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Iranian encirclement 12, December 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Iran.
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Each star is a US base.

An excellent map from Juan Cole.

On the Iranian plot 19, October 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Saudi Arabia.
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My published my article on the absurd Iranian plot to kill the KSA Ambassador in Washington DC.

According to local news reports, a loud, indiscreet, rude individual, known for chronic absentmindedness, who has a small-time criminal record and who used to engage in drink, drugs and prostitution is allegedly the key mastermind in what was planned to be the second largest terrorist attack on American soil in history: to assassinate the Ambassador of Saudi Arabia in a Washington DC restaurant.[1]

If the Iranian establishment was behind this plot and was looking for the most unlikely of spies to throw authorities off the scent, then they have clearly succeeded. Yet it is not just the personality of the alleged principal agent that is unconvincing, but the plot as a whole. Worse still, the manner in which the US government has dealt with this alleged plot arguably shows a chronic misunderstanding of not only the Iranian security apparatus but the Iranian threat as a whole

The simple background

Iran has a long and illustrious history in fermenting terrorism abroad. And the Quds Force, part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, is the key international element charged with covertly pushing Iran’s agenda outwith its borders. In recent years, it is believed to have been highly active in Iraq, Afghanistan as well as in Syria and Azerbaijan more recently. Some also claim that it has been involved in stoking troubles in Bahrain, though there is no conclusive evidence of this. It is reasonable to assume that the Quds Force specifically, via its support of specific Taliban elements and of militias in Iraq, is likely to have cost the lives of numerous Americans. Though, again, solid evidence is difficult to come by, it is believed to have been a prime supplier, for example, of advanced roadside explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Abiding and fundamental differences are also manifestly present between Iran and Saudi Arabia. These two entities represent polar opposites in basic religious and political clashes that have been ongoing for over fifteen hundred years and their antithesis is as potent today as it has ever been.

In short, at a basic level, there is scope for believing that ‘Iran’ as a cohesive entity may well engage in just such an act. But such a view eschews all nuance and even a rudimentary understanding of Iran casts serious doubt on the contention that the elite in Iran are somehow behind such a plan.


To date, there is scarcely an example of Iran or the Quds Force ever contracting a non-Muslim group with whom they have previously had no dealings whatsoever to carry out an assassination. Considering that this plot would represent the most risky, most difficult and potentially dangerous plot that the Quds Force has ever undertaken, it stretches credulity to suppose that it would have been entrusted to a Mexican drug gang. With no trusted contacts whatsoever in this world, which is reputedly riddled with American agents, it would have been a catastrophic risk to take. While one may argue that the Quds Force were playing on this fact for added deniability, again, the stratospherically high chance of failure and its consequences would surely put paid to any such notions.

Whatever one thinks of the Quds Force, one cannot doubt their unfortunate effectiveness and grim professionalism over the years. Therefore, given what is widely understood about America’s prowess in telecommunication intercepts, it seems irrational, for example, that an otherwise meticulous and professional force would risk discussing their most secretive and audacious mission in history over an open telephone line.


Moreover, what would Iran gain from killing the Saudi Arabian Ambassador? Iran’s use of terror tactics in the past has been governed by clear strategic direction. For example, the exporting of IEDs to kill Americans was directly aimed at weakening America in Iraq to hasten their eventual withdrawal.  Yet no such objectives can be divined from this proposed attack. While a cursory pastiche of Iran’s objectives may countenance such an assassination, it simply does not translate into reality.

Some commentators may well argue that the allegations are consistent with Iran’s role as an irrational actor, with its pursuit of asymmetric means, its supposed basis in Shia messianism and its offensive references to Israel: but this is simply not the case. It is a coldly rational state. To offer one simple example: during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, at the very height of Ayatollah’s Khomeini’s rhetorical pomp in the aftermath of the Revolution, Iran merrily traded oil for aircraft spare parts with Israel: rhetoric is one thing, realpolitik is another.

