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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.


Problems on the horizon for the Gulf States 10, April 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia.
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Born in an era when the German Mark was trading at over four trillion to the Dollar and the League of Nations still sought to regulate international alliances, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, who has lived through the inauguration of fifteen US Presidents, is truly a man of a different age.

Given what one might – rightly or wrongly – expect from a Saudi King who is nearly a nonagenarian, steeped in the austere, conservative Wahhabi culture of Saudi Arabia, some of his policies have been relatively enlightened. For example, he founded the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST), which is a resolutely co-educational campus where Saudi’s feared mutaween (religious police) are not allowed to go, where women can drive and are not mandated to cover their hair.

A Shia Lens

Yet one sphere in which Abdullah certainly is hawkish and conservative is that of Saudi foreign policy towards Iran. Here Abdullah appears to subscribe to the notion that Iran is perennially seeking to undermine Arab societies in some way, shape or form. Unprecedented in modern times, the Saudi Arabia-led intervention in Bahrain exemplifies this logic, with Bahrain seen as the front line of a cold but warming war which must be defended against Iran at all costs.

Three primary currents of fear – noted in their order of their priority to the Saudi government – drove this extreme policy.

Firstly, Riyadh fears that the establishment of any kind of meaningful Shia participation in Bahrain’s government – let alone a representative Shia Parliament – may allow, if not actively encourage, some kind of a militant Shia beach-head on Saudi Arabia’s doorstep. The notion that a Bahraini Hezbollah could emerge, or that some units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) could be covertly based in Bahrain, but a few kilometres from Saudi Arabia’s key oil fields, is immiscible to Saudi Arabia’s core security purview.

Secondly, Abdullah does not want to see the installation of a Shia-led government in Bahrain at the expense of the Sunni Al Khalifah family’s power. Such an upheaval could be interpreted as the first step towards the emasculation of royal power in Bahrain, and Riyadh is loath to allow such a precedent to be set.

Finally, Saudi Arabia wants to avoid the establishment of any kind of strong Shia-led government so close to its own Shia population, lest contagion spreads and they too begin to demand more rights.

These events take place in the context of what many in the region see to be growing Shia power, as encapsulated by the notion of a Shia crescent ‘enveloping’ the region, as suggested by Jordan’s King Abdullah II in 2004. The recent expulsion of three Iranian diplomats from Kuwait convicted of spying for the IRGC [1] exacerbated tensions and further fostered notions of Shia encroachment.

This Shia lens through which many people in the Gulf (certainly not just Saudi Arabia) view regional politics means that, for example, the protests in Bahrain are not seen as a disenfranchised sector of society complaining and demanding equal opportunities and fair representation, but necessarily instigated by Iran. ‘You see the same people on the streets of Bahrain as on the streets of Iraq … these people … [are] sent by Iran to cause trouble’ as one Kuwaiti put it, linking the narrative of Iran fostering sectarian strife in Iraq with Bahrain. [2]

Is It Merited?

In many ways, this kind of vilification of Iran is exactly what Tehran wants. It strives to foster a reputation for itself as a mighty state with elite and highly capable armed forces, whose sole goal is to propagate the Revolution and the velayat-e faqih rule of law.

In reality, Iran is – to a large degree – a paper tiger. Considering that it is arguably the richest state on earth in terms of oil and gas deposits, economically it is surprisingly weak with a GDP per capita of around $11,000, high unemployment and inflation. Socially, it has the world’s highest rate of human capital flight (often referred to as ‘brain-drain’) and the world’s highest proportion of opiate drug-users. [3] Politically, the country is riven with conflict, as evidenced by the million-strong protests after the stolen election in 2010. Militarily it is outspent five to one by the UK, and even by the comparatively tiny United Arab Emirates (UAE). Moreover, as General Petraeus recently bluntly stated ‘The Emirati Air Force itself could take out the entire Iranian Air Force.’ [4]

Asymmetrically, Iran needs to be taken seriously: the Islamic movements that it spawned and still supports in the Levant are arguably as strong as they have ever been and contribute to Iran’s deterrence. Also, its IRGC irregular forces have been relatively well-funded when compared with its traditional armed forces, and it would be foolish to underestimate them.

Nevertheless, this Iran – the Iran reliant on endless rhetorical bluster and a desperate showmanship striving to live up to several thousand years of a proud and strong civilisation whose key strengths today are, in fact, ambiguity and other asymmetries of power – bears little resemblance to the perfidious and powerful Iran as envisaged by some Gulf Arabs.

A Rock And A Hard Place

Whatever the true extent of Iranian power and their actions on the Arab side of the Gulf, the simple fact is that Saudi Arabia acts as if their threat were compelling and imminent. This may have unforeseen implications for regional security.

