Speculation grows that Israel may be behind spate of mystery blasts in Iran

Iran's Natanz nuclear enrichment facilityThere is growing speculation that Israel’s intelligence services may be behind a spate of blasts that have damaged military and civilian industrial sites in Iran in recent days. Citing a “Middle Eastern intelligence official”, The New York Times reported on Sunday that Israel was behind at least one of the blasts, which struck an Iranian nuclear complex.

The earliest known attack took place on May 9, when one of Iran’s busiest shipping hubs, the Shahid Rajaee Port, experienced a major cyber-attack that brought the port terminal “to an abrupt and inexplicable halt” and caused “massive backups on waterways and roads leading to the facility”. On June 26, a massive  blast destroyed a liquid fuel production facility for ballistic missiles in Khojir, a military complex located 20 miles southeast of Tehran. Four days later, on June 30, there was another explosion at a medical clinic in the Iranian capital, which killed 19 people.

On July 2, a major blast and subsequent fire were reported at the site of the Natanz nuclear facility, which is situated 150 miles south of Tehran. The attack is believed to have targeted a laboratory facility housing advanced centrifuge systems for enriching uranium. The BBC reported on Monday that a previously unknown group calling itself “The Homeland Cheetahs” claimed responsibility for the attack. The group sent BBC reporters information about the Natanz blast, including a video of the incident, before it was reported by Iranian media. In its statement, the group claimed to represent dissidents in the Iranian military, but some speculated that it could be a front for a foreign intelligence agency. On Sunday, The New York Times said the Natanz blast was orchestrated by the Israeli Mossad.

On July 3, a large fire broke out in Shiraz, Iran’s fifth largest city, while on the next day a fire engulfed the Zargan power plant in Ahwaz, following a large blast that was reportedly audible several miles away. Also on July 4, a large leak of chlorine gas occurred at the Karoun petrochemical plant in Bandar-e Mahshahr, in Iran’s Khuzestan Province. The leak caused 70 workers at the plant to be hospitalized.

In recent days, Iranian officials have claimed that the above incidents have been part of a sabotage campaign orchestrated by the Mossad, and have warned Israel of an impending retaliation. At a press conference in Jerusalem last Thursday, reporters asked the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu whether the country’s spy agencies were behind the attacks in Iran. Mr. Netanyahu responded by saying: “I don’t address such topics”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 July 2020 | Permalink

Iran’s coronavirus crisis exacerbates internal struggle between government and IRGC

IRGC IranA tense struggle is unfolding in Iran between the country’s civilian leaders and the parallel state of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The two entities are fighting about who will control the national response to COVID-19, according to sources. The outbreak of the pandemic in Iran followed closely that of China. Today the Iranian government claims the disease has infected no more than 115,000 people and killed fewer than 7,000. But these numbers seem low for a country of 82 million, and many observers dispute them.

The secrecy with which the government is treating the coronavirus epidemic may be masking an increasingly tense turf war between Iran’s civilian leaders, led by President Hassan Rouhani, and the IRGC. The latter is controlled by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Iran watchers 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.

The IRGC has seen its income fall drastically in the past two years, partly due to the continuing economic pressure that Iran is facing from strict sanctions imposed on it by the United States. The effects of the dramatic reduction in the value of Iran’s currency —down nearly 2/3 since 2018— have only been exacerbated by the monumental drop in global oil prices, which has practically decimated Tehran’s main source of foreign income.

According to sources, Khamenei and the IRGC forced the country’s civilian leadership to re-open the economy last month, fearing an absolute economic collapse. But this only resulted in a dramatic uptick in COVID-19 cases in nearly every region of the country. The IRGC is now reportedly trying to take control of Iran’s civilian healthcare system, in an effort to prevent the government from disclosing the extent of the re-emergence of the virus throughout the country.

