Israel has signaled that it would not tolerate this new Iranian front in Iraq, as it has done with hundreds of airstrikes on Iranian military assets in Syria during its seven-year civil war.
Situated in the cradle of human civilization, modern-day Iraq has been no stranger to gruesome bloodshed and violence in recent years. With the scourge of the Islamic State largely defeated, many hope that Iraq can now turn a page on its bloody recent past and start building for a new future. However, Iraq’s Persian neighbor, Iran, has different plans. As one of the region’s major powers, Iran has been focused on taking advantage of the chaos to its west to fulfill one of the core tenants of theocratic regime: Shi’ite Muslim expansionism and revolution.
While modern Iran’s involvement in Iraq goes back decades—from the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the bloody Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s to support insurgent groups in the years following the U.S. invasion—more recently, Iran has sought to leverage Iraq’s majority Shi’ite Muslim population as the final piece in its corridor of control, dubbed the “Shi’ite Crescent” from Tehran to Beirut in Lebanon.
“Currently, Iran has control over numerous Iraqi [mostly Shia] political and militia organizations,” Phillip Smyth, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told JNS.
“These groups generally follow the same organizational and ideological model as Lebanese Hezbollah,” he explained. “Their creation and growth are part of a longer-term Iranian strategy that follows the successes they’ve built when it comes to influencing Lebanon. They wish to construct groups that push their ideologies, policies, and whose armed groups can be utilized.”
Indeed, Iraq’s diversity has been its downfall in recent decades. Stitched together by former colonial powers the British and French following World War I, Iraq is torn between three dominant groups—the Kurds, Sunni Arab Muslims and Shi’ite Muslims, who make up about 65 percent of the population. Iran, which is also Shi’ite Muslim, has had long and complicated ties with its neighboring Iraqi Shi’ite Muslims, but has grown to fill the political vacuum left behind by recent wars to extend its domination over the community.
“Iran is deeply insinuated into Iraq’s political and security apparatuses. It used the Islamic State invasion of Iraq as a pretext to establish an IRGC [Iran Revolutionary Guards Corp] military presence in the country and expand its funding, training and equipping of Iraq’s major Shi’ite militias, which have since been incorporated into the Iraqi government as a direct conduit for Iranian influence over Iraq’s security policy,” Jonathan Ruhe, associate director of JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy, told JNS.
As such, domination over Iraq is seen as one of the last pieces extend its “land bridge” of Shi’ite Muslim communities from Iran to Lebanon in order to directly threaten Israel.
“Control of this land bridge would expand Tehran’s ability to proliferate advanced weapons to Hezbollah, establish a second front against Israel in the Golan, and threaten U.S. and Israeli partner Jordan,” said Ruhe.
“More geostrategically, it would also bolster Iranian hegemony in the heart of the Middle East, which is critical to its objective of replacing the United States as the preeminent power in the region.”
Iranian build-up in Iraq
Earlier this month, it was reported that Iran had transferred ballistic missile to its Shi’ite proxies in Iraq.
According to three Iranian officials, two Iraqi intelligence sources and two Western intelligence sources, Iran has transferred short-range ballistic missiles to allies in Iraq over the last few months. Five of the officials said it was helping those groups to start making their own,” Reuters reported.
Among the missiles transferred include the Zelzal, Fateh-110 and Zolfaqar, which have ranges of about 200 kilometers (125 miles) to 700 kilometers (435 miles), putting both regional foes of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel within striking distance.
“If these reports are indeed true, it represents the next logical step in Iran’s efforts to replicate and expand the threat posed to Israel from Hezbollah’s Iranian-made missile arsenal in Lebanon,” said Ruhe. “Iran is pursuing a similar project in Syria, which has prompted Israeli airstrikes to prevent Syria becoming a second front for threatening Israel with precision missiles.”
“In putting new missiles in Iraq capable of reaching Israel, Iran would be presenting Israel with a dilemma: escalate its preventive campaign against Iranian proliferation of strategic weaponry by forcing Israel to expand its strikes to another country, or allow Tehran to establish yet another way to threaten Israel?” he asked.
Will Israel attack Iraq?
Already, Israel has signaled that it would not tolerate this new Iranian front in Iraq, as it has done with hundreds of airstrikes on Iranian military assets in Syria during its seven-year civil war.
“We are certainly monitoring everything that is happening in Syria, and regarding Iranian threats, we are not limiting ourselves just to Syrian territory. This also needs to be clear,” Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in reference to Iran’s buildup in Iraq earlier this month.
“I am saying that we will contend with any Iranian threat, and it doesn’t matter from where it comes … Israel’s freedom is total. We retain this freedom of action,” he added.
Israel, of course, is no stranger to carrying out an attack on Iraqi soil. In 1981 Israel’s air force destroyed the Osirak Iraqi nuclear reaction near Baghdad.
However, the United States, which has about 5,200 troops in Iraq as part of its mission to stabilize the country and defeat the Islamic State, reportedly warned Israel not to carry out any airstrikes in Iraq.
American officials were reported to have told Israeli defense officials to “please leave Iraq to us,” Israel public broadcaster KAN reported.
Yet Ruhe remains unconvinced that America would target Iran or Iranian-backed militias in Iraq.
“To date, the United States has demonstrated a desire to coexist, however uneasily, alongside Iranian-backed forces in Iraq as part of the overarching goal of restoring a semblance of political and military stability to Iraq, and minimizing risks and burdens to U.S. forces operating there,” he said.
For Smyth, an attack by Israel in Iraq would be a “major escalation” from how the Jewish state has targeted these groups in the past.
“The farthest strike [likely launched by the Israelis] was near the Syrian-Iraq border some weeks ago. Of course, this may have been a signal by Israel to the militias that as soon as they enter Syria, they will be subject to Israeli attacks.
“However, going directly into Iraq would be a move in the direction of saying that all of these targets on the table, and it could have much harsher repercussions for U.S. forces.”
As such, Ruhe sees any Israel attack on Iranian proxies in Iraq as part of a broader campaign.
