Tehran defiant in face of sanctions

North Korea and Iran are often compared to each other, and for good reason. One of their similarities is the display of aggressiveness and defiance of current norms. Even though Iran does not spread nuclear threats, like North Korea, it does breed a special kind of action-reaction syndrome.

In response to the renewed sanctions enacted by the US congress against Iran, announced by the US department of the treasury, Tehran didn’t try to address the reasons of the sanctions. The regime in Tehran could have tried to make the case that the sanctions are unfounded but instead, it poured more fuel on the already raging bonfire. As reported in Newsweek, the responses were mainly a threat that it could be enriching Uranium to 20% (there’s a 5% cap in the nuclear deal) within five days, chants of “death to America” in the parliament and an increase in the military budget by 800 million dollars – 260 million intended for the ballistic missile program, 300 million to the IRGC Quds force and an additional 240 million for other military projects.

As reported in The New York Times, the bill goes further and calls upon the Rouhani government to prepare a strategic plan to confront the threats, malicious, hegemonic and divisive activities of America in the region. It also seeks to impose sanctions on the entire US administration and all CIA personnel. The NYTimes adds: “Iran’s armed forces, controlled by hard-liners, have been responding to American pressures with more, not fewer, missile tests — just as North Korea has”.

The problem is that Iran and the US play a bitter game of action and reaction. The new sanctions come from a different context. Not nuclear. Alongside the US sanctions are a list of defiant behaviors deriving from Iran, which led to US reactions. Tehran bragged of killing Americans, stating “America has suffered more losses from us than we have suffered from them”. Tehran continued to arrest and imprison dual Iranian-American nationals, leading to the necessity of a US Iran travel warning, cautioning any travel to Iran due to this risk. Tehran attempted and continues to attempt to infiltrate US universities, showing the way for the call on the federal authorities to investigate Iran’s subversive activity in American institutions. This all parallel to “muscular signals” directed by Iran against the USridiculing US demands, ruling out inspections of its military sites, continued engagement in dangerous navy altercations and conducting provocative rocket for satellite launches breaching UN resolutions.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the renewed sanctions focus on “Iranian malign activity”, despite certifying nuclear compliance. Action leads to reaction, leading again to further reaction.

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Tehran and Ankara vs. Kurdistan

 

Tehran has a pattern of behavior. While they stress that it does not “interfere” in internal issues of other national entities, it meddles, intrudes, destabilizes and sometimes even acts militarily, directly or via proxy groups, using different justifications.

Take Lebanon as an example. While Hezbollah denies Tehran’s meddling in Lebanon’s internal affairs, stating “only the Lebanese nation can make decisions about their country’s fate”,  Hezbollah, Iran’s undisputed proxy, has become the most powerful single political movement in Lebanon, while remaining a potent guerrilla force, under the pretext of “concern for Lebanon”.

While uttering slogans of “allowing nations to make their own decision about their fate”, Tehran has now embarked on blocking the Kurdish referendum on independence in Iraq on September 25th. For this, it has aligned with Ankara, which also vehemently hates the Kurdistan Regional Governments (KRG). For this cause, among others, the chief of staff of Iranian armed forces, general Bagheri, visited Ankara recently for three full days. As reported in the Daily Sabah, both Tehran and Ankara rule out KRG independence. If that’s not interference in other country’s affairs, then what is?

This time Tehran justifies its involvement in resisting the partition of Iraq and preserving Iraqi territorial integrity. Of course they know what is best for Iraq, and for the preservation of stability. They just forget one thing – the will of the people living in Iraq is affected by decisions made in Tehran. Despite the fact that the Kurdish forces played an active military role in the defense of northern Iraq against ISIS, they still don’t seem to be worthy of self-determination.

