Right before Saudi Arabia started bombing Yemen, Adam Baron wrote: While the chief combatants in the civil war are certainly playing the sectarian card to some degree, there is reason to think that Yemen will not necessarily become part of some regional sectarian conflict. Regardless of their foreign ties, both the Shiite Houthis and their Sunni opponents are deeply rooted in Yemen, and they are motivated primarily by local issues.
The main danger now is that the Western powers, Saudi Arabia or Egypt will overreact and seek to intervene, ostensibly to counter Iranian influence or to quash the efforts of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to gain territory. Yet foreign intervention could very well be the worst approach now—further regionalizing what is still a local fight, injecting a stronger sectarian tone into the conflict while threatening to push Yemen closer to implosion.
The roots of Yemen’s current conflict date back more than a decade, to a little-covered series of six brutal wars fought by the government of Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in the aim of defeating an insurgent group—widely referred to as the Houthis—based in the country’s far north. The Houthis’ founder, firebrand cleric Hussein al-Houthi, hailed from a prominent Zaidi Shi’a family and was a leader of the revival of Zaidism, a heterodox Shi’a sect found nearly exclusively in Yemen’s mountainous north. Notably the group’s foundation was, itself, rooted in a reaction to foreign intervention: a key aspect of the Houthis ideology was shoring up Zaidism against the perceived threat of the influence of Saudi-influenced ideologies and a general condemnation of the Yemeni government’s alliance with the United States, which, along with complaints regarding . the government’s corruption and the marginalization of much of the Houthis’ home areas in Saada constituted the group’s key grievances. [Continue reading…]
The Los Angeles Times reports: ecret files held by Yemeni security forces that contain details of American intelligence operations in the country have been looted by Iran-backed militia leaders, exposing names of confidential informants and plans for U.S.-backed counter-terrorism strikes, U.S. officials say.
U.S. intelligence officials believe additional files were handed directly to Iranian advisors by Yemeni officials who have sided with the Houthi militias that seized control of Sana, the capital, in September, which led the U.S.-backed president to flee to Aden.
For American intelligence networks in Yemen, the damage has been severe. Until recently, U.S. forces deployed in Yemen had worked closely with President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi’s government to track and kill Al Qaeda operatives, and President Obama had hailed Yemen last fall as a model for counter-terrorism operations elsewhere. [Continue reading…]
Ali Mamouri writes: In the book “The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future,” Vali Nasr, an Iranian-American researcher on the crises in the Middle East, came to the conclusion in 2006 that the religious struggle resulting from the rise of the Shiite identity in the region would reshape the Middle East. Developments in recent years have proved that this view seems accurate.
Today, Shiite forces are strongly present in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. They are united and firmly associated with the Iranian axis. This new situation did not happen by chance or overnight. Rather, it was preceded by many arrangements that Iran has been making for decades.
The sectarian rivalry in the region began with the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when Saudi Arabia and Iran raced to find and endorse revolutionary groups that fought different governments based on Islamic ideology and inspired by the Quranic terms of jihad in the Middle East. These groups include al-Qaeda for the Sunnis and Hezbollah and the Houthi movement for the Shiites. While Saudi Arabia has invested in jihadist organizations in Afghanistan — such as the Afghan Arabs, or the Arab mujahedeen, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan — Iran has invested in the Shiite opposition forces in the Arab countries, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hezbollah al-Hejaz in Bahrain and the Badr Brigade in Iraq. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: American warplanes began airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Tikrit late Wednesday, finally joining a stalled offensive to retake the Iraqi city as American officials sought to seize the initiative from Iran, which had taken a major role in directing the operation.
The decision to directly aid the offensive was made by President Obama on Wednesday, American officials said, and represented a significant shift in the Iraqi campaign. For more than three weeks, the Americans had stayed on the sideline of the battle for Tikrit, wary of being in the position of aiding an essentially Iranian-led operation. Senior Iranian officials had been on the scene, and allied Shiite militias had made up the bulk of the force.
