Iran: The Ayatollah Succession Question

KhameneiThe Diplomat, 11 October 2014

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei recently underwent prostate surgery, following recurrent rumors that he suffers from some form of cancer. At 75, the Mashhad-born Khamenei, who is half Azeri-Turk and hence only half Persian, has been the Islamic Republic’s top arbiter and ultimate enigma ever since he replaced its founder in 1989. Although he has managed to go hiking following his surgery, questions about his health reinvigorates debate over the single most important question in Iran.

The looming succession, already increasingly ripe for public discussion both outside and inside Iran, is far from straightforward. When Khamenei took up Ruhollah Khomeini’s mantle, he inherited one hell of a frock. Fundamental constitutional adjustments had to be made on the fly to compensate for his sub-Leader inadequacies, including a fast-track promotion from the middling Hojjatoleslam to the rank of Ayatollah, usually reserved for the most senior among Mojtaheds – that is Shi’ite clerics qualified to issue their own independent rulings. (Sunni clergy deploy juridical precedent instead.) Had Khomeini’s original designated successor, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri not run afoul of the Imam, or had one of the other contemporary Grand Ayatollahs of undisputed clerical repute – such as Mohammad Reza Golpayegani, Mohammad Ali Araki or Abulghassem Khoei – bought into Khomeini’s personal theory of the Ruling Jurisprudent (Vali-ye Faqih) or the revolution he violently fathered, all this fuss might have been unnecessary.

Even despite the constitutional fudging, bereft of Khomeini’s towering stature and unitive appeal, Khamenei found he still had to hedge his bets from day one, so he courted and co-opted the security establishment, and particularly the hardline Revolutionary Guards. In the quarter century that has elapsed since, while he has clearly proven to be politically dexterous, Khamenei has also become more of an adjudicatory ombudsman among fiercely competing power centers – with a preference for the hardliners – than a spiritual-temporal authority guided by a clear vision of statehood and rulership. Iran’s body politic, as a result, has become only more fractious and factionalized.

Hence, the shoes Khamenei will be leaving behind to be filled aren’t particularly big, so much as they are an awkward fit. As if demonstrating the constitutionally requisite piety, political finesse, administrative ability, and (dumbed down) scholarship weren’t enough, Khamenei’s successor – or successors – will also have to surmount increasingly centrifugal domestic forces and secure an independent support base. No such comparable figure of authority has yet emerged in contemporary Iran, which makes this whole succession shebang all the more arcane. Nonetheless, at least three broad succession scenarios exist.

Continuity: The Vali-ye Faqih Hat Trick

While the constitutionally appointed, 86-man Assembly of Experts is charged with designating and “supervising” the Supreme Leader (the Assembly itself is scheduled for eight-yearly elections in early 2016, and its makeup, together with that of the Guardian Council, conceals important succession clues), paramount influence over the choice of successor resides in two other power centers. These are the Guards (and their Basij complement), and to an extent the pro-revolutionary, as distinct from the traditional quietist, elements of the clerical establishment.

Given their longstanding and symbiotic relations with Khamenei, the Guards would conceivably accept a candidate who at the least guarantees structural and ideological continuity. Since 1989, the Guards have evolved from a motley binge of armed factions into a vast, shadowy organization with immense vested interests in critical economic sectors, custodianship of Iran’s ballistic missile program, and an unmistakably public propensity for interference in domestic politicking. When a former Guard stalwart and neoconservative member of the Revolution’s second, wartime generation, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assumed the presidency, Guard alumni flooded about half of the ministerial positions in his cabinet and even more seats in the parliament, prompting some observers to pronounce a virtual military dictatorship in the making.

Traditionally independent of Persia’s temporal shahs, economically self-financing, and politically quietist, the clerical establishment has over the decades been cowed and brought into line, both subtly and brutally, with the ideological outlook adopted by Khomeini’s heirs and institutionalized in Qom’s seminaries. Those among the clergy who came to prominence along with 1979’s powerbrokers, or who enjoyed personal patronage and today hold key positions in such conservative hardline institutions as the Guardian Council, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the judiciary, and the numerous charitable foundations known in Persian as bonyads, have long marched in lockstep with Khamenei and like the Guards are certain to seek continuity. For after all, under the existing conditions, the Supreme Leader designate will also rise from their ranks.

In recent years, speculation has yielded several potential names. The most likely of these is Ayatollah Sayyed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, 66. A Najaf-born cleric who was once Khomenei’s representative to pro-Iranian Shi’ites in Iraq, and the antireformist head of Iran’s judiciary for a decade, Shahroudi possesses fitting clerical credentials of the sort Khamenei never had. As first deputy chair, he temporarily heads the Assembly of Experts following Ayatollah Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi Kani’s recent heart attack. But if Khamenei lacks Khomeini’s charisma, Shahroudi is reportedly still more unexciting, and his Iraqi birth despite ancestral origins in Iran’s northeast may pose awkward hurdles.

Next is Sayyed Mojtaba Hosseini Khamenei, 45, the second son of the Supreme Leader and the most blatant, though not necessarily logical, choice for successor. Mojtaba is closely associated with the conservatives, is possibly even more hardline than his father, and more importantly administers much of the access to, and key affairs within, the Office of the Supreme Leader – arguably the single most important institution in the Islamic Republic – and hence to Khamenei himself. All this makes him an attractive candidate for the Guards, with whose senior leadership he is said to be chummy. How his clerical credentials are viewed are probably a different story, though the younger Khamenei also studied under Ayatollah Shahroudi. While there hasn’t been a dynastic precedent since 1979, Khamenei may attempt to change all that.

Then there is Hassan Khomeini, 42, the most prominent grandson of the Islamic Republic’s founder, and son of Ahmad Khomeini, who died in mysterious circumstances in the mid-1990s. Hassan Khomeini commands an impeccable pedigree crucial for wider popular acceptance, although in clerical gerontology terms he is still a relative strapling like Mojtaba. However, his dangerously weak link lies in his association with the reformists and moderates (Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is said to be a fan) and his involvement in the 2009 protests, which would render him virtually anathema to the Guards – unless a fundamental shift occurs, in which case he might be a suitably pliable cipher for the Imam’s Praetorian elite.

