Sunday, May 21, 2017

Iranian Military Spending

The relationship between Saudi Arabia's and Iran's military spending is interesting, often cited, yet almost always misrepresented. Lobbyists and pundits like to point to this as an indicator of foreign policy and aggression, but the reality is that it is far more complex.

Saudi Arabia spends a lot of money on conventional arms; President Trump during his trip to the kingdom sealed a massive $110 billion dollar arms deal. Iran on the other hand spends much less. This is taken by many to indicate that Saudi Arabia is the aggressor, while Iran is defensive or even docile in nature. This does not take into account strategies or the structure of the defense apparatuses or funding of terror groups, which both do, despite very different military spending numbers.

Saudi Arabia has emphasized conventional weapons and arms deals, buying the latest gadgets from the US. Iran, on the other hand, focuses on its missile program, and other asymmetrical aspects. It bombastically threatens to create a blue-water navy, but this is empty talk. Iran is restricted by geography, a smaller economy, and sanctions. Iran also has the experience of the Iran-Iraq War to draw upon; a bloody war where hundreds of thousands died.

After the revolution Iran was driven to export the revolution. Given Iran's weakness relative to the rest of the region—they are incapable of using force to conquer Iraq to Morocco and everywhere in between— they realized they needed to project soft power, and when using violence, to use it asymmetrically. Hezbollah, Amal, and various Palestinian groups benefited from this.

The most significant beneficiary of this approach is the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC). In 2016-17 only 5.3 MILLION was allocated to "refurbishing the fleet" of the regular Iranian Air Force. They operate what is essentially a parallel military (with some overlap) to the regulars (Artesh). This moves them into a grey area, with a completely different command structure (while still ultimately answering to the Supreme Leader).

Asymmetric warfare is by its very nature less cost-intensive. It isn't about overpowering the enemy, but about exploiting the stronger enemy's weak points and utilizing this to the advantage of the conventionally weaker party. Comparing the simple raw military spending numbers of Saudi Arabia and Iran does not fully capture the intricacies and nuances of strategically dissimilar entities.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Iran and Trump (Part 1)

Iran is one of the most interesting geopolitical threats facing President Trump. The new president has expressed strong distaste for Iran, mostly relating to the nuclear deal reached between the P5+1 and Iran during President Obama’s term. At the same time, Trump has expressed a strong preference for Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. Russia and Iran have complementary interests in the Middle East, especially regarding Syria, while Russia has habitually nominally supported Iran in an effort to undermine the United States’ hegemony. 

Trump appears to believe that a better deal can be reached with Iran, one abrogating the previous one. For this to be possible, the United States would need to reach a superior bargaining position. Whether the current position is weak or strong, at least one party (Iran) does not wish to give up more. Therefore they would need to be convinced that they are worse off than they believe, or to change the situation to the advantage of the United States. 

Iran, as always, has its own domestic concerns, mostly relating to keeping the population docile, and solidifying regime control over the economy and political system. At the same time, they are active in Syria, Yemen, and the Gulf. Their goal is to establish regional clout, and like Russia, to undermine the United States.

Iran has been making deals with European, and Asian countries since the nuclear accord was finalized. Countries like Greece and Italy, who already have massive financial troubles, benefit from Iranian crude. China always demands more, and other major purchasers like South Korea and India are also interested. 

Trump is faced with a situation where everyone except the United States (and Israel) is happy with the deal, or doesn’t care enough to make a fuss. The United States has virtually no leverage. The only path forward would be to enact coercive measures, forcibly preventing other countries from doing business with Iran. It would the United States versus the world. 

Iran knows this, and they have made a point of pushing in various ways. They ramped up their antagonist actions, especially in the Gulf after the nuclear deal was signed, and continue to act out. General Michael Flynn (Ret.), put Iran “on notice” recently after they test fired a ballistic missile. While not technically a violation of UNSC Resolution 2231 (the text is very poorly worded and unspecific), this test certainly “violated the spirit” of the nuclear agreement and the resolution. 

