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The latest on Iran’s regional aggressions

Nov 5, 2021 | AIJAC staff

(Credit: Anton Watman/ Shutterstock)
(Credit: Anton Watman/ Shutterstock)

Update from AIJAC

 

11/21 #01

 

This Update features some reporting on aggressive regional behaviour by Iran in recent weeks, and some comment upon it.

We lead with a document from the US-based JINSA thinktank summarising all the news regarding Iran’s problematic actions in October. The most notable was the drone and missile attack on the US military’s Al-Tanf outpost in Syria that the US Government says was orchestrated, but there are several other problematic incidents – including significant cyber-attacks. The JINSA summary also discusses Iranian nuclear developments in the lead up to plans for nuclear talks to resume on Nov. 29. To read it all,  CLICK HERE.

Next up is an analysis of a bizarre incident in the Gulf of Oman on Oct. 24-25 in which Iran claimed to have seized back an oil tanker detained by the US Navy. Seth Frantzman of the Jerusalem Post assembles evidence that there was no US detention of the ship and the whole incident appears to have been staged to portray a heroic “victory” by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He also has some important discussion of why Iran might have staged such an incident. For Frantzman’s fascinating look at this bizarre incident,  CLICK HERE.

Finally, Israeli defence reporter Yaakov Lappin looks at the increasingly close ties between Hamas and the Iranian regime over recent months. Lappin speaks to Israeli strategic analyst Col. (res.) David Hacham, who describes the burgeoning Teheran-Hamas links as a key part of an overall Iranian strategy of seeking to surround Israel from all sides. Hacham reviews the history of Iran’s complex relationship with Hamas, and explains why Iran has rededicated itself to supporting Hamas of late, despite a difficult domestic economic situation. For all the details about Iran-Hamas links,  CLICK HERE.

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Iran Update – October 2021

 

JINSA, Thursday, November 4, 2021

About the Iran Update: The Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s (JINSA) Gemunder Center has started a monthly tracker providing timely information and graphics illustrating Iran’s aggressive and destabilizing activities.

 


Soldiers at the US military’s al-Tanf military outpost in eastern Syria, targeted by drone and rocket strikes orchestrated by Iran on Oct. 20. (Photo: Staff Sgt. Jacob Connor, Wikimedia commons)

October 2021 Summary: Despite agreeing to return to negotiations on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) November 29, Iran continued to impede International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) surveillance of its nuclear facilities and to target the United States and its partners in the Middle East, including in the cyber domain. The Biden administration has suggested it is exploring a “Plan B” should nuclear negotiations fail to yield results while considering, but not taking, actions against Iranian regional aggression.

Regional Aggression: While there were fewer total number of Iranian-backed attacks in October than September, Iran escalated its aggression by launching a drone strike on U.S. forces in Syria.

  • On October 4, Israel accused Iran of orchestrating an attempted assassination plot against Israeli businesspeople in Cyprus.
  • After rising tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran earlier in the month, including significant Iranian military drills along the Azeri border and allegations that Israel had deployed troops to Azerbaijan, the two states agreed on October 13 to deescalate tensions through dialogue.
  • Hezbollah, Iran’s largest proxy, instigated a violent protest that resulted in six deaths on October 14 against the judge investigating the August 2020 Beirut port explosion.
  • On October 20, coordinated drone and rocket strikes targeted the U.S. outpost at Tanf in southern Syria. U.S. officials believe that Iran resourced and encouraged the attack, possibly in response to Israeli attacks around Palmyra. To date, there has not been any public U.S. military response against the perpetrators or Iranian targets.
    • Choosing to separate the nuclear talks from Iran’s regional aggression, President Biden told reporters during a press conference in Rome on October 31, “with regard to the issue of how we’re going to respond to actions taken by [Iran] against the interests of the United States — whether they’re drone strikes or anything else — is we’re going to respond, and we’re going to continue to respond.”
  • Throughout October, Saudi Arabia intercepted several drones and ballistic missiles, including attacks against al-Abha Airport and King Abdullah airport, according to JINSA’s Iran projectile tracker.
  • On October 29, The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned entities critical to Iran’s drone program, including Saeed Aghajani, the commander of the IRGC Aerospace Force (IRGC ASF) UAV Command who oversaw the deadly attack on the MT Mercer Street in July.
    • In addition to highlighting Iran’s proliferation of drones to Hezbollah, Hamas, Kata’ib Hezbollah, and the Houthis, the Treasury designation was the first U.S. government claim that Iran had sent unmanned systems to Ethiopia.