Finally, the A-list’s outlier is Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, 80. Professor “Crocodile” (or Temsah, which mockingly rhymes with Mesbah), is close to Khamenei and spearheads the fiery fringe of the ultraconservative right, also known as the Principlists. At one stage, he ardently backed then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the rising star of the younger generation of neoconservatives (other than their generally lay, security backgrounds, “neoconservatives” are almost ideologically indistinguishable from the clerical “ultras”). Mesbah-Yazdi presides over the Haqqani seminary, a leading hardline institution in Qom where notable pro-regime clerics – especially ministers of Intelligence – have been schooled, and openly abhors democracy in favor of an absolutist interpretation of clerical rule. More than this, he publicly encourages violence against reformers, whom he infamously likened to the AIDS virus. Among the clerical ultras, Mesbah-Yazdi also possibly represents such figures as secretary of the Guardian Council Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who might have been a candidate himself but for his advanced age (87). However, Mesbah-Yazdi’s extreme comments disturb even some among the hardline conservatives and little evidence exists to suggest he enjoys widespread support in general, let alone for the top job. Besides, there is also his starting age. (Khomeini, exceptionally, became Supreme Leader at the age of 77.)

Still others have been mooted. Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, 80, was once regarded as the most suitable and capable successor. Even more influential than Khamenei at the time of Khomeini’s death, he unwittingly lost out in influence and instead became number two, securing his reputation as a bastion of moderate pragmatism faced with the priorities of the post-war reconstruction years. Conversely, Rafsanjani’s name has become widely associated with unvirtuous wealth and corruption (he is incidentally nicknamed “the Shark,” though for reasons of facial appearance rather than behavior), and he ran afoul of almost everyone politically rightwards of center in his perceived support of the reform protests in 2009, never mind his difficult historical relations with the Guards.

There is also Sadeq Larijani, 54, the current head of the judiciary, another Najaf-born conservative and a member of one of the Islamic Republic’s few dynastic families (two of the five Larijani brothers head two of the government’s three main branches, without even going into the broader family ties). Larijani, however, possesses little of distinction other than years in Khamenei’s loyal service and close ties with the Guards. Like his direct boss, his judiciary appointment required that the previous Hojjatoleslam be promoted overnight. If anything, Shahroudi stands a far better chance.

If the likes of Sadeq Larijani can make the B-list, then surely so can Iran’s current president, Hassan Rouhani. A key player in the revolutionary generation, Rouhani actually fulfills all the requirements of a pious, (mid-level) cleric and a proven political administrator. In addition, he is a rare powerbroker capable, until now at least, of bridging divergent views across Iran’s political spectrum, although the remainder of his presidency will tell whether he’s equally capable of retaining crossfactional and especially conservative support. His current position poses little problem: when Khamenei became Supreme Leader, he too crossed over from the presidency. Rouhani owed part of his surprise June 2013 presidential victory to last minute endorsements from former presidents Khatami and, especially, Rafsanjani. While the Shark may no longer be the compelling choice for the top job, he could still pull off another June 2013 through his protégé.

On balance, Ayatollah Shahroudi and Khamenei Jr. probably stand the highest chances of relieving the elder Khamenei. Mojtaba may be young, but Khamenei was also just short of 50 back in June 1989, and relative youth holds out promises of a longer and more stable tenure than one interrupted by natural demise. And while Khomeini père couldn’t be succeeded by a direct descendant without reviving fears of yet another Shah-type dynastic coup, Khamenei has accumulated far more clout now to do so should he wish. Shahroudi may be viewed as an outsider, yet a number of regime notables including the elder three Larijani brothers also spent their early years in Iraq. Moreover, his relative moderation vis-à-vis the Crocodile, and his generally topnotch scholarship (like traditional “Sources of Emulation” or Maraje’-ye Taqlid, he has published his own juridical treatise) would attract far greater acceptance.

Reviving an Old Idea: The Leadership Council

According to Art. 111 of the Constitution, in the event Khamenei dies or is no longer capable of carrying out his duties as Vali-ye Faqih, a temporary leadership council – with the approval of the Expediency Council, a body officially created to adjudicate legislative disputes between the parliament and the Guardian Council – takes over consisting of the serving president, the head of the judiciary, and a jurist from the powerful Guardian Council. But this was the outgrowth of an older idea. At the time of Khomeini’s passing, a parallel proposal was circulated by Rafsanjani, then Khamenei’s key ally and rival, for a permanent ruling council rather than a single Leader. This arrangement was to include himself, Khomeini’s younger son Ahmad, and Ayatollahs Khamenei, Abdolkarim Mosavi-Ardebili and Ali Meshkini, but in the event was struck down by a weak majority in the Assembly of Experts and famously gave way to Khamenei’s one-man ascendency instead.

While possible in theory, the idea of a leadership council is unlikely to withstand the test of time. The reason is that the vigorous competition for power, prestige and patronage among and within factions, especially within the conservative fold (they couldn’t even agree on a presidential candidate for the June 2013 elections, another key reason for Rouhani’s unexpected victory), is almost certain to replicate itself within any such triadic or pluralist structure and reignite the struggle for supremacy. Consider that the virtual duumvirate in the 1990s comprising Rafsanjani as president and Khamenei as Supreme Leader only further deepened the personal rivalry and entrenched the growing political bifurcation despite bouts of cooperation.

Discontinuity Amid Continuity: A Guards-Led Military Takeover

In the absence of a consensus candidate (or candidates) acceptable to the Guards, or rather to the dominant hardline faction within the Guards, the likelihood of a military takeover rises. Deprived of their prime benefactor and threatened with potentially antagonistic change, the Guards’ top leadership and alumni, who have gone on to a wide range of other key positions in government, may pull off a coup à la Pakistanaise. Having already waxed in power and influence, the Guards arguably need the clergy much less than the latter need the Guards.

