Iraq’s Shiite militias are becoming as great a danger as ISIS

Phillip Smyth writes: Armed men posing with severed heads, massacres of mosque-goers during Friday prayers, massive reliance on transnational jihadists — these are crimes that are usually associated with the Islamic State (IS). However, they’re also the actions of some of Iraq’s growing Shiite militia organizations, which are playing an increasingly prominent role in fighting the Sunni jihadists. These groups, many of which have deep ideological and organizational links to Iran, are sweeping away what is left of any notion of the Baghdad government’s authority — and represent a massive challenge to President Barack Obama’s stated goal of working with an inclusive Iraqi government to push back IS.

Over 50 Shiite militias are now recruiting and fighting in Iraq. These groups are actively recruiting — drawing potential soldiers away from the Iraqi army and police and bringing fighters into highly ideological, anti-American, and rabidly sectarian organizations. Many of these trainees are not simply being used to push back Sunni jihadists, but in many cases form a rear guard used to control districts that are supposedly under Baghdad’s control.

Shiite militias have embedded themselves within the structures of the Iraqi government, which has become far too reliant on their power to contemplate cracking down on them. Together, they have committed horrifying human rights abuses: In early June, Shiite militias, along with Iraqi security forces, reportedly executed around 255 prisoners, including children. An Amnesty International report from June detailed how Shiite militias regularly carried out extrajudicial summary executions, and reported that dozens of Sunni prisoners were killed in government buildings. [Continue reading...]

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Iran leader says U.S. anti-ISIS effort ‘pointless’

Bloomberg reports: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said a U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State is “pointless,” as members of the alliance met today to coordinate efforts against the militant group.

“Actions that were carried out in Iraq and broke the back of Islamic State were not the deed of Americans but those of the army and people of Iraq,” Khamenei said today in comments on his official website. He said the coalition is “pointless, superficial and has an agenda.”

While U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State targets helped Kurdish and government forces recapture some of the territory lost to the al-Qaeda breakaway group, Iranian-backed militias have also aided the fight against the Sunni extremists. [Continue reading...]

AFP reports: British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond on Monday urged Iran to cooperate with an international coalition to fight jihadists in Iraq even if Tehran did not join the group.

Hammond made the call in Paris after a major conference on Iraq as Iran refused to join an anti-jihadist coalition.

“It was always unlikely that Iran would become a fully-fledged member of the coalition but I think we should continue to hope that Iran will align itself broadly with the direction that the coalition is going,” Hammond told reporters.

He also said he hoped Iran would be “cooperative with the plans that the coalition is putting in place, if not actively a part of the coalition.” [Continue reading...]

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In the fight against ISIS, a coalition of rivals

The Washington Post reports: The urgent fight to keep Islamic State forces­ from taking over more of Iraq has led the Obama administration to tolerate, and in some cases even approve, things it once would have loudly protested.

When Iraqi Shiite militias, backed by Iran and long branded illegal by the administration, retook the town of Amerli from the Sunni Muslim militants last week, U.S. officials breathed a sigh of relief.

Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force and usually described as an arch­enemy of the United States, reportedly was present during the battle and was seen days later in an Internet-posted photo shaking hands with a militia fighter.

Farther north, Kurdish fighters have occupied the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, a prize the Kurds have long claimed but which lies outside the borders — recognized by both Baghdad and Washington — of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurd­i­stan region. Far from insisting the fighters withdraw, the administration is glad that someone is defending the city from the Islamic State.

Such legal and policy niceties have become a luxury in the battle to push back the militants whom President Obama on Friday called “a savage organization” that “poses­ a significant threat” to the United States and its allies.

It is not, as one administration official said with significant under­statement, an ideal situation, and there is widespread recognition that facts are being created on the ground that are likely to cause problems in the future. [Continue reading...]

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Iran’s role in Syria

Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, directors of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, interviewed by IranWire:

How does the Syrian opposition interpret Iran’s involvement in Syria?

