Middle East update: June 7 2017


Hey, I’ve got an idea. What if everybody took a day off? I mean everybody, all human beings, just quit doing whatever for a day. Skip school, take a day off of work, don’t tweet (always good advice), and, just for a day mind you, maybe don’t kill anybody. Sound good?

Apparently not:

At least 12 people have been killed and dozens more injured in Tehran after gunmen and suicide bombers attacked the Iranian parliament and the mausoleum of the founder of the Islamic Republic.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks on the highly symbolic sites, publishing a brief video that purported to show the assailants inside the parliament. If an Isis role is confirmed, this would be the first attack conducted by the terror group inside Iran.

Groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban have always targeted Ramadan for extra violence, due to factors like the month’s symbolic significance, the religious significance (for suicide bombers) of dying during Ramadan, and the plethora of soft targets as people celebrate. I have no idea if this is actually true or not, but it sure seems like this Ramadan has gone to another level.

The Khomeini Mausoleum/Shrine (Wikimedia | Diego Delso)

(The Washington Post has more on the Khomeini Shrine, one of the most important sites in Iran and as symbolically significant a target as these attackers could have picked)

There seems little reason to doubt ISIS’s claim, nor to doubt that this was a centrally planned effort. Lone wolves wouldn’t have been broadcasting live video of their attacks to ISIS for posting online. But there are major questions as to how they pulled this off. Iran has been almost shockingly free from terrorist attack, particularly from international extremist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, in the 21st century. At this point we should cue up the Bomb Bomb Iran folks to talk about Tehran’s alleged past aid to al-Qaeda, and that may be part of the explanation, but I also think it has to do with the challenge that faces a group like ISIS either getting attackers into Iran or recruiting among the Iranian population.

These attackers were reportedly recruited from within Iran. At least one is heard speaking Arabic on video, so that means he’s likely from Khuzestan. The others may also be Arab/Khuzestani or could come from one of the other parts of Iran with restive Sunni populations–Iranian Kurdistan and Balochistan would be the two biggest. And Iran says it’s thwarted a handful of ISIS attempts in the past. But still, that’s a relatively small number of attacks given Iran’s importance and its natural/mutual antipathy with ISIS. Now, the cool thing about being a terrorist organization is that you can be successful if you just keep trying to hit a target until you luck out that one time, whereas the states defending against you fail unless they get it right every time, so maybe this is just that one time everything broke ISIS’s way. We may never get a satisfactory explanation, because Iranian society is closed enough that the results of any investigation might never be made public.

Here, on the other hand, is something that has already gone public:

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards say Saudi Arabia was behind twin attacks in Teheran on Wednesday (June 7) that killed at least 12 people and injured 43, a statement published by the Guards said.

“This terrorist attack happened only a week after the meeting between the US president (Donald Trump) and the (Saudi) backward leaders who support terrorists. The fact that Islamic State has claimed responsibility proves that they were involved in the brutal attack,” said the statement from the elite unit, published by Iranian media.

Aside from just trying to attach the US and Saudi Arabia to something bad that happened and thereby score some rhetorical points, the IRGC is likely basing its claim on what Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad b. Salman said about Iran last month:

“How do you have a dialogue with a regime built on an extremist ideology … that they must control the land of Muslims and spread their Twelver Jaafari sect in the Muslim world,” Mohammed said in the interview with MBC television, which was also broadcast on Saudi state television.

He was referring to the leader of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who overthrew the monarchy.

He said that Iran’s ideology was based on belief that “the Imam Mahdi will come and they must prepare the fertile environment for (his) arrival … and they must control the Muslim world.”

“We know that the aim of the Iranian regime is to reach the focal point of Muslims (Mecca) and we will not wait until the fight is inside Saudi Arabia and we will work so that the battle is on their side, inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”

Under Iran’s constitution since the 1979 revolution, the country’s supreme leader is the earthly representative of the Imam until his return.

