US and Saudi Arabia ‘suffered intelligence blackout’ during Iran drone strikes: sources

Saudi AramcoSaudi Arabia and the United States suffered “a total and embarrassing [intelligence] failure” in the lead-up to the drone strikes that shut down half of the kingdom’s oil production last month, according to Israeli sources. In the early hours of September 14, missiles struck two refineries belonging to the world’s largest crude oil processing facility in eastern Saudi Arabia. The facilities, which belong to Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s government-owned oil conglomerate, were forced to cease operation so that repairs could be carried out. This drastically reduced Saudi Arabia’s oil production by close to 50 percent, which amounted to a 5 percent drop in global oil production. By Monday morning, global oil prices had seen their most significant one-day surge since the 1991 Gulf War.

Soon after the attacks, Saudi and American officials accused Iran of having launched the missile strikes. But according to Breaking Defense, Riyadh and Washington suffered “a total and embarrassing [intelligence] failure” in the hours prior to and following the attacks. The US-based website cited a number of anonymous Israeli sources, who said that officials in Tel Aviv were surprised by the lack of intelligence in the US and Saudi Arabia about the missile strikes. The Israelis told Breaking Defense that Saudi intelligence agencies “had no idea Iran was planning to attack the kingdom’s oil facilities […]. It seems that the Americans were also in the dark [or that possibly] Washington […] did not share the data in time with the Saudis”, they added.

The above information was allegedly discussed at an emergency meeting of the Israeli defense cabinet on October 6, which included a briefing on the attacks by the Mossad, Israel’s main external intelligence agency. According to the Israeli sources, Mossad officials were quickly able state with high confidence that the missiles had been launched from military bases in southeast Iran or by Iranian militias in Iraq. It was only following an examination of missile fragments that Saudi and American intelligence officers were able to point the finger at Iran, according to Aahron Ze’evi Farkash, former director of the Israeli Military Intelligence Directorate.

Breaking Defense also said that Israeli intelligence analysts were impressed by the precision of the weapons systems used in the Iranian strikes. Additionally, the specific targets of the attacks were selected with the help of “very accurate intelligence”, said the Israeli sources.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 October 2019 | Permalink

Opinion: Saudi Arabia will not go to war with Iran, but it may pay others to do so

Saudi AramcoEver since a barrage of drone and missile attacks struck Saudi Arabia on September 14, many have wondered whether the oil kingdom will go to war with Iran. Riyadh has directly accused the Islamic Republic of being behind the attacks. But the speculation about a possible war is baffling, argues Nesrine Malik in a well-argued article published last Sunday in Britain’s Guardian newspaper. Saudi Arabia does not “go to war”, she says —it pays others to do so on its behalf.

The war in Yemen is a perfect example, argues Malik. Even though the Saudi monarchy is leading the foreign military involvement in that war, Saudi Arabia is supplying almost no ground troops in that war. There are only Saudi commanders who are managing groups of mercenaries from Morocco, Jordan and Egypt. A large portion of the Saudi-led force consists of Sudanese child soldiers, whose families are paid handsomely for supplying the oil kingdom’s force in Yemen with what Malik describes as “cannon fodder”. The Saudi commanders communicate their battle orders to their hired troops via satellite phones and use unmanned drones and high-flying planes to attack the predominantly Shiite Houthi rebels. That largely explains the high civilian toll in that war.

Meanwhile, the United States government announced last week that it will be sending several hundred troops to the oil kingdom and will be beefing up its air defense systems. But Malik wonders why it is that Saudi Arabia, which has been the world’s largest weapons importer since 2014, and whose 2018 arms purchases accounted for 12 percent of global defense spending last year, requires the presence of American troops on its soil for its protection. The answer is simple, she says: the Saudi regime purchases weapons, not to use them, but to make Wester defense industries dependent on its purchasing power. In other words, the Saudi monarchy buys Western weapons for political reasons. These purchases enable it to get away with its abysmal human-rights record at home, as well as its kidnappings and assassinations abroad.

In the meantime, says Malik, if Saudi Arabia goes to war against Iran, it will do so the way it always does: it will hire proxies —including the United States— to fight on its behalf.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 September 2019 | Permalink

US considering drastic increase in intel-sharing with Saudi Arabia after drone attacks

AramcoUnited States officials are considering increasing substantially America’s intelligence-sharing with Saudi Arabia following last weekend’s drone attacks that halved the Kingdom’s oil production and shook global markets. The attacks occurred in the early hours of Saturday, September 14, at two refineries located in eastern Saudi Arabia. The refineries are owned by Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s government-owned oil conglomerate, and are part of the world’s largest crude oil processing facility. The massive fires caused by the attacks were contained within hours and no casualties were reported. But the facilities had to cease operation so that repairs could be completed. This cut Saudi Arabia’s oil production by close to 50 percent, which amounted to a 5 percent reduction in global oil production. The impact on the world’s financial markets was immediate: by Monday morning, oil prices had seen their most significant one-day surge since the 1991 Gulf War.

