Shadow war no more: The tussle between Iran and Israeli spy agency Mossad

A grab of a videoconference screen of an engineer inside Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment plant, shown during a ceremony headed by the country's president on Iran's National Nuclear Technology Day, in the capital Tehran. (AFP/File Photo)
A grab of a videoconference screen of an engineer inside Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment plant, shown during a ceremony headed by the country's president on Iran's National Nuclear Technology Day, in the capital Tehran. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 21 April 2021

Shadow war no more: The tussle between Iran and Israeli spy agency Mossad

A grab of a videoconference screen of an engineer inside Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment plant, shown during a ceremony headed by the country's president on Iran's National Nuclear Technology Day, in the capital Tehran. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Natanz nuclear plant sabotage lays bare vulnerability to betrayal at the hands of own population
  • Analysts say Tehran’s tepid response is a sign of its desperation for sanctions relief above all else

LONDON: Analysts have said that the blast that struck Iran’s most critical nuclear facility on April 11 is another significant event in a decades-long shadow war between Tehran and its regional adversary Israel.

They say the sabotage has not only exposed Iran’s vulnerability to betrayal at the hands of its own population, but its tepid response has revealed its desperation for sanctions relief above all else.

Unnamed intelligence officials from Mossad told Israeli media and the New York Times last week that the mysterious Natanz explosion was their handiwork. And, according to Yossi Mekelberg, associate fellow with the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, it is a continuation of the spate of blasts, blackouts, and fires that swept across the Islamic Republic last year — but with one major difference.

“What has changed from last year is how public it is. (Israel) is ready to take responsibility. From a shadow war it has moved to the forefront,” Mekelberg told Arab News.

“This confrontation has been taking place for two decades now, at least. Cyberattacks, assassinations of scientists, attacks on ships — this is something that is ongoing. What you have seen in the last year or so is that it is becoming open, from covert to overt.”

In the past year alone, Iran has been rocked by a relentless series of attacks, assassinations, and sabotages. The country’s top nuclear scientist was killed in a sophisticated attack.

Their entire nuclear archives were stolen and smuggled out of the country, and nuclear, military, and logistics sites across the country have suffered from a series of mysterious setbacks.




An image grab from footage obtained from Iranian State TV IRIB on April 17, 2021 shows the portrait of a man identified as 43-year-old Reza Karimi, saying the intelligence ministry had established his role in last week's "sabotage" on the Natanz nuclear facility. (AFP/File Photo)

According to Mekelberg, these incidents have not only hindered Iran’s economy and nuclear program, but also exposed a fundamental weakness in the regime.

“They have a real issue inside their nuclear program,” he said. “The idea that their top scientist, they couldn’t protect him, and that someone managed to take your nuclear archives out of the country — that is not something you can simply put in your pocket.”

Iranian state television named 43-year-old Iranian national Reza Karimi as the prime suspect in the April sabotage — but said he had already fled the country in the hours before the blast occurred.

Mekelberg and other experts believe the involvement of an Iranian national is indicative of the regime’s core vulnerability: Turncoats within its population, and even within the nuclear program itself.

INNUMBERS

Iranian oil

* $40 - Price per barrel of oil used in Iran’s budget calculations.

* 300,000 - Estimated oil exports in barrels per day (bpd) in 2020.

* 2.8m - Iranian oil exports in bpd in 2018.

“They have a real issue with security. I assume that the more things like this happen, the more paranoid they become about who they can trust, who is working with foreign agencies. Obviously, someone is,” Mekelberg said.

Olli Heinonen, a non-proliferation expert and distinguished fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Center, believes the sophistication of the Natanz attack means there is little doubt that local collaborators from within the regime enabled it.

“Those who have designed and executed these actions have insider information and highly likely local contributors,” Heinonen told Arab News.




This handout satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies on January 8, 2020 shows an overview of Iran's Natanz nuclear facility, south of the capital Tehran. (AFP/Maxar/File Photo)

Like Mekelberg, Heinonen highlighted Iran’s apparent ineptitude in defending even its most critical nuclear facilities and pointed to the stark contrast between the country’s record and another global pariah state’s nuclear program.

