Russian-Iranian alliance over Syria is not as strong as some believe

Rouhani PutinThe governments of Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran are arguably the two most important allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But the Russian-Iranian alliance over Syria is not as solid —and may not be as durable— as some believe. On Monday, Iranian news agency ISNA reported that Iran’s minister for intelligence condemned Russia’s increased military involvement in Syria and said it would weaken Iran’s security. The minister, Mahmoud Alavi, opined at a press conference in Tehran that the intensification of Russia’s military operations in Syria would backfire against Iran, because it would prompt the Islamic State to “redouble its efforts to destabilize Iran’s security”.

Alavi’s comments came two weeks after Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps said that Iran cared about the stability of al-Assad’s regime in Syria more than Russia did. Jafari was responding to earlier comments made by Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who said that Moscow would not insist in keeping al-Assad in power in Damascus as a matter of principle. When asked to comment on Zakharova’s comments, Jafari said Iran had to accept that Russia “may not care if al-Assad stays in power as we do”. The difference between Tehran and Moscow, said Jafari, was that “we don’t know any better person to replace him”.

So does that spell changes in the dynamics of the Russian-Iranian alliance over Syria? Such an eventuality should not be discounted, says Sergey Aleksashenko, nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He explains that, although both the Russians and the Iranians have aided al-Assad, their reasons for doing so are very different. Russia’s interests in Syria center on maintaining access to its naval base in Tartus, and on retaining a geopolitical presence in the Middle East. Iran’s support for Assad aims to prevent Tehran’s traditional foes, namely Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, from turning Syria into their protectorate. Additionally, says Aleksashenko, Iran appears much more willing to deploy ground troops in the fight against ISIS than Russia. The Islamic Republic is also much more willing to go against the wishes of other regional powers, like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which Moscow tends to court.

Ultimately, says Aleksashenko, “although Russia has strategic interests in Syria, it has no intention to keep a military presence in the Middle East forever”. The Iranians, however, have no choice but to dwell in one of the world’s most unstable regions. Al-Assad’s removal would add significantly to that instability, and that is not something that Tehran is willing to permit.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 18 November 2015 | Permalink

Security firm says it shut down extensive Iranian cyber spy program

IRGC IranA security firm with headquarters in Israel and the United States says it detected and neutralized an extensive cyber espionage program with direct ties to the government of Iran. The firm, called Check Point Software, which has offices in Tel Aviv and California, says it dubbed the cyber espionage program ROCKET KITTEN. In a media statement published on its website on Monday, Check Point claims that the hacker group maintained a high-profile target list of 1,600 individuals. The list reportedly includes members of the Saudi royal family and government, American and European officials, North Atlantic Treaty Organization officers and nuclear scientists working for the government of Israel. The list is said to include even the names of spouses of senior military officials from numerous nations.

News agency Reuters quoted Check Point Software’s research group manager Shahar Tal, who said that his team was able to compromise the ROCKET KITTEN databases and acquire the list of espionage targets maintained by the group. Most targets were from Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States, he said, although countries like Turkey and Venezuela were also on the list. Tal told Reuters that the hackers had compromised servers in the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands, and that they were using these and other facilities in Europe to launch attacks on their unsuspecting targets. According to Check Point, the hacker group was under the command of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, a branch of the Iranian military that is ideologically committed to the defense of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Reuters said it contacted the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and Europol, but that both agencies refused comment, as did the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, an unnamed official representing the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency, said that ROCKET KITTEN “is familiar to us and is being attended to”. The official declined to provide further details. Meanwhile, Check Point said it would issue a detailed report on the subject late on Monday.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 November 2015 | Permalink

Iraq now using Russian intelligence in war against Islamic State

Baghdad IraqThe Iraqi government is now using intelligence supplied by the Russian military in its war against the Islamic State, according to officials in Baghdad. As intelNews reported in September, the Iraqi Joint Forces Command announced it had entered a formal intelligence-sharing agreement with the governments of Russia, Syria and Iran. The purpose of the collaboration was to defeat the Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that currently controls a third of Iraq’s territory and much of neighboring Syria. Many were surprised by last month’s announcement, as it was the first time that Iraq, an American ally, had entered an alliance with Washington’s Cold-War adversary Russia, as well as with Iran and Syria, two countries with which the United States has no diplomatic relations.

