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MAX Analysis Iran News: Agreement to seven month extension of talks on Iran’s nuclear program underlines interest in reaching consensus while highlighting existence of ongoing disputes November 27, 2014

Executive Summary

  • On November 24, the P5+1 and Iran announced a seven-month extension of the interim Joint Plan of Action following an inability to reach a final status agreement by the deadline.
  • The extension itself, along with the presence of Iran’s and all P5+1 Foreign Ministers during the conclusion of this last round of talks, underscores the continued interest in reaching a final status agreement, while Tehran’s uranium enrichment capabilities, as well as sanctions relief, likely remain key points of contention in talks.
  • An interest in reaching an agreement prior to the allotted seven-month deadline is likely encouraged further by calls for more sanctions against Iran from the US Congress, which will be controlled by the Republicans in January, and concerns that a lack of significant day-to-day economic improvement in the country may result in opposition to talks.
  • Western nationals are advised against all nonessential travel to Iran due to persistent negative sentiment toward the United States and other North American and Western European nations.

Iran Nuclear Talks: Current Situation

US Secretary of State John Kerry announced on November 24 the deadline for the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPoA) agreed between Iran and the P5+1, that a further seven month extension of talks had been agreed upon during this round of negotiations in Vienna, Austria. Although a seven month extension would bring the new deadline to June 24, 2015, Iran’s official news agency reported that it will be June 30, while British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond stated that the interim deal will be extended “until June next year”. At the conclusion of this round of talks, the foreign ministers from all P5+1 countries, as well as EU’s Catherine Ashton and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, were in attendance.

  • During his statement, Kerry also stated that “in these last days in Vienna”, the P5+1 and Iran “made real and substantial progress” and “new ideas surfaced”. He went on to state that the extension comes with “the very specific goal of finishing the political agreement within four months and with the understanding that we we will go to work immediately, meet again very shortly, and if we can do it sooner we want to do it sooner”. If, at the conclusion of these four months, the negotiating parties “have not agreed on the major elements… and there is no clear path, we can revisit how we then want to choose to proceed”. Unconfirmed reports state that the parties will meet again in December.
  • As part of this extension, as it was with the previous extension agreed upon in July, Iran will reportedly be receiving a portion of its frozen funds, paid out in installments and totaling 700 million USD per month.
  • This extension follows the issuance of a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on November 7 regarding the status of Iran’s nuclear program and agreements. According to the report, Iran has not enriched uranium higher than five percent “at any of its declared facilities” while “all of its stock” of higher-enriched uranium “has been further processed through downblending or conversion into uranium oxide”. It further stated that “no additional major components have been installed at the IR-40 Reactor” referring to the reactor at the Arak Heavy Water Plant”, and that “Iran has continued to provide the Agency with managed access to centrifuge assembly workshops, centrifuge rotor production workshops and storage facilities”.
  • On November 10, the IAEA issued a correction to the November 7 report, stating that enrichment of up to five percent uranium has increased to 8290.3 kg (the November 7 report placed this figure at 8390.3 kg).
  • The report also states that Iran has not provided additional information to allow the IAEA “to clarify the outstanding practical measures, nor has it proposed any new practical measures”, which was requested by the agency on September 4 as well as again on October 8. This is connected to “five practical measures” agreed upon as part of the November 11, 2013 “Framework of Cooperation”, to be implemented by August 25. However, at the time of writing, only three have been implemented, including two of the three after the deadline. This is despite two “technical meetings” between the IAEA and Iran on November 2 and October 7. Reports indicate that resolution of this issue was temporarily postponed ahead of the final round of talks in Vienna.