Mr. Obama approved the airstrikes after a request from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on the condition that Iranian-backed Shiite militias move aside to allow a larger role for Iraqi government counterterrorism forces that have worked most closely with United States troops, American officials said. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps who has been advising forces around Tikrit, was reported on Sunday to have left the area. [Continue reading…]
Trita Parsi writes: There are few world leaders as powerful yet mysterious as Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Most of what has been written about him in English only adds to the confusion surrounding the man (Akbar Ganji’s writings are a notable exception). The most common misinterpretation of him at the moment is that he is ideologically opposed to cutting a reasonable deal with the United States — the “Great Satan,” as America is known among some Iranian leaders — over his country’s nuclear program. But Khamenei wants a deal perhaps just as much as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is widely credited with being the more moderate force behind the current negotiations. Far from betraying the Iranian Revolution, Khamenei may view the negotiations as helping fulfill its ideals.
It’s clear that Khamenei is deeply suspicious of the United States and skeptical of both its intent and ability to come to terms with Iran. When President Barack Obama first extended a hand to the Iranians in his 2009 Persian New Year greeting, Khamenei immediately shot back. In a lengthy speech from his birth town of Mashhad, Khamenei went over the entire litany of American crimes against Iran — from support for the hated shah (overthrown by Khamenei’s predecessors in the revolution of 1979), to aid to Saddam Hussein during the Iraq-Iran war, to the downing of an Iranian passenger plane in 1988, to years of sanctions. He cast doubt on the intentions of the United States, even under its new president. He went on to question Obama’s ability to shift America’s position on Iran. “I would like to say that I do not know who makes decisions for the United States, the president, the Congress, elements behind the scenes?” he asked.
Understanding the depth of this suspicion requires recalling that Khamenei has not merely read about the tortuous history of U.S.-Iran relations. As a close associate of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and a former president of Iran, he was there. He lived through — as a participant, not an observer — every dark chapter he cites in his speeches, from the hostage crisis to the Axis of Evil speech. His skepticism of U.S. intentions, rightly or wrongly, is a product of the four decades of baggage he carries on his shoulders.
Yet, in the end, that’s all he is: a skeptic. He is not an ideological opponent who will undermine, or refuse to accept, any deal struck by Iran’s more moderate negotiators. [Continue reading…]
The Wall Street Journal reports: Talks over Iran’s nuclear program have hit a stumbling block a week before a key deadline because Tehran has failed to cooperate with a United Nations probe into whether it tried to build atomic weapons in the past, say people close to the negotiations.
In response, these people say, the U.S. and its diplomatic partners are revising their demands on Iran to address these concerns before they agree to finalize a nuclear deal, which would repeal U.N. sanctions against the country.
“Progress has been very limited,” Yukiya Amano, who heads the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, told The Wall Street Journal this week. “No more new issues” have been addressed. [Continue reading…]
Nancy A. Youssef reports: The U.S.-led coalition is preparing to expand its air strike campaign into the city of Tikrit where Iraqi forces, backed by Iranians, have stalled in their efforts to reclaim the hometown of Saddam Hussein from the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
Two U.S. officials told The Daily Beast that the United States is awaiting a formal request from the Iraqi government for the strikes. Once they receive that request, it could be only a matter of days before the attacks begin.
“The preparatory work is probably already done. The [U.S. military] has started to bring in more assets for a Tikrit air support campaign,” an adviser to the U.S. government tasked with monitoring and engaging with Iraqi officials told The Daily Beast. “Unless there is an impediment on the Iraqi side, and I don’t see it happening, the campaign could begin within days.” [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: A coterie of Iran’s hard-line Shiite Muslim clerics and Revolutionary Guards commanders is usually vocal on the subject of the Iranian nuclear program, loudly proclaiming the country’s right to pursue its interests and angrily denouncing the United States.
But as the United States and Iran prepare to restart nuclear talks this week, the hard-liners have been keeping a low profile.
“They have been remarkably quiet,” said Nader Karimi Joni, a former member of the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij, a volunteer paramilitary group.
