Cyberattacks alleged to be coming from Iran may be increasing — or diminishing

The New York Times reports: In the report, to be released Friday, Norse — which, like other cybersecurity firms, has an interest in portraying a world of cyberthreats but presumably little incentive in linking them to any particular country — traced thousands of attacks against American targets to hackers inside Iran.

The report, and a similar one from Cylance, another cybersecurity firm, make clear that Iranian hackers are moving from ostentatious cyberattacks in which they deface websites or simply knock them offline to much quieter reconnaissance. In some cases, they appear to be probing for critical infrastructure systems that could provide opportunities for more dangerous and destructive attacks.

But Norse and Cylance differ on the question of whether the Iranian attacks have accelerated in recent months, or whether Tehran may be pulling back during a critical point in the nuclear negotiations.

Norse, which says it maintains thousands of sensors across the Internet to collect intelligence on attackers’ methods, insists that Iranian hackers have shown no signs of letting up. Between January 2014 and last month, the Norse report said, its sensors picked up a 115 percent increase in attacks launched from Iranian Internet protocol, or I.P., addresses. Norse said that its sensors had detected more than 900 attacks, on average, every day in the first half of March.

Cylance came to a different conclusion, at least for Iran’s activities in the past few months, as negotiations have come to a head. Stuart McClure, the chief executive and founder of Cylance, which has been tracking Iranian hacking groups, said that there had been a notable drop in activity over the past few months, and that the groups were now largely quiet. [Continue reading…]

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Iranians cannot build democracy in the shadow of war

Akbar Ganji writes: The vast majority of the Iranian people aspire to have democracy and, thus, want to make a peaceful transition from an Islamic theocracy to a democratic state. They deserve to have democracy and no one should put obstacles in their way. The Iranians know that they must build democracy in Iran. They also know that they cannot walk on water, or create a peaceful democracy in the shadow and threat of war.

But there are western governments, as well as members of the Iranian opposition in diaspora that want Iranians to go through hellfire to achieve their aspirations. More Iranians reject this, because they have closely followed the experiences of other nations in their region over the past decade or so, and see that the Middle East is soaked with blood. They know the fates of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen – nations that were either invaded by the United States, bombed back to the Medieval age (Libya) or destroyed by a sectarian war instigated by US allies in the Middle East (Syria).

None of these nations has become a democratic state. The state of human rights in all of these nations is far worse than before their crippling wars. Their national security systems have collapsed and terrorism has spread. The only “fruits” of the military intervention in the Middle East and North Africa over the past 15 years have been civil wars, terrorism and disintegration of nation states. Since the attacks of 11 September 2001, at least 1.3 million people have been killed in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Millions of people have either been injured or have become internal refugees within their own countries or abroad.

Iranian people want democracy, but they are keenly aware that security and peace are the prerequisites for building democracy and respect for human rights. Iranians rejoiced after the joint political statement by Iran and P5+1 was read in Lausanne, Switzerland by Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, outlining the framework of the agreement between the two sides over Iran’s nuclear programme.

Why were the Iranian people so happy and celebrating in the streets? Was the announcement a great victory for their nation? It surely was not politically, because Iran made many concessions, and received comparatively little in return.

But it was indeed a great victory for Iran and Iranians, if we look at it from a democracy angle. In the view of Iranians, the negotiations between Iran and P5+1 was a “wrestling match” between war and peace. War was defeated by peace, and its threat was destroyed. It was a hopeful sign for Iranians everywhere.

When a nation such as Iran is threatened by the US and Israel for over two decades, and suffers from the most crippling economic sanctions in history, democracy becomes an impossible dream for its people, who live instead in terror and fear of war. Even now, after the announcement of the Lausanne agreement, Israeli leaders continue to threaten Iran with military attacks. [Continue reading…]

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Iranian president: We are in talks with ‘the major powers,’ not the U.S. Congress

The Washington Post reports: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday that Tehran was negotiating a comprehensive nuclear deal with world powers, not the U.S. Congress, and called a Senate committee’s vote to give Congress the power to review any potential deal a domestic U.S. matter.

The Iranian leader, speaking in a televised speech in the northern Iranian city of Rasht, also repeated earlier statements that his country will not accept any comprehensive nuclear deal with world powers unless all sanctions imposed against it are lifted.

“We are in talks with the major powers and not with the Congress,” Rouhani said, Iranian state television reported. Rouhani said the U.S. Congress’ power to review a nuclear deal with Iran was a domestic U.S. matter, the Reuters news agency reported.

He said Iran wanted to end its isolation from the world by constructing “constructive interaction with the world and not confrontation.”

