02 August 2019

US and Iran. Between war and peace in the Middle East

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Lately, there were some discussions on the Iran-US relation being extremely intense. Some are even talking about the possibility of a conflict, meanwhile both states’ officials’ statements are rolling contradictory statements: no one wants war but, if needed, they will fight back, which could mean anything, from diplomacy to warfare.

Image source: Mediafax

Between these statements’ lines a disaster starts to get some shape and there is a question emerging: if no one wants war, then who could start it? There are also many references to Iraq’s war from 2003, particularly to the excuse the officials have created, who were partisan of the idea that Sadam Hussein had mass destruction weapons.

“Day and night, fighting the enemies”

In the current US-Iran relations, we can hardly identify the strategic reasons and potential implications based solely on official statements and media speculations. However, it is interesting to see what both Iranian and American officials are doing or what they are letting the intelligence services do.  

Even though it is a semidarkness area, everyone knows that both sides’ intelligence structures are, as always, still contributing when making decisions, sometimes generating a positive result, as happened with the Cuban missile crisis, other times, an undesirable one, such as the case of the mass destruction weapons programs’ estimation existence from Iraq.

After the US called, at the beginning of April, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (CGRI) a terrorist organization, Iran's intelligence community warned Washington that it would fight back any "ridiculous movement against the country. All movements by US terrorists and Arab and Jews mercenaries are carefully monitored by intelligence structures. There will be a "quick, timely, crushing response to the stupid actions of palace leaders." And, in response to CGRI’s inclusion in the terrorist groups list, considered "illegal and dangerous action", the Supreme Council of National Security, called Washington a terrorist government, including in its own terrorism list USCENTCOM and US troops deployed in the Middle East.   

The bellicose statements were resumed at the beginning of May, following a meeting of Iranian leaders in intelligence structures, after the installation of the new CGRI commander, Major General Hossein Salami. According to them, currently, the Iranian intelligence community is engaged "in a serious, global, day and night war with the enemies".

The new CGRI commander called for the "plot of the opponents", but also that they should not be overestimated, based on psychological warfare and media propaganda actions. Because, although apparently they seem "scary and experienced", they are going down, and "are actually suffering from severe osteoporosis."

According to the press release following the meetings, Minister Mahmoud Alavi said the Minister for Intelligence and Security he leads and CGRI are complementing each other as two "intelligence forces" and, while they are accomplishing their responsibilities, they cannot think but about their "friendship and fraternity." Both organizations must be "Islam’s watchful eyes."

Among others, one of this ... force’s results would be the recent identification and arrest of 290 (!?) CIA agents, the annihilation of the American espionage contacts together with their sources and the successful operation against the British intelligence service MI6. It seems that “ten spies working in country’s sensitive sectors were identified and arrested. This has shocked the foreign services”.

Why was such a press release necessary?

Because the so called "friendship and fraternity" between these two services are problematic and debatable. Iran officially has two important intelligence services, Iran's most important post-revolutionary intelligence structures being the Ministry of Information and Security (MOIS), responsible for both information and counter-intelligence. The Agency has conducted undercover actions outside Iran and also to support other Islamic regimes.

Shortly after the Islamic Revolution, the new regime formed a militia known as the Revolutionary Guards (Pāsdārān), in order to prevent any foreign-backed coup d’état. The organization has been involved in leading the state and applying the Islamic morality code. Then, it took as stance as a conventional military force and aimed at developing information collection departments (internal/external) and conducting clandestine activities. An example of such department is the Quds Force, a special group responsible for intelligence activities, clandestine operations and for training and organizing foreign paramilitary groups in other parts of the Islamic world, including Hezbollah.

Starting with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, between 2005 and 2013, CGRI got a higher position, assuming an increasingly assertive role within Iranian politics. Even after Rouhani's victorious election, back in 2013, CGRI stepped up its crackdown on local critics and activists. One of CGRI’s main responsibilities is ensuring Iranian nuclear program’s security.

These agencies are, in fact, rival, and they have even pulled each other’s representatives in (one of Minister of Information and Security’s assistants, arrested by CGRI, and environmental researchers from CGRI arrested by workers of the ministry of information), in supposedly espionage cases (for example, the negotiator of the 2015 nuclear agreement, Abdolrasoul Dorri Esfahani), as well as disagreements regarding each other’s responsibilities.

It seems that, while CGRI focuses on espionage and treason allegations, MOIS tends to prove the contrary situation or to minimize the accusations. While the first one is more effective outside, the latter is particularly effective inside. CGRI is coordinated by the Supreme Leader, and MOIS operates under President Hassan Rouhani, but Ayatollah Ali Khamenei must approve President's proposal for Ministry's portfolio. 

