Posts Tagged ‘Revolutionary Guards’

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.



Donald Trump hails ‘bold push for peace’ with North Korea during UN address

September 25, 2018

Trump also said he would not meet Iranian President Hassan Rowhani as world leaders gathered in New York but signalled he was open to a future meeting

South China Morning Post

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 September, 2018, 10:37pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 September, 2018, 10:59pm

US President Donald Trump has hailed his administration’s “bold push for peace with North Korea” while addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

“Today I stand before the United Nations general assembly to share the extraordinary progress we made,” he said.

Trump claimed nuclear testing has stopped, hostages have been released, and missiles are no longer flying across North Korea’s border with South Korea.

In his maiden speech at the global body last year, Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea and called its leader Kim Jong-un a “rocket man” who “is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime” with its “reckless pursuit” of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

Trump also launched a veiled attack on China on matters of trade, insisting “the US will not be taken advantage of any longer”.

Trump took aim at Iran, which he claimed does “not respect their neighbours or borders or the sovereign rights of nations”. He accused Iran’s leaders of plundering resources for their own gain. He condemned “the horrible 2015 nuclear deal” and called on other countries to completely isolate Iran.

Earlier, Trump said he would not meet Iranian President Hassan Rowhani as world leaders gathered in New York but signalled he was open to a future meeting, despite ongoing tensions over Tehran’s nuclear deal.

Both leaders are attending an annual UN gathering in New York. Trump wasn’t specific in Tuesday’s tweet about the origin of the “requests” for a meeting.

But Rowhani also has ruled out meeting, telling NBC News on Monday conditions were not ripe for talks. The Iranian leader accuses the US of adopting a hostile stance toward his country.

Donald J. Trump


Will be speaking at the United Nations this morning. Our country is much stronger and much richer than it was when I took office less than two years ago. We are also MUCH safer!

Donald J. Trump


Despite requests, I have no plans to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Maybe someday in the future. I am sure he is an absolutely lovely man!

Earlier, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres opened the world’s largest diplomatic gathering with a stark warning of growing chaos and confusion as the rules-based global order comes under threat of breaking down.

Addressing the opening session of the UN General Assembly, Guterres said trust in the rules-based global order and among states was “at a breaking point” and international cooperation becoming more difficult.

“Today, world order is increasingly chaotic. Power relations are less clear,” Guterres told the 193-nation assembly just minutes before President Donald Trump took the podium. “Universal values are being eroded. Democratic principles are under siege.”

Foes for decades, Washington and Tehran have been increasingly at odds since May, when the Republican US president pulled out of the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran and announced sanctions against the OPEC member.

The accord, negotiated under Democratic US President Barack Obama, lifted most international sanctions against Tehran in exchange for Iran curbing its nuclear programme.

Over the summer, Trump had said he would meet with Rowhani without preconditions to negotiate a new deal, an offer reiterated on Sunday by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and extended to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Photo: Reuters

Rowhani said on Monday Tehran would not talk to Trump until the United States returned to the 2015 deal. The top adviser to Khamenei, Ali Akbar Velayati, rejected the US offer on Tuesday, saying “Trump’s and Pompeo’s dream would never come to reality,” the IRNA news agency said.

“Despite requests, I have no plans to meet Iranian President Hassan Rowhani. Maybe someday in the future. I am sure he is an absolutely lovely man,” Trump wrote in a post on Twitter.

Alireza Miryousefi, spokesman for Iran’s UN mission, said Iran has not requested a meeting with Trump.

Some Iranian insiders have said any talks between Rowhani and Trump would effectively kill the existing deal.

Iranian President Hassan Rowhani. Photo: Reuters

Quashing the current pact would come at a political cost for the Iranian president, who championed the deal with the supreme leader’s guarded backing and who could lose support from European allies.

Rowhani is also under increasing pressure from his country’s hardliners, including Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, which have kept up the anti-American rhetoric ahead of the UN session.

Iran curbed its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief in the 2015 nuclear accord.

Trump pulled out, saying the agreement did not go far enough. His administration is pushing allies to cut imports of Iranian oil to zero as Washington prepares to restore sanctions on Iran’s oil sales in November.

