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Iran’s message to its people: If you revolt, you die

The Iranian authorities are ramping up repression. They fear mass protests now more than ever.

by Saeid Golkar – 18 Jul 2020

Since late June, 11 Iranian citizens – three in Tehran and eight in Isfahan have been sentenced to death for taking part in mass anti-government protests in November 2019. Iranian journalist Ruhollah Zam, who was accused of fuelling anti-government protests through a popular Telegram channel in 2017, also received the death penalty during the same period.

Also in June, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shut down Iran’s biggest anti-poverty NGO, the Imam Ali Society, and arrested its founding director, Sharmin Meymandi Nejad, citing “anti-Iran activities”. The independent charity had attracted the regime’s fury during last year’s protests by criticising government officials for “calling the poverty-stricken demonstrators rioters and agents of the enemy”.

Why did Iranian authorities rapidly intensify their efforts to silence dissenting voices in the last few weeks? The short answer is “fear”. Today, amid a devastating pandemic and crippling economic sanctions, the Iranian government is more concerned about the possible re-emergence of mass riots than ever before.

Today, Iranian people are fed up with the government’s totalitarian desire to control all aspects of their lives and its apparent inability to address pressing environmental threats, such as air pollution and drought. Moreover, they are extremely dissatisfied with its bungling response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But above all, many Iranians from all walks of life are experiencing unprecedented, crippling economic hardship as a result of the cumulative consequences of the US sanctions, the COVID-19 pandemic and the incompetence of the Iranian government.

US President Donald Trump’s 2018 decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and embark on a “maximum pressure” policy devastated Iran’s economy, which was already in dire straits due to chronic mismanagement and widespread corruption. Just over a year later, the coronavirus pandemic, and the consequent drop in global oil prices, inflicted a second deadly blow on the country’s finances.

Due to US sanctions, Iran’s oil revenues dropped from over $60bn in 2018 to $9bn in 2019. As the Iranian leadership tried to compensate for its oil revenue losses with gains in other sectors, the pandemic struck the service sector – which makes up more than 40 percent of Iran’s economy – and sped up the country’s looming economic collapse.

In the first half of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic already caused a 15 percent drop in Iran’s GDP, and the country is expected to experience further losses in the second half of the year.

Adding to these concerns, Iran’s economy is experiencing another period of “stagflation”, a combination of recession and high inflation. The Iranian leadership’s short-term remedy for its economic woes has always been to print more money, which leads to higher inflation. Earlier this year, the Iranian rial plummeted against the US dollar to the currency’s lowest value ever, with one US dollar being traded for 230,000 rials. Inflation, meanwhile, reached 40 percent in 2019 and is expected to rise further this year.

Iranians have been protesting against increasing economic hardship since December 2017. Most recently in November last year, they took to the streets en masse to protest against an unexpected increase in gasoline prices. The government violently cracked down on the protests, killing up to 1,500 people and injuring many others.

Since last year’s violence, the worsening economic situation – and the unrest it may trigger – has been a primary source of concern for Iran’s political elites. Most recently on June 27, Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha, one of Iran’s highest-ranking and most politically influential clerics, wrote an open letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei and warned him that “increasing inflation and declining incomes have created back-breaking problems for the people” which threaten the stability of the country and the future of the regime.

To remedy this situation and prevent future unrest, the regime adopted a twinned strategy of offering basic material aid to the poor and intensifying oppression.

In April, as the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the country’s existing economic and social woes and increased the likelihood of a new episode of nationwide unrest, the government created an ad hoc welfare central command station called the Imam Hassan Headquarters to provide Iran’s poorest and most vulnerable with basic goods and “buy” their loyalty.

The government, however, is well aware that such initiatives are akin to putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. Iran’s parliamentary research centre has warned that as many as 57 million Iranians (out of a population of 82 million) may be pushed below the poverty line in 2020. The regime, whose income is already shrinking, cannot afford to provide sufficient aid to such a large section of the population for too long.

This is why the government is also using a more effective and familiar tactic to prevent mass unrest: oppression.

In June 2020, the state-appointed IRGC Brigadier General Hossein Nejat, one of Khamenei’s most trusted officers, as the head of Sarallah headquarters. Sarallah is Tehran’s most important security headquarters and is tasked with protecting government officials and institutions in the city against domestic threats such as riots, anti-government protests or coup attempts.

General Nejat’s appointment to this role indicates not only that the regime is gearing up for more anti-government protests, but also that it is preparing to crush any revolt with force.

Prior to his appointment, Nejat made it clear that he views the urban poor as the most critical threat to the Iranian regime. In his analysis of the November 2019 uprising, for example, the general claimed that the West is using poor Iranians to topple Iran’s government and described them as “illiterate people, who live in the outskirts [of major population centres] and [whose minds] are polluted in the cyberspace”.

And it is not only the forces directly tied to the Sarallah headquarters that are preparing for a battle with the urban poor. The IRGC has also started to prepare a volunteer paramilitary force of government loyalists, known as Basij, for a new round of unrest. According to my sources in the militia, the Guard has introduced new anti-riot tactics and scheduled extra propaganda sessions to convince Basij forces of the necessity of cracking down on civilian protests.

Meanwhile, the IRGC propaganda machine is doing overtime and using social networks to pre-emptively brand any future protest movement as a Western attempt to topple the government.

As they work to expand their support networks, the government’s forces are also simultaneously dismantling any civil society organisation and movement that could provide support for protesters during future unrest, such as the anti-poverty NGO, Imam Ali Society.

Another important element in IRGC’s strategy to prevent future unrest is injecting fear into the population. This is why Iran’s judiciary, which often acts as an arm of the IRGC, has sentenced youths involved in last year’s protests to death. The message that was sent to the masses with these sentences was clear: There is no mercy, if you revolt, you will die.

Today, Iran’s security and political elites are clearly working overtime to prevent a new round of civic unrest. It is impossible to know whether they will succeed in sedating, and scaring, the Iranian masses enough to prevent another round of nationwide protests. One thing, however, is certain: in the hopes of maintaining order, the Iranian regime is becoming more authoritarian and repressive every passing day.

Could War With Iran Be an October Surprise?

By Jonah Shepp- 19th July 2020

Over the past few weeks, a series of suspicious fires and explosions have occurred at Iranian civilian and military facilities, including the country’s main missile-production and nuclear complexes. While a few of these incidents might have been accidental, the timing and specific targets suggest that at least some were the result of sabotage by Israel, and the provocations raise the possibility of a spiraling conflict in the Middle East just in time to become an issue in the upcoming U.S. presidential election.


Via anonymous leaks to major media outlets, Israeli intelligence sources have more or less copped to the country’s involvement in some of the incidents. After an explosion at the Natanz nuclear-fuel-enrichment complex in early July, which may have set back Iran’s progress toward a nuclear warhead by months or years, a “Middle Eastern intelligence official with knowledge of the episode” told the New York Times that Israel was behind the attack. Right-wing Israeli politician Avigdor Lieberman implicitly accused Mossad chief Yossi Cohen of being the Times’ source, suggesting that the leak was part of Cohen’s campaign to succeed legally embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as head of the Likud Party.

If Cohen is leaking, though, he’s not the only one. A former Israeli defense official told Insider that it was common knowledge in Israeli intelligence circles that some of these events were Israeli intelligence operations. “I don’t know which ones exactly and wouldn’t tell you anyway because the entire point is for the Iranians to feel considerable stress trying to decide what might have been our work,” they said. A European Union intelligence official echoed that understanding, calling it part of a campaign of “maximum pressure, minimal strategy” to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program.

Israel isn’t the only party anonymously taking credit for these attacks. A hitherto unknown Iranian dissident group calling itself the Homeland Cheetahs emailed the BBC shortly after the incident at Natanz occurred but before it became public, claiming to have attacked the plant as part of an ongoing campaign of sabotage against Iranian strategic sites. The email from the group, allegedly composed of dissidents within Iran’s military and security forces, contained details that aligned with what was soon reported, suggesting that the authors had foreknowledge of the attack. However, this could also have been an act of misdirection to sow doubts about who was responsible. It’s also not an either/or proposition: Israel has in the past carried out joint operations against Iran with domestic anti-regime elements like the Mujahideen-e Khalq.

In any case, with so much smoke leaking out of Israel’s military-intelligence Establishment, the presence of fire is very likely. In further reporting from the Times, more “officials familiar with the explosion” compared the complexity of the Natanz attack to Stuxnet, the sophisticated joint U.S.-Israeli cyberattack on Iranian nuclear facilities uncovered in 2010. It is unclear whether the explosion was the result of a physical bomb or a cyberattack used to ignite the plant’s gas supply. Either way, Israel is generally considered the only one of Iran’s regional adversaries with the intelligence capabilities to pull off an attack of this magnitude on such a sensitive, closely guarded facility.

Nor is there much mystery as to why Israel would be pursuing this campaign at this particular moment. Iran has been in a weakened state, its economy hobbled by U.S. sanctions and its regime facing domestic discontent, including a massive protest campaign last fall. Those protests raised hopes among Iran hawks in the U.S. that their dreams of regime change might soon be realized. The regime did not, in fact, collapse, but its weak position was revealed when it was unwilling or unable to mount a meaningful response to the assassination of its special-operations commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad by a U.S. drone strike in January — then provoked widespread outrage among Iranians by shooting down an airliner filled with its own citizens and initially lying about its responsibility.

Iran was also the first Middle Eastern country to experience a major outbreak of COVID-19 in February, and its case count and death toll are both believed to be significantly higher than the government is reporting. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani issued a puzzling statement on Saturday, saying that about 25 million Iranians had already been infected with the virus, while 30-to-35 million others were at risk of getting infected. That number was orders of magnitude greater than Iran’s officially reported number of infections (271,606) and would appear to make the reported death toll of around 14,000 seem minuscule. Indeed, downplaying the impact and threat of the coronavirus may have been Rouhani’s intent, though again, Iran is already widely suspected of undercounting its coronavirus deaths. In any case, the pandemic has further damaged Iran’s stability and its already shaky economy.