Their silence is a result of state policies intended by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to seriously try to find a solution through negotiations. Ayatollah Khamenei has largely supported the nuclear talks and the Iranian negotiators, whom he has called “good and caring people, who work for the country.”
The restraint by the hard-liners also reflects a general satisfaction, analysts say, with the direction of the talks and the successes Iran is enjoying, extending and deepening its influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. [Continue reading…]
Al Jazeera: Kurdish authorities in Iraq have accused Iran of sending 30,000 soldiers and military experts to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.
Shakhawan Abdullah, the head of the Iraq’s parliamentary security and defence committee, told Al Jazeera on Sunday that Iranian soldiers were operating in a number of Iraqi cities and fighting on Iraqi soil.
Abdullah said Iran’s presence went beyond military advisers and experts, and that Iranians were fighting under the banner of the Popular Mobilisation Forces.
The Popular Mobilisation Forces is an umbrella organisation of Shia armed groups composed of around 100,000 fighters.
The New York Times reports: In late 2012, just as President Obama and his aides began secretly sketching out a diplomatic opening to Iran, American intelligence agencies were busy with a parallel initiative: The latest spy-vs.-spy move in the decade-long effort to sabotage Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure.
Investigators uncovered an Iranian businessman’s scheme to buy specialty aluminum tubing, a type the United States bans for export to Iran because it can be used in centrifuges that enrich uranium, the exact machines at the center of negotiations entering a crucial phase in Switzerland this week.
Rather than halt the shipment, court documents reveal, American agents switched the aluminum tubes for ones of an inferior grade. If installed in Iran’s giant underground production centers, they would have shredded apart, destroying the centrifuges as they revved up to supersonic speed.
But if negotiators succeed in reaching a deal with Iran, does the huge, covert sabotage effort by the United States, Israel and some European allies come to an end?
“Probably not,” said one senior official with knowledge of the program. In fact, a number of officials make the case that surveillance of Iran will intensify and covert action may become more important than ever to ensure that Iran does not import the critical materials that would enable it to accelerate the development of advanced centrifuges or pursue a covert path to a bomb. [Continue reading…]
Jacob Siegel writes: Last October, less than a month after the U.S.-led coalition began bombing ISIS positions in Iraq, Iran’s supreme leader spoke about the forces behind the terror group. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed the rise of the self-declared Islamic State on “America, Zionism, and especially the veteran expert of spreading divisions — the wicked government of Britain.”
At that point in the speech Khamenei seemed to be advancing a severe version of a fairly common theory — imperial blowback, linking the rise of terrorist organizations to Western meddling in the Middle East. The same idea was expressed by Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani, a month before Khamenei’s speech, when he addressed the UN General Assembly.
This is a critical moment in U.S.-Iranian relations. High-wire negotiations between the Obama administration and Tehran over Iran’s nuclear program continue while the two countries increasingly find common cause in the war against ISIS. But given the rhetoric coming out of Tehran, it’s worth asking if Iran’s leaders actually believe, as they have repeatedly claimed, that America created ISIS.
It’s unclear what Khamenei’s secretive inner circle believes, but let’s be clear: The Supreme Leader isn’t just talking about mistakes — even catastrophic ones — in U.S. foreign policy or the decision to invade Iraq; he’s describing a deliberate strategy. “They created al Qaida and Da’esh” — the Arabic word for ISIS — “in order to create divisions and to fight against the Islamic Republic [of Iran].”
In December of last year, Khamenei’s senior adviser returned to the theme, saying, “[ISIS] has actually been created by the Western colonial powers and the Zionists because whatever this terrorist group does runs counter to Islam and the rules of all Islamic sects.” [Continue reading…]
Jeremy Bernstein writes: The Iran University of Science and Technology in Tehran was founded in 1929 as a school of engineering. It became a general technological institute in 1972. It now has more than a dozen departments with thousands of undergraduate and postgraduate students. Few if any American universities have a more complete list of undergraduate physics courses. Looking at the faculty reveals an interesting split. The senior professors all did much of their degree work abroad. One of them for example was an undergraduate at Columbia. The junior faculty, including one woman, all did their degree work in Iran. In another generation, it may be that all of Iran’s physicists will have been educated in Iran. No other country in the Middle East would show a demographic like this. Taken in the large this means that Iran has a serious scientific infrastructure, which must be taken into account in any negotiations over its nuclear programme. The notion that the country can be negotiated into a scientific stone age is nonsense.