Consider what Iran had to lose. The plan was to kill the Ambassador in a restaurant. Given the types of restaurants that he is likely to frequent, there would surely have been a sizable chance that other high-powered officials (congressmen, senators etc) would have been killed as collateral damage (a chronically important corollary that Arbabsiar – clearly not much of a strategic thinker – summarily dismissed). Such an act would be little less than an act of war.  And for all of Iran’s bluster, it is wholly and supremely aware that in a war with America it could have its army, navy, air force and nuclear facilities, as well as its oil and gas terminals obliterated.

Moreover, the timing of such a would-be attack makes no sense. In an era of ever greater scrutiny of Iran’s human rights record, the pressure will be piled on this weekend when the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran will deliver his first report which is ‘expected to excoriate the Iranian government for the treatment of its own citizens’.[2] Furthermore, in early November the IAEA is expected to share information with its board members regarding Iran’s research into fashioning nuclear weapons. The idea that Iran might seek to cause a distraction to detract from these events is plausible, but potentially instigating a war with America would be – to say the least – overkill.

Regionally, it is of little surprise to see Saudi Arabia leaping on the circumstantial evidence offered thus far as yet more proof of Iran’s perfidy. It fits snugly into Riyadh’s narrative which seeks to galvanise other Gulf States and America firmly against Iran and its ways. To be sure, Iran has engaged in all manner of terrorism-supporting activities in the past, some of which have directly affected Saudi Arabia. Yet Saudi Arabia’s latest push for recognition of the Iranian threat – that of Tehran’s support of ferment in Bahrain – while perfectly plausible and in keeping with Iran’s strategic modus operandi and outlook, simply does not have that much evidence backing it up thus far. Instances such as this one – where Iran is lambasted by all levels of the US government as guilty before being charged – further inclines those in power to gloss over other lacunas of evidence (e.g., in Bahrain) under the rubric that Iran ‘is bound’ to be guilty.[3]

As far as the leaders in Riyadh are concerned, they already have a mountain of evidence as to Iran’s intrinsic desire to destroy their country and their system of alliances. This instance will simply be added – prominently – to the pile and will be trotted out as and when required.

One swallow does not a summer make

While one or two Iranians appear to have been seeking to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador – and in his wildest dreams Ahmadinejad too may longingly hope to do something of this nature – it is simply not credible that a professional and experienced organisation such as the Quds Force is behind such an attempt. Nor is it remotely likely that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei would have sanctioned such a risky, illogical move. It fits neither Iran’s general modus operandi nor does it boost their strategic aims.

The fact that American officials seem to so readily believe this caricature of a poor film script is both worrying and depressing. Indeed, it is not long since disastrous policies were similarly fashioned on the basis of incomplete evidence, sizable simplifications and a lack of a rigorous examination, which led to the gravest of consequences in Iraq. Thankfully in this case it is difficult to find one Iranian or Gulf expert of repute who will do anything other than question the affair as a whole and there is scarcely any appetite for war. Yet America will continue to counter Iran’s many and varied threats ineffectually if it cannot grasp the basic mechanics and motivations in question.

Fundamentally, Iran is governed by an elite that sees itself being encircled by hostile forces. To all points of the compass in Afghanistan, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Bahrain, Iraq, Qatar and Kuwait it sees an amassing of American troops not to mention the large-scale sale of the latest US weapons technology to Saudi Arabia and other Iranian neighbours. This is not to mention severe economic domestic difficulties in an age of regional revolutions. Iran cannot hope to react symmetrically and thus puts its efforts to augmenting its asymmetric defences. These include the supporting of Hezbollah and the Quds Force to the development of asymmetric technologies and doctrines, particularly in the Gulf.

Once America’s elite grasps that Iran is reacting out of fear; a genuine and deep-seated fear of change and of regional power realities, perhaps then it can appreciate that while Iran’s politicians feel the need to periodically bang the nationalistic, popular drum, they are nevertheless at pains to avoid egregious provocation with no palpable, tangible rewards: exactly what this absurd plan to kill the Saudi Ambassador would have delivered.

