In a surprise move, Iran releases Washington resident accused of espionage

Nizar ZakkaIran has announced that it will release a Lebanese national and United States permanent resident, who has served nearly half of his 10-year prison sentence for allegedly spying for Washington. Nizar Zakka, 52, was born in Lebanon but was schooled in the US, where he lived permanently until 2015. In September of that year, Zakka traveled to the Iranian capital Tehran at the invitation of the government of Iran, where he spoke at a conference on Internet-based entrepreneurship. He attended the event as an information technology expert who worked for companies like Cisco and Microsoft before setting up his own company called IJMA3. Based in Washington, DC, IJMA3 lobbies investors to help build online networks in the Middle East in order to develop the region economically, socially and politically.

But on September 18, 2015, as Zakka was traveling to the Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran for his return flight, he was detained by Iranian security officers and never made it out of the country. A year later, he was convicted of spying for the US and sentenced to 10 years in prison. The court also handed him a $4.2 million fine, allegedly for “collaborating with a government that was hostile to Iran”. Iran’s state-run media said Zakka was a “treasure trove” of intelligence on the American military. But the Lebanese IT expert denied all charges leveled against him. He said he was tortured during his interrogation and he went on frequent hunger strikes to protest his innocence and the conditions of his detention. Throughout his imprisonment, the Lebanese government pressured Iran for his release. The US also raised the issue through Congress and the Department of State. But Washington’s ability to influence Iran was limited, as it does not have diplomatic relations with Tehran.

On Tuesday, however, Lebanon’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had received word from Iran’s ambassador to Lebanon that Zakka would be released soon. The Iranians reportedly said they decided to release Zakka following personal interventions by Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the country’s President Michel Aoun. Additionally, said the Iranian ambassador, Zakka would be released as “a goodwill gesture” during Eid al-Fitr, a Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting. The statement added that Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani was “ready to receive a Lebanese delegation at any time for the extradition of the Lebanese prisoner Nizar Zakka”.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 05 June 2019 | Permalink

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Analysis: Yemen conflict shows small-drone warfare ‘is here to stay’, say experts

DroneThe current wars in the Middle East, especially the ongoing conflict in Yemen, are proof that the use of small drones in insurgencies is now a permanent phenomenon of irregular warfare, according to experts. Drones have been used in warfare in the Middle East for almost 20 years —including by outside powers like the United States. But National Public Radio’s Geoff Brumfiel reports that the wars in Iraq and Syria, and especially the war between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels, clearly demonstrate that we have entered “a new era of drone warfare”.

The use of off-the-shelf small drones has been increasing since 2010, with the Syrian Civil War having served as a testing ground for military uses of drones by all sides involved in the conflict. Belligerents quickly realized that the use of drones —whether remotely operated from the ground, or guided by GPS coordinates— could provide useful air power “for a fraction of the cost of fighter jets” employed by national militaries, according to Brumfiel. He quotes numerous drone warfare expects who agree that the ongoing Yemeni Civil War provides the clearest sign yet of the proliferation of drones for military and paramilitary purposes. The Houthi rebels have employed drones to attack government targets and targets such as air fields, oil installations and military bases in neighboring Saudi Arabia. Most of these drones, and the knowledge of how to modify them for military use, are given to the Houthis by Iran, according to RAND Corporation expert Ariane Tabatabai, who is quoted in Brumfiel’s article.

Iran has been developing military drone technology since the 1980s, but did not begin to employ drones outside of its airspace until 2015. The change was prompted by the emergence of the Islamic State emerged as a major Sunni threat to Shiite populations in the region. Iranian drones are now everywhere, from Iraq and Syria to Yemen. These drones, including drones used by the Houthis, are major sources of concern for conventional armies, because they are difficult to detect and destroy, according to Center for a New American Security researcher Nicholas Heras. He told Brumfiel that small drones are difficult to locate by radar, and their flight paths are far more flexible than those of airplanes. Additionally, those drones controllers can use GPS systems to “navigate through holes” in air defenses, said Heras.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 30 May 2019 | Permalink

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

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