Assessments

  1. The agreed-upon extension, along with reports, including statements from Kerry, that progress was achieved prior to the extension’s announcement, underline the parties’ continued interest in reaching a final status agreement. Such interest was further highlighted by the attendance of the foreign ministers from all involved parties, along with the EU’s Catherine Ashton. This included the last-minute arrival of the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers, reportedly during the evening hours of November 23 and the morning of November 24, respectively. This suggested an effort to make a final push toward an agreement or at least progress on the remaining contentious issues. In this context, while an agreement was unable to be reached by the now-extended November 24 deadline, the four month “deadline within a deadline” also points to an interest in resolving this issue prior to June 2015. This is also underscored by Kerry’s statement that they “will go to work immediately” as well as Zarif’s iteration that they “do not intend to use the whole period”. This all serves to suggest that the unconfirmed reports of talks resuming in December are credible.
  2. Amidst reports of progress, upcoming talks are likely to continue to focus largely on Iran’s enrichment capabilities, which has reportedly been one of the main ongoing contentious issues. In this context, we continue to assess that, for the P5+1, enrichment capabilities involves ensuring that Iran’s breakout capability is limited, referring to the amount of time in which Tehran could produce a sufficient amount of “bomb-grade” material. For Iran, this capability needs to be at a level able of maintaining what its perceives as a sufficient civilian nuclear program, with previous reports indicating that Iran has estimated its requirements at 190,000 separative work units (SWU), which refers to a standard measure of enrichment. Reports indicate that discussions have focused on the number of permitted centrifuges, rather than SWUs, with reports from a government-linked Iranian news source previously reporting that Iran was offered as part of an agreement, and rejected, to operate 4,700 first generation (IR-1) centrifuges. Researchers on this issue have reported that the IR-1 reactors have an enrichment capability of between 0.7 and 1.0 SWU per year. With this in mind, it cannot be ruled out than any final agreement will include enrichment capabilities based on SWUs rather than numbers of centrifuges.
  3. Moreover, Iran’s negotiating team needs to mitigate perceptions of excessive capitulation to the P5+1 demands, given that the civilian nuclear program maintains widespread support and the presence of hardliners, some of which are opposed to the negotiations themselves. This is underlined by reports that approximately 200-300 hardliners protested near Tehran’s Research Reactor on November 23 criticizing the nuclear negotiations. The protest reportedly received official approval and the participants, in addition to chanting “Death to America”, demanded that negotiators refuse to give into excessive Western demands. 
  4. Other disputed topics will be discussed as well, with reports that sanctions relief, and particularly the speed of such relief, has been one such topic. The P5+1, and particularly Western parties, may be aiming for a more gradual removal dependant on Iranian adherence to the final agreement, while Iran is likely looking for the opposite given its interest in improving its still struggling economy. In this context, Tehran is liable to see sanctions on its banking, oil, and gas industries as the most essential for removal. Conversely, sanctions that were implemented by certain parties, including the US, for humanitarian issues or Iran’s support for militant groups, are likely to remain in place even in the event of an agreement.
  5. Iran’s aforementioned failure to implement two of the five practical measures agreed upon with the IAEA is liable to also remain an overarching issue. While the Framework of Cooperation is a separate agreement signed with the IAEA, much of the information requested in such practical measures have been part of the JPoA, pointing to the connection between the two. Moreover, given that the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program was what triggered the initial sanctions and ultimately talks to begin with, the failure to provide information requested by the IAEA may raise concerns and suspicions among negotiating parties, while likely does not serve to instill confidence. That said, given the postponement of this issue until the November 24 deadline, we assess that meetings between the IAEA and Iran will resume in the coming months with the aim of implementing the final two measures and agreeing to more. Iran’s interest in achieving a final status agreement, underlined in previous assessments and highlighted by the IAEA report that confirms its continued adherence to the JPoA, is liable to serve as encouragement in this regard. Moreover, it is also possible that any such final agreement will include a provision stipulating continued Iranian adherence to the Framework of Cooperation.
  6. Moreover, we do assess that, while talks have, thus far, steadily continued without significant interruption, there remain events that could serve to directly affect talks. This includes reports that Republicans in the US Congress, who will have a majority in both houses in January 2015, have called for action with regard to Iran come January. A joint statement, for example, was released by three Republican Senators on November 24 stating that they “believe the latest extension of talks should be coupled with increased sanctions and a requirement that any final deal with Iran and the United States be sent to Congress for approval”. That said, the JPoA states that “the US Administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions”, while Iran would certain perceive such action as being in violation. Despite this, we assess that US President Barack Obama’s interest in achieving an agreement, coupled with his previous statement that he would veto any legislation involving new sanctions, reduces the potential for congressional activity to derail talks.
  7. Finally, the effort to reach an agreement in a shorter time span than the seven months allotted may also be connected to a recognition that, in addition to the previously-discussed alteration in the makeup of US Congress, patience with the ongoing talks, that will hit a year’s mark in January, could diminish. This includes in Iran, with reports that day-to-day economic difficulties have persisted. While the official news agency reported on November 26 that inflation has reduced to 17.8 percent in the month ending November 21, reports suggest that the cost of food has increased in 2014 and unemployment remains relatively high. This includes among the 16-24 age group, with reports that the official unemployment rate is nearly 23 percent among this population and allegations that unofficial rates are higher. In this context, the release of frozen funds and limited sanctions relief, along with policies implemented by Rouhani, have worked to gradually assist in improving the country’s economic situation, particularly macroeconomically and especially when compared to previous months when inflation was as high as 40 percent.
  8. That said, the aim of such sanctions relief and release of frozen assets was likely intended to allow some improvement to Iran’s economy, but not so much that motivation to reach a final status agreement would be removed. Thus, while some of the population may perceive the improvement witnessed as indicators that a final status agreement would spur further developments, the absence of significant day-to-day improvement may also trigger reduced support for talks. Potential opposition to Rouhani’s policies from this sector, in conjunction with the aforementioned existing discontent among more conservative, anti-Western, and hardline members of society, could increase pressure on negotiators. At this point however, and amidst persistent anti-Western rhetoric, the country’s Supreme Leader continues to demonstrate support for Rouhani, while the interest in removing sanctions may serve to overcome any emerging or growing opposition.