The remaining countries in the deal, which see it as the best chance to stop Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, on Monday agreed to keep working to maintain trade with Tehran.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, following a meeting on Monday with Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and Iran in New York, warned that the US strategy of applying maximum pressure on Tehran and going it alone could risk a regional escalation.

Reuters, Agence France-Presse

Iran points finger at Arab separatists for deadly attack

September 23, 2018

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Sunday appeared to blame Arab separatists for a deadly attack on a military parade, accusing an unnamed US-backed Gulf state of supporting them.

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Tehran also summoned diplomats from Denmark, the Netherlands and Britain for allegedly hosting members of the group suspected of links to Saturday’s attack near the Iraqi border, which left at least 29 people dead.

Four militants attacked a parade commemorating the beginning of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, launched by Baghdad, in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, capital of Khuzestan Province.

Officials and an eyewitness said the gunmen were dressed in Iranian military uniforms and sprayed the crowd with gunfire using weapons they had stashed in a nearby park.

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The Islamic State (IS) jihadist group claimed responsibility for the rare assault.

But from early on, Iranian officials saw an Arab separatist movement, the Ahwazi Democratic Popular Front (ADPF) or Al-Ahwazi, as the main suspect.

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“It is absolutely clear to us who has done this, which group it is and to whom they are affiliated,” Rouhani said on state television on Sunday, shortly before leaving Tehran for the UN General Assembly in New York.

“Those who have caused this catastrophe … were Saddam’s mercenaries as long as he was alive and then changed masters,” he said, referring to late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

“One of the countries in the south of the Persian Gulf took care of their financial, weaponry and political needs.”

“All these little mercenary countries we see in this region are backed by America. It is the Americans who incite them,” he said.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the attack had been carried out by “terrorists recruited, trained, armed & paid by a foreign regime”.

London-based opposition channel Iran International TV on Saturday aired an interview with Yaqoub Hor Altostari, presented as a spokesman for ADPF, indirectly claiming responsibility for the attack and calling it “resistance against legitimate targets”.

Iran military parade attack aftermath. AFP photo

– Diplomats summoned –

Iran in response summoned diplomats from Denmark, the Netherlands and Britain to complain about them “hosting some members of the terrorist group” and “double standards in fighting terrorism,” the foreign affairs ministry said.

The British charge d’affaires “was told that it is not acceptable that the spokesman for the mercenary Al-Ahwazi group be allowed to claim responsiblity for this terrorist act through a London-based TV network,” said the ministry’s spokesman, Bahram Ghasemi.

“It is expected that (the Danish and Dutch) governments hand over the perpetrators of this attack and anyone related to them to Iran for a fair trial,” he added.

State television gave a toll of 29 dead and 57 wounded, while official news agency IRNA said those killed included women and children who were spectators at the parade.

Three attackers were killed at the scene and the fourth died later of his injuries, said armed forces spokesman Brigadier General Abolfazl Shekarchi.

IS had claimed the attack via its propaganda mouthpiece Amaq and, according to intelligence monitor SITE, said the attack was in response to Iranian involvement in conflicts across the region.

The Revolutionary Guards accused Shiite-dominated Iran’s Sunni arch-rival Saudi Arabia of funding the attackers, while Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also blamed Iran’s pro-US rivals.

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Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Khuzestan was a major battleground of the 1980s war with Iraq and it saw unrest in 2005 and 2011, but has since been largely quiet.

Kurdish rebels frequently attack military patrols on the border further north, but attacks on government targets in major cities are rare.

On June 7, 2017 in Tehran, 17 people were killed and dozens wounded in simultaneous attacks on the parliament and on the tomb of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — the first inside Iran claimed by IS.


Iran blames Gulf foes for deadly Ahvaz attack — Supreme Leader condemns “puppets of the US”

September 23, 2018

At least one of the attackers was wearing a Revolutionary Guards uniform

Iranian leaders have accused US-backed Gulf states of being behind an attack on a military parade that killed 25 people, including a child.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said “puppets of the US” were trying to “create insecurity” in Iran.

Gunmen opened fire at Revolutionary Guard troops and officials in the south-western city of Ahvaz.

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Earlier an anti-government Arab group, Ahvaz National Resistance, and Islamic State (IS) both claimed the attack.

However neither group provided evidence to show they were involved.

