Europe says U.S. regulations keeping it from trade with Iran

The New York Times reports: With the completion of the nuclear deal with Iran and the opening of its market, European businesses expected a trade bonanza.

But three months after the lifting of many sanctions against Iran, there is growing frustration among European politicians, diplomats and businesspeople over the inability to complete dozens of energy, aviation and construction deals with the Iranians.

The main obstacle, the Europeans say, is their ally, and the driving force behind the historic nuclear agreement, the United States. Wary of running afoul of new sanctions imposed by Washington over Iran’s missile program and accusations that Iran sponsors terrorism, European banks are refusing to finance any of the deals, effectively perpetuating Iran’s isolation from the global financial system.

Europeans also point to new American visa regulations that make it more difficult for them to enter the United States if they have traveled to Iran. Those financial and travel restrictions, they say, make it nearly impossible to reach agreements with their Iranian counterparts. [Continue reading…]

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How Iran coerced Afghan refugees to fight in Syria for Assad

BBC News reports: As the five-year conflict in Syria grinds on, BBC Persian has found evidence that Iran is sending thousands of Afghan men to fight alongside Syrian government forces.

The men, who are mainly ethnic Hazaras, are recruited from impoverished and vulnerable migrant communities in Iran, and sent to join a multi-national Shia Muslim militia – in effect a “Foreign Legion” – that Iran has mobilised to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Many have since fled the battlefield and joined the refugee trail to Europe.

In a small town in Germany, we meet “Amir”, an Afghan man in his early twenties.

He was born to refugee parents in Isfahan, Iran, and is now himself an asylum seeker in Europe.

Like most of the almost three million Afghans in Iran, he lived as a second-class citizen.

Without legal residency or identity documents, he found it hard to get an education or a job. Fear of arrest and deportation was a daily reality.

It was difficult to move around freely, get a driving license or even buy a Sim card for his mobile phone.
But one day, Amir received an offer that changed everything.

“Some Afghans, who were close to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, approached me and my mates at the mosque,” he said.

“They suggested we go to Syria to help defend the Shia holy shrines from Daesh,” he added, using an acronym for the previous name of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS).

“They said we’d get passports and have an easy life afterwards. We’d be like Iranian citizens and could buy cars, houses…” [Continue reading…]

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Iranian army boots on the ground in Syria

Alex Rowell writes: The first deployment of foreign regular army ground troops to the front lines of the five-year-long battle between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad came with rather less fanfare and controversy than might have been expected.

On April 4, less than two months after US Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress Iran was winding down its direct presence in Syria, Iranian Brigadier General Ali Arasteh declared the Islamic Republic was in fact sending its official armed forces, known as the Artesh, onto the Syrian battlefield for the first time, naming the 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade in particular as one among “other units” joining the fray. The occasion marked the army’s first deployment outside Iranian territory since the 1980-88 war with Iraq.

While there have been Iranian ‘boots on the ground’ in Syria since as early as 2012, these had hitherto all belonged to the irregular Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), the parallel military organization established after the 1979 Revolution in part as an ultra-Islamist counterweight to the Artesh, viewed suspiciously at the time for its roots in the secular ancien régime. A contingent of several hundred IRGC militants fighting in Syria surged to an estimated 3,000 last October, coinciding with the Russian air campaign masterminded in the summer of 2015 by the IRGC’s external operations commander Qassem Soleimani. In strictly literal terms, what Secretary Kerry said in February was true: the IRGC itself had by then withdrawn most if not all of the reinforcements added in October. However, those withdrawals have now been offset by the dispatch of the Artesh. [Continue reading…]

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Russia almost delivers S-300 missiles to Iran soon really perhaps

Sputnik News reports: Russia has delivered the first batch of the S-300 air defense systems to Iran, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said Monday. [Continue reading…]

Mehr News Agency reports: Foreign Ministry Spokesman Jaberi Ansari who was speaking in his weekly press conference announced the implementation of first phase of S-300 missile contract between Iran and Russia.

Hossein Jaberi Ansari also reaffirmed the upcoming visit of EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini who is scheduled to arrive in Tehran on Sarturday. Mogherini will head a 7-member delegation of High-ranking EU officials.