As the Economist expands, it is quite clear that Iranian resistance to Kurdish independence in Iraq derives from fears of a spill over and cross-border spread of separatist sentiment, which could lead to instability in Iran. With an eight million strong Kurdish population in Iran, and many other oppressed minority groups, self-rule trends could easily lead to Iranian disintegration. It is clear that if minority groups of Iran had their own will, most of them would most probably cut away from the Iranian regime. In other words, Tehran’s “concern” has nothing to do with Iraqi stability and well-being, but its own regime survival..

If we may borrow James McNabney’s phrase, in a different context, we can only advise the Kurdish people, as he writes in the New York Times: beware of self-serving masters in government.

 

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Khamenei’s New World Chaos

It would seem that two factors are influencing and re-shaping regional alliances. The first being the victories over ISIS (especially in Syria), and the second being the Qatar-Gulf crisis.

We are witnessing the creation of two distinct blocks. The first being the Saudi camp, including UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt and others. It would be wrong to call it the “Sunni block”, as it is not entirely Sunni, but it can most probably be identified by the more “Western” alignment, as it has the support of the United States and other Western countries. The second block includes Iran, Turkey, Qatar, and a mix of proxy groups like the Hezbollah based in Lebanon, Houthis based in Yemen, the Hamas from Gaza, Shiite militants and others, has already been termed by the Gulf House as the “new axis of dissent”. They also cannot be identified by one Islamic religious school, or ethnic belonging, as they are a mix, but it is clear that the fighting forces are dominated by Shiite militants & proxies, and they are more aligned with Russia, at least in the fight in Syria. Despite different interests and ambitions, this opposition alliance is emerging as a clear block.

The Qatar-Gulf crisis was exploited wisely by Iran. By rushing to Qatar’s support, Iran drew Qatar closer into the “new axis of dissent” block. Qatar brings with it a rich financial resource. Turkey and Iran provide military might, willing aggression and an extended territory foundation.

The Saudi-UAE alliance did achieve a success in toppling the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 2013, but that dwarfs in comparison to the territory gains by Iran. It is quite clear now that Syrian territory, liberated from ISIS, is becoming a stronghold for Iran and its allies. Shiite radicalism taking over from Sunni radicalism. As Andrew Taylor expects in Bloomberg “as Syria crumbles – only Iran is a sure winner“. Taylor continues and warns that “the Shiite crescent from Tehran to the Mediterranean we have been talking about and fearing for decades is going to be formed in front of us”.

The problem surfacing from the new blocks is the lack of geo-strategic stability. The Saudi block may be more “nation-state” aligned, absent of a radical world dominating vision, but, as Kissinger wrote recently, they do lack a geo-strategic concept. They also lack determination. The problem with the “axis of dissent block”, is that they do have determination and they are leading to a clear future – not “new world order”, but “new world chaos”. The common factor at the moment in the axis of dissent block is the defeat of ISIS, but beyond that – all hell can break loose. The only prediction that seems to be correct is the appearance of a comparable entity to ISIS, or the creation of an Iranian radical empire.

Kissinger authored an article recently chaos and order in a changing world. If the vision of Iran domination in the Middle East comes true, we will fear the chaos and the order.

 

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Tehran continues to meddle

Over the recent period, several reports have voiced public accusations against Iran for spy and sabotage activity. The lack of fear and unexpected openness is the big surprise.

It was recently released that the UAE convicted an Iranian national for spying for Iran and sentenced him to ten years imprisonment. Reza Mohammad Hussein Mozafar was found guilty of spying, aiding Tehran’s nuclear program and fraud to smuggle equipment and devices on behalf of Iran. The Abu Dhabi federal appeals court also found him guilty of harming the relations between the UAE and the USA, due to the fact that some of the devices were imported from the US for transfer to Iran, in violation of the UN sanctions.

The Gulf News documents additional cases. In April a person was found guilty of violating international sanctions against Iran, when attempting to smuggle devices which could be used in the Iranian nuclear program. In a separate case, two men were charged with espionage for the Iranian intelligence, and their hearing has been postponed to August 27. They were also charged with spreading false information. In an additional case, an Emirati was charged with espionage on behalf of Iranian intelligence, and his case was also postponed to August 27.

