Posts Tagged ‘IRGC’

Iran’s three options for surviving US sanctions

December 10, 2018

Last week I wrote of the current impact of the US sanctions imposed on Iran. The scope of the sanctions, their effect on some economic sectors and the continuous economic decline over the past three months, as well as the swift impact of the second phase of sanctions, were all reviewed. Now I will review the options that Iran may resort to in order to mitigate the impact of the sanctions.

The first option centers on the regime adopting a strategy of escalation by several means. This includes targeting US and Western interests in the region through groups and militias affiliated to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), such as Hezbollah, the Houthis and the Popular Mobilization Forces. This step could be taken directly by the IRGC through the harassment of oil tankers in the Arabian Gulf and by an escalation in Afghanistan or on the Israeli-Lebanese front by using Hezbollah or Hamas. This would serve as a warning to Washington to pressure it to reconsider the policies that aim to tighten the economic noose around the Iranian regime’s neck.

The US move would be strengthened by the EU adopting a similar position on the Iranian missile program, or by imposing sanctions on Tehran, even while retaining a commitment to the nuclear pact. This option would be costly for Iran diplomatically, politically and militarily. Furthermore, the Western response may be larger than the initial action. Some countries may find that the time is ripe for them to carry out military operations against Iranian sites both inside and outside the country.

Commentary
By Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

The second option for Tehran lies in maintaining its current policy of “resistance” and “resilience” domestically, while working to buy time over the next two years until it becomes clear which party will be in office in the US after the next elections in 2020. It is possible for the Iranian regime to continue exporting oil on a smaller scale, with the US granting exemptions to eight countries, allowing them to import oil during the sanctions period. This could enable the regime to endure sanctions for several years through the restructuring its economy, adopting austere economic policies, raising non-oil exports, improving the role of the IRGC’s “parallel economy” and the charitable associations linked to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s office, as well as by reviving its dormant economic sleeper cells, including entities and individuals, to help the Iranian economy survive this testing period.

President Hassan Rouhani speaking during a rally in the city of Shahrud, around 400 kilometres east of the capital Tehran. (AFP)

This option could be introduced over the short and medium terms, especially if Washington softens in the implementation of its policies. Iran’s adoption of this option would be conditional on the willingness of other regional nations, particularly its neighboring states, to help Iran circumvent sanctions.

The third option would see Iran’s leaders conclude that the two previous options are high-risk gambles, as their economic and political costs could be too high to countenance. This would lead them, however begrudgingly, to accept the need to renegotiate the terms of the nuclear deal with the US administration, since the problems resulting from the other possible scenarios could further undermine the already unpopular regime domestically, as it faces worsening protests and demonstrations across the country.

Due to this pressure, the regime might negotiate with the US administration to cut a deal simply to bring a swift end to the economic losses it is already incurring, particularly if the eight countries temporarily exempted from US sanctions decide instead to abide by the sanctions and cease economic dealings with Iran. The regime could gain more time by conditional negotiations, which would include the lifting or freezing of part of the sanctions.

Whilst this option is likely to be strongly opposed by the IRGC, Khamenei is likely to be more pragmatic, and President Hassan Rouhani’s government would probably support it. Iran will ultimately find itself pushed toward begrudgingly accepting this option, especially if the popular protests at home continue and the regime falls short of meeting most of its financial commitments at home and abroad.

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Regarding this last option, Iran could well show some flexibility on regional and international issues that it deems to be low priority. This will not happen at the outset of any negotiations, but the regime would keep any such concessions as its trump card that it can use if the negotiations reach an impasse. In my view, this option is the most probable if the US continues to pressure Iran and works to convince its neighbors to cease cooperation with the regime to circumvent sanctions, as well as tracking all Iran’s violations, and penalizing and blacklisting firms and individuals helping Iran to evade the sanctions.

In conclusion, the success or failure of the US strategy on Iran depends primarily on Washington’s seriousness in implementing its sanctions and the extent to which its allies are willing to cooperate. Yet it also depends to some degree on the US providing alternatives to cover shortages in the energy market, attracting countries currently importing Iranian oil, and Washington offering services better than those provided by Iran, as well as swiftly identifying and closing any loopholes in the sanctions and subjecting any agreement to continuous assessment.

Arab News

http://www.arabnews.com/node/1418521

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami
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Iran rejects law banning terrorist financing

November 5, 2018

Iran’s powerful Guardian Council on Sunday rejected legislation to join the UN convention against terrorist financing, just a few hours before the reintroduction of tough US sanctions on Tehran’s oil trade and banking sector.

