US-Iran tensions may have been sparked by ‘misread intelligence’, claims report

Trump BoltonThe escalating tension between the United States and Iran, and the ensuing military buildup in the Persian Gulf, may have resulted from a misreading of intelligence by both sides, according to a new report in The Wall Street Journal. Reports from the Middle East continue to describe the situation there as tense, while the political rhetoric by both Washington and Tehran remains heightened. Last week, the White House ordered the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group to sail to Middle Eastern waters, following intelligence showing that “Iran or its proxies were planning attacks against US forces in Iraq, Syria and at sea”. Washington also evacuated all non-essential personnel from its embassy in Iraq. Meanwhile Iranian officials stated on Thursday that they were “prepared for war”, while the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Major Genreal Hossein Salami, described the escalating crisis as “the most decisive moment in the [40-year history] of the Islamic Revolution”.

But a new report in The Wall Street Journal claimed on Thursday that the crisis between the two countries may have been caused by a misinterpretation of intelligence on each other’s moves. The paper said that new intelligence collected by American spy agencies appears to show that Tehran was under the impression that the US was about to launch attacks against it. There is no information about what precisely led the Iranians to draw that conclusion. But it is believed that Iran responded to the perceived threat from Washington by abruptly bolstering its military posture and placing its allies in the region —including Hezbollah in Lebanon and numerous Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, on high alert. Those actions were interpreted by Washington as evidence that Iran was planning to launch an attack against American interests in the region, thus prompting the White House to send the USS Abraham Lincoln strike group to sail to the area, and to partially evacuate its embassy in Iraq. Citing “people familiar with the matter”, the Journal said that new intelligence that has been collected “in recent days” points to the initial actions taken by Tehran as “defensive in nature”.

However, said that paper, there continue to be “sharply differing views” about the situation among officials in the administration of US President Donald Trump. Specifically, some administration officials continue to argue that the available intelligence indicates that Iran “was planning to strike first”, and some even believe that Tehran is still “planning imminent attacks” on the US and its interests in the region. The paper also noted that President Trump is believed to have told senior officials in his administration —including the Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan— that he does not want to see a military confrontation with Iran.

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

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British commander in Iraq contradicts US assessment of increased Iranian threat

Christopher GhikaThe most senior British military officer in the war against the Islamic State contradicted American assessments of a heightened threat from Iran, prompting an unusually strong rebuke from Washington. Last week, the White House ordered the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group to sail to Middle Eastern waters, following intelligence showing that “Iran or its proxies were planning attacks against US forces in Iraq, Syria and at sea”.

On Tuesday, however, this view appeared to be challenged by Major General Christopher Ghika, Britain’s most senior military official in the Middle East, who is deputy commander of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR). The OIR umbrella brings together all pro-Western forces that are fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. General Ghika spoke to American reporters at the US Department of Defense via a live video-link from Baghdad, where he is currently stationed as OIR deputy commander. In responding to questions by reporters about alleged threats to Western forces from Iran or its proxies, General Ghika said that the OIR forces were “aware of that presence [or Iranian-led Shia militia groups in Iraq and Syria], clearly. And we monitor them along with a whole range of others because that’s the environment we are in”. However, added the general, “no, there has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria”.

British newspaper The Guardian, which published General Ghika’s comments on Tuesday, noted that his statements appeared to directly contradict Washington’s claims of a heightened Iranian threat in the region. But in a statement released on Tuesday night local time, the US Central Command CENTCOM, whose responsibilities include the Middle East and Central Asia theaters, rejected General Ghika’s comments. “Recent comments from OIR’s Deputy Commander run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies regarding Iranian backed forces in the region”, said the statement. The Guardian described CENTCOM’s statement as “particularly striking” and “an extraordinary rebuke of an allied senior [military] officer”. The British Ministry of Defense had not responded to CENTCOM’s statement by Wednesday morning.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 May 2019 | Permalink

Emirates authorities confirm four ships targeted by ‘sabotage operations’

Fujairah UAE EmiratesAuthorities in the United Arab Emirates said on Sunday that four commercial ships were targeted by “sabotage operations”, but did not point to possible culprits. The announcement came hours after false reports circulated in Iranian and Lebanese media stating that explosions had been witnessed at the port of Fujairah, a major Emirati commercial shipping facility that borders the Sultanate of Oman and is visible from the coast of Iran. The alleged explosions were first reported by Al-Mayadeen, a Shiite-Lebanese satellite television station, and were then picked up by a host of Iranian news outlets.

The reports caused alarm in international energy market circles, as observers feared that the explosions may have resulted from deliberate attacks by Iranian forces. Located less than 100 miles from the Strait of Hormuz, through which over 30 percent of the world’s sea-transported oil is trafficked, the Port of Fujairah is the world’s second largest shipping fueling hub. Even a partial destruction of the port would cause major disruptions in the international energy transportation system. Several hours later, however, the Associated Press dismissed the reports as false, saying it had spoken to “Emirati officials and local witnesses” and had found the earlier reports of explosions at Fujairah to be “unsubstantiated”.

Later on Sunday, state-owned Emirates News Agency published a statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which said that four ships had indeed “suffered acts of sabotage” while sailing off the Emirati coast. The Foreign Ministry’s statement said that the ships were “civilian trading vessels of various nationalities” and that they had been “subjected to […] acts of sabotage”. It added that “subjecting commercial vessels to sabotage operations and threatening the lives of their crew is considered a dangerous development”. However, Emirati officials refused to elaborate on the nature of the sabotage that the ships allegedly suffered, or discuss the possible culprit or culprits of the alleged attacks. On Friday, the United States Maritime Administration (MARAD) warned that Iranian military forces could target “US commercial ships, including oil tankers”. There was also an “increased possibility” of “Iran or its regional proxies taking action against US and partner interests”, said MARAD.

