Sunday 5 August, 2018 Update: The Alleged Assassination Attempt On Nicolas Maduro

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Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro has laid the blame for yesterday’s alleged assassination attempt against him on an international ‘far right’ plot. According to him, the conspiracy was made up of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Venezuelan exiles living in Colombia, and in the United States, as well as opposition groups in Venezuela,. Maduro then called on the Trump administration to “fight the terrorist groups that commit attacks in peaceful countries in our continent, in this case, Venezuela.”  Maduro offered no evidence to support his accusations.

Yesterday, at a military event in Caracas, Maduro was giving a speech when the alleged assassination attempt, by two explosive drones. Firefighters who were at the scene, however, dispute the drone claim, contending that a gas tank explosion in an apartment near the site of the speech. Television coverage of the event, which was carried live across Venezuela, showed no signs of drones in the air, or an explosion.

Maduro remains unpopular in Venezuela, a nation still suffering through a major economic crisis that is largely his doing. Opposition groups are often accused of plotting to assassinate government officials, or planning a coup. Maduro’s government uses these claims to justify crackdowns on the opposition groups, and the public in general. Adding Colombia, and Venezuelan exiles living abroad is a new twist. Placing responsibility for the supposed attack on external opposition groups, and the government of a neighboring nation could signal a change in tactics for Maduro’s foundering regime. As Venezuela continues to deteriorate, and support for his government evaporates completely, Maduro could be looking to rally the country against a perceived foreign threat. That way, Venezuelans might forget about the crippling poverty at home, and focus on defeating the threat to their beloved country. The strategy is no secret, and has been used countless times in Latin America by dictators faced with deteriorating domestic conditions at home.

Unfortunately for Maduro, it fails far more often than it works.

Saturday 4 August, 2018 Update: Iran Braces

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With the return of US sanctions rapidly approaching, the Iranian people are facing austere days on the horizon. The nation has been hit hard by high inflation, and a depressed currency, sparking sporadic protests against the government across Iran in the past week. The latest demonstrations are not as large, or widespread as those that rocked Iran in January of this year, however, that can change quickly as the effects of US sanctions begin to be felt. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is facing heavy pressure from hardliners, as well as middle class Iranians, for what they perceive as the failure of his economic policies. Economic dissatisfaction was simmering in Iran even before the US pulled out of the JCPOA and announced that sanctions against Tehran would be imposed once again, likely beginning in August, 2018. The sanctions expected to be put back into effect on 7 August will include restrictions on Iran’s purchase of US dollars, along with its trade in gold, and other precious metals. Tehran’s nightmare scenario is that US sanctions will cut Iranian oil exports dramatically by the end of the year, likely putting its national economy into an unrecoverable tailspin. Should this scenario become reality, the regime understands it will not survive the backlash of the Iranian people.

Therefore, the Iranian regime is looking beyond its borders for relief. The military exercise currently underway around the Strait of Hormuz is a clear demonstration of Iran’s ability to close the waterway and choke the global economy. The timing of the exercise is not coincidental. Tehran wants Washington to understand what could lie ahead if US sanctions threaten to cripple Iran’s economy, or jeopardize the survival of the regime. Call it blackmail, or a not-so-subtle reminder, the fact is that cutting off access to the Strait of Hormuz is the most powerful card in Iran’s deck and if pushed, it will likely not hesitate to use it.

Thursday 2 August, 2018 Update: Iranian Naval Exercise Planned

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The United States is closely monitoring preparations for what appears to be either an Iranian exercise, or a show of force in the Strait of Hormuz. US CENTCOM tweeted that it is watching the situation carefully, and the exercise is expected to begin at some point in the next 48 hours. Much of the preparation underway is being conducted by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC has assembled nearly 100 light, fast attack boats (largely of the Boghammar type, etc) in the waters near the strait. There has been no indication yet if Iranian naval and air forces will take part in the upcoming exercise.

Although US officials do not see any signs of hostile intent at the moment, the timing of the exercise raises concerns. Last week, Houthi attacks on Saudi oil tankers in the Bab Al-Mandeb Strait prompted Saudi Arabia to halt oil shipments in the Red Sea.  As if this were not enough, the US and Iran have been engaged in a war of words in recent weeks, with tensions steadily rising. Economic sanctions are set to be placed back in effect against Iran next week as a result of the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

With all of this in mind, the coming exercise/show of force appears to be nothing short of a warning message to the United States. Tehran wants Washington to be reminded of how easily it can close the Strait of Hormuz, and hold the global economy hostage. Iran’s leadership, already beset by domestic and economic problems at home, wants the Trump administration to take into account the Hormuz factor in its decision with regards to placing economic sanctions on Iran.

Stormy Straits Ahead?