“It seems more realistic to envisions Israeli forces attacking Iranian proxies in Iraq—either as an expanded part of its counter-missile campaign against Iran in Syria, or as part of a major conflict between Israel on the one hand and Iran and it proxies [including Hezbollah] on the other,” Ruhe said.
“Indeed, Israel has made clear at least since Netanyahu’s Munich speech in February that if attacked, it would address the Iranian threat in its totality—regionwide, and not just from Syria.”
The decision by two of Europe’s largest carriers comes as the United States reimposed sanctions on Iran following its withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal in May.
Two major European air carriers, British Airways and Air France, announced on Thursday that they are terminating flights to Iran.
British Airways, which reinstated its London to Tehran route in 2015 following the implementation of the nuclear deal, said it will cease flying to Iran on Sept. 23.
“We are suspending our London to Tehran service as the operation is currently not commercially viable,” the airline said in a statement.
Similarly, Air France will stop its flights from Paris to Tehran on Sept. 18 due to “the line’s weak performance.”
KLM, the Dutch arm of the Franco-Dutch airlines group Air France KLM, had previously announced that it was halting flights to Tehran.
The decision by two of Europe’s largest carriers comes as the United States reimposed sanctions on Iran following its withdrawal from the nuclear deal in May. While the carriers did not cite the sanctions as the reason for their decision, America has been pressuring European companies to avoid doing business in Iran or risk getting caught up in U.S. sanctions.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the decision by the European airlines to halt their service to Iran.
“That is good, more should follow, more will follow because Iran should not be rewarded for its aggression in the region, for its attempts to spread terrorism far and wide … ,” he told a news conference during a visit to Lithuania.
By: Erez Linn, News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff; Israel Hayom – israelhayom.com
Iran transferred its 20%-enriched uranium to Russia as part of deal but has already received a batch back, says Iranian official • He says fuel necessary for “domestic needs” and if nuclear deal ends, Iran “would feel unimpeded” to produce 20% uranium.
Iran will reclaim a portion of the 20%-enriched uranium stockpile it surrendered to Russia as part of the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, Iran’s Fars news agency reported Sunday.
Under the nuclear agreement, Iran committed to shipping out all except 300 kilograms (650 pounds) of its low-enriched uranium, and either to export its 20%-enriched uranium – a level after which further refinement to weapons-grade purity is relatively easy – or process it down into low-enriched uranium, or turn it into fuel plates to power a research reactor.
Behrouz Kamalvandi, deputy director of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said the reimposition of U.S. sanctions following U.S. President Donald Trump’s pullout from the nuclear accord in May makes reclaiming the uranium necessary for “domestic needs.”
”If the fuel is sold to us, we do not need to produce it by ourselves,” Kamalvandi told Fars. “If the nuclear deal remains alive, the other sides should sell us the fuel and if the nuclear deal dies, then we would feel unimpeded to produce the 20% fuel ourselves.”
Kamalvandi said Iran stopped producing 20%-enriched uranium and transferred its stockpile to Russia in 10 batches under the 2015 deal. Russia had already returned one batch of the fuel earlier this year at Iran’s request, and a second would be returned soon, he said.
In recent weeks, as tensions with the U.S. have grown, Iran has prominently displayed its centrifuges and threatened to resume enriching uranium, including to weapons-grade, at higher rates.
Trump has offered talks on a “more comprehensive deal” but Iran said it would not negotiate under the pressure of sanctions.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told the Tasnim news agency Saturday that he had no plans to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or other U.S. officials on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York next month, which both Rouhani and Trump plan to attend.
The 73rd session of the General Assembly is scheduled to run Sept. 18-25.
”Americans are not honest and their addiction to sanctions does not allow any negotiation to take place,” Zarif said.
This is considered Iran’s most explicit rejection of renewed nuclear talks to date.
It was a case of spies watching spies watching spies: Israeli intelligence officers looked on in real time as Russian government hackers searched computers around the world for the code names of American intelligence programs.
What gave the Russian hacking, detected more than two years ago, such global reach was its improvised search tool — antivirus software made by a Russian company, Kaspersky Lab, that is used by 400 million people worldwide, including by officials at some two dozen American government agencies.
The Israeli officials who had hacked into Kaspersky’s own network alerted the United States to the broad Russian intrusion, which has not been previously reported, leading to a decision just last month to order Kaspersky software removed from government computers.
The Russian operation, described by multiple people who have been briefed on the matter, is known to have stolen classified documents from a National Security Agency employee who had improperly stored them on his home computer, on which Kaspersky’s antivirus software was installed. What additional American secrets the Russian hackers may have gleaned from multiple agencies, by turning the Kaspersky software into a sort of Google search for sensitive information, is not yet publicly known.
The current and former government officials who described the episode spoke about it on condition of anonymity because of classification rules.
Like most security software, Kaspersky Lab’s products require access to everything stored on a computer in order to scour it for viruses or other dangers. Its popular antivirus software scans for signatures of malicious software, or malware, then removes or neuters it before sending a report back to Kaspersky. That procedure, routine for such software, provided a perfect tool for Russian intelligence to exploit to survey the contents of computers and retrieve whatever they found of interest.
The National Security Agency and the White House declined to comment for this article. The Israeli Embassy declined to comment, and the Russian Embassy did not respond to requests for comment.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Russian hackers had stolen classified N.S.A. materials from a contractor using the Kaspersky software on his home computer. But the role of Israeli intelligence in uncovering that breach and the Russian hackers’ use of Kaspersky software in the broader search for American secrets have not previously been disclosed.
Kaspersky Lab denied any knowledge of, or involvement in, the Russian hacking. “Kaspersky Lab has never helped, nor will help, any government in the world with its cyberespionage efforts,” the company said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. Kaspersky Lab also said it “respectfully requests any relevant, verifiable information that would enable the company to begin an investigation at the earliest opportunity.”
The Kaspersky-related breach is only the latest bad news for the security of American intelligence secrets. It does not appear to be related to a devastating leak of N.S.A. hacking tools last year to a group, still unidentified, calling itself the Shadow Brokers, which has placed many of them online. Nor is it evidently connected to a parallel leak of hacking data from the C.I.A. to WikiLeaks, which has posted classified C.I.A. documents regularly under the name Vault7.