Nader Hashemi: The Syrian opposition understandably views Iran as an enemy state, which is the biggest backer and sustainer of Assad’s criminal enterprise. The fingerprints of the Islamic Republic are all over the atrocities in Syria. The full story of Iran’s involvement in Syria has yet to be told. If we ever get to the point where there’s a full investigation, we’ll likely see that Iran’s involvement has been much larger and more significant than has been publicly admitted and reported. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that Bashar al-Assad is hugely in debt to the Iranian regime for its survival, increasingly so as the conflict has gone on.

Danny Postel: The Hezbollah’s Syrian surge, for example, in 2013, was critical. It came at a time when Assad was very vulnerable, and that’s why Hezbollah was drawn in. And we now have reports of Iraqi fighters in Syria, which Iran has played a direct role in, and Afghan fighters.

Hashemi: There was a piece in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago reporting that the Iranian government is paying a $500 bribe to Afghan Shia refugees in Iran to fight in Syria, which is quite revealing. This suggests that the Syrian regime does not have enough troops to do its fighting, and must rely on external forces to do its dirty work. It also suggests that the Assad regime is not as strong as it, and its backers, claim it to be. It does have a weakness in terms of fighters, otherwise why would you have thousands of Hezbollah troops doing some of the regime’s heavy lifting?

If you read the Iranian press, one month ago, the Iranian deputy foreign minister Amir Abdollahian was giving a talk at the University of Tehran where he admitted publicly that Assad was about to fall, and then Iran stepped up its involvement to save the regime. That most likely happened in late 2012 or early 2013, when it looked like the regime was on very shaky ground.

Iran is invested in supporting the Assad regime right till the end, and they’re doing it not for reasons of religious doctrine or political ideology. It’s pure realpolitik. The Iranian regime realizes that the survival of the Assad regime is central to Iran’s national security and defense doctrine — particularly with respect to Israel. If there’s a toppling of the Assad regime, Iran’s regional clout — specifically its access to Hezbollah — diminishes significantly. [Continue reading...]

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U.S. reluctance to intervene in Iraq may have unintended consequences for Israel

A week ago Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to like the idea of a conflict between ISIS and Iran — a conflict in which the United States should refrain from becoming aligned with Tehran.

“Don’t strengthen either of them. Weaken both,” Netanyahu said.

He may have imagined his anti-interventionism would resonate with several constituencies in the U.S.. But he couldn’t have imagined what might happen next.

With the U.S. reluctant to intervene on behalf of Maliki, he has turned to both Iran and Russia both of which have stepped up to provide military support. Iran may have already conducted air strikes in Iraq.

Now comes a twist which — if the reporting is accurate — will shock the Israelis: a significant boost to Iran’s air force.

David Cenciotti, a highly respected aviation blogger, reports:

On Jul. 1, all the seven operational Su-25 Frogfoot attack planes operated by the Pasdaran (informal name of the IRGC – the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution) have completed their deployment to Imam Ali Airbase where they will join the ex-Russian Air Force Su-25s already delivered to Iraq in the air war against ISIS (Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

The aircraft (three Su-25UBKM and four Su-25KM jets, according to ACIG.org sources) will be operated by four Iraqi pilots and 10 Iranian pilots.

The aircraft and support to fly them would be part of a military contract (backed by the U.S.) according to which Iran’s IRGC Air Force will receive six Su-30K multirole jets destined to Iraq.

The Su-30K is one of the best Russian combat jets available and would present a significant extra layer of defense for Iran in the event that Israel ever considers attacking Iran’s nuclear installations.

Meanwhile, a Bloomberg report on Obama’s lack of options in Iraq alongside Russia and Iran’s growing involvement, notes:

The swift action by two of America’s adversaries has prompted Obama’s critics in Washington — and even some members of his administration — to argue that the U.S. must act quickly to avert an extremist takeover of a country it invaded and occupied for more than eight years.

Obama’s ability to influence events in Iraq is limited, though, according to a U.S. intelligence official.

Two U.S. administrations have inspired distrust among both Shiites and Sunnis by invading in 2003, then failing to stabilize the country or compel Maliki to stop his revenge campaign against Sunnis, and finally withdrawing and leaving a polarized state at the end of 2011, the official said.

Now, the administration is exploring a three-pronged strategy, according to U.S. officials involved in the effort. It consists of providing Maliki’s government with limited military aid, pressing him to step down or agree to a more inclusive government and trying with Saudi Arabian assistance to pry Sunni tribesmen away from their de facto alliance with the Islamic State.