Yet the anointed Guardians of the Revolution are unlikely to completely overturn the existing order and institute permanent military rule. Instead, they would retain a degree of deference to Khomeinism given that the cachet of divinity imparts a relative legitimacy that machtpolitik cannot. As such, if it happens, Guards-led rule will likely be transitional, until a consensus clerical figure is identified.

The Futility of Prediction?

Referring to the U.S. failure to predict the events of Pearl Harbor, the strategist, game theorist, and economics Nobel-laureate Thomas Schelling blamed it on a “great national failure to anticipate” and the “poverty of expectations.” Should one exert the imagination, several other post-Khamenei scenarios may come to mind, including the full abolition of Velayat-e Faqih or substantial modifications in favor of a far stronger Republican, elected component. At the moment, though, the alignment of forces at work makes these hard to imagine, let alone anticipate.

Iran’s coming succession is important for obvious reasons. One of these is that a quarter-century of continued hostility directed outwards, especially against the U.S., may very simply have been Khamenei’s only way to avoid being outfoxed by domestic rivals. Another is the uncertainty hanging over Iran’s nuclear program, and the Ayatollah’s real thinking behind the growing pile of yellowcake and centrifuges. And then of course there are the implications for Iranians themselves, and whether their economy, and more importantly, their bid for improved social and civil freedoms, will sink or swim. The first and only succession took place at a time of tremendous transition, the start of a long process of post-war recovery, and tectonic shifts in the global balance of power. While modern-day circumstances may not be quite as dramatic, the world continues to watch as Iran dances along the edge of a precipice, perhaps one that it could still be persuaded to step away from.

Image: Reuters/Caren Firouz

Click for the original.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Gaming the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty


Open Briefing, 10 October 2014

The tensions surrounding the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1/EU3+3 continue unabated ahead of the November 2014 deadline, with the eventual outcome inevitably carrying implications for international relations and the future of non-proliferation.

As such, it is worth reviewing the strengths of the existing Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and its executive arm, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as well as the flaws that have attended the pageant of past proliferation crises. Beyond that, in order to strengthen the NPT and the IAEA in the longer run, there are seven areas that the non-proliferation regime needs to take into account.

The NPT’s raison d’être

The NPT seeks to freeze the nuclear status quo and is therefore inherently biased in favour of nuclear-weapon states recognised as having detonated a nuclear device prior to 1 January 1967 – namely the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC). In order to induce non-nuclear weapon states into accepting this asymmetry of privileges, and to combat proliferation, the United States, the then Soviet Union, China, France and the United Kingdom agreed to share nuclear technology for peaceful civilian purposes and to ultimately strive for disarmament.

Accordingly, the text of the NPT establishes a legal and safeguards framework for the acceptable conduct of nuclear activities, to which all states but four – India, Israel, Pakistan and the fledgling government of South Sudan – have acceded, and from which a fifth – North Korea – has withdrawn. However, the treaty’s central and most glaring weakness remains the absence of a firewall between civilian and military nuclear programmes. In both cases, proliferation concerns present themselves at the uranium enrichment (open cycle) and plutonium separation (closed cycle) stages, during which fissile material for a nuclear weapon may be produced.

The role and limits of the IAEA

As the NPT’s institutional custodian, the IAEA is mandated with verifying the non-diversion of ‘source and special fissionable materials’ for weapons use through a variety of ways, including on-site inspections with the host government’s consent. In the case of signatory states, the optional Additional Protocol intensifies the scope and depth of inspections, incorporating ‘managed access’ for ultra-sensitive cases, and extending them to aspects such as research and development even when devoid of nuclear material, equipment, item imports and exports, uranium mines and long-term nuclear infrastructural plans.

When all is said and done, however, the effectiveness of IAEA oversight is limited to declared facilities, and only allows for verification of the non-diversion, or ‘correctness’, of declared fissile material subject to safeguards. Unfortunately, IAEA inspectors are neither equipped nor qualified to uncover clandestine nuclear programmes, being in this respect wholly dependent on third parties’ initiative and intelligence capabilities. More importantly, IAEA inspectors are unable to verify the absence of undeclared material and facilities, or in other words the ‘completeness’ of all information declared by a member state. In addition, the NPT’s original safeguards focus only on components of the fuel cycle involving processed uranium, though the Additional Protocol now covers the full nuclear process, including mining and ore concentration.

Seven ways to strengthen the NPT and the IAEA

There are two additional and feasible pathways to combating fuel cycle-related proliferation. The first, for non-nuclear weapon states already in possession of enrichment facilities, entails limiting domestic enrichment to 5% for power generation purposes, and requiring that all uranium enriched further up to 19.75% – for medical research and the production of isotopes, which Iran for instance has cited – be acquired exclusively and in controlled quantities through an international nuclear fuel bank under the IAEA’s auspices. The idea of such an institution isn’t new, and the proposed IAEA-Kazakhstan version comes to mind.

The international nuclear fuel bank should guarantee long-term fuel supply and draw up periodic contracts with member states conforming to existing reactor lifespans. In the event of disputes, both contracting parties should be able to maintain in escrow, including on the member state’s territory, an agreed proportion of the higher enriched (5–19.75%) fuelstock quantity guaranteed for the same period. In the event, the case for maintaining enrichment infrastructure as guarantee against supply disruption will no longer be as sustainable.

The second pathway, for any non-nuclear weapon state, is to make available only standardised reactors with guaranteed long-term fuelstock from external suppliers, or alternatively, reactors with fixed built-in ‘nuclear battery’ lifespans of 40-60 years. With the establishment of the international nuclear fuel bank, and in view of the relative stability of market prices for enriched uranium, the categorical prohibition of heavy-water reactors in non-nuclear weapon states might even be justified to preclude the extraction of plutonium (and tritium).

