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January 26, 2007

Iranian Nuclear Cycle: Demands And Crises Coincide

Having earlier rejected 38 IAEA inspectors and refused entry to them in protest of the UN Security Council’s sanctions against the Islamic Republic, Iran has now also demanded the removal of the IAEA’s lead nuclear inspector, Chris Charlier, as well. Last year, Iran had made a similar demand of the IAEA regarding the removal of Charlier as head of the IAEA inspection team. Iran seeks his removal because of his views that Iran “is obviously making a bomb” and is operating clandestinely beyond the view of IAEA inspectors.

In the PBS Frontline report ‘Iran – Going Nuclear,’ Charlier detailed his experiences dealing with, as he puts it, Iran’s “games” surrounding its dealings with IAEA inspectors. The footage and interviews were recorded before Iran demanded his removal last year. (The PBS transcript is available here.)

The response from IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei to Iran’s demand last year was murky at best. While there was speculation that ElBaradei had actually acquiesced and fired Charlier at Iran’s behest, he remains today but is still barred from entry and personal observation by the Iranian regime. That the IAEA director’s response to last year’s Iranian demand was not in clear support of his lead inspector has left may believing that ElBaradei’s loyalties reside somewhere outside the work of his own inspection team, and speculation and suspicion of Charlier’s possibly diminished role as lead inspector remains.

Iran claims that Charlier has “leaked Iran’s confidential information which should have been kept secret” and has barred 38 additional inspectors in recent days “who refuse to do their main and legal jobs and carry out unprofessional measures,” the state-controlled Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

Even while Tehran continues to insist that the UN Security Council sanctions have minimal effect on the Iranian nuclear program or economy – a view echoed by Western critics of sanctions viewed as ‘light’ – the regime continues to protest them and make threats based on the sanctions’ existence and implementation.

As the UN Security Council’s 60-day deadline for Iran to cease enrichment activities fast approaches, eyes are on Iran’s actions elsewhere, including the rapidly increasing violence in Lebanon as the result of Hizballah’s ongoing protests, an open coup seeking to bring down the elected Lebanese government. Last year’s Hizballah attack on Israel, which instigated the summer war between the Jewish state and the Iranian-supported terrorist group, was seen by many as an Iranian and Syrian initiated distraction from the Iranian nuclear crisis and the investigation of Syrian involvement in the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. At the time of the Hizballah attack into Israel, deadlines approached within the UN Security Council regarding both crises.

January 25, 2007

Hizballah Pulls Back As Support Deteriorates

On Wednesday, Hizballah political leader Hassan Nasrallah declared that he could topple the Lebanese government anytime he wanted to. This statement was made as he decided to call off the Hizballah protests ongoing in Lebanon, at least for the coming weeks. The Iran-backed terrorist group’s leader went to great lengths to convey that the decision was his because of Hizballah’s “desire to preserve civil peace.”

That, however, appears to be far from the true situation as grassroots Lebanese Shi’a support appears to be waning due to his increasingly violent attempts to overthrow the elected Lebanese government. While Shi’a support for his instigation of Israel quietly showed signs of being less than universal at the time, those same hesitant sentiments toward the group’s actions are more clearly visible today as the Hizballah-organized mass protests near the 60-day mark since they began December 1, 2006.

Tuesday saw violence across the country with three Lebanese killed and approximately 100 reported injured. The most violent incidents occurred in the northern city of Tripoli, where Sunnis clashed with Alawites, a sect of the Shi’a also common in Syria, though also a minority, including Syrian president Bashar Assad. Throughout Lebanon, roads were blocked with burning tires and cars.

Beirut’s Daily Star reported that the most violent clashes occurred between different Christian factions. The Lebanese Christian community is split between support for Hizballah and support for the current government. While Nasrallah called off the current protests, the leader of the Hizballah-aligned Christians, Michel Aoun, promised “more surprises” ahead for Lebanon and its government.

Yet, some of the disillusioned Lebanese Shi’a are speaking out – albeit often in unanimity for fear of reprisal Hizballah attacks on them or their family members. Said on Lebanese woman, “I was a supporter. Before, (Hezbollah leaders) acted in a more transparent way. But I am very much against what they did yesterday – destroying roads, traffic lights and everything else.”

