ISIS, out. Hezbollah, in.

It is quite clear now that with every victory over ISIS, Tehran and it terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, are ready to fill the vacuum.

The fight against ISIS was exploited successfully by Tehran, for two objectives. The first – to establish an arc of influence, spreading from Tehran to the Mediterranean. The second – to consolidate and strengthen the “resistance axis”. Both objectives seem to have been achieved.

Several analysts have already declared Iran the winner in Syria (see for instance the Bloomberg article “as Syria crumbles only Iran is a sure winner“, and the paper issued by the Middle East Forum asserting “and the winner in Syria is Iran“). The same for Iraq. The NYTimes reckons that Iran dominates Iraq, and that “from day 1 Iran saw a chance to make a client state of Iraq and transform Iraq into a jumping off point to spread Iranian influence around the region, and in that contest Iran won and the US lost“. The commander of Iran’s Quds force, Kassem Suleimani himself, boasts that Iran now has the upper hand in the region. But it’s not really Tehran who is filling up the vacuum of ISIS, it’s Hezbollah since Hezbollah acts as a non-state proxy which is free to fight all of Tehran’s wars.

Ideological similarity leads to cooperation, as can be seen from historical and current cooperation between Tehran and al-Qaeda. It has already been exposed that Tehran has a long term secretive alliance with al-Qaeda. Recently, Somalia sent an urgent letter to the American ambassador, raising concern regarding cooperation between an al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab and Iran on the mining of uranium. According to the Somali warning, “global stability is at stake”. Apparently, the alliance is still at work.

Such cooperation or alliances should not come as a great surprise. Radical groups may be stark rivals, but with time, the common goal is a uniting factor. Tehran, al-Qaeda and ISIS are, ideologically, not so far from each other. They all support Islamic views of global domination, strong anti-Western inclinations and the goal of an idealized government based on Shariah law. They all engage in terror as a justified means. The strong alliance between Iran and Sunni elements (like Hamas, Turkey and Qatar) demonstrates the fact that the Shiite-Sunni schism can be overcome if the mutual goals exist. As al-Monitor claims  Tehran is focused on improving relations with Sunni actors in the Middle East. In their eyes, the end goal justifies the means.

And when that goal is to export the Islamic revolution, it’s Hezbollah which is on the front line. So, you can allow yourself some comfort in knowing that the monsters of ISIS are finally on the run but remember that the guys in Hezbollah are much closer to ISIS than you would hope for.

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Tehran’s use of non-state “instruments of power”

During an Iranian workshop held in the Iranian museum of peace, titled “simulating the UN security council session with a look to North Korea”, reported by Iran Front Page News, Iranian foreign minister Zarif commented that in today’s world, absolute military power no longer serves as a decisive factor due to the existence of non-state actors which influence events and with which national interests can be secured. He also admitted that Iran itself uses such non-state actors by stating “other instruments of power are available to us”.  He added that such instruments serve in breaking “Western monopoly over international affairs”.

He went on to enumerate examples of such “non-state players”, influencing world strategic developments, and mentioned ISIS, the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front. Of course, he did not mention Hezbollah and the Shiite militias, which are non-state players and 100% proxies of Tehran.

In defiance of international norms, which prohibit the use of terrorism or malign activity in achieving political or other goals, with Zarif the illegitimate becomes legitimate. Radicalism and terrorism are just additional “non-state instruments of power” in achieving Tehran’s objectives. This is a rare admittance of the Iranian mode of thought. Instead of condemnation, he validated and justified.

Yet, the judiciary chief of Iran, Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, objects to the use of terrorism, and protested the West’s lack of determination to eliminate terrorism. Once again, the Iranian representative conveniently “forgets” to mention organizations like Hezbollah (deployed in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen), the Shiite militias (deployed in Syria and Iraq) and the numerous Shiite terror cells (deployed in the most of the Gulf states).

There is ample proof of Iran’s use of non-state and/or radical actors, in their attempts to influence events. Bahrain, which recently broke yet another Iranian-backed terror cell,  highlighted the Iranian operating of terror cells as an instrument of power. Tehran denies supporting such cells but then again, Tehran always denies. Tehran and Hezbollah meet and plot policy, thus underscoring the use of the Hezbollah as an instrument of influence. As reported in The Daily Mail, the recruiting and deployment of Iranian backed militias has served Iranian interests in Syria and now continue to serve in the creation of a safe Iranian corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean, posing a threat to the global community.

