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Iran: Good Old Times for Israeli Bombers in Clear Saudi Skies?


Ah, these lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer.  Fish are jumping (except if they happen to be in the Gulf of Mexico) and the cotton is high.  And Israel prepares to bomb-bomb-bomb Iran, under clear and sunny Saudi skies — at least according to the London Times.

Hugh Tomlinson’s June 12 piece in the London Times Online — “Saudi Arabia Gives Israel Clear Skies to Attack Iran Nuclear Sites” — claims that Riyadh has not only agreed to allow Israeli jets to traverse its air space, but has conducted tests to make sure the kingdom can shut down its air defense systems long enough for Israeli forces to carry out a “bombing raid” on Iranian nuclear facilities:

In the week that the UN Security Council imposed a new round of sanctions on Tehran, defence sources in the Gulf say that Riyadh has agreed to allow Israel to use a narrow corridor of its airspace in the north of the country to shorten the distance for a bombing run on Iran.  To ensure the Israeli bombers pass unmolested, Riyadh has carried out tests to make certain its own jets are not scrambled and missile defence systems not activated.  Once the Israelis are through, the kingdom’s air defences will return to full alert.

Predictably, the Times assertions are based exclusively on comments from unidentifiable sources:

“The Saudis have given their permission for the Israelis to pass over and they will look the other way,” said a US defence source in the area.  “They have already done tests to make sure their own jets aren’t scrambled and no one gets shot down.  This has all been done with the agreement of the [US] State Department.”

Sources in Saudi Arabia say it is common knowledge within defence circles in the kingdom that an arrangement is in place if Israel decides to launch the raid.  Despite the tension between the two governments, they share a mutual loathing of the regime in Tehran and a common fear of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  “We all know this.  We will let them [the Israelis] through and see nothing,” said one.

Summer is also a season for television reruns.  Have we seen trailers for this soon-to-be-released bunkerbuster drama before?  As in “Saudis Give Nod to Israeli Raid on Iran” by Uzi Mahnaimi and Sarah Baxter, in the Sunday Times Online, on July 5, 2009?

The head of Mossad, Israel’s overseas intelligence service, has assured Benjamin Netanyahu, its prime minister, that Saudi Arabia would turn a blind eye to Israeli jets flying over the kingdom during any future raid on Iran’s nuclear sites.

Earlier this year Meir Dagan, Mossad’s director since 2002, held secret talks with Saudi officials to discuss the possibility.

The Israeli press has already carried unconfirmed reports that high-ranking officials, including Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister, held meetings with Saudi colleagues.  The reports were denied by Saudi officials.

“The Saudis have tacitly agreed to the Israeli air force flying through their airspace on a mission which is supposed to be in the common interests of both Israel and Saudi Arabia,” a diplomatic source said last week.

Although the countries have no formal diplomatic relations, an Israeli defence source confirmed that Mossad maintained “working relations” with the Saudis.

Nuclear non-proliferation expert Avner Cohen, Senior Fellow of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, believes that there’s more to the release of the latest Times article at this time — most likely was planted by someone in the Israeli government — than its being a mere summer rerun.  The author of Israel and the Bomb explained in a telephone interview that “the timing of the release needs to be viewed within the context of other recent developments,” including the sanctions against Iran approved by the UN Security Council the other day, as well as the deteriorating ties between Israel and Turkey.

Flying over Turkey has long been considered the most feasible route for Israeli bombers striking on Iran (if the U.S. didn’t permit the use of Iraqi air space), but the prospects for getting Turkish permission seem increasingly remote.  Since Israel is openly skeptical that UN sanctions will seriously impede Iranian nuclear research — which Israelis insist must include all nuclear research.  “The possibility of flying through Saudi air space reassures Israelis that the military option is still on the table,” Cohen said.

Today’s Times article notes:

In 2007 Israel was reported to have used Turkish air space to attack a suspected nuclear reactor being built by Iran’s main regional ally, Syria.  Although Turkey publicly protested against the “violation” of its air space, it is thought to have turned a blind eye in what many saw as a dry run for a strike on Iran’s far more substantial — and better-defended — nuclear sites.