Rouhani’s comments came one day after a Senate committee voted unanimously to give Congress the power to review a potential Iran nuclear deal after a June 30 negotiating deadline, in a compromise with the White House that allows President Obama to avoid possible legislative disapproval of the pact before it can be completed. [Continue reading…]

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U.N. confirms new push for Syria talks, Iran to be invited

Reuters: The United Nations said on Tuesday that its Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura planned to consult Syrian factions and interested countries on a new round of peace talks, confirming a Reuters report.

“Starting in May … de Mistura will proceed with a series of in-depth, separate consultations with the Syrian stakeholders and regional/international actors to take stock of their views as of today,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

A U.N. spokesman in Geneva, Ahmad Fawzi, said de Mistura was “heavily engaged” in discussions on the process, which would be based on the Geneva communiqué, the June 2012 document that set out a path to peace and political transition but left unresolved the future role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

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Soleimani: No more selfies

Arash Karami writes: When the fighters of the Islamic State (IS) took over large parts of western Iraq in the summer of 2014, Iran did not hesitate to assist both Iraqi and Kurdish forces in pushing back against the advance of the terrorist group. Iran’s geopolitical decision was also accompanied by what seemed an unofficial media decision: to promote the status of Quds Force Cmdr. Qasem Soleimani in the fight against IS.

Pictures of Soleimani at the front line among Iraqi forces surfaced on social media overnight. The various Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages dedicated to Soleimani had begun to act as his unofficial media arm, and his popularity has soared online. Often he could be seen looking at the camera, making no attempt to conceal that Iran had sent its commander in charge of regional policy to Iraq.

But now it seems that Soleimani has had enough. In an April 11 open letter to an Iranian filmmaker requesting that he cease producing a film about him, Soleimani also denied some of the things said about him on social media and asked officials to control the rumors. [Continue reading…]

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Is Iran outmaneuvering Saudi Arabia in Yemen?

Mohammad Ali Shabani writes: The war in Yemen is increasingly being construed as a Saudi contest with Iran. To ascertain the veracity of this oft-repeated conception, two things need to be clarified: whether the conflict is driven by sectarian dynamics and what Iran seeks in Yemen.

Yemen has long been the Afghanistan of the Arab world. Most Yemenis live below the poverty rate. The country sits on multiple fault lines, in addition to a long-running border dispute with Saudi Arabia. Following Arab Spring protests, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi came to power through a Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered one-man election, as opposition groups seized on power vacuums. The Houthis have in past months seized major urban centers in collaboration with their old foe (and Hadi’s predecessor) Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Experts on Yemen contend that the Houthis emerged as a Zaydi revivalist movement in response to Saudi-funded Salafist proselytizing in the 1990s. Claims that the group is sectarian and linked to Iran are long-running. Robert Worth, a fellow at the Wilson Center and former New York Times Middle East correspondent, told Al-Monitor, “The Houthis have been accused of being Iranian stooges almost since they were first founded.” However, these accusations have not attracted much credence. Worth, who has been on the ground in Yemen and is working on a book on the legacy of the Arab uprisings, said, “When I started reporting on them in 2007, this accusation was ridiculed by almost everyone — even by Yemeni officials, off the record.” [Continue reading…]

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Is there any hope left for Yemen?

Bushra al-Maqtari writes: There is no shortage of people to blame for Yemen’s catastrophe: the sectarian, tribalist Houthis, who seized the capital in January; Mr. Hadi, who led an incompetent government and is now supporting our northern neighbor’s effort to turn us into a Saudi protectorate; and his vindictive, irrational predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was forced from power in 2011 but refuses to step aside.

These culprits have effectively made Yemen the battleground between two great external powers, Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. Yemenis today are more divided than they ever have been.

The pro-intervention side claims that the legitimacy of Mr. Hadi’s government must be upheld, and that the Houthi assault on the government must be stopped. The other side presents itself as the defender of national autonomy, even though it was the Houthis who sought Iran’s military and financial help and thereby helped to turn Yemen into a proxy for a regional struggle against Saudi Arabia.

Like other democratic activists, I am in a third group — one that has been rendered nearly invisible. We reject external military intervention absolutely. We also reject the Houthis’ coup and their vengeful campaign against Yemenis in the north and the south. Our brief hope for a peaceful democratic transition, after Mr. Saleh officially ceded power more than three years ago, has given way to despair. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi spurns call by Iran to draw back from Yemen

The New York Times reports: Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister accused Iran on Sunday of meddling in Yemen and pointedly dismissed Iranian appeals for the Saudis to end their bombing campaign, in the latest sign of deepening tensions between the regional heavyweights.

