Tag Archives: Iran

Not Another Bloody War?

Here we go again. Even as you read this, the war drums are beating. And – surprise, surprise – it’s Iran that’s at the heart of this latest eruption of trouble in the Middle East.

The problem is that in a region forever simmering with war and rumours of war, this one looks more serious than most. In the great international strategic poker game, a lot of dangerous cards are being dealt on to the region’s bloodstained and dusty gaming table.

Intelligence officers monitor crises by looking at two principal indicators: capabilities and intentions. The key question confronting the major powers’ intelligence officers is now very straightforward: are the US and Iran preparing for war? If so when, were and how? As The Guardian put it recently, ‘Old grudges, new weapons – is the US on the brink of war with Iran?

The indicators are not reassuring. US-Iran enmity goes back a long way. In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution overthrew the Shah, who was a bastion of Western support in the Middle East. Khomeini’s Revolutionary Guards invaded the US embassy, grabbing every classified document they could lay their hands on and seizing 52 American diplomats to hold as hostages. An ambitious attempt to rescue the hostages turned into an American military disaster, when helicopters collided in the desert, killing eight men.

This fiasco has never been forgotten by the Pentagon. It stirred patriotic sentiment in Iran that allowed the Islamic government to consolidate its power, and drove the USA into supporting Saddam Hussein in an attempt to bring down the rule of the Ayatollahs.

The 1979 revolution created strong passions in both countries. In Iran it was a glow of triumphalism over ‘The Great Satan’; and in the USA a simmering resentment at what was seen as a national humiliation. Few episodes in living memory, other than the sight of Royal Marines surrendering to Argentine invaders in 1982, show how public emotion can drive political decisions.

Since then Iran’s growing regional power is now seen by the USA as a serious threat to regional peace and particularly to Israel. Leading Iranian political and military figures regularly threaten to ‘wipe the Jewish homeland off the map.’ Iran has taken advantage of the Syrian War to build military bases across Syria; and a low key cross-border war between Israel and Iran has already begun. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister and close ally of President Trump, remains convinced that the Mullahs are hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons.

This nuclear dimension is the key. Trump’s decision last year to withdraw the USA from Obama’s 2015 nuclear accord with Iran and strangle Tehran’s already enfeebled economy was the catalyst.  In retaliation, Iran has reneged on the nuclear deal, and threatens to develop weapons-grade uranium. America and its allies fear Tehran’s programme could allow it to one day build atomic bombs. So does a nervous Tel Aviv.

It is against this background that the alarming intelligence indicators of a potential armed clash are being weighed.

Satellites report Iran moving S-300 SAMs and massing armed fast gunboats in the Gulf. Their role would be to swarm out and attack American and Western shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the world’s oil supplies pass.

Last week, the US State Department ordered all non-essential staffers to leave the embassy and consulate in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil. Exxon Mobil has evacuated all its foreign staff members from Iraq’s Western oilfield. A ‘Notice to Airmen’ warns of the risks to air travel in the region amid ‘heightened military activities and increased political tension.’ Lloyd’s Insurance of London is warning of increasing risks (and premiums, naturally) to maritime shipping in the Gulf.

US-allied Bahrain has warned its citizens against travel to Iraq and Iran, citing ‘unstable regional circumstances, dangerous developments and potential threats.’

In response to these rising tensions, Washington has upped the ante, flying B-52 bombers into the region and moving a nuclear equipped carrier task force with 80 aircraft, accompanied by a Marine Expeditionary Force, to the Gulf. The objective of the exercise, in the words of national security adviser, is to ‘send a message’ to Iran. Donald Trump’s tweet spells out the threat implicitly: ‘If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran.’

Iran has responded defiantly, quadrupling production of low-grade uranium while its IRGC commanders warn, ‘Over the years, our forces have completely surrounded the Persian Gulf, so that the Americans need our permission to move in this area.’ Meanwhile, a sabotage operation targeting four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates was probably sponsored by Iran, and Iran-backed rebels in Yemen claim responsibility for a drone attack on a crucial Saudi oil pipeline and an airport.

The leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force has already told Iraqi militias in Baghdad to ‘prepare for proxy war’ as the relationship with the USA deteriorates. Iraq has no shortage of friends among the Shi’a militias owing allegiance to Tehran; all are capable of stirring up fighting across the region.

Tehran has significantly expanded its footprint over the past decade, making powerful allies across the Middle East as it forges its ‘Land Bridge’ west to the Mediterranean. The IRGC’s Quds Force controls up to 140,000 Shia fighters across Syria, many dug in on Israel’s border. Quds has close links to Hezbollah, Lebanon’s well-armed anti-Israel military organisation, part of Iran’s ‘axis of resistance’, armed groups with tens of thousands of Shi’ite Muslim fighters backing Tehran. In GazaIran supports Palestinian Islamic Jihad in its struggle against what Tehran calls the ‘Zionist enemy’. Further south in Yemen, the insurrectionary Houthi rebels are openly fighting Iran’s enemy, Saudi Arabia.