According to US media reports, the headquarters of the intelligence-sharing center is located in Baghdad’s so-called Green Zone, where US forces were stationed until 2012. Each of the member states has six officers at center, who are given intelligence by their respective countries’ militaries with the intent of sharing it with the other three participating militaries. In addition to these officers, there are two Russian one-star generals stationed at the center, according to The Washington Times, which cited “an Iraqi official who asked not to be identified”.

Back in September, when the four-partite agreement was announced, the US said it respected Iraq’s freedom to enter into security pacts with regional governments, but warned that Syria was a major violator of human rights and should not be part of the intelligence-sharing treaty. On Tuesday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said he could see no reason why Baghdad would want to enter into an intelligence-sharing agreement with Moscow, given that the US-led coalition had been sharing intelligence with Iraq for over a year. The coalition’s intelligence collaboration with Baghdad had “worked effectively with the Iraqis to make progress against [the Islamic State] inside of Iraq”, he said.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 October 2015 | Permalink

Iran, Hezbollah to launch ground assault on Syria rebels, says Reuters

Syrian troopsHundreds of ground troops from Iran and Lebanon have been entering Syria in the past two weeks and are about to launch a large-scale ground attack against rebel groups, according to Reuters. The news agency quoted Lebanese sources “familiar with political and military developments in the conflict”. One source said that the Russian airstrikes in Syria, which began earlier this week, are the first phase of a large-scale military offensive against the Islamic State and other anti-government forces operating on the ground.

The Lebanese official told the news agency that hundreds of Iranian “soldiers and officers” had arrived in Syria in September. These forces “are not advisors”, said the source; rather, they have entered Syria “with equipment and weapons, specifically to participate in this battle. And they will be followed by more”, said the source, adding that some “Iraqis would also take part in the operation”, without specifying whether these would be regular troops or Iraqi Shiite militias. According to Reuters, the operation will be supported by Russian airstrikes and aims to recapture territory that is currently in the hands of various rebel groups, including the Free Syrian Army, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Islamic State.

Last week it was reported that the governments of Russia, Iraq and Iran had entered a formal intelligence-sharing agreement with Syria, in an effort to defeat the forces fighting against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. According to the Baghdad-based Iraqi Joint Forces Command, the agreement entails the establishment of a new intelligence-sharing center in the Iraqi capital. It will be staffed with intelligence analysts from all four participating countries, who will be passing on shared information to their respective countries’ militaries. The announcement of the agreement came as Russia continued to reinforce its military presence in Syria by deploying troops in Latakia.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 2 October 2015 | Permalink

Russia, Iraq, Iran, Syria, sign intel-sharing agreement against Islamic State

Tartus SyriaThe governments of Russia, Syria and Iran have entered a formal intelligence-sharing agreement with Iraq, in an effort to defeat the Islamic State, it has been announced. Intelligence-sharing has been practiced for a while between Russia, Syria and Iran; but this is the first time that Iraq, an American ally, has entered the alliance. According to the Baghdad-based Iraqi Joint Forces Command, the agreement entails the establishment of a new intelligence-sharing center in the Iraqi capital. It will be staffed with intelligence analysts from all four participating countries, who will be passing on shared information to their respective countries’ militaries.

Iraqi officials said on Sunday that the intelligence-sharing agreement had been forged by Moscow, which was “increasingly concerned about the presence of thousands of terrorists from Russia undertaking criminal acts” as members of the Islamic State. The announcement of the agreement comes as Russia has been reinforcing its military presence in Syria, by deploying troops in Latakia. Security observers have interpreted the move as a strong message by the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin that it is prepared to safeguard the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The latter also enjoys strong support from Iran, which has poured billions of dollars in aid to support the regime in Damascus, and has deployed hundreds of Hezbollah advisers and militia members in defense of Assad.