Earlier Foreign Minister Javad Zarif blamed “terrorists paid by a foreign regime”, adding that “Iran holds regional terror sponsors and their US masters accountable”.

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Iran has summoned diplomats from the UK, the Netherlands, and Denmark, accusing their countries of harbouring Iranian opposition groups, state news agency Irna reports.

“It is not acceptable that these groups are not listed as terrorist organizations by the European Union as long as they have not carried out a terrorist attack in Europe,” said foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi.

Reports say nearly half of those killed were members of the Revolutionary Guard, who are under Mr Khamenei’s command.

Mr Khamenei did not name the “regional states” that he believed were behind the attack.

Soldiers run for cover during the attack
The attack targeted Revolutionary Guard troops. EPA photo

However Iran has previously accused its regional rival, Saudi Arabia, of supporting separatist activity amongst Iran’s Arab minority.

What happened?

Fars news agency said the attack started at 09:00 local time (06:30 BST), lasted about 10 minutes, and appeared to involve four gunmen.

The attackers fired at civilians and attempted to attack military officials on the podium, Fars reports.

A soldier carries an injured child at the scene of the attack
At least one child was injured in the attack. AFP photo

Civilians including women and children, who were watching the military parade, were among those killed, Irna news agency said.

The victims included a four-year-old girl and a military veteran in a wheelchair, a military spokesman said.

Local journalist Behrad Ghasemi told AFP that firing continued for between 10 and 15 minutes and said at least one of the attackers was wearing a Revolutionary Guards uniform.

“First we thought it’s part of the parade, but after about 10 seconds we realised it was a terrorist attack as bodyguards [of officials] started shooting,” he said.

“Everything went haywire and soldiers started running. I saw a four-year old child get shot, and also a lady,” he added.

All four attackers were killed, state media said.

Iran is marking the anniversary of the beginning of the 1980-88 war with Iraq with several military parades across the nation.

How will the US react?

By Siavash Mehdi-Ardalan, BBC Persian

There have been two conflicting claims of responsibility: one from a low profile Arab militant group in Iran’s Khuzestan region and one from IS. It makes some difference.

The former would suggest a resurgence of separatist militancy after a seven-year lull. If it was IS, it would represent a failure by Iran’s intelligence community to prevent a second major IS attack in its soil.

Iran has not provided any evidence of foreign collusion but has vowed revenge. The Saudi reaction and more importantly the wording of the US administration’s response may prove important as leaders of all three countries are set for a possible diplomatic clash at the UN General Assembly next week.

Who is behind the attack?

There have been conflicting claims.

A spokesman for the Ahvaz National Resistance, an umbrella group that claims to defend the rights of the Arab minority in Khuzestan, said the group was behind the attack.

The spokesman did not say whether the group had links to other countries.

IS’s Amaq agency has also claimed it carried out the attack. However the group provided no evidence that it had been involved.

IS has carried out a major attack in Iran before. In June last year, suicide bombers attacked parliament and the mausoleum of the Islamic Republic’s founder Ayatollah Khomeini, killing 18 people.

Map of Iran

Iranian government and military officials have pointed the finger at Gulf states, the US and Israel, with all of whom Iran has longstanding tensions.

A Revolutionary Guards spokesman claimed the attackers were “trained and organised by two Gulf countries” and had ties to the US and Israel.

The US and Saudi Arabia accuse Iran of supporting Houthi rebels in the conflict in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are fighting on the side of the internationally-recognised government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Khamenei urges Iran’s military to ‘scare off’ enemy

September 10, 2018

DUBAI (Reuters) – Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged Iran’s armed forces on Sunday to increase their power to “scare off” the enemy, as the country faces increased tension with the United States.

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His statement came just before Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards said it fired seven missiles in an attack on Iraq-based Iranian Kurdish dissidents that killed at least 11 people on Saturday.

“Increase your power as much as you can, because your power scares off the enemy and forces it to retreat,” Khamenei’s official website quoted him as saying at a graduation ceremony for cadets of Iran’s regular armed forces.

U.S. President Donald Trump in May withdrew from Iran’s nuclear agreement with world powers — a deal aimed at stalling Tehran’s nuclear capabilities in return for lifting some sanctions — and ordered the reimposition of U.S. sanctions that had been suspended under the deal.