At the time of writing the uncomfortable fact is that all the capabilities on both sides are in place for a dangerous confrontation between Iran and the USA. The odds are that any war would be asymmetric; Iran can stir up major trouble across the region and make deniable attacks on US and Western interests, particularly by disrupting global oil supplies. In its turn Washington, egged on by Israel, has the capability of surgical strikes to decapitate the Iranian leadership and take out key Iranian nuclear facilities.

The key question is now, what are the leaderships’ real intentions? Despite the rhetoric, it looks like neither side really wants a dragged out fight. Both are discreetly signalling that they are looking to negotiate a solution. Oman’s Foreign Minister brings news that that ‘the Islamic Republic is open to talks with the USA – but not under pressure.’  Asked if the USA was going to war with Iran, President Trump replied, ‘I hope not‘, tweeting: ‘I’m sure that Iran will want to talk soon.’

This is classic, ‘speak softly but carry a big stick’ diplomacy – on both sides.

The indications from Tehran reflect this. In a letter to the UN Security Council, Iran is hinting that the Ayatollahs don’t want war: ‘Iran will never choose war as an option or strategy in pursuing its foreign policy. But if war is imposed on us, Iran will exercise its inherent right to self-defence in order to defend its nation and to secure its interests.’

Peace or war? The stakes are very high.

With the tangle of competing alliances and a region already riven by armed struggles, this could turn out to be the conflict that no-one wants. We’ve been here before.

Just like the disastrous events of summer 1914, it only needs one spark to set off the powder train of a wider war.

 

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The Road to World War III?

The Roman poet, Horace, once observed, ‘when your neighbour’s house is on fire, you should worry.’ It now looks as whole Middle East could catch fire, because the embers of the Syrian civil war have morphed into something much more dangerous, risking setting off a major new war between Israel and Iran.

The problem is America’s decision to pull its troops out of Syria. This withdrawal leaves the Syrian and Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG, Yekîneyên Parastina Gel) fighters without protection and increases the likelihood of clashes between Syrian, Kurdish, Turkish, Iranian and Russian forces, as they attempt to fill the vacuum left by the USA.

Iran is particularly intent on exploiting the gap that America is leaving. Like nature, international politics abhors a vacuum. Washington only has itself to blame, because when Iran first moved into Syria, Obama’s Washington stood by and did nothing, except issue feeble threats and sanctions.

Iran responded in 2011 by giving Syria USD $23 million to build a new base near Latakia. Soon Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) officers were stationed on Syrian soil to coordinate arms shipments to the beleaguered Assad regime. Iran now had skin in the game.

This alliance between Damascus and Tehran has deep religious roots. Iran and the Syrian elite are Shi’a Muslims, engaged in an Islamic struggle with Sunni Muslims. Shi’ite notions of Jihad (or Holy War) are apocalyptic. Shi’a Muslims have a long list of perceived suffering and grievances, and pray for the return of their ‘Messiah,’ the Twelfth (missing) Imam, who Shi’ites believe will return at the ‘end of days’ and restore a Utopian Islamic world order. They believe that this Twelfth Imam can only be awakened by cataclysmic world events, which encourages the Ayatollahs to acquire nuclear weapons and hasten everyone’s Armageddon. With weird notions like this controlling Tehran’s foreign policy, it is clear that Iran is a dangerously destabilising force in the region.

The problem goes back to 1979 when Iran deposed the US-backed Shah, America’s closest ally in the Middle East. However, Iranians soon found that they had swapped one dictator for another, the Shi’ite religious fanatic Ayatollah Khomeini. His battle cry was ‘Death to Israel, Death to America.’ Since then, Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution has had far-reaching consequences for Iran and for the Middle East. Tehran is now wedded to violent anti-Western policies, international terrorism, crushing internal dissent and exporting their Shi’ite version of revolution.

Unsurprisingly, Sunni powers (like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab countries in the region) view Shi’a Iran with grave suspicion, worried that Khomeini’s fanatical heirs will infect their own Islamic militants. The result has been a polarisation of the Muslim world, to the extent that Iran and Saudi Arabia are now fighting proxy wars with Iran in Iraq, Yemen and Syria.

Despite this, Iran has managed to occupy a swathe of war-torn northern Syria and carve out a new land corridor to the Mediterranean in Lebanon. The result is that Lebanon has now become a puppet regime for Tehran.

Lebanon’s problem is Hezbollah, the Shi’ite terror group formed by Iran in 1982 to combat Israel and its allies. It has been Iran’s most successful proxy, serving as the Islamic Republic’s arm on Israel’s doorstep. Backed by Iran, with thousands of trained fighters and an armoury of sophisticated weapons, Hezbollah now dominates the political and military landscape of Lebanon.

Inside the country, Hezbollah has become a powerful state within a state, with its own private army, and has made significant political gains in the latest parliamentary elections. The group now holds three ministerial posts in the new government, controlling some of the country’s largest budgets. Its experienced fighters now issue orders to the Lebanese Armed Forces – and terrorist Hezbollah is controlled by the Ayatollahs in Tehran.

Emboldened by Iran’s protective umbrella, speaking at a rally marking the 40th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution and the overthrow of the Shah, Hezbollah’s leader (Hassan Nasrallah) warned that Lebanon would ‘defend Iran in the event of war,’ and ‘if America launches war on Iran, it will not be alone in the confrontation, because the fate of our region is tied to the Islamic Republic’.