Only recently we wrote a separate piece on the Kuwait “Terror Row” titled Kuwait turns staunchly anti-Tehran, relating to the fact that Kuwait expelled Iranian diplomats and closed Iranian offices due to an operative secret Iranian linked terror unit. It’s also been revealed that Iran has devised new clandestine routes and methods for smuggling arms and financial support to the Houthis in Yemen. According to the report, cash and drugs are used in order to fund the rebel activity.

On Tajik state television, officials of the government and former activists accused Iran of instigating civil war in the country, including political assassinations and sabotage activity. This would seem to be the first time that Tajikistan openly accuses Iran of financing and directing political killings in its jurisdiction. It is a known fact that such an accusation would not be aired on Tajik state television without the consent of the leadership to release this information.

In addition, a senior Afghan officials have accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for providing safe haven for Taliban leaders and militants, while the elite Quds Force, which conducts covert operations, meets with the Taliban often and advises them. The head of Farah’s provincial council, Jamila Amini, stated “Iran’s interference is direct, it is engaged in encouraging youth to join the insurgency”. Afghan officials in the western provinces bordering with Iran are increasingly vocal about Iran’s interference. The conclusion is that Iran’s support for the Taliban has mushroomed and Iran is now seen as a major backer of the Afghan Taliban.

The astounding fact of all these cases is the fact that countries and officials voice their condemnation of Iran openly. Even countries which have never done this before. With so many accusations, it’s time to accept the simple truth: Tehran is a serial meddler in the region.

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Iran – between the US and Russia

Different forces are working in Syria in order to extricate ISIS. The “Syrian Military” are supported by Russia and Iran. The “Syrian Democratic Forces” are backed by the USA, and work together with a Kurd alliance of Arabs and ethnic minorities. Although the US and Russia back different factions and hold divergent views on the political future of Syria, this could have served as an ideal opportunity for rare Russian-USA cooperation. After all, they are both fighting the same enemy. In addition, the US did fade its opposition to the Assad regime even cutting ties with Syrian rebel groups that fought to overthrow Assad.

As reported in Newsweek, Special Operations Commander of the US forces, General Raymond Thomas, revealed that the US has a less credible foothold in Syria, fearing that international law could prevent long-term American presence in Syria, due to the fact that American presence is deemed illegal by the Syrian government. He admitted candidly the fact that Russia calls the shots and the US presence depends on Russia’s good will.

Yet, while secretary of State Tillerson proclaims “the US is working with Russia to prevent a new war in Syria”, it would seem that Russia prefers other partners. Partners like Iran. The Newsweek article titled “Russia, not the US is calling the shots in the Middle East, with Iran and Iraq” speaks it out loud and clear. Recently, Russian deputy foreign minister Bogdanov met in Moscow with Iranian and Iraqi counterparts, to emphasize “the principled position of the three countries” on Syria.

Bogdanov even gave an explanation for the Russian choice, by linking geo-political issues. In relation to the new round of US sanctions against the US, he declared “I think that it does not add optimism regarding the possibility for us to coordinate our approaches towards a whole range of regional issues, including our relations with such an important partner as Iran”. In other words, Russia sees its relations with Iran as a pawn in its political maneuvering vis a vis the US. If the US enacts sanctions, well, there is always Iran.

Perhaps Russia should re-think its position on this. Russia and Iran may have the same agenda of upholding the Assad regime, but they have long term conflicting regional goals and ambitions. Some have referred to this weird alliance as “strange bedfellows” or “unholy alliance”. Russia will never be a party to the Shiite Muslim ideology and the revolution export that Iran pushes. Finally, Russia easily understands that by siding with Iran, it is distancing itself from the Gulf States led by Saudi Arabia.

