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Kalbushan Jhadav: Cloak and dagger in India-Pakistan relations

Amjed Jaaved

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Both rivals have completed their arguments on Kalbushan Jhadav, on death row, before International Court of Justice. India says Jhadav was abducted from Sistan (Iran), and wrongfully sentenced to death by military court, now no longer in existence because of sunset clause. Jadhav, whose family lives in Mumbai, had gone to Iran for business purposes and was kidnapped by Pakistan. Pakistan Army officer (Lieutenant Zaheer), who went missing in Nepal, played a role in Kulbhushan Jadhav’s kidnapping. Pakistan says Jadhav as an Indian Naval officer attached to the Research and Analysis Wing. Pakistan’s view is that he is Indian naval officer who covertly carried out espionage, sabotage and subversion in Pakistan. The markings on arms deliveries Jhadav made to Baluch rebels have Indian markings. He was arrested in March 2016 in the Pakistan province of Balochistan, and convicted of planning espionage and sabotage.

Indian media investigated Jhadav and exposed his fake identity. The investigative journalist Praveen Swami examined documents, such as: (a) Gazette of India showing he was commissioned in Indian Navy in 1987 with the service identity 41558Z Kulbhushan Sudhir.  (b) Subsequent Gazette showing his promotion to the rank of commander, after 13 years of service in 2000. (c)  His passport No E6934766 indicating he travelled to Iran from Pune under name Hussein Mubarak Patel in December 2003.  (d) Passport No. L9630722 (issued from Thane in 2014) inadvertently exposing his correct address: Jasdanwala Complex, old Mumbai-Pune Road, cutting through Navi Mumbai. (e) The municipal records confirming that the flat, he lived in, was owned by his mother, Avanti Jadhav.(f)  Uzair Baluch’s  judicial testimony (April 2017) confessing before  a  Karachi magistrate his  complicity  with Jadhav.Yadav was arrested with the last-mentioned passport in Pakistan.  The address on the passport blows up Jadhav’s assumed identity. (Praveen Swami, February 16, 2018, India’s secret war).  Swami confirmed possibility that `Jadhav still serves with the Indian Navy. He was `promoted to the rank of commander after 13 years of service, in 2000. Gazette of India Files bear no record of Jadhav’s retirement

India told the International Court of Justice that Jadhav was a retired naval officer but it has

declined to state exactly when he retired’. The spy initially worked for Naval Intelligence, but later moved on to the Intelligence Bureau. He came in contact with RAW in 2010.

Intricacies

Jhadav case involves intricacies of conflict between municipal (domestic) and international law. In precedence to municipal law, if he had acted against the USA, he would have been executed straightaway.

Tit for tat for Pakistan

In a report, Indian Express `claimed’ that Mohammad Habib Zahir, a retired Lt Colonel of the Pakistan Army, was part of the team that kidnapped Kulbhushan Jadhav from Iran in March 2016. Zaheer disappeared from Lumbini near Nepal’s border with India. The daily quoted `sources in the security establishment as saying’ that Indian agencies had been on Zahir’s trail for long. And, he is now suspected to be in the Indian custody.

Reciprocal tactics

India is never tired of blaming Pakistan for insurgency in disputed Kashmir. If secession of East Pakistan is any lesson, India’s desire to destabilize Pakistan is no secret.

A letter published in Indian media by RK Jhadav, a former RAW officer, unmasks India’s role in East Pakistan uprising. The confessions in the letter are corroborated by The Kaoboys & R&AW: Down Memory Lane, a book by B. Raman, another RAW officer. Jhadav’s letter was published in Nepal and quoted in India’s prestigious newspaper The Statesman. The letter and the book indicate that India’s prime minister Indira Gandhi, parliament, RAW and armed forces acted in tandem to dismember Pakistan.  Kao planned to stop the over-flights of Pakistan from West to East Pakistan which were carrying Pakistani soldiers for the impending army action. Kao, through one R&AW agent, got hijacked a plane Fokker Friendship Ganga of Indian Airlines from Srinagar to Lahore. This agent was depicted as a member of National Liberation Front of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. …This move hampered the Pakistan to send its troops by air to curb the political movement of Mujib in East Pakistan.

Disinformation in historical context

Disinformation’ (Russian deziinformatzia) is a concept which finds mention in Sun Tzu’s Ping Fa (Principles of War). Tzu believed ‘all warfare is based on deception, feign incapacity when capable of being able to attack, feign disorder within and shrike your enemy.  Capture your enemy and then turn him against his own people’.  Even before Sun Tzu, Kautliya in Arthashastra supported disinformation as a warfare tool within his concept of koota yuddha (unprincipled warfare as distinguished from dharma yuddha, righteous warfare).

Richard Deacon says, ‘Truth twisting…unless it is conducted with caution and great attention to detail, it will inevitably fail, if practiced too often… It is not the deliberate lie which we have to fear (something propaganda), but the half-truth, the embellished truth and the truth dressed up to appear a something quite different’ (The Truth Twisters, London, Macdonald & Company (Publishers) Limited, 1986/1987, p. 8).

He gives several example of disinformation including subliminal disinformation by which the truth can be twisted so that the distortion is unconsciously absorbed, something which both television and radio commentators have subtly perfected’. (Ibid. p. 9).

The latest figment of RAW’s imagination is to link Mumbai and subsequent blasts to ISI and `the outfits it sponsors’ (Dawood Ibrahim, Masood Azhar, et. al).  Reportages reflecting disinformation could be seen in exclusive issue ‘Get Dawood’ of India Today dated November 3, 2003, ‘Fact Sheet’ of Dawood’s properties and passports in Frontline dated February 2, 2002, and link-up of Mumbai blasts of August 25, 2003 with Dawood Ibrahim in cover story  ‘Family of Terror’ in India Today dated September 22, 2003.

Despite gnawing gaps in the disinformation stories, the RAW’s feat was that it managed to get Dawood declared a ‘global terrorist’.  Besides Dawood (an Indian Muslim), several other non-Muslim Indian dons like Rajan, Naga Laruppa Lumar, Murthy, Velumurugan, Srinivasan, et al remain to be declared ‘global terrorists’. The real story is that Dawood, one of the numerous dons in Mumbai’s underworld, headed a secular gang (Dr. C. K. Gandhirajan, Organised Crime, New Delhi, 110002, APH Publishing Corporation, 2002). It is said that RAW tried to woo Dawood, too, into anti-Pakistan terrorism.  But, he refused as the matter lay outside his professional interests.

Ubaidur Rahman exposed Indian government’s links with the underworld for carrying out terrorist activities in Pakistan (‘Chota Rajan a nationalist?, The Mili Gazette, dated December 10, 2003). He says, “If you are an underworld don, a petty extortionist or a killer for Supari [contract killing], you are the right person and our intelligence agencies are searching for you. …The intelligence agencies are searching for you to collaborate with them in order to fight the menace of the ISI and Dawood Ibrahim in the country…The don (Chota Rajan) who sustained severe injuries in Bangkok on 15 September is being highlighted as a great warrior, saviour of the country and a patriot. Several news channels that include the government’s very own Doordarshan, …bent on projecting and portraying him as one who is fighting the holy war for the country… works hand in gloves with our security agencies including the high profile RAW (our CIA) and the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation). These prestigious and frontline intelligence agencies are banking on this petty drug trafficker and extortionist to fight the menace of the ISI that has supposedly spread all over the country’.

Mumbai blasts have been attributed to Dawood, and by corollary to Pakistan (ISI). The weakest link in the Mumbai-blasts investigation (page 36, India Today dated September 22, 2003 is that there is no evidence, except hearsay, to corroborate link between the Syed families, accused of triggering the blasts, and Dawood.