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ISIS becomes ‘The Islamic State’ as it declares: Mission accomplished

If George Bush’s 2003 “Mission Accomplished” speech came to epitomize the hubris of the neoconservatives as they foolishly celebrated victory in Iraq, the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi seems to have out-Bushed Bush in his arrogance this weekend as he anointed himself the new global leader of Muslims and head of “The Islamic State” (which has dropped the parochial limitations of “Iraq” and “Syria”).

ISIS becomes IS or TIS?

In the media, the struggle for acronym domination might continue between ISIS and ISIL, in large part because the White House remains an ISIL holdout (remember how long U.S. government agencies stubbornly insisted on inserting u-s-a into “Usama bin Laden”?) but I expect that “ISIS” will continue as the most widely used label.

The success of the ISIS marketing campaign can be credited in large part to the willingness of the media and many governments to overstate the strength of the jihadist organization, but the susceptibility of ISIS to be seduced by its own hype is evident in the speed with which it has declared the creation of its caliphate.

The Associated Press reports Abdel-Rahman al-Shami, a spokesman for the Army of Islam in Syria, pouring scorn on ISIS’s announcement.

“The gangs of al-Baghdadi are living in a fantasy world. They’re delusional. They want to establish a state but they don’t have the elements for it. You cannot establish a state through looting, sabotage and bombing.”

While most analysts are inclined to look at ISIS’s recent successes through an ill-defined prism of “jihadism,” what might be increasingly applicable is an understanding of the dynamics of cult psychology.

Cults derive their cohesive strength by maintaining rigid boundaries between insiders and outsiders, through the contempt with which they view the unenlightened, and by the unswerving obedience which each cult member displays towards the cult’s strict hierarchy and the absolute authority of the cult leader.

In the short term, these mechanisms of group cohesion solidify the power of the leader, but the exceptional level of solidarity found inside cults eventually becomes their undoing. They purge themselves of the homeostatic mechanisms which provide reality checks inside ordinary social groupings. An absolute intolerance for any form of dissent means that the cult leader becomes increasingly susceptible to miscalculations.

When al-Baghdadi declared himself the “caliph,” who could question his authority, his timing, or his judgement without risking their own life?

He might now relish the power he experiences in the doubt-free environment of his followers, but the throne upon which Baghdadi now thinks he sits, is, as the Army of Islam’s spokesman says, a product of fantasy.

The willingness of ISIS to trade in fantasies may explain some of its appeal to children.

A correspondent for Niqash reports:

The customers standing in Haj Hamdoun’s store in central Mosul watched as a masked child came into the shop, buy what he wanted without saying a word and then leave again, carrying a bag containing candies and milk in one hand and a heavy machine gun, that was just about as big as him, in the other.

This was Abdullah, who is apparently the city’s youngest volunteer with the Sunni extremist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS, that took control of Mosul over two weeks ago.

Abdullah is not yet 11 years old. But his older brother and his father, who was a senior member of ISIS, were killed in fighting between the extremist group and Iraqi security forces in 2013. That’s why Abdullah joined ISIS.

The storeowner, Hamdoun, says he has actually become used to seeing Abdullah wandering around, carrying his big gun with both pride and difficulty. He has also seen the boy on guard duty together with other ISIS fighters in front of the new ISIS headquarters in Mosul, originally the home of a government official.

A curious bystander wanted to start a conversation with Abdullah. “I have a son your age but he’s not eager to carry arms,” the man said. “He spends most of his time on the computer.”

A tall, overweight gunman, who seemed to be responsible for the child, answered on Abdullah’s behalf. “Our children don’t waste time on electronic games or on watching cartoons,” he said. “They have a dream and their dream is to establish an Islamic state.”

The gunman patted Abdullah’s shoulder. “We have a lot of hope for Abdullah and other children his age,” the gunman continued. “We believe they will conquer all of Iraq and Persia and that they will liberate Jerusalem.”

While ISIS might be poised at the brink of self-destruction, imploding as a result of its own hubris, the United States could unwittingly save Baghdadi through an ill-judged intervention.