Both agencies are often considered to be parallel intelligence agencies, and their conflict has reached an unprecedented level.

One can, however, certainly state about the Iranian services, despite their noisy rhetoric, that they are on alert, ready to fight back any vulnerable enemy and they could forget any rivalry possible, at any time.

It is also known that, recently, there were several changes made within CGRI’s structures’ leadership, also of General Mohammad Ali Jafari (replaced by General Hossein Salami), which was the most unexpected move, his term being supposed to end by 2020. The appointment of General Hossein Salami, considered to be better prepared than its predecessor in terms of leadership and military strategy, it is seen as a sign that the organization is ready to adopt a more offensive attitude on the outside, and, internally, to get society’s support. Another change that drew the attention was General Ali Nasiri’s one, after only a year and a half in office, being responsible with the protection of critical dignitaries and infrastructures, including airports within CGRI.

What are people saying about these services?

Some are saying that it would be the source of the Fujairah port’s sabotage, in the United Arab Emirates (according to a confidential assessment developed by the Mutual Insurance Association of War Ship Owners in Norway). Also, The Guardian reports, citing intelligence sources, that the leader of the Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, called the Shiite militias in Iraq, under Teheran’s influence, and the meeting would have been different from those held regularly in the last five years. During the meeting, although no one actually talked about weapons, but close by, participants were asked to get ready for a proxy war.

US Intelligence Community and disagreements with political decisions

On the other side of the story, the National Intelligence Community, which we do not know yet if it followed President Trump's advice from January 2019, when he sent school intelligence leaders to school, has proved that it still has some different perspective comparing with the establishment in specific security issues. As for Iran, the ideal enemy in White House's vision, services’ January assessment concluded that it did not carry out activities that could produce a nuclear device.

The same community, which is, sometimes, experiencing contradictory political decisions, is forced to deal, in terms of Iran, with the multiple labeling the nuclear agreement US withdraw from, in 2018, got: from providing Sunni-Shia balance in the Middle East, during the Obama administration, to US’s worst foreign policy agreement, as called by Donald Trump. Debates over the agreement have raised skepticism about the US foreign policy direction, mistrust over the lack of clarity on Middle East decisions and questions on the actual stance regarding Iran, whether it is a policy or an attitude.

At the end of April, intelligence community leaders were summoned by security adviser John Bolton to discuss about Iran, along with military and diplomatic advisers, at the CIA headquarters. The meeting was extremely unusual, as White House officials or Cabinet members were rarely invited to Agency's headquarters. No further release was issued, but the press, citing former CIA operations officers and military officials, claimed that such meetings were held in the past to inform high-ranking officials about extremely sensitive undercover actions and John McLaughlin, former CIA deputy director, has also put forward another option: such meetings take place when there are disagreements inside the community information on specific topics.  

"Trustable" security information that scramble the military actions

The media also speculated that the Israeli Mossad offered to its American counterpart information on the alleged deployment of a Hezbollah militant group on Kish Island, in Hormuz Strait, a potential Iranian base for attacking US ships and its allies. The Iranian warning was becoming a concrete reality: if the Islamic Republic is deprived of transporting its own oil through this strait, no one will be allowed to do so.  

Shortly after the evening of May 7, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo canceled a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and, instead, traveled to Baghdad. Almost at the same time, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad, Javad Zarif, was leaving for Moscow on an unannounced visit.

The following day, Teheran announced that it was cancelling some of the commitments taken under the 2015 agreement. And also on that day, the Pentagon announced that it is sending to Middle East a landing ship, the USS Arlington (LPD-24), elements belonging to the 22nd Expeditionary Marine Unit (which joins the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier group in the area), a Patriot missile battery and several B-52 strategic bombers. These actions, according to security advisor’s statements, were based on credible intelligence.  

John Bolton thought that Pentagon's decision was the results of some hints on an increasing threat from Iran and was providing a clear and unmistakable message.  

For others, however, it was just a security intelligence exaggeration and an ostracism of those who created it, security advisor’s new intelligence manipulation, who was trying to justify their opinions (assessments made by Tony Blinken, former United States Deputy Secretary of State, and Suzanne DiMaggio, Carnegie Foundation). Philip Giraldi, executive director of the Council for the National Interest, former CIA officer, believes the US is moving dangerously in the war direction, apparently based on information provided by Israel, on speculated data from John Bolton, Mike Pompeo and Benjamin Netanyahu. Another former psychological operations officer, Scott Bennett, joins the perspective of ​​distorting information by the CIA and Mossad. 

