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Iran unvails new drones 16, April 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
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Iran’s military has announced that they have produced unmanned aeriel vehicles (UAVs) that can both gather intelligence and strike hostile targets. Whilst they will be no where near as advanced as the US’ predator and reaper drones used in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, they will nevertheless cause some consternation. UPI reports that the US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates voiced concerns that Iran’s new drones could “create difficulty” for the US in Iraq and Afghanistan. He even put forward the much-loved US hypothetical of such technologies falling into the hands of terrorists.

It seems more likely that whilst these drones will certainly have some tactical use for Iran’s military, given that the Israelis recently officially announced that they had produced a drone that could reach Iran, they simply had no choice but maintain parity with their chosen enemy of recent times.

Iran’s indigenous defence industry has been progressing for years now since US sanctions forced them to look inward to meet their needs. However, whilst aspects of this industry are thought to be well-funded, in reality Iran simply cannot match the level of technological sophistication of Western powers or even of their Arab neighbours who buy top-class Western kit. I would be surprised, therefore, despite the Iranian fan-fare, if these drones really posed that much of a new threat. However, being no Iranian military expert, I stand ready to be corrected…

As a brief aside it is interesting to note that Iran’s desperation for spare parts for their air force during the 1980s and their Iraq war, led them to deal intimately with the Israelis. Back then both Israel and Iran were united despite their ideological differences by an all-consuming fear of Iraq. Whatever Khomeini’s rhetoric towards Tel Aviv, his trading of oil for spare parts is a perfect example of realpolitik.

Dubai’s Iran ties 3, April 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, The Emirates.
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Time Magazine has a good article discussing Dubai’s well-known Iranian links. These are no secret and this is no scoop, but they are presented in a straight-forward and interesting way. Some key points:

– Dubai is a key center for re-exporting both to and from Iran

– Dubai-Iran trade worth $12 billion last year

– 400,000 Iranians live in Dubai

– 8000 Iranian companies are registered in Dubai

– 2 Iranian banks in Dubai – Bank Melli iran and Bank Saderat Iran – are under investigation for funding Iran’s nuclear programme

– Recently, Dubai officials have discovered US aircraft parts destined for Iran’s military and US counterparts foiled the sale of US attack helicopters to Iran via Dubai based export companies

Only a small portion of shipments are checked, and officials rely on the honesty of shipping brokers in filling out manifests.

Saudi and Abu Dhabi in naval skirmish, newspapers in denial 1, April 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia, The Emirates.
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This article was published in the Daily News Egypt on 31st March 2010


Last week there was a minor naval altercation between Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. In the incident it is reported that gunfire was exchanged, the crew of a Saudi patrol boat was taken into Emirati custody, two having been injured, but all were released within days.

Whilst the specific precipitant is unknown, it appears that the incident took place in waters that both sides claim. Despite Abu Dhabi being arguably the richest city on earth and Saudi Arabia having gargantuan oil reserves, neither is willing to give an inch of land under which there may be energy deposits. Furthermore, Saudi seemingly classes this tract of water as strategically important. When Qatar wanted to build the Dolphin pipeline to pipe gas to the Emirates and on to Oman, Saudi Arabia objected saying that its agreement was needed as the pipe would traverse Saudi territory. However, these objections were ignored and the pipe constructed.

Practically all reports of this incident seem to stem from one Daily Telegraph article so drawing firm conclusions is difficult. Yet given that only one Saudi patrol boat was involved and that the sailors were handed back so quickly, it seems likely that this incident is simply a ‘game’ of harassment gone awry; rather like the routine and illegal entry of Russian bombers into British airspace, revealed last week, which so far has not produced similarly accidental but nevertheless dangerous results.

If either side chooses to not to forget this incident and retaliate there are numerous potential international ramifications. Both Saudi and the Emirates are stalwart US allies in the Gulf, receiving access to the highest grade of US weaponry and even to civilian nuclear technology, in Abu Dhabi’s case. Moreover, both countries are theoretically vital parts of the American inspired putative united front against Iran, designed to present a cohesive and consistent front to pressure the Tehran regime.

Either which way, this incident is the very definition of a newsworthy story. It involved a military skirmish, casualties, capture, release, surprise, tension and it all happened in one of the most highly covered and analyzed regions on earth. Yet, there has been practically nothing from local newspapers and precious little internationally.

