Iran’s Gold Deal Cover-up

gas gold

The Gold Scandal in Turkey that had been brewing for the past two years finally blew up, revealing – surprise, surprise – Iranian footprints all over the place.

For those who’ve been on vacation, Iran sold oil and natural gas to Turkey for cash payments that were deposited in an account held at Halkbank. In order to circumvent international money-transfer sanctions on Iran, the cash deposits were then allegedly converted into gold that Turkey exported to Tehran, often via Dubai.

The middle man, Riza Saraff (AKA Reza Zarab), an Iranian businessman is reported to have coordinated $120 billion in financial transactions from Iran. In order to do so, he fostered relationships with several ministers and their sons. Sixty politicians and bank officials have been implicated, and three ministers resigned.

In February 2013, new sanctions kicked in to stem the flow of gold from Turkey to Iran – but there was too much at stake, and that’s why the flow of bribes kicked in as well.

 

Tehran’s Golden Diplomacy

It seems that the gold-gas deals are only the visible parts of the ties between Tehran and Ankarra: Iran is investing heavily in Turkey in the hope that the money flowing into Turkish coffers will strengthen diplomatic relations.

Turns out that Iranian money backed one in six investments in Turkey last year, with 2,072 Iranian firms operating in Turkey as of 2011 (41% leap from the year before).

Why the interest in Turkey? According to an expert,

“Iran views Turkey as a valuable partner for neutralizing the international economic sanctions and reducing her international isolation; and by deepening its economic interdependency with Turkey, Iran is also trying to discourage Turkey from supporting the sanctions”.

So Iranian diplomacy is spotlighted once again in an illegal scheme involving money, corruption and underhanded manipulations. But this time the feeling is definitely mutual. As Vali R. Nasr from John Hopkins recently warned in the New York Times, Turkey “will have to show that it is not simply an advocate for Iran, but has used its influence to shift Iran’s foreign policy and facilitate a permanent nuclear deal.”

Not if Iranian diplomacy can help it.

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Spy Claims Harm Iran Diplomatic Thaw

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Timing is Everything

Last week, the internet was flooded with the news of an alleged MI6 spy in Iran.

Although spying is a lonely business by nature, the alleged British spy was not alone for long: the plight of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent reportedly spying for the CIA who disappeared back in 2007 “conveniently” resurfaced. Suddenly, it looked like Iran was under attack by Western spies.

Timing could not have been better for hardliners in Tehran: following the “nuclear deal” in November in Geneva, diplomatic relations between Iran and the West began to thaw.

After two years of diplomatic vacuum between London and Tehran since the attack on the British Embassy in Tehran diplomats were exchanged. Washington, which severed ties with Iran back in 1979, warmed diplomatic relations right from the top with calls to President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif from President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry.

Although incomplete, the “nuclear deal” and the resulting diplomatic efforts were far from welcomed by these same hardliners. Foreign Minister Zarif’s “triumphant” deal came under fire back home and the US’s issue of new sanctions played right into their hands. According to them, Tehran does not need a “nuclear deal” and nor does it need diplomatic relations with the West…what it needs is its national pride and freedom in its nuclear program.

Spies Feed PR Campaigns

Just as London and Washington went into “no-comment” mode, trying to distance themselves from the alleged spies, Tehran began spreading information selectively in order to turn these two cases into a well-constructed PR event.

In regards to the MI6 spy, the information disseminated is selective: Apart from the fact that he has already “confessed” and undergoing trial, his identity is still hidden and the nature of his mission ranges from gathering information on the highly contested nuclear program to information on oil shipping. Since he was apprehended in the province that does not boast any nuclear facilities nor access to the sea, both of these allegations seem suspicious in themselves but Tehran is sticking to its guns.

As to the Levinson, the American “spy”, the CIA has deemed him a “rogue” agent and is trying to hush things up while Tehran is happily feeding the media with tit-bits and pictures that seem to strengthen the case against Levinson and the CIA.

Bottom line – the “spies” are an embarrassment for the UK and the US but seem to be welcomed by the chiefs in Tehran who are not ready to accept purely legitimate diplomatic efforts. For them, these “spies”, whether guilty or not, are a glowing justification to keep Iran isolated.

The fact that Tehran’s own diplomatic efforts often cross legal boundaries is irrelevant because the ends do justify their means.

Iranian Diplomacy Bit by Al-Qaeda Tiger

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What Goes Around Comes Around

Few recall anymore the information that has surfaced from time to time, ever since 9/11, regarding Iranian assistance to Al-Qaeda. Now, that assistance is coming back to haunt Iranian diplomacy.

A reminder: more than two years ago the US Administration made it official by reportedly accusing Tehran of “forging an alliance with Al-Qaeda in a pact that allows the terrorist group to use Iranian soil as a transit point for moving money, arms and fighters to its bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

According to reports at the time, the Administration – which designated six Al-Qaeda operatives in this context – blamed Tehran for running “extensive fund-raising operation that uses Iran-based operatives and draws from donors in oil-rich Persian Gulf countries such as Kuwait and Qatar.”

