Theft of Saudi documents suggests an Iranian hack

The Washington Post reports: The purported theft of confidential Saudi documents that have been released by WikiLeaks bears the hallmarks of Iranian hackers linked to cyberattacks in more than a dozen countries, including the United States, according to cybersecurity experts and Middle East analysts.

Last week, WikiLeaks published about 70,000 of what it said were half a million documents obtained from Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry. The transparency advocacy group promises more releases of the diplomatic cables, whose authenticity has not been independently verified.

Experts said that the cables, apparently stolen over the past year, paint an unflattering portrait of Saudi diplomacy as reliant on oil-wealth patronage and obsessed with Iran, the kingdom’s chief rival, but appeared to contain no shocking revelations. [Continue reading…]

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The day after a nuclear deal with Iran

Hooman Majd writes: Iranian president Hassan Rouhani may soon discover that negotiating a nuclear deal was the easy part of his job. He is likely to have a much more difficult time in office — with pressure from his opponents and his supporters — once the initial euphoria of a deal passes. Not only will he have to show that the nuclear deal does indeed better the lives of ordinary Iranians by drastically improving the economy, he will no longer have the excuse of the nuclear deal in delaying his other campaign promises. And he will still have his hardline opponents, even less willing to grant him another popular achievement, nipping at his heels on every issue, particularly any issue that relates to a loosening of social restrictions and building a new relationship with the U.S. in the aftermath of a deal.

With only days to go until the deadline to ink such a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran — and this is a deadline that, unlike the others in the eighteen month long negotiations saga, will need to be adhered to, at least to within a few days — it’s safe to assume that a deal will be struck. My confidence is based on the political capital spent in both Washington and Tehran, the political will in both capitals to move past a crisis that has benefited neither party and the presumption in both capitals that the time for a nuclear deal is now or never.

On the brink of this historic agreement, it’s useful to ask “what next?” for Iran and more importantly, for Iranians. The future of this nation of some 80 million, sitting at the crossroads of the East and West, on top of bountiful energy supplies, and in the center of — if not a factor in — multiple regional crises with knock-on effects, is tied to the future of the entire world, whether we like it or not. [Continue reading…]

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Iran nuclear talks: Clearing the final hurdles

Reza Marashi writes: As officials from Iran and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) negotiate around the clock in Vienna, the self-imposed June 30 deadline steadily approaches to seal a comprehensive nuclear deal. The Obama and Rouhani administrations should be commended: The amount of progress made in the past eighteen months is greater than the preceding decade combined. The two sides are now on the cusp of a historic deal that will be one of the greatest foreign policy achievements in recent memory.

Standing in the way of victory are two key issues, both of which are resolvable: Sanctions relief, and inspections and verification.

Finding the right formula for sanctions relief will likely be the most challenging issue in Vienna. If Washington offers sanctions relief that does not provide practical value for Tehran, it will correspondingly diminish the practical value for Iranian decision-makers to uphold their end of the bargain. Iran gave more than it received in the interim nuclear deal, and is looking to collect on that investment. The P5+1 believes it must maintain the architecture of sanctions to ensure Iranian compliance. Splitting the difference will require compromise on two fronts: Multilateral sanctions and unilateral sanctions. [Continue reading…]

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How Iranian oil tankers keep Syria’s war machine alive

Bloomberg reports: It’s no secret that Iran provides critical support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The trouble comes in trying to figure out how much Iran spends and what that support actually looks like.

Estimates of Iran’s largesse vary considerably depending on who you ask, as my Bloomberg View colleague Eli Lake reported earlier this month. The United Nations’ special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, believes Iran spends about $6 billion annually propping up the Assad regime. Others believe that when you factor in Iran’s support for Hezbollah, which provides fighters to Assad, the number gets closer to $15 billion or $20 billion a year.

No matter the monetary total, a key component of Iran’s support for Assad is crude oil shipments. Syria once had a surplus of crude and even exported small amounts from its oil fields in the east. The civil war that broke out in 2011 has ravaged Syria’s crude production, which fell from about 400,000 barrels a day to roughly 20,000 barrels, according to recent estimates from the U.S. Department of Energy. [Continue reading…]

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Double standards on reporting about nuclear weapons in the Middle East

Dan Drollette, Jr. writes: A country in the Middle East has a clandestine nuclear development program, involving facilities hidden in the desert. After several years, the country is on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons, even though the United States has been using all its resources to prevent that from happening. Frantic communications fly behind the scenes, between Washington and Tel Aviv.

And where is the nuclear program located? Israel.