And the timing here, coming right on top of the Qatar diplomatic break, is certainly interesting. But to reiterate, the fact that ISIS has video of the attack, provided by the attackers, is fairly conclusive evidence that it was their attack. And this IRGC statement doesn’t even really deny that, it just lumps the US and Saudi Arabia in with all the other Bad Guys in order to do a little point scoring and inflame tensions. But because the accusation is now out there, an Iranian response is almost inevitable. Which will bring a Saudi response in turn. And then an Iranian response, lather, rinse, repeat.

The relative moderates in Iran, like President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, may try to use this attack as an opportunity to reach out to the Gulf states, the Sunni states, even to the US, arguing that everybody is facing the same threat and we should all work together to counter it. This wouldn’t be the first time that a moderate Iranian president has made that argument. But there’s no reason to expect that message to be well received, and there’s also no reason to expect Iranian hardliners will agree with it or act accordingly. Rouhani and Zarif might talk outreach, but the IRGC clearly doesn’t agree and it doesn’t report to them. Or to anybody else, for that matter except (maybe) Supreme Leader Khamenei. Is anybody prepared to bet that Khamenei will choose diplomacy over violence in this situation?

Well, whatever else may happen, at least Washington isn’t doing anything to pile insult on top of injury on a day when Iran has suffered a serious terrorist attack, like having the Senate vote for cloture on new anti-Iran sanctio-

IN THE WAKE of an ISIS terrorist attack on the Iranian parliament, the U.S. Senate is marking the tragedy with twin resolutions: one to express condolences, the second to move forward on a bill to hit the country with new sanctions.

By a vote of 92-7, the Senate opened debate on the sanctions resolution Wednesday. But the resolution expressing condolences is still being worked on, one senator said.

“On a day when Iran has been attacked by ISIS, by terrorism, now is not the time to go forward with legislation calling for sanctions against Iran,” Vermont’s Independent Senator Bernie Sanders said on the floor before the Senate did just that. “Let us be aware and cognizant that earlier today the people of Iran suffered a horrific terror attack in their capital, Tehran.”

Sooooo, at least the White House will probably issue a sympathetic stateme-


Like I said, maybe everybody should take a day off.


Fighting in Mosul continues, and…well, that’s really all I think we can say at this point. Any progress at this point is being measured almost building-by-building, meaning it’s impossible to track, and it’s equally impossible to get a bird’s-eye view of what’s happening when no two Iraqi officials can agree on how much of the remaining ISIS neighborhoods is now in Iraqi hands. It seems fair to say that 50 percent of Zanjali has been liberated, but I would be reluctant to go much over that even though most Iraqi estimates are now in the 70-80 percent range. There’s just too much noise, and anyway we know that the Iraqis tend to exaggerate their progress.

Iraqi Kurds are planning a September 25 vote on a referendum on seceding from Iraq. You can pencil in Baghdad’s rejection of its results for September 26. The likeliest outcome here is that the Kurdistan Regional Government will use the results of what is very much a non-binding referendum to press for maximum autonomy from Baghdad without actually seceding, but it’s going to take a lot of talking, and maybe even some fighting, before we know what Iraqi Kurdistan’s ultimate disposition will be. The timing of this vote may coincide somewhat with the Iraqi operation to liberate Hawijah, which should be the next target after Mosul and is close enough to Kirkuk that tensions over the vote could play out among Iraqi forces there.


I’ve been talking for several days now about the possibility of the United States getting drawn in–drawing itself in, really–to a bigger war in southern Syria. That possibility is only continuing to increase:

Last month’s airstrikes on Shiite militias represent a marginal increase of the U.S. government’s commitment. But that shift comes with significant new risks. Specifically, it threatens to put Washington on a collision course with Iran, which is the main patron of the Shiite militias and has been seeking to create a land corridor linking Tehran and Baghdad to Syria and Lebanon. This would allow them to move heavier missiles and weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. It could also put American special forces in conflict with the Russian military, which provides the Assad regime and its allied militias with air cover.