 

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Kuwait turns staunchly anti-Tehran

The camps are getting organized and consolidated. At first it was Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the Emirates that declared a boycott on Qatar, known today as the Qatar-Gulf crisis. By extension, they were also targeting Tehran. It became explicit when they issued their conditions for restoration of ties, and cutting back ties with Iran was one of the 13 sweeping demands to end the blockade. After all, they charged Qatar with two main accusations – its support of terror and its deep ties with Iran.

Historically, as reported in al-monitor, Kuwait tried to remain neutral and defuse tensions between the Gulf states and Tehran. Kuwait did not join the Saudi camp over tensions in Yemen, and despite the fact that Kuwait opposed the Assad regime it did allow the re-opening of the Syrian embassy in Kuwait. But, something snapped. Recently, Kuwait joined the band-wagon by expelling Iran’s ambassador, fourteen other Iranian diplomats and ordered the shutdown of Iran’s trade offices, cultural and military missions.

The “Daily Sabah” news outlet attributes the expelling to a “terror row“, referring to the “Abdali Case”, the Emirate’s supreme court conviction of an Iranian-linked terror cell. The terror cell had alleged ties to the IRGC and the Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist proxy, and were convicted of smuggling weapons from Iran. Yet, it is not limited to that affair. Kuwaiti’s parliamentary interior and defense committee MP Abdullah al-Maayouf was quoted stating “Iran must tend to its own domestic affairs instead of interfering in those of others”.

The Kuwaiti step is not insignificant. Firstly, it buries any hope of diffusion of tensions, as Kuwait, the beacon of such diffusion, joins the crowd. It reverses trends of reconciliation between Iran and Kuwait. It also has the potential of arousing unrest in Kuwait, as there are internal sectarian complications and wealthy Shiite families control Kuwaiti conglomerates. It may have political, energy and economic implications.

While some analysts warned that the Qatar-Gulf crisis could break up the six nation GCC, made up of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, UAE, it would seem that current developments are consolidating the GCC even more. Kuwait has chosen sides and that side is against Iran. The developments highlight the fact that Iran is losing its allies. It may enjoy military victory in Syria and Iraq, over ISIS, and increased control there, but it is losing ground in its home base.

 

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Tehran’s selective terrorism

Iran is an active partner in the fight against ISIS, and as a result boasts that it is a “champion against terrorism”. But, observing its record on the sponsoring of terrorism reveals that they do not have a problem with terrorists, they have a problem with terrorists who are not on their side.

The July 2017 state department country reports on terrorism 2016 defines Iran as “the foremost state sponsor of terrorism in 2016, as groups supported by Iran maintained their capability to threaten US interests and allies. The Iranian IRGC – Quds force – along with Iranian partners, allies and proxies, continued to play a destabilizing role in military conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen” (pg. 12 and pg. 304). The report names the terror agents on behalf of Iran, among them the Hezbollah, Iranian affiliated Shia militia forces, Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza, cyberterrorism and even extended support to al-Qaida operatives.

Tehran’s selective definition of terrorism is also evident in their own words, like the distinction they make between ISIS and the Taliban. As reported in Tasnim news agency, a senior advisor to Foreign Minister Zarif, Seyed Rasoul Mousavi, differentiated between ISIS and the Taliban, claiming that the Taliban is an “Afghan group totally different from Daesh”. His message was clear – while ISIS is a terrorist group, the Taliban are just militants fighting a cause. They may be different organizations with different ambitions, but for the victims of the Taliban, there is no difference.

Only recently Kuwait expelled Iranian diplomats over a terror cell, convicting 21 people of belonging to a terror cell that had been formed and trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. The recent boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia and affiliates was due to Qatar’s support of terrorism and “deep ties with Iran”.

In the final analysis, Tehran isn’t hiding its support for terrorist organizations, it conveniently defines them as non-terroristic. Problem solved according to Tehran. Except that the problem isn’t solved: Many of these organizations are designated by the West as terrorist organizations and as proxies of Tehran. All these countries should therefore recognize Tehran for its support of terrorism. It should be that simple.

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