In response to a question on delivery of Russian advanced defense missile system S-300, of which the first part is reportedly delivered to Iran through Caspian Sea, Jaberi Ansari confirmed that the first phase of the Iran-Russia contract on the systems is implemented; “we had already announced that despite several times of change in time of delivery, the deal is on its path of implementation and today I should announce that the first phase of the agreement is implemented and the process will continue.” [Continue reading…]

Sputnik News reports: Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday declined to comment on reports that deliveries of Russian S-300 air defense systems to Iran have begun. [Continue reading…]

Tasnim News Agency reports: The head of Russia’s industrial conglomerate Rostec had said last month that Iran would take delivery of the first shipment of S-300 missile defense system in August or September this year.

“I think we will deliver the S-300 by the end of the year,” Sergei Chemezov said on March 11. “The first delivery will be in September or August.” [Continue reading…]

The Times of Israel reports: The incident sowed confusion in both English and Persian media. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian PM says Russia to back new Aleppo attack; opposition says truce near collapse

Reuters reports: The Russian air force and Syrian military are preparing a joint operation to take Aleppo from rebels, the Syrian prime minister was quoted saying on Sunday, and an opposition official said a ceasefire was on the verge of collapse.

With a U.N. envoy due in Damascus in a bid to advance struggling diplomatic efforts, the “cessation of hostilities agreement” brokered by Russia and the United States came under new strain as government and rebel forces fought near Aleppo.

The ceasefire came into effect in February with the aim of paving the way for a resumption of talks to end the five-year-long war. But it has been widely violated, with each side blaming the other for breaches. The fighting south of Aleppo marks the most significant challenge yet to the deal.

Diplomacy has meanwhile made little progress with no compromise over the future of President Bashar al-Assad, his position strengthened by Iranian and Russian military support. [Continue reading…]

The Wall Street Journal reports: The Syrian regime, emboldened by battlefield victories, is pushing a political solution to end the war that keeps President Bashar al-Assad in power, in defiance of the agenda supported by Russia, his vital ally.

The plan will begin to unfold with Syrian parliamentary elections on Wednesday; the following day, Mr. Assad’s representatives will travel to peace talks in Geneva, where they are expected to push for a resolution to the conflict on Mr. Assad’s terms. [Continue reading…]

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As long as there is no real democracy in the Middle East, ISIS will continue to mutate

David Hearst writes: The betting is that neither the pro-Assad coalition nor the Saudi-backed one will prevail in Syria. The likeliest outcome of a ceasefire is a Syria permanently fragmented into sectarian statelets in the way Iraq was after the US invasion.

This could be regarded as the least worst option for foreign powers meddling in Syria. Jordan, the Emirates and Egypt will have stopped this dangerous thing called regime change. Saudi will have stopped Iran and Hezbollah. Russia will have its naval base and retain a foothold in the Middle East. Assad will survive in a shrunken sectarian state. The Kurds will have their enclave in the north. America will walk away once more from the region.

There is just one loser in all this – Syria itself. Five million Syrians will become permanent exiles. Justice, self-determination, liberation from autocracy will be kicked into the long grass.

The history of the region has lessons for foreign powers. It proves that fragmentation only leads to further chaos. The region needs reconciliation, common projects and stability as never before. That will not come from creating sectarian enclaves backed by foreign powers.

The Islamic State is a distraction from the real struggle of the region, which is liberation from dictatorship and the birth of real democratic movements. IS is not a justification for the strong men. It is a product of their resistance to change. History did not start in 2011 and it won’t stop now. The revolutions of 2011 were empowered by decades of misrule. There is a reason why millions of Arab rose – peacefully at first – against their rulers and that reason still exists today.

As long as there is no real democratic solution in the Middle East, the Islamic State group will continue to mutate like a pathogen that has become antibiotic-resistant in the body politic of the Middle East. Each time it changes shape, it will become more virulent. [Continue reading…]

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Moqtada al-Sadr is back, proving that he’s still a force in Iraqi politics

The Washington Post reports: Moqtada al-Sadr, the troublesome cleric whose militia repeatedly battled U.S. troops more than a decade ago, is back in action in Iraq — this time as a champion of political reforms.

And what a comeback it has been, replete with high political drama, bold gestures of choreographed symbolism and moments of nerve-racking tension that have seen Baghdad brace for a potential new war.

Sadr’s return to the limelight began in February, when he emerged from years of self-imposed retirement from politics to lead a mass protest campaign calling for the creation of a new government and an end to the corrupt practices of the country’s despised political elite.

On Thursday, after spending five days holed up in a tent inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone to press his demands, he was handed a victory, in the form of a proposed new government presented to parliament by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The new, streamlined cabinet is to be composed not of politicians but technocrats with the skills required to run ministries — meeting one of Sadr’s top demands. [Continue reading…]

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Google search technique aided N.Y. dam hacker in Iran

The Wall Street Journal reports: An Iranian charged with hacking the computer system that controlled a New York dam used a readily available Google search process to identify the vulnerable system, according to people familiar with the federal investigation.

