Iran & Iraq: From Enemies to Neighbors to Partners

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26 years ago, the UN Security Council resolution 598 put an end to the Iran-Iraq war which cost over a million lives and nearly $600 Billion. Since then, relations between the two countries have been mostly chilly and formal…until now.

“Close ties between Tehran and Baghdad will serve the interests of regional countries“, said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking directly to appease the fears of the Gulf and nearby states, like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which I wrote about previously in this blog.

An eye opening piece by Ali Hashem in Al monitor explained Iran’s type of political game with its neighbor: “It is a matter of common interests, indeed. The Iranians proceeded according to a playbook with their eye on the long game. Tehran backed the US political process adopted by the Shiite Iraqi groups that had sought refuge in Iran during Saddam Hussein’s rule, but at the same time supported the armed insurgency against the US occupation”.

Iran’s strategy in Iraq is in line with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s overall  “beyond boundaries” defense policy which is based on exporting the revolution to its neighbors, especially those with substantial Shiite populations,  and to any countries with “anti-Imperialist” forces. Iraq fits that description on all counts.

Iran has also another motive to strengthen ties with Iraq which is the home of a large community of exiled members of Iranian opposition groups. According to the latest report from the National Council of Resistance of Iran, Iran is behind the Iraqi forces who have killed 116 refugees and wounded 1,350 in refugee camps. Furthermore, Iran has formally requested the extradition of these exiles in order to give them a “fair trial” back in Tehran before sending them to rot in prison or hang from the gallows.

In fact, a source in the know of the relations between the two countries, explained further: “All the other countries in the region stabbed Iraq in the back. Iran’s decision was to help Iraqis in whatever they wanted to do, and that’s why today Iran and Iraq have a $12 billion trade exchange, and in a few years this will be $30 billion.” Iran’s bet seems to have been successful or as Iraq’s Deputy PM Rowsch Nuri Shaways explains: Iran is now Iraq’s “most trustworthy neighbor”.

But the Iranian foreign office and other notables high in the hierarchy might have bigger fish to fry: the US State Department officials are considering an investigation into the presence of Iranian weapons in Iraq. The Iranian interest in Iraq is paramount, and it recently reached what some spectators might call a boiling point: the Iraqi elections.

On the 19th, Iran issued a statement congratulating Iraq on a well-organized and successful election. And yes, Tehran backed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for his 3ed term.

Iran is searching for reliable allies and Iraq in 2014 seems to be one of its best potentials. You can bet on the fact that part of the trade between these two countries in the future will include military dimensions.

Yemen to Iran – Keep Hands Off Yemen!

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Taking a long look through our blog and you’ll see that there have been some queer happenings going on with Iranian diplomats all over the globe. In general, they seem to be hurt or assassinated more frequently than diplomats from any other country.

Take Abolqassem Assadi, the financial and consulate officer of Iran’s embassy in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. He was shot by gunmen in the center of the city back in January.

Or, so it seemed. For a while, there were declarations that he was still alive, kidnapped, hurt or dead. Last month, things started to clear up as foreign minister Javad Zarif sent a letter to the UN secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, expressing the regime’s unhappiness with certain issues, among them was the matter of Mr. Assadi.

The Ministry spokeswoman, Marziyeh Afkham, even voiced an official concern about security conditions in Yemen, going so far as saying that “Iran attaches importance to the issue and waits for immediate action of Yemeni government to identify the assassins behind the assassination of the Iranian diplomat”.

As is usual with statements of this kind from Tehran, Yemen was outraged. After initially stating that the assassination was done only to sever ties between Teheran and Sana’a, the president of Yemen, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, sounded very aggressive toward the Islamic Republic: “Unfortunately, Iranian interference still exists, whether through its support for the Hirak separatists or some religious groups in northern Yemen .We asked our Iranian brothers to revise their wrong policies towards Yemen, but our demands have not borne fruit. We have no desire to escalate (the situation) with Tehran but at the same time we hope it will lift its hand off Yemen”.

So now Iran has another, rather large and unsavory dish, on its plate. They were of course attempting to calm down the situation. Afkham has denied President Mansour Hadi’s allegations.

The story, it seems, remains the same:

  1. Tehran attempts to increase its influence through local organizations hostile to their governments.
  2. Tehran’s efforts at local subversion are met with local violence at the expense of Iranian diplomats.
  3. Tehran is formally accused by the local government of subversion and terrorism.
  4. Tehran accuses the local government while at the same time, denies any accusations of wrongdoing.

If only Tehran would decide to break this circle of violence once and for all!

Iranian Diplomats Under Fire, Again

under fire First Beirut, Now Yemen

Yes, Rouhani’s smile diplomacy is very effective. But that isn’t stopping Tehran’s longstanding link with terrorism from taking more and more lives – including Iranian diplomats’ lives.

Since late November, Beirut has been rocked by a series of at least four terrorist bombings against Iran directly – its embassy – and indirectly through Hezbollah “territory.”

Beirut is the tip of the iceberg: A few thousand miles away, an Iranian diplomat was recently killed in Yemen by a “terrorist group”. Frustrated, Tehran has linked all the terrorist attacks to Al-Qaeda and Saudi Arabia (and intends to lodge a formal complaint against Riyadh for its alleged involvement).

This cycle of violence seems far from over.

Zarif Attacks

Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif attempts to refocus the blame. Iran, he said, was ready to “reveal evidence of sponsors of terrorism in the Middle East” – specifically in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria.