As J.M. Berger notes:

The prospect of a U.S. military intervention, most likely in the form of air strikes, was already problematic. While there are many who understandably favor hitting ISIS in order to deny it control of territory in Iraq, such a strike would bestow on ISIS the one thing it has until now been unable to definitively claim—legitimacy. A potential new line of jihadist argument then emerges: The caliphate was restored, but it was directly destroyed by the United States.

While President Obama has often been trigger-happy when it comes to the use of drone warfare, he is also a man who generally follows the path of least resistance.

At this juncture, with the mood across America being overwhelmingly opposed to intervention in Iraq, the risk of political gifts to ISIS coming in the form of Hellfire missiles is not as great as might otherwise be.

At the same time, to hear Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri, deputy joint chief of staff of the armed forces and a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officer, say that Iran is ready to provide Iraq with “the same winning strategy used in Syria” offers reason to fear that ISIS’s enemies risk turning a crisis into a catastrophe.

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How Iran and America can beat ISIS together

Ben Van Heuvelen writes: If Obama continues to engage with Iraq at arm’s length — mainly through bilateral diplomacy, weapons sales, and a slightly larger training mission — then Iraq’s Shia leaders will learn once and for all that only Iran really has their back. Already, thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps troops have reportedly entered the country through at least two border crossings, and the shadowy Quds Force controls homegrown Shia militias throughout Iraq. In contrast to the feckless Iraqi commanders who fled Mosul, these Iranian forces are disciplined, motivated, and ruthless. They are also likely to stoke the kind of sectarian mistrust from which ISIS draws its strength.

During last decade’s Iraqi civil war, for example, Iran’s proxy militias weren’t just attacking U.S. troops and Sunni militants; they were also conducting systematic campaigns of sectarian revenge killing against Sunni non-combatants. Sunni families in historically heterogeneous areas picked up and fled, eager to avoid a power drill to the forehead.

There is every indication that this pattern has begun to repeat itself now. In the months before the fall of Mosul, scores of Sunnis turned up dead in Baghdad, victims of mass executions. Hundreds of families moved out of their homes in Diyala province due to intimidation. The government has been complicit: Iran-backed militias are now reporting to a special division of Maliki’s office, and in some cases, they are conducting joint operations with government forces. The abuses have apparently escalated recently. For example, on Tuesday in Baquba, the capital of Diyala, 44 Sunni prisoners were found dead in a government-controlled prison with bullet holes in their heads.

Quds Force leaders might not be ordering these atrocities directly, but they do appear to take a “boys will be boys” attitude toward horrific violence. As long as they do, it’s difficult to imagine that any Sunni leader will be eager to collaborate with a government that also partners with sectarian killers.

There’s no guarantee the U.S. can wield enough leverage to affect Iran’s behavior, or that Iran exerts enough control over the militias to calm the sectarian frenzy. For this reason, Obama appears disinclined to order air strikes unless the conditions exist for political progress. The nightmare scenario is that the U.S. could find itself bombing Sunni-majority cities while Shia militias run rampant through Baghdad. The war would become increasingly sectarian, with America taking sides. Any military victory would be fleeting. ISIS would no longer need to produce propaganda videos, because the atrocities reported on CNN would be enough to radicalize the next generation of jihadis. [Continue reading...]

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Iran deploys Revolutionary Guards units to Iraq

The Wall Street Journal reports: The threat of Sunni extremists eclipsing the power of its Shiite-dominated Arab ally presents Iran with the biggest security and strategic challenge it has faced since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

With the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, an offshoot of al Qaeda, rapidly gaining territory, Iran deployed Revolutionary Guards units to Iraq, according to Iranian security officials.

Iran has invested considerable financial, political and military resources over the past decade to ensure Iraq emerged from U.S. war as a strategic partner for the Islamic Republic and a strong Shiite-led state. The so-called Shiite crescent—stretching from Iran to Iraq, Lebanon and Syria—was forged largely as a result of this effort.

Two Guards’ units, dispatched from Iran’s western border provinces on Wednesday, were tasked with protecting Baghdad and the holy Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf, these security sources said. [Continue reading...]

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Iran cares more about Baghdad than Damascus

Hayder al-Khoei, associate fellow at the London think tank Chatham House, spoke to IranWire from Baghdad.