For years, there has been speculation that Kaspersky’s popular antivirus software might provide a back door for Russian intelligence. More than 60 percent, or $374 million, of the company’s $633 million in annual sales come from customers in the United States and Western Europe. Among them have been nearly two dozen American government agencies — including the State Department, the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Justice Department, Treasury Department and the Army, Navy and Air Force.
The N.S.A. bans its analysts from using Kaspersky antivirus at the agency, in large part because the agency has exploited antivirus software for its own foreign hacking operations and knows the same technique is used by its adversaries.
“Antivirus is the ultimate back door,” Blake Darché, a former N.S.A. operator and co-founder of Area 1 Security. “It provides consistent, reliable and remote access that can be used for any purpose, from launching a destructive attack to conducting espionage on thousands or even millions of users.”
On Sept. 13, the Department of Homeland Security ordered all federal executive branch agencies to stop using Kaspersky products, giving agencies 90 days to remove the software. Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Elaine C. Duke cited the “information security risks” presented by Kaspersky and said the company’s antivirus and other software “provide broad access to files” and “can be exploited by malicious cyber actors to compromise” federal computer systems.
That directive, which some officials thought was long overdue, was based, in large part, on intelligence gleaned from Israel’s 2014 intrusion into Kaspersky’s corporate systems. It followed months of discussions among intelligence officials, which included a study of how Kaspersky’s software works and the company’s suspected ties with the Kremlin.
“The risk that the Russian government, whether acting on its own or in collaboration with Kaspersky,” D.H.S. said in its statement, “could capitalize on access provided by Kaspersky products to compromise federal information and information systems directly implicates U.S. national security.”
Kaspersky Lab did not discover the Israeli intrusion into its systems until mid-2015, when a Kaspersky engineer testing a new detection tool noticed unusual activity in the company’s network. The company investigated and detailed its findings in June 2015 in a public report.
The report did not name Israel as the intruder but noted that the breach bore striking similarities to a previous attack, known as “Duqu,” which researchers had attributed to the same nation states responsible for the infamous Stuxnet cyberweapon. Stuxnet was a joint American-Israeli operation that successfully infiltrated Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility, and used malicious code to destroy a fifth of Iran’s uranium centrifuges in 2010.
Kaspersky reported that its attackers had used the same algorithm and some of the same code as Duqu, but noted that in many ways it was even more sophisticated. So the company researchers named the new attack Duqu 2.0, noting that other victims of the attack were prime Israeli targets.
Among the targets Kaspersky uncovered were hotels and conference venues used for closed-door meetings by members of the United Nations Security Council to negotiate the terms of the Iran nuclear deal — negotiations from which Israel was excluded. Several targets were in the United States, which suggested that the operation was Israel’s alone, not a joint American-Israeli operation like Stuxnet.
Kaspersky’s researchers noted that attackers had managed to burrow deep into the company’s computers and evade detection for months. Investigators later discovered that the Israeli hackers had implanted multiple back doors into Kaspersky’s systems, employing sophisticated tools to steal passwords, take screenshots, and vacuum up emails and documents.
In its June 2015 report, Kaspersky noted that its attackers seemed primarily interested in the company’s work on nation-state attacks, particularly Kaspersky’s work on the “Equation Group” — its private industry term for the N.S.A. — and the “Regin” campaign, another industry term for a hacking unit inside the United Kingdom’s intelligence agency, the Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ.
Israeli intelligence officers informed the N.S.A. that in the course of their Kaspersky hack, they uncovered evidence that Russian government hackers were using Kaspersky’s access to aggressively scan for American government classified programs, and pulling any findings back to Russian intelligence systems. They provided their N.S.A. counterparts with solid evidence of the Kremlin campaign in the form of screenshots and other documentation, according to the people briefed on the events.
It is not clear whether, or to what degree, Eugene V. Kaspersky, the founder of Kaspersky Lab, and other company employees have been complicit in the hacking using their products. Technical experts say that at least in theory, Russian intelligence hackers could have exploited Kaspersky’s worldwide deployment of software and sensors without the company’s cooperation or knowledge. Another possibility is that Russian intelligence officers might have infiltrated the company without the knowledge of its executives.
But experts on Russia say that under President Vladimir V. Putin, a former K.G.B. officer, businesses asked for assistance by Russian spy agencies may feel they have no choice but to give it. To refuse might well invite hostile action from the government against the business or its leaders. Mr. Kaspersky, who attended an intelligence institute and served in Russia’s Ministry of Defense, would have few illusions about the cost of refusing a Kremlin request.
Steven L. Hall, a former chief of Russian operations at the C.I.A., said his former agency never used Kaspersky software, but other federal agencies did. By 2013, he said, Kaspersky officials were “trying to do damage control and convince the U.S. government that it was just another security company.”
He didn’t buy it, Mr. Hall said. “I had the gravest concerns about Kaspersky, and anyone who worked on Russia or in counterintelligence shared those concerns,” he said.
FARAH, Afghanistan — A police officer guarding the outskirts of this city remembers the call from his commander, warning that hundreds of Taliban fighters were headed his way.
“Within half an hour, they attacked,” recalled Officer Najibullah Amiri, 35. The Taliban swarmed the farmlands surrounding his post and seized the western riverbank here in Farah, the capital of the province by the same name.
It was the start of a three-week siege in October, and only after American air support was called in to end it and the smoke cleared did Afghan security officials realize who was behind the lightning strike: Iran.
Four senior Iranian commandos were among the scores of dead, Afghan intelligence officials said, noting their funerals in Iran. Many of the Taliban dead and wounded were also taken back across the nearby border with Iran, where the insurgents had been recruited and trained, village elders told Afghan provincial officials.
The assault, coordinated with attacks on several other cities, was part of the Taliban’s most ambitious attempt since 2001 to retake power. But it was also a piece of an accelerating Iranian campaign to step into a vacuum left by departing American forces — Iran’s biggest push into Afghanistan in decades.
There is no doubt that as the United States winds down the Afghan war — the longest in American history, and one that has cost half a trillion dollars and more than 150,000 lives on all sides — regional adversaries are muscling in.