Iran’s rhetoric has become more threatening, too. Tehran’s bellicose threats spell out the dangers openly. The commander of Iran’s air force, Brigadier Aziz Nasirzadeh, recently warned: ‘Our young people are impatient, fully ready to battle the Zionist regime and eliminate Israel from the Earth’ and ‘Our next generation is the promised one who will destroy Israel.’

Israel was expected to deal with this growing threat to the region when America withdrew. Now the threat is close to home. Iranian and Hezbollah units are on Israel’s northern border and Hezbollah’s Tehran-supplied rockets can threaten the whole of Israeli territory.

To make things worse, the spectre of nuclear weapons overshadows everything. Iran’s President Rouhani said recently that, ‘Iran is determined to expand its military power and ballistic missile programme despite mounting pressure from hostile countries to curb Iran’s defensive work. We have not asked and will not ask for permission to develop different types of … missiles and will continue our path and our military power.’ That’s code for going nuclear.

Rouhani also vowed Iran would defeat harsh US sanctions, re-imposed after President Donald Trump withdrew from Tehran’s nuclear accord with world powers last year. Meanwhile Iran’s secret drive to acquire nuclear weapons continues apace.

A worried Israel has struck back hard. Any nuclear-armed Iran is a serious threat to peace.  Since 2013 Israel has launched dozens of attacks against Iranian and Hezbollah targets. This   undeclared war against Iranian forces and equipment in Syria, aimed at degrading Iran’s logistic supply routes and new bases in the Iranian corridor, has escalated as Iran and Hezbollah dig in inside Lebanon.

In May 2018 Iranian forces fired 50 rockets and mortars into the Golan Heights. This barrage did not inflict a single casualty and caused negligible damage. Israel’s prompt response was airstrikes hitting more than 70 targets. With those strikes, Israel demonstrated its ability to retaliate, warning Iran that attacking Israel would only invite an even more forceful reply. Iran backed down. Its limited capabilities in Syria makes Tehran nervous of any escalation – for now. Israel has a significant military advantage, enjoying overwhelming air superiority that can kill Iranian forces and destroy their equipment.

However, on 21 January 2019, in response to an Iranian surface-to-surface missile launched from Syria into the Golan Heights, Israel launched more strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, killing at least 12 Iranians (‘Israel, Syria: IDF targets Iranian Quds forces, Syrian air forces‘, Stratfor). Although the deputy head of Iran’s IRGC again threatened Israel, saying that Iran ‘could destroy it in three days,’ Iran is still wary of challenging Israel openly.

The conclusion is that in this undeclared war, any escalation between Israel and Iran is a low-probability but dangerously high-risk event. But when it does occur – and it will – it will have significant regional impacts. Iran’s missile arsenal in Syria can hit most of Israel, including major population centres like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and key economic and industrial targets (‘The missile arsenal at the heart of the Israeli-Iranian rivalry‘, Stratfor).

The danger is that any escalation from Iran could spark a major escalation of fighting, which in turn would be met almost certainly with an overwhelming Israeli response in Lebanon and Iraq. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu spells out the consequences: ‘Whoever tries to hurt us, we will hurt them. Whoever threatens to destroy us will bear the full responsibility.’

Given the religious mania of Iran’s leadership, anything is possible. If a massive chemical weapons attack hits Israel, Iran will become a radioactive desert.

We have been warned because, one day, this is going to be a fight to the death. Horace’s ‘neighbours’ roofs’ are already burning. The simmering war in the Middle East requires cool heads and military restraint.

Unfortunately, both are in short supply.

The Guns of August

The trouble with August is that the historical record shows that whilst everyone is on holiday it’s a great month to start a war.

From the guns of August in 1914, via the start of the Wehrmacht’s ‘Grand Tour of Europe’ in 1939, the Gulf of Tonkin Vietnam war inciting incident of 1964, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, down to the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, August has meant ‘war’.

This August doesn’t look much better. There is global trouble brewing, big time. It may be the heat: perhaps the madness of ‘le Cafard,’ (the Foreign Legion’s description of the delirium caused by a Saharan summer), but the war drums are beating once again.

The problem is Iran. The US and Iran have been at odds increasingly over Tehran’s growing political and military influence in the Middle East. Things are not looking good for the ‘Mad Mullahs’ of Tehran this August. Trump has deliberately put the clerical regime in Tehran and the Iranian people between a rock and a hard place. The Ayatollah and President Trump are on a collision course.

Many thought that Trump would go back on his threat to quit Obama’s 2015 wishy-washy nuclear ‘deal.’ They were wrong. The economic war started on Tuesday, 7 August 2018, with new US sanctions on cars, aircraft, currency and gold. Any company with an office in the US caught ‘trading with the enemy’ will be prosecuted. Sanctions will cut off the money tap. Europeans are stunned by their loss of potential profits, but the Yanks mean business.

The current American President has simply followed through on his campaign promise. If anyone was in doubt about his willingness to use US power, Trump has shown that when he sets his mind to something it’s going to happen, despite the anguished wails of dismay from EU corporations who thought that their juicy new Iranian contracts would bring them an early Christmas.