With respect, this is not overly surprising in Saudi Arabia’s case, for their indigenous newspaper industry is not known for its transparency and freedom; quite the opposite. But Abu Dhabi’s The National was supposed to be different.

Established in April 2008 to much fan-fare, The National recruited top–class journalists from the UK and America along with an editor — Martin Newland — with a strong reputation from Britain’s The Daily Telegraph. Moreover, The National was set up with a firm pledge to introduce Western newspaper standards to ”help society evolve”.

Today, The National has some excellent coverage of international issues and is clearly the best written newspaper in the Gulf. It is both surprising and disappointing, therefore, that a detailed search of their archive reveals that they appear not to have written a word on the topic.

To an extent, this is not surprising. Military matters are always among the first ‘red lines’ for newspapers to consider in this region, let alone in an incident with a supposed friendly country. This is also not the first time that The National has taken an apparently politically motivated stance. In January, ‘The Doha Debates’, a Qatar based BBC World discussion show with questions from a live studio audience, debated the topic “Is Dubai a bad idea?” The National, however, refused to advertise the Debate and continues this policy to date.

This decision, like the one not to run the Saudi-Abu Dhabi boat skirmish story, cannot be justified on editorial grounds alone: both are interesting and topical stories that unquestionably would have significant public interest. Even if the incident is not at all what it appears to be, which is entirely possible, it is still worth a clarification piece.

On both occasions The National’s editors or those deciding to block publication (if that is what happened) of these stories, have misjudged the situation. In the case of the Doha Debates, the Qatari audience decided that in fact Dubai was a good idea. This could have been correctly portrayed as a popular, democratic defense of Dubai at a time when Dubai sorely needed a good news story.

As for the Naval skirmish, given the number of ties between Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia — the most galvanizing of which being their mutual distrust and fear of Iran — the chances of this escalating seriously are slim. In the open, discussed and debated this could have been an opportunity to acknowledge some minor operational mistakes, announce renewed efforts to resolve the boundary issue and reaffirm their brotherly ties. After all, make no mistake: this story will have spread like wildfire through the region’s Majlis, so it is certainly not as if The National is preventing this information for getting to the public. Instead, with Ministries issuing ‘no comment’ statements and The National blissfully ignoring it, speculation continues and all concerned run the risk that a relatively minor issue takes on a more insidious, rumor-filled life of its own.

Russia enters the GCC arms market with a splash 28, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Iran, Russia.
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I’ve been a great fan of UPI news agency for some time now. It seems to have an unusually acute coverage of the Middle East, often picking up on stories that otherwise get missed, which it combines with professional analysis.

Their latest little gem is about Saudi Arabia’s potential purchase of Russian air defence systems. Whilst this may not appear that unusual, there are various interesting points to note about this.

– So far it is believed that Saudi might be seeking to buy as much as $4 billion worth of Russia’s S-300PMU air defence system. Some think, however, that Riyadh might prefer to wait for Russia’s more advanced S-400 system which has a range of 250 miles and the ability to counter sophisticated missile countermeasures. Russia is believed, however, to prefer to use the first few batches of S-400s domestically.

– Additionally, notions of Saudi buying 30 Mi-35 assault helicopters, up to 120 Mi-17 transports, 150 T-90 main battle tanks and 250 BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles are being mooted, according to UPI.

– It would be quite unusual for Saudi Arabia to purchase arms from Russia. Not only because of its heavy reliance on American and European weapons suppliers but because of questions surrounding the interoperability of Western and Russian systems.

– The most interesting aspect of this deal is that some see Saudi buying these weapons to make sure that Russia do not sell similar S-300 air defence systems to Iran. UPI writes that Russia ought to have delivered 5 highly effective S-300 batteries to Iran according to existing contracts though it has not claiming ‘technical difficulties’, which seems like the thinnest of veneers for US and international pressure. The UPI article sees Iran’s expulsion of Russian pilots recently as an angry reaction aimed at Moscow.