The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


[1] Steven Kreytak, Local terror plot mastermind described as more a ‘joke’ than a mastermind, statesman.com   http://www.statesman.com/news/local/local-terror-plot-suspect-described-as-more-a-1910853.html

[2] Barbara Slavin ‘Alleged Iranian Assassination Plot Suspicious, Experts Say’ http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=105442

[3] Matthew Lee ‘Clinton: Plot a Dangerous Escalation by Iran’ Washington Post http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2011/oct/12/us-aims-punish-iran-saudi-envoy-plot/

Iran can ‘easily’ occupy Saudi Arabia 17, October 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Saudi Arabia.
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Let no one say that some Iranian Ministers do not have a good sense of humour.

Mohammed Karim Abedi, a member of Iran’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee in the Iranian parliament, confidently stated that ‘Iran was capable of occupying Saudi Arabia if it chooses [sic] to do so’.

Iran’s military forces have the ability to strip Saudi Arabia of its security whenever it wants and Saudi Arabia will not be capable of responding.

Wholly without irony with this belligerent statement, he was replying to the accusation that Iran was plotting to assassinate the KSA Ambassador in Washington DC [my thoughts on which will appear soon].

He also noted that Iran has infiltrated Israel with spies so that it now knows ‘critical information’ to be used should the two states ever come to blows. I’m sure that those in Tel Aviv are terrified.

Of course he sounds like an ass to us, but we’re hardly the intended targets: all politics is domestic, let’s not forget.


Arab Universities in world league table 5, September 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia.
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I don’t really pay that much attention to University league tables. Well, I do, but I don’t think that they’re infallible by any means and we can all point to absurd examples of where tables chronically lie. But this list is somewhat sobering. Room for improvement, as they say.

Universities in the top 600 list

  1. 200 – King Saud University, Saudi Arabia
  2. 221 – King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals, Saudi Arabia
  3. 300- American University of Beirut, Lebanon
  4. 338 – United Arab Emirates University, UAE
  5. 370 – King Abdul Aziz University, Saudi Arabia
  6. 377 – Sultan Qaboos University, Oman
  7. 488 – King Khalid University, Saudi Arabia
  8. 514 – University of Tehran, Iran
  9. 526 – Umm Al Qura University, Saudi Arabia
  10. 529 – King Faisal University, Saudi Arabia
  11. 533 – Qatar University, Qatar
  12. 534 – Cairo University, Egypt
  13. 551 – American University in Cairo, Egypt

And unless Kuwait University has simply been missed off by accident in the Gulf News article of the report, it is a chronic indictment of scandalous proportions that it is not in the top 550 overall.

Arab sentiment towards Iran 28, August 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran.
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For some time now I’ve waffled on about Arab views towards Iran (x x x). Fear not, I’ll not bore you again with the same old stuff.

However, I have stumbled across what is perhaps the perfect cliché of ‘Arab’ sentiment towards Iran.

Not for one second would I say something as daft as ‘all Arabs’ view Iran in this way. Those on this side of the Gulf are, needless to say, on a spectrum ranging from those that are aware of, for example, the lack of evidence of Iranian perfidy in Bahrain to those on the more lunatic fringe as perfectly encapsulated by Khalif Al Habtoor’s sentiments.

Where exactly most locals on this side of the Gulf are located is, of course, the million dollar question. The best that I can do is to lackadaisically and imprecisely note that most people, in my humble estimation, lie somewhat nearer Habtoor than not. Should anyone have any mystical way to quantify this unquantifiable issue, do let me know; it would be most appreciated.

Hat tip: AS

On Iran and the GCC 22, August 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Iran.
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The Guardian have published an article of mine on the GCC fixation with Iran. Despite a bit of butchery with the editing robbing my opening sentence of its mojo, it is still, I feel, worth a read!

