Showing posts with label Arab World. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Arab World. Show all posts

29 January 2020

Opinion – Challenges for Oman’s New Sultan

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Sultan Qaboos of Oman passed away on Friday, 10 January, ending his 50 year-rule since 1970. He had been the longest-serving ruler in the Arab world. Haitham bin Tariq Al Said was agreed to be appointed as the new Sultan by the Defence Council and the country’s Royal Family. The country faced both difficult and prosperous times under Sultan Qaboos’s rule. His father, who had been considered eccentric after surviving an assassination attempt by Communist rebels, had not effectively responded to the politics of the time, thereby isolating Oman from the rest of the world and generating many internal problems for it. Under this political atmosphere, Sultan Qaboos, who was young, energetic, and supported by the British, removed his father from the throne in 1970 through a bloodless coup and declared himself the new Sultan with promises of modernising the country. He dealt with a civil war and an underdeveloped country during the first years of his reign. By the time of his passing, he had not only consolidated his power but also achieved noteworthy development of his country thanks to oil revenues. Qaboos’s reign is known by state elites as the “Omani Renaissance” and is praised at every possible opportunity.

Recently, however, Sultan Qaboos faced unrest because of the increasing unemployment rate, especially amongst university graduates, compounded by political demands which became more visible with the Arab Spring protests. If there was one thing that Oman has succeeded at most under Sultan Qaboos, it is the delivery of non-interference and impartial, mediating policies in international affairs. With the death of Sultan Qaboos, the challenges of unemployment and human rights, coupled with recent successes in the international arena, will shape the politics of the new Sultan, Haitham bin Tariq Al Said. Most probably, he will have to follow and acknowledge the achievements and policies of Sultan Qaboos, while, at the same time, presenting to his nation his own vision and plans for responding to the challenges of both domestic and international policies.

Striking Oil Ain’t What It Used to Be

By Amy Myers Jaffe 

On January 7, the oil and gas companies Apache Corporation and Total SA announced a major oil find off the coast of Suriname, not far from enormous offshore deposits in neighboring Guyana discovered by ExxonMobil last year. The size of the Suriname discovery is yet to be determined, but it could be large enough to transform the small South American country, where per capita income is less than $6,000. Just three months prior on the other side of the Atlantic, the British oil major BP announced the largest natural gas discovery of 2019: the energy equivalent of 1.3 billion barrels of oil lies waiting to be extracted off the coast of Mauritania, more than enough to support a liquefied natural gas (LNG) hub. And the same year in Mozambique, Total acquired a $3.9 billion stake in an LNG project whose total cost will likely dwarf that country’s national economy.

At a time when many countries are finally trying to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, the world is suddenly awash in oil and gas discoveries. But for the countries with the newest finds, many of them in Africa and South America, mineral wealth may not be the bonanza it was in decades past. Large oil and gas companies see long-term prices trending downward. As a result, they are investing in fields that can be brought into production quickly instead of developing expensive, far-flung reserves. Global natural gas markets, in particular, face a huge glut of resources and projects that must compete against the falling price of renewable energy technologies. As a result, Suriname, Guyana, Mauritania, Mozambique, and a handful of other developing countries with recent fossil fuel finds are in a desperate race against time.


As Trump says injuries suffered by U.S. troops in Iranian attack are ‘not very serious,’ Pentagon offers few details

Dan Lamothe

President Trump on Wednesday addressed injuries suffered by U.S. troops in Iran’s recent ballistic missile attacks in Iraq, saying that he can report “it is not very serious” and that defense officials told him about them days after the fact.

“I heard that they had headaches and a couple of other things,” the president said. “But I would say, and I can report, it is not very serious, not very serious.”

The comments came after the Pentagon acknowledged Tuesday evening that more U.S. service members have been removed from Iraq for treatment and testing after experiencing concussion-like symptoms caused by the Jan. 8 attack on al-Asad air base in Iraq in which 11 ballistic missiles caused massive explosions and deep craters and left charred wreckage.

Trump and defense officials initially said that no one was injured, but the Pentagon reported last week that 11 service members had been flown out of Iraq to receive follow-up treatment. Defense officials said Tuesday that even more had left, but they declined to say how many or to address questions about whether anyone has been sent back to the United States or been returned to duty.

