Bahrain accuses Iran of ‘biological aggression’ as COVID-19 stirs Gulf tensions

Tehran IranA senior Bahraini cabinet minister on Thursday accused the Iranian government of ‘biological aggression’ for spreading COVID-19 to several other countries in the Gulf, a claim that Iran promptly rejected. The allegation refers to Iran’s customary practice of not stamping the passport of visitors from some Sunni-majority nations.

The practice aims to shield visitors from perceived discrimination upon their return to their Sunni-majority home countries. Several Sunni Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, have either criminalized or openly discourage trips to Iran by their Shi’a citizens. The latter are often viewed as suspicious or disloyal by their own governments. However, many of them continue to travel regularly to Iran in order to visit some of Shi’a Islam’s most revered pilgrimage sites.

Thousands of Shi’a pilgrims from predominantly Sunni nations have been repatriated to their home countries following the outbreak of COVID-19, which is also known as coronavirus. Earlier this week, Bahrain announced that at least 77 of its citizens, who were recently repatriated from Iran on government-supplied airplanes, tested positive for the disease. However, many others returned home from Iran on their own and are hesitant to tell local authorities that they have traveled to Iran, fearing discrimination or —in some cases— imprisonment. Since the passports of these individuals are not stamped with Iranian entry visas, local authorities have no way of telling whether they have recently traveled to Iran.

On Thursday, Bahrain’s Minister of Interior, General Sheikh Rashid bin Abdulla al-Khalifa, condemned Iran on Twitter for its “behavior, [which] has allowed the disease to travel abroad and put in danger our safety and health and that of others”. General al-Khalifa added that Iran’s behavior constituted “a form of biological aggression that is criminalized under international law”. But Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded by rejecting the claim that the practice of not stamping passports was related to an intention by Tehran to spread the coronavirus to the Gulf region.

Bahrain’s accusation came less than a week after Saudi Arabia publicly chastised its citizens who have traveled to Iran and issued a reminder that traveling to Iran is considered a criminal act.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 March 2020 | Permalink

Google removes Iranian government’s COVID-19 app amidst claims of espionage

Iran Ministry of Health and Medical EducationAn Android application developed by the Iranian government to assist in coordinating the country’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic has been removed by Google amidst accusations that it may be used to track Iranian dissidents. The application, named AC19, was released several days ago by Iran’s Ministry of Health and Medical Education. Its release was announced through a text message sent by the Iranian government to every mobile telephone subscriber in the country. The text message urged citizens to download the application through a dedicated website or third-party app stores, including the Google Play Store. Millions have since done so.

The purpose of AC19 is to help coordinate the nationwide response to COVID-19, known as coronavirus, in a country that is experiencing one of the world’s most prolific outbreaks of the disease. App users can register using their unique phone number and determine whether their flu-like symptoms resemble those of COVID-19. The app’s developers argue that it can help keep people from flooding local hospitals throughout the country, which are already overwhelmed.

But some users have raised concerns that the app also requests access to the real-time geolocation data of users, which it then stores in remote databases. As technology news website ZDNet reports, some have accused the government in Tehran of using the AC19 app in order to track the movements of citizens. An expert consulted by ZDNet to examine the app’s technical details said that it did not appear to contain unusually intrusive features or functions.

However, the company used to develop the app, called Smart Land Strategy, has previously built apps that, according to ZDNet, were used by the Iranian intelligence services and were subsequently removed from the Google Play Store. Some Iranians claim that, given the connection between AC19 and Smart Land Strategy, it is possible that the new app may be used in the future by the Iranian government to spy on citizens, despite the fact that it may be presently useful in efforts to contain the COVID-19 epidemic.

The app continues to be available through Iranian government websites and app sites other than Google’s.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 10 March 2020 | Permalink

Denmark arrests three Iranian separatists for spying for Saudi Arabia

Finn Borch AndersenAuthorities in Denmark have announced the arrests of three Iranian Arab separatists, who are charged with carrying out espionage on behalf of the intelligence services of Saudi Arabia. The arrests were announced on Monday by the Danish Security and Intelligence Service, known as PET.

According to the PET, the three Iranians are members of a group calling itself the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA). Known also as Al-Ahwaziya, the group was established in 1980. It calls for a separate state for ethnic Arabs who live the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, in Iran’s southwest.