Joining the convention is crucial to Iran’s hopes of obtaining European support in evading the sanctions, which came into effect at midnight on Sunday. But conservative hawks on the council fear it would prevent them from funding groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, by forcing greater financial transparency.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard commander Mohammad Ali Jafari speaks during a rally in front of the former US Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 2018, marking the 39th anniversary of the seizure of the embassy by militant Iranian students. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

The council said aspects of the bill were against Islamic law and the constitution and sent it back to Parliament for revision. The legislation “has flaws and ambiguities,” spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaie said.

The bill, narrowly passed by Parliament last month, is one of four proposed by President Hassan Rouhani’s government to meet demands set by the international Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which monitors countries’ efforts to tackle money-laundering and terrorist financing.

Rouhani’s government says the law is vital after US President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions. The other parties to the deal — Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia — have demanded that Iran accede to the FATF if it wants to maintain trade.

“Neither I nor the president can guarantee that all problems will go away if we join the UN convention, but I guarantee that not joining will provide the US with more excuses to increase our problems,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said during the parliamentary debate last month.

Previous legislation on money-laundering and organized crime has also been delayed by higher authorities, including the Guardian Council, after being approved by Parliament.

The council is made up of six clerics appointed by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and six lawyers appointed by the judiciary.

Iran’s failure to pass the FATF “is only symptomatic of the larger issue of Iran’s support for extremist and terrorist groups and organizations,” the security analyst Dr. Ted Karasik told Arab News.

“The legislation is good for domestic consumption by particular groups of officials, but the whole process is of course a sham.

“Its funding for terrorist militias and its acts of espionage make Iran, and specifically the Quds Force, simply unqualified for FATF status.”

Arab News

http://www.arabnews.com/node/1399246/middle-east

Million-barrel oil sale by Iran ends in failure

October 29, 2018

An attempt by Iran on Sunday to counter new US sanctions on its crucial oil trade ended in failure.

Tehran offered a million barrels of oil to private buyers on IRENEX, the Iranian energy index, at an initial base price of $79.16 per barrel.

Iran’s sales flop is a blow to its hopes of circumventing renewed US oil sanctions, which begin on Nov. 4.  (Reuters file photo)

The offer attracted limited bids of $16 below the base price as trading began. A final buyer emerged after the price was dropped to $74.85 per barrel in the closing hours — and for only 280,000 of the million barrels on offer.

Iran refused to disclose the identity of the buyer, and said only that a conglomerate of private companies had made the purchase through three brokerages.

The sales flop is a blow to Iran’s hopes of circumventing renewed US oil sanctions, which begin on Nov. 4. They follow US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal in May from the 2015 agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

The plan to sell oil on the energy exchange once a week was proposed in July by vice president Eshaq Jahangiri to “defeat America’s efforts … to stop Iran’s oil exports.” Tehran hopes selling to private buyers will make it harder for the US to monitor and stop its sales.

“With the imminent return of a new wave of sanctions, the government is determined to utilize the maneuvering ability of the private sector to sell Iran’s oil and find new markets,” said Hamidreza Salehi, director of Iran’s energy exports federation.

Iran’s oil exports are estimated to have dropped by a third since May.

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Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Utopian future

Meanwhile, a plan unveiled by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for Iran to be a world leader in science, technology and innovation by 2065 has been greeted with widespread ridicule.

The plan promises the elimination of poverty and corruption, with the Iranian economy among the world’s top 10. “The environment, natural resources, clean water, energy, and food safety will be no problem anywhere in the country and everyone will equally benefit from these resources. New resources will be discovered, and a surplus of opportunities will be created that leaves no one empty handed,” the plan says.

Khamenei “went public with the plan when the country is in the throes of a severe economic, social, political and environmental crisis — a situation many regard as being so dire that it is an extreme challenge to even predict what the next year will look like,” Ali Ranjipour, an analyst with the BBC Persian service, told the US-based Iran News Wire.

“This is a utopian future with no link to reality, a fantasy scenario bolstered by nostalgia.”

The Iranian-American Harvard scholar Dr. Majid Rafizadeh told Arab News: “This is not the first time Iranian leaders have used such rhetoric and made promises that cannot be fulfilled.

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Majid Rafizadeh

“Khamenei failed to address the underlying reasons behind Iran’s poor economy, which include political and financial corruption at the top, support for foreign militia groups, mismanagement of public funds, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ military adventurism across the region.

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Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

“As long as these factors exist, Iran’s economy will continue to deteriorate and ordinary people will suffer. The regime is facing significant pressure from the public due to the misalignment between the fortunes of the Iranian regime and the ordinary population.

“Khamenei is attempting to appeal to the public through collections of words rather than actions.  His plan is doomed to fail because the regime’s economic problems are systemic and deeply embedded within the theocratic establishment.”