“It is worth noting that we have not heard about similar incidents in North Korea,” he said. “It is evident that the (Iranian) security forces have not been able to protect the assets as the leadership had expected.

“This does not come as a surprise. Not all Iranians, including technical professionals, buy the reasonability of the enrichment efforts, the investments for which could be used better elsewhere, even within the nuclear program.”

Tehran has admitted that the attacks caused serious damage at the Natanz facility. Last week, Alireza Zakani, a regime hardliner who heads the Iranian parliament’s research center, referred to “several thousand centrifuges damaged and destroyed” in an interview on state television.




A handout picture released by the official website of Iran's Revolutionary Guard on August 25, 2014, shows an alleged Israeli drone that was shot down above the Natanz uranium enrichment site. (AFP/File Photo)

“From a technical standpoint, the enemy’s plan was rather beautiful,” the head of the Iranian parliament’s energy committee said. “They thought about this and used their experts and planned the explosion so both the central power and the emergency power cable would be damaged.”

Heinonen said the attacks have “certainly slowed production” of 20 percent enriched uranium, which is above the enrichment level needed for nuclear power, but far below the 90 percent required for weapons-grade uranium.

However, he cautioned that production could begin to ramp up again within three months of the attack, and Tehran’s promise to begin enriching uranium to 60 percent in response to the attack could act as a springboard toward rapid development of a nuclear bomb.

“In a short term (60 percent enrichment) does not contribute much to breakout time, but it demonstrates the fact that uranium enrichment is mainly designed to build a nuclear latency; to be in a position to relaunch in short interval a full nuclear weapon acquisition program, if such a decision is made,” he said.

The response to the attacks is part of a delicate balancing act by Tehran, according to Nader Di Michele, an Iran-focused analyst at political risk consultancy Prelia.




This handout powerpoint slide provided by U.S. Central Command damage shows an explosion (L) and a likely limpet mine can be seen on the hull of the civilian vessel M/V Kokuka Courageous in the Gulf of Oman, June 13, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)

“They do not want escalations but the government has to show a response in terms of its foreign policy. That could be aimed at international actors or even its domestic population,” he told Arab News.

Beyond increasing uranium enrichment, it was reported that unknown actors targeted an Israeli-owned cargo ship in the following days. However, Di Michele thinks the damage caused by that attack was, by design, minimal compared with the devastation caused by the Natanz attack.

“There always has to be a response to these attacks, but I think the Iranian delegation understands that there is a limit to what they can do if they want sanctions relief.”

Di Michele said if the ongoing negotiations in Vienna prompt a lifting of sanctions and release of various assets that, in turn, deliver a financial boost to the regime, “we can never be sure what proportion of that would go to support which activities.”

He added: “It can be assumed that a proportion of those assets released would go toward foreign policy activities. What those entail, I couldn’t speculate on.”

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Twitter: @CHamillStewart


Israel-Gaza violence shows few signs of slowing as global diplomacy ramps up

Israel-Gaza violence shows few signs of slowing as global diplomacy ramps up
Updated 33 min ago

Israel-Gaza violence shows few signs of slowing as global diplomacy ramps up

Israel-Gaza violence shows few signs of slowing as global diplomacy ramps up
  • Palestinian death toll at 212, including 61 children and 36 women, since hostilities began last week
  • Ten people have been killed in Israel, including two children