The process, known as “Google dorking,” isn’t as simple as an ordinary online search. Yet anyone with a computer and Internet access can perform it with a few special techniques. Federal authorities say it is increasingly used by hackers to identify computer vulnerabilities throughout the U.S.

Hamid Firoozi, who was charged Thursday by federal prosecutors, stumbled onto the Bowman Avenue Dam in Rye Brook, N.Y., in 2013 by using the technique to identify an unprotected computer that controlled the dam’s sluice gates and other functions, said people briefed on the investigation. Once he identified the dam, he allegedly hacked his way in using other methods.

“He was just trolling around, and Google-dorked his way onto the dam,” one person familiar with the investigation said.

The search technique has been around for about 10 years, said cybersecurity experts, and is neither illegal nor always malicious. It is primarily used by “white hat hackers,” computer specialists who test an organization’s computer system for vulnerabilities, said Michael Bazzell, a former computer crime investigator for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. [Continue reading…]

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Is Putin trying to pressure Assad to negotiate?

Commenting on an article by Russia analyst Morteza Makki appearing in an Iranian daily, Arash Karami writes: Makki wrote that despite [Foreign Minister] Zarif’s positive statement on the withdrawal, “this quick and surprising decision by Russia shows that Iran and Russia’s partnership in Syria was not a strategic partnership. The Russians make decisions based on their own calculations and interests, and the partnership was not such that Iran and Syria would be able to push forward with their views and positions by leaning on the Russians.”

Makki continued that it is possible Russia’s decision was made to force President Bashar al-Assad’s government to show flexibility in the Geneva negotiations, saying that in their recent statements, the Syrians have been very optimistic and have presented red lines regarding Assad’s departure. Even conservative media outlets have suggested Russian President Vladimir Putin was angered by Syrian officials’ comments ahead of the negotiations in Geneva.

When it comes to Syria, the Iranian media has typically been keen to conform to the statements of officials. To see an article suggest that the official version presented by authorities is hiding key points is rare indeed. Most Iranian media outlets have parroted official positions on the Russian withdrawal, but they, too, have struggled to explain it. Even Iran Newspaper, which operates under the administration’s direction, called the withdrawal “surprising.” [Continue reading…]

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Kurds hope to establish a federal region in northern Syria

The New York Times reports: Syrian Kurdish parties are working on a plan to declare a federal region across much of northern Syria, several of their representatives said on Wednesday. They said their aim was to formalize the semiautonomous zone they have established during five years of war and to create a model for decentralized government throughout the country.

If they move ahead with the plan, they will be dipping a toe into the roiling waters of debate over two proposals to redraw the Middle East, each with major implications for Syria and its neighbors.

One is the longstanding aspiration of Kurds across the region to a state of their own or, failing that, greater autonomy in the countries where they are concentrated: Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, all of which view such prospects with varying degrees of horror.

The other is the idea of settling the Syrian civil war by carving up the country, whether into rump states or, more likely, into some kind of federal system. The proposal for a federal system has lately been floated by former Obama administration officials and publicly considered by Secretary of State John Kerry, but rejected not only by the Syrian government but by much of the opposition as well. [Continue reading…]

Middle East Eye reports: Syrian Kurds have declared a “Federation of Northern Syria” that unites three Kurdish majority areas into one entity, an announcement swiftly denounced by the Syrian government, opposistion and regional powers.

According to Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) official Idris Nassan, the plan will involve “areas of democratic self-administration” under the federal banner, encompassing all ethnic and religious groups living in the area.

Two officials at talks involving Kurdish, Arab, and other parties in the town of Rmeilan told the AFP news agency that delegates had agreed a “federal system” unifying the three mainly Kurdish cantons in northern Syria.

According to the pro-Kurdish Firat News Agency (ANF), the “Rojava and Northern Syria Unied Democratic System Document Text” was approved after a vote from 200 delegates, which included Arab, Kurdish, Armenian, Turkmen, Chechen, Syriac and other ethnic groups.

The boundaries of the federalised region have yet to be established, according to a delegate to the talks on Twitter. [Continue reading…]

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How Iran views the Russian withdrawal from Syria

Arash Karami reports: Iranian officials and analysts are speculating about why Russian President Vladimir Putin suddenly decided to begin withdrawing troops from Syria. Some wonder whether Russia won concessions from the United States and the Syrian opposition, but most seem to think that Russia’s action is a positive sign, or at the least nothing to worry about.

Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign policy adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, spoke to Iranian reporters March 15 after holding a press conference with Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad in Iran. According to the media, Velayati said that during his meeting with Mekdad, they discussed “defending the territorial integrity” of Syria and its April 13 parliamentary elections. When asked if Iranian troops would replace the Russian forces leaving Syria, Velayati said that Russia’s action “will not change the overall cooperation between Iran, Russia, Syria and allied forces such as Hezbollah.”

Velayati noted that Russia still has an air base in Syria and, if necessary, would again up its effort against terrorists. Velayati added that at the moment, the Syrian government has the upper hand given recent gains by its allies, the cease-fires and the Geneva negotiations. In addition to its air base, Russia will also reportedly keep its maritime base in Syria operable, and nearly 1,000 military personnel will remain in the country. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s need for national reconciliation

Akbar Ganji writes: Hassan Rouhani was elected Iran’s president in June 2013 based on his promise of reaching a nuclear agreement and improving the relations with the West. He delivered on his promise, and in the process a close working relationship developed between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Secretary of State John Kerry. The two diplomats have been discussing various issues, including the cease-fire in Syria. On March 6, President Rouhani said, “We can authorize our negotiation team to discuss other issues [with the West] in the world [that are of mutual interest]. We are sure that we will reach agreement similar to the nuclear negotiations.”

The Iranian people support these efforts and wish for improved relations with the United States. Under the leadership of former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, as well as Rouhani, Iran’s reformists and moderates want to pursue such goals. Leaders of the Green Movement who are under house arrest, namely former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, his wife Zahra Rahnavard and former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi also support the policy of détente with the West.

Since the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 was signed in July 2015, the main problem in Iran has been national reconciliation. In other words, just as Iran and the P5+1 resolved their long-held and difficult differences diplomatically, Iranians from all walks of life also want to resolve the issues that are dividing their nation. Iranians call the nuclear agreement Barjam, the Farsi acronym for Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The reformists and moderates are now talking about the second Barjam, or Barjam 2, which they hope will lead to the release of all political prisoners, an end to the house arrest of the Green Movement’s leaders, freedom for political parties, independence for the universities and colleges and the resolution of other important issues.

These were also Rouhani’s promises during his campaign for the presidency, which have been opposed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who favors controlling cultural affairs as well as the universities. [Continue reading…]

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Iran executions hit 20-year high in 2015, UN investigator says

Reuters reports: Iran executed nearly 1,000 prisoners last year, the highest number in two decades, and hundreds of journalists, activists and opposition figures languish in custody, a United Nations investigator said on Thursday.

Ahmed Shaheed, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, voiced particular concern about executions for crimes committed by children under 18. This was “strictly and unequivocally prohibited under international law”.

There had been a “staggering surge in the execution of at least 966 prisoners last year – the highest rate in over two decades”, Shaheed told a news briefing. [Continue reading…]

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Iran prepared to send advisers to ‘support’ Yemen’s Houthis

Middle East Eye reports: Iran is prepared to send a team of “military advisers” to support Houthi rebels in Yemen, a senior military commander has said, amid suggestions that forces fighting on the ground could be moving towards a peace deal.

Massoud Jazayiri, deputy head of Iran’s armed forces, told Iran’s Tasnim news agency on Tuesday that the country would consider repeating its actions in Syria, where it is supporting President Bashar al-Assad.

“The Islamic Republic [of Iran] feels very deeply its obligation to help the Syrian government and its people. It also feels very deeply its obligation to help the Yemeni people in any way possible.”

Iran has sent large numbers of military advisers to fight alongside the Syrian army and Hezbollah, as well as footsoldiers thought to include Afghan migrants to Iran who are promised high rates of pay and Iranian citizenship in exchange for fighting.

Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who overran much of the country in September 2014, are already known to have received financial and military support from Iran. [Continue reading…]

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Iranian state TV censors speech in which President Rohani hails former President Khatami

RFE/RL reports: Iran’s president has broken a long-standing taboo by publicly defending a reformist predecessor, but his remarks were met with a muted response.

In a speech broadcast live from Mohammad Khatami’s hometown on March 7, President Hassan Rohani hailed the former reformist president as a “dear brother.”

The crowd in the central Iranian city of Yazd cheered wildly at the mention of their native son. But Iran’s state-run IRINN television, well aware of a long-standing media ban against mentioning Khatami’s name, quickly cut the volume. [Continue reading…]

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