Arab News

http://www.arabnews.com/node/1395456

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Two Iranian fast boats approach US warship while CENTCOM commander is on board

October 27, 2018

Two Iranian fast boats approached the U.S. Wasp-class amphibious assault ship Essex on Friday while it was operating in the Persian Gulf, according to U.S. defense officials.

The commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, was on board the Essex at the time of the incident, officials have confirmed.

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U.S. Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex

“Today’s interaction with U.S. 5th Fleet forces and the IRGCN [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy] was characterized as safe and professional,” U.S. Naval Forces Central Command told Marine Corps Times in an emailed statement. “The U.S. Navy continues to operate wherever international law allows.”

The IRGCN has a history of harassing U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf — an activity some analysts have noted recently has decreased.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that since Jan. 2016 there had been an average of more than two “unprofessional” encounters a month between Iranian fast boats and U.S. warships, for a total of nearly 50 incidents over a two-year period.

But the last “unprofessional” encounter occurred on Aug. 14, 2017, NAVCENT told Marine Corps Times.

During that incident, an Iranian drone operating without any navigational lights flew near U.S. aircraft conducting night operations aboard the U.S. aircraft carrier Nimitz.

Marines with 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit are currently embarked on the Essex. The Essex also is hauling Marine Corps F-35Bs.

The presence of the F-35s is a first for the U.S. Central Command area of operations.

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Here’s How Trump Should Prepare for Iranian Escalation

October 27, 2018

Once sanctions are back in full force, the United States needs to be ready for the worst.

On Nov. 5, the United States is set to impose crippling sanctions against Iranian oil exports—the country’s most important source of hard currency. Very quickly, Iran’s revenues could be slashed in half or even worse—a body blow to an economy already reeling from runaway inflation and rising unemployment. Popular discontent, manifest in widespread protests and labor strikes throughout much of 2018, is almost certain to deepen. As a result, the clerical regime is likely to come under greater economic and political stress in the coming months than at any time since rising to power in the 1979 revolution. As the Trump administration prepares to crank up the pressure even further and the walls continue to close in on Iran’s theocrats, U.S. officials would be well advised to consider how Iran might respond—and the steps they should take to deter, and if necessary defeat, any Iranian escalation.

By John Hannah
Foreign Policy

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Escalation is not inevitable. Since President Donald Trump’s May 8 announcement that the United States would pull out of the nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions, Iran has in fact demonstrated considerable restraint. It made a point of staying in the accord and maintaining its key restrictions on centrifuges and enriched uranium. Its strategy has been to exploit visceral European opposition to Trump’s Iran policy, posing as the victim of a lawless U.S. president who has flagrantly and unilaterally violated international commitments and norms.

However, it’s important to note that this initial Iranian response to Trump’s withdrawal was explicitly conditioned on the ability of the European Union to ensure that the deal’s economic benefits would continue to flow—with a special stress on Iran’s oil sales. In late May, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned that “European banks should safeguard trade with the Islamic Republic.”

“Europe should fully guarantee Iran’s oil sales. In case Americans can damage our oil sales,” he said. “Europeans should make up for that and buy Iranian oil.”

Despite the EU’s best efforts to foil U.S. sanctions, it has become increasingly clear over the past five months that it won’t succeed.

Despite the EU’s best efforts to foil U.S. sanctions, it has become increasingly clear over the past five months that it won’t succeed.

From an enhanced blocking statute to discussion of a special payments vehicle for maintaining Iranian trade, none of it appears likely to do much to blunt the force of the blow that is about to hit the Iranian economy. European companies have already abandoned the Iranian market in droves. And Iranian oil exports have recently begun to plummet—according to reports, by at least several hundred thousand barrels per day—even before U.S. sanctions have gone back into effect.

It’s still possible, of course, that despite the EU’s failure to satisfy Tehran, the Iranians will nevertheless decide that the better part of wisdom is to hold their fire. Lashing out certainly carries risks. It could alienate European governments and push them closer to Trump’s anti-Iran position. Even more dangerously, it could invite a painful, disproportionate military response from a highly unpredictable and volatile U.S. president. Under strong counsel from the Europeans, it’s possible that the Iranians could calculate that their best course is simply to sit tight, endure the sanctions while exploiting whatever loopholes exist, and wait out Trump’s presidency in hopes that he’ll be impeached by a Democratic Congress in 2019 or voted out of office come 2020.

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In many ways, the United States has had the best of both worlds in recent months. Trump has withdrawn from the nuclear deal with Iran and is systematically going about the business of building a maximum pressure campaign to strangle the Iranian economy—all without Tehran ramping up its nuclear program or significantly escalating its persistent efforts to undermine and attack U.S. interests. Let’s hope this continues.