The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) met recently, and issued a joint statement in which Iran was accused of ‘blatantly … interfering in Kuwait’s affairs’ and of ‘continuous … interference in the domestic affairs of the GCC countries … and [instigating] sectarian sedition between … [GCC countries’] citizens.'[5] This is unusually aggressive and inflammatory language from the GCC States and reflects the point of view of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE more than Qatar or Oman.

Though Doha and Muscat may well be as uneasy about Iran’s motives or actions in the Gulf as other GCC members, they deal with Tehran in a different way, taking, where possible, more conciliatory approaches. For Qatar, the fact that they share and jointly exploit the world’s biggest gas field with Iran plays a key role in this decision and Qatari authorities are understandably wary of antagonising Iran.

Qatar and Oman will be under pressure to tow the GCC line, as they have in this instance. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait will want a united GCC front against Iran. While these two states will follow this to some degree, it would require a full reappraisal of their foreign policy towards Iran if this trend of difficult relations between the GCC and Iran were to continue. They are thus left with some difficult decisions, which might give them no choice but to antagonise either their fellow Arab States or Iran.


[1] Habin Toumi ‘Kuwait to expel three Iranian diplomats involved in spy ring’ Gulf News 31 March 2011 http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/kuwait/kuwait-to-expel-three-iranian-diplomats-involved-in-spy-ring-1.785663

[2] Personal interview (March 2011)

[3] For more statistics like this see ‘Iran is a Paper Tiger’, Intelligence Squared Debate, 24 February 2011

[4] Josh Rogin, ‘Petraeus: The U.A.E’s Air Force could take out Iran’s’, Foreign Policy, 17 December 2009 <http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/12/17/petraeus_the_uaes_air_force_could_take_out_irans>

[5] GCC states condemn Iran’s blatant interference in Kuwait’s affairs, Kuwait Times, 5 April 2011  <http://www.kuwaittimes.net/read_news.php?newsid=MTI3NDY1Njg5MQ>

The Iranian response to KSA & UAE intervention in Bahrain 17, March 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Iran, Saudi Arabia.
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Iran to respond to regional invaders

…was the title of an article on Iran’s Press TV.

The first line of the article is a quote from Hossein Naqavi, a member of Iran’s Majlis Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy:

The Saudi’s should know for a fact that Tehran will use all the power and potentials at its disposal to halt the oppression of the people of Bahrain.

Does any of this really need much analysis?

The only caveat to this that I’d make is that Iran is usually 95% bluster and barking (“all trousers” as we say) and 5% bite. These bellicose statements were guaranteed to come from Tehran. Actually how much truth there is to them is most certainly a different question.

Without wishing to state the obvious, the longer Saudi troops are in Bahrain, the greater the risk of Iran’s meddling. Not only will the opportunity of funding some group to take pot-shots at Saudi troops grow exponentially by the day, but Iran just sitting back as its local hegemonic rival stamps its authority on a patch of the Gulf to which Iran feels…umm…attached, would be seen as a sign of Iranian weakness and thus unacceptable.

Watch this space for the first signs of some Iranian money slithering its way towards Haq or some other Shia group.




Head of IRGC slaps Ahmadinejad 5, January 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran.
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According to a recent Wikileaks cable release the Head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) slapped President Ahmadinejad in a heated meeting.

Under a section titled ‘He who got slapped’ someone from the US Embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan reported the confrontation.

According to source, President Ahmedinejad surprise dother SNSC members by taking a surprisingly liberal posture
during a mid January post-Ashura meeting of the SNSC called to discuss next steps on dealing with opposition protests.
Source said that Ahmedinejad claimed that “people feel suffocated,” and mused that to defuse the situation it may be
necessary to allow more personal and social freedoms, including more freedom of the press.

According to source, Ahmedinejad’s statements infuriated Revolutionary Guard Chief of Staff Mohammed Ali
Jafari, who exclaimed “You are wrong! (In fact) it is YOU who created this mess! And now you say give more freedom to
the press?!” Source said that Jafarli then slapped Ahmedinejad in the face, causing an uproar and an immediate
call for a break in the meeting, which was never resumed.

Reading this reporting I am reminded of some kind of cross between a game of Chinese whispers and a ‘Days of Our Lives’ storyline. I can’t say I really know why.

The Spanish Paper that released that first commented on the story has been blocked in Iran.

Iranian nuclear scientists assassinated? 29, November 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Iran.
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Though reports are sketchy, it appears as if there were two successful assassination attempts against two Iranian nuclear scientists this morning.

Dr Majid Shahriari and Fereydoon Abbasi were, according to one Iranian newspaper, ‘distinguished members of school of Nuclear Engineering at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran’ and members of the Iranian Nuclear Association. Both also – allegedly – had close connections with the Ministry of Defence.

This is either the third of fourth such assassination this year, depending upon what sources one believes.

