Written by Evgeny Satanovsky; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront
This analysis was released by VPK on July 30, 2018
Iran is ready to block transit routes in response to US threats
The US is increasing pressure on Iran, combining sanctions and blackmail of Iran’s partners in order to bring down the country’s oil exports, prepare cyber operations against the nuclear infrastructure of the Islamic Republic and conduct subversive activities inside the country, as well as threaten military intervention. Tehran is preparing for a long confrontation.
The United States is ready to conduct a dialogue with the current Iranian leadership on the ways forward, but first the Islamic Republic authorities must take “convincing and irreversible” steps to change their course according to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In May, he promised that the US would put unprecedented pressure on Iran, including the toughest sanctions in history on the regime if Tehran does not change its policy. Pompeo put forward twelve conditions for the conclusion of a new agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme, directly related to both the nuclear sphere and geopolitics.
Voices and Viruses
The US has, in cooperation with energy suppliers, set a goal to reduce the level of oil imports from Iran to close to zero by November 4. Pompeo stated this on July 21 during a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Ventura County, California. He also reported that recently Washington, in cooperation with Brussels, blocked the illegal channel, which allowed millions of dollars to be pumped into the Islamic Republic received from currency exchange transactions.
“Fourteen million Iranians either listen or view transmissions from the USA in a week”, stated Pompeo, adding that for the “development of friendship with the Iranian people”, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) of the USA took a number of steps. The BBG is a bipartisan civilian body of foreign policy propaganda of the United States. It controls “Voice of American”, “Radio Liberty” and “Radio Free Europe” (RL/RFE broadcast in Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia), “Radio Free Asia”, “Radio and Television Marti” (broadcasting to Cuba), “Radio Sawa” and the television channel “Alhurra” (broadcasting to the Middle East). In February, the Trump Administration earmarked in the 2019 fiscal year budget (beginning on October 1 of this year) 661 million dollars to finance the BBG. This is a 24 million reduction from the 2018 fiscal year.
The method of Washington’s actions directed at Iran is the creation of conditions for an attempt to transform the regime in Tehran by combining the zeroing of the country’s revenues from oil exports to stimulate social protests set against the economic crisis and propaganda in Farsi to encourage unrest. At the same time, the Americans are beginning to intensify efforts to carry out subversive activities inside Iran. This process is carried out in a number of cases in coordination with the Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are used to fund the Akhwaz Arabs in Khuzestan, the Baluchi of “Junod Allah” and the Iranian Kurds of PJAK.
The Kurds have so far kept quiet, due to contacts between the Iranian IRGC and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is the PJAK’s parent organisation. The attack by the militants of this group on the IRGC posts says that Riyadh is beginning to actively finance the Kurds. However, the Saudis will not be able to fully implement the Kurdish plan. The Iranians are able to respond to the situation through contacts in the PKK. The Akhwaz Arabs are another pressure instrument on Iran. Riyadh was unable to organise sabotage campaigns and civil disobedience among them and moved to the creation of local groups for these purposes, using the “Islamic State” brand (banned in Russia).
The tactics of stifling the Iranian regime is afflicted with the known Afghan pattern defect: the neglect of cross-cultural aspects. The recent unrest, taken by the Americans for discontent with the regime, in fact was a struggle for influence in the Executive power between the groups of moderates and conservatives, which was fostered by Washington’s actions. Nor will the main driving force of the current US strategy, the zeroing of oil exports, have any effect. Taking into consideration the position of China, Indian, the EU and Russia, this export will fall by half at most. So the main purpose of the American strategy will not work: the synchronisation of economic problems with social protests against the backdrop of strengthening of subversive war.
The Akhwaz Arabs did not protest against the regime, their elite is embedded in the Iran oil business. The Baluchi and the Kurds are passive because of the position of Pakistan and the PKK. ABC [translator’s note: the American television channel], citing sources in the US administration, claims that Iran is preparing to attack the power grid systems, hydroelectric power plants and a number of technological enterprises in the US, Germany, the UK, other European and Middle Eastern countries. The Iranians deny this. The CIA is actively shaping this position in public opinion, which means that the agency has started a covert operation to deploy its own campaign against Iranian targets and facilities. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has created a special department of cyber protection to cover the nuclear infrastructure. In recent years, it has become the target of network attacks, perpetrated the Israeli and American intelligence agencies. This can be neutralised through monitoring by Iranian law enforcement agencies over the Internet space of the country.
Lobbyists, working in the field of cyber security in the United States, create the background for increased allocations from the government and industrial counterparts. It is primarily handled by Saudi Arabia. The advisor on defence to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Ahmed A. al-Khatib of Saudi Arabia, is in charge of all work related to the Kingdom’s radio interception and network security systems and technologies. It began during the Crown Prince’s visit to Washington on March 19, where he met with the heads of the US security services. Al-Khatib, who heads the military industry in Saudi Arabia, was interested in new interception technologies, or SIGINT, and tools of cyber intelligence in the Kingdom. During the visit, the Saudis agreed with the CIA leadership and the NSA to start the modernisation of their related industries.