“Iran and the Iranian nation have resisted America and proven that, if a nation is not afraid of threats by bullies and relies on its own capabilities, it can force the superpowers to retreat and defeat them,” Khamenei said during a visit to Iran’s Caspian port city of Nowshahr.

State television also showed Khamenei praising Iranian naval forces in the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Yemen, while speaking to their commander via videolink.

Shi’ite power Iran rejects accusations from Saudi Arabia that it is giving financial and military support to Yemen’s Houthis, who are fighting a government backed by a Saudi-led military coalition of Sunni Arab countries.

Meanwhile, a senior military official said Iran had capability to export the know-how to produce solid rocket fuel, the state news agency IRNA reported. Solid fuel rockets can be fired on short notice.

“In the scientific field, today we have reached a stage where we can export the technology to produce solid rocket fuel,” said Brigadier General Majid Bokaei, director-general of Iran’s main defense university, quoted by IRNA.

Iran said earlier this month it planned to boost its ballistic and cruise missile capacity and acquire modern fighter planes and submarines to boost its defense capabilities.

On Saturday Iran dismissed a French call for negotiations on Tehran’s future nuclear plans, its ballistic missile arsenal and its role in wars in Syria and Yemen, following the U.S. pullout from Iran’s 2015 nuclear agreement.


Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by David Goodman and Raissa Kasolowsky

Iran says navy mounts new defense system on warship

August 18, 2018

Iran’s navy has mounted a locally built advanced defensive weapons system on one of its warships for the first time, the Iranian navy chief was quoted as saying on Saturday, as tensions mount with the U.S. military in the Gulf.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards confirmed earlier this month it held war games in the Gulf, saying they were aimed at “confronting possible threats” by enemies.

The U.S. military’s Central Command confirmed it had seen increased Iranian naval activity, extending to the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway for oil shipments the Revolutionary Guards have threatened to block.

Iran has been furious over U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of an international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and re-impose sanctions on Tehran.

Iranian Navy Commander Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi “reiterated that coastal and sea testing of the short range defense Kamand system were concluded successfully, and said this system was mounted … on a warship and will be mounted on a second ship soon,” the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported,

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The Kamand has been dubbed the “Iranian Phalanx” after an automated machinegun produced by U.S. firm Raytheon whose heavy bullets shred incoming missiles.

Unable to import many weapons because of international sanctions and arms embargoes, Iran has developed a large domestic weapons industry to achieve self-sufficiency in producing military equipment, and often reports on its development of arms which it says are comparable with advanced Western systems.

Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Toby Chopra


Iran’s Revolutionary Guards says it held war games in Gulf — But offers no videos

August 5, 2018

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards confirmed on Sunday it had held war games in the Gulf over the past several days, saying they were aimed at “confronting possible threats” by enemies, the state news state news agency IRNA reported.

U.S. officials told Reuters on Thursday that the United States believed Iran had started carrying out naval exercises in the Gulf, apparently moving up the timing of annual drills amid heightened tensions with Washington.

“This exercise was conducted with the aim of controlling and safeguarding the safety of the international waterway and within the framework of the programme of the Guards’ annual military exercises,” Guards spokesman Ramezan Sharif said, according to IRNA.

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Ramezan Sharif

The U.S. military’s Central Command on Wednesday confirmed it has seen increased Iranian naval activity. The activity extended to the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway for oil shipments the Revolutionary Guards have threatened to block.

Sharif “expressed satisfaction over the successful conduct of the Guards naval exercise, emphasising the need to maintain and enhance defence readiness and the security of the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz and to confront threats and potential adventurous acts of enemies,” IRNA said.

One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said possibly more than 100 vessels were involved in the drills, including small boats.

U.S. officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the drills appeared designed to send a message to Washington, which is intensifying its economic and diplomatic pressure on Tehran but so far stopping short of using the U.S. military to more aggressively counter Iran and its proxies.

Iran has been furious over U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of an international agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme and re-impose sanctions on Tehran. Senior Iranian officials have warned the country would not easily yield to a renewed U.S. campaign to strangle Iran’s vital oil exports.

But Iran did not appear interested in drawing attention to the drills. Iranian authorities had not commented on them earlier and several officials contacted by Reuters this week had declined to comment.