Recommendations

  1. Western nationals are advised against all nonessential travel to Iran due to persistent negative sentiment toward the United States and other North American and Western European nations. For non-Western nationals, travel to Tehran, Esfahan, and other major cities in Iran may continue while adhering to basic security precautions regarding civil unrest and adherence to cultural norms.
  2. We advise against all nonessential travel to outlying border areas with Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Iraq, and Armenia due to ongoing militant activity.
  3. Those traveling to Iran should anticipate prolonged questioning by customs officials. Refrain from traveling with sophisticated cameras or other features affiliated with journalists. Cooperate with all security officials and respond to questioning in a respectable and calm manner.
  4. Refrain from discussing the current political situation, Iran’s nuclear program, or tensions with the United States and Israel with local residents as a basic precaution. Be advised that authorities may monitor communications from hotels and other facilities frequented by foreigners, while internet access may be limited.

In the event that embassy services are required, it is advised to check the operational status of pertinent embassies and consulates. Consular services for US citizens are provided through the auspices of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, while those for British citizens are provided through any EU embassy.

Max Security Analysis Iran: June 20 IAEA report, indications of progress on contentious issues highlights adherence to agreements, effort to reach deadline June 29, 2014

Current Situation
On June 20, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued a report comprised of 14 points delineating Iranian adherence to the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPoA) signed between Iran and the P5+1 on November 24, 2013 and implemented on January 20. Key points include the following:
  • The IAEA states that Iran has not enriched uranium above five percent at its declared facilities.
  • Iran has completed the requisite dilution of half (104.56 of 209.1 kg) of its higher-level (20 percent) enriched uranium to five percent. It has also converted 100 kg into uranium oxide, leaving approximately 4.54 kg to be converted by the JPoA’s July 20 deadline.
  • There have been no “further advances” to Iran’s activities at the Fuel Enrichment Plant, the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant, or the Arak Heavy Water Plant.
  • Iran has also begun the commissioning of the “Enriched UO2 Powder Plant (EUPP)”, which will be utilized for converting uranium newly enriched to five percent during the six month interim period to oxide.
Meanwhile, reports indicate that the next round of high level talks between the P5+1 and Iran will extend over a two-week period from July 2-15 in Vienna, ahead of the July 20 deadline. This follows the previous round from June 16-20, also in Vienna.
  • In addition, according to reports from June 27, the UN Security Council’s Panel of Experts on Iran concluded that Iran was the source of a weapons shipment destined for Sudan and seized by Israel’s navy in the Red Sea in March in a Panamanian-flagged ship called the Klos C. The shipment reportedly included M302 rockets and fuses, 120 mm mortar shells, and 7.62 caliber ammunition. Reports indicate that the panel concluded that the shipment is a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1747.