And on Sunday, the regime in Iran suspended the executions of three men linked to anti-government protests in November after a massive social-media campaign calling for their release last week. That decision suggests that Tehran is wary of provoking more civil unrest. Meanwhile, there were a few more mysterious explosions and so-called industrial accidents in Iran this weekend:

With the regime apparently on the ropes, Israel sees an opportunity to set back Tehran’s military and nuclear ambitions, especially at a moment when Netanyahu’s hawkish government is actually being criticized for not having done enough to counter the Iranian threat. Israel’s current Iran policy is known as the “campaign between wars”: a targeted effort to counter Iran’s ability to threaten Israel through proxies in Syria, Lebanon, and (increasingly) Iraq. These short-of-war actions are intended to prevent Iran from establishing an advantageous position in a more direct conflict that Israel eventually expects to break out.

That campaign has expanded over the past few years with the blessing of President Donald Trump, who shares Netanyahu’s interest in fomenting regime change in Iran but would prefer not to commit U.S. military personnel directly to that project. Israel’s new approach since 2018, called the “octopus doctrine,” has entailed targeting the Iranian advisers and officials who direct and support proxy forces in other countries (like Soleimani), rather than targeting the proxies themselves.

The meeting of the minds between the Netanyahu and Trump administrations on Iran is another likely motivation for the timing of its covert sabotage campaign. The Israeli government is as aware as anyone of the polls showing that Trump seems likely to lose reelection in November and exit the White House in January (nightmare constitutional crises and soft-coup scenarios notwithstanding). A potential Biden administration would probably not continue Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach to Iran and would not be as solicitous of Israel’s covert operations. It is unclear whether the U.S. has explicitly or tacitly blessed the past month’s attacks, but the administration certainly isn’t condemning them. Israel may have a limited window of time to act with carte blanche from Washington and is perhaps seeking to do as much damage to Iran as possible before that window closes.

The danger, of course, is that these provocations could escalate into the all-out war Israel has been trying to avoid. Uncorroborated reports are emerging that Iran is preparing to retaliate militarily against Israel and the U.S. for these attacks, amid other threatening statements from Iran’s military over Israeli attacks on Iranians in Syria. However, Iran declined to take major retaliatory measures after the assassination of Soleimani and is arguably in an even worse position to escalate conflict now than it was in January. Some experts told Vox they doubted Iran would see these acts of sabotage as a reason to mount a forceful response, especially from its current position of weakness.

Nonetheless, the E.U. official who spoke to Insider expressed fear that “the Israeli plan here is to provoke an Iranian response that can turn into a military escalation while Trump remains in office.” Indeed, it may be Israel, not Iran, that makes the decision to escalate. Perhaps Netanyahu decides that war with Iran is the lever he needs to secure his political future; perhaps Trump, who has been trying to obfuscate his disastrous mishandling of the pandemic, comes to the same conclusion for himself. More likely, Israel’s military leaders consider war with Iran a risk they are willing to take to severely set back its development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, as long as they know they would have the backing of the U.S. in any such conflict.

If Israel goes all in on crippling Iran’s military capabilities over the next three months, the likelihood of war will continue to increase whether or not Israel intends to start one or Trump wants to join in. That danger becomes greater if either Netanyahu or Trump sees a political opportunity in confronting the Iranian regime head-to-head. Whether such a confrontation would actually redound to Trump’s electoral benefit is doubtful, as opinions on Iran are already baked into the partisan cake and more proximate domestic crises are more likely to decide November’s outcome. Still, any event that escalates the sense of chaos and national emergency in the U.S. will be unwelcome in the run-up to what is already likely to be a historically dysfunctional presidential election. As we all wait with bated breath to find out if there will be some kind of “October surprise” this fall, we unfortunately can’t rule out the possibility of another destructive war in the Middle East.

Our ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran failed — unless the goal was to help China

Opinion by Editorial Board

July 20, 2020 at 5:58 p.m. EDT

THE TRUMP administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran has manifestly failed to achieve either its stated or unstated aims: It has not forced Iran to renegotiate the nuclear accord from which President Trump unwisely withdrew; nor has it ended Iranian aggression in the Middle East or caused the regime of Ali Khamenei to collapse. Now it may result in a powerful new blow to U.S. interests, in the form of an Iranian partnership with China that could rescue Iran’s economy while giving Beijing a powerful new place in the region.

An agreement approved by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last month could lead to billions of dollars in Chinese investments in Iran, in exchange for a steady and discounted stream of Iranian oil, according to the New York Times. The deal also envisages security cooperation, including joint military exercises and the sharing of weapons development and intelligence, according to an 18-page draft the Times obtained.

It’s not certain the pact will go forward: It has yet to be publicly unveiled and must be approved by the Iranian parliament, where it could encounter nationalist resistance. But if it does, it will not only rupture the wall of sanctions that the Trump administration has constructed in an attempt to strangle the Iranian economy; it will also mark a significant escalation of China’s challenge to U.S. global influence.

As with the mounting U.S. conflict with Iran, that was not inevitable. The regime of Xi Jinping supported the pressure campaign against Iran conducted by the Obama administration as well as the nuclear accord it led to, which was meant to restrain Iran’s uranium enrichment and other nuclear development for a decade or more. Even after Mr. Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, Beijing at first generally adhered to the new U.S. sanctions, reducing oil purchases and other trade.

Yet Mr. Trump’s confrontational approach to China in recent months, including his refusal to continue work on a comprehensive trade deal, has given Mr. Xi little incentive to cooperate with Washington’s geopolitical priorities. On the contrary, the Chinese leadership likely perceives a moment of critical U.S. weakness as Mr. Trump flounders amid a health and economic crisis and is moving to take advantage. It is expanding its presence in the South China Sea; it is crushing Hong Kong’s autonomy. Allying itself with the foremost U.S. adversary in the Middle East opens yet another front.

Mr. Trump and his aides have directed plenty of bluster at China in recent weeks, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered more when the prospective Iran-China accord came up at a news conference last week. Pointing to the possibility that China would sell arms to Iran under the deal, he said that was reason to extend a U.N. embargo on arms sales to Iran when it expires in October. Yet that can’t happen without Beijing’s agreement.

Mr. Pompeo also threatened sanctions against Chinese companies that do business with Iran. Again, that might have been a substantial deterrent before Mr. Trump launched his reckless trade war. Now, China may perceive it has more to gain by shielding U.S. adversaries from “maximum pressure” — and demonstrating U.S. impotence.

Iran Aims At $1 Trillion Oil Revenue From Giant Field Development

By Charles Kennedy – Jul 20, 2020, 12:30 PM CDT

Iran signed on Monday a US$1.3-billion deal with domestic companies to double the production capacity at the massive Azadegan oilfield, expecting the rise in production to boost its oil revenues by US$1 trillion, Iranian officials said at the signing ceremony.

Iran’s Petroleum Engineering and Development Company (PEDEC) has signed a contract with the local Petropars Group for the completion of the development of the South Azadegan oilfield, which the Islamic Republic shares with Iraq.

At the Iranian field, production capacity is expected to more than double in 30 months, to 320,000 barrels per day (bpd) from 140,000 bpd currently and from just 45,000 bpd back in 2013, the oil ministry’s news service Shana reported on Monday.

The Iranian companies also signed a deal to build a 320,000-bpd central treatment export plant (CTEP) at Azadegan, the largest oil and gas processing unit in Iran, which is scheduled to be built within 30 months.

According to Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh, improving the Azadegan oilfield’s recovery factor by 10 percent would boost the total production of the field by 2.7 billion barrels, which means Iran could get US$1 trillion in additional oil revenues in the future, Tehran Times reported.

The deal for developing Azadegan is the second major oilfield contract for Iran and its domestic companies this month, after an agreement to boost production capacity at the Yaran field, another oilfield along the border between Iran and Iraq.

The Yaran field, which is divided into a North and South part for its development, has estimated reserves of some 550 million barrels of crude.

Iran has been hit hard by U.S. sanctions imposed on the country after President Donald Trump took office and pulled the U.S. out of the so-called Iranian nuclear deal. Iran’s oil exports, which had risen to more than 2.5 million bpd by April 2018, had since fallen to about 100,000 to 200,000 bpd, according to Reuters.

Mike Pompeo’s Iranian boogeyman is just an excuse for a policy that isn’t working

By: Daniel DePetris – 11th July 2020

· The Trump administration, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the lead, is working hard to prevent the expiration of a UN arms embargo on Iran.

· Pompeo has painted a nightmarish picture of a world where Iran is able to buy conventional weapons, but the US perceptions have again overshadowed the reality of Iran as a mid-level power surrounded by countries that oppose its agenda, writes Defense Priorities fellow Daniel R. DePetris.

On October 18, less than four months from today, a UN Security Council provision prohibiting the export of arms and major defense systems to Iran including fighter jets, tanks, and missiles, will expire. The Trump administration is trying to prevent that expiration from happening.

During a June 30 UN Security Council teleconference, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo painted a nightmarish picture of what the world would look like if Iran was once again free to purchase conventional weapons like every other country — going so far as to suggest that Rome could be held hostage to Iranian firepower.

Pompeo’s comments, of course, are hyperbolic on their face. But the sentiment behind them is not necessarily new. Exaggerating Iran’s military power and hyping the threat Tehran poses to the US and its partners in Europe and the Middle East is as popular in the Beltway as networking and happy hours.

With respect to Iran, perception too frequently overtakes reality—an imbalance that leads to overstretched US military commitments (there are currently tens of thousands of US troops stationed in the Middle East), poor strategy, and even poorer foreign policy.

The perception is easy enough to spot because US officials consistently view Iran as a danger to the international order and a country whose leitmotif is violence, hostage taking, and human rights violations.

The conventional view of Iran is that of a rogue state inherently hostile to US interests, impervious to diplomatic overtures, and intent on turning the entire Persian Gulf into its own personal fiefdom. It’s an Iran whose leaders pride themselves on their zealotry and ideology and who are willing to shoot a US drone out of the sky, purportedly launch cruise missiles at Saudi Arabia’s largest oil refinery, and smuggle missile components to proxies in Iraq and Yemen.