Speaking from Baghdad, Colonel Steve Warren, the American spokesman for the Western-led military campaign against the Islamic State, said that Washington was respectful of Iraq’s need to enter into security agreements with other regional governments. But he added that the US objected to the Syrian government’s role in the intelligence-sharing agreement, because it was “brutalizing its own citizens”. The US government has also protested against the Russian government’s expansion of its base in Tartus and its increased military presence in Latakia. But, according to Foreign Policy, US officials have privately expressed support for the move, saying that “it could, in the short term, help rein in the Islamic state”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 September 2015 | Permalink

US spied on 143-member Iran delegation to 2007 UN summit

Manouchehr Mottaki and Mahmoud AhmadinejadThe United States National Security Agency spied on the Iranian president, foreign minister, and over 140 Iranian dignitaries who visited New York in 2007 to participate in the United Nations General Assembly. The allegation was aired on Wednesday by American television station NBC, which cited former intelligence officials and a top-secret report on the espionage operation. The original report was included in an October 2007 issue of SID Daily, an internal NSA newsletter published by the spy agency’s Signal Intelligence Division. The report, which is entitled “Tips for a Successful Quick Reaction Capability”, commends the espionage operation against the Iranian UN delegation as an exemplary illustration of a collaborative effort between managers, technical experts, and analysts.

The operation appears to have been directly initiated in early 2007 by the George W. Bush White House, which asked the NSA to spy on Iran’s UN delegation. The blanket permission included espionage conducted against the then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Minister of Foreign Affairs Manouchehr Mottaki, who were scheduled to be in New York in September of that year to attend the 62nd session of the UN General Assembly. In response to the White House authorization, the NSA deployed a small army of technical experts and analysts to spy on the entire 143-member Iranian delegation for 19 hours a day during the summit.

The NSA teams were allegedly able to record, transcribe and analyze 2,000 conversations of various lengths per day. According to NBC, the NSA was able to intercept the personal conversations of President Ahmadinejad, a number of video conferences involving members of the Iranian delegation, as well as calls made using Skype. The latter were intercepted using a secret technology codenamed BLARNEY by NSA, while the agency also relied on bugs installed in hotel and conference rooms used by the Iranians, said NBC. The intercepted communications were subsequently examined by the NSA’s Social Network Analysis Office in an effort to map the “social networks” of the Iranian government’s senior echelons.

The Iranian government did not respond to NBC’s requests for comment. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is scheduled to arrive in New York today to attend the 70th UN General Assembly debate.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 September 2015 | Permalink

Israel, Saudi Arabia, acknowledge holding secret talks on Iran

Dore Gold and Anwar Majed EshkiRepresentatives from Israel and Saudi Arabia have publicly admitted for the first time that they met secretly to discuss their common foe Iran, even though Saudi Arabia does not officially acknowledge Israel’s existence. The admission was made at a symposium held on Thursday at the Council on Foreign Relations, a foreign-policy think tank based in Washington, DC.

According to Bloomberg’s Eli Lake, who covered the event, it featured speeches by Saudi General (ret.) Anwar Majed Eshki, and Israeli career diplomat Dore Gold. Eskhi is a former adviser to Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Gold is Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations, and is currently seen as a strong candidate to lead Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Lake notes that Eshki gave his speech in Arabic, Gold gave his in English, and that no questions were taken from the audience.

At least five meetings appear to have taken place between senior Israeli and Saudi officials since early 2014, in secret venues located in Italy, India and the Czech Republic. The main purpose of the clandestine meetings was to discuss what Tel Aviv and Riyadh see as Iran’s increasingly powerful role in Middle Eastern affairs, and to explore ways of stopping Tehran from building nuclear weapons.

The admission of the secret meetings between Israeli and Saudi diplomats will not come as a surprise to seasoned Middle East observers. Many have suspected that the two countries, who have historically been bitter enemies, have sought to collaborate behind the scenes against Iran. However, as Lake correctly points out, this week’s acknowledgement is the first time that this collaboration has been openly admitted by the two sides. He quotes one participant at Thursday’s symposium, Israeli General (ret.) Shimon Shapira, who says that Tel Aviv and Riyadh have also discussed “political and economic” means of thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

This admission, however, does not mean that the Saudis are about to recognize Israel, or that the Israelis are any closer to accepting the Saudis’ 2002 Arab-Israeli peace plan, which Tel Aviv has flatly rejected, says Lake. Admittedly, the rising power of Iran can only do so much to bring Israelis and Arabs closer.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 June 2015 | Permalink:


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