Continue reading Max Security Analysis Iran: June 20 IAEA report, indications of progress on contentious issues highlights adherence to agreements, effort to reach deadline June 29, 2014

Strategic Analysis: Impact of Iranian covert activity on the interim nuclear agreement

They say old habits die hard. For Iran’s elite Quds Force, the secretive external branch of the Revolutionary Guard, the habits of subversion and mafia-style revenge against the Islamic Republic’s adversaries may never die at all.  The actions of these self-described promoters of the Islamic Revolution may just determine whether the smiles, handshakes, and twitter posts of President Rouhani signal an end to Iran’s destabilizing meddling in the Middle East — or are a mere diversion from the unrelenting sectarian aims of the regime’s true power brokers.

Qassim Solemani, the head of the IRGC-QF
Qassim Solemani, the head of the IRGC-QF

With the eyes of the world still sharply focused on Iran’s behavior following the clinching of an interim nuclear agreement with the P5+1, the restraint of the Quds Force is already being tested.

A New Turning Point?

On November 19, just as Tehran’s negotiating team arrived in Geneva to hammer out the last details of that agreement, the Iranian embassy in southern Beirut was hit by a devastating double suicide bombing attack. Twenty-three people were killed, including Iran’s cultural attaché and several other nationals whose identities and affiliations have not been disclosed.

On the surface, the attack could be construed as part of an ongoing campaign by Syrian rebel sympathizers to target pro-Assad regime elements in Lebanon, preceded by two other indiscriminant bombings in Hezbollah-dominated suburbs of the city in recent months.

But both Hezbollah and Iranian officials red-flagged this attack for its notable sophistication, indicating the hand of a far more capable foreign power. According to their claims, the attackers knew the location of the ambassador’s office and his itinerary that day, with the second bomber using sophisticated explosives meant to detonate upwards rather than horizontally in order to collapse the building. Continue reading Strategic Analysis: Impact of Iranian covert activity on the interim nuclear agreement

Iran Elections Analysis: Support for Ahmadinejad Camp Waning

On April 18, President Ahmadinejad held a rally at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium to celebrate Iran’s recent tourism industry successes. In the days prior, Ahmadinejad’s political opponents, including within Iran’s clerical leadership, warned that the president would use the venue to campaign for his main political ally Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.

Although a number of government officials were present at the rally, Mashaei did not make an appearance and no reference was made to the upcoming presidential elections. Mashaei’s possible candidacy for presidential elections in June 2013 has been a point of contention between the president and the clerical leadership, the latter maintaining that Mashaei’s secular leanings are a threat to their influence.

Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei
Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei

Reports indicate that attendance at the stadium, which can accommodate 100,000 people, ranged between 40,000 to 70,000 for Ahmadinejad’s rally. Many state-owned media outlets had refused to cover the event, although the IRNA news agency gave the highest number of 70,000.

The inability of Ahmadinejad’s camp to fill the Azadi stadium was coupled with an egress of supporters toward the end of the ceremony, as few people remained to hear the president’s final remarks. Reports further indicate that many of the attendees had been transported to the stadium from outlying areas, despite the president’s generally stronger support from the capital’s residents. Furthermore, scuffles between attendees and stadium employees over food distribution are indicative of possible incentives promised by Ahmadinejad’s camp in exchange for attending the rally.

Continue reading Iran Elections Analysis: Support for Ahmadinejad Camp Waning

Intelligence Analysis: Iranian intentions following resumption of nuclear negotiations

On February 26-27, nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 resumed in Kazakhstan after an eight month deadlock, concluding with a pledge to continue talks in March and April, respectively.  On March 18, technical experts from both sides will meet in Istanbul, while high-level talks will be held weeks later on April 5-6 in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Following the conclusion of talks, chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili issued notably positive statements, calling the talks “a turning point,” and that a newly enhanced proposal offered by Western powers was “more realistic,” likely in reference to the previously rejected proposal offered in June 2012 talks in Moscow.