Today Iran fired another (short range air-defense missile) from the same location. This clearly is not a violation, as it is not ballistic, but it is provocative. While this is much less antagonizing than the previous launch, it is still a clear message to the Trump administration. Iran knows that the United States does not have the same global coalition Obama managed to wrangle, and they are betting that Trump, despite his erratic behavior, won’t be able to do anything to substantive. 

I expect limited provocations to continue, namely in the Gulf as I mentioned a week ago (, but is possible they try to find another dual-citizen hostage, or harass US navy vessels or commercial shipping. They realize how bad Trump looks globally with his inability to control his emotions, and how hypocritical some of his policies are. They are betting that he will be hamstrung by his inability to create a coalition, and to conduct effective diplomacy, while bogged down with domestic concerns.

Monday, October 17, 2016

No, FRUS doesn't have all the answers

A recent article in Politico on the 1953 Iran Coup, while well intentioned, is unfortunately fundamentally flawed. Malcolm Byrne, who collaborated with Mark Gasiorowski to provide one of the most important academic books on the coup, writes in support of releasing the updated FRUS (Foreign Relations of the US). I too have argued for the same thing, but our reasons are very different.

Mr. Byrne makes a variety of mistakes in his assessment of the situation, ones that someone with his experience with archival documents, and with this episode in history should not make.

First he neglects to mention that the first coup attempt failed miserably, leading to the arrest of dozens of high-ranking officers and conspirators. There was no backup plan. Mr. Byrne does not state how one man, with zero knowledge of Persian managed to create a 2nd coup a mere three days later after his entire plan collapsed.

He also fails to account for competing interests, including Iranians who despised the Iranian Prime Minister, who wished to remove Mr. Mossadeq from power. He ends his introductory paragraph blaming the coup for feelings of anti-Americanism that endure to this day, ignoring once again, that clerics, including the direct spiritual predecessor of Ayatollah Khomeini (Ayatollah Kashani), was key in the attempts to remove Mossadeq from power.

His argument is based upon the core principle that the US, and the US alone (well including the UK), is guilty of overthrowing Mossadeq, rejecting the possibility of domestic (or other foreign) collaboration.

Mr. Byrne goes on to claim that the American public does not have full-access to the full historical record. This is partially true, as the CIA "lost" all of its files from the time in a suspicious fire, and some of the documents from the State Department remain classified. At the same time, the vast majority of these documents ARE available at the National Archives in Maryland.

Mr. Byrne also seems to not understand the point of the FRUS system. These are not complete records containing every single cable to and from an embassy or consulate. There are a small fraction that are included in FRUS collections. They are selected to be pertinent, not a complete data dump. There are many more documents from and to Tehran and other places that are in the National Archives, I have seen them myself. Most of them are mundane, but some are quite interesting. It would be nice to include these in a massive digital archive including every single document, but this is not how the FRUS system is set up.

Mr. Byrne claims that the US and UK role in the coup is covered up, and the documents the State Department refuses to release will prove the two parties guilty. In the Archives, the additional documents I have read myself, indicate otherwise as I have demonstrated here and here.

Mr. Byrne believes that US and UK guilt over the coup is the major reason to not release the documents, but his analysis falls far short. He does not account for the local efforts to remove the Shah, and their ties to the current regime. He additionally fails to mention the saga (covered by David Ignatius of the Washington Post), where BP (formerly AIOC) forced Kermit Roosevelt and his publishing company to pull the entire run, though he has written about it in the past.

What would be more infuriating for the regime, to show that the US was involved (which is what they are already furious about), or that major regime figures, or their direct influences played a role in fomenting the coup?

Given the sensitivity of the Iran nuclear talks which have been ongoing, this delay makes sense in that they do not want to upset the Iranians so that they completely withdraw, and years of diplomatic efforts are lost.

While I agree with Mr. Byrne that the updated FRUS should be released, I strongly disagree with his analysis and I am very disappointed with his failure to mention the most likely scenario: that documents will show involvement from the Iranian clergy.

There are classified documents out there, documents which have not undergone their 50 year declassification review. Why hasn't Mr. Byrne filed MDRs (Mandatory Declassification Review) for these documents? He spends his time working on archives, yet in his article he ignores this potentiality.

