Pro-Iran paramilitaries join push to ‘paralyze’ Basra oil exports

Iraqi protesters burn tires and block the road at the entrance to the city of Basra. (AFP)
Updated 13 July 2018
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Pro-Iran paramilitaries join push to ‘paralyze’ Basra oil exports

  • Disruption to Iraq's oil production would be in Iran’s interest as it seeks to hit back at US sanctions
  • Protesters and police injured on fifth day of protests

BAGHDAD: Iran-backed armed factions in Iraq announced their support on Thursday for demonstrations sweeping the country’s main oil hub.

Protesters in Basra are targeting local and international oil companies, and warn they will “paralyze” the industry unless their demands for jobs and improved basic services are met.

Pro-Iranian paramilitary troops, including Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, one of the most prominent Shiite armed factions, and its offshoots Al-Nujabaa, Kataib Sayyad Al-Shuhaddaa and Saraya Al-Kharassani all said separately they were backing the protesters.

Iran would benefit from any disruption to the oil sector in Basra as it seeks to stave off US sanctions against its own oil exports, analysts and oil experts told Arab News.

The Shiite forces could provide logistical support for the protests, which have blocked roads and led to clashes with police.

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Early on Thursday, thousands of protesters tried to storm the entrances of oil company headquarters in northern Basra.

Iraqi security forces opened fire to disperse the demonstrators, who responded by hurling stones.

Six people, including two policemen, were wounded in the exchanges and temporary buildings belonging to the Russian energy giant Lukoil Company were set on fire. Security sources said that foreign employees of the company were evacuated by helicopter.

Iran wields considerable influence in Iraq, particularly in the predominantly Shiite south, where it supports a network of armed factions with funding and weapons. 

Gaining influence over the oil and gas sector in Iraq is vital for Iran as it seeks to head off US attempts to economically suffocate Tehran, analysts said. 

In May, US President Donald Trump pulled out of a deal between Iran and world powers to curb Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

The US has ordered all countries to stop buying Iranian oil by November or face sanctions themselves. 

Disrupting the export of Iraqi oil would “send a message to the US that the Iraqi oil industry and its output are not out of (Iran’s) reach,” an Iraqi analyst based in Washington told Arab News.

“What is happening in Basra is part of the conflict between the US and Iran. It may be a preemptive step from Iran to affect or halt Iraqi oil exports.

“Iran has sent two messages through these demonstrations. The first is to tell the US that the Iraqi oil sector can be reached by its hands in the region.

“The second was to tell the international community that Iraqi oil is not the appropriate alternative to compensate for a shortfall created by the absence of Iranian oil.”

Iraqi officials told Arab News that oil exports have not been affected by the protests.

The situation in Basra follows a threat by Iranian officials earlier this month to block global oil supplies being shipped through the Straits of Hormuz from the Arabian Gulf. 

The US president asked Saudi Arabia last week to increase its oil production to compensate for the shortfall in the global market and ensure the stability of oil prices, but the Kingdom alone will not be able to continue this in the long term and must be backed by another source.

“Iraqi oil is the solution,” an Iraqi analyst told Arab News. “The goal (behind the demonstrations) is to create security problems and tell the world that (Iraqi oil) source is not secure.”

Protests erupted on Sunday over a lack of basic services, including drinking water and electricity, but quickly turned against the oil companies with demonstrators demanding jobs. One protester was killed and three wounded by security forces on the first day.

The tribe of the fatally injured protester demanded the killer and their commander be handed over for punishment, but the Iraqi government refused to respond.

On Wednesday, 13 tribes announced their support for the demands of Bani Mansour, the victim’s tribe.

Officials have attempted to defuse the crisis in Basra by sending a ministerial committee, headed by Jabbar Luaibi, the oil minister.

The committee on Thursday offered to create 10,000 jobs in the oil and gas sector for the people of the region.


Cybersecurity firm: More Iran hacks as US sanctions loom

Alister Shepherd, the director of a subsidiary of FireEye, during a presentation about the APT33 in Dubai Tuesday. (AP)
Updated 20 September 2018
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Cybersecurity firm: More Iran hacks as US sanctions loom

  • The firm warns that this raises the danger level ahead of America re-imposing crushing sanctions on Iran’s oil industry in early November.
  • Iran’s mission to the UN rejected FireEye’s report, calling it “categorically false.”

DUBAI: An Iranian government-aligned group of hackers launched a major campaign targeting Mideast energy firms and others ahead of US sanctions on Iran, a cybersecurity firm said Tuesday, warning further attacks remain possible as America reimposes others on Tehran.

While the firm FireEye says the so-called “spear-phishing” email campaign only involves hackers stealing information from infected computers, it involves a similar type of malware previously used to inject a program that destroyed tens of thousands of terminals in Saudi Arabia.

The firm warns that this raises the danger level ahead of America re-imposing crushing sanctions on Iran’s oil industry in early November.

“Whenever we see Iranian threat groups active in this region, particularly in line with geopolitical events, we have to be concerned they might either be engaged in or pre-positioning for a disruptive attack,” Alister Shepherd, a director for a FireEye subsidiary, told The Associated Press.

Iran’s mission to the UN rejected FireEye’s report, calling it “categorically false.”

“Iran’s cyber capabilities are purely defensive, and these claims made by private firms are a form of false advertising designed to attract clients,” the mission said in a statement. “They should not be taken at face value.”

FireEye, which often works with governments and large corporations, refers to the group of Iranian hackers as APT33, an acronym for “advanced persistent threat.” APT33 used phishing email attacks with fake job opportunities to gain access to the companies affected, faking domain names to make the messages look legitimate. Analysts described the emails as “spear-phishing” as they appear targeted in nature.

FireEye first discussed the group last year around the same time. This year, the company briefed journalists after offering presentations to potential government clients in Dubai at a luxury hotel and yacht club on the man-made, sea-horse-shaped Daria Island.

While acknowledging their sales pitch, FireEye warned of the danger such Iranian government-aligned hacking groups pose. Iran is believed to be behind the spread of Shamoon in 2012, which hit Saudi Arabian Oil Co. and Qatari natural gas producer RasGas. The virus deleted hard drives and then displayed a picture of a burning American flag on computer screens. Saudi Aramco ultimately shut down its network and destroyed over 30,000 computers.

A second version of Shamoon raced through Saudi government computers in late 2016, this time making the destroyed computers display a photograph of the body of 3-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi, who drowned fleeing his country’s civil war.

But Iran first found itself as a victim of a cyberattack. Iran developed its cyber capabilities in 2011 after the Stuxnet computer virus destroyed thousands of centrifuges involved in Iran’s contested nuclear program. Stuxnet is widely believed to be an American and Israeli creation.

APT33’s emails haven’t been destructive. However, from July 2 through July 29, FireEye saw “a by-factors-of-10 increase” in the number of emails the group sent targeting their clients, Shepherd said.