Qatar and Iran to launch satellite 22, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Al-Jazeera, Egypt, Iran.
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MEMRI reports that Iran and Qatar are to launch a satellite together primarily to compete with Egypt’s Nilesat. This stems from a recent decision imposed on Egyptian broadcast networks to stop broadcasting Iran’s Al Alam TV channel to the Arab world. If this venture succeeds (a sizable ‘if’ I’d have thought) Al Alam will once again flood the airwaves smearing Iranian soft power insidiously into the crevices of the Arab World, as Mubarak might put it.

America’s useless Iran sanctions 11, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Iran.
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The NYT has an excellent in-depth article analysing America’s sanctions against Iran. The Iran Sanctions Act was established in 1996 to deter companies investing more than $20 million in Iran by threatening, for example, to ban them from tendering for US contracts. However, in its 14 years the act has not been used once.

Moreover, the act is being prodigiously flouted by companies based in the US and abroad. The NYT calculates that:

the federal government has awarded more than $107 billion in contract payments, grants and other benefits over the past decade to foreign and multinational American companies while they were doing business in Iran.

The majority of this money went – unsurprisingly – to developing Iran’s energy sector which is closely allied to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

The NYT identifies 74 companies doing business with Iran and the US of whom 49 have no plans to withdraw from Iran. The following examples are taken directly from the NYT article.

  • South Korea – Daelim Industrial: 2007 – $700 million contract to upgrade an Iranian oil refinery. 2009 – $111 million contract to build US military housing in South Korea. 2009 – $600 million deal announced to develop part of Iran’s South Pars field
  • France – Total: 1998 – President Clinton declines to prosecute them for dealing with Iran
  • UK/Holland – Royal Dutch Shell: 1999 – $800 million deal to develop two oil fields. Subsequently Shell has won around $11 billion worth of contracts from the US Military. Shell has recently announced that it is stopping gasoline sales to Iran though this will not affect its exploration there.
  • Japan – Inpex: $2 billion investment Iranian oil field. No sanctions at all
  • Brazil – Petrobras: $100 million invested in exploring Iran’s offshore fields. Received a $2 billion loan from US for development of oil field off the coast of Brazil
  • America – Honeywell: British subsidiary works on Arak refinery in Iran. Received nearly £13 billion worth of federal contracts since 2005
  • America – Ingersoll Rand: Various ‘minor’ subsidiaries working in Iran & still receives US contracts, though they have announced that they are now pulling out of Iran
  • America – Haliburton: Used subsidiaries to work in Iran whilst receiving huge US contracts

Hat tip: Abstract JK

Russia: We don’t want Iran to have nukes 9, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Russia.
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Russia’s Ambassador in Jordan has said that Russia do not want a nuclear Iran. Whilst this is hardly revelatory news, it is quite unusual for this to be made explicit. He also said that Russia would support targeted sanctions but not military ones.

Iran sign regional non aggression pacts 7, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, The Gulf.
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The Iranian defence minister confirmed that Iran has signed bilateral mutual defence agreements with Qatar, Oman and Kuwait. These agreements apparently specify that neither territory will be used to attack or harm the other.

Recently, Iran has been making strident efforts – notably with Qatar – to visibly show and project and image of good, neighbourly relations. Perhaps Iran has finally realised that the more they threaten these states, the further and deeper they drive them into the arms of the US. Instead, the only way that they can even begin to seek to eject the US from the Gulf is by acting as a good, utterly non-threatening neighbour for their Arab allies. I doubt, however, that the leadership in Iran has the temperament for this long term plan. They seem to be unable to stop blustering on about their influence, weapons, plans, missiles and support. In short, US forces are not going anywhere anytime soon.

Iran expels Russian pilots 7, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Russia.
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MEMRI reports that Iran has ordered several Russian pilots to leave the country. MEMRI reasonably suggests that this can be seen as part of a tiff between Russia and Iran over hints that Moscow is more inclined to support further sanctions against Iran.

Israeli UAVs can reach Iran 26, February 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
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Israel has brought into production unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that can reach Iran. The Mideasti blog has a nice article on this which raises two particularly good points.

– Contrary to surprised/concerned/hyperbold-ridden headlines, the existence of this UAV has been known for some time

– It is intrinsically too slow, cumbersome and light-weight to pose any direct threat to Iran. I.e. it can relatively easily be shot down and could not carry heavy ‘bunker-buster’ bombs