Saudi Arabia and Pakistan remain the dominant players. But Iran is also making a bold gambit to shape Afghanistan in its favor.
Over the past decade and a half, the United States has taken out Iran’s chief enemies on two of its borders, the Taliban government in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Iran has used that to its advantage, working quietly and relentlessly to spread its influence.
In Iraq, it has exploited a chaotic civil war and the American withdrawal to create a virtual satellite state. In Afghanistan, Iran aims to make sure that foreign forces leave eventually, and that any government that prevails will at least not threaten its interests, and at best be friendly or aligned with them.
One way to do that, Afghans said, is for Iran to aid its onetime enemies, the Taliban, to ensure a loyal proxy and also to keep the country destabilized, without tipping it over. That is especially true along their shared border of more than 500 miles.
But fielding an insurgent force to seize control of a province shows a significant — and risky — escalation in Iran’s effort.
“Iran does not want stability here,” Naser Herati, one of the police officers guarding the post outside Farah, said angrily. “People here hate the Iranian flag. They would burn it.”
Iran has conducted an intensifying covert intervention, much of which is only now coming to light. It is providing local Taliban insurgents with weapons, money and training. It has offered Taliban commanders sanctuary and fuel for their trucks. It has padded Taliban ranks by recruiting among Afghan Sunni refugees in Iran, according to Afghan and Western officials.
“The regional politics have changed,” said Mohammed Arif Shah Jehan, a senior intelligence official who recently took over as the governor of Farah Province. “The strongest Taliban here are Iranian Taliban.”
Iran and the Taliban — longtime rivals, one Shiite and the other Sunni — would seem to be unlikely bedfellows.
Iran nearly went to war with the Taliban when their militias notoriously killed 11 Iranian diplomats and an Iranian government journalist in fighting in 1998.
After that, Iran supported the anti-Taliban opposition — and it initially cooperated with the American intervention in Afghanistan that drove the Taliban from power.
But as the NATO mission in Afghanistan expanded, the Iranians quietly began supporting the Taliban to bleed the Americans and their allies by raising the cost of the intervention so that they would leave.
Iran has come to see the Taliban not only as the lesser of its enemies but also as a useful proxy force. The more recent introduction of the Islamic State, which carried out a terrorist attack on Iran’s parliament this year, into Afghanistan has only added to the Taliban’s appeal.
In the empty marble halls of the Iranian Embassy in Kabul, Mohammad Reza Bahrami, the ambassador, denied that Iran was supporting the Taliban, and emphasized the more than $400 million Iran has invested to help Afghanistan access ports on the Persian Gulf.
“We are responsible,” he said in an interview last year. “A strong accountable government in Afghanistan has more advantages for strengthening our relations than anything.”
But Iran’s Foreign Ministry and its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps act as complementary arms of policy — the first openly sowing economic and cultural influence, and the second aggressively exerting subversive force behind the scenes.
Iran has sent squads of assassins, secretly nurtured spies and infiltrated police ranks and government departments, especially in western provinces, Afghan officials say.
Even NATO’s top commander in Afghanistan at the time, Gen. Sir David Richards of Britain, discovered that Iran had recruited his interpreter, Cpl. Daniel James, a British-Iranian citizen. Corporal James was sentenced to 10 years in prison for sending coded messages to the Iranian military attaché in Kabul during a tour of duty in 2006.
More recently, Iran has moved so aggressively in bulking up the Taliban insurgency that American forces rushed to Farah Province a second time in January to stave off a Taliban attack.
“The Iranian game is very complicated,” said Javed Kohistani, a military analyst based in Kabul.
Having American forces fight long and costly wars that unseated Iran’s primary enemies has served Tehran’s interests just fine. But by now, the Americans and their allies have outlasted their usefulness, and Iran is pursuing a strategy of death by a thousand cuts “to drain them and cost them a lot.”
An Ambitious Expansion
The depth of Iran’s ties to the Taliban burst unexpectedly into view last year. An American drone struck a taxi on a desert road in southwestern Pakistan, killing the driver and his single customer.
The passenger was none other than the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour. A wanted terrorist with an American bounty on his head who had been on the United Nations sanctions list since before 2001, Mullah Mansour was traveling without guards or weapons, confident and quite at home in Pakistan.
The strike exposed for the second time since the discovery of Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani hill town of Abbottabad the level of Pakistan’s complicity with wanted terrorists. It was the first time the United States had conducted a drone attack in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province, a longtime sanctuary for the Taliban but until then off limits for American drones because of Pakistani protests.
Yet even more momentous was that Mullah Mansour was returning from a trip to Iran, where he had been meeting Iranian security officials and, through Iran, with Russian officials.
Afghan officials, Western diplomats and security analysts, and a former Taliban commander familiar with Mullah Mansour’s inner circle confirmed details of the meetings.
Both Russia and Iran have acknowledged that they have held meetings with the Taliban but maintain that they are only for information purposes.
That the Taliban leader was personally developing ties with both Iran and Russia signaled a stunning shift in alliance for the fundamentalist Taliban movement, which had always been supported by the Sunni powers among the Arab gulf states and Pakistan.
But times were changing with the American drawdown in Afghanistan, and Mullah Mansour had been seeking to diversify his sources of money and weapons since taking over the Taliban leadership in 2013. He had made 13 trips to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and one to Bahrain, his passport showed, but also at least two visits to Iran.
Set on expanding the Taliban’s sway in Afghanistan, he was also preparing to negotiate an end to the war, playing all sides on his terms, according to both Afghan officials with close knowledge of the Taliban and the former Taliban commander close to Mullah Mansour’s inner circle.
It was that ambitious expansionism that probably got him killed, they said.
“Mansour was a shrewd politician and businessman and had a broader ambition to widen his appeal to other countries,” said Timor Sharan, a former senior analyst of the International Crisis Group in Afghanistan who has since joined the Afghan government.
Mullah Mansour had been tight with the Iranians since his time in the Taliban government in the 1990s, according to Mr. Kohistani, the military analyst. Their interests, he and other analysts and Afghan officials say, overlapped in opium. Afghanistan is the world’s largest source of the drug, and Iran the main conduit to get it out.
