The Unruly Czech Airplane That Helped Israel Win Its Independence

Sept. 5 2019

Near the end of World War II, Czechoslovakia’s Avia Company retooled one of its factories to produce Messerschmitts for the Luftwaffe. Avia kept making fighter planes after the war ended, but, having lost access to the German-made engines, had to redesign the aircraft with different parts, creating the S-199, an awkward hybrid used by the Czech air force. In 1948, with war on the horizon, the Haganah—unable to buy arms from the U.S., Britain, or the Soviet Union—became the only other military to purchase the S-199. Robert Gandt writes:

The first band of volunteers—two Americans, one South African, seven native Israelis—arrived at the České Budějovice air base on May 11, 1948. Lou Lenart, a wiry former U.S. Marine Corps pilot, made the group’s first flight in the S-199. It was nearly his last. Lenart recalled, “The big paddle-bladed propeller produced so much left-pulling torque that the first time I tried to take off, the plane ran away from me clear off the runway, through a fence, and over a cliff.”

To the volunteer pilots, the Czech fighter seemed to have a vicious streak, like an attack dog turning on its handler. The narrow landing gear made the S-199 difficult to keep aligned during takeoff. Directional control was made even worse by the enormous torque of the propeller. . . . The volunteers had barely begun training when, on May 15, the radio in their Czech quarters broadcast the news that Israel’s war of survival had begun.

Learning that Arab planes had bombed Tel Aviv, the pilots, with hardly any training, disassembled and packed the planes and went to fight for their country, where the aircraft were reassembled at the Ekron airfield.

The existence of the Czech-built fighters was a closely held secret. The newly assembled S-199s had not been test-flown. The guns had never been fired. None of the radios worked. But if the Egyptian army was not stopped, none of these concerns would matter. . . . Lenart, who led the four-ship [mission], had never flown in Israel before. Where was Ashdod? he wondered. All the villages along the coast looked alike.

In the [nascent Israeli air force’s] first two missions, two fighter planes were lost and one severely damaged. Of the first five pilots, one was dead and another too injured to fly again. But the secret was out: Israel had an air force. To make it official, the unit was given a designation: 101 Squadron, a grand-sounding label for a ragtag outfit down to one flyable airplane and three pilots.

Still, these crucial missions slowed the initial assault on Tel Aviv and may well have forestalled a calamitous defeat. By the war’s end in January, the S-199s had shot down a total of seven enemy planes. And as Gandt points out, the “mere sight of the fighter in the early days of the war had terrified the invaders and roused the spirits of the outnumbered defenders.”

Read more at Air & Space

More about: Czechoslovakia, Haganah, Israeli history, Israeli War of Independence

Leaked Emails Point to an Iranian Influence Operation That Reaches into the U.S. Government

Sept. 27 2023

As the negotiations leading up to the 2015 nuclear deal began in earnest, Tehran launched a major effort to cultivate support abroad for its positions, according to a report by Jay Solomon:

In the spring of 2014, senior Iranian Foreign Ministry officials initiated a quiet effort to bolster Tehran’s image and positions on global security issues—particularly its nuclear program—by building ties with a network of influential overseas academics and researchers. They called it the Iran Experts Initiative. The scope and scale of the IEI project has emerged in a large cache of Iranian government correspondence and emails.

The officials, working under the moderate President Hassan Rouhani, congratulated themselves on the impact of the initiative: at least three of the people on the Foreign Ministry’s list were, or became, top aides to Robert Malley, the Biden administration’s special envoy on Iran, who was placed on leave this June following the suspension of his security clearance.

In March of that year, writes Solomon, one of these officials reported that “he had gained support for the IEI from two young academics—Ariane Tabatabai and Dina Esfandiary—following a meeting with them in Prague.” And here the story becomes particularly worrisome:

Tabatabai currently serves in the Pentagon as the chief of staff for the assistant secretary of defense for special operations, a position that requires a U.S. government security clearance. She previously served as a diplomat on Malley’s Iran nuclear negotiating team after the Biden administration took office in 2021. Esfandiary is a senior advisor on the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, a think tank that Malley headed from 2018 to 2021.

Tabatabai . . . on at least two occasions checked in with Iran’s Foreign Ministry before attending policy events, according to the emails. She wrote to Mostafa Zahrani, [an Iranian scholar in close contact with the Foreign Ministry and involved in the IEI], in Farsi on June 27, 2014, to say she’d met Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal—a former ambassador to the U.S.—who expressed interest in working together and invited her to Saudi Arabia. She also said she’d been invited to attend a workshop on Iran’s nuclear program at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. . . .

Elissa Jobson, Crisis Group’s chief of advocacy, said the IEI was an “informal platform” that gave researchers from different organizations an opportunity to meet with IPIS and Iranian officials, and that it was supported financially by European institutions and one European government. She declined to name them.

Read more at Semafor

More about: Iran nuclear deal, U.S. Foreign policy