Significantly, the magazine had itself earlier reported (India Today dated September 15, 2003, page 64), ‘But, there are some holes in the police theory.  For one Ansari and Hanif’s family went about their routine life in Mumbai after executing such a major bomb attack.  Normally the perpetrators try and flee from the city to avoid arrest. The motive too is unclear’…  two prime suspects are still at large and nobody knows who the mastermind was…Perhaps that is why Mumbai police commissioner…chose to remain subdued’.

Srikrishna’s commission was prematurely disbanded by Indian government as its ongoing investigations did not find Dawood’s involvement in Mumbai blasts (Vinod Sharma, chap. ‘Communal Violence’, in Human Rights Violations: A Global Phenomenon, New Delhi, APH Publishing Corporation, 2002). India’s CBI unsuccessfully interrogated ex Taliban minister Muttawakil (without letters rogatory) in Afghanistan to get incriminatory evidence against Dawood.

Inference

It appears that the International C ourt of Justice would revert the Jhadav case toPakistan for civil hearing. At opportune moment, Zaheer could be swopped for Jhadav.

Mr. Amjed Jaaved has been contributing free-lance for over five decades. His contributions stand published in the leading dailies at home and abroad (Nepal. Bangladesh, et. al.). He is author of seven e-books including Terrorism, Jihad, Nukes and other Issues in Focus (ISBN: 9781301505944). He holds degrees in economics, business administration, and law.

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Baghdadi Dead : What it means for Terrorism in West and South Asia?

Gen. Shashi Asthana

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President Trump’s announcement  that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State(IS) commander, died during a US military operation in Syria, later confirmed by ISIS itself, was a welcome news for all fighting terrorism or suffering from it in any part of the world.  This was followed by death of their spokesperson and arrest of his sister and wife by Turkey. After the decimation of IS caliphate, IS continues to exist in small modules in many parts of the world, mainly in West Asia, but the loss of its undisputed leader who inspired many youth globally towards radicalisation as never before, during his peak performance days will not be easy to fulfil. He revolutionised the art of extending terror network through internet, made IS the richest terror group in the world, with a caliphate to govern through sharia laws and revived sex slavery. It’s a major setback to IS & affiliated terror groups but long overdue good news for those suffered its brutality like Yezidi women. The idea of IS does not end with leader, who stands replaced by Ibrahim al Hashemi al Qurayshi from Prophet Mohammad lineage (qualified to become caliph) with a vow to avenge Baghdadi’s death. There being no change in the overall aim and ideology of IS, it will manage to regroup with lesser fund flow and area of influence and wait for opportunity to re-emerge; hence the global fight against IS has to continue.

What does it mean for Regional Terror Groups?

The US has given a strong message to terrorists but its declared withdrawal from Syria is untimely; hence the Middle-East needs a fresh look from strategic perspective. Turkey cross-border offensive on October 9 against the Kurdish YPG militia, whose fighters made up the bulk of the SDF controlling IS is a game spoiler in fight against IS. Turkeys double game with terrorists is marred with helping IS and treating Kurds as terrorists as they demand a homeland. Its desire to invade Syria and destroy Assad’s supporters made it an ally of US, but US is not keen on decimation of Kurds, who will be left with no choice but to commence terrorist activities against Turkey. The temporary five days truce, sanctions against Turkey could buy some time, but is unlikely to change Erdogan’s intent who seems to have decided to go Wahhabi way. It does give some extra lifeline to IS, which is going to get dispersed to other areas, in addition to some existing ones like Afghanistan. US withdrawal also cedes this strategic space in Syria to the forces loyal to Assad and Russia, something which US was not very keen to concede till short while ago as it was not in the best interest of Israel. This strategic equation does not change the terror potential of Hamas appreciably.

The internal political disturbance Lebanon puts Hezbollah in tight spot. The current internal political turbulence in Iraq is helpful for reorganisation of IS as it dampens the Shia spirit which indirectly helps Sunni terror groups. The recent strategic clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia triggered by a drone attack on Saudi’s oil establishment followed by attack on Iran oil tanker is also a recipe for refuelling of Shia – Sunni terror competition in West Asia. After US walked out of JCPOA (Iran Nuclear Deal) renewed and clamped additional sanctions on Iran which European Union could not prevent, Iran has also climbed the escalation ladder by announcing to fill gas in over 1000 centrifuges to enrich uranium further, which it was holding out due to the deal. This is another dangerous spiral in the region to increase the insecurity of Saudi Arabia and may result in further push to Sunni cause.  These developments have blurred the definition of victim and oppressor. The internal turbulence of West Asia therefore is creating an environment for breeding terrorists.

After IS suffered these reverses it has opened opportunities and ignited some competition for other terror groups like Taliban and al Qaeda, to strive to gain the influence they lost to ISIS earlier. This has increased their quest to grab more power and money, a bulk of which comes from coercion globally, prove their terror potential to the target population and governments to get more attention, followers, logistics and other resources. It is however noteworthy a number of terror organizations having allegiance to IS have still not changed their allegiance, indicating that demise of IS may not be on the card so soon and the group is still not out of competition.

What does it mean for Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) Region?

Afghanistan continues to face aggressive and coordinated attacks by ISIS’s branch in the region, the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) and the Afghan Taliban, including the affiliated Haqqani Network (HQN). Afghan Taliban seems to have grown much stronger for the fact that it controls more territory in Afghanistan than what it controlled when US forces marched in 19 years back. The fact that all world powers talked to them for peace (to fulfil their respective interests) indicate the blackmailing potential of Taliban.  Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and remaining US forces have not been able to control their terror strikes despite their best efforts, which are likely to increase if US choses to withdraw completely. I do visualise some more efforts of global powers for talks to Taliban in near future.  Although al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan and Pakistan was degraded earlier by multinational forces, remnants of al-Qa’ida’s global leadership, as well as its regional affiliate – al Qa’ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), continue to operate from remote locations in the region have a reason to cheer Baghdadi’s death.

Pakistan continues to be the epicenter of global terrorism playing host to maximum UN designated terrorist organisations and terrorists in the world, a large No of them have indicated allegiance to IS. Pakistani military counter-terrorism operations are more of ethnic cleansing acts against Pashtuns and Baluchis directed against groups which conducted attacks within Pakistan, such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Pakistan Army and ISI supports externally focused groups such as Lashkar e-Tayyiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), which continue to train, organize, and fundraise in Pakistan with a narrative of pseudo Islamic Jihad. The Pakistani Army does not restrict the Afghan Taliban and HQN from operating in Pakistan and threatening US and Afghan forces in Afghanistan, despite being placed on the “grey list” continuously till date, since June, 2018.The support of Pakistan to Sunni terror groups is well known and IS is no exception. The increasing radicalisation of establishments in Pakistan, conglomeration of terrorist groups in Af-Pak Region is a dangerous sign as it indicates a caliphate in making, far more dangerous than ISIS caliphate.

What does it mean for South Asia?

After the declaration of the caliphate, the newly named Caliph, Baghdadi while addressing the jihadists the world over explicitly mentioned China and India as one of the prime targets of the ISIS amongst many others and there are no signs of change in that narrative. ISIS and other militant groups are attempting to spread their ideology to countries that have Muslim population, and where there is a chance to reach out to dis-satisfied youth. al-Qa’ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and ISIS have together claimed responsibility for over 40 attacks in Bangladesh since 2015. The Government in Bangladesh continues to battle terrorism with strict Anti- terrorism Act in place, however terrorists do manage to operate there with backing from ISI, Pakistan. Terrorist organizations are using internet, social media to spread their ideologies and solicit followers globally including South Asia and many terrorists have been featured in multiple publications, videos, and websites associated with ISIS and AQIS. Terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka and rapid radicalisation in Maldives are some more examples of IS mastered methodologies to spread terror, which is likely to continue. 

