Trouble Brewing in the Gulf

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The Gulf as a Microcosm

As Iranian diplomats battle their way into a nuclear agreement in Vienna, trouble is, once again, brewing much closer to home: lines are being drawn in the oil-soaked sands and the Gulf states are choosing sides.

And although this might seem far away and irrelevant for most people, this conflict is not going to be contained within the Gulf – in fact, it is being played out in countries as far away as Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, India and the US. Because what happens in the Gulf definitely doesn’t stay there.

The Red Corner: Iran-Oman-Qatar

Oman is a natural partner of Iran and has been so since the Islamic revolution. The ties are strong and are fuelled by their control of the Straits of Hormuz as well as money – a lot of money. Last year, Iran inked an agreement with Oman to export gas and Iran is setting up a deal with Oman and India for an underwater pipeline bypassing the current land route through Pakistan. Since relations between Iran and Pakistan are on the rocks right now, such a pipeline would be a double blessing for Iran.

Qatar was not always pro-Iran and, in fact, was at odds with Iran as far as Syria is concerned by backing the rebels (to the tune of 1-3 Billion dollars) as befitted the will of the country’s ex-monarch – Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. But since the crown-prince of Qatar, Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani is an avid supporter of Assad, sentiments have changed up to the point where Qatar has decided to take a step back from the conflict in Syria and actually back Iran. In the meantime, Qatar and Iran are planning to establish a “Joint Free Trade Zone” which is sure to sweeten the relations between both countries.

The Green Corner: Saudi Arabia-Bahrain-UAE

The nuclear negotiations never did not sit well with Riyadh quite simply because the Saudis do not believe Tehran’s claims of a peaceful nuclear program. Consequently, the Saudis believe that the nuclear deal was a green light for them to buy a nuclear bomb from none other than…Pakistan.

The growing conflict between Tehran and Riyadh is not contained in the Gulf but is being battled out in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq through proxy-terrorist groups being financed by both sides. The Saudi backing of Al-Qaeda troops against Iranian-backed Hezbollah has resulted in an upsurge of terrorism in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq at the expense of civilians and Iranian diplomats caught in the crossfire.

This conflict is about money as well – Iran is trying to mobilize Iraq to form a front against Saudi Arabia’s control of OPEC, a move which is certain to add fuel to an already growing explosion in the making.

The Saudis are visibly upset with Qatar’s siding with Iran in this political tug of war, recalling its ambassador a week ago. True, relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been on the rocks for a while (since Qatar openly backed the Muslim Brotherhood) but the context of their relations is definitely Iran.

And then, of course, there is Bahrain which is, with the UAE, a natural ally of Saudi Arabia and a victim of Iranian attempts at subversion and terrorism. Bahrain never supported Iran and will definitely not do so in the future.

The Future of the Gulf

Iran has never hid its aspirations to become a leader in its neighborhood. After decades of sanctions and animosity with the West which definitely benefitted the Saudis, its rapprochement through a nuclear deal has raised many questions and anger levels between the neighboring countries. Their calls for diplomacy with Saudi Arabia by Iran are repeated in the same breath as accusations and there seems to be no end in sight.

One thing is certain – this won’t be a clean fight: Tehran will use all its resources to topple the Saudis balancing grip and judging from the past, be prepared to read about exposed spy rings, IRGC/Qods/Hezbollah operatives, shipment of munitions etc…

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Tehran’s Glass House Syndrome 2 – Terrorism In The Eye Of The Beholder

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Iran is Against Terrorism?

It always seems strange to hear Iranian leaders speaking against terrorism while Tehran supports and feeds a number of terrorist organizations.

What seems stranger is that the more involved Iran is with terrorist organizations and actions, the more its diplomats and leaders bad-mouth terrorism.

Subversion and Terrorism in Lebanon

An Iranian delegation in Lebanon is trying to find ways to “confront…uncontrolled terrorism” while the Iranian ambassador in Lebanon, Ghazanadar Roknabadi “reiterated…that his country is ready to contribute with any kind of aid to Lebanon in its war against terrorism”.

Tehran’s definition of “fight against terrorism” is simple: anyone ready to kill and die for an opinion different from Iran’s is a terrorist, and therefore Iran is fighting many terrorists. They use terror to fight these so called terrorists.

Suffice to mention that Iran is in virtual control of Lebanon through its Hezbollah proxy-terrorist stronghold over the country at an estimated cost to the Iranian taxpayers of  $1 billion a year.

Subversion and Terrorism in Syria

Meanwhile, Iran is pledging to provide humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees while at the same time reinforcing support to the Syrian resistance (meaning Assad) thus causing refugees. In the same breath they blame the “flow of arms by the US terrorists” for the “spread of terrorism in the region and across the world”.

Again, one should remember that Iran is physically, economically and financially involved in the Syrian civil war through Hezbollah and IRGC troops as well as billions of dollars worth of arms shipments and bank guarantees.

