Khojir and Natanz explosions wreck Iran’s strategy of deception

Khojir and Natanz explosions wreck Iran’s strategy of deception
A handout picture provided by the Iranian presidency on January 8, 2020 shows Iranian president Hassan Rouhani speaking during a cabinet meeting in the capital Tehran. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 12 August 2020

Khojir and Natanz explosions wreck Iran’s strategy of deception

Khojir and Natanz explosions wreck Iran’s strategy of deception
  • Blast near military complex outside Tehran on June 26 has drawn global attention to regime’s stretched capabilities
  • Experts say the explosion and another fire at Natanz are reminders of the threat Iran continues to pose to the region

LONDON: A huge explosion east of Tehran in the early hours of June 26 caused widespread fear and confusion in the Iranian capital. This situation was caused in no small part by the government itself, which quickly started spreading misinformation about the cause and intensity of the blast, which occurred near a military complex.

Despite the regime’s evasive actions and statements, snippets of truth have gradually emerged. Experts agree that the explosion is yet another embarrassment for a stretched regime, but behind it lies a reminder of the threat posed to the region and, further afield, by the Islamic Republic.

When video footage of the blast surfaced online, the Iranian Defense Ministry quickly rolled out a spokesman to downplay the incident. Davoud Abdi, speaking on state television, dismissed it as a minor blast at a gas-storage facility in a “public area” of the Parchin military complex, outside the Iranian capital.

A well-known former site of nuclear activity, an explosion at the Parchin military complex would undoubtedly have been a serious incident. However, analysts and social media users quickly poured cold water on this assertion and identified a different military instalment east of Tehran — Khojir — as the true location of the blast.

Samuel Hickey, research analyst at the Washington-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told Arab News that satellite imagery proves that “the explosion took place at the Khojir missile production complex in eastern Tehran, and not at Parchin as suggested in some media outlets.”

Why Tehran would claim the blast occurred at Parchin, not Khojir, is “an intriguing mystery,” said Hickey.

This question is particularly pertinent given Tehran’s apparent transparency surrounding a July 2 fire at the Natanz complex, a known nuclear facility in Isfahan. The prompt release of pictures of the damage caused and open lines of communication with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) contrasted sharply with its response to the Khojir blast.

This behaviour may suggest a particular sensitivity to information on the activity taking place at Khojir.

Hickey said Khojir “has numerous underground facilities and tunnels whose exact function remains unknown.” So, while specific details of the activity at the site are unclear, he suggests that “providing political cover for any activities at Khojir” is of paramount importance to the regime. 

Hiding the true nature of the Khojir military instalment and its network of underground tunnels, he said, may even “be a higher priority for Tehran than covering for its past nuclear weapons program.”

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READ MORE: Fire flares at Iranian power plant, latest in series of incidents

Iran explosion in area with sensitive military site near Tehran

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As analysts look to build a clearer picture of the incident and its implications, two key questions remain unanswered: What caused the explosion, and why the cover-up?

Experts have now identified what they see as the two most likely scenarios that led to the blast — sabotage by Israel, or a costly mistake by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Eloise Scott, Middle East, North Africa and Turkey analyst at security and political risk consultancy Sibylline, told Arab News that either of these explanations would be highly embarrassing for Tehran and therefore worthy of a cover-up.

She said the blast could very well be a “careless mistake” from “the accidentally trigger-happy Revolutionary Guards.” According to Scott, there is a precedent for this kind of error, not least in the January downing of a Ukrainian jet over Tehran by an IRGC missile.

She did not disregard, however, the possibility that the blast was intentional.

“There’s been a lot of speculation as to whether it was a sabotage incident. I wouldn't discount it. I think it is very plausible that it could have been an Israeli cyber-attack, as we’ve seen them do before,” Scott said.

She says there has been a tit-for-tat exchange of cyber-attacks between Israel and Iran in recent weeks, and the Khojir explosion could very well be the latest front in the ongoing covert battle between the two sworn enemies.