Trump is deliberately placing the Iranian economy under intolerable pressure. Global companies are now fleeing the country and the Iranian rial has collapsed, losing half its value since April. Behnam Ben Taleblu, Research Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington DC, says: ‘Re-imposing these sanctions is the first step towards tightening the noose on Tehran, putting the regime to a choice between continuing its malign activities or improving its economy.’ Washington’s new penalties are just the first warning shot for even more savage sanctions planned for early November that will target Iran’s valuable oil exports.

The threat is mortal. Tehran needs to sell its oil to survive. The lack of oil revenue could bankrupt Iran. The reaction to American threats from the regime was therefore predictable: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani promptly threatened to disrupt international oil shipments through the Persian Gulf if renewed US sanctions strangle Iran’s oil sales. ‘No one who really understands politics would say they will block Iran’s oil exports, and we have many straits, the Strait of Hormuz is just one of those …. We are the honest men who have throughout history guaranteed the safety of this region’s waterways. Do not play with the lion’s tail, it will bring regret.’

Trump promptly Tweeted in kind, mostly in capital letters: ‘To Iranian President Rouhani: Never, ever threaten the United States again or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have suffered before. We are no longer a country that will stand for your demented words of violence and death. Be cautious!’

Whether that will change the change the minds of Iran’s Shi’ite clerical leadership is another matter. Already Tehran is preparing for a fight. The US military’s Central Command reported on Wednesday, 8 August 2018, an increase in naval activity in the Strait of Hormuz, the critical waterway at the mouth of the Persian Gulf for the international shipment of oil from the Middle East. Iran is threatening to block it off with ships and mines if the USA’s renewed sanctions begin to bite.

The spokesman for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards confirmed the deployment of more than 100 vessels to the Gulf: ‘This exercise was conducted with the aim of controlling and safeguarding the safety of the international waterway in the Persian Gulf and within the framework of the programme of the Guards’ annual military exercises.’ He added: ‘They are to enhance defence readiness and to confront threats and potential adventurous acts of enemies.’

In turn, the Americans have warned Iran off. According to Washington, ‘Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz. They’ve done that in the past. They saw the international community put dozens of nations of the international community naval forces in for exercises to clear the straits. Clearly, this would be an attack on international shipping, and it would have, obviously, an international response to reopen the shipping lanes with whatever that took, because of the world’s economy depends on those energy supplies flowing out of there.’

This is fighting talk by both sides, but America has serious muscle on the water to back its rhetoric. The US 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, is the ‘combined 5th Fleet’, which means it does not just comprise the US Navy. As well as a powerful US Carrier Strike Force, it has got Kuwaiti, Bahraini, Saudi, and Emirati vessels under command, as well as the occasional Royal Navy warship (when Britain’s MoD can afford to spare one as a token gesture).

From the Iranian side this war of words is not just sabre rattling. This is a battle Iran dare not lose, for domestic reasons. The Government of President Hassan Rouhani is already facing serious trouble at home, where the opposition has demanded action on corruption and for renewed efforts to rescue the economy. A combination of scarcity and inflation has caused prices to soar. Everything from real estate, groceries, and electronic goods have almost doubled in price. Iran is facing the worst economic crisis the country has ever seen.

Worse is to come. Iran has major internal socio-political problems, with serious water shortages and street protests breaking out in the country since the beginning of 2018 over high prices, disconnected water supplies, power cuts and widespread corruption. Since the start of August 2018, thousands of people have rioted in Iranian cities – including Isfahan, Karaj, Shiraz and Ahvaz – in protest against high inflation caused in part by the collapsing rial.

Already there are signs of a widespread clampdown by the clergy and the Revolutionary Guards. What started off as protests, spurred on by the deteriorating economic conditions in Iran and the inflation in prices of basic necessities, could now escalate into a rebellion against the Islamic Republic itself. As domestic economic conditions get worse there is growing anger at Iran’s foreign policy – which includes spending billions of dollars to supply weapons and fighters to take over Syria, funding the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, as well as lending financial support to Lebanese Shi’ite group, Hezbollah – whilst Iranian citizens back home go short. The Mullahs can no longer rely on a docile population.

The questions to pose are, ‘To what extent are these protests threatening the theocratic regime?’ and ‘Could such an upheaval foreshadow a second Iranian revolution?’ This is a real possibility and it explains Washington’s adamantine stance. Despite US denials, Trump and his team really want nothing less than to bring the Mullahs down.

This would explain the sudden receptiveness of the regime to the pleas of the protesters. In January 2018, Iran’s Parliament rejected a then-recent budget plan that increased the price of petrol by 50% and proposed increases in the price of water, electricity, and gas (‘Protests, 2018 budget and public discourse in Iran’, Al Jazeera News, 30 January 2018).

This apparent responsiveness from the current Islamic Consultative Assembly government is a desperate attempt to defuse the sense of grievance felt by many Iranians in the hope of reducing the risk of more violence on the streets or, in the worst-case scenario, protests escalating into a fully fledged revolution. On every front, trouble looms.

Will it end in tears and war? If so, when? Who can predict the outcome?

Once again, the guns of August are loaded and ready to fire – on both sides of the crisis.

