Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Iran's VIP Plane Crash: Sabotage or Accident?

Stratfor: Analysis

An Iranian military plane crashed near the northwestern city of Orumiyeh on Jan. 9. Eleven people, including the head of the ground forces of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Brig. Gen. Ahmad Kazemi, and several top commanders were killed in the crash. Though Iranian officials are citing bad weather and engine failure as cause for the crash, the incident is peculiar given that Kazemi was the second high-ranking Iranian military official killed in the last 26 days. Regardless of whether foul play actually caused the crash, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's support base has been struck hard.


The ground-forces commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Brig. Gen. Ahmad Kazemi was among 11 commanders killed Jan. 9 in a plane crash near the city of Orumiyeh, close to the Turkish border. The French-made Falcon jet crashed about 560 miles northwest of Tehran. According to Iranian officials, the aircraft lost power to at least one engine, and was attempting to make an emergency landing on a road in bad weather when it crashed. "Calm conditions" with light snow and 26.6 degrees Fahrenheit were reported.

A number of high-ranking IRGC officials died with Kazemi, including the commander of Rassoulollah Army Division 27, Saeed Mohtadi; Deputy Commander of Ground Forces for Operation Affairs Saeed Soleymani; the Official in Charge of Information for Ground Forces, Hanif Montazer-Qaem; artillery unit commander Gholam-Reza Yazdani; Hamid Azinpour and Mohsen Assadi, both members of the ground forces' command office: Deputy Commander of Ground Forces Safdar Reshadi; and Ahmad Elhaminejad and Morteza Basiri, both IRGC colonels.

A spokesman for the IRGC, Massoud Jazayeri, said bad weather and dilapidated engines caused the crash. It is entirely possible that the plane crashed due to technical difficulties, as Iranian officials have publicly claimed. Just a month ago, an Iranian military C-130 transport plane carrying 47 journalists crashed into a 10-story apartment building in Tehran, killing at least 110 people. Iran suffered its deadliest military plane crash in 2003 when a Russian-made military transport Il-76 operated by the IRGC crashed near Iran's border with Pakistan, killing all 302 IRGC members aboard. Before that, the crash of a Ukrainian-made An-140 on Dec. 23, 2003, left 46 scientists dead, a Russian-made Tupolev Tu-154 airliner crashed in February 2002, and a Russian-made Yak-40 crashed in bad weather in May 2001, killing 30 people including Iran's transportation minister.

Iran once possessed one of the most capable air forces in the Middle East. Under the shah, the Imperial Iranian Air Force boasted the most advanced U.S.-made aircraft available, and its personnel received extensive training by U.S. Air Force instructors. After the 1979 Islamic revolution, the United States halted support to Iran's air force and embargoed deliveries of military equipment and spare parts. Shortly after that, Iran's 8-year war with Iraq further strained the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF). The embargo has made the IRIAF's operation difficult, although the Iranians have displayed ingenuity in maintaining their aging equipment with indigenous means. Serviceability, however, remains a problem.

The Falcon 20E that crashed Jan. 9 formed part of the IRIAF VIP flight, based at Mehrabad air base near Tehran. Because it is used to transport high-ranking officials, it would be one of the better-maintained aircraft in the inventory. The aircraft's manufacturer, French-based Dassault Aviation, maintains an authorized service center in Iran. France's continued provision of aircraft and support to Iran comes despite U.S. pressure.

Though maintenance negligence offers a plausible explanation for the crash, the death of several of Iran's senior IRGC commanders comes at a particularly interesting juncture in Iran's political history. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election was not fully endorsed by the entire Iranian political spectrum. His firebrand antics, though coming in pursuit of a strategy to raise the Islamic republic's profile in the Muslim world, have stirred up noticeable hints of dissent within the ruling regime. One of Ahmadinejad's top security guards in the Ansar al-Mahdi Corps, a unit of the IRGC responsible for the personal security of senior Iranian officials, died Dec. 14 in an ambush on the presidential motorcade in Iran's lawless Sistan and Balochistan province.

Considering that the Falcon was carrying one of Iran's most elite IRGC commanders, and would thus undergo thorough tests for technical issues before flight, the crash could also indicate foul play aimed at undermining Ahmadinejad's power base and influence. READ MORE

Ahmadinejad served as a senior officer in the special brigade of the IRGC, and derives his key support from the IRGC. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is actively seeking to expand the IRGC's control over Iran's civilian institutions, recently approving the appointment of IRGC deputy commandant, Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, for a senior Interior Ministry post responsible for internal security. At Safavi's inauguration in December, the supreme commander of the IRGC expressed the organization's "solid support" for Ahmadinejad and his government. Kazemi, who was killed in the Jan. 9 crash, replaced Brig. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari as the commander of the IRGC's ground forces shortly after Iran's June 2005 presidential election, and was charged by Iran's supreme leader to "improve the operating stamina" of the IRGC troops. Gen. Alireza Zahedi took Kazemi's position as commander of the IRGC air forces in the reassignment. Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader evidently trusted Kazemi highly, given this promotion.

A serious effort to erode Ahmadinejad's core power base would first target the presidential loyalists vital to Iran's national security interests.

If this crash in fact reflects such an effort, Iran's security and intelligence apparatus has been penetrated, and the Iranian regime faces serious problems ahead as it proceeds with a bold agenda to secure its nuclear "rights," expand its orbit of influence in Iraq and reassert itself as the Islamic world's vanguard. Spouting off revolutionary rhetoric while engaging in back-channel talks with the United States could very well represent Iran's method of offsetting the Sunni world's concerns, given Iran's growing influence in the region.

If dissenting elements within the Iranian establishment have arranged for individuals critical to the country's national security to be removed, thus weakening Ahmadinejad's position, then a serious rift clearly is brewing within the regime. The Iranian regime would take great care to cover up any hints of such foul play. And while competing explanations of engine malfunctions versus conspirators aiming to bring down the president hang in the air, the fact remains that Ahmadinejad's power base has been severely threatened.