The Houthi movement, a collection of Yemeni Shiite militias supported by Iran, claimed responsibility for the attack. A Houthi movement spokesman said on Sunday that the attacks had been carried out with the use of modified commercially available drones. He also warned that Saudi Arabia would experience more attacks of this kind in the future. Iran has rejected accusations by American and some Saudi officials that it was responsible for the attacks.

On Monday the Reuters news agency reported that the US is considering the possibility of drastically increasing the volume and quality of intelligence it shares with Saudi Arabia. The move is allegedly intended as one in a series of measures to be taken by Washington in response to Saturday’s drone attacks. In the past, the US has been selective in how much intelligence it shares with the Saudis, who have been involved in an increasingly bloody civil war in Yemen since 2015. Washington is weary of being seen to have a decisive role in support of the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, in light of the criticism that the latter has drawn from numerous international bodies and governments around the world.

The US Congress has also condemned the Saudi campaign in an unusually bipartisan fashion, and has tried to stop President Donald Trump from providing material support to it. In May of this year, the US president defied Congress and signed two dozen arms sales agreements worth over $8 billion with the oil kingdom. The move upset many critics of Saudi Arabia in the Republican Party, who sharply criticized the Saudi government for killing journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, last year. A possible decision by Washington to increase its intelligence sharing with Saudi Arabia is bound to prompt a critical response from Congress, especially if it relates to the ongoing war in Yemen.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 September 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: Iran’s energy sector is now a high-stakes espionage target

Iran Petroleum Oil MinistryThe state-owned energy sector of Iran, one of the world’s most lucrative, has become a major target of international espionage since the imposition of new sanctions by the United States this year. The purpose of Washington’s sanctions is to limit the Islamic Republic’s ability to export energy, and by doing so end the country’s reliance on its primary source of income. It is estimated that Tehran’s energy exports have fallen by about 80 percent during the past year, and may continue to fall if the US has its way. This means that American and Iranian intelligence agencies are currently engaged in an intense war of espionage that concentrates on what remains of Iran’s oil exports. Iran continues to entice international buyers by selling energy at below-market prices, while sales are facilitated through the use of throwaway bank accounts that are difficult to trace. Exports are then carefully smuggled into overseas destinations through a variety of means.

In an article published last week, The New York Times’ Farnaz Fassihi explains that every snippet of information about Iran’s oil industry has now become “a prized geopolitical weapon” in a “a high-stakes global game of espionage and counterespionage”. Fassihi quotes a recent statement by Iran’s Minister of Petroleum Bijan Zanganeh that “information about Iran’s oil exports is war information”. That includes information on how Iran manages to deliver its exports abroad and how it gets paid for doing so. Once the US tightened its sanctions on Tehran, Iranian energy officials began to suspect that most inquiries to purchase oil were from foreign spies in search of information on the methods of transaction, writes Fassihi. So the Ministry of Petroleum stopped allowing thousands of freelance energy brokers to mediate between it and buyers. It proceeded to concentrate all transactions into the hands of fewer than five vetted individuals with prior tenure in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and other vetted government agencies. It also began to train Ministry officials on security and counterespionage protocols.

When the Iranians made it difficult to access information through the Ministry of Petroleum, foreign spy agencies changed their tactics, writes Fassihi. They used foreign academic researchers, including PhD students, who offered payments in hard cash for information on Iranian oil export methods that would help them in their research. Others descended on Tehran offering visas to the US, alcohol, prostitutes, and cash payments ranging from $100,000 to over $1 million in exchange for intelligence on the Iranian energy export sector. There is an atmosphere of paranoia in the Iranian capital, writes Fassihi, and the process of purchasing oil from Iran resembles a Hollywood spy thriller. Representatives of foreign buyers are asked to come to Tehran in person and are regularly required to switch hotels in the middle of the night. Additionally, once a transaction is agreed upon, the buyer’s representative is required to stay at a Petroleum Ministry safe house until the funds are transferred into Iranian government coffers. After that, the representative is allowed to leave, writes Fassihi.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 August 2019 | Permalink

Australian ex-intelligence officer pleads guilty to disclosing spy operation

Bernard CollaeryAn Australian former intelligence officer will plead guilty to revealing an Australian spy operation against the impoverished nation of East Timor, which prompted international outcry and damaged Canberra’s reputation. IntelNews has covered the case of the former intelligence officer, known only as “Witness K.” since 2013, when it was first revealed. It is believed that Witness K. served as director of technical operations in the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), Australia’s foreign-intelligence agency. In 2013, he publicly objected to an intelligence-collection operation that targeted the impoverished Pacific island nation of Timor-Leste, also known as East Timor.

According to Witness K., a group of ASIS officers disguised themselves as members of a renovation crew and planted several electronic surveillance devices in an East Timorese government complex. The inside information gathered from those devices allegedly allowed the Australian government to gain the upper hand in a series of complex negotiations that led to the 2004 Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMATS) treaty. The treaty awards Australia a share from profits from oil exploration in the Greater Sunrise oil and gas field, which is claimed by both Australia and East Timor. But in 2013, the East Timorese government took Australia to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, claiming that the CMATS treaty should be scrapped. The East Timorese argued that during the sensitive negotiations that preceded the CMATS treaty, the Australian government was in possession of intelligence acquired through illegal bugging.