As a result, the American company IronNet Cybersecurity, led by former head of the NSA Keith Alexander signed in July the first serious contract with Riyadh. It was hired to train hackers at the Prince Mohammed bin Salman Cyber Security College to develop the public and private sectors in the field of network security of Saudi Arabia. This institute was established in April and is part of the “Saudi Federation for the Development of Cyber Security Programmes and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles”, which is headed by Mohammed bin Salman’s assistant Saud al-Kahtani. He is the head of the Centre for Research and Media at the royal court of Saudi Arabia (CSMARC). This body is responsible for the organisation and conduct of operations in the information sphere (primarily the organisation of disinformation stuffing into social networks and blogs) and the network space with the help of foreign hackers. Al-Kahtani has a strong team of lobbyists in the US and Europe.
It is possible to note the creation of a bogus information site by hackers, which sold tickets for the last World Cup on behalf of the official Qatari agencies. The emphasis in conducting this kind of CSMARC operations is now focused on discrediting the upcoming World Cup in Qatar. The Saudi interest has increased dramatically since Donald Trump came to power and the deal with IronNet Security was the outcome of the March visit of the Crown Prince to the United States.
The security of the network industry of Saudi Arabia is currently monopolised by Mohammed bin Salman. Cyber security and cyber attacks became a field of activities of entities under the control of his people. This area of public funding from key ministries is a top priority in the Crown Prince’s new strategy. One of the main bodies responsible for this activity is the newly established Directorate of State Security (DSS), which unites and oversees all the internal security agencies of Saudi Arabia. He is the main beneficiary of the strengthening of Saudi computer systems.
Recently the American Technology Control Co. (TCC) signed a contract for hundreds of millions of dollars to strengthen the capacity of the National Intelligence Committee (NIC), formerly subordinate to the Interior Ministry, but reassigned to the DSS. TCC has previously worked for key Saudi ministries, including the Interior, Defence, Transport and Intelligence Services. But this group has not yet had this kind of contracts. The company received direct access to the Crown Prince: several former managers of TCC, including the former head of special projects Abdulaziz A. al-Surimi, belong to the circle of his closest advisors on cyber security. TCC has partnerships with giants – Cisco, Oracle and IBM, as well as specialised firms such as cryptographic agency InfoSec Global, providing services for hacking encrypted communications and the sale of spyware.
Through the State Investment Fund (SIF), which the Crown Prince controls, his trusted people recently acquired control of the cyber company Al-Elm Information Security Co., which worked with the Interior Ministry during the time of Mohammed bin Nayef. Before his resignation and disgrace last year, he was in charge of all cyber intelligence of the Kingdom. His close network security advisor Khalid al-Tawil, who for many years headed the NIC of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, founded Al Elm. Bin Nayef shortly before his resignation transferred al-Tawil to the Board of the Saudi Audit office (SIMAH).
The plan, under which the Salman clan put Al Elm under its control, resembles the transfer under the control of the main subcontractor of the Ministry of Defence of Saudi Arabia on cyber security Advanced Electronics Co. (AEC). Presently AEC is getting more and more contracts with the main ministries of the Kingdom, and its former head Hasan bin Abdulrahman al-Shibli is now a member of the group of high-ranking figures in charge of Saudi Arabia contracts in the field of defence.
The Saudi entity Qwaed Technologies occupies its niche of cyber security contracts of the kingdom’s government agencies. It is headed by Zeyad al-Battal, the son of the former head of the General Directorate for Technical Affairs (GDTA). The main owner of this entity is the brother of the current Minister of Internal Affairs of Saudi Arabia Nayef bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, Mohammed bin Nayef al Saud, but now all the contracts of this company are distributed exclusively through the RSS.
A striking feature of accusations by American and European services of Iranian hacker attacks is the lack of evidence of their connection with the Iranian government. According to US data, Iran has long relied on cyber warfare as part of a strategy to undermine regional opponents. The attack by the Iranian virus “Shamun” on Saudi Aramco in 2012 and the attack with its help on the government servers of Saudi Arabia and the systems of the energy sector of the kingdom are presented as supporting points. So far, there is no other evidence of Iran’s activity in this area. Since the US, in cooperation with Saudi Arabia and Israel, will increase pressure on Iran, such accusations may be part of an information campaign to justify Washington’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and the need to take tough steps against Tehran.
Straits under threat
The head of the special unit “Al Quds” of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) General Qasem Suleimani warned the United States against sending troops into the Red Sea, saying: it is not safe for Americans. Earlier, the US President Donald Trump tweeted that he warned Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about the serious consequences if he threatened Washington. We will recall that Suleimani is on the UN Security Council sanctions list. Despite this, in 2016 he participated in the Iraqi operation to liberate the city of Fallujah from the Islamic State militants.