India having the second largest Muslim population in the world is an obvious target for IS. India is a tolerant and pluralist society with a mix of Shias and Sunnis, which has absorbed all religious faiths, hence the rate of penetration of radicalisation has been extremely low, although some individuals have been attracted to it. Many Lone Wolf Attacks in Europe, like the suicidal car crash attack in Westminster in London on 22 March 2017, are a possibility in India as well, in future, for which it needs to be prepared. The Incidents like the train explosion in Bhopal-Ujjain express by a terror suspect, Mohammad Saifurullah alias Ali, allegedly a member of the ISIS(K) module, on 07 March 07, 2017 injuring 10 passengers, occasional display of IS flags in Kashmir Valley, bursting of few IS modules in South India by National Investigative Agency, announce the arrival of IS in India. These incidents need to be viewed in consonance with the global scene, wherein Daesh is looking for new hosts after decimation of their caliphate.

Recent Trends in Terrorism

The peaceful coexistence of IS, Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan and so many terror groups in Pakistan indicates that they are also collaborating and economising on certain activities and efforts like intelligence sharing, training camps, arms transfers, irregular trade and related activities on mutual benefit basis, hence it is increasingly difficult to use one against the other, despite intense competition amongst some of them. They are generally keen to expand their terror industry under pseudo religious cause of avenging perceived atrocities to muslims and continue to fight security forces trying to disturb their design. Their fight against each other is rarely seen in recent times. The other interesting trend especially in Pakistan is that whenever a terrorist organisation is banned globally, it changes its name, registers as social welfare organisation, and continues terrorist activities as usual.

A very well organized media and cyber campaign by the IS by incorporating technologically savvy cadres from western countries affecting some Indian youth is still on. Some media news that it had gained access to fissile material and suspected access to chemical weapons like Sarin gas, indicates that its potential for global nuisance is far from being over. The same is being tried by other terror groups as well. To fight the global war on terror the world community will have to shun double gaming, individual country interest over global safety, the concept of good and bad terrorist and strict sanctions on terror sponsoring countries because terrorism cannot flourish without financial and logistics support.

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The Strategy of cybernetic on Practical of International Relations

Sajad Abedi

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The space for policy and cyber interaction or, more accurately, the “cyber policy” space, is considered to be the most recent and most important area of ​​interest among policy and international experts in the theoretical and practical field, which neglects it can cause serious damage and unpredictable for countries as the most important actors in the field of international relations.

Today, cyber policy and cyber security are discussed in the field of international relations and politics. Real space cyberspace is a real new field for influencing and, consequently, friendship, cooperation, competition, hostility and even war between nations and other actors. These cases show well that the Internet and cyberspace have provided a new field for politics, a space in which individuals, groups and governments are acting and policy makers.

Cyber policy is a bipartisan concept that refers to the interaction and coherence of the two arenas of politics (the place of friendship, cooperation, competition, conflict, and war on values ​​and interests) and the Internet (a new platform for acting). Some experts have gone even further and talked about cyber policy “great politics” versus “undercover politics”.

In the field of international relations, under the influence of the tradition of realism, international issues are divided into very important and crucial issues such as security and less important issues, such as economic issues. Some experts believe that because of the importance of cyberspace, cyber policy has to be considered as one of the most important, critical and security issues or great politics. They point out that today, millions of people worldwide have access to computers and the Internet, and each day they increase the number of users and the level and depth of Internet use, which provides a very important area for acting and, consequently, policy is making every day, the number of users as well as the level of technology is added. Under these circumstances, cyberspace plays an important role in guiding public opinion, creating priorities and desires, public diplomacy, spying, vandalism, war, conflict, and everything that actually forms the realm of real politics. As a result, cyberspace should be considered an excellent policy.

The theoretical framework and the most influential impact of cyberspace on politics and international relations are three main issues. The first issue is the presentation of a “conceptual order” to explain the relationship between cyberspace and politics. The second issue is identifying and believing in the widespread connection between cyberspace and politics. The third issue is the explanation of the route and the important issues in this connection.

 The theory of “surplus pressure” is the applicable theory in this field. The theory of lateral pressure means a new level of analysis beyond Stefan Walt’s three levels. He believes that cyberspace cannot be discussed based on previous levels and attitudes of people like Kenneth Boulding and Kenneth Waltz.

In addition to the three levels of “human”, “states” and “international system,” space requires a different level. At this new level, which is the “global level”, the impact of cyberspace is emphasized by the emphasis on the separation between the “social system” and the “natural environment.” At the global level, it is emphasized that the Internet space and its widespread impact on the world of politics cannot be discussed with the old levels that emphasize the individual or state or international arena. Internet space is a space for acting actors, non-state actors such as terrorists and private companies in terms of economic, cultural, security and even military. Therefore, it should be emphasized on the global level that, while combining the other levels, creates a broad interconnection between all levels and dimensions and is capable of analyzing other political space. Therefore, in lateral suppression theory, there is an attempt to establish a relationship between the individual, state and international levels as the old levels and the level of global analysis.

Based on the experience of the past decades, the Internet and cyberspace have affected the relations between countries, especially the United States and Iran. Indeed, a serious competition between countries in this area has a positive and negative or positive effect. In this conflict, major nations, including China and the United States, are trying to outsource the other in the field of technology, which has positive implications for the advancement of the Internet, but the Internet, meanwhile, has created a new atmosphere of competition, hostility and warfare, sometimes with some countries, including America and Iran have been attracted.

Regarding the content of the Internet and the role and policies of governments to control cyberspace, powerful nations are trying to influence the direction and overall space of the Internet and determine its future path. In contrast to the weaker countries in this area, they are struggling with a sophisticated look and feel, with influences such as content filtering, affecting the Internet. In such a space, the serious competition that has emerged between the West and the rest of the world has a different shape every day.

In the “cyber policy” space as a major new issue in the field of politics and international relations, as in other areas of politics, “values” and “interests” by various factors such as governments, organizations and government actors And non-governmental organizations, and even people who produce, distribute and consume. In fact, cyber policy, unlike the past, has placed new actors alongside governments as the most important actors in international relations, which are sometimes more capable and successful in the Internet.

However, apart from all the benefits and benefits of the Internet, the fact is that the Internet has provided “a new war space”, which is referred to as “cyber warfare”. In this type of war, countries and other actors use the Internet to spy, sabotage, and create insurrections, revolutions and even the destruction of military installations and vital centers of the other side.

Of course, the Internet has created a new space for “cooperation” and “interaction” between countries. In spite of this, the Internet has made the relationship between all actors, including governments, individuals, organizations and institutions, cheap and comfortable, due to its high speed and precision. As a result, the conditions for cooperation and engagement have been more interesting than before. While countries and other actors are aware of the need for extensive international cooperation on the Internet, they know that cyberspace has created a new area of international cooperation.

Regarding the widespread impact of the Internet on all aspects of politics and international relations through the spread of knowledge and knowledge of individuals, the fact is that the Internet has been instrumental in facilitating and expanding access to information and knowledge in the national and international arena. Individuals and communities have become more aware and more educated than before, and the world faces a new phenomenon called “Human Awakening,” which is known in Muslim countries as “Islamic Awakening.” As a result, political demands such as the consideration of democracy and the necessity of respect for the political independence of nations, reverence for cultural and religious values, the right to decent social economic development, etc., and increased sensitivity to issues such as the environment. Accordingly, the Internet has affected the field of action of countries and other actors.

Finally, a new atmosphere in the international arena that cannot be analyzed based on theories, approaches, and levels of the past is being analyzed. In fact, the content and philosophy of the new space, known as cyberspace, is very different from the past. In this new space, new types of friendship, cooperation, rivalry, hostility and war have been created alongside past patterns. Meanwhile, various and varied actors have been added to traditional actors that are very vague and unpredictable. Consequently, these conditions must emphasize new ideas, approaches and perspectives that are much more flexible and open to the past.