But, as the saying goes, hope is not a strategy. The administration should prepare for all contingencies—especially the bad ones. There certainly appears to be a deepening perception among Iran’s leaders that, despite protestations to the contrary, the Trump administration’s true agenda is regime change. With the U.S. economic noose set to tighten around their necks come November, it would be foolish not to plan for the possibility that, at some point, the hardened men charged with defending the Islamic revolution will not find a way to hit back.

If you’ve looked around in recent months, it’s certainly not hard to find an accumulation of worrying data points—in the form of both threatening statements and actions—that taken together suggest an escalation could be in the cards. In early July, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a supposed moderate, made several veiled threats against any U.S. attempt to stop Iran’s oil sales. “The Americans have claimed they want to completely stop Iran’s oil exports,” he said. “They don’t understand the meaning of this statement, because it has no meaning for Iranian oil not to be exported while the region’s oil is exported.” Weeks later, he was even more explicit, raising the prospect that Iran could retaliate by disrupting all oil flows through the Strait of Hormuz. “We have always guaranteed the security of this strait,” Rouhani warned. “Do not play with the lion’s tail—you will regret it forever.”

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Each of these statements by Rouhani came alongside an even more bellicose threat from the two top generals of Iran’s most powerful military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The head of the IRGC, Mohammad Ali Jafari, sought to make clear that if the United States stopped Iran from selling its oil, no other Gulf country would be allowed to do so either. “We will make the enemy understand that either all can use the Strait of Hormuz or no one,” Jafari said.

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Qassem Suleimani

Even more alarming were the statements of Qassem Suleimani, the terrorist mastermind who heads the IRGC’s most lethal unit, the expeditionary Quds Force. After Rouhani’s second warning triggered a blistering all-caps tweet from Trump to “never, ever threaten the United States again or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history ever suffered before,” Suleimani threatened the United States again. Addressing Trump directly, he said in a speech, “It is beneath the dignity of our president to respond to you. I, as a soldier, respond to you.” He derided U.S. military failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East and ominously warned Trump, “We are near you, where you can’t even imagine. … We are ready. We are the man of this arena.” He declared, “Trump should know that we are the nation of martyrdom and that we await him.” Suleimani concluded, “You know this war will destroy all that you possess. You will start this war, but we will be the ones to impose its end. … You know our power in the region and our capabilities in asymmetric warfare.”

This might be empty bluster. But when issued by professional killers responsible for the deaths of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, no one should take it lightly. Especially when Iran has also engaged in a number of provocative actions in recent months against U.S. interests, in what could be interpreted as an effort to probe U.S. responses and vulnerabilities.

Even a short list, when compiled in one place, is very concerning. In early July, an Iranian diplomat was arrested in Europe for plotting to attack an opposition conference in Paris attended by prominent Americans, including Trump confidants Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich. The next month, two Iranians were arrested in the United States on charges of spying for Iran, including surveilling Jewish centers in Chicago as well as Iranian opposition figures. In late July, Houthi rebels in Yemen, armed and trained by the IRGC, attacked a loaded Saudi oil tanker near the Bab el-Mandeb strait at the mouth of the Red Sea, resulting in a temporary suspension of the kingdom’s oil shipments through the world’s third-most critical shipping lane for oil.

Iranian provocations have appeared to accelerate over the past several weeks. In early September, a day after Iraqi protesters in the southern city of Basra torched the Iranian Consulate, rockets struck near the U.S. Consulate in Basra as well as the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, missing both. The U.S. government quickly accused Iraqi Shiite militias commanded by the IRGC of being responsible. A day later, the IRGC conducted a precision missile strike on a building in U.S.-allied Iraqi Kurdistan where leaders of an Iranian Kurdish opposition group—that Iran claims is backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia—were holding a meeting, killing 11. At the end of September, there were more rocket attacks against the U.S. Consulate in Basra that the Trump administration immediately blamed on Iraqi militias “under the control and direction of the Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani.” And on Oct. 1, in retaliation for an attack on an IRGC parade in Ahvaz, Iran, the Revolutionary Guards fired six medium-range ballistic missiles into eastern Syria near the Iraqi border, allegedly targeting fighters of the Islamic State but striking perilously close (within three miles) of U.S. troops.

In the event that Iran does decide on a major escalation, it’s hard to predict where it would choose to strike. Despite all the bluster about the Strait of Hormuz, it’s difficult to believe that the Iranians would attempt a head-on confrontation with the U.S. military. All of Iran’s leaders surely remember Operation Praying Mantis, when the United States responded to attacks on its ships in the Gulf by sinking a significant portion of the Iranian navy in 1988.

Far more likely is that Iran would respond indirectly. As Suleimani said, Iran’s money game is asymmetric warfare: the exploitation of proxies, terrorists, unwitting jihadis, and disaffected Middle Eastern Shiite populations. Covert actions to destabilize weak U.S. allies. Cyberattacks. Operating just beneath the threshold that would trigger a violent U.S. military response. Plausible deniability. That’s Iran’s real wheelhouse.