Fuel cycle-related safeguards in the context of the NPT’s Article III can only reach so far, as recent experience suggests. Therefore, an additional clause should be introduced that specifically addresses the weaponisation component of nuclear weapons development henceforth. The IAEA considers ballistic missile technology to be the sovereign right of states, and as such restricts its definition of weaponisation, roughly paraphrased, to the tooling of nuclear explosive devices for the purposes of being fitted for delivery. In investigating inconsistencies in this respect, the IAEA will not require permission to inspect sensitive military complexes. Instead, the state concerned will bear the full onus, under pain of sanction, to furnish satisfactory clarifications on their own within a non-negotiable period of time, say three months.

Given the relative strength of containment and surveillance with the assistance of modern nuclear forensics, satellite imagery and enhanced information analysis, there is an obvious and pressing need to address the deficiencies in the existing structure of enforcement, which inevitably exceeds the direct remit of the NPT and the IAEA. It will be recalled that the NPT as a legal and regulatory edifice is only as sound as the sum of its parts – namely the IAEA’s capacity to supervise, and the UN Security Council’s ability to enforce. IAEA and even UNSC member states are by and large wary of committing themselves in principle to responding to another state’s treaty violations.

Given the gravity of nuclear annihilation and the reality of creeping proliferation, the change that ought to be wrought, and this was first hinted at in the 1946 Baruch Plan, is paradigmatic and counterintuitive: the UNSC permanent members’ veto, for the sole substantive purpose of enforcement, should be subject to override by a three-fifths UNSC majority, or alternatively by two-thirds of the UN General Assembly, with the proviso that enforcement may also be non-military in substance, including ‘excommunication’ from parts of the United Nations. Alternatively, the three-fifths UNSC veto override could be rendered obligatory when at issue is a state transgressor not yet party to the Additional Protocol, the idea being that UNSC permanent members might in this way see the point of persuading their respective allies to sign onto the Additional Protocol. Further, UNSC sanctions must target non-state clandestine proliferation networks or the states wilfully harbouring them.

Finally, states pursuing a nuclear programme ought not only be guided but bounded, in both letter and spirit, by Preamble 3’s injunction that ‘States must refrain…from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State…’. A crucial, if tentative first step in this direction is that Article VI of the NPT, the largely anodyne clause calling for disarmament, acquire a more binding and concrete character in the form of the categorical decommissioning of sub-strategic nuclear arsenals by the parties concerned. The reason is that geopolitical reality has changed since the Cold War and tactical and theatre deterrents in the current circumstances have not proven any more indispensable than their strategic counterparts, but instead remain a costly and militarily-irrelevant liability.

Ultimately, clandestine nuclear programmes are a symptom of mistrust, and not the root thereof. A framework that aspires to promote international peace and security cannot therefore hope to isolate the technical from the human aspects of conflict.

Click for the original.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Q&A session with Robert D. Steele on big data and the intelligence process

Robert Steele

Here’s the link to a recent Q&A chat I had with Robert D. Steele, CIA and Marine Corps Intelligence veteran, a leading proponent of OSINT, and something of an intelligence establishment iconoclast. I asked him how big data fits in within the intelligence process in terms of methodology, how it complements traditional subject matter expertise (SME), and other things.

See link.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off

Israel and Kazakhstan: Assessing the State of Bilateral Relations



The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), Mideast Security and Policy Studies No. 107 (with Gil Feiler)

1 May 2014



The relationship between the State of Israel and the Republic of Kazakhstan, a Muslim nation of 18 million, offers a fascinating case study in international relations. On the surface, one finds little common ground. Yet over the past two decades, mutual relations have acquired significance. Israel’s experience, innovation, and qualitative edge continue to provide solutions to Kazakhstan’s development imperatives. Diplomatic relations have evolved overtly and against the general grain of Islamic politics, and in some ways dovetail with Kazakhstan’s wider foreign policy outlook. Both countries report ongoing bilateral trade across a wide sweep of economic sectors. Likewise, there is evidence that suggests more extensive defense and security cooperation than meets the eye.

While high-tech and first-rate human capital stream towards the Kazakh steppe, raw energy and wheat flow toward the Mediterranean, the precise volumes of which are rarely ever presented to public scrutiny. Kazakh foreign policy draws strength from balance as well as the ability to parley with diametrically opposed actors. Relations with Kazakhstan allow Israel to circumvent its hostile near abroad, but also provide a bridge for Israel to re-engage with the wider Islamic world, particularly through the more neutral terrain of inclusive, interfaith dialogue that Astana has prominently championed. In all these ways, historical and material conditions have converged to facilitate cooperation. However, all this notwithstanding, much still surprisingly remains in potentia, and Israel’s decision-makers would do well by not losing sight of a key partner in the Islamic world.

Click for original, or the PDF.

Photo: Wikicommons

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

How Israel should approach Iran’s nuclear program

JpostThe Jerusalem Post, 19 March 2014

The historic agreement signed between Iran and the P5+1 last November continues to fire the optimism of the international community four months into its interim phase. At the same time, it has left Israel visibly balking on its own, with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu compelled – by virtue of his position if not historical outlook – to stand up to what Israelis widely consider their principal strategic adversary. Israel may be seen to be playing the petulant spoiler, but its pessimism isn’t driven only by emotions.

Israel views Iran as a ‘strategic’ threat in the most fundamental sense of the term, as a threat to its survival, on which basis any grand strategy must depart. In Israel’s case, overwhelming military strength has long been identified as the necessary condition for this to happen. The practical means to this end finds expression in the two-and-a-half legs of a veritable ‘Iron Wall’ comprising a disproportionately outsized army, the so-called ‘Dimona’ option, and superpower patronage, respectively. This ‘Iron Wall’, an idea which in its most abstract form originated with Vladimir Jabotinsky in the 1920s, was intended to disabuse Arabs or any other hostile regional power as is the case with Iran today, of the temptation to remove the Jews from their historic land by force of arms, and instead convince them of the higher virtues of diplomacy. According to this outlook, even if peace cannot be attained, Israel must at least strive to obtain tacit acceptance of its existence by its Muslim neighbors. This is prefaced by the assumption that Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off

Key international developments for 2014


Open Briefing, 31 Jan 2014

In December 2013 and January 2014, analysts from the Open Briefing intelligence unit reviewed the key international developments likely to occur over 2014.