On assumptions of truth 9, June 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, North Africa, Opinion.
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Earlier this evening I read an article in which Libya’s comical Ali-esque spokesperson refuted the claims that Gaddafi had given the order to use rape as a weapon of war and instead claimed that the rebels, as he refers to them, had even engaged in cannibalism.

Immediately I assumed that, as you can clearly see, the official spokesperson was lying about the rebels engaging in cannibalism. While I certainly have some skepticism about the notion of Gaddafi ordering some kind of systematic policy of rape to be used, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least. And, from what little news I’ve seen about it and with their snippets of ‘proof’ (i.e. boxes of viagra apparently strewn around areas recently deserted by pro-Gaddafi forces) I would suppose that this story is mostly true.

Though, as I note, I have, essentially, bugger all proof of this. Essentially, I believe that Gaddafi (probably) used rape as a weapon of war even though it is based on no reasonable evidence. Why is this? Is it because I manifestly dislike Gaddafi and think that he’s either crazy or evil enough to concieve such a plan or because I read about it in a trusted news source? A bit of both I’d suppose.

Yet this thought perturbed me, somewhat, as I thought about it earlier. Particuarly in the light of the saga of the abduction of the ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’. As you’ve probably read, a ‘prominent’ blogger – the eponymous gay girl – posted (or had someone post for her) that she had been abducted by Syrian security forces. Only later, a few days after the story broke and she became something of a cause celebre against the awful Assad regime, it transpires that it’s all something of a hoax. She was never abducted and it is not wholly clear if she is real, gay, a girl, a blogger, in Damascus, or what.

Here again, I suppose, I automatically assumed that this story was (probably) true, or at least a good representation of the facts. After all, it sounded just like what Assad’s security services would do, didn’t it? And this fundamental assumption was expertly played on by the author of the ‘gay girl’ saga.

So too to I think that the notion of Gaddafi promoting the use of rape as a weapon of war fits really rather perfectly into my characature of ‘exactly something’ that that evil despot would do. Too perfectly, perhaps? Certainly the reply of Gaddafi’s spokesperson went the only way it could: it ramped up the act to cannibalism, perhaps one of the few taboos worse (though I really don’t want to start that argument) than rape. Presumebly the logical conclusion to this game of one-upmanship’s is for Gaddafi to accuse the rebels of engaging in nechrophilia.

But this un-subtle, rather stupid response from Gaddafi’s people doesn’t concern me; it’s blatant and obvious.

To take another example: the Iranian elections of 2009. They were, I believe, stolen by Ahmadinejad with an absurd amount of votes in certain districts mysteriously not counting for who they were expected to. I have alluded to this opinion as ‘fact’ in a number of things that I have written recently. Yet I have also been reading various quotes, comments and articles from people that I trust plainly declaring that there is no hard evidence of the election being stolen. Were someone to ask me to provide my evidence then I’d root around google news, find a NYT article or two and provide that. However, I suspect that were I to delve deeper into their sources, I imagine that there would (perhaps) not be all that much solid, bonafide ‘proof’ that the election were stolen. Such proof is, I’d have thought, near impossible to obtain. Yet I still believe that the election was stolen. So am I right to say so?

I suppose the ‘opposite’ example is currently underway, so to speak, on the other side of the Gulf where it is an assumption that has become hardened fact for many (and I’d be tempted to say most) Arabs that Iran is significantly at fault for, for example, the recent troubles in Bahrain. There is – to my knowledge; and I do live and breath this topic – no evidence of significant Iranian involvement, so I dismiss it, just as an Iranian may be tempted to dismiss my assumptions about their 2009 election.

How much ought one rely on one’s assumptions and on previous analysis in lieu of evidence for understanding a given event?

The notion that one must ‘always’ have absolute proof before one makes up one’s mind is absurd: I’ve no evidence whatsoever that the moon landings took place (on the moon…) but believe that they did. Clearly we need to rely on other people’s trusted judgments a lot of the time.