Another said his sympathy for Hizballah “died yesterday. They take advantage of our religious loyalties … but turn the streets into military zones.” But the support appears perhaps more shallow than meets the eye, yesterday’s seeming ‘breaking point’ for some notwithstanding. Italy’s Adnkronos News International references a Saudi Arabian magazine describing how Hizballah has been paying Lebanese protesters $20 per day, largely through Iranian financial assistance. Notably, while the Palestinian cause is readily trumpeted by Hizballah for its universal appeal in the region, Palestinian protesters in Lebanon are paid only $10 per day, according the AKI report.

While international donors meet in Paris to summon material support for the Lebanese government and the United States plans to more than triple its aid to the Lebanese military, Hizballah finds itself with a base of supporters growing weary of its strategy of constant conflict and increasing violence within their own borders and against other Lebanese.

Nasrallah may publicly declare his decision to pull back from the protests is rooted in benevolence and a “desire to preserve civil peace.” The true impetus for his decision is almost certainly supplied in large part through a deteriorating level of popular support among Hizballah’s own Shi’a population.

January 18, 2007

Spoiler of Israel-Palestinian Rapprochement is Iran

Israel’s Deputy Minister of Defense, Brigadier General (Res.) Ephraim Sneh, says more can be done by the global community to pressure Iran and keep it from going nuclear. At a forum hosted by the Institute For Contemporary Affairs (ICA) in Jerusalem on Monday, Sneh spoke of a concrete challenge to Western powers, not unlike the challenge to Israel.

“We still think that the international community has not said its last word. There is a resolution from December 24. Iran has 60 days to stop the enrichment, and if not, further sanctions will be taken. Let’s wait patiently until February 24. Around this date will be another expression of Iranian defiance, and then there will be a challenge for the international community. They are potential victims of the same Iranian dance.”

Sneh believes that global leaders have been dragging their feet. For 18 years the Iranians were hiding their nuclear ambitions. When the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) discovered Iran’s intentions, it still took another 3 l/2 years until the UN Security Council passed a formal resolution in 2006. Sneh claims that’s too long a process. He has ideas of how world leaders can strengthen sanctions the next time around.

“Iran imports 40% of its consumption of oil distillates, especially gasoline for cars. Embargo the supply of gasoline and other distillates, and it will create a very serious problem for the regime…If there is this embargo, do you believe there would be one shipping company in the world that would consider it worthwhile to bring gasoline to Iranian ports, and then, not be able to enter into any of the U.S. seaports? I don’t think so.”

In Sneh’s past duty of service to Israel’s Defense Forces (IDF), he served as Commander of the Southern Lebanon security zone and as Head of the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria. He was elected to the Knesset in 1992. In his current capacity, as Deputy Minister of Defense, one of Sneh’s keen interests has been assessing Iran’s military and political strategies.

“Iran’s goal is to build a territorial contiguity of Iranian influence from the border of Afghanistan to the Mediterranean; a Shiite belt, or an Iranian dominated belt,” he explains.

Citing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s spiritual obsessions, Sneh says that Israeli leaders takes Ahmadinejad’s negative declarations toward the Jewish state very seriously.

“He belongs to a school of thought, a sect, in the Iranian religious establishment which believes that the return of the Shiite Messiah, the vanished Imam of the Mahdi, is supposed to happen very soon. More than that, Ahmadinejad believes that he has a divine role in making this arrival very concrete in our lifetime, maybe within several years. His faith, his conviction, says that the Messiah, the Mahdi, will come back if there is a sort of Armageddon doomsday, a major global collision, or calamity that results in the Shiite’s governing the entire globe.” Sneh added that Ahmadinejad reportedly believes the Mahdi appointed him to be the president of Iran and made his election possible.

To date, Iran meddles in Afghanistan, and in the Kurdish areas north of Iraq. Iran has taken advantage of the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime and his malaise in order to build a Shiite federal state in southern Iraq. In the central government of Baghdad, Iran has infiltrated and captured several key positions, and has growing influence in that government.