“The Trump administration wants to push back against Iran and put it on notice,” said Nicholas Heras, the Bacevich fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “Through the counter-ISIS campaign, the U.S. can capture territory in eastern Syria from ISIS to prevent Assad and Iran from advancing there.”

And increase:

A military alliance fighting in support of President Bashar al-Assad threatened on Wednesday to hit U.S. positions in Syria, warning its “self-restraint” over U.S. air strikes would end if Washington crossed “red lines”.

The threat marks an escalation of tensions between the United States and the Syrian government and its backers over control of Syria’s southeastern frontier with Iraq, where Washington has been training Syrian rebels at a base inside Syrian territory as part of its campaign against Islamic State.

US forces have reportedly helped the rebels build a new forward operating base northeast of Tanf, which means their front lines are moving toward Deir Ezzor and the Iraqi border. Eventually these rebels and forces allied with Assad are going to run out of room and will be forced to either stop moving or encroach on the other group’s space. And that clearly won’t be resolved without violence.

Meanwhile, the SDF said on Wednesday that its forces had captured a village and an archeological site on Raqqa’s western outskirts, while simultaneously pushing deeper into a neighborhood on the city’s eastern side. The UN and the YPG are both warning of a “dire” humanitarian situation, with tens of thousands of people having fled the city and tens of thousands more still trapped inside.

The Pentagon is still sticking to its story that it bombed an al-Qaeda meeting rather than a mosque in the Syrian town of al-Jinah in mid-March, saying that its strike on the town was legal and that it may have killed one civilian but certainly no more than that. So I guess the question is, who are you going to believe: the Pentagon, or everyone else’s lying eyes:

CENTCOM’s findings, which have not yet been released outside of a briefing for select reporters, are likely to raise further questions about the incident. Investigators did not visit the site of the attack, which is in a militant-held area. But they also did not speak with any locals who witnessed the attack. Still, Botranger said investigators were “confident” that they did not hit a gathering of civilians, instead killing “approximately two dozen men attending an al Qaeda meeting.”

By comparison, in examining the strike Human Rights Watch spoke with 14 people with close knowledge of the incident, including four people who were at the mosque, as well as first responders and local journalists. Those witnesses told HRW that a religious lecture had concluded and many attendees were lingering ahead of night prayers when the bombing began.

Syrian Civil Defense reported the recovery of 38 bodies, and published the names of 28 victims. Among the named dead were five children, the imam as well as his wife, Ghousoun Makansi.


The Turkish government arrested dozens of people today for alleged ties to Fethullah Gülen:

Turkish authorities detained 60 soldiers on Wednesday and issued detention orders for another 128 people in operations targeting the network of a Muslim cleric the government blames for last year’s failed coup, local media reported.

Some 50,000 people have been arrested since the failed putsch in July and around 150,000 dismissed or suspended, including soldiers, police, teachers and public servants, over alleged links with the movement of U.S-based cleric Fethullah Gulen.

This is pretty much a daily occurrence anymore, but today’s batch of arrests was somewhat unique in that the Turkish director of Amnesty International was among those arrested. Yeah, those Amnesty guys are really dangerous, good call.

Germany took another step toward redeploying its forces from Incirlik to Jordan today when Angela Merkel’s cabinet voted in favor of the move. Although Berlin is trying to do this redeployment on the down-low so as not to damage the Turkey-Germany relationship any further, it’s really hard to see how that relationship could be damaged any further than it has without breaking up NATO. It’s really at rock bottom right now, which is bad for both countries. Turkey needs Germany as a trading partner and Germany needs Turkey, also as a trading partner but more critically right now because it’s capping the flow of refugees into Europe.


As I mentioned yesterday, the FBI believes that Russian hackers were behind an attack on the Qatar News Agency that resulted in an inflammatory speech being (apparently) falsely attributed to Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim b. Hamad Al Thani a couple of weeks ago. That speech was a significant contributor to this week’s decision by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and several other countries to cut all ties with Qatar. The Russian government has denied any Russian role in the attack, and while the FBI seems to agree that Moscow itself wasn’t involved, it’s blaming freelance Russian hackers contracted by somebody else. Who? The Saudis? The UAE? Iran? Hard to say at this point.

