Venezuelan military and may be involved in plans to move Iranian agents inside the U.S.

“It’s certainly a possibility. Would the agents that come into Venezuela be able to find their way to the United States? That’s certainly possible. You see the drug smugglers today using submersibles to move drugs to the U.S. and other parts of the Caribbean which is a real challenge. So why wouldn’t they be able to do the same with persons?”

   1 2  –  Next page  >>

Shockingly Weak Obama Shockingly Moves To Weaken Iran Sanctions

Shockingly Weak Obama Shockingly Moves To Weaken Iran Sanctions

April 29th, 2010 Posted By Pat Dollard.

r972425069

Washington Times:

The Obama administration is pressing Congress to provide an exemption from Iran sanctions to companies based in “cooperating countries,” a move that likely would exempt Chinese and Russian concerns from penalties meant to discourage investment in Iran.

The Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act is in a House-Senate conference committee and is expected to reach President Obama’s desk by Memorial Day.

“It’s incredible the administration is asking for exemptions, under the table and winking and nodding, before the legislation is signed into law,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and a conference committee member, said in an interview. A White House official confirmed Wednesday that the administration was pushing the conference committee to adopt the exemption of “cooperating countries” in the legislation.

Neither the House nor Senate version of the bill includes a “cooperating countries” provision even though the administration asked the leading sponsors of the Senate version of the bill nearly six months ago to include one.

The legislation, aimed at companies that sell Iran gasoline or equipment to refine petroleum, would impose penalties on such companies, up to the potentially crippling act of cutting off the company entirely from the American economy. It also would close a loophole in earlier Iran sanctions by barring foreign-owned subsidiaries of U.S. companies from doing business in Iran’s energy sector.

Although Iran is one of the world’s leading oil exporters, it lacks the capacity to refine as much oil into gasoline as its domestic economy uses. Three years ago, the Iranian government imposed gasoline rations on the population.

“We’re pushing for a ‘cooperating-countries’ exemption,” the White House official said. “It is not targeted to any country in particular, but would be based on objective criteria and made in full consultation with the Congress.”

Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen, however, said the exemption “is aimed at China and Russia specifically.”

“The administration wants to give a pass to countries for merely supporting a watered-down, almost do-nothing U.N. resolution,” she said.

All past sanctions against Iran have included a waiver that lets the president refrain from penalizing foreign companies that are doing business with Iran.

The “cooperating countries” language that the White House is pressing would allow the executive branch to designate countries as cooperating with the overall strategy to pressure Iran economically.

According to three congressional staffers familiar with the White House proposal, once a country is on that list, the administration wouldn’t even have to identify companies from that country as selling gasoline or aiding Iran’s refinement industry.

Even if, as current law allows, the administration can waive the penalties on named companies for various reasons, the “cooperating countries” language would deprive the sanctions of their “name-and-shame” power, the staffers said.

The prospect that China and Chinese firms would be exempt from penalty follows reports that Beijing is cooperating with Iran’s missile program. On April 23, Jane’s Defense Weekly reported that China broke ground on a plant in Iran this month that will build the Nasr-1 anti-ship missile.

Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, where he directs the group’s Iran energy project, said the “‘cooperating-country’ status would send a signal to the energy sector that the Obama administration is not serious about penalizing those companies that continue to do business with the Iranian energy sector, the lifeblood of the men who rule Iran.”

Indeed, Christophe de Margerie, chief executive of the French national oil concern Total, told Reuters news agency on Tuesday that his company would stop business in Iran only if required to do so by the law.

“I’ve been asked by certain people to reconsider,” he said. “I say, ‘OK, make it official.’”

However Patrick Clawson, the deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said U.S. policy objectives should not be to penalize foreign companies, but instead to persuade countries like China to enforce their own trade restrictions with Iran.

“If the administration can use this ‘cooperating-countries’ waiver to get cooperation from a country like China on enforcing the U.N. sanctions and on suspending investment in Iran’s oil and gas industry, then this bill will be a great success for U.S. objectives about Iran’s nuclear program and support for terrorism,” he said.

One congressional staff member working on the bill told The Washington Times that Mr. Obama personally asked the House leadership this month to put off the sanctions bill until after the current work period. Shortly after that meeting, both the House and Senate named conferees for the legislation.

U.S. unilateral sanctions aimed at freezing foreign companies out of American markets have been irritants in U.S. diplomacy. Foreign countries complain that imposing such “secondary sanctions” is just a form of protectionism.

The Obama administration has promised to pursue sanctions at the U.N. Security Council and also has indicated it would pursue unilateral sanctions targeted at Iran’s banking sector and the companies that insure shipping to and from Iranian ports.

Keith Weissman, a former Iran specialist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said he did not think the current refined-petroleum sanctions would be effective.

“Of all the sanctions I have been around, this is one of the dumber ones,” Mr. Weissman said. “We have been talking about this for so long, the Iranians are ready for this. Not only are they building the capacity for refining the fuel, they will have more capacity to purchase it from regional countries.”

Nonetheless, a number of foreign companies have announced in recent months that they would end business in Iran in anticipation of U.N. and U.S. sanctions. Some companies that provide Iran with refined petroleum, such as the Indian firm Reliance and the Kuwaiti trader IPG, have announced they would end the gasoline shipments.

Mr. Weissman was accused in 2005 by the federal government of conspiring to leak classified information to a Washington Post reporter. The Justice Department dropped the charges last year.

Because oil-refining sanctions would end up increasing the price of gasoline and heating oil for average Iranians, they have been opposed by many in Iran’s “green” opposition movement, such as Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights lawyer.

Mojtaba Vahedi, a former chief of staff to opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi, said in a telephone interview that he would prefer to see targeted sanctions aimed at Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and its front companies.

“The main problem in Iran is the management of the country, everything that helps to remove [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is good for the people, especially smart sanctions that target the regime,” he said.