Cyber policy and cyber security in the current context are considered by the international relations experts as the main issue, along with older issues of war, economics, women and the environment, and even consider some of its importance more than other areas; Because the cyberspace has all the domains and the old ones.

For example, cyberspace has provided new conditions for cooperation and competition between countries and, of course, other actors in the military, security, political, economic, environmental, women’s, children’s, health, education and other fields. Therefore, the cyber space has created new conditions in which issues of international relations are presented in a different way, resulting in a new form of cyber policy, with particular implications for national and international security. Based on this, a comprehensive review of cyber policy and cyber security, and its impact on all domains, will reinforce the deployment of passive defense at the national level.

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Report: Iranian military bases in Oman Threaten Regional Security

Irina Tsukerman

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Cooperation between Oman and Iran

Oman, in recent years, has managed to carve out an apparent role as a “moderate” Muslim state and has been pushing to be taken seriously as an intermediary between the West and Iran. It is sometimes referred to as the “Switzerland of the Middle East”. Although rejecting rumors of a role as a formal mediator during the escalating tensions in the Gulf in the summer of 2019, Omani minister pointed out that Oman is in touch with “all parties” and is working to maintain stability in the region. Oman held itself out to be neutral, and in the past facilitated talks between Tehran and Washington. A summer meeting between the foreign ministers of Iran and Oman was seen by some as a sign pointing towards a mediation effort. Despite denials from Iran as well as Oman, it became known that Muscat made an offer to Tehran and was greenlighted by the Trump administration in continuing the diplomatic track, which paralleled a mediation attempt by Japan and soon became public. At the same time, Oman showed an opening towards high level diplomacy with Israel, with top level state visits and discussions of economic relationship building.

But is the idyllic picture of Oman’s helpful role as the Gulf messenger of peace all it appears to be? Some would argue that by maintaining neutrality in the face of strategic Iranian aggression in pursuit of regional hegemony, Oman was indirectly empowering the Islamic Republic. Others have pointed to Oman’s long history of turning a blind eye towards smuggling and criminal organizations shuttling contraband and weapons to and from Yemen as having played a role in the corruption crisis that led to the rise of the Iran-backed Houthi separatists. Still others have pointed out that the Houthis have found a safe haven in Muscat, and that for all of Oman’s pretenses at neutrality, it is actually quietly siding with Iran and facilitating Iran’s agenda. Indeed, recent history points to a growing relationship between Muscat and Tehran that has become a source of concern for the Anti-Terrorism Quartet (KSA, UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain) and others.

The political aspect

The political cooperation between Oman and Iran has been active rapidly and increasingly since 2012. Several memorandums of understanding were signed between the Omani and Iranian governments. At the height of the Obama administration’s nuclear talks with Iran, Oman played a key role as a backchannel between the White House and the Ayatollahs, for which it was lavished praise. More recently, Russia sought to bring in Oman as a mediator between Israel and Iran. Despite being widely credited as a “neutral” actor, however, Oman’s silence raised questions. For instance, despite trying to “maintain” stability amidst the tanker crisis in the summer of 2019, Oman remained strangely passive despite the fact that several attacks took place close to its territory.  Allegedly two Iranian vessels were seen in the vicinity of the Gulf of Oman incident; was Oman completely unaware of their presence?

The rumors of weapons smuggling for the Houthis in Yemen through the mountains have percolated among officials from different countries; however, Omani officials have denied it. Oman’s role in facilitating such activity should not be surprising.  On the one hand, the country’s Zaidi religious legacy makes it somewhat of a minority in the Sunni majority region, bringing it closer to the Shi’a Houthis and to Iran. Despite important theological distinctions between Iranian Shi’ism and Zaidi beliefs and cultural heritage, Iran has not eschewed giving political patronage to these groups in order to advance its geopolitical goals in the region. Similarly, the Allawites in Syria are quite distinct from mainstream Shi’a, and yet Assad has enjoyed Iran’s political backing for many years vis-a-vis the other options. On the other hand, there are economic reasons for this partnership.

It has been growing closer to Tehran since even before 2012; for instance a natural gas pipeline was proposed between the two countries in 2007. The country that has failed to diversify economically away from oil would have gotten a new source of income that neither its Gulf neighbors nor the US has compensated with oil purchases and other trade; however, that idea alarmed other Gulf Countries.  Although they tolerated some level of trade with Iran, a direct pipeline would create a dependency on work with Iran and an independence from the GCC that would have given Iran extra leverage in the region. Years later, Oman and Iran agreed to change the route of the project in order to avoid UAE territory.

After many years of discussion the deal had been officially signed in 2013. The project had been delayed by sanctions on Iran and by US pressure on Muscat to find another source of LNG. A recent strategic port deal with the US could challenge this project and the Oman-Iran relations in general. Recently, US has in fact stopped weapons-laded Iranian vessels by Oman. On the other hand, Oman’s China funded Duqm port could provide an alternative access to vessels, bypassing the unstable Strait of Hormuz. It would be used to harbor US aircraft missiles and improve US strategic position with respect to access to the crossroads of the Gulf, Africa, and Southern Asia. US would also be granted access to all the ports and airports in the SUltanate.. But that also means that Iran, too, may find a “safe space” in international waters. given its close trade relationship with China. For now, the deal with the US has not affected Oman’s political proximity to Iran. Furthermore, if anything Oman can milk both cows, while enjoying US protection in the event Iran ever changes its mind vis-a-vis its partners. On the other hand, in exchange for this strategic access to other areas, as well as a possible guarantee of non-aggression from Oman’s troublesome ally, US may very well have greed to turn a blind eye to the illicit operations involving Houthi smuggling and Iranian use of Omanian territory to advance its agenda.

It’s important to remember that these ties predate the Islamic Republic and go back to the close contacts between Oman and the Shah of Iran. Furthermore, Oman has a history of maintaining contacts and diplomatic relations with all sides in regional contact, such as during the Iran-Iraq war, following which Oman helped bring together Iran and KSA and UK. For a period of time, Oman’s seeming neutrality was acceptable to everyone. Iran’s tanker attacks are not new. Tanker wars between Iran and Iraq presented the same challenges in the region; during the Persian Gulf War, Iran’s pressure on the tankers in the Strait of Hormuz even challenged its close relations with Oman. After the war, however, the countries restored their relations.

As a result of close political and economic cooperation, Omani officials enjoyed a special role in the first years of the Obama administration, when they were one of the first group of people invited to tour Iranian nuclear facility. In retrospect, knowing about Iran’s violations and the measures it took to hide its nuclear program, that of course raises many questions: How much did Omanian government know about Iran’s nuclear program and when did it know it? Was this spectacle part of a coordinated effort aimed at bringing about what became the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)?  Or were the Omanians duped, just as many others at the time? Was Oman angling for a major role as an intermediary, and for that reason went along with Iran’s line or was it ever a truly neutral participant? Given the evidence of ongoing facilitation of Iran’s other illicit activities in the region, Oman’s role in the rapprochement with Tehran in pursuit of the nuclear deal now could be seen in a more sinister plan.

At about the same time, while Iran was still burdened with financial sanctions imposed under the Bush administration, Oman and Iran launched a joint bank to facilitate transaction and to benefit the Omanian branches of two Iranian banks, Melli and Saderat, sanctioned by the US.  The Obama administration in 2010-2011 had already been approached by the regime; the initial negotiations were conducted in secret. Did the Omanians already have an inkling that Iran would demand and receive a windfall from sanctions though the final “deal” was not revealed until years later? Or,  did it, even without knowing the outcome, disregard the sanctions and chose to engage with the rogue regime for profit, and brazenly in the face of the US sanctions? It is very clear that Oman’s participation in these transactions did ease Iran’s financial woes even at the peak of sanctions and provided an opportunity to launder money through the Omanian bank branches. This, of course, raises the questions why, at the time, the US did not also sanction or further enforce action against these entities. The answer might be of course that the administration was also already looking towards Omanian facilitation of the negotiations and did not want to anger Muscat; alternatively, the Obama administration from the very beginning was willing to give financial concessions to Iran to ensure that the nuclear deal ultimately succeeded.