GAZA/TEL AVIV: More than a week of fighting between Israel and Hamas showed few signs of abating on Tuesday despite intense US and global diplomacy to stop the region’s fiercest hostilities in years.
The Israeli military said late on Monday that Hamas and other Palestinian groups had fired about 3,350 rockets from Gaza – 200 of them on Monday alone – and that Israeli air and artillery strikes had killed at least 130 militants.
Gaza health officials put the Palestinian death toll at 212, including 61 children and 36 women, since hostilities began last week. Ten people have been killed in Israel, including two children.
Amid seemingly fruitless diplomatic efforts to stop the violence, the top US military officer, Army General Mark Milley, warned that the violence could spread.
“My assessment is that you risk broader destabilization and you risk a whole series of negative consequences if the fighting continues,” Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters before landing in Brussels on Monday for talks with NATO allies. “It’s in no one’s interest to continue fighting.”
Israeli air strikes on the Palestinian enclave continued overnight. Soon after dawn, missiles struck two buildings in Gaza City, sending plumes of thick smoke into the air.
Militants in the Strip fired rockets early on Tuesday that set off sirens in southern Israeli cities, sending thousands running for bomb shelters.
There were no immediate reports of injuries on either side.
The overnight rocket fire from Gaza appeared to be less than in previous nights. There was a six-hour lull in rocket fire overnight before they again began being launched at dawn, according to rocket siren information from the Israeli military.
US President Joe Biden expressed his support for a cease-fire during a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, the White House said in a statement.
But Netanyahu told Israelis earlier that strikes against militant sites and leaders in Gaza would carry on.
“The directive is to continue to strike at terror targets,” he said in a televised speech, after meeting with military and intelligence chiefs. “We will continue to act as necessary to restore peace and security to all residents of Israel.”
The armed wing of Hamas promised more rockets in return: “The criminal Zionist enemy intensified its bombing of homes and residential apartments in the recent hours, and therefore, we warn the enemy that if it did not stop that immediately, we would resume rocketing Tel Aviv,” said spokesman Abu Ubaida.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged all sides to protect civilians.
Although stressing that Israel had the right to defend itself, Blinken said he had not seen any evidence from Israel about its suggestion that Hamas was operating out of a building housing media outlets – including the US-based Associated Press – which was destroyed in an Israeli missile strike at the weekend.
Hamas denied having offices in the building. “These are false allegations and an attempt to justify the crime of targeting a civilian tower,” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.
Egypt and UN mediators also stepped up diplomatic efforts, while the UN General Assembly will meet to discuss the violence on Thursday.
The Biden administration approved the potential sale of $735 million in precision-guided weapons to Israel, and congressional sources said on Monday that US lawmakers were not expected to object to the deal.
Hamas began its rocket assault last Monday after weeks of tensions over a court case to evict several Palestinian families in East Jerusalem, and in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians near the city’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The hostilities between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza have been accompanied by an uptick of violence in the West Bank, where the Palestinians have limited self-rule.
There have also been clashes between Israel’s Jewish and Arab communities in mixed areas.
Israel’s president has warned that tension between Jewish and Arab Israelis could devolve into “civil war.”
General strikes are planned for Tuesday in Arab towns within Israel and Palestinian towns in the West Bank, with posts on social media urging solidarity “from the sea to the river.”


Israel shells Lebanon after failed launches toward Israeli territory

Israel shells Lebanon after failed launches toward Israeli territory
Updated 18 May 2021

Israel shells Lebanon after failed launches toward Israeli territory

Israel shells Lebanon after failed launches toward Israeli territory

TEL AVIV/BEIRUT: Six shells were fired from Lebanon towards northern Israel on Monday but fell short of crossing the border, the Israeli military said.
It said that in response, artillery was fired at "the sources of the launches" in Lebanon.
A Lebanese security source said shells were heard being fired from south Lebanon and efforts were being made to identify the location. The source said about 22 shells were fired by Israeli artillery on Lebanese territory.
There were no reports of casualties or damage, and the shelling did not appear to signal the opening of a new front in Israel's fighting with militants in the Gaza Strip.
The Lebanese shelling caused Israeli air raid sirens to blare near the kibbutz of Misgav Am, along Israel's northern border with Lebanon.
It was the second incident of cross-border fire in the past week. On Thursday, three rockets were launched from Lebanon toward northern Israel but landed in the Mediterranean Sea, causing no damage or casualties.
Israel fought a 2006 war against Hezbollah guerrillas, who have sway in southern Lebanon and advanced rockets. The border has been mostly quiet since then.
Small Palestinian factions in Lebanon have fired sporadically on Israel in the past.