The Wolf at our Door

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,’ wrote Lord Byron in his famous poem about the ancient Persians on the rampage. Well, the modern Persians are on the rampage now; and they are right on our doorstep.

Fortunately President Trump is well aware of the danger; he has slammed the diplomatic door in Tehran’s face, to the fury of France, Germany and EU companies, all suddenly forced to ditch their lucrative contracts with Tehran.

One of the mistakes Westerners make is thinking that the Middle East is run by Arabs: wrong. The Middle East is mainly split between Persians and Arabs; and they don’t get on – and never have. The ancient Persians were the bane of Greece and Rome; it wasn’t until the fanatical Arabian warriors of Islam conquered Persia in 651 that the Persians even became Muslim. To this day Persia – now calling itself Iran (after its Persian name) – is a separate culture, language and even a separate branch of Islam.

Persians are Shi’ite Muslims and believe that Islam should be ruled by direct descendants of the Prophet.  Most Arabs are Sunni Muslims, believing that Muhammad’s successor was an elected Imam called Abu Bakr. The ‘religion of peace and love’ fell out in 661 when Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, was murdered. Since then the religious split has widened and acquired political significance – Persians are mainly Shi’a; the rest of the Arab world (85%) are Sunni.

This matters because the modern Assyrians are once again muscling in across the Middle East – and even further. Thanks to Iran, and the meddling Mullahs of Tehran, the great geo-strategic tectonic plates are shifting, and not necessarily for the better. Iran is on the march – and Iran wants a nuclear bomb.

Iran’s efforts to expand its influence are there for all to see. Following the rout of ISIS by Kurdish infantry and American and Russian air power, Iran now controls large swathes of the Middle East, as well as dominating the governments in Baghdad and Damascus, whilst simultaneously intimidating the Gulf States. Through its use of proxy fighters like the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, Tehran’s tentacles have now reached the Mediterranean. Iran is busy setting itself up as a regional superpower.

However, Tehran’s real interests are much wider; as Trump warned, we ignore them at our peril. Azerbaijan’s traditional alliance has been with Turkey: Azeris are ethnically Turkic, and the two countries’ languages have shared roots. However, with Turkey now mired down in Syria as a result of Ankara’s paranoia over the Kurds, Tehran is suddenly wooing Baku, because Azerbaijan was once part of the Persian Empire and over 20 million ethnic Azeris live in Iran. Tehran is concerned that the Azeris might try to break away – like the Kurds.

However, Iran’s interests are much wider than domestic unrest on its northern border. Assad’s rump Syria is, once again, effectively a Persian satrapy. This worries Jeddah, because far to the south west, Tehran is fighting a proxy war with Saudi Arabia, the other big player in the region. (‘War’ is no exaggeration. When guided missiles start falling near your capital, that’s war!) The luckless hosts for this struggle for regional dominance are the wretched Shi’a Houthis of Yemen, whose rebellion against their government is being brutally crushed by the Saudis and Gulf States, determined to stop the Shi’a gaining even more power on their doorstep.

Washington is not fooled by Tehran’s manoeuvrings, either. With respect to Iranian aims, US General Jack Keane warns: ‘Syria for Iran is a strategic anchor in the region … they really want to gain more influence and domination of the countries in the area … the Iranians have been conducting a military build-up in southern and south-western Syria .… What they really want to do is replicate what they’ve done in Lebanon, where Hezbollah have in their hands 130,000-plus rockets and missiles capable of reaching Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem. This is serious stuff, what Iran is up to. They certainly want to undermine the government of Israel, create instability and eventually, in time, destroy it.’

Iran’s leaders make no secret of their ambition to emerge as the dominant power in the Middle East and, eventually, the entire Islamic world. Tehran is quite open about its aims: to roll back the influence of the United States in the region and to work towards Israel’s destruction. For example, in 2015, Ali Younesi (a senior intelligence adviser to Iranian President Rouhani) outlined a clear blueprint for Iranian plans, describing Iran’s role as ‘protecting the interests of all the people in the region – because they are all Iran’s people .… We must try to once again spread the banner of Islamic-Iranian unity and peace in the region. Iran must bear this responsibility, as it did in the past.’ Interestingly he spoke of Iran’s past as an empire, and called for a ‘greater Iran’, stretching from the borders of China to the Persian Gulf.

There is however a built-in limit to imperial Iranian dreams: Sunni Arabs are deeply suspicious of Persians. As a Shi’a power, Tehran finds it difficult to win support outside Shi’ite Arab populations. The principal tool of Iranian expansion has been the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), led by the experienced Mohammad Ali Jafari, an advocate of asymmetric warfare using its elite al-Quds Force, whose prime mission is to create Shi’a political/military proxies in other countries and further the ‘Iranian Islamic Revolution’. The chaos in Syria and Lebanon opened the door to Iran’s take-over, using the IGRC as its vanguard.

Iran’s control of Iraq’s Shi’a Arabs rams the point home.   According to a recent report in the Asharq al-Awsat, the IRGC openly maintains a permanent staff of senior officers and political appointees in Baghdad to manage the Shi’a militias and control the Iraqi countryside.  Similar IRGC units are being set up in Syria and Lebanon.