What remains clear, however, is that Oman appeared to be a willing partner in circumventing US sanctions years before JCPOA was finalized while claiming neutrality in public. At about the same time, Iran opened its second trade center in Oman, which would invite approximately 60 Iranian companies to work there. This development not only underscored the growing economic ties between the two countries, but that despite the peak of sanctions, the secret negotiations notwithstanding, Iran found room for economic growth. That undermines the narrative that “crushing sanctions” brought Iran to the table and forced it to abandon at least some elements of its nuclear program. If one examined Iran’s actions aside from its dealings with the Western countries, it was actually finding financial avenues for expanding its activities even as it was negotiating.

One can conclude from observing these developments that Iran was at no point acting out of financial desperation; indeed, it was developing avenues to ease the results of the sanctions while pursuing its agenda which consisted of taking advantage of the Obama administration’s mix of ideology and foreign policy naivete. To claim, then, that Iran was ever fully dependent on the West for its income is patently false and explains in part why further sanctions undertaken by the Trump administration have been ineffective in curbing Iran’s illegal activities. In addition to its shadow empire, Iran has always enjoyed the assistance of state regional actors and was never completely isolated. (But we should also recall that North Korea, which faced far greater financial isolation than Iran never moved away from its nuclear program, and in fact achieved it fairly quickly).

The entire premise then that American sanctions alone could isolate Iran or, that even if isolated, Iran would be forced to change its course, rested on the assumption that with no financial lifeline the regime would collapse unto itself or at least be forced to make painful concessions – but it always did have a financial lifeline, and not an intrinsically illegal one, either. Oman, meanwhile, benefited handsomely from this debacle;  seeing that Iran was essentially dependent on Muscat as one of the few countries that was looking to expand business even the height of sanctions incentivized the country to further take advantage of this political situation rather than develop its economy in other directions and to liberalize it for its own citizens.

In  the year preceding these developments, Iran and Oman launched a joint trading company and enjoyed high level bilateral meetings related to their business in the energy sector. And since the launch of the bank and the second trading center, other high level delegations met to discuss political and economic ties, and regional developments. In 2010,  Iran’s president Ahmadinejad, in public dialogue with the Omanians,  discussed ending the Yemen crisis, as it complicated operations against Al Qaeda. The Shi’te rebels, which had already been at odds with  Yemen’s government over various economic, political, and social issues and who eventually became known as the “Houthis”, ultimately enjoyed Iran’s backing. Since 2009, Iran would send its Hezbullah operatives to train these rebels, who eventually became separatists, and put forth various demands which ranged from incorporation into the government to self-rule. If Iran was taking an active part in the conflict and was already looking to coopt the rebels in order to destabilize the country, to promote regional agenda, and to annoy the neighboring Saudi Arabia, why then did the well known hardliner Ahmadinejad discuss this diplomatic course of action that appeared to be in line with regional interests?

First, creating the appearance of plausible deniability in public served Iran’s short term and long term interests. Ahmadinejad could not afford to disrupt the ongoing outreach effort to the Obama administration with pugnacious rhetoric; rather, this was done, in part to show, that Iran was an important regional actor and could be counted on as a peacemaker and a valued partner to the US against Sunni terrorists. Ahmadinejad was playing on Obama’s own line on “balancing regional interests”  – in reality, shifting from Sunni to Shia. Thinking ahead, the regime knew that sooner or later, events in Yemen would take a more confrontational term. If the Shi’a rebels were to be of any use to the regime, they would be eventually counted on to take aggressive action against their neighbors, just as at one point Hezbullah was created as a  Lebanese proxy against Israel.

THe body of separatism that became known as the Houthis even back in 2010 was already conceived as a vehicle of delegitimizing Saudis who were backing the central government. However, all of this would have prematurely cost credibility and flame out if the rebels were seen as anything but homegrown  insurgents with legitimate domestic grievances. For that reason, Iran, at that point, had to publicly disavow any involvement and furthermore, to show an active interest in promoting regional stability. Oman was an important counterpart in this measure. While rumors of Oman’s longstanding role in facilitating smuggling and embracing the Shi’a rebels percolating, this conversation would give Oman a share of the public cover and cement its reputation as a peaceful intermediary and an important partner in ending regional conflicts and pursuing stability. This would also give Oman credibility and an opening to play a greater role in the near future in facilitating the nuclear deal, and keep the public eye away in Oman’s own contacts with the future Houthis. In a similar vein, the two countries later that year convened to discuss providing security for the Strait of Hormuz.

Ironically, Iran had always been one of the parties most likely to be counted on to create disruptions in the area; with Saddam Hussein’s downfall, Tehran was left with no competing candidates. However, once again, this step was deliberately pushed forward to underscore the interest of both states in security matters, to dissociate Iran and Oman from any Sunni jihadist groups operating in the vicinity, and to provide a justification for any future actions that otherwise could be attributed to Iran. Nearly a decade later, during the 2019 summer tanker crisis, Iran vehemently denied any involvement, attributed attacks on Saudi, Emirati, and European oil tankers to mysterious “terrorists”, and even recently claimed to be attacked by an unknown entity. Having previously established a record of public concern about maritime security in Hormuz, Iran now knew that world leaders would be hard pressed to confront Tehran about any attacks in the region without also having to demonstrate an irrefutable level of evidence that would require responsive action.

By 2011, Iran-Oman joint military committee has also been operation for many years, held annual joint talks, and also proceeded to engage in war games in the Sea of Oman. The two countries worked to push forward closer military cooperation even as Oman, as a member of the GCC, continued to contribute money towards defensive action that would counter Iranian aggression. In the following years, these diplomatic and political ties continued to grow. Oman still sought to maintain political and economic ties to other Arab states; it condemned attacks on the Saudi embassy in Tehran in 2016. However, unlike many countries, Oman did not cut nor downgrade relations with  Tehran following that incident;  and following the imposition of a boycott by the Anti Terrroism Quartet (KSA, UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain) on Qatar, in part for its closeness to Iran, Muscat appeared to move away from publicly centrist and neutral role in the region, and closer to Tehran. In truth, Tehran by that point has been escalating the level of aggression against Saudi Arabia and others in the region for a number of years. In 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring riots which broke out all over the MENA region and caused Oman to engage in an internal crackdown against critics and human rights activists, Iran and Qatar were found to have backed an attempted Shi’a-led coup in Bahrain, which was prevented by Saudi Arabia’s intervention.

This was not the first such episode; in 1982, only 3 years after the Islamic Revolution, and following Khomeini’s mandate to export the Revolution abroad, Iran had backed another attempted coup in Bahrain. Iran had also provoked riots in Eastern Saudi provinces and instigated unrest in Iraq in a series of events which mirror more current developments. However, Iran had also been dealing with internal crisis related to the consolidation of power and post-revolutionary chaos and lacked the regional credibility and the tools to succeed in most of these endeavors at the time. Following these episodes of destabilization, GCC, which included Oman, formed, with US backing, which had preceded the more current MESA or ARab NATO initiative, as a security pact against Iranian aggression.

Prince Nayef, the Saudi interior minister at the time and the father of the former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, at the time charged that Iran-backed plotters were ultimately aiming at Saudi Arabia and consisted of a broader coalition known as the Islamic Front for the Liberation of the Gulf. According to Prince Nayef, Iran had built training camps for assorted Gulf Arabs with the aiming of sending them around the region to engage in rebellions, coups, and assorted destabilizing activity. However much the Gulf Cooperation Council appears torn and conflicted today, it seems that the very concept was compromised from the start. Qatar and Oman had both been engaged in extensive double dealing and as became apparent, could never be fully trusted against Iran as they thought to balance their own interests. Oman, as mentioned above, maintained close relations with Iran throughout this series of events.

