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: 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

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

Mossad chief comments on policy of assassinations in rare interview

Yossi CohenYossi Cohen, the chief of the Mossad —Israel’s main external intelligence agency— said he has authorized “more than a few” assassinations during his tenure and warned that more may be on the way. Cohen, 57, who took command of the Mossad in 2016, spoke last week to Mishpacha, a magazine aimed at ultra-orthodox Jews. His comments were covered widely by Israeli media over the weekend.

Cohen was asked to respond to recent allegations made by the Iranian government that Israel worked with “Arab countries” to assassinate General Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force, an elite paramilitary unit in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Suleimani claimed that several individuals were arrested last month in connection with the alleged plot. He also said that Israel tried to kill him and Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah group, in 2006.

The head of the Mossad told Mishpacha that Suleimani had not “necessarily committed the mistake yet that would place him on the prestigious list of Mossad’s assassination targets”. However, “he knows very well that his assassination is not impossible” because “the infrastructure he built presents a serious challenge for Israel”, said Cohen. Regarding Nasrallah, Cohen said that the Hezbollah strongman “knows we have the option of eliminating him”. When asked why the Mossad had not exercised that option, Cohen said he preferred not to answer.

In regards to Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, Cohen admitted that the Mossad has been behind a string of assassinations of Hamas officials around the world in recent years. “If there is one target that we eliminate without hesitation, it is Hamas officials abroad. [These range] from local agents to those who manage acquisitions of weapons pointed towards Israel”, said Cohen. He added that there had been “more than a few assassinations” in recent years, but not all were admitted to by Hamas. “The enemy has changed tactics. It is not quick to attribute assassination to us, for its own reasons”, said the Mossad chief.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 October 2019 | Permalink

US offensive cyber campaign disabled Iran’s strike capabilities, say sources

IRGC IranThe Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is still recovering from the damage it suffered by an offensive American cyber campaign against it that took place in June, according to sources. The attack allegedly degraded the IRGC’s ability to strike at oil tankers and other ships in the Persian Gulf. The New York Times said on Thursday that the cyber attack took place on June 20, hours after United States President Donald Trump called off airstrikes on Iran. The White House had considered launching the airstrikes in retaliation against the downing of an American surveillance drone by Iranian forces and their alleged use of limpet mines against commercial oil tankers by the IRGC the previous month.

The paper did not reveal details of the cyber campaign, but said it did not target any part of Iran’s missile or other defense programs. Its mission was to degrade the covert strike capabilities of the IRGC, which operates in a paramilitary capacity and is not supervised by the military. Washington blamed the IRGC for the limpet mine attacks against oil tankers, and expressed concerns that they would continue. The cyber attack corrupted the computer databases and communications networks that the IRGC uses to co-ordinate covert operations at sea, and resulted in the temporary cessation of IRGC attacks on oil tankers, said The Times.

The June 20 cyber attacks were not meant to be permanent but their effects have endured much longer than was expected, according to the paper. It cited claims by anonymous senior American officials that the IRGC is “still trying to repair critical communications systems and has not recovered the data lost in the attack”. It is also worth noting that, according to US sources, Iran did not escalate its own cyber attacks against Western targets in retaliation to the American cyber campaign against the IRGC.

However, according to The Times, some American officials have expressed doubts about the wisdom and long-term impact of the cyber operation. They claim that the cyber attack gave the Iranians the opportunity to collect valuable information about US cyber capabilities. It also allowed them to detect and fix their vulnerabilities so that they are now better able to defend against future cyber attacks. Lastly, the attacks neutralized IRGC communications networks, which the US had penetrated and was collecting vital intelligence from, they argue.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 August 2019 | Permalink

Mossad chief sees historic shift of alliances as Arab states side with Israel against Iran

Yossi CohenIn a rare public appearance, the director of the Mossad spy agency said that the Middle East is witnessing a historic shift of alliances as many Arab states are forming tacit pacts with Israel against Iran and its proxies. Yosef “Yossi” Cohen spoke on Monday morning at the Herzliya Conference, a security-themed event organized by the Interdisciplinary Center, a university in Herzliya, just north of Tel Aviv.

In his 40-minute speech Cohen said that the Mossad had identified the present time as “a rare opportunity —perhaps the first in the history of the Middle East— to reach a regional understanding that would lead to an inclusive regional peace agreement” between Israel and most of the Arab states. He justified his reasoning by claiming that many Arab states are siding with Israel to pursue “common interests [such as] the fight against rivals like Iran and jihadist terrorism”. This historic shift in alliances is happening as Israel is enjoying “close relations with the White House” and keeping open “channels of communication with the Kremlin”, said the spy chief. These factors “combine to create what might be a one-time window of opportunity” for Israel to form a strategic alliance with the majority of its Arab neighbors, said Cohen.

The Mossad chief went on to allege that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were behind the recent bombings of commercial oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. He told the conference that he could “say with certainty that Iran was behind these attacks” and that they were “approved by the Iranian leadership and carried out by the [IRGC]”. Cohen cited “the best sources of Israeli and Western intelligence” but did not provide specific evidence to support his allegation, which Iran denies. Later in his speech, Cohen said that the IRGC and Iranian intelligence agencies had carried out assassinations throughout Europe and had discussed further plans to attack Jewish and Israeli targets in Denmark, Azerbaijan and the North America. “And that is only the tip of the iceberg”, said Cohen, and went on to claim that the IRGC had set up a network of 300 agents in the African continent and was heavily present in Syria, mainly through its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah.

At the conclusion of his speech, the Mossad chief repeated prior warnings by Israeli officials that the Jewish state would never allow the development of an Iranian nuclear arsenal. “Mossad and the State of Israel have not signed the nuclear deal and will do all to ensure Iran will never possess a nuclear arsenal”, said Cohen.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 July 2019 | Permalink