Now Iran has been caught stirring up trouble in another area of expansion, this time on the Atlantic, a very long way from home: Morocco. When colonial Spain left Morocco in the 1970s, Polisario guerrillas fought for independence for the Sahrawi people until a UN-brokered ceasefire. However, Iran and its Lebanese Shi’ite ally, Hezbollah, have just been exposed running arms secretly to the Polisario and training its fighters. ‘Hezbollah sent military officials to Polisario and provided the front with … weapons and trained them in urban warfare’, according to Rabat. Intelligence reports confirm this meddling. Sunni Morocco has reacted by expelling the Iranian ambassador and severing all diplomatic ties.

However, the greatest danger of all is Iran’s nuclear ambitions, as Trump warned when he scrapped Obama’s 2015 naive Iranian deal. Under pressure from Obama and the EU, Iran had agreed to limit its attempt to develop a nuclear capability in return for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions. But, as Israeli intelligence has proved conclusively, the Persians lied and cheated. Now, despite EU corporations’ wails of lost profits, Trump has re-enforced savage sanctions to bring Tehran to its knees once again and scupper Iran’s nuclear programme once and for all. Iran’s aims may be ambitious but its armed forces lack any genuine capability to attack its neighbours; so, without a nuclear capability, Tehran’s options to become the bully on the block are limited.

Iran’s long-term strategy is clear: a naked grab for regional hegemony, mainly by controlling proxies. The irony is that Tehran has badly overplayed its hand; Iranian interference and subversion abroad has been too blatant and encouraged international resistance to Tehran’s over-ambitious dictators. Absolutely no-one wants to see the mad Mullahs with a nuclear bomb. Perhaps the Ayatollah should heed the old Persian proverb? ‘Experience teaches us that wishful thinking only leads to disappointment.’

But be in no doubt: the Iranian wolf is hungry.

Watch Out! There’s a War About

For once I find myself in total agreement with Vladimir Putin, who observed recently in a Blinding Glimpse of the Obvious that ‘the world is becoming a more chaotic place.’ Whilst Pres-for-life Vlad’s BGO doesn’t exactly qualify him as a great thinker, this time he is absolutely right. There’s a definite feeling abroad of an unravelling in world affairs; an uneasy sense that something nasty is lurking round the corner of history ….

As Nigel Molesworth put it so succinctly in Down with Skool: ‘History started badly and hav been getting steadily worse.’ Looking at our increasingly troubled world, maybe ‘the gorilla of 3B’ got it right.

But first, the good news. A few months ago we were all nervously observing a ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ US President threatening fire and fury at North Korea’s ‘Little Rocket Man’ over nuclear missiles. It was definitely steel helmet (and don’t forget your respirator) time. Now, thanks to Trump’s interesting blend of diplomacy, brutal economic sanctions and the threat of violence, Kim Wrong ’Un seems to have a sudden change of heart and is smiling for the cameras and shaking hands across the border. Sigh of relief all round?

However, let’s not get too excited. North Koreans have a consistent track record in talks with the South and the US: consistently lying and trousering the ‘Danegeld’ paid to them to behave themselves, whilst they ignore any agreements. We need to watch this ‘deal’ very carefully.

And let us not forget that Dictator Kim was threatening nuclear war whilst still presiding over appalling human-rights abuses as he ruthlessly executed friends and family alike to eliminate his rivals. Nonetheless, if President Trump really succeeds in negotiating an end to Kim’s nuclear provocations and the Korean War (‘Neutral ground or dramatic backdrop?‘, Telegraph, 23 April 2018), he will have defused a potentially apocalyptic global crisis.

Good luck with that.

Now for the bad news; and there is far too much, as Putin warns.  Intelligence analysts are warning that trouble is looming from at least three other directions: Syria and Iran; Israel; and a global economy deep in debt.

First, Syria, where the endless civil war to keep Assad and his Shi’a allies in power has morphed into something new – and much more worrying. UN Secretary General Guterres warns: ‘The Cold War is back with a vengeance – and a difference.’ The difference is that it is no longer cold. Something very dangerous is unfolding in the war-torn Middle East. A little-known Iranian-backed Shi’a group calling itself the ‘Baqir Brigade’ has declared jihad on US forces in Syria,  where Russian and American troops are only a rifle range apart.  The US, UK and France have already attacked Syrian military targets as a reprisal for the latest gas attack. The dangers are obvious. Any Russia and US fighting in Syria could detonate a hot war and set the entire Middle East on fire.

Further north, Turkey has invaded Syria to crush the Kurds – the warriors who really defeated ISIS on the ground. Meanwhile the Iranians and their Lebanese Shi’a proxy, Hezbollah, have set up a new battle front on Israel’s border. Iran effectively runs Syria now and is turning its malevolent eye against Israel.

This time the Mullahs are really playing with fire. Israel is not a normal country. Tel Aviv will fight like a cornered cat against an enemy that has sworn to ‘sweep the Jews into the sea.’ And Israel possesses nuclear weapons precisely to deter anyone stupid enough to threaten Israel’s very existence. Israel has warned that ‘it will retaliate with every means possible,’ if attacked by Iran and its friends.