The news that QNA really was hacked is unlikely to cause Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to rethink their actions this week. After all, the most inflammatory things Tamim allegedly said in that (apparently) fake speech–that the Gulf has to work with Iran, that organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah aren’t so bad, etc., are all beliefs that those countries already attribute to Qatar anyway. Instead the Saudis will continue to talk about the “great pain” they felt as they undertook to punish Qatar for its bad behavior, with all the creepy overtones that brings, while insisting that the Qatari government subordinate its foreign and domestic policy to Riyadh’s demands and not so subtly trying to foment a coup in Doha. And the Emiratis will keep threatening to jail Qatari sympathizers and saying bizarre shit like that Qatar has “chosen to ride the tiger of extremism and terrorism,” while insisting that there’s nothing to negotiate, Qatar must rub the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again. Wednesday brought a Saudi/UAE threat to escalate the situation by imposing an embargo on Qatar, so those two countries at least are still very much committed to what they’re doing.

Doha has been calling in some outside help to get through this current crisis, and particularly to ensure that it can bring in food and water despite what amounts to a Saudi blockade–which, it should be noted, is an act of war if you define it that way. Turkey and, yes, Iran have both agreed to help ship in basic supplies. Potentially more troubling, the Turkish parliament on Wednesday passed a measure allowing more Turkish troops to be deployed to a base in Qatar. Around 150 Turkish soldiers are already in Qatar, and it’s unclear how many more might be deployed or whether they’ll be deployed in a timeframe that overlaps with this diplomatic crisis. News also broke Wednesday morning (Gulf time) that the UAE is relaxing restrictions on non-Qatari-flagged oil tankers sailing between Qatar and Abu Dhabi. So that eases the blockade a bit. While we’re on the subject of energy, this interview with analyst Sara Vakhshouri is excellent if you’d like to get a better handle on how this crisis could impact, for example, the natural gas market. She also explains quite cogently why this dispute works out to Iran’s favor even though the Saudis might not like to hear that.

The US is trying to mediate this crisis. Yes, that’s right, less than a day after he took to Twitter to crow about how he’d caused this whole clusterfuck (Marc Lynch is worth reading on precisely why this is such a clusterfuck for the US) in the first place, Donald Trump is now working the phones to try to calm things down. Hey, maybe he should try shutting the fuck up for a little while and see how that goes.


Finally, I regret not covering this yesterday but I can’t let another day go by without noting the passing of beloved Saudi arms dealer and big spender Adnan Khashoggi:

Khashoggi imported Kenworth heavy trucks into Saudi Arabia: one of his first customers was the Bin Laden family’s construction group. The entrepreneur keenly embraced every aspect of American culture that Osama bin Laden later violently rejected. Two half brothers of the future King Saud became his business partners. Khashoggi moved into the arms business in 1962, helping to supply neighbouring Yemen, under attack from Egyptian-backed rebels. He became the agent for Rolls Royce, Marconi, Westland and BAC (British Aircraft Corporation, later British Aerospace/BAe). The rising oil price combined with Arab humiliation in the six-day war of 1967 sent the Saudis on a defence spending spree. Khashoggi was soon the agent for Raytheon’s Hawk missiles, Lockheed’s C-130 cargo planes and Northrop F-5 fighters.

His commissions grew from 2% to 15%. “If you offer money to a government to influence it, that is corruption. But if someone receives money for services rendered afterwards, that is a commission,” Khashoggi explained. However, US regulators did not see it that way. A 1975 US Senate inquiry revealed that Khashoggi had been paid $106m by Lockheed, $54m by Northrop and $23m by Raytheon. The French paid him $45m for a tank deal and the British $7m for helicopters. Lockheed later paid Khashoggi another $100m and Northrop a further $31m.

He will be missed, I guess?

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