Meanwhile, the IRGC’s prestige has suffered greatly this year, following the accidental shoot-down of a Ukrainian civilian airliner over Tehran in January, which killed nearly 180 people, most of them Iranians. Last week, the IRGC was believed to behind a missile test that went terribly wrong, resulting in the destruction of an Iranian navy ship that killed as many as 31 sailors. These fatal errors are for the time being giving President Rouhani the right to question the IRGC’s competence and resist giving away his administration’s control of the national response to COVID-19. The turf war continues to intensify, however, and it is difficult to forecast which side will prevail.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 May 2020 | Permalink

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

Iranians may have used female spy to ‘honey-trap’ dissident living in France

Ruhollah ZamThe Iranian government may have used a female intelligence officer to lure a leading Iranian dissident from his home in France to Iraq, where he was abducted by Iranian security forces and secretly transported to Iran. Iranian authorities announced the arrest of Ruhollah Zam on October 15. On that day, Iranian state television aired a video showing a blindfolded Zam surrounded by officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Zam, 46, was a prominent online voice of dissent during the 2009 Green Movement, an Iranian youth-based reform campaign whose leaders called for the toppling of the government in Tehran. He joined other young Iranians in launching AmadNews, a website whose stated purpose was “spreading awareness and seeking justice” in Iran. Soon after its emergence, AmadNews became the online voice of the Green Movement. Following a brief period of detention in 2009, Zam fled Iran and settled in France, from where he continued his online work through AmadNews and its successor, a website and Telegram channel called Seda-ye Mardom (Voice of the People).

Earlier this month, the Iranian government announced that Zam had been captured in a “complicated intelligence operation” that used “modern intelligence methods and innovative tactics” to lure Zam out of France and into the hands of the IRGC. But it did not provide further information about the method that was used to convince Zam to travel to Iraq, whose government is closely aligned with Iran’s. A few days ago, however, the London-based newspaper The Times claimed that the IRGC used a woman to gain Zam’s trust and lure him to Iraq.

Citing exiled Iranian activists that work closely with Zam, the British newspaper said that the woman entered his life nearly two years ago, thus pointing to a lengthy intelligence operation by the IRGC. Over time, she won his trust and eventually convinced him to travel to Jordan on October 11, and from there to Baghdad, Iraq, on October 12. The reason for his trip was that, allegedly, the woman convinced him that Ali al-Sistani, one of the most prominent Shiite clerics in Iraq, had agreed to fund Zam’s online activities. However, the cleric needed to confer with the exiled dissident in person before agreeing to fund his work, according to the woman. It is not known whether Zam and the unnamed woman were romantically involved.

The Times also alleged that Zam’s abduction and arrest was met with “at least tacit approval” by the French intelligence services. The latter now expect that two French academics, who have remained imprisoned in Iran for alleged espionage activities for over a year, will be released as part of a swap with Zam.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 October 2019 | Permalink

Russian government cyber spies ‘hid behind Iranian hacker group’

Computer hackingRussian hackers hijacked an Iranian cyber espionage group and used its infrastructure to launch attacks, hoping that their victims would blame Iran, according to British and American intelligence officials. The information, released on Monday, concerns a Russian cyber espionage group termed “Turla” by European cyber security experts.

Turla is believed to operate under the command of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), and has been linked to at least 30 attacks on industry and government facilities since 2017. Since February of 2018, Turla is believed to have successfully carried out cyber espionage operations in 20 different countries. Most of the group’s targets are located in the Middle East, but it has also been connected to cyber espionage operations in the United States and the United Kingdom.

On Monday, officials from Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and America’s National Security Agency (NSA) said Turla had hijacked the attack infrastructure of an Iranian cyber espionage group. The group has been named by cyber security researchers as Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) 34, and is thought to carry out operations under the direction of the Iranian government.

The officials said there was no evidence that APT34 was aware that some of its operations had been taken over by Turla. Instead, Russian hackers stealthily hijacked APT34’s command-and-control systems and used its resources —including computers, servers and malicious codes— to attack targets without APT34’s knowledge. They also accessed the computer systems of APT34’s prior targets. In doing so, Turla hackers masqueraded as APT34 operatives, thus resorting to a practice that is commonly referred to as ‘fourth party collection’, according to British and American officials.

The purpose of Monday’s announcement was to raise awareness about state-sponsored computer hacking among industry and government leaders, said the officials. They also wanted to demonstrate the complexity of cyber attack attribution in today’s computer security landscape. However, “we want to send a clear message that even when cyber actors seek to mask their identity, our capabilities will ultimately identify them”, said Paul Chichester, a senior GCHQ official.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 October 2019 | Permalink

Iran abducts France-based dissident in ‘complex intelligence operation’

Ruhollah ZamIranian authorities have announced the capture of a Paris-based Iranian dissident, who was reportedly lured out of France and then abducted by Iranian agents in a third country. The kidnapped dissident is Ruhollah Zam, 46, son of  Mohammad-Ali Zam, a well-known reformist cleric who served in top Iranian government posts after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But in 2009 the younger Zam distanced himself from this father and sided with the so-called Green Movement, whose leaders called for the toppling of the government in Tehran. Around that time, Zam was part of a group of Internet-savvy Iranians who launched AmadNews. The website’s stated purpose was “spreading awareness and seeking justice” in Iran, and it soon became the online voice of the Green Movement.