Air Force Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, a senior commander for the U.S. mission in Iraq and Syria, told reporters outside Washington on Wednesday that he thinks the number of service members who will need treatment is “in the teens.” He said that they were “looked at for TBI,” an acronym for traumatic brain injury that can range from a mild concussion to something more serious.

34 Injured in Iran Attack, Pentagon Now Says; Launches a Review of Reporting Procedures

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SecDef Mark Esper ordered a review of “processes for tracking and reporting injuries” after criticism in the wake of the Iranian missile attack.

Thirty-four U.S. troops have been diagnosed with concussions and other traumatic brain injuries suffered in the Jan. 8 Iranian missile attack in Iraq, senior Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Friday. 

Of those, 17 have returned to active duty, Hoffman said. Eight arrived in the United States today for continuing out-patient treatment, and nine remain at the medical facility in Landstuhl, Germany. Sixteen were diagnosed in Iraq, remained there, and have since returned to active duty. 

Hoffman described those figures as a “snapshot in time” and said they could change in coming days. 

Defense Secretary Mark Esper has ordered a review of “processes for tracking and reporting injuries,” Hoffman said. 

The Bezos Hack and the Dangers of Spyware in the Hands of Autocrats

Candace Rondeaux 

The stunning allegation this week that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hacked the phone of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, according to a report by United Nations investigators, may come as a shock to some. But for most people tracking the rise of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler over the past five years, it’s business as usual. From his disastrous proxy war in Yemen to the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, the young crown prince, known as MBS, has demonstrated time and again his hubristic belief that there are no limits to his power.

What is more shocking is that anyone truly believes that another investigation into Saudi malfeasance will curb the use of spyware by autocratic governments against their perceived critics at home and abroad. To be sure, for the sake of accountability, the FBI should heed the call by U.N. experts Agnes Callamard and David Kaye to open an investigation into how the heir to the Saudi kingdom apparently used Israeli-made spyware to breach the personal phone of the world’s richest man, who owns a leading American newspaper and runs one of the world’s most valuable publicly traded companies. But in the grand scheme of things, investigating the hack of Bezos’ phone might not make all that much difference in preventing these kinds of abuses.

From Bezos to bots, cyber espionage is fraying the world order


The rising importance of cyber warfare has, as we've seen with regards to the West's relations with Russia in particular, increasingly blurred the line between war and peace. Where once an aggressive act – shooting down a plane, landing troops on a beach, manoeuvring missiles into an offensive position – was clear and obvious, things are not now so clear cut.

Are troll farms and bot attacks acts of war? How should we react to attempts at election rigging? Or cyber hacking?

All of these are undoubtedly unfriendly. But just how unfriendly? Where war was once a black and white issue, there are now increasing shades of grey.

Iran Has a Bitcoin Strategy to Beat Trump

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In narrow terms, the economic sanctions imposed by the United States on Iran in the last two years have been effective, shrinking the Iranian economy by 10 to 20 percent. But they have also accelerated Iran’s use of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, which are increasingly used by the Iranian government and public to evade legal barriers. This has led to an attempted crackdown on bitcoin by international regulators—but the cryptocurrency industry is proving more nimble than the enforcers of sanctions.

The Iranian government has long had an interest in using cryptocurrencies to support international trade outside of the traditional banking system. In July 2018, President Hassan Rouhani’s administration declared its intention of launching a national cryptocurrency; one month later, a news agency affiliated with the Central Bank of Iran outlined multiple features of the national cryptocurrency, stating that it would be backed by the rial—Iran’s national currency. Multiple blockchain projects—developing the underlying technology for cryptocurrencies—were revealed by the central bank at a digital payments conference last year, one of which is reportedly already being tested by four Iranian banks (three of which are under sanctions).

28 January 2020

Iran and the US Avoid War for Now, but Political Sparring Will Continue

By Ian Dudgeon

President Donald Trump’s public response to Iranian missile strikes on two US airbases in Iraq suggests that he and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have reached a mutual ‘no war’ agreement. Barring any miscalculation by either side that triggers military escalation, the confrontation will continue to be played out politically, with the US maintaining its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign that seeks to force regime change through severe economic sanctions. There will be a lot of bruising ahead for Iran, but Trump will not win politically.

The absence of any US casualties or significant equipment damage from the strikes at the Al Asad and Erbil air bases in Iraq yesterday, and Trump’s decision not to retaliate as threatened, suggest the no-war agreement was reached through intensive back-channel negotiations.