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International attention is beginning to focus on the Persian Gulf, and Red Sea areas since Saudi Arabia suspended Red Sea oil shipments earlier this week following attacks on two of its oil tankers in the Bab el Mandeb Strait. The cntentious rhetoric coming out of Tehran of late, along with its open support of the Houthi rebels, has flared US-Iranian tensions, and contributed to the unease. As the prospect of the US sanctions against Iran being reinstituted in the near future grows, Iran’s next move could very well be an attempt to deter Washington from that course of action by way of thinly-veiled economic blackmail.

Since the outbreak of war in Yemen, the Bab el Mandeb Strait has become a highly vulnerable chokepoint for oil shipments, and commerce. In October, 2016 a UAE ship was attacked by Houthi rebels in the strait. Two weeks later, Houthi rebels fired anti-ship missiles against US Navy warships in the area. The missiles were defeated by defensive countermeasures and SAM fire. In response, US warships launched cruise missile strikes on Houthi radar sites in rebel-controlled territory. These sites had enabled the rebels to track shipping in the strait and provided essential targeting data for Houthi attacks.  Although the Houthi missile attacks were unsuccessful, the action in October, 2016 emphasized how vulnerable civilian-flagged merchant ships, and tankers become when transiting the Bab el Mandeb.

Now, the prospect of renewed Houthi attacks in the straits, as well as the recent Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, are reminding the world once again how vital these two chokepoints are to the global economy. Saudi Arabia’s suspension of oil shipments through the Red Sea rattled oil markets and contributed to a 3-day rise in oil prices. A potential major disruption in the Bab el Mandeb is manageable, however. A similar suspension of oil shipments through Hormuz would deliver even more severe ramifications to the global economy. Quite frankly, even the threat of a Hormuz closure would likely be enough to crash oil markets, and lead to an economic domino effect.

Iran has long understood the value of the strait to the world economy, and its own geopolitical interests. It has attempted to use the Strait of Hormuz as a bargaining chip in the past, most notably during the Tanker War phase of its conflict with Iraq. This led to the US to initiate Operation Earnest Will in 1987. Earnest Will consisted of Kuwaiti oil tankers being reflagged, and escorted through the Strait of Hormuz by US Navy warships. Despite a few setbacks, Earnest Will was largely successful, however, it did lead to clashes between the US Navy and Iranian forces. Operation Praying Mantis was the largest of these skirmishes, and saw the destruction of 50% of Iran’s operational naval fleet at US hands.

Iran’s leadership has to remember Operation Praying Mantis, as well as US Navy action in the Bab el Mandeb in 2016, as it considers it’s next move. An attempt at economic blackmail now will surely bring about a US military response of some type. Tehran’s recent threats, and rhetoric was calculated to force the United States to seriously reconsider its intent to reimpose sanctions on Iran. Unfortunately for Iran, it is not dealing with the Obama administration any longer. President Trump has taken strong stance against Iran, having already removed the US from the JCOPA. He is now pressuring US allies not to purchase Iranian oil, a move that is likely contributing to the current Iranian discomfiture.

Over the past two days, the fears of US sanctions being placed on Iran have been joined by speculation in some circles that a US military attack against Iran might be in the works. Pre-emptive US action against Iran is not probable in the near future, although if a situation develops that sees Iran support Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, or should Iran move to close the Strait of Hormuz, all bets are off the table. In either case, a US military response is not only probable, it is essentially guaranteed.

 

Tuesday 24 July, 2018 Update: Syrian Fighter-Bomber Shot Down Over Israeli Territory

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Israel has shot down a Syrian Air Force Su-24 Fencer fighter-bomber after the aircraft entered Israeli airspace over the Golan Heights. The Fencer was engaged successfully by a pair of Israeli Patriot missiles. One of the pilots, Syrian Air Force Colonel Omran Mari, was killed. The fate of the other pilot is unknown at the moment. The incident occurred in the midst of increased military activity on the Syrian side of the border. The Syrian government has been fighting both ISIS-affiliated groups, and other rebel forces in southern Syria for some time now. For now, it seems likely that the Fencer strayed into Israeli airspace as the result of a navigation error. This incident is not anticipated to bring a major confrontation between Israel and Syria. It will, however, likely raise tensions in the region even higher.

The shootdown highlights both Israel’s staunch commitment to defending its airspace and frontiers. Yesterday, Israeli David’s Sling missiles knocked down tactical ballistic missiles fired by Syrian or Russian forces as part of the fighting going on in Syria. One of the SS-21 tactical ballistic missiles came down just one kilometer from the Israeli border.

The shootdown also serves as a reminder of how volatile the skies over and around Syria are. Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, multiple incidents have played out in the skies. A simple navigation  error led a Russian Su-24 into Turkish airspace in 2015 where it was promptly dispatched by an F-16. The close proximity between Russian, and Coalition aircraft in the skies over northern Syria led to the set up of elaborate deconfliction system between US and Russian defense officials.