The proposal reportedly offered by Western powers included  an easing of sanctions on the trade of gold and other precious metals, in exchange for halting uranium enrichment to 20% levels. In an unprecedented move, the West dropped a longstanding demand that Iran close its heavily fortified enrichment facility at Fordow, while offering to allow Iran to keep a small portion of its 20% enriched uranium stockpile instead of transferring it to a third country for conversion. The proposal did not include any lifting of sanctions on Iran’s energy sector.

Continue reading Intelligence Analysis: Iranian intentions following resumption of nuclear negotiations

Iran: Emerging rift with American government over timetable for military action to increase potential for unilateral Israeli strike (September 7, 2012)

Current Situation
Sources reported on September 3 that the United States had informed Iran through European nations that the American government will not support an Israeli strike if Iran refrains from targeting U.S. interests in the region.  Washington has denied these reports.

  • In response, an Iranian naval commander announced on September 5 that Iran views any attack by Israel as an attack by the United States, as well.
  • Meanwhile, reports indicate that the United States has taken action to forestall an Israeli attack upon Iran’s nuclear facilities.  These steps include minesweeping drills in the Persian Gulf and the installation of new radar systems in Qatar.
  • American President Barack Obama is also allegedly mulling covert actions and cyber warfare tactics once rejected, as well as releasing official declarations of what may induce U.S. military action.
  • The latest findings by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) indicate that Iran has more than doubled the number of centrifuges at its nearly impenetrable Fordow facility since May 2012, though they have yet to become operational.  However, other reports question the sophistication of these centrifuges.
  • These developments come in light of Iranian announcements of a large-scale air defense drill planned for October, as well as reports that an American-Israeli military exercise also slated for October will be smaller in scale than originally expected.
  • During the week of September 5, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak asserted that his government and the Obama administration agree on the gravity of a nuclear Iran, albeit not on the timetable for a preventative strike. That statement came after the visit of the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Israel, while a US congressman confirmed that Prime Minister Netanyahu had indeed engaged in a heated argument with US Ambassador Shapiro over the timetable for a strike.

Assessments: Current American efforts to deter Israeli unilateral action unlikely to succeed given ongoing Iranian enrichment activity 

  1. These recent incidents reveal a two-pronged strategy to American policy toward Iran, the first facet of which is to ‘buy time’ in order to forestall an Israeli attack.   The planned military drills, anti-missile systems, and tentative plans for more intensive covert operations and cyber warfare each suggest attempts to persuade Israel that there are effective alternatives to a military strike.  These actions also may signal to Iran that the threat from the United States is both credible and great.
  2. The second facet of American strategy is based upon fears within the Obama administration that an Israeli strike will result in severe and negative ramifications for U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf.  These efforts to negotiate with Iran suggest ongoing efforts to publicly and privately distance the United States from Israel in an attempt to secure American assets in the region in the event of an Israeli attack.  However, the September 5 statements by the Iranian military commander highlight the continuing tensions between the United States and Iran and the futility to diplomatically engage Tehran thus far.
  3. The latest IAEA report on the acceleration of the Iranian nuclear program has likely increased Jerusalem’s fears over Iranian nuclear advancement, namely that Tehran is inching closer toward nuclear weapons capabilities at facilities which are heavily defended from a military attack.  The Israeli’s likely interpret IAEA reports of increased enrichment activity at the Fordow facility that international efforts, American or otherwise, have been insufficient.

Assessments: Rift with Obama administration over credible military option to increase Israeli willingness to engage in unilateral action

  1. Reports of the back-channel American messaging to Iran will likely further increase tensions with Israel.  Israeli sources indicate that relations between the two states have recently declined, while unverified sources in the White House claim that Israel is viewed as attempting to force American participation in an unnecessary regional conflict.  U.S. efforts to procure safeguards from Iran, as well as the expectations of a downgraded American-Israeli military drill further reflect and may exacerbate already strained ties.
  2. The recent argument between PM Netnayahu and Ambassador Shapiro, in addition to Defense Minister Barak’s statements over the disconnect on the urgency of a strike suggests that the Israelis doubt American resolve to present a credible military option at this point. The Israeli government currently believes that a credible threat of military action by the Americans will be enough to deter their nuclear progress, as seen following the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq. Following that conflict, the Israelis interpreted the halt in Iranian nuclear activity as a signal that a sufficient threat of military action would further halt Iranian nuclear progress.
  3. We assess that in absence of a credible military deterrent by the Americans, including concrete “red lines” for such action, the Israelis will be further inclined to consider unilateral military action. An announcement by the Americans for such red lines in the time leading up to the UN General Assembly in September 2012, in addition to increased military buildup in the Persian Gulf, will encourage the Israelis to reconsider such actions.