I am going to take a quick detour to Libya. In 1968, King Idris made the country a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. When Colonel Gaddafi took over the following year he did not change this treaty status. Indeed Libya began a modest development in peaceful nuclear activities. This did not last long; on a state visit to China in 1970 Gaddafi made an unsuccessful attempt to buy nuclear weapons. He then tried both India and Pakistan and had a go at enriching uranium. What characterised the Libyan programme throughout was the lack of a real scientific infrastructure. In the 1980s, the Pakistani metallurgist A.Q. Khan began selling nuclear secrets. In the late 1990s Gaddafi bought the package which included plans and parts to build centrifuges. When he decided to give the programme up in 2003, even with the aid of foreign scientists the Libyans had succeeded in building only one centrifuge. [Continue reading…]
Reza Marashi and Trita Parsi write: Part of the reason why opponents to a nuclear deal with Iran are so bewildered by President Barack Obama’s diplomacy is because their belief that Iran can be forced to capitulate. They adhere to a George W. Bush administration-era argument: If the U.S. only were to ramp up pressure, it can dictate the terms of the deal instead of having to agree to a compromise.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
This argument is as reckless as it is disproven. In fact, the reason the Obama administration abandoned this path was because it realized that insisting on Iranian capitulation was more likely to lead to war than to victory. And that is precisely why it is defying any pressure — be it from the US Senate or the Israeli Prime Minister — to return to this policy.
What the hawks miscalculate is Iran’s ability to resist — and hit back. When Washington imposed on Iran the most comprehensive sanctions regime in history, Tehran did not capitulate. Rather, it responded to pressure with pressure. It took steps to adapt its economy to bend but not break — from weaning its budget off oil revenues, to utilizing unofficial financial networks and processes. Prior to President Rouhani’s election, it increased efforts to target Western and Israeli interests around the world — from suspected bombings to cyber attacks.
But most telling has been Iran creating new nuclear facts on the ground. As sanctions, cyber-warfare, and secret assassinations increased, so too did Iran’s stockpiles of low and medium enriched uranium, as well as its installation of first and second-generation centrifuges. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: Iraqi forces’ operation to retake the city of Tikrit has stalled as troops suffer heavy casualties at the hands of Islamic State militants, raising concerns about whether the pro-government fighters are ready for major offensives.
After two days of little activity on the battlefield, Iraq’s interior minister, Mohammed al-Ghabban, confirmed Monday that the offensive has “temporarily stopped.” The steady flow of coffins arriving in Iraq’s Shiite holy city of Najaf suggests a reason for the pause; cemetery workers say as many as 60 war dead have been arriving each day.
Since last week, Iraqi forces have hemmed in the Sunni militants in Tikrit, claiming control of the majority of the former Islamic State stronghold. But the operation has come at a cost, with soldiers saying the fight has been tougher than expected. As the momentum has slowed, some Iraqi officials have begun to publicly call for U.S.-led air support. [Continue reading…]
Ian Black writes: The commanders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have been working overtime recently, flaunting their achievements across the Middle East and flexing muscles as international negotiations over the country’s nuclear programme enter their critical and perhaps final phase.
On Wednesday it was the turn of Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the IRGC’s most senior officer. “The Islamic revolution is advancing with good speed, its example being the ever-increasing export of the revolution,” he declared. “Not only Palestine and Lebanon acknowledge the influential role of the Islamic Republic but so do the people of Iraq and Syria. They appreciate the nation of Iran.”