The reality of Iranian power and behavior, however, is not nearly as terrifying as the pundits would have you believe.

Despite the anti-American railings and innuendo from the political leadership, Iran is at best a mid-level power sharing a region home to states that are skeptical, if not downright opposed, to Iranian objectives. At $454 billion, its economy is nearly half the size of Florida’s.

Due to US sanctions, the coronavirus epidemic, and the low price of crude oil, Iran’s GDP is projected by the International Monetary Fund to shrink by an additional 6% this year. The Iranian political class has proven itself to be so incompetent at governance and so detached from its constituents that it sat passively by as covid-19 ripped through the population.

While the Iranians may be talented and proficient in the art of subterfuge and proxy warfare, its conventional forces are unimpressive. The Iranian defense budget in 2019 was $12.6 billion. For comparison, Saudi Arabia and Israel — commonly considered to be Iran’s chief regional adversaries — spent a combined $82.4 billion, more than six times as much.

Although it’s certainly plausible that Tehran could seek to acquire advanced fighters and anti-missile defense systems from Russia and China after the Security Council arms embargo ends, the Iranians are in such a dire financial state — the budget deficit for 2020 is $44 billion — that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could very well question whether expensive imports are smart or fiscally sustainable.

It’s difficult to see Tehran coming up with the cash or putting its stock in Moscow, particularly when its acquisition of the Russian S-300 missile defense system took nearly a decade to complete.

If Tehran is becoming increasingly aggressive over the last year, this development is less a measure of Iran’s military strength than an indictment of Washington’s maximum pressure strategy, which aims to tie the economic noose around Iran’s neck so tightly that Khamenei agrees to US demands.

Those demands, as elucidated by Pompeo in May 2018, include the end of Iran’s enrichment of uranium, a complete shutdown of its nuclear and ballistic missile production and development, an end to its support for proxy forces in the region, a withdrawal of all Iranian troops from Syria, and Tehran’s proactive disarmament of Shia militias in Iraq.

Of course, two years after Pompeo’s speech, none of these unrealistic demands have been met. Iranian officials across the ideological spectrum consider them nonstarters for a reason: Agreeing to meet them will just encourage hardliners in Washington that an all-pressure, no-dialogue approach works.

The combination of the Trump administration’s pullout from the Iran nuclear deal and the imposition of a de-facto economic embargo on the Iranian economy has produced precisely what the US hoped to avoid — a chasm of differences between Washington and its partners in Europe; Iran churning out more enriched uranium by the month; a resurgence of hardline Iranian politicians at the expense of pragmatists who were once open to negotiating with the US; and a tit-for-tat cycle of escalation that could have erupted into a war last January if cooler heads didn’t prevail.

Iran is not a poster child of model behavior. But neither is Iran a hegemon planting its flag in regional capitals anytime soon.

If the US is concerned about what Tehran may do in the future, it can help ameliorate those worries by not overreacting, keeping Iran’s actual capability in perspective, and replacing a failed policy with one driven by realistic objectives.


November 18 2019

In MID-OCTOBER, with unrest swirling in Baghdad, a familiar visitor slipped quietly into the Iraqi capital. The city had been under siege for weeks, as protesters marched in the streets, demanding an end to corruption and calling for the ouster of the prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi. In particular, they denounced the outsize influence of their neighbor Iran in Iraqi politics, burning Iranian flags and attacking an Iranian consulate.

The visitor was there to restore order, but his presence highlighted the protesters’ biggest grievance: He was Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, head of Iran’s powerful Quds Force, and he had come to persuade an ally in the Iraqi Parliament to help the prime minister hold on to his job.

It was not the first time Suleimani had been dispatched to Baghdad to do damage control. Tehran’s efforts to prop up Abdul-Mahdi are part of its long campaign to maintain Iraq as a pliable client state.

Now leaked Iranian documents offer a detailed portrait of just how aggressively Tehran has worked to embed itself into Iraqi affairs, and of the unique role of Suleimani. The documents are contained in an archive of secret Iranian intelligence cables obtained by The Intercept and shared with the New York Times for this article, which is being published simultaneously by both news organizations.

The unprecedented leak exposes Tehran’s vast influence in Iraq, detailing years of painstaking work by Iranian spies to co-opt the country’s leaders, pay Iraqi agents working for the Americans to switch sides, and infiltrate every aspect of Iraq’s political, economic, and religious life.

Many of the cables describe real-life espionage capers that feel torn from the pages of a spy thriller. Meetings are arranged in dark alleyways and shopping malls or under the cover of a hunting excursion or a birthday party. Informants lurk at the Baghdad airport, snapping pictures of American soldiers and keeping tabs on coalition military flights. Agents drive meandering routes to meetings to evade surveillance. Sources are plied with gifts of pistachios, cologne, and saffron. Iraqi officials, if necessary, are offered bribes. The archive even contains expense reports from intelligence ministry officers in Iraq, including one totaling 87.5 euros spent on gifts for a Kurdish commander.

According to one of the leaked Iranian intelligence cables, Abdul-Mahdi, who in exile worked closely with Iran while Saddam Hussein was in power in Iraq, had a “special relationship with the IRI” — the Islamic Republic of Iran — when he was Iraq’s oil minister in 2014. The exact nature of that relationship is not detailed in the cable, and, as one former senior U.S. official cautioned, a “special relationship could mean a lot of things — it doesn’t mean he is an agent of the Iranian government.” But no Iraqi politician can become prime minister without Iran’s blessing, and Abdul-Mahdi, when he secured the premiership in 2018, was seen as a compromise candidate acceptable to both Iran and the United States.

The leaked cables offer an extraordinary glimpse inside the secretive Iranian regime. They also detail the extent to which Iraq has fallen under Iranian influence since the American invasion in 2003, which transformed Iraq into a gateway for Iranian power, connecting the Islamic Republic’s geography of dominance from the shores of the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea.

The trove of leaked Iranian intelligence reports largely confirms what was already known about Iran’s firm grip on Iraqi politics. But the reports reveal far more than was previously understood about the extent to which Iran and the United States have used Iraq as a staging area for their spy games. They also shed new light on the complex internal politics of the Iranian government, where competing factions are grappling with many of the same challenges faced by American occupying forces as they struggled to stabilize Iraq after the United States invasion.

And the documents show how Iran, at nearly every turn, has outmaneuvered the United States in the contest for influence.

The archive is made up of hundreds of reports and cables written mainly in 2014 and 2015 by officers of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security, or MOIS, who were serving in the field in Iraq. The intelligence ministry, Iran’s version of the CIA, has a reputation as an analytical and professional agency, but it is overshadowed and often overruled by its more ideological counterpart, the Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which was formally established as an independent entity in 2009 at the order of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, which Iran considers crucial to its national security, the Revolutionary Guards — and in particular its elite Quds Force, led by Suleimani — determine Iran’s policies. Ambassadors to those countries are appointed from the senior ranks of the Guards, not the foreign ministry, which oversees the intelligence ministry, according to several advisers to current and past Iranian administrations. Officers from the intelligence ministry and from the Revolutionary Guards in Iraq worked parallel to one another, said these sources. They reported their findings back to their respective headquarters in Tehran, which in turn organized them into reports for the Supreme Council of National Security.

Cultivating Iraqi officials was a key part of their job, and it was made easier by the alliances many Iraqi leaders forged with Iran when they belonged to opposition groups fighting Saddam. Many of Iraq’s foremost political, military, and security officials have had secret relationships with Tehran, according to the documents. The same 2014 cable that described Abdul-Mahdi’s “special relationship” also named several other key members of the cabinet of former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as having close ties with Iran.

A political analyst and adviser on Iraq to Iran’s government, Gheis Ghoreishi, confirmed that Iran has focused on cultivating high-level officials in Iraq. “We have a good number of allies among Iraqi leaders who we can trust with our eyes closed,” he said.

Three Iranian officials were asked to comment for this article, in queries that described the existence of the leaked cables and reports. Alireza Miryusefi, a spokesperson for Iran’s United Nations mission, said he was away until later this month. Majid Takht-Ravanchi, Iran’s U.N. ambassador, did not respond to a written request that was hand-delivered to his official residence. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did not respond to an emailed request.

When reached by telephone, Hassan Danaiefar, Iran’s ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2017 and a former deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ naval forces, declined to directly address the existence of the cables or their release, but he did suggest that Iran had the upper hand in information gathering in Iraq. “Yes, we have a lot of information from Iraq on multiple issues, especially about what America was doing there,” he said. “There is a wide gap between the reality and perception of U.S. actions in Iraq. I have many stories to tell.” He declined to elaborate.

According to the reports, after the American troop withdrawal in 2011, Iran moved quickly to add former CIA informants to its payroll. One undated section of an intelligence ministry cable shows that Iran began the process of recruiting a spy inside the State Department. It is unclear what came of the recruitment effort, but according to the files, Iran had started meeting with the source, and offered to reward the potential asset with a salary, gold coins, and other gifts. The State Department official is not named in the cable, but the person is described as someone who would be able to provide “intelligence insights into the U.S.

government’s plans in Iraq, whether it is for dealing with ISIS or any other covert operations.”

“The subject’s incentive in collaborating will be financial,” the report said.

The State Department declined to comment on the matter.

In interviews, Iranian officials acknowledged that Iran viewed surveillance of American activity in Iraq after the United States invasion as critical to its survival and national security. When American forces toppled Saddam, Iran swiftly moved some of its best officers from both the intelligence ministry and from the Intelligence Organization of the Revolutionary Guards to Iraq, according to the Iranian government advisers and a person affiliated with the Guards. President George W. Bush had declared Iran to be part of an “axis of evil,” and Iranian leaders believed that Tehran would be next on Washington’s list of regime-change capitals after Kabul and Baghdad.


AROUND THE WORLD, governments have had to contend with the occasional leak of secret communiqués or personal emails as a fact of modern life. Not so in Iran, where information is tightly controlled and the security services are widely feared.