Suleimani is the curator of Iranian participation in the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, as well as the creation of Shi’ite militias loyal to Iran in these countries. He also handles relations between the IRGC and the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Kurdish parties. He is a key figure of the IRGC in foreign operations. Suleimani’s words are linked with the consecutive destruction by missiles or drones of two Saudi tankers in the Red Sea. Because of this, Saudi Arabia suspended oil supplies through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. The Saudi news agency reported this on Thursday [July 26], citing energy Minister Khaled al-Faleh. One Saudi Navy ship and one tanker were also hit. Not one was hurt; the oil spill does not threaten the ecology of the region. Another Saudi tanker was shot on April 4.
The strike was delivered on the most vulnerable point of Saudi Arabia. The Kuwaiti authorities, following Saudi Arabia, are exploring the possibilities of suspending the transportation of oil through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. The Emirate may decide to temporarily stop sending tankers across the Red Sea. The supplies of the two main states, which were to play a key role in zeroing Iranian oil exports, are being blocked. There are four producing counties with the ability to increase export simultaneously. In addition to these, it is Russia and the UAE.
Only the Saudis technically will not be able to keep a high and increasing level of oil production for a long time. The kingdom’s plans to reduce oil exports by about 100 thousand barrels per day in August. This was announced by the head of the delegation of the Kingdom to OPEC Adib al-Aam. Thus, he noted that in July, oil exports from Saudi Arabia will correspond to the June exports. According to the Joint Organisation Data Initiative (JODI) data, in May, Saudi oil exports amounted to 6.98 million barrels per day.
In 2017, the Houthis, under the leadership of their Iranian and Lebanese instructors, successfully attacked Emirati and Saudi targets in the Red Sea several times. Two Saudi Navy corvettes were destroyed, a UAE Navy corvette was struck as well as the cargo ship involved in supplying the military contingent of the UAE in Aden. US Navy corvettes were fired upon twice in the same waters, but the Americans had time to intercept the ground-to-surface missiles of Chinese and North Korea production. The Houthis used sea drones as well, inflicting maximum damage to the Arabian coalition.
The current episode and Suleimani’s statements are a demonstration of the possible Iranian response in the event of the collapse of the JCPOA in November. This response emerges as a counterpoint to the US attempts to zero Iran’s oil exports by replacing it with Saudi black gold. There is a demonstration of the consequences of such a step: the overlap for the oil transit of the Bab-El-Mandeb Strait after Hormuz, which the IRGC is also ready to take aim at, if the US continues its sanctions policy against Iran.
Tehran thus actively blackmails the EU, marking two painful points for Europeans, Saudis and oil consumers in South-East Asia, and also sends a signal to the Western expert community about the unity of the position of all political forces in Iran. That is, it removes the issue of the split in Iran, which is emphasised in its projections in the West.
The Iranians in the 1980s blocked the Hormuz Strait, using high-speed motorboats and RPGs. Now they have anti-ship missiles produced by China and North Korea, successfully tested in Yemen. Tehran signals that either the OPEC countries export oil, or none are. The incident in the Red Sea proves that these statements are not just words. Hence, attacks not only on tankers, but also missile launches on the oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia. On July 18, Houthis successfully attacked one of refineries of the Saudi corporation Aramco in Riyadh. “Samad-2” UAV types, and not missiles, were used. Last year, a rocket hit a refinery in Yanbu.
To what extent are the Iranian threats feasible to block two Straits at once? Quite. Obviously Saudi Arabia (even with the support of the UAE) cannot solve this problem. Especially if the attacks will be carried out simultaneously with the massive rocket attacks on the oil facilities of the Kingdom. It would take significant forces by the UN Navy and their allies pulling together to reliably block such attempts in the Strait of Hormuz and the Red Sea. It is doubtful that the Europeans will join this operation. The question is how effective warships will be able to respond to the threats. In addition to missiles and drones, the Iranians will probably use fast boats and RPGs (as they did in the past: the hole in the broadside of a tanker determines its incapacitation, and the boats are poorly identified by radar) and sea mines. The latter are used in the Red Sea to protect the port of Hodeidah in Yemen. During a recent attempt of a sea landing, a landing ship of the UAE Navy hit such a mine and sank, and a missile hit the second boat. In the case of increasing US forces, the problem can be solved in the medium term, but time is on the Iranian side: they need to disrupt the replacement of their oil with Arabian and maintain a high level of world prices until autumn. With such dynamics, the price per gallon of gasoline will rise in the US to $4 by the autumn and this on the eve of the midterm elections for Congress, which Trump is betting on in the process of maintaining power!
The article is based on materials from the MEI expert Yu. Schelgovin.