Regardless of whether the blast was caused by sabotage or accident, either explanation “makes the IRGC look completely incompetent,” said Scott.

But this incompetence masks an unpredictable and unstable regime that remains a danger to the region.

Michael Elleman, director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Programme, says despite the wishful thinking of some observers, Thursday’s blast will not significantly curtail the danger posed by the Iranian missile program.

Iran’s domestic missile capacity is increasingly self-sufficient, he told Arab News, and in the past five to 10 years their arsenal has become focused on “increasing accuracy and lethality.”

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The proof of this is clear even in just the last six months, according to Elleman.

“As evidenced by attacks like the missile strike on the Al-Asad airbase in Iraq, Iran’s ballistic missile force has become an increasingly effective battlefield weapon,” he said.

The Tehran blast “will not impact their production capacity in any meaningful way.”

Elleman’s view is echoed by Ian Williams, deputy director of the International Security Program at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, who says the threat from Iran remains high.

“Despite incidents like this, Iran’s missile threat is very real,” he said. “With its missile attacks on US forces in Iraq and its missile and drone attack on Saudi Arabia, Iran has demonstrated that it has capable missiles and the willingness to use them.”

The development of such a dangerous arsenal of long-range missiles, though, has come at a significant cost.

Ali Safavi, a member of Iran's Parliament in Exile and president of Near East Policy Research, says ultimately it is the Iranian people who pay the price.

“The mullahs care very little about the concerns, the welfare and the livelihood of the Iranian people,” he told Arab News. “The Iranian economy is in free fall. Not only due to the maximum pressure policy of the US, but also falling oil prices.”

He accused Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his government of pouring money into the IRGC’s outsized advanced weaponry program, while ignoring schools, hospitals and rampant poverty.

“In such a disastrous economic situation, one would assume the regime would focus the resources they have on addressing their social and economic problems,” Safavi said.

“Instead, they spend hundreds of millions of dollars on these ballistic missiles that they do not seem capable of safely handling.”

The regime’s poorly executed attempt at hiding the truth about the Tehran blast came as no surprise to Safavi, who argues that “deception, denial and duplicity have been a part of this regime’s DNA since 1979.”

The misinformation that followed the Tehran blast is just the latest in a long series of deceptions, he said, adding that the Iranian people are becoming increasingly aware that these cover-ups are futile attempts to hide the fragility of the regime.

Just days after the blast east of Tehran, another explosion at a clinic in the capital’s Tajrish neighborhood added to the jitters amid a devastating outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Fifteen women were among the 19 people who lost their lives in the blast at the Sina Athar health center.

Iran’s military capacity may remain intact after all the explosions, but they have demonstrated that Tehran’s pursuit of regional hegemony in the face of a slow-motion economic collapse is creating domestic problems for which ballistic missiles and other weaponry are no panacea.

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@CHamillStewart


Jerusalem conflict stokes fears of civil war in Israel

Jerusalem conflict stokes fears of civil war in Israel
Updated 14 May 2021

Jerusalem conflict stokes fears of civil war in Israel

Jerusalem conflict stokes fears of civil war in Israel
  • Discriminatory system based on a supremacist ideology ‘will not hold forever’

AMMAN: The fight over the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, clashes in and around Al-Aqsa Mosque between Muslim worshippers and Israeli police,  and the exchange of rockets, shelling and airstrikes between Hamas and the Israel Defense Force could turn into a civil war between Israeli Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel, experts fear.

Palestinians, living in mixed Arab and Jewish towns like Lydda, Ramleh, Bat Yam, Haifa and Yaffo, have come under repeated attack in the past few days, with much of it motivated by racism.

Right-wing Jewish mobs yelling “death to Arabs” have beaten up individuals, vandalized homes and targeted shops belonging to Arabs — who make up 20 percent of Israel’s citizenry.

Wadie Abu Nassar, an honorary Spanish consul based in Haifa and a political analyst, said his daughters, as well as their cars and home in Haifa, were targeted by an anti-Arab Jewish mob.

