Tag Archives: Yemen

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 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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