The roughly 700 pages of leaked reports were sent anonymously to The Intercept, which translated them from Persian to English and shared them with the Times. The Intercept and the Times verified the authenticity of the documents but do not know who leaked them. The Intercept communicated over encrypted channels with the source, who declined to meet with a reporter. In these anonymous messages, the source said that they wanted to “let the world know what Iran is doing in my country Iraq.”

Like the internal communications of any spy service, some of the reports contain raw intelligence whose accuracy is questionable, while others appear to represent the views of intelligence officers and sources with their own agendas.

Some of the cables show bumbling and comical ineptitude, like one that describes the Iranian spies who broke into a German cultural institute in Iraq only to find they had the wrong codes and could not unlock the safes. Other officers were browbeaten by their superiors in Tehran for laziness, and for sending back to headquarters reports that relied only on news accounts.

But by and large, the intelligence ministry operatives portrayed in the documents appear patient, professional, and pragmatic. Their main tasks are to keep Iraq from falling apart; from breeding Sunni militants on the Iranian border; from descending into sectarian warfare that might make Shia Muslims the targets of violence; and from spinning off an independent Kurdistan that would threaten regional stability and Iranian territorial integrity. The Revolutionary Guards and Suleimani have also worked to eradicate the Islamic State, but with a greater focus on maintaining Iraq as a client state of Iran and making sure that political factions loyal to Tehran remain in power.

This portrait is all the more striking at a time of heightened tensions between the United States and Iran. Since 2018, when President Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions, the White House has rushed ships to the Persian Gulf and reviewed military plans for war with Iran. In October, the Trump administration promised to send American troops to Saudi Arabia following attacks on oil facilities there for which Iran was widely blamed.


WITH A SHARED FAITH and tribal affiliations that span a porous border, Iran has long been a major presence in southern Iraq. It has opened religious offices in Iraq’s holy cities and posted banners of Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, on its streets. It supports some of the most powerful political parties in the south, dispatches Iranian students to study in Iraqi seminaries, and sends Iranian construction workers to build Iraqi hotels and refurbish Iraqi shrines.

But while Iran may have bested the United States in the contest for influence in Baghdad, it has struggled to win popular support in the Iraqi south. Now, as the last six weeks of protests make clear, it is facing unexpectedly strong pushback. Across the south, Iranian-backed Iraqi political parties are seeing their headquarters burned and their leading operatives assassinated, an indication that Iran may have underestimated the Iraqi desire for independence not just from the United States, but also from its neighbor.

In a sense, the leaked Iranian cables provide a final accounting of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. The notion that the Americans handed control of Iraq to Iran when they invaded now enjoys broad support, even within the U.S. military.

A recent two-volume history of the Iraq War, published by the U.S. Army, details the campaign’s many missteps and its “staggering cost” in lives and money.

Nearly 4,500 American troops were killed, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died, and American taxpayers spent up to $2 trillion on the war. The study, which totals hundreds of pages and draws on declassified documents, concludes: “An emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor.”

Iran’s rise as a power player in Iraq was in many ways a direct consequence of Washington’s lack of any post-invasion plan. The early years following the fall of Saddam were chaotic, both in terms of security and in the lack of basic services like water and electricity. To most observers on the ground, it appeared as if the United States was shaping policy on the go, and in the dark.

Among the most disastrous American policies were the decisions to dismantle Iraq’s armed forces and to purge from government service or the new armed forces any Iraqi who had been a member of Saddam’s ruling Baath Party. This process, known as de-Baathification, automatically marginalized most Sunni men. Unemployed and resentful, they formed a violent insurgency targeting Americans and Shias seen as U.S. allies.

As sectarian warfare between Sunnis and Shias raged, the Shia population looked to Iran as a protector. When ISIS gained control of territory and cities, the Shias’ vulnerability and the failure of the United States to protect them fueled efforts by the Revolutionary Guards and Suleimani to recruit and mobilize Shia militias loyal to Iran.

According to the intelligence ministry documents, Iran has continued to take advantage of the opportunities the United States has afforded it in Iraq. Iran, for example, reaped an intelligence windfall of American secrets as the U.S. presence began to recede after its 2011 troop withdrawal. The CIA had tossed many of its longtime secret agents out on the street, leaving them jobless and destitute in a country still shattered from the invasion — and fearful that they could be killed for their links with the United States, possibly by Iran. Short of money, many began to offer their services to Tehran. And they were happy to tell the Iranians everything they knew about CIA operations in Iraq.

In November 2014, one of them, an Iraqi who had spied for the CIA, broke and terrified that his ties to the Americans would cost him his life, switched sides. The CIA, according to the cable, had known the man by a nickname: “Donnie Brasco.” His Iranian handler would call him, simply, “Source 134992.”

Turning to Iran for protection, he said that everything he knew about American intelligence gathering in Iraq was for sale: the locations of CIA safe houses; the names of hotels where CIA operatives met with agents; details of his weapons and surveillance training; the names of other Iraqis working as spies for the Americans.

Source 134992 told the Iranian operatives that he had worked for the agency for 18 months starting in 2008, on a program targeting Al Qaeda. He said he had been paid well for his work — $3,000 per month, plus a one-time bonus of $20,000 and a car.

But swearing on the Quran, he promised that his days of spying for the United States were over, and agreed to write a full report for the Iranians on everything he knew from his time with the CIA.

“I will turn over to you all the documents and videos that I have from my training course,” the Iraqi man told his Iranian handler, according to a 2014 Iranian intelligence report. “And pictures and identifying features of my fellow trainees and my subordinates.”

The CIA declined to comment.

Iranian spies, Iraqi officials say, are everywhere in the south, and the region has long been a beehive of espionage. It was there, in Karbala in late 2014, that an Iraqi military intelligence officer, down from Baghdad, met with an Iranian intelligence official and offered to spy for Iran — and to tell the Iranians whatever he could about American activities in Iraq.

“Iran is my second country and I love it,” the Iraqi official told the Iranian officer, according to one of the cables. In a meeting that lasted more than three hours, the Iraqi told of his devotion to the Iranian system of government, in which clerics rule directly, and his admiration for Iranian movies.

He said he had come with a message from his boss in Baghdad, Lt. Gen. Hatem al-Maksusi, then commander of military intelligence in the Iraqi Ministry of Defense: “Tell them we are at your service. Whatever you need is at their disposal. We are Shia and have a common enemy.”

Maksusi’s messenger continued, “All of the Iraqi Army’s intelligence — consider it yours.” He told the Iranian intelligence officer about secret targeting software the United States had provided to the Iraqis, and offered to turn it over to the Iranians. “If you have a new laptop, give it to me so I can upload the program onto it,” he said.

And there was more, he said. The United States had also given Iraq a highly sensitive system for eavesdropping on mobile phones, which was run out of the prime minister’s office and the headquarters of Iraqi military intelligence. “I will put at your disposal whatever intelligence about it you want,” he said.

In an interview, Maksusi disputed saying the things attributed to him in the cables and denied ever working for Iran. He praised Iran for its help in the fight against ISIS, but said he had also maintained a close relationship with the United States. “I worked for Iraq and did not work for any other state,” he said. “I was not the intelligence director for the Shias, but I was intelligence director for all of Iraq.”

When asked about the cable, a former American official said the United States had become aware of the Iraqi military intelligence officer’s ties to Iran and had limited his access to sensitive information.


By late 2014, the United States was once again pouring weapons and soldiers into Iraq as it began battling the Islamic State. Iran, too, had an interest in defeating the militants. As ISIS took control of the west and the north, young Iraqi men traveled across the deserts and marshes of the south by the busload, heading to Iran for military training.

Some within the American and Iranian governments believed that the two rivals should coordinate their efforts against a common enemy. But Iran, as the leaked cables make clear, also viewed the increased American presence as a threat and a “cover” to gather intelligence about Iran.

“What is happening in the sky over Iraq shows the massive level of activity of the coalition,” one Iranian officer wrote. “The danger for the Islamic Republic of Iran’s interests represented by their activity must be taken seriously.”

The rise of ISIS was at the same time driving a wedge between the Obama administration and a large swath of the Iraqi political class. Barack Obama had pushed for the ouster of Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki as a condition for renewed American military support. He believed that Maliki’s draconian policies and crackdowns on Iraqi Sunnis had helped lead to the rise of the militants.

Maliki, who had lived in exile in Iran in the 1980s, was a favorite of Tehran’s. His replacement, the British-educated Haider al-Abadi, was seen as more friendly to the West and less sectarian. Facing the uncertainty of a new prime minister, Hassan Danaiefar, then Iran’s ambassador, called a secret meeting of senior staffers at the Iranian Embassy, a hulking, fortified structure just outside Baghdad’s Green Zone.

As the meeting progressed, it became clear that the Iranians had little cause to worry about the new Iraqi government. Abadi was dismissed as “a British man,” and “the Americans’ candidate,” but the Iranians believed that they had plenty of other ministers in their pocket.

One by one, Danaiefar went down the list of cabinet members, describing their relationships to Iran.

Ibrahim al-Jafari — who had previously served as Iraqi prime minister and by late 2014 was the foreign minister — was, like Abdul-Mahdi, identified as having a “special relationship” with Iran. In an interview, Jafari did not deny that he had close relations with Iran, but said he had always dealt with foreign countries based on the interests of Iraq.

Iran counted on the loyalty of many lesser cabinet members as well.

The report said the ministers of municipalities, communications, and human rights “are in complete harmony and at one with us and are our people.” The environment minister, it said, “works with us, although he is Sunni.” The transportation minister — Bayan Jabr, who had led the Iraqi Interior Ministry at a time when hundreds of prisoners were tortured to death with electric drills or summarily shot by Shia death squads — was deemed to be “very close” to Iran. When it came to Iraq’s education minister, the report says, “we will have no problem with him.”

The former ministers of municipalities, communications, and human rights were all members of the Badr Organization, a political and military group established by Iran in the 1980s to oppose Saddam. The former minister of municipalities denied having a close relationship with Iran; the former human rights minister acknowledged being close to Iran, and praised Iran for helping Shia Iraqis during Saddam’s dictatorship and for help defeating ISIS. The former minister of communications said that he served Iraq, not Iran, and that he maintained relationships with diplomats from many countries; the former minister of education said that he had not been supported by Iran and that he served at the request of Abadi. The former environment minister could not be reached for comment.