Iran has also succeeded in building a strategic alliance with Syria. Sneh views Iran’s last step toward reaching the Mediterranean as having influence in Lebanon. A third of the Lebanese are Shiites, and Sneh says Iran has tried using the political power of this group to take over the Lebanese government — to dominate it, paralyze it, or do both.

“So, this is the contiguity of Iranian domination. Iraq, Syria, Lebanon. They have another direction of expanding their influence, and it is the Gulf. They are very active in Bahrain, where 70% of the population is Shiite. They are actively undermining the government there.”

Sneh made it clear what Iran’s greatest objective is: “Most, if not all of their naval exercises, are simulations of taking over the Straits of Hormuz, where most of the majority of the global oil flows. Their eye is on the wealth of the Gulf Oil. That’s why the Gulf States are terribly scared. They have good reason.”

Iran’s influence has made its way into the Gaza Strip making it difficult for Israel to move forward in peace talks with the Palestinians. While a cease-fire is in effect, being observed by most Palestinian organizations, there is at least one group in defiance of that agreement – the Iranian supported Islamic Jihad. Sneh says they are active in launching rockets into Israel every day, as well as preparing suicide bombers for activities inside Israel.

“Who pays 100% of the Islamic Jihad budget? Tehran. Plus, there’s a bonus for every Israeli that is killed in their operations. So, they have a special incentive and it seems to me that the only member of the United Nations who pays a bonus for killing civilians is Iran.”

Another organization that has continued terrorist activity today is al-Aqsa (Martyrs Brigades). Many people believe that al-Aqsa is a military wing of the Fatah. However, Sneh states that the organization gets paid, indirectly, by Hezbollah, which is an arm of Iran. He claims the al-Aqsa terror squads receive their orders from Iran.

“So, you can see the real spoiler, the tireless spoiler of Israel-Palestinian rapprochement is Iran,” Sneh explains. He adds that the long arm of Iranian terrorism extends much further than Israel and the Palestinian territories. Reportedly, the bombing of the Israeli Embassy and the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires in the 1990’s, was indirectly carried out by Iran.

The implications of a nuclear Iran constitute the greatest military concern for Israel today. Sneh points out that Tehran’s nuclear quest not only effects Israel, but countries throughout the world.

“Now imagine that if this regime — the powerhouse of terrorism in the region, with ambition of expansion and domination over the entire region if not the whole world – would have the power of nuclear blackmail?”

The answer to that question is the reason why Ephraim Sneh and other Israeli officials believe that everything must be done in order to keep Iran from going nuclear.

C. Hart is a 25-year veteran journalist in print and broadcast media, living in Israel since 1995, reporting on political, military and diplomatic issues in the Middle East.

January 16, 2007

Iraq-Iran Relations Challenging US Push

While the telegraphed ‘surge’ of US troops into Baghdad seemingly meets more questions of meeting planned Iraqi troop levels than those of America, the multi-faceted front with Iran remains active and fluid. The US raid on an Iranian office in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil last Thursday and the actions that have followed continue to mark the intentions of many Iraqi politicians to forge a relationship with Iran in spite of their proven fueling of both sides of Iraq’s ongoing sectarian violence.

The Irbil raid netted the capture of 5 Iranians along with documents and computers. Iran protested the raid on the grounds that the office was a consulate protected by diplomatic immunity. However, according to a military intelligence source who spoke with ThreatsWatch, while the Iranians told the Iraqi Kurds governing the city that it was a diplomatic consulate, Iran had never officially filed the location as such, leaving it unprotected by international law. This led to the initial confusion at the airport between Kurdish and American forces. The governing Kurds did not want to be party to an illegal raid in violation of international law.

It was reported early that among the individuals captured was Hassan Abbasi, thought of as Iran’s principle strategic thinker and a leader in the IRGC’s Qods Force. (Also see MEMRI audio/video Part I and Part II, with transcripts here and here.) However, the detained Hassan Abbasi was not the Qods Force leader in question, but indeed an Iranian by that name.

