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August 28, 2008
Notes from the Pentagon

Coming U.S.-Russia freeze
The Russian military operation in Georgia is beginning to negatively impact U.S. ties to Moscow, including a pending U.S.-Russia nuclear cooperation agreement and possibly space cooperation.

Five senators wrote to President Bush last week urging him to "immediately withdraw" the so-called 123 nuclear agreement from Congress because of "Russian aggression" against Georgia.

"This is simply not the time for our government to be promoting expanded cooperation with Russia in this sensitive area," the senators said in the Aug. 21 letter. Among those signing were Republican Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, John Ensign of Nevada and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

"Instead, we believe that the United States must send a strong signal to Russian leadership that its increasingly belligerent foreign policy will not be rewarded." Two U.S. officials - one in Congress, the other in the Bush administration - said policymakers in the State Department want to go ahead with the nuclear deal, which would involve the transfer of reactor technology.

The senators also said Russian sales of SA-20 missiles to Iran are another reason to cancel the nuclear accord because sales of the air-defensive equipment are going forward despite U.S. protests.

Another coming chill in relations as a result of the Georgia crisis involves joint space cooperation, which is in jeopardy after reports that Russia illegally used the International Space Station (ISS) for military reconnaissance during the early days of the war.

NASA's Web site posted a status report on the ISS that disclosed that a Russian cosmonaut used digital cameras to photograph "the aftereffects of border conflict operation in the Caucasus." Aviation Week first reported the issue.

Russia's space agency stated that the pictures were not for military use but to support "humanitarian" operations.

However, U.S. officials said the military photography by the Russian violated a 1998 U.S.-Russia agreement that limits activities on the station to civilian use. "There is clearly a need to exercise better supervision of their onboard activity," one official said.

NASA is planning to use Russian boosters to send U.S. astronauts to the space station after the shuttle is shut down in 2010, but some in Congress are saying that the shuttle program should be continued because of the Russian action in Georgia.

Rep. Tom Feeney, Florida Republican and ranking member of the House subcommittee that oversees NASA, said he is concerned about the reported Russian photography from the ISS. "By definition, the space station is to be used for peaceful purposes," Mr. Feeney said in an interview. "It is a concern when any of our international space partners use the station ... for what could be used for strategy or tactics."

Another worry, Mr. Feeney said, is overreliance on Russia for access to the space station. "We do not want the Russians to have a monopoly on access to the space station," he said. "That's a much bigger problem than cosmonauts taking pictures."

NASA spokesman John Yembrick said NASA accepts Russia's explanation that the photography was related to water problems in South Ossetia and not for military reconnaissance. "NASA has no concerns about it," he said.

Iranian guards
A European-based Iranian exile group reports that there are major divisions within the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the Islamic shock troops that the U.S. government has linked to international terrorism.

The group, the People's Mujahideen of Iran, stated in a report that its sources inside Iran think there is major discord within the paramilitary force that is believed to have a major role within the regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The August report stated that both the leadership and the structure of the IRGC are undergoing widespread transformation.

"As a result of these changes, the IRGC will not be solely a centralized force," the report said. "It will be transformed to 31 provincial forces, and each commander will be given widespread power and authority. The paramilitary Basij forces in each province will also be organized under the authority of the same regional IRGC commander."

According to the report, problems of desertions, retirements and buyouts in the IRGC over the past year prompted leadership changes and reforms.

The report said a new strategy for the group was adopted in 2005 that called for the IRGC to prepare to carry out terrorist attacks, including the use of suicide strikes, stepping up development of missile forces, and development of nuclear weapons as part of preparations for any response to foreign attacks on Iran.

The report quoted IRGC commander Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, speaking to a new IRGC strategy center as saying, "If the enemy makes the smallest moves against our country and people, we will endanger its interests all over the world."

Other reported changes included the IRGC navy taking command of the Persian Gulf region from the Iranian navy, and the upgrading of missile units.

The report was produced by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which the State Department regards as a front for the People's Mujahideen of Iran and has designated as a terrorist group. The group in the past provided some of the first details of Iran's nuclear program, ahead of U.S. intelligence agencies, but it also has made a number of unverified claims.

A U.S. official said of the report that "there have been some personnel changes in the IRGC, but they don't appear to be that dramatic."

Mohammad Mohaddessin, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council, said in a statement that the IRGC changes appear to be an effort by the Tehran government to reorient the paramilitaries toward domestic security.

"The situation is volatile, and despite brute suppression, the Iranian cities have been the scene of more than 5,300 anti-government demonstrations and protest acts in 2007," he said.

"On the other hand, the Qods Force, the extraterritorial arm of the IRGC, has been strengthened and has been expanding its export of terrorism and fundamentalism in other countries in the region, in particular Iraq, with freer reign."

Coming purge?
Congressional Republicans say they expect a purge of political appointees in the Bush administration if Sen. Barack Obama wins the presidential election in November.

The evidence: Rep. Henry Waxman, California Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, in March requested a Government Accountability Office probe of all non-career government officials who converted to career positions, meaning they technically can remain in the next administration, while most politicals resign.

Mr. Waxman and two other House Democrats stated in requesting the review that GAO had done similar reviews in past administrations and stated, "As we approach the end of the current administration, we believe this is an appropriate time to conduct another such review."

A Republican aide said the GAO study is a sign that Democrats may be more efficient at imposing political controls in the executive branch than Republicans. While the Bush administration sometimes vetted applicants for career positions according to their politics, it also kept on numerous Democratic holdovers, occasionally with embarrassing results. For example, Richard Clarke, a Clinton administration counterterrorism official, stayed on in the Bush White House and then became a harsh critic of the president, charging in a book that Mr. Bush was to blame for not taking aggressive action against al Qaeda before Sept. 11.

  • Bill Gertz covers national security affairs. He can be reached at 202/636-3274, or at

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