Business aspect

Following the announcement of the nuclear deal, Oman and Iran’s relations became more public and grew precipitously. Between 2014 and the end of 2018, the number of Iranian companies registered in Oman grew from 263 to 1163. Much of the shift is due to the movement of business away from UAE, where the companies are complying with US sanctions. (Essentially the article is admitting that Oman has chosen to ignore the businesses and other entities which have not been compliant).  In July 2019, in the midst of the oil tanker crisis in the Gulf, high ranking Omanian and Iranian officials met again with a view to further boosting trade and transportation ties (and in the face of growing international criticism over Iran’s role in fueling aggression in the Middle East). In addition to increasing bilateral trade, the countries discussed  developing closer ties in the areas of minerals and boosting labor force contacts.

These growing ties also include direct shipping routes between the countries, which would help bypass inspections, avoid having to deal with neighboring countries, and as a matter of concern to the United States and others could be yet another way to facilitate smuggling. These shipping routes have been inaugurated since 2015, and by the end of December 2018, Iran and Oman have four direct routes, connecting Iran port city of Jask to Oman’s Al Suwaiq. What that means in practice is that despite Iran’s port deal with the US and other deals with China, Iran continues to enjoy a priority status and has plenty of friendly ports of call to choose from. That indicates the fact that the oil smuggling operations involving Chinese “private” companies and various security evading operations will continue:

If Oman openly boasts of ignoring US sanctions to facilitate business operations with Iran, surely turning a blind eye to other illegal activity, or even taking an active part in it is par for the course.  Another shipping line was opened between Khasal Al-Shehaya, Qeshm, and Bandar Abbas. Bandar Abbas is a port city and the capital of the Homorzgan province on the Southern coast of Iran, and retains a strategic position in the Strait of Hormuz, which is very narrow. Importantly, it is also the main base of the Iranian Navy. Iranian Navy in itself does not boast of spectacular capabilities; in fact, most of Iran’s maritime resources have been invested into the IRGC’s naval contingent, which in a way, rivals the formal military unit.

This port is one of the main trade routes for Iran, and likewise represents important place for trade with India. Qeshm is a nearby island which enjoys an influx of tourists. One of the main products Of  Bandar Abbas is yellow cake uranium to the tune of 20 tons a year from the Gchine mine. This is also a site for a Chinese-built cruise missile production facility for the manufacture and production of Silkworm(CSS-N-2) cruise missiles. In the distant past, Bandar Abbas was under Omani control. The Silkworm missile was one of the missiles fired from radar bases in Yemen at the US Navy ships in 2016. The missiles ultimately fell into the water, and the US destroyed the sites; however the issue of how they got to Yemen remained open. These sites were located on Yemen’s coastal Red Sea Territory. Al Khasal is located in the strategically important Musandam Province of Oman, which presents a security challenge to UAE, and is also known as Al Khasab.

It is a port city known as the “Norway of Arabia”, for its fjor-like geography and mountainscapes. It is a tourist location frequented by residents of UAE by way of highway and by mainland Omanis. This picturesque scuba-diving site is the last place one would imagine be at the center of smuggling missiles and yellow cake. And yet Khasab was the location from which illicit goods have been known to be ferried to Yemen. While US officials boasted of cracking down on Iran’s Somalian smuggling route to Yemen, the much more direct Omanian route developed right under their noses. Indeed, the issue of Iranian arms smuggling has been discussed by former US Defense Secretary Mattis in his meeting with Sultan Qaboos, which means the US was aware of this intelligence at the highest level.

Exchange of continuous visits at the highest level between the two countries and exemption of Omani visa to entry Iran  marked this period, particularly in the 2000s. By 2014, President Rouhani visited Oman with the public aim of strengthening political and growing economic relations between the two states.  Part of the reason  for the visa free travel arrangement has been to ensure the movement of loyal and intelligence elements of these states. Another issue of course remains the long history of Iranian camps which trained assorted rebellious elements like the Bahraini plotters from the 1980s, who eventually admitted their ties to Iran. The camps, no doubt, are still operational, and if anything, better funded. The Houthis training in Yemen may pass through Oman and enter Iran visa free (many have found a safe haven in Muscat) and to continue their training on the ground.

Interestingly enough, the 2019 Department of Justice report praises Oman for supposed democratiziation of the political process and for allegedly guarding the borders against Houthi smuggling, when in fact reports by human rights defenders and security officials point exactly in the opposite direction. Is Oman being sought out as a potential intermediary for a future new deal with Iran? Are some elements of the Trump administration’s justice department deliberately turning a blind eye to human rights abuses and the facilitation of terrorist activity and criminal networks in the region? Regardless, this report is a significant political boost to Oman, despite the skepticism and open criticism of its political position by the other members of the GCC. However, after these concerns were relayed to the Omanian government, along with similar concerns by the French and Australian forces working to intercept Iranian arms shipments to the Houthis, Oman’s Foreign Ministry denied any such activity, and in the year since that meeting not much has changed. Indeed, attention shifted from the arms smuggling to Oman’s role as an intermediary in conflicts with Iran and its growing relations with Israeli officials. Is continuous smuggling activity the price to be paid for Oman’s cooperation in other matters?

As far as the yellowcake is concerned, earlier this year Iran threatened to sell it for enrichment to Russia, and then to sell its heavy water, which is used as a coolant for nuclear reactors, to Oman. Oman canceled its nuclear program in 2016, following the incident in Fukushima. Why, then, would Iran have been making this bizarre threat? In 2018, Malaysia visited with the Lebanese and Omani atomic energy facility officials to assist in the development of nuclear security integration. Furthermore, Oman boasts of a “Peaceful Nuclear Technology Office” under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Indeed, US granted a waiver for Iran to store this heavy water in Oman, which is used in the uranium-enrichment process, although it threatened to hit exports with sanctions. What is less clear is where exactly the heavy water to be stored, and whether Oman would have the ability to do anything other than store it – i.e. quietly transport it elsewhere. Iran has in 2016 shipped 11 tons of heavy water to Oman; what happened afterwards is anyone’s guess.

Besides these questionable transactions, there are many other trade and joint investments agreements between the two countries, such as the deal to set up a joint investment company in 2016, which would help expand trade and commercial opportunities while cutting out any intermediaries. And in 2018, after the US announcement of withdrawal from JCPOA, Oman registered over 200 Iran-backed companies in just five months. The expansion of Iran-Oman banking relations put Oman on the road of becoming a re-export hub. In September 2019, Iranain officials announced a plan to build on that potential by attending the eight planned exhibitions in Oman. And European and other companies wishing to continue doing business with Iran have set up complex trade webs, linking up in Oman that help evade scrutiny and sanctions. All of that is facilitated by Iranian exporters receiving a tax exemption from Oman. Most recently, the two countries discussed increasing cooperation on tourism.

Furthermore, this growing economic relationship has been marked by ongoing visits and trade agreements between Iranians and Omanis in the strategically vital areas of Musandam and Hormozgan. For instance, the two countries planned a bridge over the Strait of Hormuz that would link Iran to GCC countries and to Yemen economically. Although that bridge  never materialized or moved past the suggestion stage, it is a testimony to the high level of discussions and economic collaboration taking place. And in 2016, Oman hosted a Trade exhibition in Musandam, with the aim of attracting additional Iranian investors.