Reporting by Dubai newsroom; editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Larry King


Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on “War Footing” in Strait of Hormuz

August 2, 2018

IRGC exercise in Strait of Hormuz expected to be larger than in the past, with timing suggesting it is tied to recent threats to shut key oil shipping lane

Iranian navy personnel celebrate after successfully launching a Ghader missile from the Jask port area on the shores of the Gulf of Oman during a drill near the Strait of Hormuz, Tuesday, January 1, 2013. (AP/Jamejam Online, Azin Haghighi)

Iranian navy personnel celebrate after successfully launching a Ghader missile from the Jask port area on the shores of the Gulf of Oman during a drill near the Strait of Hormuz, Tuesday, January 1, 2013. (AP/Jamejam Online, Azin Haghighi)

Iranian forces are expected to launch a major exercise in the strategic Strait of Hormuz likely aimed at demonstrating an ability to close the key oil shipping lane, US officials told CNN Wednesday.

The drill by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the US officials said was likely to begin in the next two days, comes days after the country’s president threatened that it could close off the strategic waterway in response to the reimposition of US sanctions.

While Iranian forces drill in the Strait of Hormuz annually, one US official told the station that the exercise being planned appeared to be larger than those in years past and was timed unusually late in the year, indicating it was likely tied to recent tensions.

William Urban, chief spokesman for US Central Command, said the the military was closely monitoring Iranian troops movements in the area.

“We are aware of the increase in Iranian naval operations within the Arabian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman. We are monitoring it closely, and will continue to work with our partners to ensure freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce in international waterways,”  he told CNN.

In this Tuesday, March 21, 2017 photograph, an Omani naval vessel sails alongside the USS George H.W. Bush as it travels through the Strait of Hormuz. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

The Strait, a narrow passageway between Iran and Oman, is a key waterway through which a third of all oil traded by sea passes and it has been the scene of previous confrontations between the United States and Iran.

On July 22, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani gave a speech in which he threatened that Iran could block the passageway.

Satellite view of the Strait of Hormuz (photo credit: NASA/Public domain)

Satellite view of the Strait of Hormuz (photo credit: NASA/Public domain)

“We have always guaranteed the security of this strait. Do not play with the lion’s tail, you will regret it forever,” he said.

“Peace with Iran would be the mother of all peace and war with Iran would be the mother of all wars.”

The speech drew a furious response from US president Donald Trump, who warned Rouhani with dire consequences in an all-caps tweet.


Trump later said he would be willing to meet with Rouhani to negotiate a new nuclear deal, but the idea has been with a cool reception in Iran.

Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal in May, and sanctions are set to kick back in within months. Iran’s currency has taken a nose dive in recent days as the looming sanctions have wreaked havoc on international investment in the country.

On Tuesday, the head of Iran’s navy said keeping the Strait of Hormuz operating was dependent on sanctions not being reimposed.

“The Strait of Hormuz remaining open hinges on Iran’s interests and the international community should live up to its obligations towards the Islamic Republic,” Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi said, according to state-run media.

A number of other senior Iranian officials, including the head of the IRGC, have threatened that Tehran could close the strait at any time.

Times of Israel


Iran Military Planning Major Exercise, Show of Strength with Over 100 Warships, Republican Guard Vessels

August 2, 2018

The United States believes Iran is preparing to carry out a major exercise in the Gulf in the coming days, apparently moving up the timing of annual drills amid heightened tensions with Washington, U.S. officials told Reuters on Wednesday.

Iran has been furious over U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of an international nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions on Tehran. Senior Iranian officials have warned the country would not easily yield to a renewed U.S. campaign to strangle Iran’s vital oil exports.

The U.S. military’s Central Command confirmed that it has seen an increase in Iranian activity, including in the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway for oil shipments that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have threatened to block.

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Iranian navy patrol boat launches a missile. FILE photo

“We are aware of the increase in Iranian naval operations within the Arabian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman,” said Navy Captain Bill Urban, the chief spokesman at Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East.

“We are monitoring it closely, and will continue to work with our partners to ensure freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce in international waterways,” Urban added.

Urban did not provide further information or comment on questions about the expected Iranian drills.

But U.S. officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said Iran’s Revolutionary Guards has appeared to prepare more than 100 vessels for exercises. Hundreds of ground forces could also be involved.