Speaking to a local radio station, Abu Nassar said while his daughters were shocked at what happened, the deeper wounds are not physical. “While my daughters suffered some physical injuries, the much deeper wounds are the emotional ones caused by the revelation of this racism, that had been hidden for years,” he said.

Abu Nassar, an advisor to Catholic bishops in Israel, Palestine and Jordan, added that what happened has been truly revealing. “I am a firm believer in nonviolence, but it is clear that the Israeli public is now seeing the depth of racism, and that has happened only due to the fact that they were forced to deal with something that Palestinians have been dealing with for years.”

Prof. Sari Nusseibeh, former president of Al-Quds University, told Arab News that he sees two faces to the sudden Palestinian public revolt in Israel; one expressing a dormant, if not often visible, disaffection with the state of Israel, and the other an identification with the Palestinian national struggle and religious affiliations.

“The breakdown of the ‘civil state’ into mutual distrust, lynching, and disorder should be a clear sign for Israel that a discriminatory system based on a supremacist ideology will not hold forever and must be rectified if a day of reckoning is to be avoided,” he said.

“In the meantime, the rockets from Gaza, however inferior to Israel’s nuclear and military might, should forewarn Israel that the Palestinian national struggle will not go away, and will continue to pose a mortal threat to Israeli lives, and a political challenge to Israel’s image in the world,” he added. “Israel is obligated to look into the mirror and come to terms with the fact that until justice is realized it will never achieve peace.”

Dan Shanit, a retired Israeli physician and former head of the medical program at the Peres Center for Peace, told Arab News that he is disappointed with corrupt politicians. “The responsibility lies with the corrupt wish to hang on to power at all costs while others are exploiting religious and nationalistic sentiments in order to gain the support of the street following failed elections. The mob seems to have an upper hand while civilian blood is being spilled,” he said.

The Haifa-based Mossawa organization called on the international community to work toward achieving an immediate ceasefire and stop strikes against Gaza.

In a statement, it demanded the preservation of the right to freedom of worship for all, the right to freedom of movement, protection of the right to express an opinion and demonstrate without being subjected to security oppression or persecutions, and the rejection of any attempts to seize the property of Palestinian citizens.

The statement added that settlers had organized themselves throughout Arab localities and mixed cities with the intent of inciting clashes with Arab protesters.

“Screenshots of right-wing settler group conversations via (the) Telegram application were leaked showing the intent to kill and physically harm Arabs, as well as video evidence of settlers using live ammunition to shoot at Palestinian protesters. Many clashes were provoked and police arrests were discriminatory toward one side,” it said.

Botrus Mansour, a Nazareth-based lawyer, told Arab News that while the last few days have been very painful to see, it could have a positive result in the long term.

“For years we have been talking about the problems in the Arab community — the increase in violence — and we have also been expressing our worries that the anti-Arab racism condoned by senior officials will one day show its result on the ground,” he said. “What we are seeing now is the proof of the argument that for too long the successive Israeli governments have ignored both internal Arab violence and the incitement against Arabs by right-wing extremists. Now the country has seen the results of that wrong policy.”

Jamal Dajani, a Jerusalemite and former head of communications to the Palestinian prime minister, told Arab News that the situation in Israel is very volatile and could easily escalate quickly “because it is encouraged by Kahanists (an extremist Jewish faction) in the Israeli Knesset and (the) government. 

“What we saw in the past 24 hours, with Jewish mobs lynching 48 Palestinians and attacking their businesses, is something to be very worried about, especially if the war on Gaza continues,” he added.

Former Palestinian Liberation Organization official Hanan Ashrawi, meanwhile, said the events of the past few days have had a galvanizing effect, uniting Palestinians in the West Bank including Jerusalem, in Gaza and across the diaspora.