The bombs that blasted through the Iranian embassy in Beirut two weeks ago strongly indicate that the Al-Qaeda pupil has learned its Iranian lessons well: that terrorism can turn any target, including an embassy, into a battlefield.

Beirut is only the beginning

Following the attack in Beirut, Iran’s embassy in Somalia was attacked by Harakat al-Shabaab al Mujahideen, another Al-Qaeda related faction. No one seems to have been injured in the attack which was played down by Iran.

Both Hezbollah and the IRGC believe that Beirut was only the opening shot. Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s thinks that the Iranian embassy and its diplomats would continue to remain Al Qaeda targets in the future while the IRGC issued similar warnings believing that the bombings “are the beginning of the scenario through which terrorist groups under Western supervision intend to bully Iranian officials by creating insecurity at Iranian embassies”.

We can disregard the finger pointing at the West, but not the essence of the warning: Somalia will not be the last incident in this battle.

Tehran Should Blame Itself

Over the past decades, the regime in Tehran has constantly changed the rules by placing diplomats and civilians at the battlefront, or as Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon accused, turning embassies into terrorist outposts.

While host countries try to deal with these rogue tactics in a legal manner, Al Qaeda operatives will make up the rules as they go along. This should resonate at least a bit ironic to the folks back in Tehran, which now finds itself a target of the same modus operandi it implemented for decades.

Iran’s Diplomatic Duality in the Gulf

zarif_gulf Here we go again: After wow-ing the P5+1’s politicians and signing the Geneva nuclear deal, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is focusing Iran’s charm offensive much closer to home.

Readers will recall that one of the main obstacles standing in the way of that deal was the opposition of the Gulf front. The Saudis voiced loud concerns regarding the deal and the way it was achieved – as their troubled relationship with Iran is well known. They went as far as declining to join the UN Security Council, less than 24 hours after it was supposed to stand for election, because of what it views as the UN’s passive approach to Iran (as well as Syria and the Palestinians).

But The Saudis are not the only ones in the region who are concerned about the deal – it remains a focal point of worry in other Gulf states as well. While the US acts to calm them down, Tehran is working overtime to smooth ruffled feathers.

“The solution to this issue serves the interests of all countries in the region. It is not at the expense of any state in the region” Zarif stated after meeting with his Kuwaiti counterpart earlier this month (other stops in the gulf included, as this piece by the BBC states, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates).

But try as he may, Zarif’s soothing words cannot hide another aspect of Tehran’s interaction with its neighbors, one I’ve referred to in the past: the establishment of and support for subversion and espionage cells by the IRGC and its subsidiaries in these very same countries.

These are not activities expected to go away any time soon, a fact which Saudi Arabia – particularly – is probably well aware (and wary) of. Riyadh knows all too well that behind Zarif’s seductive smile lies a more sinister intention, one in which Iran pushes its agenda through pleasant diplomacy under the guise of acting in “the interests of all countries in the region.”

That’s code for “the Gulf is ours, just play along.” While the P5+1 decided to play along, Zarif has his work cut out for him with the Gulf states. They’re less easily impressed by English speakers than the P5+1.

Zarif, Iranian Diplomacy & the Nuclear Deal

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Zarif’s Double Talk

Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s announcement that work on the Arak heavy water facility would continue despite the Geneva deal epitomizes Tehran’s overall strategic approach to diplomacy: the ends justify the means.

As I’ve emphasized in previous posts, Iran’s diplomatic infrastructure serves an array of that country’s strategic interests – from the cultivation of subversion cells to the search for uranium deposits. The approach taken – sweet talk, deception or outright lying – depends on the circumstance and location, but the objective is never in doubt.

So too with the Geneva nuclear deal. As proven again now by Zarif, while the road to the goal may be long and tiresome, reneging on an understanding can be instantaneous – and usually followed by Iranian accusations meant to justify its violation. No one is better at this than the seasoned diplomat Zarif.

Placating Hardliners? Really?

Zarif knows that his comments on Arak will seem to the West as if Tehran is not serious in its commitment and are bound to create tension. And yet, that is exactly what he did. Why?

The most widespread answer is that although Zarif returned from Geneva to a “hero’s welcome” (worth watching the video) by the people and Supreme Leader Khamenei himself, hardliners in Tehran were not thrilled, calling it a “poisoned chalice” that would lead Iran’s nuclear program to a “self shut-down”.  And so, the thinking goes, he had to placate the hardliners.

But for Iranian diplomacy, as embodied in this case by Zarif, the situation is actually most convenient.

Remember that Iran’s number one diplomat has one goal: to create a safe haven around the nuclear program, facilitating its continued development while simultaneously achieving sanctions relief. As part of their modus operandi in this context, Zarif and his team can explain to members of the international community that the Arak comments are meant to deal with the hardliners at home. They know that all too many will accept that as inevitable collateral damage.

In short, a win-win situation for Iranian diplomacy as it enjoys its finest hour in protecting Tehran’s strategic interests.

Zarif certainly deserves all the credit for his mastery.