If Iran wants to cause massive disruption in global oil markets, it doesn’t need to take on the U.S. Navy in the Strait of Hormuz. It could, for example, simply take advantage of the widespread chaos and unrest in southern Iraq to have its militia proxies and their loyalists attack, sabotage, or otherwise paralyze operations at Iraq’s most important oil fields, pipelines, and export terminals. That could remove as much as another 3 million barrels of oil per day from international markets, triggering a potentially recession-inducing spike in world prices. Now multiply that by a factor of 10 if Iran successfully targeted critical oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia through terrorism, cyberattack, or violent protests among the disgruntled Shiite majority that inhabits the kingdom’s oil-rich Eastern province—a scenario that policymakers have worried about for a long time.

Relatively small pockets of U.S. troops operating in close proximity with local partners in Syria and Iraq also offer ample opportunities—albeit perhaps more risky—for the IRGC to inflict real pain on the United States. Its vast array of proxy militias in both theaters are strong and capable. But it also no doubt has a multitude of other, more covert assets that it could use as cover to slowly bleed the United States and put to the test Trump’s staying power in a Middle East that he almost instinctively longs to abandon—including members of the Syrian and Iraqi security services, agents within the Kurdish communities, or among the Sunni tribes that inhabit the Iraqi-Syrian borderlands. There are no doubt others as well, perhaps even easily manipulated fighters from the Islamic State or al Qaeda.

These contingencies only begin to scratch the service. Many more could eventually be possible—from strikes by Iranian-backed terrorist networks around the world, including North America, to the gradual resumption of Iranian nuclear activities beyond the limits of the 2015 deal. The Trump administration needs to determine which of these scenarios are the most probable and develop strategies for effectively dealing with each of them, including through advance coordination with allies and deploying necessary resources and enhanced capabilities to the region.

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U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe inspect an honor guard during a welcome ceremony at the military’s Bayi Building in Beijing. | AFP

Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and National Security Advisor John Bolton have all issued recent statements, of varying specificity, putting Iran on notice that it will face severe consequences for any attacks on U.S. interests. The toughest and most all-encompassing came from Bolton in late September when he warned Iran, “If you cross us, our allies, or our partners; if you harm our citizens; if you continue to lie, cheat, and deceive, yes, there will indeed be hell to pay.” Conspicuously missing from this chorus, however, has been Defense Secretary James Mattis. It goes without saying that it would be helpful to have the senior official charged with the command and control of U.S. forces, especially one with Mattis’s military stature, strongly reinforcing the administration’s deterrent message with respect to any Iranian escalation.

Yet of at least equal significance is the need to convince Iran that its failure to heed U.S. deterrent warnings will trigger a swift and disproportionate response—one that imposes costs far higher than any benefit that escalation might achieve. It’s also important that Iran be made to believe that its traditional tactics won’t be allowed to work, that the U.S. evidentiary threshold for attributing blame and retaliatory action won’t be excessively high, and that the sins of the proxies and cutouts will definitely be visited on Iran itself.

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Iranian attack boats in the Persian Gulf

Certainly, at a minimum, the United States should make every effort to avoid mixed signals that undercut the clarity of the deterrent message. Two recent incidents were particularly concerning in this regard. First, the decision in late September to evacuate U.S. personnel from the Basra consulate in the face of the rocket attacks attributed to the IRGC. While Pompeo issued a statement threatening harsh punishment for such attacks, the only visible action the United States actually took was to send its diplomats packing under fire. The second incident was the Pentagon’s decision to withdraw several U.S. missile defense systems from the Middle East this month and move them to Asia. Whatever technical sense the announcement may have made, it hardly conveyed to the IRGC the kind of resolve and strength that the United States should be looking to exhibit in the lead-up to the reimposition of harsh sanctions.

The return of crippling sanctions on Iran’s oil exports will almost certainly mark an important moment in the long saga of U.S.-Iranian relations. No one can say for sure how Iran might respond. But anytime you openly set about putting a target on the back of a brutal enemy regime, you need to be ready. The Trump administration has thrown tremendous time and energy into ensuring that its campaign of maximum economic pressure backs Iran into a strategic corner from which there will be no escape (from Iran’s perspective) except capitulation. Given the nature of the Iranian regime, that policy makes considerable sense and has a compelling strategic logic—but only if the administration has in fact done its homework and put equal effort into planning for how to deal with Iran’s revolutionaries should they decide not to stand pat or back down but to escalate and fight instead.

