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


Drought-hit Jordan to build Red Sea desalination plant

Drought-hit Jordan to build Red Sea desalination plant
Updated 13 June 2021

Drought-hit Jordan to build Red Sea desalination plant

Drought-hit Jordan to build Red Sea desalination plant
  • The cost of the project is estimated at ‘around $1 billion’
  • Thirteen international consortiums have put in bids, and the government will chose five of them by July

AMMAN: Jordan said Sunday it plans to build a Red Sea desalination plant operating within five years, to provide the mostly-desert and drought-hit kingdom with critical drinking water.
The cost of the project is estimated at “around $1 billion,” ministry of water and irrigation spokesman Omar Salameh said, adding that the plant would be built in the Gulf of Aqaba, in southern Jordan.
The plant is expected to produce 250-300 million cubic meters of potable water per year, and should be ready for operation in 2025 or 2026, Salameh said.
“It will cover the need for drinking water (in Jordan) for the next two centuries,” he said, adding that the desalinated water would be piped from Aqaba on the Red Sea to the rest of the country.
Jordan is one of the world’s most water-deficient countries and experts say the country, home to 10 million people, is now in the grip of one of the most severe droughts in its history.
Thirteen international consortiums have put in bids, and the government will chose five of them by July, Salameh said.
Desalinating water is a major drain of energy, and the companies must suggest how to run the plant in Jordan, which does not have major oil reserves.
Last month Salameh said that Jordan needs about 1.3 billion cubic meters of water per year.
But the quantities available are around 850 to 900 million cubic meters, with the shortfall “due to low rainfall, global warming, population growth and successive refugee inflows,” he said.
This year, the reserves of key drinking water dams have reached critical levels, many now a third of their normal capacity.


Jordan’s former royal court chief charged in Prince Hamzah sedition case

Jordan’s former royal court chief charged in Prince Hamzah sedition case
Updated 13 June 2021

Jordan’s former royal court chief charged in Prince Hamzah sedition case

Jordan’s former royal court chief charged in Prince Hamzah sedition case
  • In the indictment, Awadallah and bin Zaid are charged with “attempting to undermine the regime”
  • On June 2, they were referred to the SSC, which looks into cases related to terrorism and state security

AMMAN: Jordan’s former royal court chief and another man will go on trial this week at the State Security Court (SSC) for their alleged roles in a plot to “destabilize the country.”

The country’s public prosecutor endorsed the charges against Sharif Hassan bin Zaid and Bassem Awadallah, the former royal court chief.

Both are accused of working with Prince Hamzah, the former crown prince.

In the indictment, a copy of which was seen by Arab News, Awadallah and bin Zaid are charged with “attempting to undermine the regime, and the country’s security and stability,” as well as “inciting sedition.”

On June 2, they were referred to the SSC, which looks into cases related to terrorism and state security. The court is expected to begin the trial next week.

Awadallah and bin Zaid were arrested on April 3 along with 15 other people suspected of involvement in the case, which also involved Prince Hamzah. Jordanian authorities said that Awadallah, bin Zaid and Prince Hamzah were attempting to destabilize Jordan in collaboration with “foreign entities.”

Prince Hamzah’s involvement was resolved within the framework of the Hashemite family upon directives from his half brother King Abdullah II. The Jordanian royal court published a letter signed by Prince Hamzah in which he vowed allegiance to King Abdullah and confirmed that he would act “always for His Majesty and his Crown Prince to help and support.”

The charge sheet into the sedition case said that there is enough evidence proving a “solid connection” between Prince Hamzah and the two suspects, Awadallah and bin Zaid.

It also said that bin Zaid recommended Awadallah to Prince Hamzah to help them gather external support in their plot to topple the regime and place Prince Hamzah on the throne.

The charges said that the three men regularly met at the home of Awadallah, who was reportedly “encouraging the prince to intensify his meetings with notables and tribal leaders.”

Prince Hamzah then moved to the so-called “open criticism stage,” and began attacking national institutions and accusing them of ineptitude, the indictment said.

The charges also claim that Prince Hamzah exploited a hospital tragedy to mobilize Jordanians and ignite public anger against the state.

Seven COVID-19 patients died in March in the New Salt Public Hospital, northwest of the capital Amman, when the hospital’s oxygen supply failed.

The incident triggered public anger, forcing Jordan’s health minister at the time, Nazir Obeidat, to step down.

The indictment contains a number of text messages that Awadallah, bin Zaid and Prince Hamzah sent to each other during March, days before the case became public.

On March 13, Awadallah sent a WhatsApp message to bin Zaid that said: “It is time for H.” On the same date, Prince Hamzah wrote to bin Zaid: “There is another person saying ‘go ahead.’” The latter wrote back: “This (medical tragedy) is considered the spark.”

Before nationwide rallies planned for March, 24, prosecutors said that bin Zaid sent a text message to Prince Hamzah warning: “From now on, there should not be only words, but there should be a leadership.”

Activists affiliated with the United Jordanian Movement, Hirak called for the nationwide rally to commemorate the 10th anniversary of massive opposition protests in 2011 organized by the Youth of March 24 movement.

Bin Zaid sent another message to Prince Hamzah urging him to “seize the opportunity, maybe not today or tomorrow, but I’m sure not in June, for example. God be on your side.”