As for the attack in Yemen, he emphasized that the foreign ministry is putting a lot of pressure – “successfully” – on Yemen to “bring the assassins to justice“.

Zarif also dropped a bomb of his own at Davos by redefining the strength of Tehran’s bond with Hezbollah – none. Not only did he deny “sending” Hezbollah to Syria, he added that it was “preposterous to suggest that Tehran was supporting extremist groups fighting in Syria”.

Preposterous…

Iranians understand terrorism very well – particularly the value of diplomats as high-profile victims. Their diplomats in hot-spot countries understand this as well, and probably wish they would get transfer orders ASAP. They’re at the mercy of Zarif, who would like to have it both ways but won’t be allowed to do so – neither by the Syrian opposition, nor by the Al-Qaeda splinter groups.

That’s the price of riding the tiger. Poor Iranian diplomats.

With Friends Like These – Iranian ME Diplomacy (part 3)

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Bahrain Needs “Concrete Steps”

Following the Geneva deal in November, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif embarked on his “charm offensive” road trip in the region. The tour to Kuwait, Oman and Qatar finally included the UAE (“what unites us is far greater than our minor differences“) but significantly excluded Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa admitted on December 7th that, although there has been a “change in Iranian language”, there still is no “clear change of policy”. He added that Bahrain’s fears of Iranian “interferences with internal affairs and supporting terrorist groups” in the Gulf countries are alive and that he is still waiting for “concrete steps” by Tehran to prove that the change in diplomacy is real.

Within three weeks, Al Khalifa witnessed concrete steps – in the opposite direction: Bahraini authorities foiled Iranian-backed attempts of terror and subversion after discovering caches of explosives (“50 Iranian-made hand bombs” and “295 commercial detonators on which was written ‘made in Syria'”) and arresting 13 people in the process.

Riyadh Ready to Buy a Bomb

Saudi Arabia adopted a much more direct approach:

  • Disillusioned by the nuclear deal which the Saudis felt was inadequate to force Tehran’s program to remain peaceful, they renewed their search to buy their own nuclear bomb from Pakistan. Worried about Iran getting a bomb? Now, worry about two warring neighbors with nuclear bombs.
  • Disillusioned by the UN’s lack of control in Syria and Iran, the Saudis declined a seat in the UN Security Council and are suspected of supporting Al Qaeda’s operations in Syria and Lebanon to counter Hezbollah and Iran – including bombing the Iranian embassy in Beirut.

 Beyond The Gulf…

Apropos: Remember the retaliating bombing by the Hezbollah in Beirut last week that killed former Finance Minister Mohamad Chatah, a strong critic of Iran’s involvement in Lebanon and in Syria? Ironically (or not), he died only a week after sending an open letter to President Hassan Rouhani requesting him to stop Iranian interference, directly or through Hezbollah, in Lebanon and in Syria.

Anyway: like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, Egypt suffered in the past from Iranian-backed spy rings and is fearful of an Islamic Revolution marshaled by Tehran.

Perhaps that’s why Egypt’s Tourist Minister closed Egypt’s gates to Iranian tourists for “reasons related to national security” and cancelled all flights to and from Tehran.

The Egyptians must know what they’re doing on this.

Related:

 

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.

Iranian Diplomatic Abuse Increases Visa Restrictions

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Following President Rouhani’s election and promotion of his agenda to lead meaningful change in Tehran’s foreign policy, a quick thaw in its international relations might have been expected.

Iran’s not there yet.

During the past three months five countries have hardened their visa regulations with Iran, making it more difficult to visit that country. According to this recent article in Farsi, Georgia http://shadow-diplomacy.com/2013/08/12/georgia-stops-irans-revolving-diplomatic-door/, Oman http://shadow-diplomacy.com/2013/09/30/with-friends-like-these-iranian-diplomacy-in-the-middle-east-part-1/, Indonesia, Egypt http://shadow-diplomacy.com/2013/10/08/with-friends-like-these-iranian-diplomacy-in-the-middle-east-part-2/ and now Malaysia seem unconvinced by Rouhani’s moderate rhetoric; instead of opening doors with Iran, they’re slamming them shut.

A few of the mentioned (and other) countries have enforced more stringent visa rules because of diplomatic and other abuses by Iranians on their soil. Some want to pressure Iran to alter its behavior, while others want to stop the flow of refugees from that country.

Of course, the Iranians are trying to put a brave face on the continuing deterioration in relations with countries from their core group, the Non-Aligned Movement (Tehran is group chair, a position it will hold for the next two years). Indeed, Tehran recently announced http://www.tasnimnews.com/English/Home/Single/159110 it is considering lifting visa requirements for certain states. Doesn’t seem like this plan will wash for the time being.

(We wonder whether the Iranians have an ulterior motive behind the move – in addition to boosting tourism – such as bringing in more foreign nationals to promote its darker activities http://shadow-diplomacy.com/2013/09/02/iranian-embassies-recruit-latin-american-students/.)

These developments might seem inconsequential at a time when Tehran is focusing on nuclear negotiations with the . But think again: since his election, Rouhani has been quite vocal about reintegrating Iran into the international community and improving relations with Iran’s neighbors – especially Saudi Arabia.P5+1

The Iranian president clearly has his work cut out for him. He definitely won’t attain his goal as long as the Revolutionary Guards, Ministry of Intelligence and Ministry of Foreign Affairs continue abusing the tools of diplomacy and fueling world suspicions.