John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on U.S. strategy. During the presidency of George W. Bush, he served for eight years on the staff of Vice President Cheney, including as the vice president’s national security advisor.
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New US-led sanctions target Iran-Taliban ties

October 23, 2018

The US Treasury and allies in the Gulf took aim at Iran’s support for the Taliban Tuesday with new sanctions against nine individuals from both countries.

The Riyadh-based Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC) said the sanctions aimed to “expose and disrupt Taliban actors and their Iranian sponsors that seek to undermine the security of the Afghan Government.”

The list included two Iranian Revolutionary Guard officials identified as Mohammad Ebrahim Owhadi and Esma’il Razavi.

© AFP/File | Two Iranian Revolutionary Guard officials have been included in a sanctions list developed by the Riyadh-based Terrorist Financing Targeting Center

According to a TFTC statement the two involved in providing training, financial and logistical support to the Taliban.

It said Owhadi arranged a deal in 2017 with a top Taliban official in Aghanistan’s Herat Province in which the Revolutionary Guard would provide military and financial support to the Taliban in return for them attacking government forces in Herat.

Razavi provided similar support to other Taliban groups across the Iran-Afghanistan border, the statement said.

Also named were the Taliban’s deputy shadow governor for Herat, Abdullah Samad Faroqui; Mohammad Daoud Muzzamil. who holds the same position in Helmand province, Naim Barich, who manages Taliban-Iran relations, and three other senior Taliban officials.

The blacklist also included Abdul Aziz, accused of paying the Taliban for protection for his narcotics trafficking and gemstones businesses.

“Iran’s provision of military training, financing, and weapons to the Taliban is yet another example of Tehran’s blatant regional meddling and support for terrorism,” said US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

“The United States and our partners will not tolerate the Iranian regime exploiting Afghanistan to further their destabilizing behavior,” he said in the statement.

The sanctions were announced during Terrorist Financing Targeting Center meeting in Riyadh.

Some of those mentioned were already on US and UN sanctions lists.

The Targeting Center was launched in May 2017 and includes the United States, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

AFP

U.S. Sanctions Iran Finance Network in Bid to Sever Tehran’s Global Ties

October 17, 2018

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Washington’s latest action sets the stage for next phase of economy-crippling sanctions and are a warning shot to companies and governments still engaged with Iran

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Members of Iran’s Basij militia marched in a parade in Tehran in April.
Members of Iran’s Basij militia marched in a parade in Tehran in April. PHOTO: ATTA KENARE/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
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WASHINGTON—The U.S. sanctioned a multibillion-dollar network of Iranian companies, banks and funds accused of financing the country’s elite paramilitary unit, ratcheting up global pressure on Tehran and sending a warning to governments and companies considering continued engagement with Iran.

By targeting the Basij militia’s financing network and citing the group’s alleged use of child soldiers and other human-rights abuses, the U.S. hopes to not only choke off funding to the prominent Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps unit, but also scare off any business dealings with the country.

“The IRGC is pervasive within the Iranian economy,” a senior administration official said. “This is precisely the kind of activity that we have warned other companies and governments about extensively.”

Many firms are pulling out of Iran as the U.S. rolls out an escalating and economy-crippling sanctions campaign meant to force Tehran to negotiate a new nuclear and security deal that addresses an array of U.S. concerns.

But from China to Europe, some governments and companies are considering maintaining financial and trade ties with Tehran as a way to keep the country’s critical oil supplies flowing and to oppose Washington’s decision this year to pull out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

The U.S. Treasury’s sanctions say the Basij’s ownership and control of banks and companies is integrated across the entire Iranian economy. All of those institutions are already targeted under the coming round of hardest-hitting U.S. sanctions coming into force Nov. 5, the second phase of Washington’s new pressure campaign meant to cut Iran from financial and trade ties to the world.

But the sanctions announced Tuesday link a unit condemned by human-rights groups and blacklisted by many Western governments, including the European Union, to corporations and financial institutions that do business in Europe and around the globe.

Besides intending to raise the political pressure on countries in Europe and elsewhere, Tuesday’s effort is also meant as a warning shot before the full set of sanctions come into force. Given the opacity of Iran’s economy and the extent of the IRGC’s involvement in the country’s economy, companies or banks risk U.S. penalties and reputational damage if they preserve their Iran ties.

Alireza Miryousefi, spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations, didn’t address the specific U.S. allegations or the details linking Iran’s military unit to an economywide network of companies and financial institutions, when asked about the action by the Journal. He called the sanctions part of a “unilateral campaign of bellicosity against Iran.”