Gaza facing water, power crisis after deadly Israeli attacks lift death toll to 200

Gaza facing water, power crisis after deadly Israeli attacks lift death toll to 200
A man inspects the rubble of destroyed commercial building and Gaza health care clinic following an Israeli airstrike on the upper floors of a commercial building in Gaza City, on Monday, May 17, 2021. (AP)
Updated 17 May 2021

Gaza facing water, power crisis after deadly Israeli attacks lift death toll to 200

Gaza facing water, power crisis after deadly Israeli attacks lift death toll to 200
  • Gaza City mayor Yahya Al-Sarraj accused Israel of deliberately targeting infrastructure and destroying main streets, including access to Al-Shifa Hospital
  • 59 children, 35 women among victims of Gaza strikes

GAZA CITY: Residents of the Gaza Strip were awakened in the early hours of Monday by the heaviest Israeli bombardment since the conflict escalated a week ago as residential buildings were hit and vital power and water links destroyed.

The overnight attacks brought the Palestinian death toll to almost 200, including 59 children and 35 women, while more than 1,300 have been injured.

Israel targeted homes, apartments and commercial buildings, and also struck a car and a cafeteria on the seashore, resulting in deaths and injuries.

The relentless bombardment has severely hit electricity, water and sanitation services in Gaza, raising fears of a deepening humanitarian crisis for the 2 million people living there.

Gaza City mayor Yahya Al-Sarraj said that essential services had been cut back significantly in recent days due to limited resources and damage to roads, power lines and water pipes.

He accused Israel of deliberately targeting infrastructure and destroying main streets, including access to Al-Shifa Hospital.

Sanitation and water supply to the population have been badly hit, Al-Sarraj told Arab News.

“The only desalination plant in Gaza City has stopped working as a result of the Israeli bombardment of the surrounding areas and the inability of workers to reach it, and the continuous electricity cuts have affected the pumping of water in the wells into homes,” he said.

Ziad Sheikh Khalil, 44, is trying to provide lighting for the house he shares with his wife and four children by charging batteries during the few hours that electricity is available.

“We hardly get three hours of electricity a day,” he told Arab News.

“When the power is on, all the family members work quickly to charge mobile phones, as well as operate the washing machine and pump water to the tanks at the top of the building.”

The Gaza Strip has suffered from severe electricity shortages for many years, but in recent days the crisis has worsened due to the lack of fuel and damage to the 10 power lines that come from Israel.

Six of Gaza’s 10 electricity lines are down and supply has been more than halved, according to Mohammed Thabet, a spokesperson for the Gaza Electricity Distribution Company.

“There are some border areas completely cut off from electricity,” he said.

Repair crews are unable to fix the lines due to continued attacks.

The closure of the Kerem Abu Salem crossing has also hit fuel supplies for the only power station in the Gaza Strip, he said.

Thabit added: “Electricity networks inside the Gaza Strip also have been hit by the Israeli bombing of residential areas. It increases the difficulties facing the company.”

 


Jordan MPs launch diplomatic assault on Israel with call for envoy’s expulsion

Jordan MPs launch diplomatic assault on Israel with call for envoy’s expulsion
Updated 17 May 2021

Jordan MPs launch diplomatic assault on Israel with call for envoy’s expulsion

Jordan MPs launch diplomatic assault on Israel with call for envoy’s expulsion
  • Ninety MPs out of Jordan’s 130-strong lower house of parliament signed a memorandum requesting the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador
  • Move comes as a sign of protest and rejection of Israel’s “brutal and barbaric” attacks on Al-Aqsa Mosque and Gaza

AMMAN: Jordanian MPs on Monday called for Israel’s ambassador in Amman to be expelled in response to “Israel’s crimes against humanity.”