Iran’s border guards have long fought drug traffickers crossing from Afghanistan, but Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and the Taliban have both benefited from the illicit trade, exacting dues from traffickers.
The main purpose of Mullah Mansour’s trips to Iran was tactical coordination, according to Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. analyst and fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. At the time, in 2016, the Taliban were gearing up for offensives across eight Afghan provinces. Farah was seen as particularly ripe fruit.
Iran facilitated a meeting between Mullah Mansour and Russian officials, Afghan officials said, securing funds and weapons from Moscow for the insurgents.
Mullah Mansour’s cultivation of Iran for weapons was done with the full knowledge of Pakistan, said the former Taliban commander, who did not want to be identified since he had recently defected from the Taliban.
“He convinced the Pakistanis that he wanted to go there and get weapons, but he convinced the Pakistanis that he would not come under their influence and accept their orders,” he said.
Pakistan had also been eager to spread the political and financial burden of supporting the Taliban and had encouraged the Taliban’s ties with Iran, said Haji Agha Lalai, a presidential adviser and the deputy governor of Kandahar Province.
On his last visit, Mullah Mansour traveled to the Iranian capital, Tehran, to meet someone very important — possibly Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the former Taliban commander, who said he had gleaned the information from members of Mullah Mansour’s inner circle.
Mullah Mansour stayed for a week, also meeting with a senior Russian official in the town of Zahedan, said Mr. Lalai, who spoke with relatives of the Taliban leader.
He was almost certainly negotiating an escalation in Iranian and Russian assistance before his death, Mr. Lalai and other Afghan officials said, pointing to the increase in Iranian support for the Taliban during his leadership and since.
But the meeting with the Russians was apparently a step too far, Afghan officials say. His relations with Iran and Russia had expanded to the point that they threatened Pakistan’s control over the insurgency.
The United States had been aware of Mullah Mansour’s movements, including his ventures into Iran, for some time before the strike and had been sharing information with Pakistan, said Seth G. Jones, associate director at the RAND Corporation. Pakistan had also provided helpful information, he added. “They were partly supportive of targeting Mansour.”
Gen. John Nicholson, the United States commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, said President Barack Obama had approved the strike after Mullah Mansour failed to join peace talks being organized in Pakistan.
Col. Ahmad Muslem Hayat, a former Afghan military attaché in London, said he believed that the American military had been making a point by striking Mullah Mansour on his return from Iran.
“When they target people like this, they follow them for months,” he said. “It was smart to do it to cast suspicions on Iran. They were trying to create a gap between Iran and the Taliban.”
But if that was the intention, Mr. Lalai said, it has not succeeded, judging by the way the new Taliban leader, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, has picked up his predecessor’s work.
“I don’t think the contact is broken,” he said. “Haibatullah is still reaching out to Iran. They are desperately looking for more money if they want to extend the fight.”
Intrigue in ‘Little Iran’
There is no place in Afghanistan where Iran’s influence is more deeply felt than the western city of Herat, nearly in sight of the Iranian border.
Two million Afghans took refuge in Iran during the Soviet invasion in the 1980s. Three million live and work in Iran today. Herat, sometimes called “Little Iran,” is their main gateway between the countries.
People in Herat speak with Iranian accents. Iranian schools, colleges and bookshops line the streets. Women wear the head-to-foot black chador favored in Iran. Shops are full of Iranian sweets and produce.
But even as the city is one of Afghanistan’s most decorous and peaceful, an air of intrigue infuses Herat.
The city is filled with Iranian spies, secret agents and hit squads, local officials say, and it has been plagued by multiple assassinations and kidnappings in recent years. The police say Iran is funding militant groups and criminal gangs. A former mayor says it is sponsoring terrorism.
Iran is constantly working in the shadows. The goal, Afghan officials say, is to stoke and tip local power struggles in its favor, whether through bribery, infiltration or violence.
One day in January, Herat’s counterterrorism police deployed undercover officers to stake out the house of one of their own men. Two strangers on a motorbike seemed to be spying on the house, so secret agents were sent out to spy on the spies.
Within hours, the police had detained the men and blown their cover: They were Iranian assassins, according to the Afghans. The passenger was armed with two pistols.
Forensics tests later found that one of the guns had been used in the murder of an Iranian citizen in Herat 10 months earlier, police officials said.
The two Iranians are still in Afghan custody and have yet to be charged. They have become a source of contention between Iran and Afghanistan.
Iran disowned them, pointing to their Afghan identity cards, but Afghan officials paraded them on television, saying they were carrying false papers and had admitted to being sent by Iran as a hit squad.
The Afghan police say they have arrested 2,000 people in counterterrorism operations in Herat over the last three years. Many of them, they say, are armed insurgents and criminals who reside with their families in Iran and enter Afghanistan to conduct dozens of attacks on police or government officials.
Iran is set on undermining the Afghan government and its security forces, and the entire United States mission, and maintaining leverage over Afghanistan by making it weak and dependent, Afghan officials say.
“We caught a terrorist who killed five people with an I.E.D.,” a senior police officer said, referring to a roadside bomb. “We released a boy who was kidnapped. We defused an I.E.D. in the city.”
Flicking through photographs on his phone, he pointed to one of a man in a mauve shirt. “He was convicted of kidnapping five people.” Much of the kidnapping is criminal, for ransom, but at least some of it is politically motivated, he added.
The 33-year-old, English-speaking Farhad Niayesh, a former mayor of Herat, is even more blunt, and exasperated. He says the Iranians use their consulate in the city as a base for propaganda and “devising terrorist activities.”
“Iran has an important role in terrorist attacks in Herat,” Mr. Niayesh said. “Three or four Iranians were captured. They had a plan against government officials who were not working in their interest.”
Members of Parliament and security officials say Iran bribes local and central government officials to work for it, offering them 10 to 15 Iranian visas per week to give to friends and associates. Afghans visit to conduct business, receive medical care and see family.