His argument does not stand up. It does not make any sense for him to claim that the documents are not available when they mostly are. For the few that are classified, he simply has to go to the Archives and find the sheet that says how there is a classified document missing and then file an MDR. Yet he refuses to mention this aspect in his article, instead making it about some conspiracy to hide the truth from the American people.

It is also quite disheartening that he is convinced that there are going to be documents giving us a definitive answer as to what happened, and who the guilty parties are. I have demonstrated how even the CIA's latest (known) internal history has at least one glaring mistake (see #5). If the CIA doesn't have the story straight, how would the State Department?

There may be documents proving Mr. Byrne right, yet his shoddy work, and misleading, baseless claims do not help shed a light on a complicated historical event.

In conclusion, this quote from Donald Wilber, the author of the CIA's first internal history of the coup sums up the entire situation: "The early accounts of various participants differed widely enough to make it impossible to follow the slender thread of truth through the dark night"

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Iran and the Taliban

A core principle of the Islamic Republic of Iran is to export the revolution, their system of Twelver Shi'a inspired Islamic governance. This is most prevalent in Lebanon, where Hezbollah acts as a proxy. Iran also spends money funding ideological enemies for strategic purposes, namely Sudan (less so now), Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and recently, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Pakistan and almost certainly in a limited sense in Iran as well.

Two major articles in the past year, one from Foreign Policy in May 2016, and another from the Wall Street Journal in June 2015, claim that Iran is actively funding and arming the Taliban in hopes of curtailing potential advances from ISIS. This "ISIS" is not the same group of terrorists as those in Syria and Iraq, though there is some affiliation. It is believed that many of these "ISIS" terrorists are in fact disaffected Taliban. The two have fought each other, and both still actively work to perpetrate terror attacks.

Iran has a vested interest in aligning with the Taliban for a number of reasons:

  1. The Taliban are fighting Western and Western-backed forces. Countering American attempts at stability helps Iran's anti-hegemonic, disruptive strategy. 
  2. The Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) are known to be heavily involved in the drug trafficking industry in Eastern Iran, Western Afghanistan and Western Pakistan. Establishing relationships could lead to greater efficiency in these smuggling routes, also potentially reducing the amount of violence involving non-Pasdaran security forces.
  3. ISIS is a threat to Iran's interests in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, the last thing Iran wants is a second "front" in the East to deal with.

Iran's decision to not just tolerate, but also support the Taliban is perhaps best demonstrated by the previous leader of the Taliban visiting Iran hours before he was killed in an American drone strike. If Iran was serious about preventing this type of violent group they would take steps to make sure that such an important figure was not able to enter the country.

ISIS was able to conduct their first major terror attack in Afghanistan recently when they targeted the Shi'ite Hazara ethnic group killing dozens. This same ethnic group has been known to be used by the Iranian government to fight in Syria. Interestingly enough, it was claimed that the Sunni Taliban, no matter how radically xenophobic they are, agreed to protect the Hazara from ISIS last year. Here too, Iran has an interest in working with the Taliban.

Iran's actions in Afghanistan are not surprising, yet they do not seem to get much attention because of other ongoing conflicts. I expect this to change soon, especially if ISIS is able to conduct another serious attack. Unfortunately, I suspect that given the attention given the ISIS brand, more will be made of their involvement than Iran's.

The Obama administration has a duty to investigate the connections between Iran and this known terror group. Even if they are fighting our enemies, they are still terrorists, who have attacked, and will continue to attack Western and Afghan government targets. I realize that the success of the Iranian nuclear deal is important to the administration, but ignoring a state actively funding and directly supporting terrorists is not an acceptable position.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Why is State Delaying the Release of the Updated 1952-1954 Iran FRUS?

UPDATE #1 (March 7, 2017): Nate Jones from the National Security Archive tweeted a few cryptic tweets about the delay:

The initial reason for the delay was to keep the negotiations going, yet "until the final day" of Obama's term they fought to delay the FRUS edition. It is now delayed until 2018 or later. 

I tweeted the following about this: 

What doesn't the Obama admin want the public (US, or Iran), or the Iran regime, or the world to know?? This is very suspicious and illogical.