Included in this briefing are ten of these developments. They are not offered as a ‘top 10’ list but all warrant serious attention over the next 12 months:

  1. Russian military build-up in the Arctic.
  2. Maritime territorial disputes in the East China Sea.
  3. A stalled Myanmar transition.
  4. A pivotal year in Afghanistan.
  5. Careful optimism over Iran’s nuclear programme.
  6. The opportunities presented by Iraq’s economy.
  7. An uncertain future in Syria.
  8. Instability in Nigeria.
  9. Efforts to contain the fighting in Central Africa Republic.
  10. Civil unrest in Angola.

Click for the full briefing.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

A witching hour deal and the morning after: The Iran-P5+1 nuclear deal

U.S. Mission / Eric Bridiers

Open Briefing, 3 December 2013

The nuclear deal inked in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 at 0300hrs on Sunday 24 November 2013 momentarily closed the curtains on a decade of painful suspense.
According to the published Joint Plan of Action, the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council) plus Germany (collectively known as the P5+1 or E3+3) agreed over the next six months – ‘renewable by mutual consent’ – to:

  • shelve further sanctions,
  • repatriate some $4.2 billion worth of Iran’s oil profits previously locked-up in foreign banks,
  • allow Iran’s oil clients to continue business, and
  • suspend trade restrictions in precious metals, automotives and the crucial petrochemical sector.

In exchange, Iran agreed to:

  • restrict uranium enrichment to 5% without expanding its 3.5% stockpile,
  • neutralise its 20% enriched feedstock,
  • keep centrifuge activity at where it currently stands,
  • allow intrusive IAEA inspections, and
  • suspend all work on the Arak heavy water plant, which would yield alternative plutonium fuel towards a nuclear weapon.

Taking stock

The terms appear to be heavily unbalanced in Iran’s disfavour. After all, it is merely getting back what belongs to it. And despite the overall $7 billion on offer, Tehran still stands to lose $30 billion in unrealised oil profits over the next six months while the current sanctions remain in place.

Yet, Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Iran’s cyber posture


Open Briefing, 18 November 2013

In early October 2013, the death of a hitherto little known individual by the name of Mojtaba Ahmadi was reported near Karaj, slightly northwest of Tehran.
Ahmadi was shot twice in the chest from a passing motorcycle according to an eyewitness account in the Iranian press that was later taken offline. A statement by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in contrast denied that an assassination had taken place, adding only that investigations were underway. As it turned out, Ahmadi was a key cyber warfare commander, and possibly Iran’s cyber war chief.

The truth of the matter aside, this event brings to mind the spate of Iranian nuclear scientists who were targeted in similar circumstances over the past seven years. In addition to assassination attempts, the covert tit-for-tat war between Iran on the one hand, and the United States, Israel and various Western allies on the other has steadily expanded to include a cocktail of diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions, attacks directed at civilians overseas, and now, a virtual war with real-life consequences. By force of circumstance as much as by design, Iran has responded in kind and is clearly channelling greater resources towards its own cyber front. Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Comments Off

Remote control war: Unmanned combat air vehicles in China, India, Iran, Israel, Russia and Turkey


Open Briefing, 20 September 2013

The introduction and development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) by an increasing number of countries is creating both new opportunities and complex challenges.

From an Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) perspective, drones provide a hitherto unimagined ability to observe in real-time the terrain over which one may conduct operations, plus the location and disposition of enemy troops and equipment. However, we are on the cusp of employing armed variants in far greater numbers, with software that is gradually taking the human decision-maker out of the loop. It is akin to the World War I transition of aircraft from purely observation roles to that of fighters and the revolution in aerial combat systems that followed.

The development of UCAVs has been possible because of three converging trends. First, aircraft have become increasingly autonomous, with computers taking over more of the targeting and weapons delivery functions. Second, missiles have become more sophisticated and capable of functions, such as target selection, which were previously carried out by the weapons platform. Third, new technologies have made UAVs capable of greater performance levels. Their increasing use is partly down to a fourth trend: vastly improved ISR capabilities (itself partly thanks to UAVs), which allow high-value targets to be tracked and targeted while potentially reducing civilian casualties and other collateral damage.

Not surprisingly, there are countless challenges associated with this phenomenon. Chief among these from a military standpoint is the development of sound operational doctrine in order to successfully integrate these systems’ capabilities. The speed with which drones are being developed is far surpassing the imaginations of military planners. When some of these first unmanned systems were used by US forces on the battlefield, impressed military decision-makers were criticised for acquiring a ‘looking down the soda straw’ perspective, whereby they favoured the images UAVs were returning at the expense of awareness of the wider battle space. This made them prone to imbalanced operational decisions. Since then, commanders have learnt how to better maintain situational awareness by viewing the capabilities of such platforms from a distance.

There are wider issues to consider though. Now that ‘drone strike’ has become a household term, a plethora of legal and ethical issues have rightly surfaced. Not least of all the fact that UCAVs are being used for missions that would not likely be approved if more traditional aircraft systems were being used. For example, it is hard to imagine the continued violation of Pakistani airspace by US bombers targeting remote villages in the northwest of the country. Somehow, the use of remotely-piloted systems has temporarily sidestepped international law. It is viewed as a grey area when, in fact, no such ambiguity really exists. They are weapons platforms. The location of the pilot and the type of platform used to deliver a missile should have no relevance to the legality of that strike.

Numerous other questions have arisen as the technology has outpaced our ability to control its use. Should we allow fully autonomous armed systems to be deployed? Do we need a proliferation control regime specifically for armed drones? What impacts do repeated attacks have on the psyche of targeted populations? Are drone pilots more or less likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder than conventional pilots? While not within the scope of this study to address such wider issues, they bear mentioning from the outset.