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The Treasury said a nexus of the Basij network is the Mehr Eqtesad Bank, which U.S. officials say provides hundreds of millions of dollars to the militia’s foundation through dividends and interest-free credit lines. The bank didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Bank Mellat—an institution targeted under the Obama administration for its role in helping finance Iran’s nuclear program—funneled similar amounts to Mehr Eqtesad Bank, the U.S. said on in its Tuesday announcement. Bank Mellat, which the U.S. says is owned by the Basij foundation, has subsidiaries in Germany, the U.K., Turkey and South Korea, according to the institution’s website. The bank didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mehr Eqtesad Bank’s investment firm owns or controls many Iranian companies, including the largest manufacturer of tractors in the Middle East and North Africa, the country’s multibillion-dollar zinc and lead conglomerate, as well as engineering, investment, chemical and metal smelting firms, U.S. officials said.

“This vast network provides financial infrastructure to the Basij’s efforts to recruit, train and indoctrinate child soldiers who are coerced into combat under the IRGC’s direction,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said. “The international community must understand that business entanglements with the [Basij] network and IRGC front companies have real world humanitarian consequences.”

The watchdog group Human Rights Watch has accused the Basij of torture, particularly of political prisoners, including beatings and rape, and tied the elite unit to the recruitment of Afghan immigrant children living in Iran to fight in Syria, where Tehran is supporting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime as he prosecutes a war against Syrian opposition forces.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank that has backed more aggressive sanctions against Tehran, said Treasury’s action should be red flag to companies. Besides revealing the depth of the Basij network’s involvement in Iran’s economy and stigmatizing financial institutions linked to the unit, he said the sanctions set the stage for the next phase of sanctions becoming effective in early November.

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One company caught in the crosshairs of some U.S. policy hawks, including national security adviser John Bolton, is the financial messaging firm SWIFT. The Brussels-based company acts as the global banking system’s infrastructure, allowing institutions to carry out interbank transactions. Under U.S. law, SWIFT is supposed to sever ties with Iranian banks.

But European politicians, pushing back against Washington’s Iran policy and seeking to keep Tehran in the nuclear accord, have sought to protect the institution from U.S. action if it keeps those channels open.

“We’re going to make sure, whether it’s through SWIFT or through other means, that sanctions are enforced,” the senior U.S. official said. “If there are prohibited transactions, going through SWIFT or any other entity, we’re going to make sure we enforce those sanctions quite vigorously.”

The company didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, but has said it has been consulting with U.S. and European officials.

Some U.S. policy makers favor sanctioning SWIFT if it doesn’t disconnect Iran from the global financial system to deepen Tehran’s global isolation. Others argue that the sanctions against transactions with Iranian banks has the same effect, without deepening the rift between the U.S. and Europe by action against an ally’s firm.

Write to Ian Talley at ian.talley@wsj.com

Appeared in the October 17, 2018, print edition as ‘Sanctions Take Aim At Iran Network.’

https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-sanctions-iran-finance-network-in-bid-to-scare-off-other-countries-1539712357

Iran is jailing environmentalists, fearful that they’ve found pollution from possible nuclear and missile sites

October 16, 2018

On Oct. 8, Iran’s Revolutionary Court issued preliminary indictments against five environmentalists who had been arrested earlier this year. All five have been accused of using environmental projects as a cover to collect classified strategic information, a charge that can carry a death sentence.

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Within Iran’s academic circles, there exists a widespread opinion that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has been locking up environmentalists because they have potential knowledge of the location of installations where radioactive isotopes and toxic chemicals may be contaminating the land.

To measure background radiation and chemical contamination of a certain area, one must walk through it with a radiation detector or take soil samples. This may explain paranoia of Iranian intelligence agents that have been detaining dozens of environmentalists and confiscating their electronic devices in various parts of the country. The map of the detentions gives a good idea of the locations of sensitive sites.

By Eugene M. Chudnovsky
Commentary
Washington Examiner

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Among the environmentalists facing execution or long prison terms is an American citizen Morad Tahbaz, graduate of Columbia University, co-founder of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation. Members of the Foundation have openly opposed installation of underground nuclear and missile launch facilities on protected lands. Its managing director, Canadian citizen Kavous Seyed-Emami, detained last January together with Morad Tahbaz and seven others, died in Evin prison after intense interrogations soon after his arrest.

Prior to his detention Seyed-Emami taught sociology at Imam Sadeq University in Tehran. According to his family, he was the happiest man on Earth. Authorities claimed that he committed suicide in his prison cell but denied the family’s request for independent autopsy. His widow was interrogated and banned from returning to Canada, her passport confiscated.

At about the same time, security forces briefly detained the deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment, Kaveh Madani. A U.S.-educated scientist, recipient of international awards, Madani had been praised last year by the Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani as an example of the reversal of the brain drain from the country. Following his release after a three-day detention, Madani accepted a professor position at the Centre for Environmental Policy of the Imperial College in London and left Iran.