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

‘Unusual’ high-level meeting held at CIA headquarters to discuss Iran, say sources

CIA headquartersAn untypical high-level meeting was convened at the headquarters of the United States Central Intelligence Agency last week to discuss Iran, according to NBC News. The meeting, which NBC described as “highly unusual” was convened by President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton. Participants allegedly included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, CIA Director Gina Haspel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joe Dunford. Citing “six current US officials”, NBC said the meeting was held at 7 a.m. on Monday, April 29, in Langley, Virginia.

The list of participants refers to a high-level national security meeting. These are almost always held at the White House —typically in the Situation Room— says NBC. In general, it is extremely rare for senior White House officials, like Bolton, or members of the Cabinet, like Pompeo, to participate in meetings at CIA headquarters. It is also worth noting that, according to NBC’s sources, the meeting was not related to Washington’s recent decision send the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group to the Middle East. This leaves two options, according to the NBC report: first, that the meeting concerned a “highly sensitive covert action” involving Iran or an Iranian proxy, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah. It could have been an update on an existing CIA operation, or a description of options for an impending operation. Alternatively the meeting could have been called due to a disagreement between the CIA and the White House about the results of an intelligence assessment or estimate about Iran.

NBC said it contacted the National Security Council to inquire about the April 29 meeting, but a spokesperson refused to comment. Meanwhile, Pompeo abruptly canceled the final leg of a four-nation tour of Europe on Thursday and returned to Washington, reportedly in light of heightening tensions between Washington and Tehran. Also on Thursday, the Iranian government described the Trump administration’s decision to deploy the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group to the Middle East as “an action of psychological warfare” against the Iranian people. Late on Thursday, President Trump urged Iran to reach out to him: “What I would like to see with Iran, I’d like to see them call me”, said the US leader during a press conference at the White House. Iranian officials did not immediately respond to his comments.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 10 May 2019 | Permalink

Intel that prompted US to deploy aircraft carrier to Middle East ‘came from Israel’

USS Abraham LincolnThe sudden decision by the United States to deploy significant firepower to the Middle East was partly in response to intelligence that was given to Washington by Israeli officials, according to a report. On Wednesday, the US announced that the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group had received instructions to sail to the Middle East. The aircraft carrier is reportedly sailing alongside a cruiser and four destroyers, while an unspecified number of B-52 heavy long-range bombers have been ordered to fly to a US military base in Qatar.

Commenting on this last-minute development, US National Security Adviser John Bolton warned Iran that it would face “unrelenting force” if it threatened American interests in the Middle East and beyond. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, said that the move aimed to “deter Iran […] so that there would be no ambiguity about our preparedness to respond to any threat against our people or partners in the region”. Speaking in Congress, the US Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said that the decision to move a significant amount of firepower to the Middle East came in response to intelligence showing that Iran had “made plans to target US forces in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East”. According to ABC News, the intelligence suggested that “Iran or its proxies were planning attacks against US forces in Iraq, Syria and at sea”. But there was no further information reported about the precise nature of the alleged warnings.

Meanwhile, the American news and information website Axios said on Monday that the intelligence that caused Washington’s response was given to the US by Israeli officials. Citing “senior Israeli officials”, the website said that the intelligence given to the US had been gathered “primarily by the Mossad”, Israel’s main external intelligence agency. It added that the information about possible Iranian attacks against the US or its allies in the Middle East was “raised two weeks ago” during closed-door talks at the White House between a US team led by Bolton and an Israeli delegation headed by his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben Shabbat. The intelligence, said Axios, showed that the US or its allies, including the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia, would be targeted by Iran. The information is “understood to be part of the reason for Bolton’s announcement” this week, said Axios.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 May 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

Iran abruptly replaces head of Revolutionary Guard Corps —no reason given

Hossein SalamiAuthorities in Tehran revealed on Sunday the sudden replacement of the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The unexpected move was announced by pro-government media, but no explanation was given. Since 2007, the IRGC has been led by Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, 61, a conservative military commander who is widely believed to have consolidated the IRGC’s role within Iran’s power structure. Under his leadership, the IRGC has come to be seen as the staunchest defender of the principles of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Many Western observers describe the IRGC as a ‘praetorian guard’ whose members possess immense power and often wealth. Today the IRGC is a military force with a command structure that is distinct from that of Iran’s regular Armed Forces. It maintains its own army, navy and air force, has its own paramilitary and political protection units, and is in charge of Iran’s nuclear program.

But in a brief report aired on Sunday, Iranian state media announced that Jafari had stepped down from the leadership of the IRGC after 11 years at the helm. The report said that Jafari had been replaced by the IRGC’s deputy commander, Major General, Hossein Salami. Like Jafari, Salami, 59, is believed to be close to the Iranian regime’s hardliners; he is thus critical of the reformers who support President Hassan Rouhani —seen by most as the architect of the Iranian nuclear deal. Moreover, like Jafari, Salami is known for his asymmetrical warfare thinking, which the Iranians employed with considerable success in Iraq following the military invasion of the country by the United States in 2003. The same tactics were utilized by the IRGC in Lebanon during the 2006 conflict between Israel and Iranian ally Hezbollah.

Jafari’s surprise replacement came two weeks after Washington announced that it would designate the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization —a move that most observers saw as a clear move by the White House to undermine the Iranian government. Explaining the decision, US President Donald Trump said in a statement that the IRGC was the primary vehicle through which the government in Tehran “directed and implemented […] terrorism as a tool of statecraft”. Among other things, the new designation means that the US government is now able to bring criminal charges against any individual or organization that is found to have political or financial dealings with the IRGC.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 April 2019 | Permalink