PET director Finn Borch Andersen told reporters on Monday that the three Iranians were recruited in 2012 by the General Intelligence Presidency (GIP), Saudi Arabia’s primary intelligence agency. They allegedly spied on pro-Iranian groups and individuals in Denmark and other countries northern Europe on behalf of the GID. They reported regularly to their handler, who was an undercover intelligence officer at the Saudi embassy in Copenhagen, according to the PET.

In October 2018, one of the three Iranian men was targeted for assassination by Iranian intelligence, but Danish authorities managed to prevent it with an elaborate security operation. A Norwegian man of Iranian background was arrested during the operation and remains in detention in Denmark. Throughout that time, the PET continued to monitor the three Iranian separatists, and proceeded to arrest them this week.

Late on Monday, the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Saudi ambassador to Copenhagen in order to file an official complaint about Saudi espionage activities on Danish soil. According to the Danish media, the ambassador of Denmark to Saudi Arabia contacted the oil kingdom’s government to protest about the incident.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 February 2020 | Permalink

Iran threatens to retaliate against Greece if US uses military bases to launch attack

Iran embassy GreeceIran has issued a warning against Greece, saying that it will retaliate if the United States attacks the Islamic Republic using its military bases on Greek soil. It is the first time that Iran has threatened to launch attacks against a member of the European Union in connection with the recent rise in tensions between Tehran and Washington.

Iranian officials issued the warning against Greece in response to comments made by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis during his recent visit to the White House, which coincided with the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani by the US. Speaking about Soleimani’s killing, Mitsotakis said that “we [Greeks] are allies with the US, so we stand by our allies through difficult times”. And he continued: “I understand this particular decision was taken by taking into consideration what is the US national interest, and we stand by that decision”.

Iran’s response to the Greek prime minister’s comments came in a letter that was sent by the Iranian embassy in Athens to one of Greece’s leading broadsheets, Kathimerini. The letter pointed out that Greece and Iran enjoyed “friendly, traditional and historical relations”. Given “the absence of any differences or tension between [the two countries] in recent centuries”, said the letter, “we believe that [Mr. Mitsotakis’] statement cannot be the official position of the Greek government”. It went on to warn that “The Islamic Republic of Iran has made it very clear that in the event of a US-led war against the country, the concession of [military] bases by any country to the American invader will be considered a hostile act and Iran reserves the right to respond in a clear and decisive manner”.

Last weekend, Greece’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Nikos Dendias, revealed that the Iranian government had delivered a statement to his office, protesting Mitsotakis’ comments. But he added that he had not had a chance to read it. He also said that his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, had asked to speak with him about Greece’s stance in the US-Iran dispute.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 January 2020 | Permalink

Assessing the implications of Iran’s missile attack on Iraqi military bases

Iran IraqThe missiles that targeted American troops in Iraq a few hours ago offer significant clues about the evolving confrontation between Iran and the United States. The attack appears to have been largely symbolic —a somewhat rushed attempt to restore some of Iran’s wounded prestige following the assassination of its military commander, Qasem Suleimani. At the same time, however, it is also the prelude to a broader regional conflict that appears increasingly unavoidable.

There are two notable aspects in the attack. First, the fact that Tehran did not —as many expected— take aim at American targets using its proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, or Yemen. Instead, not only did the attack come directly from Iran, but the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), of which Soleimani was a leading commander, openly claimed responsibility for it. This is a major paradigm shift for the Iranians, who in the past have taken great care to avoid giving any indication of their direct involvement in military or paramilitary attacks on their opponents. It is clear that Q QuoteSoleimani’s killing is viewed by Tehran as too insulting to be responded to indirectly. This does not mean that Tehran will not revert to its standard method of employing proxies in the future. But the fact that it consciously chose to deviate from that time-tested method is in itself extremely important.

The second notable aspect of the attack is that it was markedly muted, especially considering the many options that are available to the Iranians. According to reports, 22 ballistic missiles were fired, most of which struck two military bases housing US troops in western and northern Iraq. The number of missiles fired is surprisingly low, given that Iran possesses the largest ballistic-missile force in the entire Middle East. Additionally, it is interesting that Tehran directed its attacks against the most obvious and predictable American target in the region —uniformed US personnel stationed in what is essentially Iranian-controlled territory. These troops have been on high alert since the moment Soleimani was assassinated. It is therefore highly unsurprising that no American casualties have been reported (although Iranian state media are apparently telling their domestic audiences that “80 terrorists” died in the attack).