Remarkably Tomlinson forgets to mention that in 2009 — in his own newspaper — the “blind eye” became Saudi.  The latest report would have taken Saudi tolerance to an unprecedented level.  (One can’t help wondering whether the shutdown of Saudi defense systems, out of deference to the Israelis, would allow Iranian bombers to safely traverse the Saudi peninsula as well.)

Some mainstream media outlets in the U.S. have learned to view such stories with well-deserved skepticism.  There have been numerous reports of impending Israeli attacks on Iran, and none have (as yet) occurred.  Israeli news sources, however, eagerly await them.  Israeli censorship laws permit the publication of almost anything — including some (although not all) “classified” information — once it has appeared in the foreign press.  So the national security disinformation game encourages the selective and anonymous leaking of stories to reporters writing for foreign publications by almost anyone within the Israeli political or defense establishment.  These foreign news stories migrate into the Israeli news sites, all the while retaining a high level of plausible deniability for whoever planted them, and then seep into the pro- and anti-Israel blogosphere abroad.  Once published in Israeli news outlets, articles occasionally are picked up by some of the same mainstream media sites that were initially cautious about them.

Not surprisingly, the report of Saudi cooperation with Israel is being denied by Riyadh.  As of this writing, the Jerusalem Post retains the original story on its website, but also has posted a terse Saudi denial issued by AFP (French Press Agency).  The Israeli news site Y-Net currently contains only a brief release from the AFP (French Press Agency) noting that the Saudi government has denied the report.  The Israeli daily Haaretz published the original Times story when it came out, then removed it altogether, and now has replaced it with a new version, featuring a full fledged refutation by Prince Mohammed bin Nawuf.

In the United States, MSNBC published the original Times with a question mark in the headline –“Saudis Clear Israel to Bomb Iran?” — as does Fox News.  Thus far the Washington Post has steered clear of the story, while the New York Times provided a link from its site to a Business Insider blog post.

Nonetheless, the story has just been given new life by AFP.  Repeating both the original Times assertions (which somehow the Times now declines to make available through its online Search tool), and integrating the Saudi government’s denials, AFP now is disseminating an expanded denial that attempts to confirm the original story by innuendo:

Riyadh denied the British report on Saturday, calling it “false” and “slanderous,” the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported.

“Saudi Arabia has followed the false and slanderous allegations reported by some British media that it would let Israel attack Iran via its airspace,” SPA quoted a foreign ministry official as saying.

The kingdom “rejects violating its sovereignty or the use of its airspace or territories by anyone to attack any country,” the unidentified official said, noting that Saudi Arabia does not have diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.

Nonetheless, let’s not let any of this interfere with the story line (wink, wink):

The Times said Riyadh, which views Iran as a regional threat, had agreed to allow Israel to use a narrow corridor of its airspace in the north of the country to shorten the distance in the event of any bombing raid on Iran.

It said that a source in Saudi Arabia said the arrangement was common knowledge within defence circles in the kingdom.

“We all know this.  We will let them (the Israelis) through and see nothing,” the source told The Times.

Hussein Shobokshi, a columnist for the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat, not only rejected the claim that the Saudi government had agreed to cooperate with Israel, but also questioned the existence of the Saudi “circles” who would acquiesce, as quoted by Al Jazeera’s English language news site:

“I can deny with full force that there is no such thing as ‘Saudi circles’.  Any Saudi official will deny this,” he told Al Jazeera.  “The Israelis are good at changing subjects.  They are trying to refocus the attention to another subject, to shift away the focus from the massacre that took place in the flotilla ship and Gaza.  “This is a smear campaign by the Israeli government [which is] trying to divert the attention away from Gaza.”

Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, and let those London Times roll!

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel.  She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University.  This article was first published in Tehran Bureau on 13 June 2010; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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