Subversion and Terrorism in Iraq

And while Iran is moaning and groaning about terrorist factions working in and from Iraq, Iranian IRGC and Qods generals, including Qassem Suleimani himself, are visibly staking out Baghdad , heading at least three Tehran-backed militia brigades: Kataib HezbollahAsaib al-Haq and the “Promised Day Brigades“.

Formally, Iran is trying to deter Sunni terrorists but Iraq’s potential to buy Iranian weapons and its huge Shi’a population are definitely major targets for Iranian shadow diplomacy as always.

Subversion and Terrorism in Pakistan

Of course, the biggest target for Sunni terrorism can be found in Saudi Arabia but unlike Baghdad, Riyadh is not playing ball with Tehran.

In fact, Saudi Arabia is not sitting idly by as Iran makes its moves – they try to garner their own set of regional allies. As Iran is successfully wooing its Gulf neighbors (specially Kuwait, Oman and the UAE), Saudi Arabia is extending its friendship to countries such as Pakistan, much to the displeasure of Tehran.

Having inked a security agreement with Pakistan last month, Iranian diplomats were visibly upset when a terrorist group from Pakistan abducted five Iranian border guards and two weeks later, an additional Pakistani terrorist tried to blow up the Iranian consulate in Pakistan.

Tehran’s Glass House Syndrome

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It starts, as always, with a bang. A rather big bang, that is still heard days later. We’re talking of course on the twin explosions that rocked Beirut on the 19th of October, Killing four people and leaving 38 wounded.

The explosion, which was carried by a car bomb and a motorcycle laden with explosives, targeted an Iranian cultural center, the 2nd time in 3 months that Iranian institutes are attacked in the Lebanese capital.

Although Tehran officials quickly assured that there were no Iranian diplomats or personnel affected by the bombing, it raises a question: Why is Iran being targeted? What makes it and its out-of-country establishments prone to terror attacks?

Well, Iran has been very active as of late in the international front – trying to get back with diplomatic ties with several countries (while discussing Syria). But what might be more important, is the active role that the Islamic republic takes when it comes to the Syrian civil war.

This active role is not simply in the demand Iran is making to be a part of the team that decides on Syria’s future. Iran has been supporting Assad, not only vocally in the news but with military forces going from Iran to the Syrian battlefields.

Although Iran’s efforts at subversion in neighboring countries are not new, their outcries against Al Qaeda and Saudi Arabia, although probably justified, make me think of the saying “people in glass houses should not throw stones”. Or in Tehran’s case, “people who throw stones should live in stone houses and expect to be hurt”.

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.

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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.

The Case of Thailand: Iran’s Diplomatic Underworld

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A look at the state of diplomacy between Iran and Thailand reflects just how complicated relations with Tehran can be. Instead of straightforward activity to solidify bilateral ties, the observant will findlayer upon layer ofinfrastructure serving terrorism and subversion. Diplomats, spies,forgers, tourists, terrorists and drug dealers alllive in harmony in this underworld– and sometimes even complement each other.

Iranian Terrorist Wave: A Reminder

As this blog previously detailed back on February 14 2012 three Iranian nationals who intended to assassinate Israeli diplomats in Thailand were apprehended after their C-4 bombs accidently exploded in Bangkok (a few weeks earlier an operative for the Iranian-supported Hezbollah was also arrestedin the Thai capital for bomb-making activities). In August 2013 aThai court sentenced the two convicted terrorists to life imprisonment and 15 years in jail, respectively.

The planned attacks in Bangkok were part of a year-longIranian terrorist wave against American, Saudi and Israeli diplomatic targets which also included Azerbaijan, Pakistan, India, Georgia and Washington DC.

Role of Iranian Embassy

Despite the prominent involvement of Iranian nationals, Tehran denied any connectionto the Thai incident. Furthermore, its embassy in Bangkok also refused to assist the localpolice concerning the suspects, as if they were from another country. This refusal to cooperate included with regard to the whereabouts of a fourth suspect, Leila Rohani, who had rented the house for the terrorists and their bombs and managed to flee to Tehran.

But all this doesn’t mean the Iranian Embassy was inactive. Even before they presumably worked overtime to secure release of the suspects, behind the scenes Iranian diplomats laid the groundwork for a bilateral prisoner extradition agreement. Such an agreement would guarantee that tough-luck Iranian terror operatives, caught in the act, could serve most of their sentences among the comforts of home.

We understand that the extradition agreement eventually reached (translation from Thai attached) was finally ratified by Tehran only in April 2012 – two months after the botched terrorist attack (even though it was originally signed a year before, in February 2011).So while efforts to hammer out the agreement were most probably also connected with the abundance of Iranian drug dealers serving life terms in Thai jails (approximately 160 Iranian nationals are imprisoned in Thailand), the urgency with which it was ratified is much more incriminating.

At least that’s how this development is viewed by the convicted terrorists’ Bangkok lawyer, who’s betting on extradition for his clients as well:

 “They will initially serve their sentences in Thailand, but Thailand and Iran have a prisoner exchange treaty so they could seek to serve their remaining terms in their homeland after a period of time.”

Thanks to Iranian diplomacy, that is.

click here to view thai iran extradition treaty

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.