Much of the debate over armed drones has focussed on their use by the United States. As the leading country in the development and use of UCAVs this is understandable. It has lowered the threshold for the use of lethal force and pushed back the limits of counter-terrorism efforts to include the targeted killing of its own citizens abroad. However, 75 other countries are known to have UAVs, with approximately 20 countries possessing armed drones (though estimates vary widely). Many of these countries warrant closer attention; after all, a risky precedent has been set.

This study focusses on six of these countries: China, India, Iran, Israel, Russia and Turkey. It identifies the UAVs in use by each state (see Annex A) and examines in more detail the UCAVs they have in their inventories (see Annex B). In doing so, Open Briefing has identified at least 200 different UAVs in use or in development by the countries in question, with 29 of these being UCAVs. The likely future use of armed drones by each country is also assessed in light of current military doctrines and national security realities.

Some general findings are worth highlighting here. The vast majority of military UAVs in each country’s inventory are unarmed (used for ISR), though many of these can take various payload options, including missiles. In fact, UCAVs are being used to carry far heavier payloads than previously possible. China has the most diverse UCAV inventory, though Israel leads the way in terms of technology and export. All the countries studied are expanding their UCAV industries. Domestic manufacturers are preferred but countries are purchasing some modern drones from abroad. The proliferation of drones to state and non-state adversaries is leading several countries to seek to develop UAV countermeasures. Finally, with the development of loitering munitions and the retrofitting of legacy aircraft or development of new manned/unmanned systems, the lines between missiles and drones at one end and drones and aircraft at the other are increasingly blurred.

This study was commissioned by the Remote Control Project, a pilot project initiated by the Network for Social Change and hosted in London by Oxford Research Group. In undertaking this work, Open Briefing has drawn on a wide range of sources, including defence equipment exhibitions, defence company brochures, foreign media, defence news, military reference books, NGO databases and military forums.

It is clear that armed drones, their uses and their proliferation are issues that are widely misunderstood and surrounded by inaccuracies. This study is offered as one contribution to addressing that situation.

Click for the full briefing, mainly co-authored by OB analysts Rob O’Gorman and Chris Abbott

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

The real reason behind Qatar’s hurried power transfer

Qatar powerA critical power transfer is about to unfold in the ultra-rich and disproportionately influential Gulf monarchy. The reasons for this have been largely speculative, part of which improbably also suggests that Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa will not only replace his father the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, but also his cousin, the current prime minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani.

But questions abound. The Emir is still relatively young at 61, and his son at 33 is barely half his age. Then there’re the apparently tense relations between the Crown Prince and the Prime Minister, who also doubles as the energetic longtime foreign minister. Moreover, this all comes at a particularly delicate time. The region has seen a wave of popular uprisings including in the neighboring United Arab Emirates where recent leaks suggest over a hundred individuals are plotting against the regime; Syria’s civil war rages on with Qatar openly backing the more controversial elements amid the armed opposition; and regional tensions continue to build up over Iran’s alleged nuclear program and the fallout of a possible preventive strike by either Israel or the US – all of which could potentially destabilize Qatar.

To many, the Emir’s decision to voluntarily relinquish power, an anomaly in a neighborhood powered by cradle-to-grave aristocracies, comes across as a laudable move aimed at burnishing his image. However, Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off

What Rouhani may mean for Iranians

rouhani_3openDemocracy, 17 June 2013

On 15 June 2013, a moderate, soft-spoken cleric became Iran’s next president-elect after capturing, in just one round of elections and by a threefold margin over the nearest candidate, an absolute majority of the eligible votes. Although he had campaigned profusely on a platform of greater freedoms, moderation and engagement with the international community, there was little evidence of regime-engineered fraud or violence of the type that bedevilled the 2009 elections. So what exactly was it in the Islamic Republic’s byzantine politics that we just witnessed?

Last month, when the twelve-man Guardian Council – half elected jurists, half non-elected clerics – announced the final slate of candidates for Iran’s 11th presidential elections, the shortlist had been painstakingly pruned down from 686 hopefuls to just six mostly well-known hardliners versus two relatively lesser known moderates. For Iranians desiring real change and notably those who identified with 2009’s abortive Green Movement, the flagrant exclusion of the last minute candidacy of Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani – a former president, arguably Iran’s most powerful individual after Ayatollah Khamenei, but one many perceive capable of redeeming the economy and closing the gaps with the international community – was another slap in the face.

The rejection might have been anticipated. Rafsanjani didn’t only fall out with the ruling ultraconservatives (or ‘principlists’) and particularly his one-time buddy Khamenei in recent years – he openly backed the reformists in 2009, an act so anathema it would exact its political pound of flesh from him. Meanwhile, the election campaign revved into full gear with much of the initial focus shifting onto Saeed Jalili, the abstrusely doctrinaire, one-legged chief nuclear negotiator and Khamenei’s presumed favourite, who in response to Iran’s thickening crisis grandly offered even more ‘resistance’.

Then mere days before the elections Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Iran’s Outreach to Afghanistan, Tajikistan Faces Obstacles

ahmadinejadWorld Politics Review, 5 June 2013

For all the focus on contemporary Iran, relatively little attention is paid to its trilateral ties with Afghanistan and Tajikistan, the geolinguistic remnants of an eclectic series of empires collectively denominated Persian. Since 2005, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made it a point to revive Persian nationalism, contrasting it with the clerical elite’s claim to Islam as the exclusive basis of Iranian identity. Significantly, Ahmadinejad’s nationalist rhetoric was accompanied by a raft of summits, forums and agreements among the three countries, which he called“limbs of the same body,” echoing the 13th-century Persian poet Saadi.

Despite the historical echoes, however, the current effort is driven by Iran’s strategic interests. A 2009 United Nations report (.pdf) estimated that 40 percent of opiates produced in Afghanistan—the source of 90 percent of global supply—transit through Iran, giving rise to Iranian addiction rates five times greater than Europe’s. The spillover impact is also felt in Iran’s southeast, where an armed narco-insurgency by the Sunni Baluch group Jundollah seethes on.