Iran’s dominance over Iraqi politics is vividly shown in one important episode from the fall of 2014, when Baghdad was a city at the center of a multinational maelstrom. The Syrian civil war was raging to the west, ISIS militants had seized almost a third of Iraq, and American troops were heading back to the region to confront the growing crisis.

Against this chaotic backdrop, Jabr, then the transportation minister, welcomed Suleimani, the Quds Force commander, to his office. Suleimani had come to ask a favor: Iran needed access to Iraqi airspace to fly planeloads of weapons and other supplies to support the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad in its fight against American-backed rebels.

It was a request that placed Jabr at the center of the longstanding rivalry between the United States and Iran. Obama administration officials had been lobbying hard to get the Iraqis to stop Iranian flights through their airspace, but face to face with the Quds chief, Iraq’s transportation minister found it impossible to refuse.

Suleimani, Jabr recalled, “came to me and requested that we permit Iranian airplanes to use Iraqi air space to pass on to Syria,” according to one of the cables. The transportation minister did not hesitate, and Suleimani appeared to be pleased. “I put my hands on my eyes and said, ‘On my eyes! As you wish!’” Jabr told the intelligence ministry officer. “Then he got up and approached me and kissed my forehead.”

Jabr confirmed the meeting with Suleimani, but said the flights from Iran to Syria carried humanitarian supplies and religious pilgrims traveling to Syria to visit holy sites, not weapons and military supplies to aid Assad as American officials believed.

Meanwhile, Iraqi officials known to have a relationship with the United States came under special scrutiny, and Iran took measures to counter American influence. Indeed, many of the files show that as top American diplomats met behind closed doors with their Iraqi counterparts in Baghdad, their conversations were routinely reported back to the Iranians.

Throughout 2014 and 2015, as a new Iraqi government settled in, the American ambassador, Stuart Jones, met often with Salim al-Jabouri, who was speaker of the Iraqi Parliament until last year. Jabouri, although he is Sunni, was known to have a close relationship with Iran, but the files now reveal that one of his top political advisers — identified as Source 134832 — was an Iranian intelligence asset. “[I] am present in his office on a daily basis and carefully follow his contacts with the Americans,” the source told his Iranian handler. Jabouri, in an interview, said he did not believe that anyone on his staff had worked as an agent for Iran, and that he fully trusted his aides. (Jones declined to comment.)

The source urged the Iranians to develop closer ties to Jabouri, to blunt American efforts to nurture a new class of younger Sunni leaders in Iraq and perhaps bring about reconciliation between Sunnis and Shias. The source warned that Iran should act to keep the parliament speaker from “slipping into a pro-American position, since one of Salim al-Jabouri’s characteristics is credulousness and making hasty decisions.”

Another report reveals that Nechervan Barzani, then the prime minister of Kurdistan, met with top American and British officials and Abadi, the Iraqi prime minister, in Baghdad in December 2014, and then went almost immediately to meet with an Iranian official to tell him everything. Through a spokesperson, Barzani said he did not recall meeting with any Iranian officials at the time and described the cable as “baseless and unfounded.” He said he “absolutely denies” telling the Iranians details about his conversations with American and British diplomats.

Sometimes, the Iranians also saw trade value in the information they received from their Iraqi sources.

One report from the Jabouri adviser revealed that the United States was interested in gaining access to a rich natural gas field in Akkas, near Iraq’s border with Syria. The source explained that the Americans might eventually try to export the natural gas to Europe, a major market for Russian natural gas. Intrigued, the intelligence ministry officer, in a cable to Tehran, wrote, “It is recommended that the aforementioned information be used in exchange with the Russians and Syria.” The cable was written just as Russia was significantly stepping up its involvement in Syria, and as Iran continued its military buildup there, in support of Assad.

And although Iran was initially suspicious of Abadi’s allegiances, a report written a few months after his rise to the premiership suggested that he was quite willing to have a confidential relationship with Iranian intelligence. A January 2015 report details a private meeting between Abadi and an intelligence ministry officer known as Boroujerdi, held in the prime minister’s office “without the presence of a secretary or a third person.”

During the meeting, Boroujerdi homed in on Iraq’s Sunni-Shia divide, probing Abadi’s feelings on perhaps the most sensitive subject in Iraqi politics. “Today, the Sunnis find themselves in the worst possible circumstances and have lost their self-confidence,” the intelligence officer opined, according to the cable. “The Sunnis are vagrants, their cities are destroyed and an unclear future awaits them, while the Shias can retrieve their self-confidence.”

Iraq’s Shia were “at a historical turning point,” Boroujerdi continued. The Iraqi government and Iran could “take advantage of this situation.”

According to the cable, the prime minister expressed his “complete agreement.” Abadi declined to comment.


EVER SINCE THE start of the Iraq War in 2003, Iran has put itself forward as the protector of Iraq’s Shias, and Suleimani, more than anyone else, has employed the dark arts of espionage and covert military action to ensure that Shia power remains ascendant. But it has come at the cost of stability, with Sunnis perennially disenfranchised and looking to other groups, like the Islamic State, to protect them.

A 2014 massacre of Sunnis in the farming community of Jurf al-Sakhar was a vivid example of the kinds of sectarian atrocities committed by armed groups loyal to Iran’s Quds Force that had alarmed the United States throughout the Iraq War, and undermined efforts at reconciliation. As the field reports make clear, some of the Americans’ concerns were shared by the Iranian intelligence ministry. That signaled divisions within Iran over its Iraq policies between more moderate elements under President Hassan Rouhani and militant factions like the Revolutionary Guards.

Jurf al-Sakhar, which lies just east of Fallujah in the Euphrates River Valley, is lush with orange trees and palm groves. It was overrun by the Islamic State in 2014, giving militants a foothold from which they could launch attacks on the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf.

Jurf al-Sakhar is also important to Iran because it lies on a route Shia religious pilgrims use to travel to Karbala during Muharram, the monthlong commemoration of the death of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussein, a revered figure for Shias.

When Shia militias supported by Iran drove the militants out of Jurf al-Sakhar in late 2014, the first major victory over ISIS, it became a ghost town. It was no longer a threat to the thousands of Shia pilgrims who would pass by, but Iran’s victory came at a high cost to the town’s Sunni residents. Tens of thousands were displaced, and a local politician, the only Sunni member on the provincial council, was found with a bullet hole through his head.

One cable describes the damage in almost biblical terms. “As a result of these operations,” its author reported, “the area around Jurf al-Sakhar has been cleansed of terrorist agents. Their families have been driven away, most of their houses have been destroyed by military forces and the rest will be destroyed. In some places, the palm orchards have been uprooted to be burned to prevent the terrorists from taking shelter among the trees. The people’s livestock (cowsand sheep) have been scattered and are grazing without their owners.”

The Jurf al-Sakhar operation and other bloody actions led by Iran’s proxies and directed by Tehran further alienated Iraq’s Sunni population, according to one report, which notes that “destroying villages and houses, looting the Sunnis’ property and livestock turned the sweetness of these successes” against ISIS into “bitterness.” One of the Jurf al-Sakhar cables cast the impact of Shia militias in particularly stark terms: “In all the areas where the Popular Mobilization Forces go into action, the Sunnis flee, abandoning their homes and property, and prefer to live in tents as refugees or reside in camps.”

The intelligence ministry feared that Iran’s gains in Iraq were being squandered because Iraqis so resented the Shia militias and the Quds Force that sponsored them. Above all, its officers blamed Suleimani, whom they saw as a dangerous self-promoter using the anti-ISIS campaign as a launching pad for a political career back home in Iran. One report, which states at the top that it is not to be shared with the Quds Force, criticizes the general personally for publicizing his leading role in the military campaign in Iraq by “publishing pictures of himself on different social media sites.”

Doing that had made it obvious that Iran controlled the dreaded Shia militias — a potential gift to its rivals. “This policy of Iran in Iraq,” the report said, “has allowed the Americans to return to Iraq with greater legitimacy. And groups and individuals who had been fighting against the Americans among the Sunnis are now wishing that not only America, but even Israel, would enter Iraq and save Iraq from Iran’s clutches.”


At times, the Iranians sought to counter the ill will generated by their presence in Iraq with soft-power campaigns similar to American battlefield efforts to win “hearts and minds.” Hoping to gain a “propaganda advantage and restore Iran’s image among the people,” Iran devised a plan to send pediatricians and gynecologists to villages in northern Iraq to administer health services, according to one field report. It is not clear, however, if that initiative materialized.

Just as often, Iran would use its influence to close lucrative development deals. With Iraq dependent on Iran for military support in the fight against ISIS, one cable shows the Quds Force receiving oil and development contracts from Iraq’s Kurds in exchange for weapons and other aid. In the south, Iran was awarded contracts for sewage and water purification by paying a $16 million bribe to a member of Parliament, according to another field report.

Today, Iran is struggling to maintain its hegemony in Iraq, just as the Americans did after the 2003 invasion. Iraqi officials, meanwhile, are increasingly worried that a provocation in Iraq on either side could set off a war between the two powerful countries vying for dominance in their homeland. Against this geopolitical backdrop, Iraqis learned long ago to take a pragmatic approach to the overtures of Iran’s spies — even Sunni Iraqis who view Iran as an enemy.

“Not only doesn’t he believe in Iran, but he doesn’t believe that Iran might have positive intentions toward Iraq,” one Iranian case officer wrote in late 2014, about an Iraqi intelligence recruit described as a Baathist who had once worked for Saddam and later the CIA. “But he is a professional spy and understands the reality of Iran and the Shia in Iraq and will collaborate to save himself.”

The United States Needs a New Foreign Policy

The global order is crumbling, domestic renewal is urgent, and America must reinvent its role in the world.

By: William J. Burns – 14th July 2020

President of the Carnegie Endowment

It’s tempting to draw sweeping conclusions about what geopolitics will look like after the pandemic. Some argue that we’re witnessing the last gasp of American primacy, the equivalent of Britain’s 1956 “Suez moment.” Others argue that America, the main driver of the post–Cold War international order, is temporarily incapacitated, with a president drunk at the wheel. Tomorrow, a more sober operator can swiftly restore U.S. leadership.

