Natanz And Israel’s Shadow War Against Iran

Natanz, a key facility in the Iranian nuclear program suffered a paralyzing blackout over the weekend. The power outage was caused by an apparent cyberattack which caused considerable damage to centrifuges located at the site. According to a source in the US intelligence community, the damage will set the entire nuclear program back by seven months at minimum. This includes uranium enrichment, which Iran has ramped up in the past eighteen months. This past weekend’s attack was not the first. Natanz has proven to be a primary target of Western and Israeli intelligence agencies over the past eleven years. The most well-known intelligence operation to involve Natanz was the 2010 the Stuxnet cyberattack that caused major delays to the nuclear program. In the summer of 2020, an explosion and fire occurred at the facility. Some sources have speculated that the cause was a cyberattack, although the Iranian government has never responded directly to the speculation.

With regards to the latest incident, Iran naturally suspects Israeli involvement. This morning Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif laid the blame directly on Israel and vowed revenge. “The Zionists want to take revenge on the Iranian people for their success in lifting the oppressive sanctions, but we will not allow it and we will take revenge on the Zionists themselves.” The incident could have an adverse effect on the talks now taking place in Vienna to revive the JCPOA and bring the United States back on board.

This is the second suspected Israeli action against Iranian interests in a week. Last Tuesday, around the same time the JCPOA discussions were beginning in Vienna, the Saviz, an Iranian ship in the Red Sea, was damaged by an explosion and fire. This ship has long held a reputation for serving as a platform for the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) intelligence operations around the region. As with Natanz, Iran immediately placed blame for the attack on Israel and in all likelihood, they’re probably correct.

Israel’s shadow war against Iran is not a new topic. What is, however, is the tempo of operations. As it grew apparent that the Biden administration does not intend on adopting a firm position on Iran and its ambitions, Tel Aviv realized it had to keep the pressure on. The Israelis are going to do everything possible to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Even if some of the actions taken ruffle the feathers of its closest ally in the world.

27 March, 2021 Update: Iran-China, Myanmar, Suez Canal

It’s becoming an active weekend around the world with hotspots flaring and some geopolitical and economic situations requiring close attention. We’ll start off in Tehran, then move on to Myanmar and wrap up in the Suez Canal.

Iran and China officially signed the long-anticipated 25-year strategic cooperation agreement on Saturday. The Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, or CSP as it is referred to, has been discussed for years and speculation has been rampant. The agreement is centered on economic activity, according to a wide variety of third-party sources and analysts. However, there’s reason to suspect that military and intelligence cooperation also makes up a sizeable portion of the agreement. Neither country has revealed any concrete details on the agreement, leaving the terms a mystery to practically everyone outside of government circles in Tehran and Beijing. The confidentiality surrounding the CSP will no doubt only fuel further conjecture. Yet the one fact that cannot be disputed is that the CSP will bring a new era of increased Chinese influence in the Persian Gulf region. As well as perhaps emboldening Iran at a time when its relationship with the United States continues to decline.

Saturday has been a bloody day in Myanmar. Troops and police have reportedly killed 114 protesters around the country as government suppression of the protests has escalated to a new level. The heavy hand comes on Armed Forces Day, an annual holiday celebrated in Myanmar. Apparently, the military’s preoccupation with the protests in the cities has motivated the Karen National Union (No Joke, the Karens have organized 😊) to seize a military base in the Kayin state. The KNU has rejected the 1 February military coup. “Their bullying and killing of unarmed civilians across Myanmar is against our revolutionary force’s beliefs. We cannot accept inhumane acts, not only in Kayin state, but also in other areas,” Saw Htoo Ka Shaw, a KNU official said in a statement earlier today.

The MV Ever Given remains aground in the Suez Canal. Efforts continue to get the large container ship dislodged from its present position. On Friday evening, Egyptian officials expressed some hope after the ship’s rudder was freed. However, concern is growing over the economic fallout if the Ever Given remains unmoved for an extended period of time. Shipping analysts already estimate that the gridlock of container ships and oil tankers at either end of the canal has held up $10 billion in trade daily. It will simply be a matter of time before this situation has long term effects on economies and markets across the world. There is no firm timetable on when the Suez will be reopened to traffic. The one certainty hanging over the situation is that with the majority of global retail trade moving via sea, the effects will also soon be felt by shoppers in practically every country.