It takes no imagination whatsoever to imagine that Israel and America would be interested in carrying out such assassinations. However, barring another spectacular diplomatic breach, we are unlikely ever to know exactly the cause of these deaths.



Iran caught fermenting troubles in West Africa? 15, November 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Africa, Iran.
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The Nigerian Government is on the verge of reporting Iran to the United Nations Security Council after a huge cache of arms was discovered in Lagos port on a ship from Iran which was met by two Iranians from the Embassy.

The Times of London reports that the Iranian Foreign Minister immediately flew to Lagos to try to placate the Nigerians.

There seems to be little doubt of the origins of the consignment after Nigeria’s Foreign Minister noted that

The consignment did originate from Iran. That’s been confirmed from our own shipping documents and the Iranian foreign minister.

Not much wiggle room there.

The cache including rockets, rocket launchers, shells, grenades and other assorted explosives was intercepted by Nigerian security services. The two Iranians, assumed to be intelligence officials that greeted the shipment, fled back to Iran’s embassy. One is rumoured to be

Sayed Akbar Tahmaesebi, a known member of the al-Quds unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, whose visa to Nigeria was supported with a note from the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

None of this looks very good for Iran. The only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from these events is that Iran is seeking to ferment issues in Western Africa. Why specifically Iran would want to do this in Nigeria is, as they say, beyond my ken.


Iran’s weakness: its ports 15, July 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, The Emirates.
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There’s a very interesting article written by Meir Javedanfar in The Diplomat discussing a strategic weakness of Iran. Javedanfar notes that Iran’s southern ports are not able to accommodate +100,000 ton ships. [Presumably they don’t have any such ports in the north…] Any larger ships must dock in the UAE are the goods reexported. This is problematic, Javendanfar, suggests for a few reasons.

  • Given the increase in 250,000 ton ships plying the Gulf, Iran is increasingly losing out on economies of scale.
  • Relying on another country for transit of such an amount of goods is a dangerous tactic. Particularly given the UAE’s increasing proclivities towards siding with American sanctions, this could well bode ill for Iran.
  • Iran is paying hundreds of millions of dollars (perhaps billions, he suggests) to the UAE in port fees.

Iranian Ambassador: Kuwaiti journalists paid by Israel 4, June 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Kuwait.
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Kuwait’s outgoing Iranian Ambassador has accused some local journalists of being paid by ‘the Zionist State’ to attack Iran and defend Israel. He is referring, I assume, to the recent stories in the Kuwaiti Press of the discovery of Iranian Revolutionary Guard spies embedded in Kuwait.

This type of fear – that of Iranian sponsored or inspired 5th columnists in Gulf societies – is, I believe, the key fear of most Gulfies, more so than a ‘conventional’ Iranian military threat.

The key problem for the Iranian Ambassador is that even if he is correct and the story is fabricated, he sounds so absurd once again pinning the blame on Israel for this that one simply can’t take him seriously. I think there might be a moral here…something to do with a boy…wolves…crying…sheep…

Abu Dhabi building pipe to avoid Hormuz 3, June 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, Soft Power, The Emirates.
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(Square – Habshan Refinery. Triangle – Fujairah. Elipse – Straits of Hormuz)

Abu Dhabi’s government is spending $3 billion building a 375km oil pipeline from their refinery at Habshan south west of Abu Dhabi itself to Fujairah on the Emirates’ east coast which avoids the Straits of Hormuz choke point. Were some kind of conflagration to occur and Iran to attempt to close down the Straits as they promised to do, the Emirates unlike Qatar and Kuwait, would still be able to sell their oil to the world market (as well as reaping the benefits of the astronomical price, were Iran to close the Straits).

Whilst Qatar has mooted on several occasions an idea of building a pipe for its gas through Saudi Arabia and onto Turkey, there are significant hurdles involved. Saudi Arabia has their 745 miles-long East-West pipeline but this does not have the same capacity or cost base as their shipping.

Originally planned to open in 2009 it is now expected to open in August 2011.

It is also interesting to note that it is a Chinese Company that has been contracted to build the pipeline. I wonder what exactly the terms were for that deal i.e. whether China insisted on ‘first dibs’ on the oil that comes out the other end, were the worst to happen.

Hat tip: MEED Issue No 22 28 May – 3 June 2010

Iranian spy cells ‘throughout the Gulf’ 8, May 2010

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A hardline Kuwaiti Salafi recently commented that Iranian spy cells are “active and present in most other Gulf States.” This comes after such a cell was apparently found and broken up in Kuwait.

Mohammed Hayef, the Kuwaiti in question, is well-known for his anti-Iranian stance in Kuwait and has even called for the expulsion of the Iranian ambassador from Kuwait. He refused to reveal his sources.

Whilst I have no doubts that there are Iranian inspired or even paid agents throughout the Gulf, I do not believe at all that Hayef has any actually intelligence confirming this. His past makes him a wholly incredible source.