To summarize – we should take Zarif’s words seriously. When he talks about the use of terrorist organizations and radical non-state instruments of power, like ISIS and Taliban, to influence the geo-strategic situation, it is not an academic debate. He is talking from experience. He just hypocritically emits the Iranian instruments of power like subversive terror cells, hired militias and other radical organizations.

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Another Iranian-backed terror cell in Bahrain

As reported in various news agencies, Bahrain recently announced that they busted a terror cell, which has clear links to Tehran. This is not the first time that a terror cell linked to Iran is uncovered in Bahrain.

According to the statement released by the Bahraini interior ministry, Bahrain uncovered a terror cell consisting of at least 10 people, seven of which have been arrested. It was also reported that 127 kilos of high-grade explosives, chemicals, automatic weapons, grenades, detonators and additional ammunition were seized. The terror unit was led by Hussein Ali Ahmed Dawood, who is believed to have found sanctuary in Iran. He is alleged to be the leader of the Ashtar Brigade, the terrorist wing of the Al Wafa Islamic movement, which claimed previous terrorist activity and bombings in Bahrain. According to the release, Dawood has already been sentenced to life imprisonment in three terrorism-related cases, in addition to a sentence of 15 years imprisonment in relations to another case, and he has clear links with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

Already in March of this year it was reported that Bahrain arrested a terror cell linked to the IRGC, Hezbollah and Iraq Brigades. That cell plotted to assassinate senior government and community figures. According to a separate report by al-Arabiya, women played a role in these Iran-backed Bahrain terror groups.

There are a few lessons to be learnt here:

  • Tehran is still active in the terror cell operating business, and even in countries in its “back yard”.
  • Even after they are uncovered, Tehran is not ashamed to give safe sanctuary to these terror operatives.
  • Due to this long-term subversive activity in Bahrain, it is not surprising that Bahrain was one of the first to join the Saudi axis in the Gulf-Qatar crisis.
  • While women are scrutinized and even blocked from sports and being teachers (if they suffer infertility or facial hair, for instance), they are cleared for being terrorists.

But most important of all, the use of terror cells, just as the use of proxy military organizations such as Hezbollah and the Shiite militias, exemplifies Tehran’s aspirations to “export the revolution” to other countries through non-state proxies.

 

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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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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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Tehran, King of the Meddle East

It would seem that Tehran’s audacity has gone up a notch. If in the past Iran hid its support of terror organizations and its meddling in the region with slogans like “advisory function only”, currently it has no problem openly bragging about these roles.

In Iran News Update, both the commander of IRGC Quds force, Qassem Suleimani, and president Rouhani, are quoted acknowledging Iran’s meddling in Iraq and Syria, and their support of Hezbollah. The Iranian PressTV also reported the words of Syrian Defense Minister praising Iran and the Hezbollah for their contribution to the military success.

On Iraq and Syria, Suleimani is quoted claiming the following: “the IRGC’s sole Sukho fighter jet squadron was placed at Iraq’s disposal instantly. Thousands of tons of weapons were given to them by [Iran]..Iran’s defense ministry was making weapons for Iraq round the clock and sending them..The Lebanese Hezbollah played a major role in the victories of Iraq and Syria..I kiss the hands of Hassan Nassrallah”.

Rouhani is quoted stating: “We supported the people of Iraq and Syria…who provides the salary and weapons of these people? All the weapons Iraq needed. It is the same about Syria. The government’s economic branch is providing the money…a major effort was carried out [during my first term]”. Rouhani also took pride in the mass production of arms during his term in office.

Brigadier General of the IRGC, Hossein Salami, also commenting on these issues, bragged the use of Hezbollah and the transformation of Iran into a regional power with global influence including in the Eastern Mediterranean. They describe their open support for Hezbollah, despite the fact that the Hezbollah is recognized as a terrorist organization. They seem to have the lost the need for concealment.

Something is cultivating this “swaggering attitude”. Perhaps it is to be connected to the victories over ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and the perceived weakness of the US in this context. As reported in Fars news, they see a zero sum game here – the liberation of territories = the failure of the US. Despite the fact that the US is involved in some of the fighting, they still see any grab of territory from the hands of ISIS as an Iranian alliance victory. No doubt the Russian involvement has also endowed them with confidence and a feeling of legitimacy.

While in the past Tehran claimed “advisory roles” only, denying support of radical groups, and playing the Rouhani moderate peace-seeking line, the West was over-eager to buy in to this sweet talk. When Tehran feels that it is released from its limitations and can now admit its actions openly, the Western former “advocates and believers” are exposed naked.