Nuclear: Biden administration officials publicly voiced their increasing frustration at Iran’s refusal to return for a seventh round of talks on reentering the JCPOA and warned of turning to a “Plan B,” without providing further details. At the end of October, Iran indicated it would resume discussions on November 29.

  • On September 30, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that “the ball remains in [Iran’s] court, but not for long.” He added, “there is a limited runway [returning to the JCPOA], and the runway is getting shorter.”
  • On October 2, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian asked the United States to unfreeze $10 billion in Iranian funds as a sign of good will before resuming negotiations. There are no public indications that the Biden administration has agreed to these terms.
  • Blinken and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said at a meeting in Washington that the two countries are discussing a “Plan B” should Iran refuse to continue diplomatic talks.
    • While Blinken reiterated that there is still a diplomatic path with Iran, Lapid was more direct, claiming that “there are moments when nations must use force to protect the world from evil…. If a terror regime is going to acquire a nuclear weapon, we must act. We must make clear that the civilized world won’t allow it.”
  • On October 19, the International Atomic Energy Agency Chief Rafael Grossi announced that the stop-gap measures agreed upon early this year for monitoring Iran’s nuclear facilities were no longer “intact.” He elaborated that Iran was blocking IAEA surveillance cameras at the Tesa Karaj facility, which produces essential components for centrifuges.
  • On October 25, U.S. special envoy for Iran Robert Malley said that the Biden administration is “in a critical phase of the efforts to see whether we can revive the JCPOA,” and that Iran’s excuses for avoiding negotiations in Vienna are “wearing very thin.”
  • Bagheri Kani, Iran’s political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tweeted on October 27 that Iran agreed to “start negotiations before the end of November.”
    • The vague timetable provides Iran another month in which it can advance its nuclear program while ostensibly promising future discussions.
  • Biden told reporters on October 28 that “we have heard positive signals that they are, but I think we have to wait and see when and whether they actually show up at the negotiating table.” Biden added that “We, of course, retain all other options to be able to deal with this program as necessary.”
  • During an interview with 60 Minutes on October 31, Blinken finally appeared to put all options, including military means, on the table if Iran “is not prepared to engage quickly in good faith.”

Cybersecurity: Multiple cyberattacks during October underscored the vulnerabilities that American and Israeli companies face from Iranian hackers and Iran’s exposure to cyberattacks that could cripple its economy.

  • On October 11, Microsoft announced that hackers allegedly linked to Iran targeted more than 250 customers “with a focus on U.S. and Israeli defense technology companies, Persian Gulf ports of entry, or global maritime transportation companies with business presence in the Middle East.” Microsoft speculated in a blog post that “gaining access to commercial satellite imagery and proprietary shipping plans and logs could help Iran compensate for its developing satellite program.”
  • On October 11, Facebook announced that it had thwarted a “covert influence operation” within Iran conducted by individuals associated with the IRGC. The individuals ran a campaign posing as local news outlets to promote pro-IRGC content and content critical of opposition factions. Facebook reportedly removed 93 associated Facebook accounts and 194 associated Instagram accounts.
  • Iranian official blamed the United States and Israel for a cyberattack on October 26 that disrupted the country’s fuel distribution but provided no evidence to support the claim.
  • In the final days of October, the Iran-affiliated hacker group “Black Shadow” conducted successful ransomware attacks on Israeli businesses, including a web hosting company Cyberserve. The hacker group leaked data from companies that refused to pay, such as an LGBTQ dating app.

Human Rights: Human rights groups and the U.N have increasingly called out Iran for its serious and ongoing human rights violations.

  • On October 13, Blinken commemorated the sixth anniversary of the wrongful detention of Siamak Namazi, one of at least four American citizens imprisoned in Iran.
  • On October 20, the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) reported that Payam Derafshan, a lawyer known for taking on high-profile human rights cases in Iran, had been maimed while being tortured by the IRGC in Tehran’s Evin Prison after criticizing the regime.
  • Javaid Rehman, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran for the U.N. Human Rights Council, claimed that Iran executed at least 230 individuals in 2021 and over 250 individuals in 2020, among them at least four minors.