Although Iran’s nuclear program dominates the headlines now (and did apparently have a military dimension at one time), that program has yet to produce a nuclear weapon, judging from the available public evidence. Meanwhile, the country pushing most aggressively for complete elimination of any prospect of an Iranian bomb—Israel—has an unacknowledged nuclear arsenal of its own. Although others project higher numbers, nuclear arsenal experts Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris estimate that Israel has roughly 80 warheads, built in secret.

It is noteworthy that while negotiations over limiting Iran’s enrichment program have taken center stage in news coverage—and will likely dominate the headlines as a final agreement is or is not reached at the end of this month—the history of Israel’s covert nuclear program draws relatively little media attention. [Continue reading…]

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Divided loyalties: Iraq’s controversial Shiite militias fight among themselves

Mustafa Habib writes: Last Saturday was the anniversary of senior Iraqi spiritual leader, Ali al-Sistani’s call to arms. The cleric, who is seen as the leader of Shiite Muslims in Iraq and further afield, called upon all Iraqis to take up arms and defend the country against the extremist group known as the Islamic State, which had just taken control of the northern city of Mosul.

Since then the locals who did as al-Sistani asked have become the last bulwark against the approach of the Islamic State, or IS, group’s fighters. The volunteer militias are now known locally as the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Units, and have become both a cause for celebration – as they achieve victories and push the IS group back – and controversy, as they are accused of illegal acts of revenge, looting and generally taking the law into their own hands. The militias are mainly made up of Iraq’s Shiite Muslims and the IS group bases its ideology on a form of Sunni Islam – so the militias’ importance in the fight against the IS group has also become a source of sectarian tension inside the country.

But the tensions do not just exist between Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni Muslims. As the Shiite militias become more powerful, tensions are also increasing within the group. They may have a common enemy and share a religious sect but these militias are far from united. Basically the Shiite militias are split along the same lines as opinions in the main Shiite Muslim political parties. And their disagreements are not just military, they are based on present and future economic and political power. [Continue reading…]

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How ISIS came to power

Robert Ford writes: In August 2014, the United States launched airstrikes against Sunni Muslim militants of the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS) to help besieged Kurdish military forces and Yazidi civilians in northern Iraq. Within weeks, ISIS militants beheaded American civilians and, the next month, the United States expanded its operations to hit ISIS militants in Syria. An Administration guided by the principle of “not doing stupid stuff” now finds itself in a new military campaign of unknown duration where the definition of victory is also murky. Congress and the American public more broadly are wondering what exactly we are wading into.

The starting point to the answer is obvious: From Tripoli on the Mediterranean shores of Lebanon to Diyala northeast of Baghdad stretches a Sunni Muslim community that is bitterly aggrieved, insecure, and fearful. They perceive that Iran and its Shia allies like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Syria’s Assad regime, which is dominated by Alawis, are killing Sunnis indiscriminately and marginalizing them politically and economically. This would lead any reasonable American to ask: If the militants’ main beef is not with America, why then would they slit the throats of innocent Americans like James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well as those of other innocent foreigners who were sympathetic to the sufferings and fears of that community? Americans might also ask what kind of belief system and grievances could lead to such appalling acts and their use as political tools to recruit still more fighters.

Answering these questions correctly and accurately matters. How the U.S. government conducts the campaign against the jihadis, and with whom and for whose benefit it conducts it, will directly affect the calculations of the militants we are fighting and whether we can isolate them from the vast majority of the roughly 24 million Sunni Muslims who live in the Levant and Iraq. President Obama has rightly said that the underlying problem is political; the jihadis feed off resentment. But there are other questions, such as, “Do we understand the resentments correctly?” and “Do we shape our responses appropriately?”

Seeking answers to these questions could lead many to turn to the experienced Middle East hand Patrick Cockburn, who has reported for years for British media from Iraq, and whose 2008 book on Muqtada al-Sadr and Iraq was full of new insights into the history of the modern Shia political parties in that country. In The Jihadis Return, a much briefer book, Cockburn breaks little new ground in describing the nature of the Islamic State now ensconced in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, his blaming of Saudi and even Pakistani actions in helping to facilitate the Islamic State’s rise absolves Iran and its allies of much responsibility. His is a misleading perspective that — to the extent that it influences our policies — could add gasoline to the conflagration, as it would aggravate the resentments among Sunni Arabs that erupted onto the scene in 2014 and gave rise to the Islamic State in the first place. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi Arabia’s widening war

Gary Sick writes: The level of turmoil in the Middle East is greater than at any other time in my nearly fifty years of watching this region. Amid this perfect storm comes the most dramatic shift in Saudi policy since at least World War II– marking a critical turning point in Saudi Arabia’s relations with its historical protector, the United States, and with its neighbors in the Middle East. The Saudi regime’s insistence on seeing threats to the Kingdom in fundamentally sectarian terms — Sunni vs. Shia — will put it increasingly at odds with its American patrons and could lead the Middle East into a conflict comparable to Europe’s Thirty Years War, a continent-wide civil war over religion that decimated an entire culture.