Biden speaks to Netanyahu, hopes violence ending ‘sooner than later’

Biden speaks to Netanyahu, hopes violence ending ‘sooner than later’
Updated 14 May 2021

Biden speaks to Netanyahu, hopes violence ending ‘sooner than later’

Biden speaks to Netanyahu, hopes violence ending ‘sooner than later’
  • Blinken calls Mahmoud Abbas to urge an end to rocket attacks from Gaza

WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden said that Israel has a right to defend itself but after speaking with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu he hopes violent clashes with Palestinians will end quickly.

“I had a conversation with Bibi Netanyahu not too long ago,” Biden told reporters. “My expectation and hope is that this will be closing down sooner than later, but Israel has a right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory.”

Biden said US diplomacy was in high gear with national security and defense staff “in constant contact with their counterparts in the Middle East — not just with the Israelis, but also with everyone from the Egyptians and the Saudis to the Emiratis.”

Biden spoke as calls grew internationally for a de-escalation of violence after intense hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians that have left dozens dead and hundreds injured.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he had spoken by telephone with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, to urge an end to the rocket attacks.

The rockets are being fired by Hamas, but the US does not speak with the group, considering it a terrorist organization.

The conversation between the top US diplomat and Abbas was the first high-level call between the US and the Palestinians since Biden was sworn into office in January.

Abbas’s Palestinian Authority broke off contact with the previous US administration of Donald Trump in 2017, when he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“I spoke with President Abbas about the ongoing situation in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza,” Blinken posted on Twitter. “I expressed condolences for the loss of life. I emphasized the need to end rocket attacks and de-escalate tensions.”

Earlier, Blinken announced that Hady Amr, the State Department official in charge of Israeli and Palestinian affairs, was leaving to the region to urge “de-escalation of violence.”

The diplomat also talked with Netanyahu, again pushing for both sides to step back from fighting.

Blinken “reiterated his call on all parties to de-escalate tensions and bring a halt to the violence,” said a State Department statement.

The Pentagon said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had called his Israeli counterpart, Benny Gantz, and backed Israel’s “legitimate right to defend itself and its people” while also urging steps to restore calm.

Blinken described scenes of dead Palestinian civilians, including children, as “harrowing” but defended Israel’s assault on Gaza in response to rocket fire by Hamas militants.

The White House said that during his call with Netanyahu, Biden “condemned the rocket attacks by Hamas and other terrorist groups, including against Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. 

He conveyed his unwavering support for Israel’s security and for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and its people, while protecting civilians.”


Israel says no troops in Gaza, cites communication error

Israel says no troops in Gaza, cites communication error
Updated 14 May 2021

Israel says no troops in Gaza, cites communication error

Israel says no troops in Gaza, cites communication error
  • Israeli army earlier announced that ground troops have entered Palestinian enclave
  • Army spokesman John Conricus confirmed the escalation 

JERUSALEM: The Israeli army clarified early Friday that its troops had not entered the Gaza Strip as it had earlier stated, blaming an “internal communication” problem for the confusion.

Just after midnight, the army sent a message to the media saying troops were in the Gaza Strip, and this was confirmed to AFP by the army’s spokesperson.

“Israeli planes and troops on the ground are carrying out an attack in the Gaza Strip,” the Israeli army said in a brief message.

Army spokesman John Conricus confirmed the escalation without specifying the scale of the operation.

“We are prepared, and continue to prepare for various scenarios,” Conricus said, describing a ground offensive as “one scenario.”

Earlier Thursday, Israel said it was massing troops along the Gaza frontier and calling up 9,000 reservists ahead of a possible ground invasion of the Hamas-ruled territory, as the two bitter enemies plunged closer to all-out war.

Visiting a rocket defense battery, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told troops to be prepared for an extended campaign against Hamas. “It will take more time, but ... we will achieve our goal — to restore peace to the state of Israel,” he said.

In Gaza, AFP photographers said people were evacuating their homes in the northeastern part of the enclave ahead of possible Israeli attacks, with Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, warning of a “heavy response” to a possible ground incursion

Two hours later after announcing the entry of ground troops into the Palestinian enclave, the army published a clarification saying there were “no soldiers” in Gaza.