John Bolton is the one who, in 2013, in the US Abject Surrender chapter, was talking about a terrorist, nuclear Iran, which still threatens American interests and allies, an Israeli military coup being the only way to avoid its inevitable march towards nuclear weapons and proliferation that will surely follow. In another article, he also dealt with the legality of a first strike in North Korea. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif  sees John Bolton as being part of the so-called B-team, from the Trump’s execution coalition, along with Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Emirate, Mohammed bin Zayed.

Is this the same scenario we have witnessed back in 2003?

Trying to reason Iran’s threat viability, the intelligence services (apparently not Defence Department’s action) have downgraded an image of a missile placed on a small boat in the Persian Gulf. According to officials’ statement, for Times magazine, there would be other images also of CGRI members manipulating missiles in different Iranian ports, but their disclosure would compromise their sources of information and how they were collected.

A number of US officials (Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, Democratic Senators Patrick Leahy, Bob Menendez), however, are complaining about non-uniform, discriminatory information, claiming that they are finding out more about what is happening in the Gulf from the media, such as the evacuation situation of the American staff at the Embassy in Baghdad and the Consulate in Erbil, Iraq. Although, following criticism, members of the Administration, including Dan Coats, the information community director, took a first step in informing a small group of top representatives from both parties (so-called Band of 8), there are still complaints in terms of the policy, some being even circumspect on how US provokes things.

And as the similarities with the 2003 intervention in Iraq continue to be questioned, the intelligence community also has to manage intelligence security’s credibility. That’s because, in February 2003, Colin Powell presented to the UN Security Council facts and conclusions based on solid secret information regarding Saddam Hussein's possession of mass destruction weapons.

Following this month's military operations’ results, Secretary of Defense, Patrick Shanahan, also claimed that the Administration had credible security information about threats to US interests in the Middle East, which precipitated military movements. What followed, in his opinion, was not an act of war, but one of deterrence. The same was supported by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said that recent actions’ purpose was to discourage Iran.

A postponed war?

Iran is accused of terrorism and nuclear activities. According to republicans, containment and deterrence’s doctrines traditional tools do not apply for terrorists. Strategies are raising another measure: preventive actions, as those self-defence precautious actions which aim at eliminating an imminent and serious threat before being materialized (the US National Security Strategy, 2002).

In 2003, Condoleezza Rise, supporter of the preventive actions doctrine, together with Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, was saying that history will be very harsh on any leader or nation which saw the black cloud (talking about Saddam Hussein) and did not take stance on it. The preventive action in Iraq was based on the trustable information of mass destruction weapons fabrication.

Now, in 2019, Teheran does not seem to be intimidated by any actions which, for John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, are part of the enemy’s deterrence: withdrawing from the nuclear agreement and pressure the Iranian economy, calling CGRI a terrorist group and, not least, the military maneuvers.

Are we going to witness the reveal of some trustable security information which could justify the switch from deterrence to preventive action?

What happens and what happened in the region that things got here? Iran did not become a nuclear terrorist overnight, nor did the Teheran regime become uncomfortable. Did Iran got too close to Iraq and the Sunni-Shia equilibrium that Barack Obama was talking about that Washington could not agree with it?

Iranian and Iraqi officials think that Teheran and Bagdad are new influent actors whose cooperation could stimulate the regional security (statements made by Iran’s Armed Forces Defence’s Staff Chief, general-mayor Mohammad Hossein Bageri and the Airspace Forces Commander of CGRI, brigade general Smir Ali Hajizadeh).  Some are also talking about the Iranian force which got full control of the Persian Gulf (a statement of rear admiral Ali Fadavi, deputy commander of CGRI) and through the Quds Force, Iran could stop the American army’s progress in the Middle East, the American Forces having to accept general-mayor Qassem Soleimani as a key-military figure in the region (the former Italian ambassador to Iraq opinion, Marco Carnelor).

Intelligence Services are, sometimes, informing and even… negotiating

The Secrete Services are collecting information and deploying different actions. The Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, was saying that a number of “radical officials” from the American administration have launched “operations under a foreign flag” in the region, trying to blame Teheran.

But the secrete services are also…negotiating. A small detail from the Iranian media, published on 23th of May (quoting Al-Mayadeen News Network, headquarter in Beirut): Joey Hood, the responsible official with American businesses in Iraq, would have said that Washington has broadened the Iraq derogations to buy energy from Iran.

People may get more hope if Iran is forced to get involved in internal issues, economic survival a social peace, instead of being worried on enlargement and, implicitly, terrorist actions.

However, what does matter is the applied strategy and, not least, how are analyzed and interpreted the security information and how decisions are made. The most important question is not who could start the war but how it could be triggered, or, in other words, how it could be stopped?

The answer could, in fact, differentiate a studious conflict and an estimation error or, a peace and war condition in the Middle East.

Translated by Andreea Soare