The US State Department said that the captured Iranians may have helped insurgents attack American troops in Iraq. Given that the sole function of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods Force is to export the Iranian revolution by funding, arming and training foreign (to Iran) terrorist groups, this is likely a foregone conclusion.

Even still, some in the elected Iraqi government are protesting the detention of the Iranians, just as was protested the detention of Iranians in a late December Baghdad raid that yielded the #3 general in Iran’s Qods Force – later released - as well as a ‘wiring diagram’ of the Iranian support network for both Shi’a and Sunni sectarian factions in Iraq.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari explained the geo-political reality that “We have to live in this part of the world,” unlike the United States. “We have to live with Iran. We have to live with Syria and Turkey and other countries.” Even when confronted with proof that the Iranians are pouring in weapons, including milled copper IEDs and fanning both sides of the sectarian violence seeking an unstable Iraq, the Kurdish Zabari said that Iraq plans to soon negotiate even more border entry points with Iran.

This approach to Iran is frustrating US officials who are not only openly confronting an instigating Iran that it had long ignored, but are also facing fresh doubts whether Iraq will meet its troop obligations agreed to in President Bush’s plan to secure Baghdad.

But with the highly-publicized plan to mass US and Iraqi forces to clear Baghdad of Sunni insurgents and Shi’a militias, it can be expected that far fewer combatants will have remained there for a confrontation considered a no-win scenario, just as was the case in Fallujah.

January 9, 2007

US Strikes al-Qaeda In Somalia

Acting swiftly on intelligence, United States forces operating out of a base in Djibouti dispatched an AC-130H gunship to engage al-Qaeda terrorists on the move in southern Somalia. Reportedly, the primary target among the group was Abu Talha al-Sudani, a man close to Usama bin Laden and believed to be the financier of the 1998 simultaneous bombings of the American embassies in Dar es-Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya. Abu Talha al-Sudani is al-Qaeda’s head of East African operations. Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, the al-Qaeda terrorists suspected of planning and masterminding the 1998 embassy attacks and receiving the funds from al-Sudani, are believed to be in Somalia as well, and Mohammed may have also been a target of the AC-130 strike. (For a more extensive list of key terrorists in Somalia, see Daveed Gartenstein-Ross’ rundown at the Counterterrorism Blog.)

While there are no reports of whether al-Sudani or even Mohammed or Nabhan were eliminated in the US strike, the attack shows a forward-leaning US posture in the Horn of Africa that has been just beneath the surface of developments in and around Somalia in recent months and weeks. Relatively discretely, US intelligence has been backing Ethiopia in its defense of Somalia’s government and its offensive that has routed the al-Qaeda franchise Islamic Courts Union. The World Tribune reported a US source that asserted that the United States has “promised to replenish equipment, munitions and other supplies for the current offensive against Somalia.”

Ethiopia, with American support, has not stopped after driving al-Qaeda elements from all major Somali cities, but instead has continued to press in pursuit, seeking to decapitate the ICU’s leadership and rout its fighters. To fall short is to invite an insurgency in the style of Iraq, which the ICU has declared is its plan after regrouping and following the eventual withdrawal of Ethiopian forces.

Part of the success that Ethiopian and Somali forces have seen is due to the United States providing ground force intelligence from satellites and unmanned aerial drones, enabling them to track and engage al-Qaeda force movements, particularly at night.

The degree of success the Ethiopian and Somali forces will have will depend greatly on the US naval blockade preventing escape back to Yemen as well as the effectiveness of Kenyan forces blocking its border and denying an egress route. While anywhere is preferable to being in the crosshairs of pursuing troops, Kenya’s 15% Muslim population has been largely non-responsive to the Wahhabi brand of Islam espoused by al-Qaeda and is far from an ideal retreat.

Yet even with American support for Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Army’s thus-far successful and relentless engagement of al-Qaeda’s Islamic Courts Union, seeking to destroy it rather than simply drive it away, a representative from the US State Department indicated a willingness to hold talks with some ICU members. US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, said that the Transitional Federal government in Somalia now assuming control in Mogadishu should consider including ‘moderate’ Islamists from the defeated Islamic Courts Union in its government. Frazer said, “I think its important to talk to the Islamic courts, or whoever are the moderates within the group. They did bring a certain degree of order to Mogadishu, they have experience.” She added that they would have to renounce violence.