The Afghan police have uncovered cases of even deeper infiltration, too. A female member of the Afghan police service was sentenced to death, accused of being a secret Iranian agent, after fatally shooting an American trainer in the Kabul Police Headquarters in 2012.
“Our western neighbor is working very seriously,” said the senior Afghan police official in Herat who requested anonymity because of the nature of his work. “ We have even found heavy artillery to be used against the city.”
Iran is supporting multiple anti-government militant groups in half a dozen western provinces, he said. The Afghan police, despite a lack of resources, are working to dismantle them.
“The same sort of people are still in the city,” he added. “They are doing their work, and we are doing our work.”
Double-Edged Soft Power
Afghans dream of restoring their landlocked, war-torn country to the rich trading center it was in days of old, when caravans carried goods along the Silk Road from China to Europe, and people and ideas traveled along the same route.
If Tehran has its way, the modern Silk Road will once again run across Afghanistan’s western border, and proceed through Iran. At least that is the ambition.
On one side of the Afghan border, India has been building a road through southwestern Afghanistan to allow traders to bypass Pakistan, which has long restricted the transit of Afghan goods.
Tehran’s goal is to join that route on the Iranian side of the border with road and rail links ending at the port of Chabahar on the Persian Gulf.
“We said that Afghanistan would not be landlocked anymore and we would be at Afghanistan’s disposal,” said Mr. Bahrami, the Iranian ambassador in Kabul, stressing that Iran’s contribution to the Afghan road was not stalled even by its economic difficulties under sanctions.
But Iran’s economic leverage comes at a price.
Afghan officials say Iran’s support of the Taliban is aimed in part at disrupting development projects that might threaten its dominance. The Iranian goal, they contend, is to keep Afghanistan supplicant.
The biggest competition is for water, and Afghans have every suspicion that Iran is working to subvert plans in Afghanistan for upstream dams that could threaten its water supply.
Iran has raised the issue of the dams in bilateral meetings, and President Hassan Rouhani recently criticized the projects as damaging to the environment.
With the upheaval of 40 years of coups and wars in Afghanistan, large-scale development plans, like hydroelectric projects, have largely been stalled since the 1970s. Even after international assistance poured into Afghanistan after 2001, internal and external politics often got in the way.
But President Ashraf Ghani, determined to generate economic growth, made a priority of completing the Salma dam in Herat Province, and has ordered work on another dam at Bakhshabad, to irrigate the vast western province of Farah.
In Farah, despite the two calamitous Taliban offensives on the provincial capital in October and January, the Bakhshabad dam is the first thing everyone mentions.
“We don’t want help from nongovernmental organizations or from the government,” said Mohammed Amin, who owns a flourishing vegetable farm, growing cucumbers and tomatoes under rows of plastic greenhouses. “We in Farah don’t want anything. Just Bakhshabad.”
Afghanistan’s lack of irrigation makes it impossible to compete with Iranian produce prices, something Bakhshabad could solve, he said.
The project is still only in the planning stage. But the dam, with its promise of irrigation and hydroelectricity for a population lacking both, is a powerful dream — if Iran does not thwart it.
“The most important issue is water,” Mr. Lalai, the presidential adviser, said of relations with Iran. “Most of our water goes to our neighbors. If we are prosperous, we might give them less.”
Peace or Proxy War?
The death of Mullah Mansour removed Iran’s crucial link to the Taliban. But it has also fractured the Taliban, spurring a number of high-level defections and opening opportunities for others, including Iran, to meddle.
An overwhelming majority of Taliban blame Pakistan for Mullah Mansour’s death. The strike deepened disillusionment with their longtime Pakistani sponsors.
About two dozen Taliban commanders, among them senior leaders who had been close to Mullah Mansour, have since left their former bases in Pakistan.
They have moved quietly into southern Afghanistan, settling back in their home villages, under protection of local Afghan security officials who hope to encourage a larger shift by insurgents to reconcile with the government.
Those with family still in Pakistan live under close surveillance and control by Pakistani intelligence, said the former Taliban commander, who recently abandoned the fight and moved his family into Afghanistan to escape reprisals.
He said he had become increasingly disaffected by Pakistan’s highhanded direction of the war. “We all know this is Pakistan’s war, not Afghanistan’s war,” he said. “Pakistan never wanted Afghanistan to be at peace.”
The question now: Does Iran?
Citing the threat from the Islamic State as an excuse, Iran may choose, with Russian help, to deepen a proxy war in Afghanistan that could undermine an already struggling unity government.
Or it could encourage peace, as it did in the first years after 2001, for the sake of stability on at least one of its borders, prospering with Afghanistan.
For now, Iran and Russia have found common cause similar to their partnership in Syria, senior Afghan officials and others warn.
Emboldened by their experience in Syria, they seem to be building on their partnership to hurt America in Afghanistan, cautioned the political analyst Mr. Sharan.
As American forces draw down in Afghanistan, jockeying for influence over the Taliban is only intensifying.
“Pakistan is helping the Taliban straightforwardly,” said Mr. Jehan, the former Afghan intelligence official who is now governor of Farah. “Russia and Iran are indirectly helping the Taliban. We might come to the point that they interfere overtly.
“I think we should not give them this chance,” he added. “Otherwise, Afghanistan will be given up to the open rivalry of these countries.”
The former Afghan foreign minister, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, warned that the country risked being pulled into the larger struggle between Sunni powers from the Persian Gulf and Shiite Iran.
“Afghanistan should keep out the rivalry of the regional powers,” he said. “We are vulnerable.”
Some officials are optimistic that Iran is not an enemy of Afghanistan, but the outlook is mixed.
“There is a good level of understanding,” Abdullah Abdullah, the Afghan government’s chief executive, said of relations with Iran.
“What we hear is that contacts with the Taliban are to encourage them to pursue peace rather than military activities,” he said.
Mohammad Asif Rahimi, the governor of Herat, warned that if Farah had fallen to the Taliban, the entire western region would have been laid open for the insurgents.
Iran’s meddling has now grown to the extent that it puts the whole country at risk of a Taliban takeover, not just his province, he said.
But it could have been prevented, in the view of Mr. Sharan.