They said the drills could begin within the next 48 hours, although the precise timing was unclear.

Details of the Iranian preparations were first reported by CNN.

U.S. officials said the timing of the drills appeared designed to send a message to Washington, which is intensifying its economic and diplomatic pressure on Tehran but so far stopping short of using the U.S. military to more aggressively counter Iran and its proxies.

Trump’s policies are already putting significant pressure on the Iranian economy, although U.S. intelligence suggests they may ultimately rally Iranians against the United States and strengthen Iran’s hardline rulers, officials say.

Iran’s currency plumbed new depths this week as Iranians brace for Aug. 7 when Washington is due to reimpose a first lot of economic sanctions following Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal.

A number of protests have broken out in Iran since the beginning of the year over high prices, water shortage, power cuts and alleged corruption.

On Tuesday, hundreds of people rallied in cities including Isfahan, Karaj, Shiraz and Ahvaz in protest against high inflation caused in part by the weak rial.


Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by James Dalgleish

See also SPUTNIK:

Iran’s Navy Assembles Near Mouth of Persian Gulf, US ‘Monitoring it Closely’

Iraq’s Shia militias: capturing the state

July 31, 2018

The Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Units were created to defeat Isis, but now they are forming political alliances and taking control of parts of the economy

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© Reuters

By Andrew England in Baghdad

Militiamen in pick-up trucks kitted out with weapons speed through Iraq’s western desert on a mission to Al-Qaim, a border town that was one of the last Isis strongholds to be liberated. In the video members of the paramilitary Popular Mobilisation Units, known in Arabic as the Hashd al-Shaabi, clamber up a rocky hill in the town, some brandishing US-made M16 rifles, others with Kalashnikovs. A voiceover describes the “bravery” of the PMU and the “fierce war” it fought with Isis in Iraq.

But this time, the battle-hardened men are not hankering for a fight. Instead, the video boasts of their role helping rebuild a local hospital after the jihadis were driven out of Al-Qaim in November, just a month before Iraq declared victory over Isis.

The video was posted on the PMU’s website, days before the paramilitaries’ recently formed political alliance — Fatah, or Conquest — stormed to second place in Iraq’s parliamentary elections in May. Now, as politicians jockey over the composition of the next government, both the video and Fatah’s strong electoral performance point to one of the most polarising questions in Iraq: will the estimated 120,000-strong PMU force have a constructive or destabilising role in the post-Isis era?

To supporters, PMU fighters are saviours who defended their nation in its darkest hour as Isis seized roughly a third of the country — about 8,000 of its members died in the three-year battle, officials say.

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Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, left, and leader of the Popular Mobiliisation Units, Hadi al-Ameri, have formed a ‘national alliance’ as coalition talks get under way © Getty

But to detractors the PMU has become a powerful Iranian proxy and a potentially subversive force in a country that has endured periods of appalling violence over the past 15 years — much of it at the hands of militias that exploited the state’s weakness to stoke sectarian tension after the 2003 US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.

Some Iraqi and western officials fear the predominantly Shia paramilitary groups could become a shadow force, modelled on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps or Hizbollah, the Lebanese movement that has political and military wings.

“It’s an Iranian creation led by people who follow Iran: Iran has the Revolutionary guards, Iraq has the PMU,” says an Iraqi general.

Hadi al-Ameri, a veteran paramilitary leader-cum-politician who led the PMU into battle, bristles at such suggestions. “We [do] not accept this. This is the wrong mentality,” says Mr Ameri, who ditched his camouflage uniforms for sober suits to lead Fatah. “This is the same thing as the National Guards in America . . . this is an internal affair.”

The truth lies somewhere in between. Unlike the IRGC and Hizbollah, the PMU, which includes several dozen factions, is not a homogenous movement. And neither Washington nor Tehran want Iraq to become a theatre of conflict, analysts say.

As regional tensions mount, with the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia intensifying pressure on Iran following President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Tehran, the future role of the PMU is garnering more scrutiny. Some elements of the more pro-Iran militias in the PMU have dispatched forces to Syria to fight alongside the regime of Bashar al-Assad and have issued threats against US interests in Iraq.

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Political and economic grievances: protests in Baghdad in mid-July © Reuters

Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, has accused Tehran of sponsoring “Shia militia groups and terrorists to infiltrate and undermine the Iraqi security forces and jeopardise Iraq’s sovereignty”.