 


What was the point of Iran’s ‘fake news’ IRGC ship raid?

 

When the announcement came it claimed that the US had tried to “pirate” a tanker being used by Iran and that the oil on the tanker was transferred by the US.

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN   

Jerusalem Post, November 4, 2021

The SOTHYS, the Vietnamese-flagged tanker at the heart of Iran’s tall tale about a brilliant victory at sea. (Photo: vesselfinder.com) 
Iran claimed this week that it would release momentous news about a great military operation. Iran’s state media said Wednesday that “in the next few hours” news would be released that would make regime supporters proud of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps power. Iran observers waited patiently. What could it be, they asked. Hacking of the US. A cyber attack on Israel? A new aerospace program, drones, missiles, satellites, nuclear technology.

Then word came that it involved the Gulf of Oman and the IRGC navy. The IRGC is a revolutionary guard, a kind of Praetorian guard created to defend Iran’s “revolution.” But over the years it has sponged up epic resources, from the economy to foreign policy, sending cadres to fight abroad, advising wars in Syria and Iraq and working with proxies in Lebanon and Yemen. It also has drones, boats and all manner of weapons. As such it conducts operations in place of the army, navy and the usual formal elements of Iran’s regime.

The IRGC has even more power under the new president. But it also wants to prove itself. This is perhaps because Iran has suffered setbacks such as sanctions and sabotage and cyber failures. But the IRGC has successes, using drones to attack US forces.

When the announcement came it claimed that the US had tried to “pirate” a tanker being used by Iran and that the oil on the tanker was transferred by the US. Iran, in a daring raid, sent a helicopter with elite IRGC troops to rope down onto the ship and grab the oil back, right in front of the Americans. Then Iran did its greatest feat of all, it took the tanker back while the US 5th Fleet, the greatest naval power in the world, was helpless. The US chased the tanker and failed, the Iranians claimed.
There was even video, oddly it seemed to be shot from the ship before it was boarded, and followed the Iranian raid, which was unopposed. The tanker was supposedly taken back to Iran on October 25. Not since Sir Francis Drake outwitted the Spanish Main had such an epic naval encounter been done, apparently. Perhaps.
The US rejected the Iranian claims. US Defense officials disputed the story to US media, such as CBS. They said that the incident last week involved two US Navy destroyers that “were sent to monitor a Vietnamese flagged vessel which had been seized by Iranian Revolutionary Guards, but that there was no attempt to intervene or seize the cargo,” CBS said. Pentagon Spokesman, John Kirby countered the IRGC claims of seizure of an Iranian oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman, saying allegations are “totally false and untrue.”

TankerTrackers.com which monitors shipping posted about the incident, adding skepticism. They posted a summary of what actually happened. They note that IRGC ships swarmed the SOTHYS tanker and that the goal of the IRGC was to attract the attention of the US Navy. The Navy responded because this was a commercial ship.


IRGC naval commandos, the force supposed to have seized back the ship from the US navy,  seen here in a 2015 exercise (Photo: Wikimedia Commons | Licence details

The incident happened on October 24. The real story apparently of this ship is that it sailed to China where its cargo was rejected and she went back with her 700,000 barrels of oil. She was going to go back to Iran anyway. The tanker flies the flag of Vietnam and is apparently owned by a Vietnamese company, TankerTrackers.com wrote on Twitter. It was “tasked” to transport Iranian crude oil. The Iran-China oil trade has been in the news lately.

The IRGC, after bragging and inventing this story, has doubled down. Fars and Tasnim media are full of stories of how Iran is the “anchor” of security in the region and has outwitted the Americans. Iran’s media published cartoons of the tanker escaping US clutches. But it’s not clear the tanker escaped anything. It looks like Iran staged the raid on its own oil for no reason, except to pretend it was “capturing” it from the US. This was to cover up an Iranian failure of exporting oil. It kidnapped its own oil to make the failure seem less disgraceful.