Driving the Saudi strategy is fear of Iranian regional hegemony. This wariness of Iran is nothing new, but, since the early days of the Clinton administration, Saudi Arabia has been able to rely on Washington to contain Iran. The United States surrounded Iran with its bases and troops, and imposed ever-increasing economic punishment on the Iranian revolutionary state. This policy began after the George H.W. Bush administration completed its brilliant military victory over Saddam Hussein’s forces, and as the Soviet Union was collapsing, leaving the United States as the sole military power in the Persian Gulf.

The Clinton administration had briefly considered balancing Iran or Iraq against the other as a way to maintain a degree of regional stability and to protect the smaller, oil-rich Arab states on the southern side of the Gulf. Policy of this sort had prevailed for the two decades prior to the Persian Gulf War. However, Martin Indyk, chief of Middle East policy at Clinton’s National Security Council, formally rejected this policy and announced a new “dual containment” policy. With Iraq boxed in by UN sanctions, and Iran nearly prostrate after eight years of war with Iraq, the United States had the “means to counter both the Iraqi and Iranian regimes,” declared Indyk. Now, he said, “we don’t need to rely on one to balance the other.” [Continue reading…]

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Saudi Arabia and Israel share same enemy

The New York Times: A new merging of strategic interests between Saudi Arabia and Israel was on display on Thursday as two former officials from those countries appeared on the same stage to discuss their concerns about Iran’s actions across the Middle East.

In an appearance at the Washington office of the Council on Foreign Relations, a retired major general in the Saudi armed forces, Anwar Eshki, and a former Israeli ambassador close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Dore Gold, described their common interests in opposing Iran. It was the culmination of five meetings between the two men, who both run think tanks, though Mr. Gold will become the director general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Sunday.

“We’re both allies of the United States,” Mr. Gold said after the presentation. “I hope this is the beginning of more discussion about our common strategic problems.”

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Pro-Iran militias take upper hand after U.S.-backed forces crumble in Anbar

The Washington Post reports: Iraqi forces have seized from Islamic State militants a string of hamlets and villages in the dust-choked desert southeast of Ramadi in recent days, closing in on the key city for a counteroffensive.

But the yellow-and-green flags that line the sides of the newly secured roads and flutter from rooftops leave no doubt as to who is leading the fighting here: Kitaeb Hezbollah, a Shiite militia designated a terrorist organization by the United States.

Iraq’s two main allies — Iran and the United States — have vied for influence over Iraq’s battle to retake ground from Islamic State militants in the past year. While Iranian-linked Shiite militias have spearheaded the fight elsewhere, the U.S.-backed Iraqi army and counterterrorism units had been on the front lines in Anbar province, supported by an eight-month American-led air campaign.

But with the fall of Ramadi, the province’s capital, this month, paramilitary forces close to Iran are now taking the upper hand. They include groups such as Kitaeb Hezbollah, responsible for thousands of attacks on U.S. soldiers who fought in Iraq after the 2003 invasion.

Until recently, the Iraqi government had held back from ordering Iraq’s so-called popular mobilization units, a mix of Shiite militias and volunteers that formed last summer, to Anbar. Authorities were concerned that sending them to battle in a Sunni majority province could provoke sectarian conflicts. But Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi dispatched them when regular forces crumbled in Ramadi and local politicians asked for the units’ help.

Now Shiite militias including the Badr Organization are pressing toward the city from the northeast, in an operation its commanders claim to be planning and leading. Meanwhile, a push to flank Ramadi from the southeast is dominated by Kitaeb Hezbollah. [Continue reading…]

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Jason Rezaian trial: Journalists cannot expect justice in Iran

By Scott Lucas, University of Birmingham

In Iran’s capital Tehran, American journalist Jacob Rezaian is being tried for espionage behind closed doors by a revolutionary court. No-one except his court-appointed attorney was allowed beside him – his wife, who also faces trial for her reporting, and his mother were barred from attending.

Rezaian, an Iranian-American national, is the Washington Post’s correspondent in Tehran. Between his imprisonment in July 2014 and the initial trial hearing on Tuesday, he had been allowed only one brief meeting with his attorney. Only weeks before his court appearance, he still did not know the charges.