The claim of the East Timorese government was supported by Witness K., who argued that ASIS’ espionage operation was both “immoral and wrong” because it was designed to benefit the interests of large energy conglomerates and had nothing to do with Australian national security. It is worth noting that Witness K. said he decided to reveal the ASIS bugging operation in 2012, after he learned that Australia’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, had been hired as an adviser to Woodside Petroleum, an energy company that was directly benefiting from the CMATS treaty.

However, as soon as the East Timorese told the Permanent Court of Arbitration that they would be questioning a witness from ASIS, officers from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the country’s domestic intelligence agency, raided the Canberra law offices of Bernard Collaery, East Timor’s lawyer in the case. The raiders took away documents that revealed the identity of Witness K., and then proceeded to detain him for questioning. They also confiscated his passport, which prevented him from traveling to the Netherlands to testify in the case. Read more of this post

Iran announces arrest of 16 oil ministry officials for spying for CIA

Iran Petroleum Oil MinistryIranian state media announced on Sunday the arrest of 16 officials in the country’s Ministry of Petroleum, allegedly for sabotaging Iranian energy policy. It is not known whether these arrests are in any way connected with Tehran’s announcement last week that it had dismantled “one of the most complicated” espionage operations by the United States Central Intelligence Agency in several countries. According to the state-owned Fars News Agency, the 16 officials were arrested over the weekend in synchronized pre-dawn raids. All of them had managerial positions in Iran’s oil industry —including in the areas of exploration, production and distribution of Iran’s oil and petrochemical products inside the country as well as abroad.

The report about the latest arrests cited Hossein Ali Haji Deligani, a senior legislator representing the most conservative political wing in the Iranian parliament. Deligani said that the ministry employees “operated under a woman”, whom he did not name. Working in concert, the employees had been “able to influence […] the oil ministry to put off important decisions” and to “make wrong decisions”. These decisions were “in line with the enemies’ goals and against Iran’s national interest”, and ultimately delivered “a blow to the country in the United States economic war against Iran”, said Deligani. He did not elaborate on the topic and did not discuss whether the arrests were linked to the dismantling of an alleged CIA cyber espionage operation, which Iran announced last week.

Sunday’s announcement by the Fars News Agency comes two days after the execution of Jalal Haji Zavar, an employee of Iran’s Aerospace Industries Organization, which operates under the Iranian a unit of the Ministry of Defense. Zavar was executed on Friday after a military court found him guilty of having committed espionage against Iran on behalf of the CIA. Media reports said that unspecified incriminating documents and “spying equipment” were found in Zavar’s home.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 June 2019 | Permalink

Malaysia is helping Iran evade US economic sanctions, intelligence sources claim

Petronas MalaysiaCiting “Western intelligence officials”, Israeli newspaper Haaretz said on Thursday that a deepening alliance between Malaysia and Iran is expected to enable Tehran evade some of the economic sanctions imposed on it by the United States. In the past, every time Washington has imposed economic sanctions on Iran, it has issued renewable waivers for a number of countries whose economies have historically depended on substantial Iranian energy imports. This is done in order to prevent these economies from entering a recession due to lack of access to sufficient energy supplies. This week, however, US President Donald Trump said that Washington would not renew waivers for these countries, which include Italy, India, Turkey, South Korea and China. These waivers are now expected to run out on May 2, 2019, after which date the US has threatened to impose economic sanction on all countries that have substantial financial dealings with Tehran.

Many observers believe that these new sanctions will have a deep and immediate impact on the Iranian economy. But, according to Haaretz, the American sanctions are bringing Iran closer to Malaysia. Throughout the past month, says the Israeli newspaper, “atypical numbers” of oil tankers have been sailing between the two countries —a sign of trying to move as much oil as possible out of Iran before the US sanctions hit. Citing “Western intelligence officials”, Haaretz claims that Iran plans to continue to funnel funds from oil and natural gas sales through Malaysian banks. Much of that assistance, which sources claim will grow in the next month, is facilitated through Petronas, Malaysia’s state-owned oil company. As one of the world’s largest companies and the most powerful corporate entity in Malaysia, Petronas has immense political power. Much of the country’s political elite connected with Petronas —including the country’s current Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who was a senior advisor to the company in the early 2000s. In 2017, Petronas signed a cooperation agreement with an Iranian refinery facility and announced its intention to develop an emerging oilfield in the Middle Eastern country. Then in late 2018, Petronas officials traveled to Iran to sign a memorandum of understanding on mutual cooperation between the Malaysian company and Iran’s state-owned energy producer and distributor, the National Iranian Oil Company.

Haaretz notes that cultural and political ties between Malaysia and Iran run deep. The Southeast Asian country is one of a handful of nations that allow Iranians to visit without first having to obtain a visa. If fails to note, however, that in recent times there have been tensions between the two countries, due to concerns in Kuala Lumpur that Iran is trying to spread a militant version of Shia Islam in Malaysia.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 April 2019 | Permalink