What has been Iran’s level of threat-perception following these attacks?

It’s extremely high. They are worried that this is going to give ISIS a further stepping stone, and act as a launching pad for the rest of Iraq. [Iran] has mobilized in very high numbers Shia militia forces loyal to Iran, especially the AAH militia, the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. Just a few hours ago some friends confirmed that the [Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps] General Qassem Suleimani is in Baghdad. He arrived yesterday. I think his presence in the capital is a sign of just how seriously the Iranians are taking the ISIS threat.

He was reported to have gone to the checkpoints on the outskirts of Baghdad to make sure that the Iraqi armed forces and the Shia militias that are acting as the paramilitary support units are ready, and capable of defending the city. It was also reported that he went to Balad, north of Baghdad, and Samarra, where ISIS was thwarted by the armed forces. Certainly the Iranians are taking this extremely seriously. The mobilization of the Shia militias, and Qassem Suleimani’s presence, is a very good indication of how seriously they’re taking this.

They were crucial in preventing Damascus from falling, and other Syrian cities. Baghdad is a lot closer to home for the Iranians, and they’ve told their Shia partners, ‘Iraq is our backyard.’ Certainly they’ll take much more care of Baghdad, even more so than Damascus.

What do we know about ISIS’s intentions towards the Shia shrines in Iraq?

ISIS have, and want to, attack Shia symbolic shrines, because that way they can provoke not just the Shia militias into retaliating, but ordinary Shia civilians. If that happens, it could trigger another sectarian and civil war. Even in Mosul, on their official Twitter pages, they were telling the people of Mosul they are safe under their hand, except for the Shia, so they are extremely opposed ideologically to the Shia, and see them as apostates, not Muslims.

The ISIS official spokesman, [Abu Muhammad] al-Adnani said to Maliki and the Iraqi government, we’re not going to settle our score with you in Samarra and Baghdad, we’re going to settle our score with you in [the Shia holy cities of] Najaf and Karbala.

Now of course it’s going to be much harder [for ISIS] to penetrate the cities of Najaf and Karbala, because the people there, unlike in Mosul, [support] the armed forces, and on top of that you have Shia militias who will prevent anything similar to what we saw in Falluja, Mosul and Tikrit.

In Baghdad and the south it’s a different story. There’s a lot of media hype about ISIS capabilities and ISIS gains, and I don’t want to downplay the ISIS threat, but the people in the capital and the South are going to be much more willing to defend their cities, and the armed forces along with the militias are going to be much more prepared to die. In Mosul the armed forces had no will to fight at all.

The Shia militias — Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Hezbollah, the Badr Brigades — these are all ideologically-driven militias, so they will fight to the death, unlike the army units in the north of the country. [Continue reading...]

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Rouhani tells Iran generals to cut hostile rhetoric

n13-iconReuters reports: President Hassan Rouhani urged Iran’s military leaders on Saturday to let diplomacy prevail in dealing with potential foreign threats, in a clear reference to efforts to end the nuclear dispute and decades of hostile relations with the West.

“It is very important to formulate one’s sentences and speeches in a way that is not construed as threat, intention to strike a blow,” Rouhani said in a meeting with Iran’s top military echelon.

“We must be very careful in our calculations. Launching missiles and staging military exercises to scare off the other side is not good deterrence, although a necessity in its proper place,” the official IRNA news agency quoted him as saying.

“A misfire could burst into flames and wreak havoc to everything.” [Continue reading...]

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Nuclear deal heightens tension between Iran president and Guards

a13-iconReuters reports: The article on Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency appeared routine: the minister of roads and urban development said the ministry does not have a contract with construction firm Khatam al Anbia to complete a major highway heading north from Tehran.

Two things made it stand out: Khatam al Anbia is one of the biggest companies controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and company head Ebadollah Abdullahi had said just three days earlier that it did have the contract.

The December report was one of a series of signs that President Hassan Rouhani, who came into office last August, is using the political momentum from a thaw with the West over its nuclear program to roll back the Guard’s economic influence.

Existing government contracts with the Guards have been challenged by ministers and some, like the highway contract, that were left in limbo when Rouhani succeeded the more hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have been rebuffed.