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Tehran takes in Hamas leaders expelled from Qatar

The ultimatum set by Saudi Arabia and its allies, giving Qatar 10 days to meet 13 demands, expired. It’s unlikely that Qatar will shut down Al Jazeera, one of the 13 stipulations, but they have responded favorably to at least one of the items on the list. One of the key demands is cutting ties with extremist organizations, among them Hamas.

As proof that Qatar felt the pressure and took the threat seriously, Qatar turned its back on Hamas and revealed an un-willingness to host Hamas operatives anymore. Once it became clear that Hamas is no longer welcome in Qatar, the leaders of Hamas began to look for a new home.

Hamas turned to Tehran which rushed to the occasion, overlooking the previous “offense” of Hamas supporting the Syrian rebellion in opposition to Iran, and offered safe sanctuary for the Hamas leaders in Lebanon, under the protection of the Iran-backed Hezbollah. Mahmoud al-Zahar, a co-founder and member of the Hamas, confirmed that the Iranian-Hamas bond is as close and as strong as ever. Saleh al Arouri, one of the most wanted terrorists, after being expelled last month from Qatar, along with other senior Hamas operatives, has apparently found a safe haven in Dahieh, the stronghold of the Hezbollah in Beirut. Thus, one of the results of the isolation of Qatar is a strengthening of Iran’s ties with extremists and extremist organizations.

In the past Iran could afford to cool its relations with Hamas, due to the fact that it was flying high with many friends. Now they seem to need every friend they can get..

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Tehran’s Duality on Terrorism & Democracy

With the recent twin terror attacks in Iran, hitting at the parliament and the mausoleum, Iran revealed a new rhetoric on terrorism, which is reserved only for them.

When President Trump condemned the twin attacks, extended condolences yet suggested that Iran shares some of the blame for the terror attacks, by stating “those who sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote”, Iran responded with a vengeance.  Foreign Minister Zarif in a tweet rejected the notion entirely while terming Trumps’ words “repugnant”. As reported in firstpost, Zarif continued to give his own explanation for the attack rationalizing that the attackers targeted the “seat of democracy”.

For decades the Iranian regime has preached that Europe and the Western world are to blame for the terrorist attacks perpetrated against them. Even in the face of the most recent London attack, the supreme leader related to the events claiming that Europe has brought the Islamic state terrorism on itself through its intervention in the Middle East. In his tweet (June 5) he stated “this is the inferno they set up and has now backfired on them”. Why is it legitimate to analyze thus in the European context, yet repugnant in the Iranian context?

Furthermore, to interpret the attacks in Iran as targeting “the seat of democracy”, is bordering on delusional science fiction. Iran is a Democtatorship. It is a country which holds presidential elections but which allows a non-elected body to disqualify candidates in advance if they do not represent the values of the Islamic Revolution. It is a country which has publicly elected officials in government and in parliament but they are subordinate to the unelected regime, and specially the unelected Supreme Leader and his military backing, the IRGC. It is a country in which opposition leaders who tried to bring about change are under house arrest without trial. Whether Zarif likes it or not, Iran is a ruled by a theocracy, a “deep state” of power that is unelected but chosen by the regime itself.

To twist things even further, the supreme leader recently dismissed any chance of reconciliation with the US due to the fact that the US is the cause of instability in the ME and founded upon terror and cruelty – never mind the fact that the West and most Arab states claim that it is Tehran which is the cause of instability in the Middle East now.

 

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Tehran’s cynical reaction to terror attacks

The terrorist attacks in Tehran shocked the world but probably shocked the regime in Tehran much more. Apart from the horror of the terrorist attacks, it is illuminating to see how the regime in Tehran reacted to these attacks.

Over the past few years, as terrorist attacks spread around the globe (specially in Europe), Tehran stuck to two main themes: 1) Terrorist would never strike in Iran due to the efficiency of the IRGC and other security bodies and 2) the Western countries who were hit by terrorist attacks were “reaping what they had sown” (ie: the West had supported Sunni terrorist organizations in the past).

Suddenly, the tables had turned and the statements from Tehran followed three main themes: 1) trivialization, 2) accusation and 3) indignation.

Trivialization: following the attack, Khamenei made a speech in which he attempted to minimize its impact calling it a “firecracker” and calling the terrorist “too trivial to affect the nation’s will”. In this same speech, Khamenei didn’t even take the time to offer his condolences to the families of the victims nor wish the wounded well. Parliament leader Ali Larijani joined Khamenei’s sentiment by calling the attack a “minor incident”. 17 innocent Iranian civilians dead and 43 wounded represent a “minor incident” and a “firecracker”? Sounds a bit trivial by all standards.