Ironically, Iran’s nuclear ambitions may be unravelling at the very moment it tries to intimidate Israel. Tehran thought that it had pulled a stroke with nice Mr Obama with his 2016 no-nukes deal to get sanctions lifted, whilst continuing to build its Shi’a empire in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and now Yemen. Trump is having none of that. Despite Macron’s pleading for a cosy continuation of flogging French and EU goodies to oil-rich Iran, Trump pulled the plug on 12 May 2018 and re-imposed economic sanctions, blocking Iranian oil sales and wrecking Tehran’s not-so-secret nuclear plans.

This is bad news for the world economy, which is now just as vulnerable to a financial crisis as it was in 2008. Oil is the motor of commerce. Oil prices, which dropped to $30 a barrel in 2009 and 2016, are now rising as production cuts by OPEC and Russia have finally sold the world glut of oil; so supply dries up. Iranian sanctions alone will remove 500,000 barrels a day from the market.

Even America’s new oil-shale output cannot fill this gap between supply and demand. Now Brent crude has risen to $72 a barrel and will probably go higher now that Trump has re-imposed sanctions. This could be a global economic bombshell as various geostrategic crises explode. Saudi Arabia is already talking about $100 crude, setting off a speculators’ scramble;  ‘We are pretty confident that oil will be in triple digits by next year,’ opines Jean-Louis Le Mee from Westbeck Capital.

IMF reports warn of a chain-reaction for world finance. One is well-understood: debt. Global debt has been alarmingly high since the 2008 financial crisis. Since then, nations have continued to borrow hand over fist, pushing worldwide debt to $200 trillion (a trillion is a million, million million.)  That is nearly three times the size of the entire global economy.

The second economic problem is that the Chinese and German economies are going into reverse. Germany’s economy in particular is stalling surprisingly quickly. The economic miracle by the EU’s motor of industry is over and now even Berlin faces economic problems, warns Düsseldorf’s Macroeconomic Policy Institute: ‘The danger of recession has increased markedly. It is a more critical picture than just a month ago.’

All this is happening as Korea teeters on a knife edge, Washington and Moscow go head to head, Syria faces multiple wars, Israel and Iran are shaping up for a catastrophic showdown, and the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran over Yemen gets out of control with missile attacks on Saudi targets by Iranian-backed Houthis. A full blown religious war between Sunni and Shi’a has started. One intelligence analyst warns: ‘All it will take is one Houthi missile sinking a 200,000-ton oil tanker in the Gulf and the consequences would be global.’

Even here, on our island in the sun, alarming events are going on all around us. Suddenly bankrupt Greece is preparing to lease two French multi-purpose frigates to bolster its defences in the Aegean Sea, amid rising tensions with Turkey. Fighters are again on the alert over contested islands. Turkey sails warships to Cyprus to protect hydrocarbon finds. Hostages are being held on both sides. President Erdogan suddenly announces a snap election to choose the country’s next president and parliament on 24  June 2018, to give himself greater executive powers.

All this at a time when the Turkish economy is overheating, raising the possibility of another financial crisis like 2001, when the AKP first came to power promising a strong economy. With Turkish national borrowing skyrocketing and Ankara having to lure foreign money with promises of 13% interest on government bonds, this doesn’t look much like economic competence. The truth is that we are ‘living through interesting times,’ as the old Chinese curse puts it.

Whilst most normal people are just trying to get on with their lives, get to work, earn enough to raise a family and enjoy themselves, all around us alarming events look like coming to the boil. Politically we are living through world-changing history.

It’s an increasingly unstable and dangerous world.  We need to watch out for what is really going on out there.

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The New War

Well, that’s it. The war is over, ISIS is beaten and on the run. We can all relax and bring the boys home. Mission accomplished.

Wrong.

In May, President Trump stood before the assembled leaders of the Sunni Muslim world and called on them to ‘drive out the terrorists and extremists … from this earth.’ Well, they have succeeded. An extraordinary coalition of Syrian, Russian, American, British, Turkish, Kurdish and Iraqi military forces have crushed ISIS’s ‘caliphate’, killed most of its leadership and made the heroic ‘Fighters for God’ flee as fast as their strictly non-suicidal legs will carry them.

Unfortunately it’s not over. Islamic State survivors have dispersed into the global undergrowth to set up a network of IS franchises known as ‘wilaya’ (Arabic for ‘provinces’) stretching from the southern Philippines to Nigeria. ISIS is far from finished. Instead it has rebranded itself by merging with existing religious fanatics who hate the West and all it stands for, and who have pledged allegiance to IS’s aims. More ominously it has also absorbed – or taken over – the legacy of Osama bin Laden’s global network, al-Qaeda. Its new leader is thought to be none other than Osama’s son, Hamza bin Laden, who resurfaced in 2015 when al-Qaeda’s Zawahiri introduced him as the torchbearer of his father’s legacy. Hamza has sworn revenge on the United States in retaliation for Osama’s murder. He is considered by intelligence agencies to be the next charismatic leader of global jihadism.