Afghanistan’s successive wars have moreover burdened Iran with the world’s largest refugee population after Pakistan. Iran’s treatment of Afghan refugees, including execution and deportation, has raised tensions with Kabul. This may be linked to another focus of Iranian interest involving an ongoing dispute over the Helmand River, which irrigates the parched Sistan basin that spans the border, rendering Iran vulnerable to Afghan dam construction.

But the post-Taliban turbulence in Afghanistan has also permitted Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Seizing the initiative: Israel’s strategic environment and the need for assertive diplomacy

SeizingOpen Briefing, 10 April 2013

Summary for policymakers

Israel’s strategic neighbourhood is in flux but a number of trends have emerged since the start of the Arab Spring:

  • The Syrian conflict is pitching Bashar al-Assad’s chiefly Shiite alliance against the region’s moderate Sunni movers, many now led by or sympathetic to Islamist-Salafist forces.
  • Diffuse Jihadist factions are massing about the Levant, challenging not only Israel’s borders but the stability of status quo Sunni and Shiite actors.
  • Erstwhile ironclad alliances have been undercut by a mixture of deposals, subtle strategic shifts and widespread ire over the Palestinian plight.
  • Amid all this, Prime Minister Netanyahu may have managed to forge a united international front against Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions, but still somehow left Israel’s broader foreign standing in tatters.

This dynamic calls for more assertive diplomacy and therefore a change in Israel’s current posturing. Specifically, Israel can and should:

  1. Advance its interests by persistently pursuing multi-track and backchannel diplomacy – including intelligence sharing and security coordination – and rehabilitating soured relations, starting in Ankara.
  2. Facilitate go-betweens with vested interests in Israeli-Palestinian peace and influence over those key Palestinian and Arab decision-makers critical to guaranteeing the implementation of future agreements.
  3. Maintain a consistent and meaningful forward momentum in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, even if final-status negotiations are nowhere in sight.
  4. Curb its war talk and instead allow people-to-people outreach and other forms of citizen diplomacy to run their course.
  5. Open or at least encourage a secret backchannel with Tehran as the best and only face-saving way to convince Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei that he cannot have nuclear capability and animosity towards Israel, and hope to preserve his regime at the same time; only two of these objectives are possible at a time. Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Israel’s 2013 elections and key foreign policy implications

MAPIsraelContingent Security Services Internal/Unclassified Brief for Interport Police, 4 Feb 2013

Background and electoral outcome

Israel’s 22 January elections engendered a number of changes on the country’s political terrain. First, the joint ticket recently created between Netanyahu’s Likud and former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman’s Israel Beitenu suffered a setback with only 31 of the predicted 42 seats. Yet it still maintains a clear lead and Netanyahu is as such expected to form the next government.

Second, two fresh trends simultaneously made their mark, one on the pro-settler religious right, the other in the secular center. Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party garnered 12 seats up from 3 during the last elections, a remarkable achievement despite pre-electoral hopes. Bennett, who projects himself as ultramodern yet deeply attached to Jewish tradition was able to swipe votes from within the right-wing bloc and notably from Likud. Combined with outright rejection of a Palestinian state and calls to annex 62% of the West Bank, his party’s showing suggests a further right-ward shift within the bloc. This is corroborated by voting patterns in Likud’s recent primaries, when relative moderates including Dan Meridor and Benny Begin were voted out of the list altogether.

In parallel, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There Is A Future) emerged the dark horse with 19 unexpected seats compared to a year ago when it was non-existent. Like the trail blazed by his father Tommy with the reinvented Shinui party in the late 1990s, Lapid’s is a thoroughly secular platform pledging, among other things, draft equality and socioeconomic justice.

Third, Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Israel votes, and surprises

Yesh AtidopenDemocracy, 24 Jan 2013

The electoral campaign leading up to Israel’s Tuesday elections initially appeared to tell two parallel tales. The first was of the New Right and its eye-catching turnaround since Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), the vigorously Messianist settler movement born in the wake of the June 1967 war. The other was of the Old Center-Left, that collective comedy of errors that has repeatedly crested and foundered since Rabin’s assassination despite the country’s persistently centrist-leaning demographic. Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Recent nuclear-related developments at the Parchin military complex, Iran

OB PicOpen Briefing, 12 Dec 2012

  • Iran has refused to allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to visit the site of the suspected explosives chamber at the Parchin military complex (PMC) pending agreement over the modalities of cooperation.
  • Other circumstantial indicators, acquired technical expertise and behavioural precedents appear to reinforce suspicions concerning nuclear-related activities at PMC.
  • Recent satellite imagery suggests extensive sanitisation and landscaping efforts around the chamber site.
  • Taking these factors into account and based on public-domain sources, Open Briefing concludes it is highly likely that any nuclear-related activities at PMC have been suspended.
  • In the interests of regional peace and stability, it is incumbent on Iran to provide conclusive clarifications if it is to establish that nuclear-related weaponisation did not take place at PMC in accordance with its claims.


Located 30 km southeast of Tehran, PMC is a key locus for the research, development and production of military materiel, including conventional munitions and explosives. However, analysts believe that the compound’s isolated northeast also houses a containment chamber (at 35° 33′ 33.22″, 51° 47′ 6.12″) specially designed for high explosive and hydrodynamic tests consistent with a nuclear weapons programme.

According to Western intelligence agencies, the chamber was installed sometime in early 2000 and measures approximately 18.8 m by 4.6 m. Nuclear-related activity allegedly also took place in another building located some 140 m to its north.

A November 2011 report by the IAEA stated that:

A building was constructed at that time around a large cylindrical object at a location at the Parchin military complex. A large earth berm was subsequently constructed between the building containing the cylinder and a neighbouring building, indicating the probable use of high explosives in the chamber. The [IAEA] has obtained commercial satellite images that are consistent with this information.

PMC appears to be run by the Defence Industries Organisation, a subsidiary of the Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces Logistics which also plays a key role in Iran’s centrifuge programme. Accordingly, nuclear-related explosive tests conducted within the compound, if verified, could further challenge Iran’s assertions concerning the purely civilian nature of its nuclear programme.