Numerous human rights and media organizations have come to the defense of the imprisoned environmentalists. Amnesty International has accused revolutionary guards of torturing prisoners and has demanded an independent investigation of professor Seyed-Emami’s death. Last April, 800 Iranian environmental scientists signed a letter to president Hassan Rouhani protesting the unlawful detention of their colleagues.

In response, Rouhani appointed an investigative panel of high-level government officials. Last May, the panel concluded that the accused environmentalists had not committed any crime. This, however, has not led to their release, indicating a struggle between the elected officials and the IRGC that report directly to the leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei.

The IRGC are de facto in charge of all cases believed to be related to the national security. Last August the Department of Environment was ordered to stop its efforts to prove that the environmentalists have not done anything wrong. A warning against “ meddling in judicial matters” has been issued to the DoE head Isa Kalantani.

The secrecy surrounding detention of the environmentalists leaves little doubt about its relation to military programs. The prisoners have been held incommunicado since January, no visits allowed. They have been asked to select attorneys from a pre-approved list of 20 names that did not include any human rights lawyers. With this requirement in place, no access of the accused to their attorneys has been permitted so far.

Once set in motion, the 21st century inquisition machine will not stop until the victims are crushed. The first indictments issued to the environmentalists this month open the way for trials by the Revolutionary Court — an arm of the IRGC — presided over by one of its “hanging judges.” This will be another shameful page in the history of the country known as the Cradle of Civilization.

Eugene M. Chudnovsky is a distinguished professor at the City University of New York and co-chair of the Committee of Concerned Scientists.

Iranian border guards kidnapped on border with Pakistan

October 16, 2018

Fourteen Iranian security personnel, including Revolutionary Guards intelligence officers, were abducted on the volatile southeastern border with Pakistan on Tuesday, state media reported.

The border guards were “abducted between 4 am and 5 am in the Lulakdan area of the border by a terrorist group,” the official IRNA news agency reported.

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Basij militia

Lulakdan is a small village 150 kilometers (about 90 miles) southeast of Zahedan, capital of the southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan.

Of the 14, two were members of the elite Revolutionary Guards intelligence unit, and seven were volunteers in the Basij militia involved in “a security operation”.

The rest were regular border guards, according to the Young Journalists’ Club, a state-owned news website.

The reports did not name a specific group as a suspect in the abduction.

The region has long been a flashpoint, with Baluchi separatists and extremists based in Pakistan regularly attacking Iranian security posts.

AFP

John Kerry says chances of war on the rise as US sanctions Iran

October 5, 2018

Former secretary of state John Kerry voiced fear Friday of conflict with Iran after the United States pulled out of a denuclearization deal, saying regional leaders had privately pressed him for military strikes.

Kerry spearheaded diplomacy that led to the 2015 agreement in which Iran promised Western powers, Russia and China to scale back its nuclear program drastically in return for sanctions relief.

By pulling out of the accord, President Donald Trump has “made it more likely that there will be conflict in the region because there are people there who would love to have the United States of America bomb Iran,” the former senator and presidential candidate told the Council on Foreign Relations as he promotes his memoir, “Every Day is Extra.”

© AFP/File | Kerry spearheaded diplomacy that led to the 2015 agreement in which Iran promised Western powers, Russia and China to scale back its nuclear program drastically in return for sanctions relief

Kerry said that Saudi Arabia’s late king Abdullah and Egypt’s ousted president Hosni Mubarak had both told him that the United States should attack Iran, even while they would not take the position publicly.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an outspoken critic of the Iran deal, had also asked then US president Barack Obama for the green light to bomb Iran, Kerry said.

While UN inspectors found that Iran was complying with the accord, Trump declared the deal to be a disaster for not addressing other US concerns with Iran including threats to Israel, support for Islamist militant moves such as Hezbollah and Tehran’s missile program.

But Kerry said the United States was “actually getting them to do things, quietly,” including on easing the conflict in war-ravaged Yemen, and believed that President Hassan Rouhani was “trying to move the country in a different direction.”

“What Trump has done is now empower the guys in Iran who said don’t deal with the United States, they’ll burn you,” Kerry said.

“He has made it more likely that if there is an implosion in Iran internally through pressure or otherwise, it will not be an unknown Jeffersonian democrat who is going to appear and take over, it will be the IRGC or another Ahmadinejad, and we will be worse off and the people of Iran will be worse off,” he said, referring to the hardline Revolutionary Guards and former firebrand president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Trump has lashed out at Kerry for meeting Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif since leaving office, accusing him of violating an obscure US law that prohibits private citizens from negotiating on disputes with foreign governments.

Kerry said Trump was seeking to distract from his own scandal related to alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election and said it was normal for former officials to maintain communication with foreign counterparts.

AFP