The stepped-up fighting came as communal violence in Israel erupted for a fourth night, with Jewish and Arab mobs clashing in the flashpoint town of Lod. The fighting took place despite a bolstered police presence ordered by the nation’s leaders.

The four-day burst of violence has pushed Israel into uncharted territory — dealing with the most intense fighting it has ever had with Hamas while simultaneously coping with the worst Jewish-Arab violence inside Israel in decades. A late-night barrage of rocket fire from Lebanon that landed in the sea threatened to open a new front along Israel’s northern border.

The fighting broke out late Monday when Hamas, claiming to be the defender of Jerusalem, fired a barrage of long-range rockets toward the city in response to what it said were Israeli provocations. Israel quickly responded with a series of airstrikes.

Since then, Israel has attacked hundreds of targets in Gaza. The strikes set off scores of earth-shaking explosions across the densely populated territory. Gaza militants have fired nearly 2,000 rockets into Israel, bringing life in the southern part of the country to a standstill. Several barrages targeted the seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv, some 70 kilometers (45 miles) away.

Gaza’s Health Ministry said the death toll has climbed to 103 Palestinians, including 27 children and 11 women, with 530 people wounded. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, though Israel says that number is much higher. Seven people have been killed in Israel, including a 6-year-old boy.

 


Turkey’s notorious mafia leader claims close state ties

Turkey’s notorious mafia leader claims close state ties
Updated 14 May 2021

Turkey’s notorious mafia leader claims close state ties

Turkey’s notorious mafia leader claims close state ties
  • Concern over criminalization of politics as opposition calls for parliamentary inquiry

JEDDAH: Turkish government officials entered into a war of words with the country’s well-known mafia leader, Sedat Peker, who released a series of videos about schemes within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) involving some of its deputies.

The claims pushed opposition politicians to call for the truth behind the claims in order to fight against the criminalization of politics.

Ultranationalist convict Peker alleged that former interior minister, Mehmet Agar, and his son, Tolga Agar, who is currently a deputy for the AKP, were involved in the suspicious death of a 21-year-old Kazakh journalist, Yeldana Kaharman, two years ago, a day after she interviewed Tolga Agar.

Kaharman allegedly committed suicide, but it is claimed that the autopsy report shows otherwise. However, the case was quickly closed by the local prosecutors at the time.

Peker claimed that Agar was “the head of deep state” in Turkey.

Former justice minister of the ruling government and current member of the presidency’s higher advisory board, Cemil Cicek, urged the judiciary to investigate Peker’s claims about the Agar family.

“If even one-thousandth of these claims are true, this is a disaster and very problematic ... Turkey has had enough experience in the past concerning similar issues,” Cicek said on May 12.

“We should learn the necessary lessons. The relevant prosecutor needs to take action and do what is necessary,” Cicek said.

Mehmet Agar claims that the state can examine him whenever required.

The claims pushed opposition parties to try to make the government accountable for its ties with the mafia leader.

Last year, the Turkish government passed a controversial amnesty law that freed up to 90,000 inmates from Turkish prisons for nonpolitical crimes, but excluded dissident journalists and politicians.

The law resulted in the mass release of organized gang leaders, including Alaattin Cakici, a notorious mafia kingpin closely connected to the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). During the time that Cakici was behind bars, his rival Peker consolidated his grip on the Turkish underworld.

The group deputy of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Ozgur Ozel, said that Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu was the connection point between the AKP, its ally MHP and the mafia.

Ozel also claimed that the interior minister was closely tied to mafia leader Peker and that the government turned a blind eye to Peker’s previous actions in the northern city of Rize, where he threatened the dissident academics of the country, saying: “I will shower them with their own blood.”

In the latest video he released, Peker confessed that he had played a role in the support shown for Interior Minister Soylu when the minister decided to resign from his post in April 2020. Peker allegedly organized a Twitter campaign to object to Soylu’s resignation.