But Iran’s media runs with the story. “Americans are accustomed to constantly losing to Iran: Major General Salami’s account of the IRGC’s confrontation with the United States in the Sea of ​​Oman,” says Fars News. Iran claims its oil exports are also increasing. Iran’s IRGC also publishes its own headlines, such as “Chief appreciation for the recent action of the IRGC: We will not allow the interests of the Iranian nation to be attacked.”
Basically, the story is that the IRGC wanted to show off. It didn’t have much to do, so it seems to have invented a story of great daring raids just to show video, that it had prepared to produce, like a propaganda film or staged incident. Meanwhile, Iran’s Fars News published an article about how US Naval personnel were stopped and detained in 2016. Iran also detained British sailors in 2007. This means that Iran is attempting to relive past incidents but apparently has not been able to lure the US into a similar scenario.
The overall lesson here is that Iran wants to create an incident. It is willing to use fast boats, helicopters and IRGC forces in a way that could lead to a real live-fire incident. It has harassed US ships in the past. Much of this is made for propaganda purposes, to create video that can be shown in Iran.

The IRGC is also trying to prove its worth to the regime. However, Iran’s leadership must know this story is either totally false or partially false and they will wonder what the IRGC is up to. The IRGC operates in a shadow world of lawlessness, conducting Iran’s foreign and military policy. However, even in the shadows it apparently needs to create fake news every once in a while to pretend it is doing “something.” It is also possible it is trying to lure the US into an incident, and this was just a test.

Seth J. Frantzman is Senior Middle East Correspondent and Middle East affairs analyst at the Jerusalem Post.


Hamas’s Growing Role in Iran’s Scheme to Encircle Israel

by Yaakov Lappin

IPT News, November 4, 2021

 


Image from the visit of a senior Hamas delegation’s visit to Teheran in 2017, where the Hamas political bureau members met with numerous senior Iranian figures (Source: Hamas’ Twitter feed)

A senior Hamas delegation that visited Iran in October and met with Supreme Leader Khamenei is the latest sign of the close partnership between the Sunni Palestinian terror organization and the Shi’ite Islamic Republic.

Hamas has an important role in Iran’s scheme to surround Israel with Islamist, heavily armed forces, said Col. (res.) David Hacham, a former Arab-affairs adviser to seven Israeli defense ministers, and a senior research associate at the Miryam Institute. However, Hacham told the Investigative Project on Terrorism, there isn’t a clear consensus within Hamas over just how far it should align with Tehran’s play book.

“There is no doubt that in the recent years, there has been an improvement in Hamas-Iran ties,” Hacham said. In 2011, a rift developed over the Syrian civil war, with Hamas backing Sunni Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated rebels against Iran’s ally, the Assad regime.

Following that split, the former head of Hamas’s political bureau, Khaled Mashaal, was expelled from Damascus. He moved to Qatar, where he re-established an overseas Hamas headquarters. Iran suspended military and economic ties to Hamas.

In 2017, new attempts were made to bridge the gap between the two sides, and Iran renewed its financial aid to Hamas. “Since 2017, the money has been flowing in without stop, and the sum is estimated to be many tens of millions of dollars per year,” Hacham added.

The reconciliation was enabled partly because Hamas’s current head of the political bureau, Ismael Haniyeh, who is based in Qatar, and the head of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, have a positive view of Iran. Sinwar, whose roots lie in Hamas’s military wing, represents a more pro-Iranian attitude to Hamas than the one that exists in Hamas’s political wing, Hacham stated.

“The military wing is more aware of the military and economic significance of Iran’s assistance to Hamas,” he said. The political wing, meanwhile, has taken a more cautious view of Iran, and is more concerned about how the alliance could affect Hamas’s Sunni Arab credentials.

It appears as if the military wing has won the argument. “The recent years have seen many Hamas delegations visiting Iran,” Hacham said. Haniyeh was a prominent guest at the funeral of the late Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020. There, he dubbed Soleimani “the martyr of Jerusalem” and said he “provided to Palestine, and the resistance has brought them to the position they are in today in terms of power and steadfastness.”

Within Gaza, meanwhile, Hamas is using Iranian technical know-how to enhance its rocket arsenal’s range, Hacham said. Hamas routinely fires rockets into the Mediterranean Sea to test their ranges and performance.

“Iran has taught Hamas how to build its own domestic rocket manufacturing industry,” Hacham said. “In the past, Iranian weapons were smuggled from the Sinai Peninsula into Gaza; though the Egyptian campaign to destroy smuggling tunnels appears to have largely stopped this activity, it is fair to assume that a small number of tunnels remain,” which can serve the movement of armed operatives and weapons. Before Egypt launched its initiative to destroy the tunnels, several hundred of them had connected Gaza to Sinai.