Senior commanders in the Guards, established 35 years ago this week to defend the clerical religious system that replaced the Western-backed Shah, have criticized the nuclear talks but been more muted over the curbs on their economic interests.

Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, said in December that Ahmadinejad’s government had insisted the Guards get involved in the economy.

“But we have told Mr. Rouhani that if he feels the private sector can fulfill these projects, the Guards are ready to pull aside and even cancel its contracts,” he said, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency.

In the same speech, Jafari lashed out at the nuclear negotiations, saying Iran had lost much and gained little and took aim more directly at Rouhani. “The most important arena of threat against the Islamic revolution — and the Guards have a duty to protect the gains of the revolution — is in the political arena. And the Guards can’t remain silent in the face of that,” Fars quoted him as saying. [Continue reading...]

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Revolutionary Guards chief criticizes Iran’s FM

The Associated Press reports: The head of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards rebuked the country’s foreign minister Tuesday over comments he made about the military’s ability to withstand a potential American attack.

The criticism against Foreign Minister Javad Zarif appeared to be part of the broader political pushback by Iranian hard-liners against moderate President Hassan Rouhani’s new administration.

The latest spat revolves around comments Zarif made last week to students at a Tehran university, where he said a U.S. military attack could paralyze Iran’s defensive system.

On Tuesday, Guard chief Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari dismissed Zarif’s remarks, saying the foreign minister “has no expertise in the field of defense,” and “his comments comparing the military power of Iran and the United States were incorrect.”

Speaking at another Tehran university, Jafari said the U.S. could only destroy up to 20 percent of Iran’s missile capability if it bombs the country heavily, according to a report Tuesday by the semiofficial Fars news agency.

Zarif has also faced pressure in parliament over his remarks. Dozens of lawmakers asked Rouhani Sunday whether the foreign minister should lose his job over the comments. [Continue reading...]

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Video: Iran’s secret army in Syria

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Why Iran’s military won’t spoil détente with the U.S.

Akbar Ganji writes: It is fair to assume that any deal between Iran and the United States to freeze Iran’s nuclear program will be greeted by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps with cries of “Death to America!” Hassan Rouhani was elected president earlier this year with a mandate to seek just such a deal. But he still has to reckon with the fact that Iran’s most powerful military force has traditionally been a bastion for ideological hard-liners uninterested in building closer relations with the United States.

At the same time, any hope that the Revolutionary Guards have of playing the spoiler in a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement will be undermined by the fact that the force is implacably divided against itself, between those who are dead set against closer relations with the United States and those who are likely to support a deal.

This is not to suggest that the Revolutionary Guards don’t pose a threat to détente; its most hard-line factions certainly do. And those tend to be the most vocal — or at least the most visible. On September 30, just a few days after Rouhani’s breakthrough telephone conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama, the chief of the Guards, Mohammad Ali Jafari, labeled the move a “tactical error,” adding that his forces would be monitoring the issue in the future so that it could issue “necessary warnings.” Two weeks later, on October 13, Jafari declared that “the people have figured out what [the reformists] are up to and will not be duped by their provocations in the interests of the enemy.” That same day, Yahya Rahim Safavi, a general in the Guards, expressed the Islamic Republic’s standard ideological line against relations with Washington when he said that the United States had proved repeatedly that it could not be trusted.

Around the same time, however, other prominent Guardsmen were offering a strikingly different message, by way of a revisionist interpretation of recent Iranian history. [Continue reading...]

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Rouhani is walking a political tightrope at home

Geneive Abdo writes: When President Hassan Rouhani touched down on Iranian soil after a dazzling week at the United Nations, he returned to criticism as well as cheers and applause. A crowd of demonstrators held placards and chanted the spent slogan “Death to America!” The protesters included members of the Basij militia, a hard-line paramilitary organization under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The theatrics of the demonstrators reflect a much deeper conflict that is already underway in Tehran, as different factions debate whether Rouhani should have accepted a phone call from President Barack Obama, and, more important, whether Iran should trust the United States to unlock the stalemate over Iran’s nuclear program. Even though Khamenei has apparently given Rouhani the authority to expedite nuclear talks, other leaders in key institutions, such as the IRGC, began this past weekend to express their disapproval. There is increasing evidence that a broader opposition to Rouhani has begun to organize to derail any further progress from his diplomatic efforts.