Assessments: Iran unlikely to launch unprovoked attack against American interests in Persian Gulf despite recent threats

  1. In the event of a strictly unilateral strike by Israel without American involvement, the Iranians are unlikely to launch attacks against American military installations, or Sunni Arab states which host them. Despite recent statements to the contrary, we assess that the Iranians remain fearful of drawing the United States and Persian Gulf nations into a broad conflict, which would likely result in the weakening of the Iranian military.
  2. The Iranian threats against American interests are further meant to deter the Americans attacking Iran on their own or from joining hostilities resulting from an Israeli-led Strike. Should the Americans openly join such a conflict or launch their own attack, the Iranians are likely to target American interests and military bases throughout the Persian Gulf, but refrain from attacking civilian populations of Sunni Arab host nations.

Recommendations
A military strike against Iran will significantly impact stability in the region, particularly in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, as well as Israel, Lebanon, and Syria.  Those traveling in these nations are advised to regularly review their emergency and contingency procedures as a basic security precaution; please consult with Max Security Solutions for specific recommendations and assessments regarding the impact of a military strike on operations in these countries.

Strategic Analysis: Regional implications of suspected Israeli airstrikes in Syria

Since Israel’s brazen airstrike on Syrian territory Jan. 30, Israel’s enemies have yet to retaliate. Syria, Iran, and their proxy, Hezbollah, together comprise the region’s heavily-armed fighting force, and yet remain unwilling to make good on pledges to respond with aggression to any Israeli force.

Even Syria’s enemies have begun to take notice of the nonresponse, exploiting the Assad regime’s inaction for their own propaganda purposes. In Turkey, where relations with Israel are seriously strained, President Ahmet Davutoglu asked: “Why didn’t [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad even throw a pebble when Israeli jets were flying over his palace and playing with the dignity of his country?”

Israeli airstrikes reportedly targeted a weapons convoy leaving the Jamraya research facility near Damascus on January 30.
Israeli airstrikes reportedly targeted a weapons convoy leaving the Jamraya research facility near Damascus on January 30.

Depending on whom you ask, Israel either hit sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles in Syria that were en-route to the Lebanese border and Hezbollah (this is the US and Israeli explanation), or it hit a symbolic military research center northwest of Damascus (the Syrian version). But at this point, speculation over which targets were hit, where they were located, or what exact purpose they served is irrelevant.

What is relevant, is that Israel clearly retains the strategic high ground against its enemies, with full knowledge that Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah are bogged down in the swamp of civil war, economic sanctions, or diplomatic isolation.

The Israeli strike against Syria has to be looked at in the context of last November’s conflict between Hamas and Israel – when Hamas fired some 1,500 rockets from the Gaza Strip, including longer range Iranian-made missiles that reached Tel Aviv for the first time. Israel successfully protected itself with its anti-missile system, called Iron Dome. The Syria strike shows that the last round in the Gaza Strip emboldened the Israeli military to go after Hezbollah, a far more fearsome enemy.

Knowing that its Iron Dome system was battle tested, Israel was able to confidently deploy the anti-missile system near Israel’s strategic industrial centers in Haifa prior to the attacks on Syria. Tanks and troops had been moved to the border with Syria, backed by a political establishment that had spent months coordinating with regional and international allies through back channels to gain support for such action. Continue reading Strategic Analysis: Regional implications of suspected Israeli airstrikes in Syria

Political Analysis: Impact of inter-Shiite rivalries in Iraq

A year after America’s withdrawal from Iraq, the country’s struggle for stability and security persists. Sunni protests are continuing following a government raid against Finance Minister Rafie al-Esawi’s home on Dec. 20. The protests, which have recently acquired the backing of some of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s main Shiite rivals – the Sadrists – come as the Shiite-led Iraqi government is already facing increased pressure from a persistent border standoff with Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG). Regardless of whether al-Maliki survives the current campaign against him, the concept of a unified Iraq – shared between its many sects – will continue to suffer.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The protests are sectarian in nature, propagated mainly by Sunni Islamists and aimed at reducing al-Maliki’s influence and that of the Shiites over Iraq. Their demands are unlikely to be met. While Iraq’s government, security forces, and Shiites have faced years of deadly Sunni insurgent attacks, the protests underscore an increased effort by the country’s Sunnis to replicate mass protests held elsewhere in the region and pressure al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government.