“The fact is that America created this void,” he said. “This vacuum encouraged countries to get involved. The Syria issue gave confidence to Iran and Russia, and now that confidence is playing out in Afghanistan.”
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s soccer federation condemned two Iranians who play for a Greek team on Friday for participating in a match against an Israeli team, Iranian media reported.
The federation “strongly condemns” the participation of Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi in a match for Greece’s Panionios against Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv a day earlier in Greece, it said in a statement reported by the semi-official Fars news agency.
On its Farsi-language Twitter account, Israel’s foreign ministry praised the players for ignoring what is considered a taboo in Iran by playing against the Israelis. Maccabi won the UEFA Europa League match 1-0.
Israel and Iran are bitter adversaries and traditionally, Iranian athletes refrain from playing Israelis. Iran’s government usually rewards such behavior.
The federation said it is reviewing the case and will make a final decision after speaking with both players who in the past have also played for the national soccer team. Fars reported that the two may now be banned from playing on that team again.
At a previous match against Maccabi in Tel Aviv, both refused to play.
The last competition between Iranian and Israeli sportsmen on the international level dates back to a wrestling match in 1983 in Kiev, Ukraine. From time to time, Iranian players who play for foreign teams have played Israeli teams.
In February, a teenage Iranian chess player angered authorities when he played, as an individual, against an Israeli competitor in the Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival.
Iran does not recognize Israel, and supports anti-Israeli militant groups like Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas.
Hormoz 2 said to destroy target 250 km. away; army commander says ‘better’ Iran-made version of S-300 to be tested in May
By: Agencies and Times of Israel Staff; timesofisrael.com
TEHRAN — Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency reported Thursday that the country’s Revolutionary Guard successfully tested another ballistic missile, while boasting that Iran’s efforts to build a “better” home-made version of the Russian S-300 missile defense system were well on their way.
The Fars report quoted Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, chief of the Guard’s airspace division, as saying the missile destroyed a target from a distance of 250 kilometers (155 miles). The report said the sea-launched ballistic missile dubbed Hormoz 2 was tested last week, providing no additional details.
Fars also quoted Major General Ataollah Salehi saying that Iran was “capable of building our needed equipment and we have built and are building a system better than the S-300.”
The operational readiness of the system, dubbed as Bavar (Belief) 373, will be tested in late May, according to the report.
Last week, Iran announced that the advanced S-300 air defense system, delivered by Russia following the July 2015 nuclear deal after years of delay, was now operational.
“The S-300 is a system that is deadly for our enemies and which makes our skies more secure,” said air defense commander General Farzad Esmaili, according to state TV, also noting that the domestically manufactured Bavar 373 which was “more advanced than the S-300” would be tested soon.
Iran had been trying to acquire the S-300 system for years to ward off repeated threats by Israel to bomb its nuclear facilities, but Russia had held off delivery in line with UN sanctions imposed over the nuclear program.
The Russian-made missile defense system is one of the most advanced of its kind in the world, offering long-range protection against both aircraft and missiles.
Israel had long sought to block the sale, which analysts say could impede a potential Israeli strike on Tehran’s nuclear facilities. Other officials have expressed concern that the systems could reach Syria and Hezbollah, diluting Israel’s regional air supremacy.
Iran’s activation of the defense system and recent ballistic tests come amid mounting tensions with the new US administration of President Donald Trump, who imposed sanctions after Iran tested a medium-range ballistic missile in January.
Defiantly, Iran has continued with the tests, firing a pair of ballistic missiles late last month and carrying out drills that the US and Israel maintain are banned by the UN.
According to US officials who spoke with Fox News on February 27, Iran had fired two short-range Fateh-110 missiles in successive tests over the previous weekend, outfitting them with a guiding system meant to target boats.
One of the two Fateh-110 short range ballistic missiles tested successfully struck a barge floating in the Persian Gulf some 155 miles from the launch site at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps base at Bandar-e-Jask in southeastern Iran.
Although the other missile did not hit its intended target, it was said to have been “in the vicinity.”
One of the officials who spoke with Fox said that the Fateh-110 Mod 3 missiles that were launched were equipped with an “active seeker,” which allows for improved targeting of seaborne vessels.
The missiles have a range of about 250 kilometers (155 miles), meaning they could not reach Israel from Iran. However, Syria and Hezbollah are thought to posses the missiles or modified versions of them. Iran has also hinted that it may have given technology to build the missiles to the Hamas terror group in Gaza as well.
Israel has also raised concerns in recent years of missile strikes on offshore gas facilities being set up in the Mediterranean.
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Trump held a phone conversation to discuss “Iranian aggression” in the region and the 2015 nuclear deal, which the prime minister has vehemently opposed and which the president has repeatedly attacked.
The two leaders talked “at length” about the “dangers emanating from Iran and Iranian aggression in the region and the need to work together to deal with these threats,” according to a readout from the Prime Minister’s Office on Monday.
Meanwhile, the US Navy has a large presence in the Persian Gulf, where its Fifth Fleet is headquartered, and Iran has threatened on numerous occasions to attack US ships operating in the area.
Earlier this week a US vessel in the Strait of Hormuz was forced to change course after being harassed by Iranian fast boats in the strategic waterway.
The harassed boat — the USNS Invincible — is a tracking ship, designed to track ballistic missile launches. It was not immediately clear if the ship was purposefully targeted by the IRGC vessels in connection to the ballistic missile tests.
After Iran test-fired a ballistic missile in January, the US imposed sanctions on a number of entities involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program, and Trump warned the Islamic Republic it had been “put on notice.”
Although Iran maintains that the testing of ballistic missiles is not banned by the 2015 nuclear deal designed to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, the US said that the sanctions were imposed for Iran’s violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2331, which calls upon Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.”
Since January’s test-firing of a ballistic missile, Iran has carried out a number of other tests of cruise and submarine-based missiles.
Iran last week reiterated that it is putting the pieces in place for its own version of the “final solution” to the problem of Israel and Jewish sovereignty.