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the PMU’s deputy leader, was hit with sanctions by the US Treasury in 2009 “for threatening the peace and stability of Iraq and the government of Iraq”, and his Hizbollah Brigades militia is designated a terrorist organisation. The Treasury said he was an adviser to Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, and as recently as October a state department spokesman described Mr Muhandis as a “terrorist”.

Last week, Mr Soleimani warned the US against threatening Iran: “We are near you, where you can’t even imagine,” he said, according to Iranian news agencies. It was a line that seemed to imply that Iran is prepared to use its troops and proxies outside the Islamic republic to fight the US.

Yet for three years, the US, the PMU and, indirectly, Iran, were in effect partners in Iraq with the shared goal of defeating Isis. It is what happens to the PMU next that has a “huge question mark” hanging over it, says a western diplomat in Baghdad.

Robert Ford, who was briefly kidnapped by a Shia militia in 2003 during the first of his three stints in Iraq as a US diplomat, believes Mr Ameri would prefer not to take sides between Iran and the US. But if hostilities between the foes “escalate sharply”, his loyalty would be to Tehran.

“Ameri and nearly all the Iraqi Shia understand that the American influence in the region sooner or later will diminish, but Iran will always be their neighbour,” says Mr Ford, a fellow at Washington’s Middle East Institute.

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The PMU militias were born after Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s top Shia cleric, issued a call to arms in June 2014 following the humiliating collapse of the Iraqi security forces that the US had spent more than $20bn equipping in the face of Isis’s onslaught. As the jihadis blitzed across northern and western Iraq, advancing towards Baghdad, young men lined up behind pick-up trucks and outside military bases to be ferried to the front lines.

Some were volunteers. Most were members of Shia militias that had been keeping low profiles, such as Mr Ameri’s Badr movement, formed in Iran during the 1980s to fight Saddam’s regime; Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a radical offshoot of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia, which attacked US troops after Saddam was ousted; and the Hizbollah Brigades.

The PMU gradually drew in fighters from other communities, including Sunnis, Christians and Yazidis, taking on a less sectarian profile. They supported offensives led by the rebuilt Iraqi security forces and the US-led coalition that finally defeated the jihadis.

‘Nearly all the Iraqi Shia understand that the [US] influence in the region . . . will diminish, but Iran will always be their neighbour’

Robert Ford, former US diplomat in Baghdad

Since then, the paramilitaries have reduced their presence on Baghdad’s streets. But PMU leaders have resisted prime minister Haider al-Abadi’s efforts to integrate them into the armed forces. In November 2016, parliament passed a law making the PMU an independent force, which now has its own $1.6bn budget and ostensibly answers to the prime minister’s office rather than the interior or defence ministries.

Yet when Mr Abadi tried to obtain an independent audit of their numbers, PMU leaders pushed back, says one Iraqi politician. Today, the paramilitaries patrol areas liberated from Isis, including the strategic border with Syria around Al-Qaim, and operate checkpoints across the country.

Renad Mansour, an analyst at the Chatham House think-tank who has researched the PMU, says Mr Ameri “plays the game of the state when it suits him”. He adds: “The PMU’s endgame is either to take control of the state, or, if they can’t, [to at least] be part of the state.

“But they also have a plan B. If the state one day decides it needs to integrate or disband the PMU, they can gain power or influence through contesting the state economically and politically.”

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Hadi al-Ameri on the campaign trail in the southern Iraqi city of Basra before Iraqi elections in May © AFP

Experts say it is unrealistic to expect tens of thousands of armed men to simply pack up and go home. Indeed, such a move in a country awash with weapons and blighted by widespread joblessness would only risk exacerbating instability: Iraqis point to the chaos that erupted after the US’s decision to disband security forces in 2003. The vacuum allowed militias to flourish, including the rival Shia and Sunni groups that fought coalition forces and sectarian battles, and Peshmerga fighters loyal to the two main political groups in autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan.

“Armed groups linked to political parties or individuals is a problem throughout the whole country; the PMU may be the biggest example of it now,” Mr Mansour says. “This is part of the bigger issue of how to end the monopoly of legitimate violence throughout Iraq.”