Protest leaders are likely aiming to capitalize upon perceived justification for mass protests following the government’s decision to act against al-Esawi. The timing also coincides with increasing pressure against Baghdad from the ongoing Kurdish dispute over territory in northern Iraq. The Kurdish gains and the Sunni revolt in Syria are likely giving many Iraqi Sunnis increased motivation to call for regional autonomy.

Continue reading Political Analysis: Impact of inter-Shiite rivalries in Iraq

Intelligence Analysis: Risks of PKK-Turkey disarmament talks

In recent weeks, dialogue efforts between the Turkish government and Abdullah Ocalan, a prominent imprisoned Kurdish separatist leader have intensified, with the stated aim of disarming the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), after three decades of conflict and over 40,000 deaths. On January 8, Turkish media outlets published reports which cautiously indicated that negotiations with Ocalan had yielded a potential four-point roadmap for PKK disarmament in exchange for minority rights and amnesty for thousands of Kurdish prisoners in Turkish jails. Notably, calls for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey were not mentioned as part of Ocalan’s demands.

Kurdish PKK militants stand in formation.
Kurdish PKK militants stand in formation.

While the both sides have refused to verify reports of an agreement, the Erdogan administration did concede that pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) deputy Ayla Akat Ata and Kurdish politician Ahmet Turk met with Ocalan on December 29 on Imrali Island, where he has been imprisoned since 1999.   Until that visit, the infamous PKK founder had only been permitted to speak with Turkish military and intelligence officials. Ocalan, long considered the godfather of terrorism in Turkey, reportedly told the Kurdish lawmakers that the time for armed struggle has ended.

2012 was reported as the deadliest year of PKK related violence in over a decade with a noticeable uptick in civilian casualties. While the PKK has traditionally focused its attacks on Turkish security installations and personnel, the recent spike in attacks targeting civilians suggests more radical offshoots such as the the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) are gaining influence.  With that being said, Ankara’s renewed efforts to formulate a ceasefire are likely an attempt to quell the increased radicalism within the Kurdish separatist camp while also attempting to discontinue the perpetuation of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict over the long term.

Continue reading Intelligence Analysis: Risks of PKK-Turkey disarmament talks

Intelligence Analysis: Iranian influence in the Gaza Strip

For Iran and the Assad regime, intermission is over. The swift ending of the Gaza conflict is likely to thrust the bloodshed in Syria and the Iranian nuclear crisis back onto center stage, with an ever-invigorated Western-Arab alliance raising the curtain and directing the spotlight. Yet, in their overly-romantic portrayal of successful U.S. shuttle diplomacy and Egypt’s emergence as a responsible mediator, global punditry has underestimated the Ayatollahs’ continued ability to plunge the Gaza Strip back into chaos at their leisure.

Smoke rises from IDF air strikes in the Gaza Strip during Operation Pillar of Defense.

Iran purposefully and undoubtedly fired the first shots of this latest escalation, which began four days prior to Israel’s assassination of Hamas leader Ahmed Jabari on November 14. On November 10, militants from the Iranian-backed Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) fired an advanced Kornet missile at an IDF border patrol, igniting four days of hostilities between Israel and other Gaza-based militant groups, primarily Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The use of such a highly accurate weapon was a game changer, prompting the IDF to plan Jabari’s killing soon after as a response.

While alliances between militant groups in the Gaza Strip are about as stable as quicksand, Israel has long maintained that it holds Hamas responsible for any violence emanating from the coastal enclave. This includes attacks from the PRC, whose successful use of a highly-sophisticated Kornet missile underscores just how advanced even fringe militant groups in the Gaza Strip have become under Iranian direction.
Continue reading Intelligence Analysis: Iranian influence in the Gaza Strip