“How could Iran call on us to stop the fighting?” the foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said, adding that Tehran had played no constructive role in Yemen’s development process.

“On the contrary, it intervened in decision-making in Yemen,” he told reporters in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, according to a transcript by the Al-Arabiya news channel.

The escalating feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which has inflamed conflicts and sectarian rhetoric around the region, has dampened hopes that there will be a swift end to the fighting in Yemen. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. reporter held in Iran said to face ‘espionage’ charges

The Associated Press: A Washington Post journalist detained in Iran for over eight months is accused of “espionage” and “acting against national security,” the semiofficial Fars news agency reported Sunday.

The report did not elaborate on the source of the information, but the agency is regarded as close to Iran’s hard-liners.

Iranian officials have previously said Jason Rezaian is facing “security” charges and that he will stand trial before the Revolutionary Court — which mainly hears sensitive cases involving national security.

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Militiamen in Yemen’s Aden say two Iranian officers captured

Reuters reports: Local militiamen in the southern Yemeni city of Aden said they captured two Iranian military officers advising Houthi rebels, during fighting on Friday evening.

Tehran has strongly denied providing any military support for Houthi fighters, whose advances have drawn Saudi-led air strikes in a campaign dubbed “Decisive Storm.”

If confirmed, the presence of two Iranian officers, whom the local militiamen said were from an elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, would deepen tensions between Tehran and Riyadh, who are vying for influence in the Middle East.

Three sources in the city’s anti-Houthi local militias said the Iranians, identified as a colonel and a captain, were seized in two different districts rocked by heavy gun battles.

“The initial investigation revealed that they are from the Quds Force and are working as advisors to the Houthi militia,” one of the militia sources told Reuters. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s Supreme Leader says sanctions must lift when nuclear deal is signed

The New York Times reports: Iran’s supreme leader on Thursday challenged two of the United States’ bedrock principles in the nuclear negotiations, declaring that all economic sanctions would have to be lifted on the day any final agreement was signed and that military sites would be strictly off limits to foreign inspectors.

The assertions by the leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, could be tactical, intended to give both the negotiators and himself some political space to get Iran’s hard-liners accustomed to the framework of the nuclear deal reached a week ago with the United States and other world powers.

But they sharply illustrated the difficult hurdles that lie ahead as Secretary of State John Kerry and a large team of diplomats, energy experts and intelligence officials try to reach a June 30 deadline that would ensure that Iran could not race for a bomb for at least a decade — and would establish a permanent inspection regime to catch any cheating.

In his remarks, Ayatollah Khamenei added several stinging criticisms of Iran’s regional competitor, Saudi Arabia — calling its new leaders “inexperienced youths” — a sign of rising regional tensions that could pose another threat to the negotiations, even as diplomats strive to keep the issues on separate tracks.

King Salman, the country’s newly installed leader, is 79, though many around him are a generation younger. [Continue reading…]

Calling Saudi Arabia’s defense minister, Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud, an inexperienced youth, might be an undiplomatic yet reasonably accurate characterization of the youngest defense minister in the world. After less than three months in the position, the 34-year-old is now overseeing a war in Yemen that’s predicted to become Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam.

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Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia deepen over conflict in Yemen

The New York Times reports: Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia deepened on Thursday as Iranian leaders lashed out with rare vehemence against the continuing Saudi air campaign in Yemen, even hurling personal insults at the young Saudi prince who is leading the fight.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, on Thursday denounced the Saudi airstrikes in Yemen as “a crime” and “a genocide,” while all but taunting Saudi Arabia that its war in Yemen was doomed to fail.

A regional coalition led by Saudi Arabia extended its bombing campaign for a 16th night in its effort to stop the Houthi movement and its allies from dominating Yemen. The Houthis nonetheless continued their advance, and aid groups warned of a compounding humanitarian catastrophe, particularly in the port city of Aden.

Secretary of State John Kerry sharply warned Iran over its backing for the other side of the conflict in Yemen, in the first explicit American accusation that Tehran has been providing military aid to the Houthis.

Washington was “not going to stand by while the region is destabilized,” Mr. Kerry said in an interview with “PBS NewsHour” on Wednesday night. [Continue reading…]

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White House trolls Netanyahu

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Bibi’s bogus ‘better deal’ with Iran

Peter Beinart writes: Benjamin Netanyahu insists that opposing Thursday’s framework nuclear deal with Iran doesn’t mean he wants war. “There’s a third alternative,” the Israeli prime minister told CNN on Sunday, “and that is standing firm, ratcheting up the pressure until you get a better deal.”