In 2018, Iranian Minister of Industries, Mining, and Trade led an Iranian delegation to Oman, and among other items, stressed opportunities for growing ties between Musandam and Hormozgan. In June 2018, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed in the field of supporting, facilitating and developing trade and investment between the two countries and starting the cooperation agreement in the field of maritime transport.That special relationship earlier resulted in the plan to create a special airline from Bandar Abbas in Hormozgan to Oman. Other developments included the signing of a deal between Oman’s National Ferries Company and Free Zone Management in Iran. This was signed during the annual Omani-Iranian exhibition in Musandam, which further underscores the importance of that province. Musandam Governor announces in an official meeting the construction of a private hospital in Khasab with Iranian investment and the launch of a new shipping line between the port of Jask in Iran and the port of Suwaiq and the port of Shinas in Oman. Port of Jask is another site for Iranian navy and an end site for the proposed Neka-Jask pipeline, which would transport crude oil from Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Russia through the port of Neka by the Caspian Sea. The significance of the naval base is that it is located in the point of proximity to the Strait of Hormuz where it can easily blockade the passage of “enemy” ships, thus causing a massive bottleneck for the oil transport.

Iranian products are prevalent in Musandam’s capital Khasab. For instance, in September 2017, Iranians held a consumer goods fair. In the past, Iranian smugglers brought in everything ranging from flatscreens to flowers Khasab, and while closer supervision by Westernern navies keeping a watch on contraband, squeezed them in recent years, there is no reason to believe the illicit imports have every fully stopped. Recent accounts confirm stories of Iranian smugglers using small boats to bring tea, sheep, and other produce into Oman, at risk to their lives from the weather, but not so much from the Omanian government which has turned a “blind eye” to these activities while engaging in joint naval exercises with Iranian government.

Iranian sites in Musandam

Smuggling continues to be  clearly active in Khasab and has been covered by several international TV channels.

The military cooperation between Oman and Iran has gone far beyond joint naval training exercises. Iranians have built various military bases in Oman, perhaps giving a bailout to the country that has been struggling economically after failing to diversify economy from oil and due to top level corruption, which left most of the population mired in poverty. One example is the Iranian air base located on Mount Harem, the highest mountain in Musandam. Iranian officers were seen several times at the location by the locals (most of the residents of Musandam are members of the Sunni al-Shihuh tribe).

This happened in 2014. when UAE received two out of three disputed islands, located near the Strait of HOrmuz from Iran, and after a six-month period of secretive talks, reached a series of agreements with Oman on other fronts. The agreement stated that ““Oman will grant Iran a strategic location on Ras Musandam mountain, which is a very strategic point overlooking the whole gulf region. In return for Ras Musandam, Oman will receive free gas and oil from Iran once a pipeline is constructed within the coming two years.” This move that allowed Iran to gain a foothold in the Arabian peninsula, took place at the same time as the nuclear deal became public and as Iran pressured the US administration on a number of fronts, exacting a number of important confessions. The chain of events surrounding this controversial development underscores the strategic nature of Iran’s approach to gaining influence in the region. It was conducting talks with a number of countries, and generously donating financial aid as needed in exchange for access to sensitive and strategic locations, which would facilitate its own maneuvers and present opportunities to cause problems for international vessels.

The air base boasts a radar station, which is used for surveillance and has detection range of all of the surrounding areas. It has, however, been developed specifically to target the UAE, and is located in close  proximity to the country, presenting a security concern. Ironically, the Musandam Military Base, originally constructed as a naval base, was once built to prevent smuggling from Oman to Iran, which was causing tensions with the UAE.In 1987, European and Emirati naval and air forces had signed accords, assuming joint control of the base.  Since those events, however,  Oman appears to have prioritized its relations with Iran. The location of the base makes it not only convenient to facilitate smuggling in a fox guarding the chicken coop scenario, but sends a blunt message to UAE, about who is in charge. Oman sees Iran as a stronger partner in the region, and perhaps, assuming that eventually the ISlamic Republic will assume control in the region, is hedging its bets.

Despite officially maintaining a “neutral” and “balanced” position in the region, Oman has a history of tensions with UAE. In the 1940s and 50s, what became the Sultanate and Emirates engaged in what is known as the Buraimi dispute over loyalties of local tribes and border control. These tensions culminated in armed conflict between Saudi Arabia, Oman, and what became the UAE. The bad blood following these events never fully went away. Although the relations improved over time with a series of various political and economic agreements, as Oman drifted into Iran’s sphere of influence, these ties began to deteriorate again. Oman accused UAE of espionage and intellectual property theft; in 2011, it arrested a group of people the Sultanate claimed to be an Emirati spy cell.

More such arrests were made over time. These developments coincided with Oman’s internal crackdown on any show of political dissent. Disputes over Musandam representation persisted in later years, reflecting geopolitical tensions in the region, with UAE seeking to expands its influence, and with Oman seeking to maintain status quo and drawing closer to Iran (which is asserting its dominance in Musandam through economic and soft power). In April 2019, in yet another episode of a spy hunt, Oman sentenced six SHihuh tribe members to life sentences after accusing them of spying for UAE, when they contacted international human rights organizations to report ongoing discrimination and repression in Musandam. Another “porous borderland area” at the center of the rivalry is Mahra in Yemen, another region known for Iranian smuggling activities, including sophisticated missiles supplied to the Houthis. With Iranian involvement, the stakes at the heart of these disputes rose exponentially. UAE and other Gulf States perceive Iranian and pro-Iranian influence and ideological outreach to be an existential threat and see Oman as facilitating the rise of Iran’s regional aggression. Asserting dominance, then, becomes less about historic tribal rivalries over resources and territory and more about whose ideology and vision for the region’s future will prevail.

In this context, giving Iranians access to a sensitive security site in plain view of UAE could be interpreted not merely as a warning but as an open provocation. Furthermore, Oman is undermining its own case in imprisoning its human rights activists under the pretext of  spying for Emiratis while engaging in a form of signals intelligence with far more sophisticated tools than a few tribes people speaking to human rights organizations about Oman’s destruction of their heritage site or repossession of their land to benefit Iranian military sites.

Another site, Jabal Al-Harf,  is a hill, located between Khasab and Bukha hosts another radar station. Furthermore, it houses a security service center, actively populated by Iranian intelligence, which also contains  secret prisons. Further research is needed to find out whether these prisons are only used for Omanian prisoners, or whether Iranians smuggle high value prisoners, such as the disappeared US FBI Special Agent Robert Levinson, away from active search.

Jabal al-Harb is used for internal security purposes. It is dedicated to spying locally and is linked to spying on Musandam’s neighbouring regions such as the UAE for instance. There is prison located there and the authorities use the prison for torture. There is also radar located there. And the government of Oman is cooperating with Qatar to provide data used by Qatar against coalition countries such UAE and Saudi Arabia. The radar and the prison are belonging to the Omani Internal Security Agency, which were both built in the 1970s immediately after the occupation of the area. However, the Omani cooperation with some countries, such as Iran, and letting them use these facilities,  is a  very recent development.

The island of Salama and several other small islands, which are called “THE GREAT AND LITTLE QUOINS” and located around 9 miles from Ras Musandam. This location is important for the ships as it defines the entry or exit from the Gulf. In fact, the Revolutionary Guards are using these locations sometimes for piracy in the Strait of Hormuz, because it is far from the eyes of the local people. In addition to robbing fishing boats or smuggling illicit products, IRGC may be also using these locations for storing missiles and other weapons before transporting them to Houthis, and perhaps for training and planning of various operations inside Yemen and in the Gulf of Oman.

Quoin Islands (the island of Salama and Anatha) are located in the international shipping corridor. All  vessels passing  in the area, which are entering or crossing the Strait, have to pass  through the islands of Salama. The Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) are using the islands for its security and military projects. There is a military base in one of the island and two others are empty but very easy to hide around. They may be used to avoid surveillance or in the future, they can become operational as needed.