Consider that Iran is also currently enriching uranium to near military-grade levels, in quantities reportedly inconsistent with the number of nuclear power plants currently in operation, and is on track to eventually extract fissile plutonium by reprocessing spent uranium fuel rods at the 40 Megawatt Heavy Water Reactor near Arak (IR-40). Furthermore, Iran has been openly developing delivery systems such as the Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile and its variants, usually associated with non-conventional or nuclear warfare.

Weaponisation, including experiments relating to high-explosive initiation systems and the machining of weapons-grade uranium in metal form to fit a missile warhead, is the third component required to turn both fissile material and delivery system into a deployable nuclear weapon. Iran is believed to have conducted nuclear-related weaponisation tests until around 2003, when this was temporarily suspended along with uranium enrichment, though this may have resumed sometime after 2007.

Click for the complete article.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

No ordinary trial by fire for Israel


Jerusalem Post, 20 Nov 2012

Israel and Hamas are unsurprisingly at war again. This comes a mere electoral cycle following the three-week nightmare that cost the lives of 13 Israelis and over 1,400 Palestinians in early 2009. Operation Cast Lead was intended by Israel’s then centrist government to restore deterrence on the southern front. But typical of unresolved conflicts in this neck of the woods, one round barely ends when the countdown to the next begins.

With operation Pillar of Defense, the primary stated intent of the Likud-led rightwing government is still to suppress the constant “terror of rockets” that has been plaguing cities in Israel’s near south and now, the Gush Dan metropolitan heartland situated on the central coastal plains.

This began with the 14 November assassination of Ahmed Ja’abari, effectively chief of Hamas’ armed wing as well as the figure who oversaw Israeli soldier Gil’ad Shalit’s five-year captivity. To prove its point, the Israel Air Force (IAF) has so far followed this up, as before, by pummeling over a thousand targets in the Strip such as rocket and missile launch sites and stockpiles, Hamas government buildings, and military command and control infrastructure. In addition, Israel allegedly conducted the 23 October strike on the Yarmouk base in Sudan’s capital Khartoum, which it believes had been subcontracted out to Iran for the transfer of Gaza-bound weaponry.

In response, Gaza has for the first time Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

The Prospects of an Israeli Strike by mid-2013

Open Briefing (with Rob O’Gorman), 31 Oct 2012

Open Briefing currently assesses an Israeli strike against Iran to be highly unlikely between the US presidential elections in November 2012 and the Israeli elections in January 2013, and unlikely between January and the Iranian presidential elections in June 2013.

This outlook is predicated on five key areas of consideration:

  1. Persisting regional uncertainty will oblige Israel to calculate its moves with painstaking caution. A military strike on Iran, with the possible blowback this could produce, is only likely to occur in extremis, that is, if Israel believed its existence could be jeopardised by containment, or in the face of incontrovertible “smoking gun” evidence. However, growing signs of Iranian cooperation with al-Qaeda and international jihadist groups, as well as the Israeli leadership’s fluctuating views regarding Iranian Shiite rationality, represent wildcards.
  2. Israel’s military ability to eradicate or significantly disrupt Iran’s nuclear programme is far from clear. Israeli military authorities assess that a strike would, even in the best case scenario, merely delay Iran’s nuclear progress by up to two years, thereby calling into question the longer-term wisdom of such a move. In addition, Iran has been ramping up its covert operations and asymmetric assets, demonstrating an ability to respond in kind if provoked.
  3. The impact of parallel measures, especially cyber warfare and far-reaching sanctions, may persuade Israel to postpone a strike. One indicator of their success has been Iran’s demand for upfront sanctions relief during the P5+1 talks. A further indicator would be cuts in Iranian funding of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
  4. Upcoming elections in Washington, Jerusalem and Tehran will set the stage for what transpires in 2013. The Obama-Romney US presidential race remains tightly contested. A Barack Obama re-election will most likely favour the ongoing mix of diplomacy and sanctions, but a Mitt Romney victory will not necessarily entail war during the first half of 2013. That said, mounting threats from Israel and the United States – notably if Benjamin Netanyahu and Romney are at the helm – will tip the balance in Tehran further in favour of regime hardliners and the powerful Revolutionary Guards. This could increase the longer-term likelihood of escalation, miscalculation and, ultimately, armed conflict.
  5. Israel’s “special relationship” with the United States and its confidence in Obama’s pledge to prevent a nuclear Iran is a central national security pillar. Although this confidence is currently unclear, the longer-term ramifications on bilateral relations render a unilateral strike in the assessed six month period unlikely. Conversely, if it continues to cry “wolf” and overplays its hand, Israel may yet corner itself into a strike in order to maintain its deterrence credibility. Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Israel’s double bluff? It hardly matters.

Not one, or for that matter, two leaders in the history of modern Israel have faced down this much domestic opposition for winging it alone on war. Over the past months, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have been publicly excoriated, pleaded with and warned against ordering a premature strike on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure without wholehearted US backing.

What is indeed striking is that the bevy of protest includes those most practised in the science of warfare, former and currently serving senior military-security officials in both Israel and the US. The recent stream of personal high-level envoys to this sliver of land, including US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to caution against fools rushing in has also added to the adrenaline. Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Iran’s secret weapon

The National Interest, 9 Aug 2012

On July 18, hours following the assassination of three of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s top security grandees during a national-security headquarters meeting in Damascus, a suicide bomber in Bulgaria’s Black Sea resort city of Burgas set himself off near an Israeli tourist bus, killing five Israelis and wounding scores of others.

The Damascus attack occurred on the fourth straight day of fighting in the capital, and responsibility has been claimed by both an increasingly plucky armed opposition and an obscure Islamist group calling itself the Islam Brigade (Liwa al-Islam).

The Israeli government has accused usual suspects Hezbollah and Iran for the Burgas bombing, all the more since it coincided with both the eighteenth anniversary of the AMIA Jewish center bombing in Buenos Aires and the sixth anniversary of the second Lebanon war.

As far as Damascus and Burgas were concerned, the timing was sheer coincidence. Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off