With friends like these – Iranian Diplomacy in the Middle East (part 1)

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Updated from November 4th: “A Bahraini court sentenced four Shi’ite Muslims to life and six others to 15 years in jail on charges of setting up a militant cell linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard that aimed at assassinating public figures in the Gulf Arab kingdom”.

Iran and the Gulf States

It’s no secret that Iran is not only reaching out to the West (a la the recent NYC visit by Hassan Rouhani); it wants to revive and cement friendships closer to home. The big difference between Iran’s efforts in Middle East countries is that they are usually home to large populations of Iranians, Shia worshippers, Iranian investors and/or Iranian diplomats.

The Gulf States are a definite focal point for Tehran.

Two states are currently on particularly good terms with Iran. Oman, which has supported Tehran since the Islamic revolution, is especially key these days: Muscat reportedly served as intermediator in thawing relations between Washington-Tehran, which so far has led to a Rouhani-Obama telephone conversation and a brief bilateral between Zarif-Kerry)). In addition, Qatar has renewed its support since the ascent of Crown Prince Hamad Al Thani – an avid supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and of Assad.

In comparison, relations with the UAE have traditionally been tense. This state of affairs stems both from Abu Dhabi’s strong opposition to Iran’s nuclear program, as well as territorial disputes which keep on flaring up keeping diplomatic relations between Tehran and Abu Dhabi on edge. That leaves Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain – states which all suffer from different levels of shadowy diplomacy and subversion by Iran.

Iranian Spy Ring in Saudi Arabia

In March 2013, Saudi Arabia uncovered an intricate Iranian spy ring working in the country. At first 18 people were arrested and by May, that number had risen to 28 – mostly Saudis but including Iranians and Lebanese nationals.

This spy ring’s mission was to pass on vital information about Saudi Arabia’s strategic military installations as well as information of US installations in the region.

But that isn’t all: Rhiyad further accused Iran of trying to create unrest within the Shiite population in Saudi Arabia as part of an “undeclared war” between the two countries.

Tehran, of course, denied any involvement and called the accusations baseless and blasted back accusations at Saudi Arabia. Iranian diplomats have yet to be connected with this spy ring but Saudi officials are not ruling this possibility out.

An Earlier Spy Ring in Kuwait

Back in 2010, an Iranian spy ring managed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Kuwait was busted. The spy ring (four Iranians, one Kuwaiti, one Syrian – and one Dominican!) and linked to Iranian diplomats – was charged with photographing military bases and planning to carry out terrorist activities, such as blowing up pipelines.

Iran, again, denied the allegations which the foreign minister at the time, Ali Akbar Salehi dismissed as a “conspiracy against Muslim countries” blaming “malevolent (forces) who do not desire good relations between the two countries“.

Kuwait expelled three Iranian diplomats and an embassy employee and the spy ring members were sentenced by a Kuwaiti court to death – later reduced to life sentences.

Bahrain later expelled two top Iranian diplomats for their involvement in the Iranian spy ring in Kuwait, which caused another round of accusations and denials.

It appears, then, that Iran’s exploitation of diplomacy to advance strategic objectives is not relegated to Asia  , Latin America, Europe , Africa  and the Caucasus. Surprise,  surprise

And while Iranian President Rouhani has wasted no time reaching out  to Saudi Arabia, particularly, it remains to be seen whether Tehran’s shadow apparatus will follow suit vis-a-vis Riyadh and the Gulf states in general.

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Mohammad Javad Zarif, Back Home in NYC


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Tehran’s ambassadors to the UN are a privileged class. First, because they hold one of the top – if not the top – post in Iran’s foreign service. Second, because they belong to an elite group of Iranian officials who studied and worked outside of Iran – and who know how to speak to the West.

It is therefore no surprise that current Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who served as his country’s UN ambassador from 2002-2007, and Mohammad Khazaee – who replaced him in 2007 (and is still there) – both studied in the US, and come off as so cool and smart.

Underneath their polished ways, however, lurks a darker side.

Let’s start with Zarif, a central figure in President Hassan Rouhani’s delegation to the 68th session of the UN General Assembly in New York. Few of those wining and dining him probably recall that while UN ambassador back in 2006 he was involved in a defamation lawsuit filed by the pro-regime lobby in the US, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), against Iranian–American journalist Hassan Daioleslam (a case which NIAC eventually lost).

The incident is certainly worth recalling, as made clear by documents brought to light during the case – include e-mails between Zarif and  NIAC head Trita Parsi , which clearly indicate that the two were collaborating to the point of breaking US information and tax laws.

In effect, the Iranian ambassador took advantage of his formal position – to handle his country’s diplomatic affairs at the UN – in order to coordinate the activities of the pro-regime lobby in the US.