It is important to note here that the Islamic Courts Union “removed three (3) checkpoints in the Mogadishu area where average monthly revenues collected represented cash flows to the former warlords in excess of one million US dollars annually,” according to the November 2006 report of the UN’s Monitoring Group on Somalia. With no functioning government or formal tax code to speak of, these checkpoints serve as tax collection points for local warlords that essentially amount to extortion and protection money. The removal of the Mogadishu checkpoints served as a means for the ICU to endear themselves to local businesses – then able to transport goods without extortion - and enabled them the means to garner support that was lacking from the general Somali population. The ICU did leave most checkpoints in place, however, which then served as a major source of the Islamists’ funding.

Somalia’s President Abdullahi Yusuf, in Mogadishu Monday for the first time since being elected to the office, promptly dismissed the US suggestion that it include moderates from the ICU in its government. He flatly rejected the call to include Islamists as nonsense, saying that negotiation with any Islamists “will not happen.” Yusuf said, “We will crack down on the terrorists in any place around the nation.”

January 8, 2007

MEND Threatening Attacks on Nigerian Oil Facilities

ABC News is reporting that the leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), going by the name of Jomo, has threatened attacks on Nigeria’s oil facilities. In a series of emails sent to ABC News, Jomo stated:

We have the capacity to be as ruthless and as callous as attacks witnessed in Iraq… How can you explain a situation where we account for all Nigerias [sic] wealth and we live without electricity in shacks made of cardboard and straw? How can you explain my people drinking from salty creeks in which they bath and defecate?

For an analysis of the MEND’s grievances and attacks, see my article entitled “A Hard Wound to MEND.” The MEND has received a lot of attention recently for their attacks on Nigeria’s oil facilities. In the past year, the MEND’s attacks have successfully reduced the country’s oil exports by 20-25 percent. The group’s main grievance, as touched upon in Jomo’s address, is that the local population in the Delta region, which is mostly comprised of farmers and fishermen, continue to live in poverty while Nigerian officials and foreign countries, notably the United States, continue to seize the wealth generated by oil revenues.

The threat of continued and more violent attacks on Nigeria’s oil facilities has far-reaching implications for the United States. Nigeria is the United States’ fifth largest supplier of oil and the world’s eighth largest oil exporter. An increase in attacks, coupled with attacks in the Middle East in places like Yemen and Saudi Arabia, could potentially drive US gasoline prices up to $5 or $6 a gallon. However, this threat made by Jomo should not come as a complete shock. In October, the US consulate in Lagos issued a warning to all American citizens to be aware of possible attacks on oil facilities in Nigeria. It’s clear that the United States has acknowledged the situation, but has done little to respond.

There is a possibility, although a slim one, of a temporary objective-based alignment between the MEND and radical Islamic groups. The statement made by Jomo regarding these new attacks highlights the group’s desire to inflict as much damage on Nigeria’s oil facilities as possible. It has long been one of al-Qaeda’s goals to deplete the US economy by attacking its interests in the Middle East, notably its oil interests. From a purely objective standpoint, any success achieved by the MEND in targeting Nigeria’s oil facilities would benefit al-Qaeda and as such, al-Qaeda would have a vested interest in the group’s success. Logically, it would behoove al-Qaeda to provide some semblance of support to the MEND, even if it’s simply vocal support.

It is imperative that the United States take increased notice of this volatile situation in Nigeria. The threat of increased gas prices should be enough to warrant increased attention. If MEND is successful in hurting Nigeria’s oil facilities, the potential outcome could seriously affect the United States while giving our enemies, especially al-Qaeda, a major victory.