Despite the disruption in smuggling, Iran continues to play an invaluable role in Hamas’s military-terrorist build-up. Iran provides training for Hamas operatives, shares offensive and defensive operational plans and battle doctrines, and passes along scientific and engineering information needed for producing ever-improving rockets, explosives, and other weapons in Gaza.

This is all continuing at full speed,” said Hacham. “Around a decade ago, according to Palestinian reports, Iranian military experts were on Gazan soil, and were killed in an Israeli attack,” he added.

The latest Hamas delegation to Tehran, which was reported by the Al-Quds Palestinian newspaper Oct. 26, included Khalil Al-Hayya, Sinwar’s deputy, who leads Hamas’s Arab-Islamic relations portfolio.

The delegation was welcomed in Iran by Hamas’s representative to the Islamic Republic, Khaled Al-Kadumi.

The delegation took part in activities organized by Iran’s Center for Islamic Unity to mark the birthday of Islam’s Prophet, Muhammad, Al-Quds reported. The center has a goal of uniting various Islamic sects and schools.

During his visit to the center, Al-Hayya called for all Islamic schools of thought to unite “against the Zionist occupation and against American imperialism,” while spreading false details about supposed Israeli plots against the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

He vowed that the “resistance will continue until the liberation of Palestine and its return to its owners,” or in other words, the destruction of Israel.

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, released a statement calling for “the unity of Muslims” as a precondition for solving “the Palestinian problem in the best manner.”

The jihadist rhetoric coming out of Tehran and the Gaza Strip is a reflection of real-world practical cooperation. “Iran’s financial assistance to Hamas is highly significant for it. Hamas faces acute economic issues, which can be seen through its demands for Qatari funding for its 30,000 government employees in Gaza. This is evidence that Hamas is struggling with financial problems,” said Hacham. “It does not have endless funds at its disposal.”

Israeli strategic analyst Col. (res.) David Hacham: “Iran has an interest in relations with Hamas, because it wants to surround Israel from all sides.” (Photo: Maryam Institute). 

Iran’s financial aid to the military wing therefore solves a major headache for Gaza’s ruling regime. The benefits run both ways.

“Iran has an interest in relations with Hamas, because it wants to surround Israel from all sides,” said Hacham. “By establishing strongholds in Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria, it is surrounding Israel, effectively putting it under a blockade. This motivates Iran to continue investing in its relations with Hamas, in addition to propping up their direct puppet, Palestinian Islamic Jihad [Gaza’s second largest armed faction].”

United by their war against Israel, Iran viewed May’s armed conflict between Palestinian terror factions in Gaza and Israel as a ‘victory‘ for its cause, said Hacham. “The relationship between Iran and Hamas goes back to the early 1990s, after Israel expelled Hamas operatives to Lebanon in 1992, and Iranian operatives there began providing the organization with economic support.”

After Hamas’s violent coup in Gaza in 2007, Iran expanded its support, based on the vision of turning Gaza into an escalation front against Israel. “Assistance grew from tens of millions of dollars per year in 2007 to $200 million per year a few years later, according to reliable assessments,” said Hacham. Meanwhile, the Quds Force began smuggling in earnest rockets, mortar shells, and other weapons via Sinai into Gaza, until the Egyptian program to demolish the tunnels.

At the same time, Iran has been careful not “to put all of its eggs in Hamas’s basket,” Hacham said, noting that it provides supports to “all variants of radical Islamic organizations in Gaza, with an emphasis on Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is a central Iranian proxy.”

Hamas activities in other parts of the Middle East, such as Lebanon, also receive Iranian support, he added. “The financial and military assistance isn’t slowing down. Iran has a need to exert its influence over all radical Islamist forces in the region.”

All of this is happening as Iran faces an ongoing, deep economic crisis, which has not deterred its leadership from investing significant treasure in its regional long-range influence program. That fact alone is testament to the depth of the regime’s dedication to its radical hegemony objective, irrespective of the troubles faced by everyday Iranians back home.

IPT Senior Fellow Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the military correspondent for JNS. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence.

 

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