By capping military escalation at this point, Trump can still boast that he’s tough and decisive. He can claim Iran that has backed down to US threats, and that his commitment to countering terrorism is well demonstrated by the killing of the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force. Trump’s branding of Qassem Soleimani as the world’s ‘number one terrorist’ not only ‘justified’ his assassination but also implicitly matches his predecessor Barack Obama’s resolve in killing Osama bin Laden.

Iran’s leaders have a problem they can’t fix

Suzanne Maloney

When Ayatollah Ali Khamenei led prayers at Tehran’s Grand Mosque for the first time in eight years on Friday, Iran’s supreme leader described the downing of Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 by his military as a “bitter accident”—one that enemies abroad were exploiting as an excuse to discredit the Islamic Republic. But the real threat to the regime, which has spent decades trying to cement its rule, is the discontent of the Iranian public. Both the plane crash on January 8 and the cover-up that followed struck at the heart of the grievances that shape Iranians’ anger toward and alienation from their government. And if the demise of Flight 752 revealed the government’s malign disregard for its own citizens, its relentless suppression of the subsequent protests has only underscored its imperviousness to any meaningful accountability.

After decades of international sanctions that hamper Iran’s ability to buy new aircraft and spare parts, the country’s plane fleet is notoriously old and prone to catastrophe—so much so that the early reports citing engine problems sounded plausible to people grimly inured to aviation risks. But the early explanations for the downing of Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 quickly crumbled under the weight of obvious falsehoods. In reality, Flight 752 had been downed by Iran’s own air defenses. In the course of retaliating against the United States for the drone strike that killed General Qassem Soleimani, Iranian military commanders apparently mistook the jetliner for an incoming American cruise missile. But this tragedy never would have occurred had Tehran taken the obvious precaution of halting civilian air traffic as it began missile strikes against U.S. forces in Iraq. Iranian leaders declined to take this step. Citing unnamed sources, the London-based Persian-language news channel Iran International, which is frequently critical of the Iranian government, reported that officials believed the presence of civilian aircraft in the skies would deter any possible U.S. counterattacks.

Saudi Arabia’s Phone Hacking Shows We Need Better Encryption — Not Backdoors

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Before the world learned that history’s richest man had been hacked by agents of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Saudi dissidents and human rights activists such as Yahya Assiri had received similar treatment.

In May 2018, Assiri opened a message purporting to be from the Saudi government. The innocuous-looking message installed Pegasus spyware, which allows remote surveillance of cellphones, he told PBS Frontline. The spyware was made by NSO Group, the Israeli company that researchers credit for the Bezos hack. “If I take [these attacks] serious, I must stop my work,” said Assiri. 

The recent incident shows the importance of strong consumer encryption technology, both between phones and for backup data, of the sort the U.S. government is seeking to undermine. WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, offers end-to-end encrypted messages. But the Bezos hack, and the others like it, show the limits of even good message security in the face of a known attacker. 

The Terrorism Paradox


LONDON – There was, all too predictably, no shortage of political profiteering in the wake of November’s London Bridge terror attack, in which Usman Khan fatally stabbed two people before being shot dead by police. In particular, the United Kingdom’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, swiftly called for longer prison sentences and an end to “automatic early release” for convicted terrorists.

In the two decades since the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States, terrorism has become the archetypal moral panic in the Western world. The fear that terrorists lurk behind every corner, plotting the wholesale destruction of Western civilization, has been used by successive British and US governments to introduce stricter sentencing laws and much broader surveillance powers – and, of course, to wage war.

In fact, terrorism in Western Europe has been waning since the late 1970s. According to the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), there were 996 deaths from terrorism in Western Europe between 2000 and 2017, compared to 1,833 deaths in the 17-year period from 1987-2004, and 4,351 between 1970 (when the GTD dataset begins) and 1987. Historical amnesia has increasingly blotted out the memory of Europe’s homegrown terrorism: the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, the IRA in the UK, Basque and Catalan terrorism in Spain, and Kosovar terrorism in the former Yugoslavia.