In another text message to Prince Hamzah, bin Zaid said: “Things are coming my friend and, as the man (Awadallah) said again last day, the thing will occur sooner than you think.”


Two thirds of eligible people in Dubai fully vaccinated against COVID-19

Two thirds of eligible people in Dubai fully vaccinated against COVID-19
Updated 13 June 2021

Two thirds of eligible people in Dubai fully vaccinated against COVID-19

Two thirds of eligible people in Dubai fully vaccinated against COVID-19
  • For six months the UAE has been running one of the world’s fastest vaccination campaigns against COVID-19

DUBAI: About two-thirds of people eligible for inoculation against COVID-19 have now received two doses of the vaccine in Dubai, the tourist and business hub of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai Health Authority (DHA) said.
Dubai is the most populous of the seven emirates that make up the UAE and has one of the world’s busiest airports.
For six months the UAE has been running one of the world’s fastest vaccination campaigns against COVID-19, initially using a vaccine developed by the China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm) and then adding the Pfizer/BioNTech and AstraZeneca shots and Russia’s Sputnik V.
DHA deputy director general Alawi Alsheikh Ali told Dubai Television late on Saturday that 83 percent of people aged over 16 — or about 2.3 million people — had now received at least one dose of a vaccine and that 64 percent had received two doses in the emirate.
The UAE recently said nearly 85 percent of its total eligible population had received at least one dose of a vaccine, without saying how many people had had both doses.
The UAE, which does not break down the number of cases by emirate, has seen a rise in the number of infections in the past month. It recorded 2,281 new cases on Saturday, bringing the total so far to around 596,000 cases. Daily cases peaked at almost 4,000 a day in early February.
DHA said 90 percent of the COVID-19 patients admitted to intensive care units in Dubai hospitals were unvaccinated, without specifying when that statistic was recorded.


Algerian parliamentary election results expected within days, authority says

Algerian parliamentary election results expected within days, authority says
Updated 13 June 2021

Algerian parliamentary election results expected within days, authority says

Algerian parliamentary election results expected within days, authority says

ALGIERS: The results of an Algerian parliamentary election in which fewer than a third of voters took part will be announced within a few days, the head of the voting authority said late on Saturday.
The ruling establishment has tried to use elections along with a crackdown on dissent as a way to end two years of political unrest, with Algeria facing a looming economic crisis.
Supporters of the “Hirak” mass protest movement said it showed the system lacked legitimacy. Two prominent journalists, Khaled Drareni and Ihsane El Kadi, and the opposition figure Karim Tabbou, were detained last week but released on Saturday.
Politicians said the turnout of 30.2 percent, the lowest ever officially recorded for a parliamentary election in Algeria, was “acceptable.”
“The election took place in good conditions. Voters were able to vote and choose the most suitable candidates to serve Algeria,” said election authority head Mohamed Chorfi on television.
The protests erupted in 2019 and unseated veteran President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, continuing weekly until the global pandemic struck a year later. After a year-long pause they resumed in February but police mostly quashed them last month.
Many Algerians believe real power rests with the military and security establishments who have dominated politics for decades, rather than with elected politicians.
“We have grown accustomed in the past to high turnout due to fraud,” said Arslan Chikhaoui, an Algerian analyst, saying the authorities had manipulated the results of elections before the Hirak protests to suggest greater enthusiasm.
After Bouteflika was forced to step down, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune was elected with a turnout of 40 percent. Last year he held a referendum on an amended constitution that gained only 25 percent of votes.
The old parties that traditionally dominated have been tarred with corruption and abuse scandals, giving space to independents and moderate Islamist parties that hope to gain a majority of seats in the new parliament.
Those that win a lot of seats are likely to be included in the next government.
During parliament’s coming five-year term, Algeria is likely to face a fiscal and economic crunch, after burning through four fifths of foreign currency reserves since 2013.
The government has maintained expensive social programs and the state’s central role in the economy despite plummeting oil and gas sales.
Reforms to strengthen the private sector contributed to corruption that fueled the Hirak. Spending cuts could trigger a new wave of protests against the ruling establishment.
Laws passed by the outgoing parliament to encourage foreign and private investment and strengthen the energy sector have so far had little effect.


Lebanon stops Syrians attempting illegal sea crossing

Lebanon stops Syrians attempting illegal sea crossing
Updated 13 June 2021

Lebanon stops Syrians attempting illegal sea crossing

Lebanon stops Syrians attempting illegal sea crossing

BEIRUT: The Lebanese army on Sunday said it intercepted a small boat carrying 11 people, mostly Syrians, attempting an illegal sea crossing out of the crisis-hit country.
A statement said a naval force spotted the boat off the northern port city of Tripoli and that its passengers were all detained and referred for investigation, the army added.
The boat was carrying “10 people of Syrian nationality and a Lebanese national,” it said.
Their journey’s end was not specified but neighboring Cyprus, a member of the European Union, has been a popular sea smuggling destination in recent months.
In May, the Lebanese army intercepted a boat near Tripoli carrying 60 people, including 59 Syrians.
Lebanon, home to more than six million people, says it hosts more than a million Syrian refugees.
They have been hit hard by widening poverty rates and growing food insecurity brought on by the country’s economic crisis.
In a report released this month, the World Bank warned that Lebanon’s economic collapse is likely to rank among the world’s worst financial crises since the mid-19th century.