Since 2019, Peker has lived in Balkan countries where he regularly met Bosniak political leaders. He claimed that he had to leave Turkey because of a personal hostility with the Turkish president’s son-in-law and former finance minister, Berat Albayrak.

After being arrested earlier this year in North Macedonia with a fake ID and passport, he was deported to Kosovo where he had a business residence permit. He is currently believed to live in Dubai.

Peker, with a strong network in Istanbul’s underworld, was previously blamed by some politicians, such as Baris Atay of the Workers’ Party of Turkey, for using gangs to attack dissidents in the streets. Atay was seriously beaten up in a busy street of Istanbul after he was verbally targeted by Soylu.

The opposition now urges the government to form a parliamentary inquiry commission and inform the public about these allegations.

Ayhan Sefer Ustun, former head of the parliamentary Human Rights Commission and founding member of the breakaway Future Party that is led by the country’s former prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said the allegations should spark a serious campaign against “deep state” in Turkey.

“Turkey should launch a countrywide campaign against deep state and a widespread mafia structure that reached out to the inner circles of the state,” he told Arab News.

“A parliamentary commission should be established where each party at the parliament will be represented equally to investigate Peker’s claims,” he said.

“Any connection between the politics and public security should be put under broad daylight,” Ustun added, referring to the 1996 Susurluk scandal in Turkey where close ties between the state and the mafia were revealed after strong popular insistence.

Interior Minister Soylu will file a lawsuit against the allegations made by Peker, and he called on the mafia leader to surrender to Turkish justice.

Peker has been tried several times by Turkish courts over his involvement in criminal gangs.

He was sentenced to 14 years in jail in 2007 for establishing and leading a criminal organization, and for forgery.

His sentence, however, was later reduced to 10 years and he was released from jail in 2014.

The number of Peker’s damaging video releases are expected to reach 12 in total.


Eid prayers return to Mosul mosque ruined in Daesh war

Eid prayers return to Mosul mosque ruined in Daesh war
Updated 14 May 2021

Eid prayers return to Mosul mosque ruined in Daesh war

Eid prayers return to Mosul mosque ruined in Daesh war
  • Groups of men entered silently and sat down to listen to religious recitals in the building

MOSUL: As dawn broke over Mosul on Thursday, worshippers knelt between piles of rubble while Eid Al-Fitr prayers took place in the city’s oldest mosque for the first time since Daesh was driven out of the area in 2017.

Groups of men entered silently and sat down to listen to religious recitals in the building, which dates back to the Umayyad period in the 7th century and remains largely in ruins following heavy fighting in Mosul’s Old City.

“The message is clear. The Al-Masfi Mosque is the Islamic epicenter and symbol of the area. It is not only Islamic, but also a symbol of the city,” said Ahmed Najem, a local academic, after prayers.

The mosque was partially destroyed during the brutal occupation by Daesh, which proclaimed Mosul the capital of its self-styled caliphate, and an intense campaign of airstrikes to liberate the city from the militants.

Like many other heritage and religious buildings in the Old City, it has been left in disrepair, with collapsed walls and mounds of rubble. Local campaigners say this is due to insufficient public funding allocated to reconstruction in Iraq’s northern Nineveh province.

“We need to accelerate its reconstruction,” said Najem.

Volunteers from a local group campaigning for the renovation of the Old City swept the floor and put down rugs ahead of the prayers for Eid, a holiday which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

“We are happy about Eid and other celebrations, but there is also heartbreak because of great destruction in Mosul until this day,” said Ayyub Dhanun, one of the volunteers.

Volunteer groups have sprung up in Mosul since its liberation, with many campaigning for funds to rebuild the city’s architectural heritage and identity.

They have organized events at mosques, churches and recently Mosul’s Spring Theatre, cleaning and tidying damaged buildings as best they can, often with no financial or other support.

“This is an invitation to rebuild this monument and to compensate Mosul residents by rebuilding their houses in old Mosul,” said Dhanun after prayers at the Al-Masfi Mosque.