Almost all lawmakers who took the podium during Monday’s special session on the violence in Gaza and the occupied West Bank urged the government to expel the envoy following Israel’s actions in Jerusalem and subsequent bombing campaign.

Jordan is the custodian of the Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Ninety MPs out of Jordan’s 130-strong lower house of parliament signed a memorandum requesting the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador in Amman as a sign of protest and rejection of Israel’s “brutal and barbaric” attacks on Al-Aqsa Mosque and Gaza.

The petition, a copy of which was seen by Arab News, calls on the government to adopt a bold stance toward cutting diplomatic ties with the “Zionist entity” by expelling the Israeli envoy and recalling Jordan’s ambassador in Tel Aviv.

Last week, the Jordanian government said it had summoned the Israeli charge d’affaires in Amman to object to the “Israeli assaults against Al-Aqsa Mosque worshippers and East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.”

Other MPs demanded the cancelation of all agreements with Israel, including the 1994 Jordan-Israel peace treaty and the gas deal between the two countries.

In 2016, Jordan’s National Electric Power Company signed a 15-year agreement with Noble Energy, a Houston-based company that holds the largest share in the Israeli Leviathan gas field, to buy $10 billion of natural gas.

The government at the time said it would import 250-300 million cubic feet of natural gas per day from Noble Energy, adding the deal would save the kingdom around $990 million. Under the agreement, Jordan will receive 3 billion cubic meters of gas per year.

Other deputies, mostly of Islamist leaning, hailed Hamas’ “acts of resistance,” and called for action against Israel in the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Prime Minister Bisher Al-Khasawneh, who attended the session, said that Jordan has its own legal and diplomatic toolbox to deal with the Israeli attacks on Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank, adding: “All options are on the table.”

Al-Khasawneh said that some of these diplomatic options will be used to protect Palestinians’ rights and others to highlight Israel’s violations.

The prime minister accused Israel of committing crimes against humanity, and said that Jordan’s unwavering position on the long-running conflict is rooted in the three “no’s” declared by King Abdullah: No to giving up Jerusalem, no to dropping the right of return for Palestinians, and no to the resettlement of Palestinians in Jordan.

With some MPs threatening the government with a no-confidence motion if it fails to expel the ambassador, Al-Khasawneh said that the “government will examine all options and will take the right action that serves the national interests once it receives the parliamentary petition.”

Sheikh Jarrah

A group of MPs also requested that a parliamentary delegation visit Sheikh Jarrah to deliver a message to the world’s parliaments on what they termed the “injustice exercised against the Palestinians” in the East Jerusalem neighborhood.

In a memorandum submitted for immediate action, 100 MPs demanded that a parliamentary delegation be formed to visit Sheikh Jarrah with the aim of supporting the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem and reaffirming Jordanian custodianship of the Old City’s holy shrines.

Al-Khasawneh said that the government has provided the Palestinian Authority with documents on Sheikh Jarrah to help the Ramallah-based government address Israeli “demographic change” practices in Jerusalem.

During a visit to Ramallah on April 22, Jordanian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi submitted documents to PA President Mahmoud Abbas proving Palestinian ownership of Sheikh Jarrah.

Jordan administered the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, until the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war, but remains custodian of the holy sites in Jerusalem.

Safadi’s trip to the occupied West Bank came after families were reportedly given court orders to leave their homes in the predominantly Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah by May 5 or face eviction.

“We have provided all the documents that we have that can help the Palestinian residents to preserve their full rights. Jerusalem is a red line for Jordan, the king and our people, as it is a red line for the state of Palestine. We will confront any effort to undermine the existing historical and legal status of the Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem,” Safadi was quoted as saying following his meeting with Abbas.

In response to some deputies who claimed that the government has failed to submit all registration documents to the Palestinians, Safadi said: “This is untrue. The government has checked every relevant paper in the (national) archives and has submitted all documents to the Palestinian people and government, and has also attested all the documents handed to the Sheikh Jarrah’s residents proving their ownership of their neighborhood.”