For all the strange and unprofessional behavior by the State Department over the last few years, something curiously ignored is the persistent delays in the scheduled re-release of the 1952-1954 Iran Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) collection.

FRUS is an invaluable tool for academics and researchers as it contains primary archival material hosted online by the University of Wisconsin in an organized and easily accessible form. All of this and much more is also available in the National Archives II in College Park Maryland, but the documents are not in any particular order, are not sorted and accessing them is inconvenient.

The 1953 Iran coup is fascinating for a number of reasons, and sensitive to many parties because of the injustice of overthrowing a legally appointed premier. As I've noted in the past, the full story is not evident from the documents that we have; there are too many inconsistencies and holes in the timeline. This has not stopped academics and pseudo-academics from pontificating and making grandiose judgements based upon such shoddy work as the "memoirs" of Kermit Roosevelt; a work that is known to have been at least partially edited by the CIA at the behest of BP and perhaps other unknown parties. It is unclear how the edits changed the story, but a cursory glance through the text shows how it is barely more than a dime novel.

FRUS, as the primary collection of archival documents from the Department of State, has a certain authority to it. Even though significant pieces of the archive are missing from the current edition of the Iran as I noted here and here, and an unknown number of cables and documents remain classified (well beyond the legally justified time period), there is a lot there.

At least a few of the top books on the coup were written by authors who apparently had never even been to the archives; the only State Department cables cited by them are also included in the existing FRUS. Given my personal experience digging through the boxes at Archives II, I know there are other cables there that have academic value to the study of this important event.

The Department of State announced years ago that there would be an updated version of the collection updated, yet in September 2014 announced that "the Department had decided to delay publication because of ongoing negotiations with Iran". It has now been almost a year since the nuclear deal was signed, yet the updated FRUS has not been released.

In December of 2015, the Office of the Historian held a meeting where the release of the collection was discussed. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Valerie Fowler indicated that "the timeline was to release the volume at the earliest possible moment, but that external developments and considerations were important too".

What could these "external developments and considerations" entail? The National Security Archive believes that there could be documents confirming a British hand in the events. While in theory this should be plausible, it would not explain the early decision to release the updated version, before an abrupt about-face and decision to withhold the documents. The other problem with this theory is that the British had been kicked out of the country months earlier and so their intelligence apparatus was knee-capped by a closed embassy and limited access. This is partially why the US took the lead in conducting the first (planned) coup attempt.

Personally I think that the most likely possibility is that there are documents tying Iranians, potentially clerics associated with Ayatollah Kashani (or perhaps even Khomeini), to the coup and that this would infuriate the Iranians so much that they would have pulled out of negotiations. It is also possible that this could contain further details of United States involvement, but as the US is already blamed as the primary instigator and actor by Iran, it isn't like things could get much worse, is it?

Given the strange and inept way in which the State Department and the administration have handled public diplomacy regarding Iran (see Rhodes, Ben) I am deeply curious why they are not releasing the updated version. What are they trying to keep hidden?

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Hardline Assembly of Experts Chair and Conservative Majles Speaker Selected

As expected, a hardliner and a conservative were selected to head both Iranian governmental bodies "elected" a few months back.

The leading vote getters in both elections ended up not being selected to head either the Assembly of Experts (Rafsanjani) or the Majles (Aref). The individual who was selected to lead the Assembly of Experts for the next 2 years (of the 8 year term) was in fact the last place finisher in Tehran.

The "loss" by the "moderates" in both of these decisions was not surprising for a many reasons. The elections were rigged from the beginning, with thousands of candidates disqualified, in particular those with views less in line with the regime. Additionally, as I and others have noted, the "moderate" list was in fact not as moderate as the pro-Iran lobby, and portions of the left in the United States trying to sell the Iran Deal have claimed.

With significant overlap between the "Principalists" and this "moderate" "List of Hope", it was only natural for the more hardline members of the "moderate" list to vote for the hardliners.

