Thursday, June 15, 2017

Eye on Iran: Syria's Newest Flashpoint Is Bringing U.S. And Iran Face To Face

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Southern Syria, once the quietest corner of the country's multisided conflict, has unexpectedly become the most volatile flashpoint between America and Iran as the two countries vie for control. The U.S. military has moved mobile artillery-rocket launchers into southern Syria for the first time, as American troops in the area face increasing dangers from Iran-backed forces. Iran's best-known military commander, meanwhile, was photographed praying with allied fighters in Syria, a visit seen by some U.S. officials as a public taunt by Tehran. Worried that the situation may spiral out of control, top U.S. military commanders are pressing Moscow to step in. "This is rapidly developing, it's not settled at all and I don't even know that there's a good direction determined yet," one U.S. official said. "Everybody's trying to figure out what to do here. It's in nobody's interest for us to get into an active fight with these pro-regime forces."

An Iranian naval patrol boat shined a laser at a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter flying over the Strait of Hormuz in what officials said was an unsafe encounter. U.S. Navy Cmdr. Bill Urban said Wednesday that the Iranian vessel also turned its spotlight on two Navy ships that were moving through the strait on Tuesday. Urban, a U.S. Fifth Fleet spokesman, said the Iranian boat came within 800 yards of the USS Bataan, an amphibious assault ship, and scanned it from bow to stern with the spotlight. It also shined the light on the USS Cole, a guided missile destroyer. The Marine CH-53E Super Stallion heavy lift helicopter automatically fired flares in response to the laser. No one was injured and there was no damage to the ships. A third American vessel, the USNS Washington Chambers cargo ship, was accompanying the others but was not affected.

Iranian forces killed two members of a Sunni Muslim jihadist group in the city of Chabahar on Wednesday and arrested five others, the intelligence minister said, as security forces stepped up measures to prevent militant attacks. Last week, suicide bombers and gunmen attacked parliament and Ayatollah Khomeini's mausoleum in Tehran, killing 17 people in what was an unprecedented security breach for Iran. Islamic State claimed responsibility and threatened more attacks against Iran's majority Shi'ite population, whom the hardline Sunni militants consider heretics. Iran has arrested almost 50 people in connection with the attacks  On Wednesday, state media reported that security forces had fought with members of Ansar al-Furqan, a militant Sunni group, in Chabahar, a city in southeastern Iran. Intelligence minister Mahmoud Alavi was quoted as saying by state media that two militants had been killed and five arrested. One security officer was also killed, he said.


Foreign Minister Zarif's effort at deflection portrays Iran as a beacon of democracy in a region of autocrats He criticizes Middle East neighbors and American allies for their role in global conflicts, all the while ignoring Iran's notorious domestic repression and record of sponsoring wars in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. President Hassan Rouhani's re-election is touted as a symbol of the Iranian public's desire to engage with the world, yet neither he nor his foreign minister has ever had control over Iran's regional policies. The supreme leader drives policy and politics, and his decisions consistently support export of Iran's radicalism and terrorism. Tehran has provided plenty of its own "beautiful military equipment" - an estimated $6 billion a year - to prop up Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime with men and money, and arms are supplied to Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. While fighting extremism in the region remains the challenge of our time, it is mendacious for Iran to portray itself as an innocent bystander. Its bloodstained record tells a different story.


Former Secretary of State John Kerry lobbied for the Iran nuclear deal on Wednesday by saying it helped the US. avoid armed conflict, and that leaders of some Middle East countries wanted the U.S. to attack Iran. "We were hurtling toward conflict," Kerry said at an annual retreat of "mediators and peace process actors" in Oslo, Norway. "I mean, there's just no other way to describe it." "Leaders in the region were saying to me personally, and to the president, President Obama, you should bomb these guys," Kerry said. "That's the only way to resolve this issue." "And we chose a different path," he said. "What we did is to find a mutually acceptable way to guarantee that both sides were able to agree on a path forward that met both sides' needs."


India's oil imports from Iran have fallen to their lowest since June 2016, shipping data shows, in possible retaliation for Tehran not awarding a gas field development to Indian companies. India, Iran's top oil client after China, shipped in 487,600 barrels per day (bpd) in May, about 9 percent less compared with April and nearly 40 percent less than a peak registered in October, according to ship tracking data obtained from sources and data compiled by Thomson Reuters Oil Research & Forecasts. Most Western-led sanctions against Tehran's nuclear programme were lifted in January last year, and India's Iranian crude imports began climbing two months later in March. In the fiscal year to March 2018, though, India has said it plans to order about a quarter less Iranian crude due to a snub over development of Iran's Farzad B gas field.


Whether thanks to hesitation, poor planning or a total lack of strategy, U.S. forces have been frozen out of eastern Syria, with Iran and the Syrian regime gladly seizing the initiative and securing a foothold on the Iraqi border. Remote, sparsely populated and seemingly unremarkable, the area around Al-Tanf on the Syria-Iraq border has become increasingly strategic, as the militant group Daesh (ISIS) prepares to make its last stand in Syria's east. It is in this desert outpost that the United States has been training Syrian rebels, apparently with a view to expand north and put a physical U.S. presence in between pro-Iran militias in Iraq and the Daesh-held Euphrates valley in Syria. From here, Washington believed, a Sunni Arab force could be built up to rid the area of Daesh and deny the space to Iran and the Syrian regime.