January 2, 2007

al-Qaeda and the ICU’s Somali Retreat

Following the trend consistently seen throughout the duration of the advance driven by the Ethiopian army, approximately 3,000 Islamic Courts Union fighters fled the southern Somali port city of Kismayo overnight, the ICU’s final urban stronghold in Somalia. While the overrunning of the al-Qaeda backed Islamist forces that had taken control of the majority of Somalia is a positive development with global implications in the global conflict, Somalia’s strategic importance to al-Qaeda and aligned movements (AQAM) assures that unless the ICU’s force is blocked and decimated in-place, it will regroup with significant al-Qaeda investment and return to the Somali battlefields in relatively short order.

Understanding this, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government urged Kenya to close its borders, potentially acting as an anvil to the Ethiopian-led hammer in pursuit of the Islamists. A spokesman for the Somali TFG said, “We request the Kenyan government to close its border since the remnants of the defeated Islamic Courts led by Hassan Dahir Aweys are heading towards the Kenyan border.” The abandoned Kismayo stronghold lies 100 miles north of the border with Kenya. Ethiopian reconnaissance aircraft reportedly observed the ICU fighters heading southward toward the border in convoys of light vehicles.

An initial response from Kenya was disappointing, as its assistant foreign minister Kembi Gitura told Reuters, “We are watching the position. Kenya’s position on this is quite clear, we are taking a non-partisan position at the moment.” The degree to which Kenya is able to mount forces to seal its border with Somalia is questionable, especially considering its known level of corruption, a military intelligence official told ThreatsWatch. The possibility exists that, even if enough troops were mustered for the mission, Somali ICU and foreign fighters would be likely to find passage in spots for the right price.

Kenya’s Nairobi-based newspaper The Nation reported on December 29 that Kenya had closed its border with Somalia. The same paper also reported on January 1 that ten ICU fighters had been arrested at the Liboi border crossing point, demonstrating the ICU’s intent to fall back and regroup in Kenya. What remains unknown is the level of success the ICU has had in quietly buying passage or avoiding Kenyan security points altogether.

A spokesman for Uganda’s military said that the African nation has 1,000 troops prepared to come to the assistance of Somalia’s TFG “immediately after they are cleared by the [Ugandan] ministry of foreign affairs.” TFG spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said that Uganda and Nigeria have combined to offer as many as 8,000 troops total in assistance. The Somali government has also made formal requests to the African Union for a peacekeeping force.

While Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi offered amnesty to Islamist fighters remaining who laid down their arms, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister vowed to press on until “he has ferreted out certain Islamic leaders,” chief among them Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys.

Prior to his involvement in the Islamic Courts Union, Aweys co-founded al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI) along with Adan Hashi Ayro. The group has links to al-Qaeda and in the mid 1990’s, al-Ittihad conducted terrorist attacks in Ethiopia against the government there.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross summarizes various known terrorists within the ICU and al-Ittihad, including a prisoner held at the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Gouled Hassan Dourad. The Director of National Intelligence office’s detainee biographies states that Dourad was a member of al-Ittihad al-Islami – under al-Qaeda’s head of East African operations, Abu Talha al-Sudani (a.k.a. Tariq Abdullah) – and had performed duties in support of IAIA terrorist plots, including plans to attack a US base in Djibouti with a suicide truck bomber and plans to kidnap western NGO workers for ransom to fund operations. Dourad, a Somali, received training at al-Qaeda terrorist training camps in Afghanistan in 1996.

While the purge of the ICU and its al-Ittihad-aligned terrorists from their Somali strongholds is much welcomed good news, the overriding concern going forward is centered on the fate of those ‘melting away’ in retreat – a wise tactic that allows them to fight another day. The ICU is not being decimated, but chased, and will return unless blocked and destroyed in-place. Somalia is a central front in the global conflict with al-Qaeda and aligned movements (AQAM) because they seek to establish it as an African base similar to that it once had in Afghanistan and currently enjoys from Waziristan and the North West Frontier Province in Pakistan. Al-Qaeda will not give up this strategic design easily.

The defeat of the ICU Islamist forces fleeing combat in Somalia requires more than allowing them to melt into the southern horizon. It remains to be seen, but there is little to suggest that the Kenyans are up to the anvil task in equal proportion to the capabilities and will evident in Ethiopia’s hammer.

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