At a meeting with MPs on Sunday, King Abdullah said that “no country is more supportive of the Palestinians than Jordan,” adding that intensive talks were underway with active international stakeholders to stop the Israeli escalation, and safeguard Palestinian lives and property.


Houthi leader kills cardiologist, his brother for opposing mosque sermon

Houthi leader kills cardiologist, his brother for opposing mosque sermon
A fighter loyal to Yemen's government mans a position near the frontline facing Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the country's northeastern province of Marib. (AFP file photo)
Updated 18 May 2021

Houthi leader kills cardiologist, his brother for opposing mosque sermon

Houthi leader kills cardiologist, his brother for opposing mosque sermon
  • Civilians abducted for removing pictures of Soleimani, Nasrallah from streets, walls of homes

AL-MUKALLA: A Houthi religious leader shot dead a cardiologist and his brother and wounded several others for denouncing his sermons at a mosque in the southern Yemeni province of Taiz, residents and officials reported on Monday.

Abdul Basit Al-Baher, a Yemeni army spokesman in Taiz city, told Arab News that Azit Al-Azi Abdul Nour opened fire at a gathering in Maqbanah district when a number of people took exception to his radical preaching.

Ahmed Al-Shameri, a cardiologist, and his brother Hamoud were killed in the shooting and others, including a child, were injured.

“The Houthi preacher angered locals after insulting the prophet’s companions and wives,” Al-Baher said.

He added that locals disconnected electricity from the small mosque where the Houthi was giving his address when he refused to stop speaking and members of the Iran-backed militant group sneaked him out of the building as tensions mounted and residents demanded justice.

Separately, an international rights group said on Monday that Houthis had abducted a group of residents from a small village in Yemen’s Al-Mahwit province for allegedly tearing down and removing images bearing slogans of Iranian and Hezbollah leaders.

Abdurrahman Barman, a Yemeni human rights advocate and director of the American Center for Justice (ACJ), told Arab News that heavily armed Houthis in three military vehicles descended on Al-Oura village in Shibam Kawkaban district and abducted 42 people, including children.

Those seized were accused of taking down pictures of the late Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah from streets and walls of their homes.

The Houthis released the villagers three days later after a tribal mediation in which it was agreed they would attend a local police station when the Eid break was over.

Following interviews with relatives of the captured villagers, the ACJ said that the abductees had been subjected to psychological and physical torture in a bid to force confessions out of them.

“Our children and women are living in great fear at that moment, and some women have fallen ill from the terrible tragedy as the Houthi forces stormed houses and pointed their weapons at people,” one relative reportedly told the organization.

FASTFACT

Yemen’s information minister, Moammar Al- Eryani, on Monday strongly condemned a Houthi drone strike on Sunday on a local market in Al-Durihimi district, south of Hodeidah province, that killed a civilian and wounded several others.

Meanwhile, Yemen’s information minister, Moammar Al- Eryani, on Monday strongly condemned a Houthi drone strike on Sunday on a local market in Al-Durihimi district, south of Hodeidah province, that killed a civilian and wounded several others.

He called on the UN mission responsible for monitoring the implementation of the Stockholm Agreement in Hodeidah to condemn the shelling of civilian targets which was in breach of the terms of the deal.

In a tweet, Al-Eryani said: “This heinous terrorist crime is a continuation of the crimes and violations committed by the Houthi militia against citizens in liberated areas of Hodeidah, shelling with artillery, mortars, drones, planting mines, IEDs (improvised explosive devices) on public roads, whose victims are civilians, including children and women.”

Without naming the Houthis, Gen. Abhijit Guha, head of the UN mission in Hodeidah, condemned the drone strike.

Gen. Guha urged warring factions on Monday to adhere to their pledges to avoid targeting civilians during military operations.

“I urge the parties to respect the sanctity of human life and protect civilians as per their obligations and undertake steps that will move further toward peace in the governorate and across Yemen,” he said in a statement seen by Arab News.