There is a lot we don’t know yet about the virus, or how it will reshape the international landscape. What we do know, however, is that we have drifted into one of those rare periods of transition, with American dominance in the rearview mirror, and a more anarchical order looming dimly beyond. The moment resembles—in both its fragility and its geopolitical and technological dynamism—the era before World War I, which triggered two global military convulsions before statecraft finally caught up with the magnitude of the challenges. To navigate today’s complicated transition, the United States will need to move beyond the debate between retrenchment and restoration, and imagine a more fundamental reinvention of America’s role in the world.
The wreckage of the pandemic surrounds us—with more than half a million people around the world dead, the ranks of the global hungry doubling, and the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression raging. Well before the coronavirus hit, however, the liberal international order built and led by the United States was becoming less liberal, less ordered, and less American. The pandemic has accelerated that trend and aggravated preexisting conditions.

With the United States and its allies reeling, distracted, and divided by the pandemic, China’s ambition to become the dominant player in Asia has grown, as has its desire to reshape international institutions and rules to suit its power and preferences. The pandemic has also magnified the insecurities of Chinese leadership, amplifying their worries about economic sluggishness and social discontent. The result is greater domestic repression and an even more pugnacious brand of “wolf warrior” diplomacy.

Always attuned to the weakness of others, Vladimir Putin is losing sight of Russia’s own weakness. The collapse of the oil market and Putin’s mismanagement of the pandemic have made Russia’s one-dimensional economy and stagnant political system even more brittle. A potent counterpuncher, Putin still sees plenty of opportunities to disrupt and subvert rival countries, the kind of tactics that can help a declining power sustain its status. His margin for error, however, is shrinking.

Europe is caught between an assertive China, a revisionist Russia, an erratic America, and its own political breakdowns—none more perplexing than Brexit. The drift in the transatlantic alliance is worsening, with the U.S. looking for Europe to do more with less say, and Europe fearing that it will become the grass on which the great-power elephants trample.

The pandemic has also intensified the Middle East’s disorder and dysfunction. Hard-liners in both Tehran and Washington pose combatively at the foot of a dangerous escalatory ladder. Proxy wars in Yemen and Libya spin on. Syria remains a bloody wreck, and Israel’s impending annexation in the West Bank threatens to bury a two-state solution.

As the pandemic’s wave crests over developing countries, the world’s most fragile societies will only become more vulnerable. Latin America now faces the biggest economic decline in the region’s history. Africa, with its growing cities and daunting food, water, and health insecurities, faces greater risks than perhaps any other part of the world.

All of these challenges and uncertainties are further complicated by ongoing technological disruptions, and by ideological and economic competition.

The pace of change has outstripped the capacity of faltering, inward-looking leaders to shape the rules of the road. False information spreads with the same alacrity as truth; infectious diseases move faster than cures. The same technologies that unlock so many human possibilities are now being used by authoritarian leaders to lock in citizens, surveil them, and repress them.

With the triumphalism of globalization long behind us, societies struggle with widening inequality and mercantilist impulses. Democracy has been in retreat for more than a decade, the compact between citizens and governments badly frayed. International institutions are beginning to break—paralyzed by too much bureaucracy, too little investment, and intense major-power rivalry. Looming above it all is the forbidding menace of climate change, as our planet gradually suffocates on carbon emissions.

This moment screams for leadership to help forge a sense of order—an organizer to help navigate this complicated mess of challenges, stabilize geopolitical competition, and ensure at least some modest protections of global public goods.

But now we are living through the worst intersection of man and moment in American history. “America First” really means Trump first, America alone, and Americans on their own.

The post-pandemic future of the United States is not preordained. We still get a vote, and we still get to make some fateful choices. They are more complicated than those we faced at the end of the Cold War, when our undisputed primacy cushioned us from our mistakes and sustained our illusions. But today’s choices are even more consequential than those of 30 years ago.

The United States must choose from three broad strategic approaches: retrenchment, restoration, and reinvention. Each aspires to deliver on our interests and protect our values; where they differ is in their assessment of American priorities and influence, and of the threats we face. Each is easy to caricature—and each deserves an honest look.

It’s not hard to persuade many Americans—struggling through the human and economic costs of the pandemic, pained by the open wounds of our racial divides, and doubtful about the power and promise of the American idea—to pull up our national drawbridges and retrench. Nor is it hard to make the case that the prevailing bipartisan foreign-policy consensus fumbled America’s post–Cold War “unipolar moment”—leaving the U.S. overstretched overseas and underinvested at home.

Proponents of retrenchment argue that for too long, friends and foes alike were glad to let the United States underwrite global security while they reaped the benefits. Europe could spend less on defense and more on social safety nets. China could focus on economic modernization, while America kept the peace.

The U.S. may be first among unequals for now, but the notion that its leaders can resurrect the era of uncontested American primacy, prevent China’s rise, or will our diplomatic relationships and tools into exactly their pre-Trump, pre-pandemic shapes is a mirage.

Retrenchment is easily distorted as a kind of nativist isolationism or pathological declinism. It is often portrayed as a Bannonite call to throw overboard a sense of enlightened self-interest, and focus at long last on the “self” part. The heart of the argument is far less radical; it’s about narrowing our concept of vital interests, sharply reducing global military deployments, shedding outdated alliances, and reining in our missionary zeal for democracy-building abroad. Retrenchment means jettisoning our arrogant dismissiveness of nationalism and sovereignty, and understanding that other powers will continue to pursue spheres of influence and defend them. And it means acknowledging that the U.S. can manage threats and adversaries more effectively than it can vanquish them.

The main risk in retrenchment lies in taking it too far, or too fast. Any effort to disentangle the United States from the world comes with complicated downsides. President Barack Obama’s attempt to shift the terms of American engagement in the Middle East offers an important caution. His thoughtful long game met the unsynchronized passions of the region’s short game, creating significant dislocations and doubts about American power.
There are bigger structural questions too. Even if the U.S. accepted its relative decline and shrank its external ambitions, where’s the rising ally to whom America can pass the baton, as the British did to the U.S. after World War II? However sclerotic some of our alliances have become, how confident are American leaders that they can shape our fate better without them? Isn’t there a danger of the United States becoming an island power in a world inhospitable to islands—with China gradually dominating the Eurasian landmass, Russia a weakening accomplice, and Europe an isolated appendage?

And would an America retrenching in hard power still be able to play the organizing role on issues like climate change, nuclear nonproliferation, and global trade, which no other country can play right now?

A case can be made that American diffidence, not hubris, is the original sin. Warts and all, U.S. global leadership ushered in an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity. We give it up at our peril. Retrenchers subscribe to the diplomat George Kennan’s view that the sooner the U.S. sheds its paternalistic altruism and becomes just another big country, the better off it will be. Restorationists believe that consigning America to such a role, in an otherwise rudderless world, would be a fatal mistake.

They argue that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. failed to take full advantage of its primacy. American leaders naively enabled the rise of our future rivals, thinking they’d be satisfied with a seat at our table, rather than displacing us at its head. The U.S. slowed NATO’s expansion to pacify Russian anxieties, only to see an ever more revanchist Russia get back on its feet, and welcomed China into the World Trade Organization as a “responsible stakeholder,” yet failed to hold it to account when it continued to behave irresponsibly, breaking the rules while the American middle class broke its back.

Restorationists argue that America suffers most not when it does too much, but tries too little. They believe that U.S. leaders feared the uncertain slippery slope of intervention abroad far more than the certain waves of human tragedy that would flow absent American action. They see “leading from behind” as an oxymoron and think the U.S. failed to appreciate how much emerging democracies depended on America, and how methodically authoritarians would contest the democratic model.

Although the United States may no longer enjoy unrivaled dominance, power differentials still lean significantly in our favor. Despite our self-inflicted wounds, we still have the world’s strongest military, most influential economy, most expansive alliance system, and most potent soft power.
Restorationists worry about the risk of overreaction to relative American decline. The contest with China is not another Cold War to avoid, but one to fight with confidence and win. The U.S. should reject any return to a world of closed spheres of influence—and be clear-eyed about the rise of techno-authoritarianism, and push back hard with a new concert of democracies. And although we might need to rebalance our foreign-policy tools and avoid the excesses of the post-9/11 era, the risks of slashing our defense budgets and our global military posture outweigh the rewards.

For critics, Saturday Night Live’s “More Cowbell” sketch—admittedly not your standard foreign-policy analogy—embodies the restorationist view. To paraphrase the immortal words of the producer Bruce Dickinson: The world has a fever, and the only prescription is more U.S. leadership, however discordant and self-involved we can sometimes be, and however fatigued our bandmates might be with our prima donna act.

The promised cure, however, leaves many questions unanswered. Do the American people have the stomach and resources right now for a cosmic struggle with authoritarianism or unbounded competition with China? Are the maximalist aims sometimes thrown around in this debate necessary or achievable? How far are our allies willing and able to join us in common cause? Will a more assertive international posture accelerate or delay the renewal of the American middle class? Is restraint an invitation to disorder or the best defense against it?

There lies an alternative between breaking up the band and resigning ourselves to the perpetual din of the cowbell.

We live in a new reality: America can no longer dictate events as we sometimes believed we could. The Trump administration has done more damage to American values, image, and influence than any other in my lifetime. And our nation is more divided by political, racial, and economic tensions than it has been in generations. But even so, assuming we don’t keep digging the hole deeper for ourselves at home and abroad, we remain in a better position than any other major power to mobilize coalitions and navigate the geopolitical rapids of the 21st century.

We can’t afford to just put more-modest lipstick on an essentially restorationist strategy, or, alternatively, apply a bolder rhetorical gloss to retrenchment. We must reinvent the purpose and practice of American power, finding a balance between our ambition and our limitations.