Accusation: as could be expected, Tehran immediately began to accuse the US and Saudi Arabia for supporting terrorism. At first, the accusations were vague: the US and Saudi Arabia were guilty of these attacks because of the American-Sunni alliance, because of the US and Saudi support of Sunni terrorism (specifically ISIS) in the past, because of the Saudi FM’s statement that “Iran must be punished for its interference in the region and its support for terrorist organizations” etc… But then, Tehran upped the rhetoric and claimed that it had definite “proof” the US and Saudi Arabia supported these terrorist attacks but somehow, up until now, none of these “proofs” was shared to the world. Khamenei went further and stated that “the US is itself terrorist, fosters terrorists…and has been originally founded upon terror and cruelty” and “thus, it is impossible to compromise with the US”…this sentence makes more sense if you exchange the word “US” with the word “Iran”…try exchanging the word US for Iran and see how this statement rings much truer.

Indignation: the White House issued a statement of condolences for the victims but added one sentence, “states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote”, which blew out some fuses in Tehran. Zarif called the statement repugnant and began slamming the US for supporting terrorism. Although Trump’s statement is definitely not politically correct, it does point out that Tehran’s open support of terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and other Shiite militias places Tehran within the targets of other terrorist organizations. But more than this, Trump’s statement only echoes statements from Tehran to Western countries who suffered terrorist attacks in the past: “you reap what you sow”.

There is nothing to be happy about the terrorist attack in Tehran. The blood of innocent victims of terrorist attacks is the same regardless of the country in which they were killed or wounded. But one thing is certain, Tehran was caught with its pants down and doesn’t know how to deal with this new situation. From a position in which it openly supports terrorism while claiming it is a champion against terrorism, Tehran found itself suddenly much weaker and much more vulnerable and instead of dealing with the base of the problem, the support of terrorism, it chose to cover up.

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Tehran eyes the Saudi alliance

Two years ago the Muslim anti-terrorism military alliance, set up by Saudi Arabia, was established. At the time it took the Muslim world by surprise, and some regarded it as a passing comedy of errors. Saudi Arabia setting up an anti-terrorism alliance sounded like a good joke, taking into consideration Saudi’s history in terrorism. Tehran wasted no time in criticizing the initiative: Rouhani managed to position Tehran as a fighter against terrorism in its over-publicized fight against ISIS while successfully hiding the fact that Tehran supports terrorist organizations so it only made sense to slam Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s biggest regional rival. Yet, as ludicrous as this initiative may seem, the alliance has not only survived, it has even expanded. Today it currently counts 41 members and recently the former Pakistani Chief General, Raheel Sharif, received approval to head the alliance.

In the tribune they enumerate three good reasons for this alliance:

  • Coordination by Muslim countries is key to combat Islamists extremists and terrorists who have hideouts, bases, training grounds etc…in these countries.
  • Since some of the members of this initiative have supported Islamist terrorists in the past, this venture will force them to disengage from terrorist organizations who have been proven to be unreliable and volatile.
  • A Muslim alliance against Islamist terrorism is a great platform to improve the image of Islam which was hijacked by Muslim extremists, an image which is defined by religious violence.

And then, Sharif called Tehran to join the alliance. Suddenly, Tehran found itself in a classic CATCH 22 situation: if it joined the alliance, Tehran would be forced to put aside its enmity for Saudi Arabia, and worst, it will have to give up on supporting Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations. But if it didn’t join the alliance, it would be designated as the only country in the region to not join what seems to be a worthy cause: eliminating, or at least seriously weakening Islamist terrorism.

The upside of such an alliance would be monumental for the region and possibly for the world. If Tehran does join the alliance, this might be the beginning of the end of the regional conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia which would bury the chances of a regional or even a world war. Furthermore, by joining the alliance, Iran and Saudi Arabia, both supporters of terrorist organizations who are fighting each other in the proxy wars between both countries, will effectively be forced to stop funding terrorism.

But even more important, if Iran does join the alliance, it will take out the wind out of Trump’s threats to confront Iran: the US could not initiate a war against Iran if it’s allied with Saudi Arabia and if Tehran is seen by the world as a champion against terrorism.

So, it makes a lot of sense for Tehran to join the alliance. Unfortunately, the regime in Tehran did not survive until now through common sense and teaming up with Saudi Arabia, after years of bad-mouthing Riyadh, would feel like “drinking from the poisoned chalice” (Khomeini’s take on the peace treaty with Iraq) all over again.

No, Tehran will probably never join hands with Riyadh because doing so would seriously weaken its identity to its people and to its allies.

 

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