That’s the bad news. The worse news is that after ISIS’s defeat there is now a vacuum in the Middle East. However, ‘as any fule kno’, nature abhors a vacuum and nowadays Iran is only too happy to fill that vacant space. The truth is that Iran played a larger role in the battles for Mosul and Raqqa than the Coalition admits, and Tehran is determined to cash in on its victory. The war between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, between Arabs and Persians, continues with an undeclared new war stretching from Iraq to Lebanon on the Mediterranean coast.

The problem is that Washington, firmly focused on the Korean nuclear crisis, has been forced to take its eye off the ball and concentrate on the problems of the Far East rather than the Middle East and the consequences of Obama’s feeble nuclear deal with Iran. The US is well aware of Tehran’s regional power grab; but Washington can only deal with one major foreign policy crisis at a time. Iran is shaping up to become a major problem, not just for US diplomats but for the whole region.

Colonel Richard Kemp, former head of international terrorism on the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee has warned that the Iranian Shi’a Ayatollahs’ destabilising actions are not just a threat to the Middle East but pose a grave threat to wider international security. In a recent interview, he said, ‘I see Iran as the greatest threat to world peace today. Not just to the Middle East, but elsewhere in the world.’

Kemp has a point. Iran is spoiling for a fight and has effectively declared war on Sunni Saudi Arabia. Intelligence reports are clear. Openly funding and arming the mainly Shi’a Houthi rebels in Yemen, Iran is now fighting a proxy war against the Saudi-backed Yemeni government. Earlier this month the rebels launched an Iranian-supplied Scud ballistic missile across the border at Riyadh International Airport. It was brought down by a Saudi surface-to-air missile. That looks like a war.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are now locked in a fierce struggle for regional dominance. The ancient feud between Arab and Persian is made worse by deep religious differences. Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and guardian of Islam’s holy places, sees itself as the leading Sunni state and leader of the Muslim world. However, the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution, with its theocratic regime of rule by the Ayatollahs, is a permanent challenge to the Saudi monarchy. Shi’ite Iran openly declares itself to be a ‘Revolutionary Muslim’ state, anxious to export its revolution beyond its own borders.

Both nations seek to ally themselves with countries with Sunni or Shi’a majorities, and who instinctively look towards Saudi Arabia or Iran for support. The uprisings across the Arab world have also added to the political instability throughout the region. The 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab, removed an intransigent Iranian adversary. Since then Iran has moved into Iraq – politically, militarily, economically and religiously – intent on establishing itself or its proxies across the region and determined to build a land corridor west to the Mediterranean. Intelligence photographs show the Iranians constructing a network of roads, electricity and communication lines extending from Iran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

In its turn, Saudi Arabia is working hard to thwart Tehran’s growing influence and regional ambitions. When Shi’a Houthi rebels seized control of Yemen’s capital Sana’a in 2014 and began pushing south to take over the country, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Sunni Arab states intervened to support their neighbour’s government. The result is that Yemen has now become a major battleground between Riyadh and Tehran.

This intervention by the Saudis’ Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – now Saudi’s de facto ruler – has exposed wider regional tensions. However, in his efforts to stem Iranian influence, ‘MbS’ has found an unusual ally: Israel. Strange bedfellows indeed! For years Saudis have been taught that Israel is the ‘eternal enemy‘ and Jews are the descendants of apes and pigs.

The real reason for this curious alliance is that both are equally nervous about Tehran’s ambitions. Israel and Saudi Arabia were the two countries most adamantly opposed to Obama’s 2015 international agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear programme.

Both warned that the treaty did not go far enough to prevent Iran obtaining the bomb. The danger is that Israel’s alliance with Saudi inevitably brings any proxy conflict uncomfortably close to Lebanon and Cyprus.

Tel Aviv is well aware that Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese allies, lead a politically powerful bloc and, crucially, control a large, well-armed Shi’a militia. Hezbollah in Lebanon is spoiling to begin another civil war like Syria’s and poses a serious problem, because any conflict in Lebanon will almost certainly draw in Israel. This could lead to yet another devastating Israeli-Lebanese war. Israel is right to be worried by Iran’s growing threat. With Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Al-Quds brigades now parked on Israel’s borders, the risks to regional peace are obvious.

The other risk is a direct war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That Iran is preparing for trouble across the Persian Gulf is not in doubt. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has recently installed sophisticated radar, surveillance and communication equipment covering all the routes from Iran to Basra, Najaf and Karbala on Iraq’s southern coast. Intelligence sources warn, ‘The purpose of these devices, which can be used for eavesdropping and spying on mobile phones and wireless Internet services, is to cover the Iraqi-Saudi border and monitor all communications and aircraft movements.’

This build up risks a much broader conflict across the waters of the Gulf. For the US and other Western powers, freedom of navigation in the Gulf is essential. Any conflict that blocked that waterway – vital for international shipping and oil transportation – would swiftly draw in US naval and air forces.

There are other indications of serious trouble. The sudden resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister because ‘he feared an assassination attempt by Hezbollah’ simply doesn’t pass muster. The truth is that the Saudis were furious at him for holding secret talks with Iranian and Hezbollah officials. The Middle East is breaking up; and Lebanon is directly in the firing line.

With Saudi Arabia now united with Israel against Iran, plus troubled Lebanon on the brink, a new desert storm is brewing in the Middle East.

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