In Iran’s first public, high-level criticism of Rouhani’s U.N. visit, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, chief of the IRGC, said: “Just as he refused to meet Obama, he should also have refused to speak with him on the telephone and should have waited for concrete action by the United States.” Jafari also said, in an interview with the Tasnim news agency, “If we see errors being made by officials, the revolutionary forces will issue the necessary warnings.”

The operative word here is “revolutionary.” Jafari, defying a warning Rouhani issued to the Guards in mid-September to stay out of politics, is drawing a distinction between Rouhani and the president’s political faction anchored around former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and those who are seemingly more loyal to the values and ideology of the 1979 Islamic revolution. If, indeed, a line in the sand is being drawn, this is a remarkable development in Iranian politics whereby even the clerics of the system — such as Rouhani, one of Khamenei’s advisers and confidants for decades — are too far to the left to silence the hard-liners. [Continue reading...]

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Iranian Revolutionary Guard/Quds Force could be planning attack in Turkey

Today’s Zaman reports: Intelligence units have warned that the Quds Force, a special unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, plans to send a group to Turkey to carry out a series of demonstrations that may include a bomb attack on the Embassy or Consulate General of the United States.

The Turkish Security General Directorate (EGM) has warned police departments in all 81 Turkish provinces that they must be vigilant and remain alert to the existence of such a threat. The intelligence pertaining to the possibility of such an attack was delivered in a secret letter to the information department at Turkey’s General Directorate of Security. The written statement indicates that a team linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard will be sent to Turkey and that it may be planning to bomb the US embassy or consulate general in the country. The Quds Force is infamous for its role in attempting to export Iran’s revolution to other countries through the instigation of chaos and by acting as the overseas branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp.

However, facts about the force are well-guarded and scarce. The statement further details that the team intends to stay in five-star hotels in the city where the plan is to be carried out and that as a result, caution should be exercised when dealing with non-Turkish individuals staying at such lodgings. The statement also noted that groups linked to the Lebanon-based Hezbollah may also take part in the plotted demonstrations or attacks.

Intelligence data regarding the plan have been assessed by Turkish security forces to be an effort by Iran to stir to action illegal Turkish political groups following Turkey’s decision to host a NATO early-warning radar system and recent developments in Syria that have seen the establishment of a training camp for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a step interpreted as a response to Turkey’s criticism of the Syrian regime for its brutal crackdown on anti-regime protests.

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Israel and Iran: Covert warfare raises risks of retaliation, and conflagration

Tony Karon writes: If Iran’s leaders actually believe their official insistence that last weekend’s blast at the Bid Ganeh Revolutionary Guard Corps missile base was an accident, the event is unlikely to make any difference to regional stability. But if Iran, instead, believes claims — and widely held suspicions in Tehran — that the blast, which killed 17 Iranian guardsmen including a senior commander, was the work of Israel’s Mossad security agency (as reported by my TIME colleagues Karl Vick and Aaron Klein and a growing chorus of innuendo in the Israeli media) the region could be in for a sharp uptick in turbulence.

Iranian analyst Kaveh Afrasiabi notes that officials in Tehran suspect foul play not only in the Bid Ganeh blast, but also in the death under suspicious circumstances in a Dubai hotel of the son of a prominent former Revolutionary Guards commander, and suggests that if these are deemed hostile events, pressure will grow on the Iranian leadership to retaliate.

Iran has over the past couple of years absorbed a series of covert warfare blows directed against its nuclear program — assassinations of its scientists, sabotage of facilities and, most damaging, the Stuxnet computer worm that invaded and hobbled its uranium-enrichment centrifuge system — which Tehran’s leaders believe were largely the work of the Israelis, possibly in conjunction with other Western intelligence agencies. And tensions are rising as Israel threatens military action to stop a program whose potential military dimension was highlighted last week by the IAEA.