Elements of the PMU were accused of committing abuses against Sunnis in the war with Isis. Amnesty International last year alleged the paramilitaries “executed or otherwise unlawfully killed, tortured and abducted thousands of men and boys”. US equipment supplied to the Iraqi army, including Humvees, M113 armoured personnel carriers and small arms, was being deployed by the militias, the report said.

Some Iraqis and analysts say PMU groups are also expanding their business interests and allegedly engaging in similar smuggling rackets that Isis once operated, from sheep to grain and oil. “Where Isis controlled territory, PMU groups have emerged manning checkpoints so smugglers taking stuff through Turkey or Syria must go through them,” says an Iraqi analyst. “Each of these groups are gangsters involved in looting this county,” says a rival politician.

The PMU’s website offers an alternative narrative. Statements highlight its work providing medical services, reconciling tribes and repairing mosques, roads, bridges and schools in liberated areas. Its leaders speak of their desire to establish a “martyrs university”.

Nathaniel Rabkin, a security analyst, says the attempted push into academia is an example of how the PMU wants to have an ideological role in “shaping the way Iraq goes forward”.

Part of that is curbing western influence, he says. “They are smart enough to understand it would be a mistake to make it exactly like the IRGC,” he says. “But you watch interviews with Ameri and he’s talking about how the PMUs are an ideological army and Iraq is in an ideological war and . . . it becomes clear he sees this project as about something much grander and longer-term.”

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Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state © AFP

Much will depend on where power lies in the next government. Mr Sadr, the Shia cleric whose Sairoon political alliance is leading talks to form a coalition after winning the largest share of the vote at May’s election, has previously called for the PMU to be disbanded and has railed against Iran’s influence. But he also has his own militia, the Mahdi Army. It retreated from the streets after a crackdown by the Iraqi and coalition forces in the late 2000s, and has since been rebranded the “Peace Companies”.

Last month, Mr Sadr and Mr Ameri joined forces to create a “national alliance” to lead talks on forming a government.

“Some PMU commanders are becoming politicians, but they are serving Iraq to protect the state,” says Karim al-Nouri, a Fatah politician, as pictures of him in uniform on the front lines of the battle against Isis hang outside his office. “We are going to enter parliament in civilian clothes, not uniforms.”

Another Iraqi analyst says that if the PMU’s gains are not threatened it could be a “good force”. “But they will have many demands and they will put their nose into everything, just like [Iran’s] IRGC,” the analyst says. “The most important pressure Iran has created after Hizbollah [the Lebanese Shia movement] is the PMU.”

Mr Ameri, a stocky man in his 60s, is having none of it. “Get rid of your Iran complex,” he says. “Go and disband the National Guard in America and Saudi Arabia and come back to me.

“If you disband the Peshmerga we will disband the PMU, but you accept the Peshmerga and cheer for them. This is double standards.”

Additional reporting by Asser Khattab in Beirut


Politics: water and fuel protests expose rising anger

A wave of protests across southern Iraq have exposed the weakness of the state and the mounting resentment many Iraqis feel towards their leaders.

Demonstrators have in recent weeks targeted government buildings and political party offices, including those belonging to the Badr movement and other groups on Hadi al-Ameri’s Fatah list. The protests began over electricity and water shortages in Basra, the country’s oil hub. But they are also symptomatic of growing anger over the dire state of public services and the economy.

The predominantly Shia southern provinces avoided the worst of the violence from the three-year battle with Isis in Iraq’s north and west. But families from the south provided the majority of sons, fathers and husbands who filled the ranks of the Popular Mobilisation Units from 2014. Now there is a sense that despite the sacrifices made by the south, it has been neglected by Baghdad.

There is also widespread anger about rampant poverty and unemployment in a region that is the country’s economic lifeline — oil exports from Basra account for more than 95 per cent of state revenues. Some protests have targeted oil and gasfields as people demand that companies provide more jobs.

The anger felt by many Iraqis towards their leaders was reflected in a record low turnout of 44.5 per cent at the May 12 elections. That worked in the favour of the Sairoon alliance, led by Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric, and the Fatah bloc, which came first and second in terms of seats won in parliament, according to initial results.

They, and other groups, are now in talks to form the next coalition government, a process that typically takes months given Iraq’s fragmented political system. But the continuing unrest underscores the challenges the next administration will face.