“If the Zionists make a wrong move, all the occupied territories will come under attack from dedicated fighters and, Allah willing, the territories will be liberated,” declared Gen. Hossein Salami, deputy chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
To achieve this grisly goal, Salami noted that Iran and its ally, Hezbollah, have deployed “100,000 missiles that are ready to hit Israel.” Those missiles are in southern Lebanon, where the UN promised to prevent another buildup to conflict following the last Lebanon war in 2006.
Salami made his remarks during anti-Israel rallies that featured the familiar chants of “Death to Israel” and “Death to America.”
Back in May, Ahmad Karimpour, an advisor to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, told reporters that the Islamic Republic and its allies were ready to “raze the Zionist regime in less than eight minutes” should the order be given.
Iran unveils Russian-made S-300 air defense missiles at National Army Day parade • In speech at parade, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani vows to defend Muslim countries against terrorism and Israel, but insists neighbors should not feel threatened.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Sunday vowed to defend Muslim countries against terrorism and Israel while insisting that Iran’s neighbors should not feel threatened.
Speaking during a National Army Day parade in which Iranian forces displayed sophisticated air defense systems recently acquired from Russia, Rouhani praised Iran’s role in helping the Syrian and Iraqi governments roll back the Islamic State group.
“If tomorrow your capitals face danger from terrorism or Zionism, the power that will give you a positive answer is the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Rouhani said. But he added that Iran would only help if Muslim countries asked it to, and said its military power was purely for defensive and deterrent purposes.
“The power of our armed forces is not against our southern, northern, eastern, and western neighbors,” he said.
Rouhani appeared to be referring to Gulf Arab states, which have long viewed Iran as seeking to dominate the region. Saudi Arabia and Iran are longtime rivals that back opposite sides in the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars.
During the parade, the army displayed Russian-made S-300 air defense missiles delivered earlier this month.
In 2010, Russia froze a deal to supply the sophisticated systems to Iran, linking the decision to UN sanctions. President Vladimir Putin lifted the suspension last year following Iran’s deal with six world powers that curbed its nuclear program in exchange for relief from international sanctions.
The United States and Israel have expressed concern over the missile systems, fearing they could upset the regional balance of military power.
Iran also displayed tanks, light submarines, short-range missiles, and other weapons.
Seven Iranian hackers broke into computers of dozens of U.S. banks, causing millions of dollars in lost business, and tried to shut down a New York dam, the U.S. government said on March 24 in an indictment that for the first time accused individuals tied to another country of trying to disrupt critical U.S. infrastructure.
It said the seven accused were believed to have been working on behalf of Iran’s government and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. Those named live in Iran, and the Iranian government is not expected to extradite them. There was no immediate comment from Tehran.
At least 46 major financial institutions and financial-sector companies were targeted, including JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, AT&T, and American Express.
The hackers are accused of hitting the banks with distributed-denial-of-service attacks on a near-weekly basis, a relatively unsophisticated way of knocking computer networks offline by overwhelming them with a flood of spammed traffic.
“These attacks were relentless, they were systematic, and they were widespread,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch told a Washington news conference.
The indictment from a federal grand jury in New York City said the attacks occurred from 2011 to 2013. Washington has previously accused military officers from China and the North Korean government of cyber attacks against U.S. businesses.
The attack on the Bowman Avenue Dam in Rye Brook, New York, was especially alarming, Lynch said, because it marked one of the first known intrusions on critical infrastructure. A stroke of good fortune prevented the hackers from obtaining operational control of the flood gates because the dam had been manually disconnected for routine maintenance, she said.
The Bowman hack was a “game-changing event” for the U.S. government that prompted investigators to uncover other systems vulnerable to similar attacks, said Andre McGregor, a former FBI agent and a lead case investigator on the dam intrusion.
“The investigation’s discovery of many more exposed computer systems with vulnerable management consoles is a constant reminder that basic cyber hygiene remains at the forefront of the battle against cyber attacks,” said McGregor, now director of security at Tanium, a Silicon Valley cyber security firm.
“We must step up our counter-hacking game ASAP to deal with threats from places like Iran and would be terrorists,” said New York Senator Chuck Schumer in a statement.
Cyber security experts and U.S. intelligence officials have grown more alarmed in recent months by the possibility of destructive hacks of critical infrastructure such as dams, power plants, and factories. Some have said a December cyber attack on the Ukraine’s energy grid that caused a temporary blackout of 225,000 should serve as a wake-up call.
The defendants were identified as Ahmad Fathi, Hamid Firoozi, Amin Shokohi, Sadegh Ahmadzadegan, Omid Ghaffarinia, Sina Keissar, and Nader Seidi, all citizens and residents of Iran. They are accused of conspiracy to commit computer hacking while employed by two Iran-based computer companies, ITSecTeam and Mersad Company.
Firoozi also is charged with obtaining and abetting unauthorized access to a protected computer.
The indictments are the latest attempt by the Obama administration to more publicly confront cyber attacks carried out by other countries against the United States.
The campaign began two years ago when the Justice Department accused five members of China’s People’s Liberation Army with hacking several Pennsylvania-based companies in an alleged effort to steal trade secrets. It continued with President Obama’s vow to “respond proportionally” against North Korea for the destructive hack against Sony Pictures.
“An important part of our cyber security practice is to identify the actors and to attribute them publicly when we can,” Lynch said Thursday. “We do this so that they know they cannot hide.”
U.S. officials largely completed the investigation more than a year ago, according to two sources familiar with the matter, but held off releasing the indictment so as to not jeopardize the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with Iran or a January prisoner swap.
Even though Iran is not expected to extradite the suspects, FBI Director James Comey vowed to pursue justice.
“The world is small and our memory is long,” he said at the news conference with Lynch.
Dmitri Alperovitch, chief technology officer with cyber security firm CrowdStrike, said, “This sends an important message to Iran and other governments that these people cannot operate anonymously.”
The U.S. and Israel launched a cyber attack against Iran in 2010, now famously known as the Stuxnet worm, in order to disable Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. Some security researchers and officials have long suspected that the attacks against U.S. banks and the dam were done in part as retaliation.
Separately, the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted two Iranian companies in late March for supporting Iran’s ballistic missile program and also sanctioned two British businessmen who it said were helping an airline used by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.