This complexity has gone way over many pundits heads here in the West. As the usual suspects point to the hardline victory as proof that there are no moderates (and of course no liberals) in Iran, the reality remains more complex. Again, they miss the greater point, that the elections had to be fixed to undermine genuine attempts from the population to move towards the West and the rest of the international community. The scale of this ideological schism may not be large, and many of the people pushing for change may approve of Iran's unending support for terror groups throughout the region, but the attempts to move away from the anti-Western ideologues must not be ignored.

Each time there is a political event where the hardliners do not win outright, the system, the regime, the deep state is put under pressure. This pressure forces a decision out of the regime; to allow an opening, or to crack down, and repress the population. Either way resources are expended, and the system becomes more unstable. However limited it may be, this instability at home undermines Iran's ability to conduct operations abroad; more attention must be given to preventing civil unrest.

Iran has a choice: to fully embrace autocracy like China, or to reform. They had previously mentioned attempts to create a "halal" internet, so that only sites that were deemed appropriate would be available in Iran. This failed. The real question is how far apart the Iranian public and the regime will drift, and how, when and if this will happen.

It is very difficult to measure the ideological bent of the population. The previous election for the Majles (2012) was boycott by the Reformist bloc so they only received a few seats. The election prior (2008) the "Reformists" had under 20% of the vote. Principalists have controlled the Majles since the 2004 election when they forced the heavily disqualified Reformist majority to the sidelines.

That there are so many members who are not Principalists is encouraging, but doesn't mean too much in the grand scheme of things. The greater system of control by the regime and deep state remains intact, and the Majles will continue to be more or less powerless as it has been for decades. The wins by hardline candidates are important in showing that anti-Westernism is still a fundamental value of the state, but the turnout for those with a different point of view should be encouraging to the West. The situation continues to be multi-faceted and fluid.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

EXCLUSIVE: Key Source in Hersh's Ghouta Claims Investigated by FBI and ICE

On the morning of October 25th, 2010 Federal Agents from the FBI and ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) raided a home in Melrose, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. At the same time, an interview was conducted by FBI agents at JFK International Airport. The subject, a warhead expert affiliated with defense industry giant Raytheon, had recently returned from India on business.

The late Mr. Richard Lloyd was regarded as one of the top experts in his field, with decades of experience, and at least two books on conventional and nuclear warheads according to Amazon listings. In recent years he, along with Theodore Postol, received some attention for his work attempting to refute the efficacy of the Iron Dome, and to prove that Assad’s forces were not responsible for the August 2013 Ghouta Massacre. He died in October 2014 of an unspecified cancer.

As the article on notes, Lloyd was no longer employed by Raytheon on October 26th, 2010, but the spokesman 'declined to say when or under what circumstances Lloyd left the company.". It is unclear if the raid and interview led to Mr. Lloyd's termination, or if not, how long before this happened did he no longer work for the company.

Because Mr. Lloyd is deceased, it is possible to submit Freedom of Information Act requests about him and receive information. I submitted parallel requests about the arrest and interview to the FBI and ICE. ICE refused to comply, citing “ongoing criminal investigations” despite Mr Lloyd having been deceased for 5 months, while the FBI delayed for nearly a year before providing partially redacted documents. Following are the documents (annotated by me) which undermine the integrity and reliability of Mr. Lloyd. 

It is unclear if Lloyd lied because he was panicking. It is evident that the first priority of the special agents was to ensure that he was not trafficking information on nuclear weaponry, but the consistent lies are deeply concerning. Was Lloyd was terminated from his employment at Raytheon before he went to India or afterwards? Was he fired because he violated security protocols? If he had been fired before this why would he still have sensitive computers from Raytheon in his possession? There are many questions which remain unanswered.

Richard Lloyd, for all his valuable work in the past, seems to have made some major mistakes in his Iron Dome work as I've pointed out herehere and here, and as Eliot Higgins and Dan Kaszeta have pointed out, also appears to have made some mistakes in his work on Ghouta. Despite this, he was still cited as a source by Seymour Hersh in his work attempting to prove Assad's innocence. The information which I have obtained, partnered with the shoddy work on these two major cases demonstrates that Lloyd has serious credibility issues and should not be taken at face value.