This story is not unique to Rezaian. It is also the story of Keyvan Samimi, who was recently released after six years behind bars. Or Ahmad Zeidabadi exiled to northern Iran as soon as his sentence ended on May 18. Or Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki, rearrested on February 28 despite poor health from his detention between December 2009 and October 2014. Or Marzieh Rasouli, accused of colluding with the BBC. Or Reyhaneh Tabatabaei, arrested after she expressed support on Facebook for a fellow journalist who had been given a long prison term.

Or scores of other Iranian journalists and bloggers who have been put away, in closed trials and without the semblance of due process, before and after the disputed 2009 presidential election and the mass protests that followed.

[Read more…]

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Planned assault on Ramadi could play right into ISIS’s hands

Michael Weiss writes: The Obama administration is being slammed from all sides for its failing strategy against ISIS — and rightly so. But amid all the scorn, one question has yet to be asked about the resiliency of the terror army, which, actually goes to the heart of its decade-old war doctrine. Namely: does ISIS actually win even when it loses?

This isn’t an academic issue. America’s allies in the ISIS war are gearing up for a major counteroffensive against the extremist group. That assault that could very well play right into ISIS’ hands.

Having superimposed its self-styled “caliphate” over a good third of Iraq’s territory, in control of two provincial capitals, ISIS is today in strongest position it has ever been for fomenting the kind of sectarian conflagration its founding father, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, envisioned as far back as 2004.

Zarqawi’s end-game was simple: by waging merciless atrocities against Iraq’s Shia majority population (and any Sunnis seen to be conspiring with it), Zarqawi’s jihadists would have only to stand back and watch as radicalized Shia militias, many of whose members also served in various Iraqi government and security roles, conducted their own retaliatory campaigns against the country’s Sunni minority. Internecine conflict would have the knock-on effect of driving Sunnis desperately into the jihadist fold, whether or not they sympathized with the ideology of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Zarqawi’s franchise and the earliest incarnation of what we now call the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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Pentagon slams ‘unhelpful’ Shi’ite codename for Ramadi offensive

Reuters: The Pentagon on Tuesday said it was “unhelpful” for Iraq’s Shi’ite militia to have announced an openly sectarian code name for the operation to retake the Sunni city of Ramadi and added that, in the U.S. view, the full-on offensive had yet to begin.

A spokesman for the Shi’ite militias, known as Hashid Shaabi, said the code name for the new operation would be “Labaik ya Hussein”, a slogan in honor of a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed killed in the 7th Century battle that led to the schism between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims.

The United States has been vocally advocating for Iraq to tread carefully in employing Shi’ite militias to help Iraqi forces retake the city, which fell to the Islamic State a week ago in Baghdad’s biggest military setback in nearly a year.

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Only Iran is confronting ISIS, says commander of Quds Force

Reuters reports: The general in charge of Iran’s paramilitary activities in the Middle East said the United States and other powers were failing to confront Islamic State, and only Iran was committed to the task, a news agency on Monday reported.

Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force responsible for protecting the Islamic Republic’s interests abroad, has become a familiar face on the battlefields of Iraq, where he often outranks local commanders.

“Today, in the fight against this dangerous phenomenon, nobody is present except Iran,” the Tasnim news agency quoted Soleimani as saying on Sunday in reference to Islamic State.

Iran should help countries suffering at the hands of Islamic State, said Soleimani, whose force is part of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Mehr news agency reported.

The Sunni militant group has taken key cities in Iraq and Syria in the past week, routing regular forces in both countries with apparent ease.

“Obama has not done a damn thing so far to confront Daesh: doesn’t that show that there is no will in America to confront it?” Mehr quoted Soleimani as saying, using a derogatory Arabic term for Islamic State.

“How is it that America claims to be protecting the Iraqi government, when a few kilometres away in Ramadi killings and war crimes are taking place and they are doing nothing?” [Continue reading…]

Christian Science Monitor adds: The comments have created a “Twilight Zone”-esque conversation in which former US military officers – whose troops were killed during the height of the Iraq War by the roadside bombs that Quds force advisers helped Iraqi insurgents make – say that Soleimani may have a point.

“Quite frankly, Soleimani is correct,” says retired Col. Peter Mansoor, who served as the executive officer for Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq.

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Fall of Ramadi to ISIS weakens rule of Iraqi premier

The New York Times reports: As Shiite militiamen began streaming toward Ramadi on Monday to try to reverse the loss of the city to the Islamic State, the defeat has given new momentum to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s rivals within his own Shiite political bloc.