Ending Hostilities In Yemen Will Not Be So Easy

After Sunday’s drone and missile attacks against oil facilities and other targets in Saudi Arabia, the United States expressed alarm at the ‘genuine security threats’ the Saudis are facing from Yemeni-based and Iranian supported Houthi rebels. Not to sound facetious, but I honestly do not understand why the Biden administration is just now waking up to the realization that the Houthi rebels pose a danger to Saudi Arabian territory and economic interests. This past weekend saw Saudi Arabia’s largest oil export terminal at the port of Ras Tanura targeted. No damage was caused to the terminal, but fragments from an exploding ballistic missile did fall on the nearby ARAMCO facility.

Sunday was not the first time that the Houthis launched drone and missile attacks against economic targets inside of the Kingdom. The attack against the Abqaiq facility in 2019 caused considerable damage and affected Saudi Arabia’s oil production. The most recent attacks are not expected to have an effect on either production, or oil prices beyond today. Yet the attacks have helped to demonstrate how complicated ending the civil war in Yemen will be. The Houthis are clearly not prepared to talk peace right now, as this weekend revealed.

The White House has apparently noticed this, and the Biden administration sounds downright miffed. “We continue to be alarmed by the frequency of Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia. Escalating attacks like these are not the actions of a group that is serious about peace,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told a press conference.

Well, to be fair, its probably not entirely the Houthis decision whether or not they come to the peace table. Tehran has reestablished its influence with the Yemeni-based group and is calling the shots once again. The US has not helped the prospects of ending the war in Yemen much lately either. Last month the Biden administration removed US support for Saudi military operations inside of Yemen. Though a bit naïve, the move was an act of good faith. Unfortunately, it has had almost the exact opposite effect and is enticing the Houthis to resume attacks on the economic infrastructure of Saudi Arabia.

The Biden administration will eventually learn how to navigate the Yemen quagmire, but it is coming at a cost.

US Airstrike targets Iranian Proxies In Syria

The United States launched an airstrike on Thursday evening against a border crossing point on the Syria-Iraq border that has been utilized by a Iranian-supported militant groups in the past. The attacks came in response to recent rocket attacks against US and coalition personnel in Iraq and the continued threat that Iranian proxy groups pose to them and their operations. This was the first US military action taken under the direction of President Biden. The decision for the attack was made after the Biden administration consulted with US allies. Shortly after 6 PM Eastern Time two F-15E Strike Eagles dropped JDAMs on multiple targets at the border crossing point.

The United States has stated it ultimately holds Tehran responsible for the actions of Iranian proxies. Thursday’s airstrike is proof that the Biden administration plans to hold firm to this policy. At least on the surface. A single US airstrike against a target with no viable connection to the recent rocket attacks in Iraq gives the impression of being little more than a slap on the wrist, as well as a message to Iran at best. These renewed attacks are a tactic being used by Tehran to increase pressure on Iraq’s government and simultaneously seeking leverage over the new US administration. After a brief period of calm late last year, the situation in Iraq returned to one more reminiscent of earlier in 2020 with regular attacks being made against Iraqi government and US military targets.

Practically speaking, last night’s airstrike should have no effect on US attempts to negotiate with Iran over the future of JCPOA compliance. Of course, should Tehran find it in their best interests to use the attack as a bargaining chip, it will. The White House needs to keep that in mind.

Beijing Chimes In On The Iran Nuclear Deal

The Chinese government publicly stated today its belief that events surrounding Iran’s nuclear program have reached a “critical point” and only the easing of US economic sanctions will end the present stalemate. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin made the statement just one day after Iran officially began restricting international inspections of its nuclear facilities. The Iranian move is intended to pressure European nations and the United States into ending the heavy economic sanctions now in place, and eventually restoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The United States removed itself from that agreement, commonly referred to as the Iran nuclear deal, in May 2018. The US withdrawal from JCOPA, followed by the application of harsh economic sanctions, led to severe economic consequences for Iran.

With a new administration now in Washington, there’s been hope that the deal can be resurrected. So far, neither side has been willing to make the first move. Tehran is demanding that the sanctions be lifted before serious talks begin and the United States wants full compliance from Iran before any future move towards restarting the deal begin. This is the stalemate Wang Wenbin was referring to in his comments.

China has long favored a US return to the JCPOA as well as Iranian compliance. Salvaging the 2015 deal would serve Chinese interests in the region well. Beijing and Tehran are reportedly close to finalizing a 25 year trade and military agreement that will see China invest $400 billion into Iran’s communication, transport and infrastructure areas in exchange for a deeply discounted supply of Iranian oil. If these are actually the terms of the agreement then it’s in China’s interest to see the nuclear deal return to its original form. The problem is that the terms of the trade and military agreement between Iran and China have become something of an urban legend in the Middle East. The terms and conditions of the agreement might’ve been exaggerated quite significantly and not be the trojan horse that a good number of analysts and politicians have claimed.