First and foremost, American foreign policy must support domestic renewal. Smart foreign policy begins at home, with a strong democracy, society, and economy. But it has to end there too—with more and better jobs, greater security, a better environment, and a more inclusive, just, and resilient society.
The well-being of the American middle class ought to be the engine that drives our foreign policy. We’re long overdue for a historic course correction at home. We need to push for more inclusive economic growth—growth that narrows gaps in income and health. Our actions abroad must further that goal, rather than hamper it. Prioritizing the needs of American workers over the profits of corporate America is essential. Leaders must do a far better job of ensuring that trade and investment deals reflect those imperatives.

That doesn’t mean turning our back on trade or global economic integration, however. Supply chains in some sectors with national-security implications will require diversification and redundancy to make them sturdier, but policy makers shouldn’t disrupt global supply chains that benefit American consumers and fuel emerging markets. An improved economic approach might involve elements of industrial policy, focusing more government support on science, technology, education, and research. That ought to be complemented by reform of our broken immigration system.

A second major priority for a reinvented foreign policy involves grand global challenges—climate change, global health insecurity, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the revolution in technology. All of those problems directly affect the health, security, and prosperity of Americans. None of them can be solved by the United States on its own. All will require international cooperation, despite intensifying strategic rivalry.

They require a new multilateralism—a patchwork of coalitions of like-minded states, which the U.S. is still better placed than any other country to assemble; a hard-nosed approach to reforming international institutions; and agile diplomacy. Just as our forward military basing helped deal with threats to security during the Cold War, preventive diplomacy can help cushion our society against inevitable shocks, and strengthen its resilience.

A third vital priority is our greatest geopolitical challenge: managing competition with China. In recent decades, undisciplined thinking led us to assume too much about the benefits of engaging with China. Today, undisciplined thinking of a different sort is causing us to assume too much about the feasibility of decoupling and containment—and about the inevitability of confrontation. Our tendency, as it was during the height of the Cold War, is to overhype the threat, over-prove our hawkish bona fides, over-militarize our approach, and reduce the political and diplomatic space required to manage great-power competition.

Preventing China’s rise is beyond America’s capacity, and our economies are too entangled to decouple. The U.S. can, however, shape the environment into which China rises, taking advantage of the web of allies and partners across the Indo-Pacific—from Japan and South Korea to a rising India—who worry about China’s ascendance. That will require working with them—and engaging Chinese leadership directly—to bound rivalry with Beijing, define the terms for coexistence, prevent competition from becoming a collision, and preserve space for cooperation on global challenges.
Everything rides on developing a strategy that reinforces—rather than trades against—these three interrelated priorities. China, obviously, is not America’s only geopolitical challenge, just by far the most important. We cannot ignore other regions where we have enduring interests: Europe remains a crucial partner, and North America our natural strategic home base, despite the current administration’s rare diplomatic feat of alienating the Canadians. Nor can we ignore the inevitable crises at home and abroad that so often derail the neatest of strategies.

Armed with a clear sense of priorities, the next administration will have to reinvent U.S. alliances and partnerships and make some hard—and overdue—choices about America’s tools and terms of engagement around the world. And it’ll have to act with the discipline that so often eluded the U.S. during its lazy post–Cold War dominance.

If “America First” is again consigned to the scrap heap, we’ll still have demons to exorcise—our hubris, our imperiousness, our indiscipline, our intolerance, our inattention to our domestic health, and our fetish for military tools and disregard for diplomacy. But we’ll also still have a chance to summon our most exceptional national trait: our capacity for self-repair. And we’ll still have a chance to shape our future, before it gets shaped for us by other players and forces.

WILLIAM J. BURNS is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, former deputy secretary of state, and author of The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal.

What Iran Wants in Afghanistan

And What U.S. Withdrawal Means for Tehran

By Colin P. Clarke and Ariane M. Tabatabai – July 8th 2020

Negotiations to end the long-running war between Afghanistan’s central government and the Taliban slowly inch along, punctuated by spasms of violence. The Taliban and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) often lash out with attacks on the Afghan security forces and civilians, with the ISKP frequently targeting Shiite communities. Any settlement will likely require the United States to withdraw most combat troops from the country. U.S. President Donald Trump is eager to leave Afghanistan after nearly two decades and plans to review several options for drawing down troop levels, something that could easily happen by the end of the year.

A reduced American presence could provide Iran with an opening to expand its influence in Afghanistan. Tehran has long been wary of instability in its eastern neighbor—decades of conflict have driven hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees into Iran—and so far has refrained from taking the kinds of intrusive actions there that it has in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen where its proxies operate. But Iran will now have more room for maneuver and might be tempted to intervene in Afghan affairs more forcefully, both to protect its own domestic interests and to undermine those of the United States.


Tehran and Washington have butted heads in many parts of the Middle East, but they share common objectives in Afghanistan. Iran supported U.S. efforts following the invasion in late 2001, helping build the coalition that would replace the Taliban in Kabul. In early negotiations after the invasion, Iranian officials insisted on the importance of holding democratic elections in the post-Taliban era. Today, neither Iran nor the United States has any desire to see ISKP grow stronger in the country.

Iran requires stability in Afghanistan. The two countries share a porous border, and the consequences of turmoil in Afghanistan often spill over into Iranian territory. Iran is home to hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees; it is also a key avenue for the smuggling of opioids to Europe. The two countries came to the brink of war at the height of the Taliban’s rule in the late 1990s when, in September 1998, the Taliban killed several Iranian diplomats in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif. Iran’s leaders vowed revenge and deployed thousands of troops to the border region.

Lingering distrust of the Taliban informs Iranian thinking about the outcome of the intra-Afghan discussions at this stage. Tehran fears the most hardcore elements of the Taliban and wants these factions, which are often close to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, to remain far from power in a new central government. The most hard-line elements of the predominantly Sunni Taliban, while perhaps not as zealous as the ISKP, are poorly disposed to Iran, the region’s Shiite heavyweight—and the feeling is mutual. Nonetheless, if working with a central government in Kabul that contains elements of the Taliban will help Tehran safeguard its essential interests, Tehran is willing to do so. Indeed, in recent years Iran has tried to repair and strengthen its relationship with some factions of the Taliban through economic, diplomatic, and security initiatives.

Iran’s main political and economic interests in Afghanistan include maintaining access to the Afghan market for Iranian goods and guarding against instability along its border. The Iranian economy is still suffering from the effects of U.S. sanctions and from the disruptions of the COVID-19 crisis. Officials worry that chaos in Afghanistan might push another wave of refugees across the border and that Iran will not be able to afford the disruption. COVID-19 has exacerbated long-standing hardship and poverty among refugees in Iran who already struggled for access to employment and health care. Iran has deported thousands of Afghans, but more violence could lead to a new influx. Therefore, Iran largely favors the status quo, which at least provides a modicum of stability that allows Tehran to focus on other priorities deemed more urgent, especially as the country grapples with another strong wave of novel coronavirus infections and record-high daily death tolls.

There are, however, circumstances under which Iran may feel compelled to intervene in Afghan affairs. Tehran might do so if it finds unacceptable the central government that comes into place in Kabul after a negotiated settlement, one in which, for example, hard-line factions of the Taliban play a leading role and seek to challenge Iranian interests in Afghanistan.

In that case, Iran could deploy troops in western Afghanistan to serve as a buffer against any wider turmoil. Iran may also want to act if the Afghan government proves unable to effectively suppress the ISKP and the Islamist militant group continues to pose a direct threat to Iranian interests as well as to Shiite communities. In that case, Iranian leaders may come to the conclusion that its militias can better secure important sites and roll back the ISKP than Afghan security forces can.


If Iran does decide to further insert itself into Afghan affairs, it has potent instruments with which to do so. The new commander of Iran’s expeditionary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, Brigadier General Esmail Qaani, has long experience in Afghanistan, where he played an operational role in recruiting Afghans to fight for Tehran in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and to fight the Taliban in the 1990s. Iran provided intelligence and proxy support for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and backed the process that followed to replace the Taliban with a national unity government. Qaani has deep knowledge of the workings of the Iranian-Afghan border from combating drug traffickers, smugglers, and other criminal groups. This experience provides Qaani with an understanding of instability in the region and the threats along the border and also a sharper sense of when circumstances might require more forceful Iranian action.

But perhaps the more likely means for Iranian intervention is a paramilitary force that Tehran has deployed elsewhere to great effect. Iran has done an impressive job of raising battalions of Shiite foreign fighters to join the war in Syria. Many of these recruits come from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Afghan fighters are organized into the Liwa Fatemiyoun, a force of between 10,000 and 15,000 men that has seen combat in Aleppo, Damascus, Latakia, and the Qalamoun region.

With the conflict in Syria potentially winding down, Iran could redeploy Afghan Shiite fighters to Afghanistan to extend its reach throughout the region or to check significant escalation from the ISKP. The terrorist group has the ability to conduct spectacular and awful violence, including horrific attacks in May that targeted a funeral procession and a maternity ward. At the moment, its fighters have remained mostly consigned to the eastern part of Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan, far from Iran—but if that were to change, so too would Tehran’s calculus. The Islamic State (ISIS) has proven it is both willing and capable of launching attacks on Iranian soil, as the group did in July 2017.

Proxy forces are central to Iran’s foreign policy and grand strategy. The Quds Force has successfully cultivated relationships with forces throughout the Middle East, from Hezbollah in Lebanon to the Houthis in Yemen. Iranian leaders are still smarting from the U.S. killing of Major General Qasem Soleimani in early January, and they could very well decide to open a front against Washington in Afghanistan. Iran might seek to orchestrate a string of attacks to both speed the withdrawal and make it seem that Iran played a larger role in forcing the United States to retreat. The attacks could be sporadic and target U.S. supply and logistical lines used to facilitate the withdrawal, evoking images of U.S. troops leaving Vietnam or Somalia and providing Iran with a propaganda victory. Tehran could use Afghan Shiite militias as proxies in order to distance itself from overtly hostile actions. Through the Liwa Fatemiyoun and other militias, Iran could complicate U.S. interests in Afghanistan by instigating attacks against remaining U.S. assets and local partners, or—more likely—it could help secure parts of Afghanistan, boost its own sway in the country, and in so doing further erode Washington’s already waning influence.