Zam was promptly arrested and jailed for urging Iranian protesters to topple the government. He was eventually released thanks to his father’s status and reputation. He quickly fled Iran and settled in France, from where he continued his online work through AmadNews and its successor, a website and Telegram channel called Seda-ye Mardom (Voice of the People). The Iranian government accuses Zam of inciting violence against the state and claim that his online agitation is funded by the intelligence services of countries like France, Israel and the United States.

On October 15, Iran’s state-owned media network aired a video showing a bound and blindfolded Zam surrounded by armed officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The Iranian government announced that Zam had been captured following a “complicated intelligence operation” using “modern intelligence methods and innovative tactics” to lure Zam out of France and into the hands of the IRGC. It eventually emerged that Zam had flown from France to Jordan on October 11, and from there to Baghdad, Iraq, on October 12. He appeared to be under the impression that he would travel to the Iraqi city of Najaf in order to meet Ali al-Sistani, arguably the most senior Shiite cleric in Iraq.

In the same video, Zam is shown sitting in an armchair next to an Iranian flag, making a statement. He calmly looks at the camera and says that he “fully regrets” his actions directed against Iran. He then says that he made the mistake of entrusting his security to the intelligence services of France. Finally, he warns other dissidents who are involved in agitation against the Iranian state to not trust foreign governments. He names the latter as “the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey”. Iranian officials have not responded to questions about Zam’s current status and fate.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 October 2019 | Permalink

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

Iran arrests Russian journalist for espionage in rare spat with key ally Moscow

Yulia YuzikIn a surprising move last week, Iranian authorities arrested a Russian journalist and expert on the Caucasus region, whom they accused of spying for Israel. They later agreed to release her following significant diplomatic pressure from Russia. But the move surprised observers, because Iran rarely acts in ways that have the potential to damage its close relations with Moscow.

The journalist in question is Yulia Yuzik, a 38-year-old reporter with considerable expertise on Russia’s Caucasus region. Her articles on the security situation in the Caucasus have been published in several Russian and Western outlets, including Foreign Policy and GQ. She has also authored a number of books on Islamist militancy in the Russian Caucasus, which have been translated into several foreign languages, such as German, Italian and French.

In 2017, Yuzik spent several months in Iran while working on a number of stories. She returned to Russia before returning to Iran on September 29 of this year, reportedly “on a private trip”. Media reports stated that Yuzik intending to meet a number of Iranian journalists that she worked with back in 2017. However, upon landing at Iran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport, Yuzik had her passport confiscated without explanation, and was forced to enter the country without identity and travel documents. Then, last Thursday she was arrested at her hotel in downtown Tehran by members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who apparently broke down the door of her hotel room before arresting her.

There were no news of Yuzik’s whereabouts until the following day, when staff at the Russian embassy in the Iranian capital were contacted by her family. Yuzik’s family said that the IRGC had charged her with collecting intelligence for the Mossad, Israel’s spy service. Russian media reports said that the accusations against Yuzik took Russian diplomats by the surprise, given that Yuzik has no apparent connection to Israel, nor does she have a travel visa to enter that country. She reportedly spent a few days there in 2004 while writing a story about the Israel Defense Forces for Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.

Yuzik’s family told the Russian embassy that she had been scheduled to appear in a Tehran court on Saturday. The Russian embassy gave a press briefing to reporters on Friday, saying that the Russian Foreign Ministry had summoned the Iranian ambassador to Moscow to complain about Yuzik’s arrest. Then early on Saturday, Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow, announced that Yuzik would be released soon and would be allowed to return home to Russia.

The incident has surprised observers, because Russia is one of Iran’s closest international allies. It is therefore highly unusual for Tehran to take any action that might potentially provoke Moscow or otherwise damage its diplomatic relations with the Kremlin.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 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