The fact remains that, if Iran’s leaders truly wanted to cross the point of no return, they could have attacked American diplomatic facilities in over a dozen countries in the region, including Iraq, Israel, Jordan, and many others. Alternatively, they could have directed their ire against American political and commercial targets in Saudi Arabia, of which there are countless. They could have also sent an unmistakably ominous message to the global financial markets by attacking energy facilities in the region, or by blocking maritime traffic in the Strait of Hormuz. Or they could have carried out all of the above simultaneously, thus virtually ensuring a US response, which would in turn ignite an all-out war. But they didn’t —which should be interpreted that the IRGC is not, for now, interested in going to war. Read more of this post

Analysis: Soleimani’s killing was tactically flawless, but was it strategically wise?

Qasem SoleimaniBy assassinating Qasem Soleimani, a Shia celebrity and the Middle East’s most influential military leader, US President Donald Trump has made the most fateful decision of his presidency to date. Tehran has no option but to respond. When it does, the way that Mr. Trump and his administration handle the situation will largely determine the future of the Middle East and the fate of his presidency. In the meantime,Quote it is becoming increasingly clear that victory, if and when it comes, will not be unblemished for whomever claims it.

Mr. Trump’s decision to assassinate General Soleimani was shocking because it was unexpected. It must be remembered that, not only has this president based his entire political program on his desire to end America’s decades-long military engagement in the Middle East, but he had also in recent months signaled his desire to negotiate with Tehran. In the summer he said he wanted to “make Iran rich again, let them be rich, let them do well, if they want”, adding that no regime change was necessary. In December, following a surprise prisoner exchange between the US and Iran, Mr. Trump tweeted: “Thank you to Iran on a very fair negotiation. See, we can make a deal together!”. The news prompted one notable expert to speak of “a very positive step, because it’s the first time under the Trump Administration that Iran and the US have agreed on anything”. That was on December 8, just 25 days before Soleimani’s Quoteassassination. And yet, while publicly thanking Iran, Trump was likely formulating plans to kill its leading general.

Why did the president do it? To some extent, one should not dismiss his argument that he wanted to put an end to the slow tit-for-tat escalation of tensions in the Middle East, before it boiled over. He wanted to make Iran listen. Writing in The Washington Times just hours after Soleimani’s assassination, former CIA official Charles Faddis noted that Mr. Trump’s decision honored US President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous dictum, “speak softly and carry a big stick”. Your adversary is more willing to listen to you if he is able to “see the big stick, and he needs to understand you will wield it”, wrote Faddis. A few hours later, David Petraeus, former director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, described Mr. Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani as “a very significant effort to reestablish deterrence, which obviously had not been shored up by the relatively insignificant responses up until now”. Read more of this post

Analysis: Middle East on verge of new regional war as US kills top Iran general

Qasem SoleimaniIn an act whose implications are impossible to overstate, the United States has assassinated General Qasem Soleimani, arguably Iran’s second most powerful official. In the early hours of this morning, the entire Middle East stood on the verge of a regional war as the US Department of Defense announced it killed Soleimani in a “defensive action […] aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans”. But Soleimani’s killing will be seen by the Iranian government as nothing short of an official declaration of war. Tehran’s next move will determine the precise form this new war will take.

The United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia have targeted Soleimani for assassination for over a decade. In 2019 alone, Iran reported over half a dozen alleged plots to kill the general, the most recent of which was in early October. Soleimani’s killing is therefore not surprising. Moreover, Washington’s move rests on a number of crucial calculations by the White House, which help explain why US President Donald Trump made the decision to kill Soleimani, and why he did so now.

In the not-too-distant past, some of America’s tactical security goals aligned with Soleimani and his Quds Force —an elite unit inside the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is tasked with exporting the Iranian Revolution abroad. The Iranian paramilitary unit helped Washington deal with the Afghan Taliban in the days after the 9/11 attacks, and its proxies in Iraq and Syria helped the US and its allies deliver fatal blows to the Islamic State. But in doing so, Tehran solidified its power within Iraq, turning its government into a satellite of Iran. The rise of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the Iranian-supported militias in Iraq, is largely a replay of the rise of Hezbollah, Iran’s paramilitary proxy in Lebanon, in the 1980s. Having painted themselves into a corner, America’s political leadership had to act. It chose to do so by essentially ‘decapitating’ the Quds Force, which is the main conduit between Iran and the PMF. It is worth noting that Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of the PMF, was also killed in the same strike. Washington’s hope is that these killings can somehow prevent —or at least curtail— the Lebanization of Iraq. Read more of this post