At the urging of American officials who sought to sideline the militias, Mr. Abadi had, in effect, gambled that the combination of United States airstrikes and local Sunni tribal fighters would be able to drive Islamic State fighters out of the city as fighting intensified in recent weeks. The hope was that a victory in Ramadi could also serve as a push for a broader offensive to retake the Sunni heartland of Anbar Province.

But as the setback brought the Shiite militias, and their Iranian backers, back into the picture in Anbar, intensified Shiite infighting appeared to leave the prime minister more vulnerable than ever. And it presented a new example of how developments on the Iraqi battlefield have sometimes instantly shifted political currents in the country.

“Abadi does not have a strong challenge from Iraq’s Sunnis or Iraqi Kurds,” said Ahmed Ali, an Iraqi analyst in Washington with the Education for Peace in Iraq Center. “It’s from the Shia side.” [Continue reading…]

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Fall of Ramadi reflects failure of Iraq’s strategy against ISIS, analysts say

The Washington Post reports: As Islamic State militants repeatedly attacked ­Ramadi this year, police solicited cash from local families and businessmen to buy weapons, one officer recalled. The Iraqi government didn’t pay the police for months, he said.

“We begged and begged for more support from the government, but nothing,” said Col. Eissa al-Alwani, a senior police officer in the city.

The fall of Ramadi amounts to more than the loss of a major city in Iraq’s largest province, analysts say. It could undermine Sunni support for Iraq’s broader effort to drive back the Islamic State, vastly complicating the war effort.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Tuesday reiterated a government pledge to train and arm Sunni fighters to rout the extremists from the predominantly Sunni province. The government had announced a military campaign that envisioned taking back Anbar province in the coming months and then moving on for a climactic battle with the extremists in Mosul, Iraq’s ­second-largest city.

But the plan to form an effective Sunni fighting force was slow to take shape, hobbled by government concerns that some of the Sunnis might be close to the Islamic State, analysts say. [Continue reading…]

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To recapture Ramadi from Islamic State, Iraq must use this formula

Hayder al-Khoei writes: The fall of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s largest province, is a major defeat for the Iraqi security forces. It follows a period in which a number of strategic advances have been made by Iraqi forces elsewhere in the north and east of the war-torn country. Dreams of an offensive to defeat Islamic State in Mosul this year will now be crushed. Iraq will instead focus its resources and attention on liberating Ramadi, which lies just 60 miles to the west of Baghdad.

The complex realities on the ground will also lead to difficult choices being made on all sides of the conflict. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s approval to send in the Shi’ite-dominated Hashid Shaabi paramilitary forces to the Sunni-dominated Anbar region will worry many, but it comes at the request of local Sunnis who are desperate to defend their areas against Islamic State. The Anbar governor, provincial council and local tribes have publically asked Baghdad to send in these paramilitary forces to support Iraq’s security forces and Sunni tribesmen.

Unlike in Tikrit, several Sunni tribes in Ramadi have already been resisting Islamic State for years now. As 3,000 Shi’ite fighters have deployed to the west of Ramadi following Abadi’s green light, 4,000 Sunni tribesmen have now been deployed in the west to prevent further Islamic State advances in Anbar. Sunni-Shi’ite military cooperation — aside from the official security forces that are themselves mixed — will be a crucial element in this campaign. Sunni tribal fighters are also officially part of the Hashid Shaabi in Anbar, so this paramilitary force is no longer exclusively Shi’ite. [Continue reading…]

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The Iranian Kurdish ‘revolution’ the world doesn’t know is happening

IBT reports: Buildings are burning, protesters are bloodied, law enforcement vehicles are destroyed, hundreds of young men and women have been arrested and there is no end in sight. Iranian Kurdistan has been under what Iranian opposition called an “undeclared martial law” for the last week, and the Iranian regime has done all it can to keep it out of the media.

Thousands of Iranian Kurds have been demonstrating in the streets of roughly a dozen Iranian cities almost consistently for the past week. On Friday, protests turned violent as Iranian Kurdish political leaders called for an independent Kurdistan and democracy in Iran. It is one of the biggest Kurdish uprisings against the Iranian regime in years.

Iranian Kurds are “planning to carry out a comprehensive revolution and there are armed Iranian Kurdish political parties positioning themselves for the revolution,” said Sarkawt Kamal Ali, an Iraqi human rights lawyer familiar with the Kurdish situation.

On Friday, a recently formed coalition of Kurdish political parties, Kodar, threatened to deploy protesters and militia fighters to the Iranian capital of Tehran if the regime did not allow them to independently govern Iran’s Kurdish areas, according to Rudaw. [Continue reading…]

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