Zarif’s not alone in implementing this sort of modus operandi. Published documentation indicates that his successor, Khazaee, not only continued the cozy relationship with Parsi – he also hasn’t shied away from breaking US law when it serves Tehran’s interests.

Indeed, Khazaee is suspected of attempting to circumvent US sanction laws in at least two cases during his term:

  • ·         The Alavi Foundation case – Khazaee was implicated in a law suit for his active and personal involvement in managing the non-profit foundation, which served as a front for Iran’s state-owned Bank Melli – sanctioned by the US for its connection to Tehran’s nuclear program.
  • ·         The Ali Amirnazmi case – Khazaee was implicated for his involvement in a sanctions-busting attempt to transfer a sensitive business from the US to Iran (Amirnazmi was eventually convicted).

No country’s diplomats appear to be as skilled in maneuvering around diplomatic immunity as the Iranians. And nobody knows how to do it better than Zarif – now Tehran’s top diplomat – who clearly taught his successor Khazaee well.

Salehi, Epitome of Iran’s Uranium (& Plutonium) Diplomacy

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Update from October 25th: It seems that Salehi’s investments are paying off in Ghana as well – Iran is ready to “share its experience in mineral exploration” with Ghana. It’s worthy to note that the article by pressTV mentions gold, diamonds, bauxite and manganese but fails to mention uranium that Ghana has been mining uranium since 2010.

Hear the one about the nuclear expert who moves seamlessly between his country’s diplomatic corps and atomic energy community?

It’s not a joke. We’re talking about Iran’s Ali Akbar Salehi, recently appointed by President Hassan Rouhani to head the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) for the second time after previously serving as its head until 2010, when he became foreign minister.

Salehi’s personal biography provides an insightful look into the connection between Iran’s nuclear program and the diplomacy that helps advance it. He was appointed by President Khatami as his country’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) back in 1997, and was still there when Rouhani headed the crucial nuclear negotiations in 2003-2005.

Not unlike Javad Zarif, his successor as foreign minister, Salehi is considered a pleasant individual but hawkish on nuclear policy –- as evidenced by his 2005 resignation in protest over Tehran’s decision to sign the Additional Protocol (which it never ratified). This, apparently, is the secret to his resilience – how he’s managed to survive Khatami, Ahmadinejad and now Rouhani as presidents while remaining at the top of the regime’s nuclear hierarchy.

Indeed, his value to Iran’s nuclear program went beyond this during his stint as foreign minister – when he not only defended the hardheaded approach of Saeed Jalili, but also played an active role in placing Iranian diplomacy at the disposal of his country’s strategic goals.

A believer in leading by example, Salehi served as a role model to his own diplomatic corps by working hard to close a deal with Zimbabwe to secure uranium deposits.

Salehi’s been in the nuclear business for a very long time. Judging by his record thus far, he will probably continue to move comfortably between the atomic and the diplomatic. Never mind the EU sanctions against him.

Iranian Embassies Recruit Latin American Students

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The Washington Post recently supplied additional hard evidence of Iran’s aggressive diplomatic work at ground level in South America to advance its strategic goals there. A must-read for followers of this blog, the article by its respected correspondent Joby Warrick represents a sobering testimony to the manner in which Tehran abuses diplomatic privilege.

Content of the report is worth repeating here in some detail. It tells of “Carlos,” a Mexican law student who found himself targeted by Iranian diplomacy for recruitment purposes. According to his account, back in 2010 he met Mohammad Ghadiri, then Tehran’s ambassador to Mexico, at an Iranian embassy function. After expressing an interest in Islam, within a few months he was on a plane to Tehran with a scholarship – secured by the ambassador.

During a three-month stay, he underwent an “immersion” course in “anti-Americanism and Islam” in Spanish – with two dozen other Latin American students.

The graduates of these indoctrination schools returned back home as “committed disciples” and some are, in Carlos’s words, “crazy-obsessed” – becoming part of Tehran’s “capability to provide logistic, economic and operative support to terrorist attacks decided by the Islamic regime.” In this context, they help recruit more operatives through the mosques and cultural centers that have emerged throughout South America.

This is not the first mention of the involvement of Iranian diplomats in general, and Ghadiri in particular, when it comes to the recruiting of Latin American students. Indeed, in late 2011 the media exposed an Iran-Venezuela cyberplot intended to disrupt the websites of strategic US targets. Ghadiri was there, too.

Interestingly enough, one of the Iranian diplomats interviewed in that case admitted to contact with the students but insisted that he rejected the plan – not because it was an inappropriate situation for a diplomat, but rather because he thought the group was working for the CIA…

 

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