I’ve got no conclusion to this wavy and meandering stream of consciousness. All I would say is that this rant makes me believe that while blogging is good and all, it doen’t come remotely close to the rigour of a good newspaper (this blog being the grand exception, of course). While you may think that that is something of an obvious statement, I’m not so sure it is.

The hype that the ##sigh## Twitter revolutions have garnered, the ‘cool’ twenty-first centuryness of the blog and the commensurate if not necessarily wholly correlated demise of the profitability of newspapers suggest to me that the worth of newspapers is, for any or none of the afore mentioned reasons, going down.

So…I dunno…go buy a newspaper or something, I guess.

Iran builds pearl roundabout monument on disputed island 5, June 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Iran, The Emirates.
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I can’t believe that I missed this when the story first broke.

Evidently the Iranians have a super sense of high mirth and constructed a fake ‘pearl roundabout’ as a monument to the epicenter of the Bahraini protests, which was subsequently destroyed in Manama. Moreover, not only did they ironically immortalize the roundabout, but they built it on the disputed island of Abu Musa, which the Iranians nabbed from the Emirates in 1971.

Iranian flotilla heads for Bahrain 16, May 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Saudi Arabia, The Gulf.
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An Iranian naval convoy of activists, students and professors is heading to Bahrain to protest at what they see as the legitimate demands of the Shia population there being ruthlessly oppressed with the open support – if not direction – of regional allies, notably Saudi Arabia.

The flotilla insists that it will ask for permission to enter Bahraini waters, which will surely be refused.

This action will now be the face of Saudi claims that Iran is interfering in Bahrain’s domestic politics, a view that is utterly entrenched in the Kingdom and elsewhere throughout the Gulf. Indeed, overall there has been little appreciation that the Shia in Bahrain may have legitimate grievances that ought to be given a voice. Instead many Gulf countries, strongly led by Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and of course Manama have been propagating the notion that practically all of the troubles are down to Iran.

Technically speaking, this incident should pass without a hitch. First, the flotilla will never be granted access to Bahraini waters, which they claim they will seek. And second, the Bahraini (or Saudi) ships which will intercept them should they progress further will surely be aware that there will be approximately a million cameras on the Iranian boats ready to capture any images of ‘unprovoked brutality against a humanitarian convoy’.

Yet this overlooks two things.

Firstly, one must not forget what a profound mess the Middle East’s best trained armed forces made of a flotilla intervention last year.

Secondly, there is a wholly poisonous Sunni-Shia, Arabian Gulf-Persian Gulf atmosphere in the region at the moment. Moreover, Saudi Arabia appear to be edging away from simply following the American lead and are striking out on their own in terms of a more muscular, assertive foreign policy. Under these circumstances, not only is it unfortunately possible to see them using this example of ‘Iranians entering GCC waters with…umm…hostile intent’ as an excuse to act but more generally in this febrile atmosphere I would not remotely put it past Saudi or Bahraini sailors to take a pot-shot just for the hell of it.

Iranian-Kuwaiti tiff continues 12, April 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Kuwait.
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Amid spiking tensions between the states on either side of the Gulf and in the aftermath of Kuwait expelling three Iranian diplomats found guilty of spying, Iran retaliated by expelling an undisclosed number of Kuwaiti diplomats in return. This kind of tit-for-tat expulsion is the norm in these circumstances. Yet a Kuwaiti MP seems to have taken it all rather badly. Indeed, he condemned the Iranian Government for violating

all diplomatic traditions and norms and good neighbourly relations.

I wonder what Kuwait would have done had Iran started this episode and (unjustly, of course) expelled a few of their diplomats. Would Kuwait have taken the higher road? I think not.

Still the Kuwaiti MP in question, Mubarak Al Waalan, in a clear, calm and assertive attempt to thoroughly worsen relations further, suggested in a petulant, teenage manner that Kuwait ought to expel all Iranian diplomats. That’d learn ’em good, I’m sure.