27 January 2020

The Strategic Implications of Chinese-Iranian-Russian Naval Drills in the Indian Ocean

By: Syed Fazl-e Haider


In early December, Major General Shao Yuanming (邵元明), the Deputy Chief of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), traveled to the Islamic Republic of Iran for rare high-level military meetings. These meetings were held for the purpose of organizing a series of unprecedented joint naval drills between China, Iran, and Russia, which were held in the Indian Ocean and the Sea of Oman from December 27–29. The drills took place just as escalating tensions between the United States and Iran reached a crisis point at the end of 2019. The exercise also signified a deepening relationship between Iran and the PRC in economics, diplomacy, and security affairs.

China and Russia have both increased military and economic cooperation with Iran in the year and a half since the U.S. government pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). However, while Iran’s government has repeatedly touted its deepening relations with China and Russia as a show of diplomatic strength, its allies have been less public about the growing relationship. In December, Iranian officials lauded the trilateral exercises—titled “Marine Security Belt”—as proof that Iran can outlast crippling sanctions with aid from its non-Western allies, and declared that the drills signaled a new triple alliance in the Middle East (Tasnim News, December 29, 2019). [1] By contrast, officials from Russia and the PRC were more restrained, framing the joint exercises as part of routine anti-piracy operations, highlighting their peacekeeping priorities and seeking to depoliticize the drills (South China Morning Post, September 23, 2019; Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Russia), October 2, 2019).

Participating Vessels and Exercise Activities

Iran Expands Support for Taliban, Targets U.S. Troops in Afghanistan

by Guy Taylor 

Escalating U.S.-Iran tensions mean Afghanistan, which shares a border with Iran, could be the next proxy battleground between Washington and Tehran, a clash that threatens to undermine the Trump administration’s pursuit of a peace deal with the Taliban and eventual drawdown of American troops.

Administration officials have recently warned of the potential for expanding Iranian activity in Afghanistan, and sources say Tehran’s support for the Taliban is well known in intelligence circles, where analysts are examining the extent to which the insurgent group already outsources some of its attack planning operations to Iran.

Communications intercepted between Taliban operatives based in Mashhad, Iran, and their counterparts working in Quetta, Pakistan, have exposed at least some level of such operational connectivity, one source told The Washington Times…

Iran’s Reserve of Last Resort: Uncovering the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Ground Forces Order of Battle

By Fred Kagan

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Ground Forces are organized around headquarters that are meant to coordinate the operations of Iranian paramilitary forces and support the Quds Force’s use of proxy groups such as Iraqi Shi’a militias abroad.

Their basing in Iran indicates a primary focus on suppressing internal unrest and waging irregular warfare in the rear of an invader rather than on defending against an invasion conventionally.

Their organizational structure and the pattern of their operations in Syria suggest that they might be challenged to coordinate large-scale (multi-division) operations abroad and possibly at home.

The fact that the Iranian leadership has not yet had to use them on a large scale to suppress growing domestic unrest suggests that the regime still has a potent reserve force to ensure its survival even if the unrest grows considerably, as long as it does not also face a requirement for large-scale military operations abroad.

Executive Summary

How Iran's military outsources its cyberthreat forces

In the wake of the U.S. killing of a top Iranian general and Iran’s retaliatory missile strike, should the U.S. be concerned about the cyberthreat from Iran? Already, pro-Iranian hackers have defaced several U.S. websites to protest the killing of General Qassem Soleimani. One group wrote “This is only a small part of Iran’s cyber capability” on one of the hacked sites.

Two years ago, I wrote that Iran’s cyberwarfare capabilities lagged behind those of both Russia and China, but that it had become a major threat which will only get worse. It had already conducted several highly damaging cyberattacks.

Since then, Iran has continued to develop and deploy its cyberattacking capabilities. It carries out attacks through a network of intermediaries, allowing the regime to strike its foes while denying direct involvement.

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-supported hackers

Iran’s cyberwarfare capability lies primarily within Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of the country’s military. However, rather than employing its own cyberforce against foreign targets, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps appears to mainly outsource these cyberattacks.

Don't assume Iran will be behind the next big cyber attack


Americans have become fixated on the possibility of Iran launching deadly attacks in retaliation for President Donald Trump’s decision to kill Quds force leader Qassem Soleimani. Such fears are grounded in reality, as Iran has a long track record of lashing out after being struck by the American military.

What gives this latest round of tit for tat a decidedly 21st century spin is the specter that Iran will unleash its cyber arsenal as part of any retribution. Iran has both verifiably formidable cyberwarfare assets and a history of using them, so Americans are right to be concerned.