Three years after the last war in Gaza, the leaders of Israel and Palestine seem to be lurching toward another round of fighting-although not for the reasons you may think. On Sunday, the Israeli security cabinet agreed, at the request of the Palestinian president, to reduce the amount of electricity it supplies to the blockaded territory by 40 percent. The officials came to the decision even after top Israeli generals warned it would lead to a humanitarian crisis in the strip, where 1.9 million people are bracing for a scorching summer with perhaps only three hours of power per day. Hamas, the militant Islamist group that controls Gaza, warned of an "explosion." Blackouts are not the only issue, however: If there is a fresh round of fighting, it may be sparked by a diplomatic crisis happening some 1,100 miles away-one that both the Israeli defense minister and U.S. President Donald Trump have goaded on.


Women in Iran have found a middle ground in the struggle between those who want to cover their hair and those who don't in a new campaign called White Wednesday or "Wednesday without compulsion." Now running for the fourth week, the campaign invites women and men to wear white veils, scarves or bracelets, the color of peace, to show their opposition to the mandatory dress code. It is the latest initiative of journalist Masih Alinejad, founder of My Stealthy Freedom, an online movement advocating freedom of choice. "This campaign is addressed to women who willingly wear the veil, but who remain opposed to the idea of imposing it on others. Many veiled women in Iran also find the compulsory imposition of the veil to be an insult. By taking footages of themselves wearing white, these women can also show their disagreement with compulsion," Alinejad wrote in a post on the My Stealthy Freedom Facebook page announcing the beginning of the campaign on May 24.


Under the terms of the nuclear deal with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), key restrictions would expire if  the IAEA formally reaches a "broader conclusion" that Tehran's nuclear program is entirely peaceful. Such a conclusion would result in the lifting of the UN's remaining non-nuclear sanctions, including the ban on ballistic missile testing and the conventional arms embargo.  Furthermore, the U.S. and EU would delist additional entities from their sanctions lists.  Notably, the EU would delist all entities affiliated with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the organization responsible for both terrorist activities abroad as well as key aspects of the nuclear program. Spurring the IAEA to reach a broader conclusion as quickly as possible appears to be Iran's goal. In a televised speech in the middle of May, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani expressed his intention to engage in "lifting all the non-nuclear sanctions during the coming four years" - at least two years earlier than the JCPOA would otherwise allow.  Unless additional steps are taken to redress the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) closing of Iran's possible military dimension (PMD) file in December 2015,  it is technically possible for the IAEA to reach a broader conclusion within four years.

I had visited the sprawling mausoleum of the founder of the Islamic republic multiple times, trying to blend in with pilgrims. I would sit on the thick red carpets with visitors from across Iran and beyond, talking with them about the war in Syria, the latest soap operas and coming elections. Sometimes officials would ask me who I was, only to offer tea and let me be. Despite its reputation, Iran is much more open than many think, even for a foreign journalist. Of course, after the attacks last week on the Parliament building and the mausoleum, a gold-domed sanctuary that houses the remains of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and other important Iranian officials, entering as a common foreign tourist is more problematic because of new security checks. So I went with my journalist identification.

This month, the Islamic State successfully carried out its first attack on Iranian soil, resulting in 17 dead and some 50 injured. Iran is a top targetbfor the Islamic State - and has been since the group rose to prominence in 2014. But Iranian security forces had effectively thwarted the threat through an extensive counterterror program. Iran took pride in keeping the fight against the Islamist militants outside its territory. Until now. The Islamic State views Shiite Muslims as apostates. It portrays Iran as a Shiite power threatening the "real" Muslim community - the Sunnis. Because of this - and the threat the group poses to Iran's interests in the region - Tehran views the Islamic State as a national security threat. As a result, it placed "no limits" on resources to combat it both inside and outside its borders.

On June 7, terrorists successfully attacked Iran's parliament building and the tomb of the regime's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. At the end of the gun and suicide bomb attack, 17 were dead and 43 wounded. It was the first major terrorist attack in Iran since the 2010 bombing attack at the Jamia mosque in Zahedan in southeast Sistan-Baluchestan province, which is populated mostly by Sunni Baluchis and borders Pakistan and Afghanistan. That attack was claimed by Jundallah, a Sunni Baloch terror group, as revenge for Iran's execution of their leader, Abdolmalek Rigi. The recent attack was also executed by a minority group, in this case Kurds. The perpetrators, who fought for Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, were quickly identified and the ringleader, Serias Sadeghi, was a known IS recruiter in Iranian Kurdistan. The IS claimed responsibility for the attack, but Iran's government quickly blamed the U.S. and Saudi Arabia for the atrocity, so as to distract the people from the failings of the security apparatus and to signal the approved theme for demonstrations and reportage.

Last week ISIS staged an unprecedented terrorist attack in the heart of Iran. At least 17 people were killed and dozens more were injured at two symbolic locations of the Islamic Republic: the parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini. The reaction from Iran's clerical rulers was predictable; they variously blamed their regional and international enemies - the USA, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Ignored by Iranian officials and by most expert commentators, however, was any recognition that Tehran's domestic and regional policies were contributing factors. In other words, the expansion of ISIS into Iran was a classic case of Iranian regime blowback. The conventional wisdom suggests that Iran would remain immune to ISIS as a global terrorist threat. Given Iran's majority Shia population and the fact that ISIS is a deeply anti-Shia cult informed by an extremist Sunni neo-Wahhabism, it has been widely assumed that Iranian recruits to ISIS would be difficult to find. 

Eye on Iran is a periodic news summary from United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) a program of the American Coalition Against Nuclear Iran, Inc., a tax-exempt organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Eye on Iran is not intended as a comprehensive media clips summary but rather a selection of media elements with discreet analysis in a PDA friendly format. For more information please email

United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) is a non-partisan, broad-based coalition that is united in a commitment to prevent Iran from fulfilling its ambition to become a regional super-power possessing nuclear weapons.  UANI is an issue-based coalition in which each coalition member will have its own interests as well as the collective goal of advancing an Iran free of nuclear weapons.

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