Thus far, however, Tehran has declined any significant retaliation for actions it clearly perceives as provocations. Some of the spin in Washington had floated the idea that the recent used car salesman-embassy bombing plot was, in fact, an instance of Iranian retaliation, but there are far too many grounds for skepticism over those allegations to suggest that Iran’s capabilities had been reduced to such buffoonery. A more prudent explanation might be that Iran has until now restrained itself from retaliating for covert actions against its nuclear program, sensing that these might, in fact, be designed to provoke Iranian acts of retaliation that would, in turn, serve as a pretext for a full-blown military attack on Iran and its nuclear facilities.

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Israel behind deadly explosion at Iran missile base?

Whether it was the result of an Israeli covert operation, or, as Iran claims, an accident, the latest deadly incident once again highlights the willingness of the United States and Israel to engage in acts of violence that were they instigated by Iran or any other state or non-state actor would simply be called acts of terrorism.

Karl Vick reports: Israeli newspapers on Sunday were thick with innuendo, the front pages of the three largest dailies dominated by variations on the headline “Mysterious Explosion in Iranian Missile Base.” Turn the page, and the mystery is answered with a wink. “Who Is Responsible for Attacks on the Iranian Army?” asks Maariv, and the paper lists without further comment a half-dozen other violent setbacks to Iran’s nuclear and military nexus. For Israeli readers, the coy implication is that their own government was behind Saturday’s massive blast just outside Tehran. It is an assumption a Western intelligence source insists is correct: the Mossad — the Israeli agency charged with covert operations — did it. “Don’t believe the Iranians that it was an accident,” the official tells TIME, adding that other sabotage is being planned to impede the Iranian ability to develop and deliver a nuclear weapon. “There are more bullets in the magazine,” the official says.

The powerful blast or series of blasts — reports described an initial explosion followed by a much larger one — devastated a missile base in the gritty urban sprawl to the west of the Iranian capital. The base housed Shahab missiles, which, at their longest range, can reach Israel. Last week’s report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Iran had experimented with removing the conventional warhead on the Shahab-3 and replacing it with one that would hold a nuclear device. Iran says the explosion was an accident that came while troops were transferring ammunition out of the depot “toward the appropriate site.” (See why ties between the U.S. and Iran are under threat.)

The explosion killed at least 17 people, including Major General Hassan Moqqadam, described by Iranian state media as a pioneer in Iranian missile development and the Revolutionary Guard commander in charge of “ensuring self-sufficiency” in armaments, a challenging task in light of international sanctions.

Coming the weekend after the release of the unusually critical IAEA report, which laid out page upon page of evidence that Iran is moving toward a nuclear weapon, the blast naturally sharpened concern over Israel’s threat to launch airstrikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Half the stories on the Tehran Times website on Sunday referenced the possibility of a military strike, most warning of dire repercussions.

But the incident also argued, maybe even augured, against an outright strike. If Israel — perhaps in concert with Washington and other allies — can continue to inflict damage to the Iranian nuclear effort through covert actions, the need diminishes for overt, incendiary moves like air strikes. The Stuxnet computer worm bollixed Iran’s centrifuges for months, wreaking havoc on the crucial process of uranium enrichment.

And in Sunday’s editions, the Hebrew press coyly listed what Yedioth Ahronoth called “Iran’s Mysterious Mishaps.” The tallies ran from the November 2007 explosion at a missile base south of Tehran to the October 2010 blast at a Shahab facility in southwestern Iran, to the assassinations of three Iranian scientists working in the nuclear program — two last year and one in July.

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera reports:

Barack Obama’s push for consensus over renewed concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme have had a lukewarm response from the Russian and Chinese leaders attending the APEC summit in Hawaii.

The US president had sought support from Dmitry Medvedev and Hu Jintao as he seeks to rein back Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but he got no public endorsement from either of them.

Obama met his counterparts on Sunday on the sidelines of the summit in Honolulu, the capital of his home state, where he discussed a UN nuclear watchdog report that said there was “credible” information that Tehran may have worked on developing nuclear weapons.

Al Jazeera’s Patty Culhane, reporting from Honolulu, said there was “absolutely no consensus” between the leaders on how to deal with Iran following the International Atomic Energy Agency’s report.

“This was President Obama’s first face-to-face meeting with Hu and Medvedev since the IAEA report came out. The US believes that it needs China and Russia to get on board with sanctions and it was fairly clear … that he did not get any reassurances,” she said.

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