Iran has spent billions of dollars to arm, train, and pay thousands of foreign fighters in Syria, including Afghans. Qaani’s most important task as Soleimani’s replacement will be managing the IRGC-QF’s relationship with these forces. His experience with Afghan Shiite fighters suggests that these militants in particular could be poised to play a more prominent role in Iran’s foreign policy. Whatever the shape of the future government in Kabul, Tehran will keep a wary eye on its eastern border—where it may come to the conclusion that the best form of defense is intervention.

Why Do Things Keep Blowing Up in Iran?

Israel? The U.S.? The mysterious “Homeland Cheetahs”? Just accidents? Whoever’s responsible, it’s having an impact.


Something strange is going on in Iran. Since June, fires or explosions have erupted at six factories and other facilities, two of them military in nature—the Parchin missile-production plant and the Natanz nuclear site.

At Natanz, the Iranian government has acknowledged, a fire greatly damaged an “industrial shed” where advanced centrifuges were being built—machines that could have sped up the process of building an atomic bomb. Satellite photos showed the shed’s doors hanging off their hinges, blown outward. An official with the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said the damage set back Iran’s nuclear program by months.*

Is Israel or the United States, or both, to blame? The Iranians certainly think so, and Israeli officials are doing little to discourage suspicion. Asked about this by reporters, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz replied, “Not every incident that transpires in Iran necessarily has something to do with us”—leaving wide-open the possibility that these incidents might have. Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi went further: “Iran cannot be allowed to have nuclear capabilities,” he said, adding that, to preempt this prospect, “we take actions that are better left unsaid.”

The explosions may have been set off by cyberattacks, a much scaled-down version of the U.S.-Israeli Stuxnet virus that manipulated the controls at the Natanz site in 2010, destroying thousands of centrifuges by slowing down or speeding up their spin cycles—and doing so in a way that left Iranian scientists thinking the problems were caused by human error or malfunctioning parts.

For this reason, some doubt the latest explosions were cyberattacks. A former senior official at the National Security Agency, which helped design Stuxnet and other hacking tools, told me that most cyberoffensive programs are designed to make the resulting damage look like an accident—whereas the size and frequency of these latest attacks have the earmarks of sabotage. It is also unusual for a cyberattack to set off a huge explosion. On the other hand, another former official said the fire at the Parchin missile factory—which was caused by a gas explosion—could have been triggered by a cyberattack on the plant’s gas controls.

These former officials, and others that I asked, emphasized that they have no inside knowledge of what happened. Some of the explosions might have been accidents; Iran’s record of handling complex technology isn’t stellar. But some of them were almost certainly deliberate. On Friday, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council said that the cause of the Natanz fire had been “accurately determined,” but then offered no details.

If saboteurs were at work, it is at least as likely that they used old-fashioned methods—smuggling in a bomb and detonating it remotely. The New York Times quoted a member of Iran’s elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as saying the explosion at Natanz was caused by a bomb—an astonishing admission of lax security at Iran’s most cherished and sensitive nuclear facility. The Times also quoted a “Middle East intelligence official” as saying that Israel was responsible for the attack.

Then again, Jiyar Gol, a reporter for BBC Persian, reported on Monday that just after midnight on June 30, he received an email from an unknown group calling itself the Homeland Cheetahs. The group—which claimed to be composed of dissidents within Iran’s military and security forces—said that they had blown up a facility at the Natanz site two hours earlier. Gol went online to see if anyone was reporting such an explosion; he found nothing. Then, “several hours later,” Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization announced that there had been an incident at the Natanz plant.

Could the bombing have been an inside job? Is it a sign of deep fissures within Iran’s most trusted security forces? Maybe. Or, just as likely (if not more so), Israeli forces want the Iranian regime to think so—in part to divert attention from themselves (and, possibly, discourage a retaliatory attack), in part to foment distrust within high levels of the Iranian government and deepen whatever fissures exist.

Tuesday’s Jerusalem Post quoted Raz Zimmt, an Iran specialist at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, saying that these attacks—along with several other recent incidents and outbreaks of neglect and vulnerability—are having an impact on the Iranian public. These other incidents include the U.S. drone attack that killed Iran’s most powerful military leader, Qassem Soleimani; an Israeli raid, in 2018, that seized a half-ton of nuclear documents from an archive in the center of Tehran; and the regime’s utter incompetence at dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 11,000 Iranians.* “Fingers are pointed at the regime that it does not provide its citizens with security,” Zimmt said.

On Sunday, Iran’s newly elected Parliament, heavily dominated by hard-liners, heckled Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, accusing him of selling out the country by negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal with the United States—a deal that U.S. President Donald Trump has since revoked, resulting in the reimposition of economic sanctions that the deal was beginning to lift in exchange for the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program. On Monday, the parliamentarians called President Hassan Rouhani for harsh questions about the country’s many economic and security issues.

At Sunday’s session, Zarif told the legislators, “You should know we are in the same boat. We are all in this together. The U.S. does not recognize [the difference between Iranian] liberals, reformists, and conservatives—revolutionaries and nonrevolutionaries.”

It’s a point that the Trump administration, and the Israeli government, should absorb. If they are responsible for the fires and explosions of recent weeks, as part of their “maximum pressure” campaign to disrupt and destabilize the Iranian regime, they should know that the successors to Rouhani and Zarif are not likely to be the Western-leaning young people who have occasionally protested in the streets or the dissident members of the Homeland Cheetahs (if such a group really exists). They are more likely to be the elite military and security forces themselves, whose longtime distrust of the West has been intensified by Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal—and who, if they come to power, will crack down harder on domestic dissent and push faster on a military buildup against the U.S. and its allies.

Trump and his top advisers—notably, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—have long been pushing for regime change in Tehran. They should be careful what they wish for.

Fred M. Kaplan (born July 4, 1954) is an American author and journalist. His weekly “War Stories” column for Slate magazine covers international relations and U.S. foreign policy.

Iran blasts: What is behind mysterious fires at key sites?

By Jiyar Gol – BBC Persian – 6th July 2020

Just after midnight on 30 June, an email dropped into my inbox. It claimed to be from an unknown group calling itself the Homeland Cheetahs.

The group said it had attacked the major Iranian nuclear site at Natanz some two hours earlier, at 02:00 local time. In the detailed message, it claimed it had blown up a facility and that the Iranian regime would not be able to hide it.

The group said it was composed of dissidents within Iran’s military and security forces and that they had been behind numerous attacks that the Iranian authorities had so far concealed from the public.

I went online to check Iranian news agencies and reliable accounts on social media, but I found no mention of such an attack anywhere.

Several hours later, Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation announced there had been an incident at the Natanz nuclear plant, but they ruled out sabotage.

The next day, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council – its top security body – announced that it knew what caused the “incident” at Natanz but that “for security reasons” it would not for the time being say what this was.

Nasa satellite images showed there had been a fire at Natanz at 02:06. The damage corresponded with details contained in the email from the Homeland Cheetahs.

The group’s message had been carefully crafted and included a propaganda video about attacks on strategic sites it said it had carried out inside Iran.

§ Iran nuclear crisis in 300 words

§ Why do the limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment matter?

§ Iranians on Trump and the nuclear deal

Preparing this kind of statement and video requires hours, if not days, of planning. Whoever authored it knew about the Natanz explosion in advance, which supports the theory that it was an act of sabotage.

But there is also the possibility that the email was an elaborate attempt to mislead us as to who was behind the attack, and could actually be the work of foreign agents posing as opponents of the regime in Iran.

Attack ‘thwarted’
The group’s name, the Homeland Cheetahs, is similar to those of other “Iranian” cyber groups, such as Persian Cat, or Charming Kitten – teams of hackers believed to be part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Cyber Army.

It is possible that the Homeland Cheetahs were born to confront the Persian Cat.

In late May, national cyber security in Israel – Iran’s arch-foe – said the country had prevented a major cyber attack on its water system, widely thought to have been the work of Iran.

Days later, there was a cyber attack on Shahid Rajaae, an important economic and shipping hub in southern Iran.

More than 50% of Iran’s sea imports and exports take place through this harbour. The attack caused a massive blockage of water in the canals and flooded roads leading to the terminal.

Iranian officials blamed power shortages, but Western intelligence sources believe it was Israeli retaliation against Iran.

Fires and blasts
In the past three months there have been an increasing number of mysterious incidents which have damaged sensitive sites in Iran.

Numerous fires have broken out in nuclear facilities, oil refineries, power plants, major factories and businesses across the country.

Since 26 June alone, there have been several such incidents:

§ 26 June: Blast at a liquid fuel production facility for ballistic missiles in Khojir, close to Parchin, near Tehran; fire at power plant in Shiraz, causing a blackout

§ 30 June: Explosion at a medical clinic in Tehran, 19 people killed

§ 2 July: Blast and fire at Natanz nuclear site

§ 3 July: Large fire in Shiraz

§ 4 July: Explosion and fire in power plant in Ahwaz; chlorine gas leak at Karoun petrochemical plant in Mahshahr

Saeed Aganji, a Finland-based Iranian journalist who has been following the events, says the incidents are unusual and could be deliberate.

“By targeting Iran strategic and economic sites, the aim is to bring Iran’s economy to its knees and force the regime to stop financing militia groups and change course in the Middle East.”

Parchin and Khojir are two military sites believed to house nuclear and missile production facilities on the eastern edge of Tehran.

Inspectors from the global nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), have long been denied access to Parchin, where Iran is suspected of having conducted high-explosive tests related to the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

Iran warning
In a rare acknowledgement, Iran’s state news agency Irna said the fire at Natanz could have been the result of sabotage “by hostile countries, especially the Zionist regime [Israel] and the US”.

Iran’s civil defence chief has vowed to “respond” if it turns out Iran was the victim of a cyber attack.

On Sunday, an unnamed “Middle Eastern intelligence official” told the New York Times Israel had caused the blast at Natanz. Just a day earlier, Israel’s foreign minister responded obliquely when asked if Israel was behind the incident, saying “our actions in Iran better left unsaid”.

Israel does not normally take responsibility for these kinds of “attacks”, and Iranian officials have avoided blaming Israel directly. But it seems the cyber war between the two countries has already started.