Last month a similarly boastful message was delivered by General Qassem Suleimani, who leads the IRGC’s elite Quds force — and who is regularly photographed leading the fightback of Iraqi Shia miltias against the Sunni jihadis of the Islamic State (Isis) as well as against western and Arab-backed rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad in southern Syria. “Imperialists and Zionists have admitted defeat at the hands of the Islamic Republic and the resistance movement,” Suleimani said.
Iran’s advances are fuelling alarm in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, where Tehran has been a strategic rival since the days of the Shah, and which now, it is said with dismay, in effect controls four Arab capitals – Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut and in the last month Sana’a in Yemen – which is uncomfortably close to home. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Iraqi government forces and allied militias continued on Friday to battle Islamic State militants who defended their remaining positions in the city of Tikrit with snipers and roadside bombs.
As officials called for unity against the militant group, which swept into much of Iraq’s north and west last year, and declared that the fight was an Iraqi national objective, rather than a Shiite or Iranian one, new factions showed their readiness to join the conflict, albeit in relatively small numbers.
That signaled not only a broadening of the Iraqi fight against the Islamic State, but also probably an expansion of the maneuvering by rival groups to share a measure of credit for an expected victory and to position themselves to take part in the even more crucial battle farther north for Mosul, the self-declared capital of the Islamic State.
Around 700 fighters loyal to the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr arrived to take part in the operation south of Tikrit, joining a force of more than 30,000 pro-government fighters, two-thirds of them members of a mainly Shiite militia known as popular mobilization forces.
And in the southern city of Basra on Thursday, a new Sunni militia organized by the religious establishment declared it was joining the popular mobilization effort, officials said.
Kurdish pesh merga and Sunni tribal fighters were continuing on Friday to advance on Islamic State territory from the northern city of Kirkuk, military officials said, on a front that would also be important in the battle for Mosul.
Mr. Sadr’s loyalists had sat out recent battles after he said he was “freezing” their participation, in part because of allegations of atrocities committed by Shiite militias in Diyala and Anbar Provinces after driving out Islamic State militants.
But last week, the cleric called on his militias, known as the Peace Brigades, to prepare to mobilize for possible participation in a campaign to take back Mosul. He declared that they had a better reputation than other militias and that their participation would tone down the sectarian flavor of the fight. [Continue reading…]
AFP reports: Wearing a camouflage uniform with militia patches and a green headband, Nawar Mohammed is the image of an Iraqi Shiite fighter except for one detail: he is Sunni.
Mohammed is one of some 250 Sunni residents of Al-Alam who joined Asaib Ahl al-Haq, an Iranian-backed Shiite militia with a fearsome reputation for kidnappings and killings targeting their community, to battle the Islamic State group after it seized their town.
It would once have been all but unthinkable for a member of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority to join a Shiite militia, but opposition to IS, which overran large areas north and west of Baghdad last June, is transcending deep-seated sectarian divisions.
“The whole world is surprised by this — it’s the first time in the history of Asaib that they formed a Sunni unit,” said Mohammed, standing with a Kalashnikov assault rifle hanging at his side.
“Asaib trained us, and we became part of Asaib,” he said.
“Asaib, Sunni or Shiite, there is no difference — these circumstances united Iraq,” Mohammed said. “God willing, there will not be any more sectarianism.”
The formation of the unit, which some call “Asaib al-Alam,” is a positive sign and its fighters seem genuine when praising Asaib Ahl al-Haq. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: The director of the CIA came the closest of any US official so far to acknowledging cooperation between the US and Iran in their current war against the Islamic State in Iraq.
Asked during a Council on Foreign Relations appearance on Friday afternoon if the US was formally coordinating its airstrikes in Iraq with Iranian forces and proxies on the ground, CIA director John Brennan did not bat away the notion, as Obama administration officials typically do.
Instead, Brennan suggested that such coordination is laundered through the Iraqi government, Washington and Tehran’s mutual partner – something widely suspected as the Iraqi military and Shia militias attempt to claw back the city of Tikrit from Isis.
“There’s an alignment of some interests between ourselves and Iran, clearly, in terms of what Isil [Isis] has done there,” Brennan told moderator Charlie Rose. [Continue reading…]