There are three problems with this argument. The first is that even some of Netanyahu’s own ideological allies don’t buy it. Netanyahu and many Republican politicians—knowing that the American public doesn’t want war—insist that there’s a diplomatic alternative to the current deal. But over the years, key conservative foreign-policy experts, have said exactly the opposite. Eliot Cohen, a former Bush administration official who teaches at John Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, has written that, “The choices are now what they ever were: an American or an Israeli strike, which would probably cause a substantial war, or living in a world with Iranian nuclear weapons, which may also result in war, perhaps nuclear, over a longer period of time. Understandably, the U.S. government has hoped for a middle course of sanctions, negotiations and bargaining that would remove the problem without the ugly consequences. This is self-delusion.” According to Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations, “The only credible option for significantly delaying the Iranian nuclear program would be a bombing campaign.” The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol has argued that, “It’s long since been time for the United States to speak to this regime in the language it understands—force. … We can strike at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and weaken them. And we can hit the regime’s nuclear weapons program, and set it back.” And over the last month alone, two other prominent hawks, John Bolton and Joshua Muravchik, have penned op-eds entitled, “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran” and “War With Iran Is Probably Our Best Option.” Netanyahu may sincerely believe that there’s a preferable diplomatic alternative to last week’s deal. But it’s telling that for years now, many on his ideological side have disagreed. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s leaders fall into line behind nuclear accord

The New York Times reports: Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iranian hard-liners have been free to take to the streets and object to any form of compromise with the West, and particularly the United States.

But when a conspicuously small group of hard-liners did so on Tuesday morning in front of the Parliament building, holding up placards and shouting slogans against the nuclear framework agreed to last week in Lausanne, Switzerland, the Iranian Interior Ministry condemned the demonstration as illegal, because the protesters had failed to obtain a permit. There were also very few reporters.

It was perhaps the first time that conservatives — in this case mostly young people genuinely disappointed over the compromises Iran has made to reach a nuclear agreement — seemed disconnected from the power structure here.

Analysts say the message from the top is clear: Get with the program. Senior officials, important clerics, lawmakers and Revolutionary Guards commanders, who in the past have reflexively opposed any accommodation with the West, now go out of their way to laud Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his team of negotiators, as well as the government of President Hassan Rouhani.

On Tuesday, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the highest-ranking commander of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, joined the chorus. “The Iranian nation and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps thank these dear negotiators for their honest attempts and political jihad, and for their resistance on the defined red lines,” the semiofficial Mehr news agency quoted him as saying. [Continue reading…]

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GOP’s Israel support deepens as political contributions shift

The New York Times reports: As the proposed agreement over Iran’s nuclear program is debated in coming weeks, President Obama will make his case to a Congress controlled by Republicans who are more fervently pro-Israel than ever, partly a result of ideology, but also a product of a surge in donations and campaign spending on their behalf by a small group of wealthy donors.

One of the surprisingly high-profile critics is Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who burst to prominence with a letter signed by 46 Republican colleagues to leaders of Iran warning against a deal. Mr. Cotton, echoing criticism by Israeli leaders, swiftly denounced the framework reached on Thursday as “a list of dangerous U.S. concessions that will put Iran on the path to nuclear weapons” — words, his colleagues say, that expressed his deep concern about Iran’s threat to Israel’s security.

But it is also true that Mr. Cotton and other Republicans benefited from millions in campaign spending in 2014 by several pro-Israel Republican billionaires and other influential American donors who helped them topple Democratic opponents.

Republicans currently in the Senate raised more money during the 2014 election cycle in direct, federally regulated campaign contributions from individuals and political action committees deemed pro-Israel than their Democratic counterparts, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics and analyzed for The New York Times by a second nonprofit, MapLight. The Republican advantage was the first in more than a decade. [Continue reading…]

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What really happened in Tikrit after ISIS fled

Al Jazeera reports: Arson and looting incidents in Tikrit after the Iraqi army recaptured the city last week from fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have highlighted the deep divisions between the Sunni tribes that supported ISIL and the Sunni tribes that opposed it, local and federal security officials said.

Those divisions threaten to tear apart the Sunni community in the areas still under ISIL control, Iraqi officials said.

Hundreds of homes and stores were set ablaze after they were looted by unidentified people last week in Tikrit, one of the biggest Iraqi cities dominated by a Sunni Muslim population. It was seized by ISIL last summer.

More than 30,000 Iraqi security troops as well as the Popular Mobilisation forces, a multi-sect force, have since regained control of the city, forcing ISIL fighters to flee after a month-long battle. [Continue reading…]

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Thomas Erdbrink — ‘Our man in Tehran’ (parts 2 & 3)

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