Recent events though raise another, perhaps even more insidious scenario: that America’s other enemies will use this latest flare up as an opportunity to launch false flag cyberattacks. America’s global rivals have in fact been practicing that kind of cyber campaign, and so Washington needs to be careful before assuming that the next big cyberattack is the work of a vengeful Tehran.

South Korea to deploy anti-piracy unit to the Strait of Hormuz

Sangmi Cha, Josh Smith

Attacks on oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz off the coast of Iran last year prompted U.S. officials to call for allies to join a planned maritime security mission.

While South Korea, a key U.S. ally, will deploy its forces to the area, including the Gulf, it will not officially be joining a coalition of forces known as the International Maritime Security Construct, the defense ministry said.

“The South Korean government decided to temporarily expand the deployment of the Cheonghae military unit,” a ministry official told reporters, adding that the step would ensure the safety of citizens and free navigation of South Korean vessels.

The decision to divert the navy unit already operating southwest of Arabia is a political compromise that will not require fresh authorization by parliament ahead of an election in April.

The Cheonghae unit will continue with its mission while it cooperates with the coalition, the ministry said, adding that the United States had been briefed on the decision, which was also explained to the Iranians separately.

Why Fighting Corruption Is Key in a ‘New Era of Great-Power Competition’

Patrick Quirk, Eguiar Lizundia 

The Trump administration is due to soon formally release its findings from a review of U.S. foreign assistance programs, aimed at “realigning” them for “a new era of great-power competition,” which critics have described as an effort to curb foreign aid overall. Given this context, aid and development organizations must be prepared to show how their work serves America’s strategic interests. Anti-corruption efforts do just that by striking at the heart of what keeps leaders of adversaries like China and Russia in power.

Both countries are increasingly weaponizing corruption by using flows of illicit money and opaque deals to gain influence in foreign nations, from the Solomon Islands to Montenegro. Efforts to export these kleptocratic practices are key elements of Chinese and Russian foreign policy. They imperil American interests by compromising the independence of affected states and corroding their democratic governance. As the United States seeks to recalibrate its foreign assistance spending to compete with Beijing and Moscow, it should augment efforts to tackle corruption. ...

Jeff Bezos hack: Amazon boss's phone 'hacked by Saudi crown prince'

Stephanie Kirchgaessner

The Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos had his mobile phone “hacked” in 2018 after receiving a WhatsApp message that had apparently been sent from the personal account of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, sources have told the Guardian.

The encrypted message from the number used by Mohammed bin Salman is believed to have included a malicious file that infiltrated the phone of the world’s richest man, according to the results of a digital forensic analysis.

This analysis found it “highly probable” that the intrusion into the phone was triggered by an infected video file sent from the account of the Saudi heir to Bezos, the owner of the Washington Post.

The two men had been having a seemingly friendly WhatsApp exchange when, on 1 May of that year, the unsolicited file was sent, according to sources who spoke to the Guardian on the condition of anonymity.

Large amounts of data were exfiltrated from Bezos’s phone within hours, according to a person familiar with the matter. The Guardian has no knowledge of what was taken from the phone or how it was used.

26 January 2020

'We’re always ready’: Would the U.S. win a cyberwar with Iran?


One afternoon in late December, a team of hackers surreptitiously entered the computer network of a western Ukrainian power company, Prykarpattyaoblenergo, and began taking control of critical circuit breakers across the region. Employees watched in horror as the cursors on their computer monitors began moving on their own, opening and executing commands at will. One by one, the hackers took electrical substations offline, injecting malware as they went that rendered the entire power grid inoperable. For several hours, some 230,000 people were plunged back into the Stone Age.

The December 23, 2015, cyberattack, which Ukrainian and American officials later blamed on Russia, is surely top of mind for many national security officials following the U.S. assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the second-most powerful military leader in Iran. The two countries have since backed away from the brink of war. But cybersecurity experts remain deeply concerned about the potential for more clandestine acts of retaliation. Iran, after all, is notorious for its use of asymmetric warfare. In 2018, U.S. officials warned that Iranian hackers had laid the groundwork for extensive cyberattacks on U.S. infrastructure, including electric grids and water plants, as well as healthcare and technology companies. Might they seize the opportunity to attack?