Further research could establish whether any of the IRGC vessels allegedly connected to the summer oil tanker attacks had any contact with this area. THe Quoins have been involved in some of the more mysterious incidents involving Iran in the later months of the crisis. For instance, in September 2019, IRGC seized a boat allegedly smuggling diesel fuel to UAE.  It was carrying fuel off the southern coast of Hormozgan, an Iranian province known for its various military basis and connections to Oman. According to the Iranian state outlets, ““in the initial interrogation, the smugglers confessed to collecting and loading their cargoes from the towers in the Quoin Island area.” At the time this incident took place, it raised more questions than it answered. Who did the boat belong to? Why would UAE, a wealthy country, need to rely on obscure diesel fuel smugglers? And what was it doing off the Iranian waters instead of heading directly to UAE from Oman?

A more realistic version of the events, in context of the Oman-Iran relationships is that Iran, which relies on other countries to refine its oil and has to reimport it at great expense, has a network of smugglers operating through the area and helping get around US sanctions. The boat delivering smuggling oil consisted of Iranian smugglers, delivering oil home.  Why, then, the announcement of the seizure? First, as always, Iran was looking out for propaganda purposes to redirect attention from its better known smuggling activities and to cast aspersion on UAE for allegedly engaging in the same thing (which didn’t make much sense). Iran also wanted to show that not only was it innocent but that it was actually contributing to international maritime security. Second,  this was cover for its own smuggling activities – that was if the boat appeared to be “seized”, no one else could  arrest, nor could anyone reasonably claim that Iran was doing something inappropriate. That also means, of course, that no one “confessed” to anything and that the article claiming that the crew was referred to the judicial authorities was fake news. Another interpretation of the events is that the Iranian authorities had some sort of a conflict with its smuggling network and arrested the crew for that reason, but of course, had to somehow justify their own engagement in illegal activities, and came up with that story.

Umm Al – Ghanam Island

The Omani government allowed Iranians to station their forces in the island after taking control of Musandam in the course of the military operation “Inter-dawn” and after Oman received a humanitarian aid package from the Iranians. If Iran were to fully occupy Musandam, it would be positioned to take control of the entire Strait of Hormuz. The history of Iranian presence in that area goes back to pre-Islamic revolution.

In 1972, there was a leftist uprising in the Dhofar province; and the Sultan requested Iranian aid to help crush it.  The Shah had sent naval units to Umm Al-Ghanam, and also offered to jointly defend the strategic nearby waterways, according to Dilip Hiro writing in “Cold War in the Islamic World: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Struggle for Supremacy” (p.51, Oxford University Press 2018).

Currently, there is a secret military base in the island and Iranians are using the base clandestinely. Satellite imagery of the island reveals a largely barren island and what appear to be several artificial structures, which may be parts of the base.

Intelligence cooperation

There are permanent mutual visits are among the intelligence committees of both countries, but the most serious visit took place in 2015 when a delegation of military intelligence visited the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and met at a military base in Musandam.  That base was set up by the US intelligence company Tetra Tech long years ago. The IRGC offered Omani government many Iranian military equipment. That company, headed by a former CIA Middle East desk officer, helped organize 11 government ministries, as well as secured logistical management over various mundane aspects of life. When the company – in essence, both a security adviser and a strategic consultant – arrived in Oman in the 1980s, 40% of Khasab, the capital of Musandam, was Iranian or of Iranian descent. Tetra Tech’s job included managing various tribal feuds, as well as assorted loyalties in the sensitive and strategic area to ensure full cooperation of the locals with the central authorities.

The 1980s saw the demolition of historic buildings belonging to the Sunni Al-Shihuh tribe known for its independence from Muscat, and the erection of a more standardized Omani architecture in their place. No doubt, Tetra Tech played a role in displacement of the local tribe members as a result of the building of military bases and diversion of water resources to other parts of the country. Suppression of local identities and diminution of resources was part of the strategy to weaken resistance to  central authorities and empower   the local governance.

Through a strategy of sticks and carrots, which was described as “psychological warfare”, Tetra Tech worked with the Sultan to ensure complete obedience of the population – and the engagement of the Iranians, who otherwise could have become a fifth column, or at the very least, a source of unrest. Tetra Tech took over every ministry that affected the local population, including youth programming, agriculture, and fisheries (two of the essential occupations for the Al Shihuh), and set out in reprogramming the society. And although the defense sector remained under Omani control, Tetra Tech worked in close coordination with the Sultanate to develop a sophisticated “listening post” on the Umm Al-Ghanam island, and to create a secret installation in the village of Qabal on the East coast. Tetra Tech was also in charge of displacing local residents, mostly the Shihuh.

The intelligence rapprochement between the two countries has taken a heavy toll on the local residents of Musandam, including the pollution of the drinking water for the inhabitants of Musandam, leading to many fatalities. Part of that was an increased activity in the oil sector, without sufficient preparedness to deal with the environmental effects, and part of it was increased military activity which took its toll as well. Much of that information has not been publicized by the government. Human rights activists seeking to disclose the extent of the damage have faced arrests.

Additionally, over time, since the days of Tetra Tech’s involvement and leading to more recent cooperation between Tehran and Muscat,  strategic military cooperation led to the demolition of hundreds of mountain houses in order to empty the area of the population and turn it into a military base for both Iranian and Omani.

The Omani government has started building dozens of security and military centers so that the centers are no more than five kilometers away from the UAE borders and have also built secret underground prisons and special camps to suppress local activists, particularly the Sunni Shihus, and to avoid any investigation by outside journalists, human rights organizations, and foreign governments.. Iran supported Oman in building  these bases and benefited from both the surveillance of the UAE and the imprisonment of the activists..

The Sultanate  also confiscated millions of square meters of land for military use for the purpose of forcibly displacing the local population and depopulating the Sunni enclaves of the country. More recently, Ooredoo, a Qatar-based network company, which also has a significant presence in Iran, signed a strategic agreement with the Oman Tower Company to bring the Internet of Things and network connectivity to the country, planning infrastructure development in residential areas throughout the province. But what appears to be a positive and forward-looking technological development has also a darker side: likelihood of increased government  surveillance under the pretext of modernization, disruption of local life, depopulation and displacement without any compensation for Al Shihuh residents.

The intelligence cooperation with Iran also extends to financing, and helping avoid sanctions through various legal mechanisms. For instance, Bank Muscat, which is affiliated with the Royal Court, is the source of financial corruption in the country, its secret cooperation with mafia cells particularly with the IRGC after the sanction, money laundering and banking exchange with Iran. In 2018, it was revealed that a secret Obama-era permit let Iran convert funds to dollars. $5.7 billion of the frozen funds that the White House had promised to release to Iran were stuck in the Bank Muscat. Despite various top officials promising Congress that Iran would never have access to US financial system, Obama issued a special license that allowed these funds to be converted to US dollars, which Iran could then convert to euros in order to access them.

Since then, the bank continued its close cooperation with Iran.

Overview

Furthermore, local tribal sources shared information that requires further investigation.

For instance, many people in the region have seen the Iranian intelligence officials, in plain clothes and in uniform, in Musandam, specifically in Khasab.

Following the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, locals observed continuing heavy presence of Iranian goods despite ban on most of them. These goods exceeded the items allowed for trade under humanitarian assistance. The goods mainly belong to the IRGC. IRGC has an entire business empire dedicated to trade of assorted goods and “public works”. Inside Iran itself, IRGC is involved in practically every aspect of what otherwise should be private market. IRGC has achieved this by attracting lower and middle income citizens and giving them job training opportunities, hiring them, and in general using socialist elements and economic populism to ensure broad support and popular dependency. However, another reason for the conglomeration of goods and services is that it helps sustain Iran’s shadow economy which is heavily dependent on illicit operations, bribes and kickbacks, smuggling, corrupt contracts, and accumulation of wealth by senior officials and various apparatchiks. Markets such as in Oman which welcome these products ultimately help Iran sustain its shadow economy, and that is how the regime is able to survive despite what should otherwise be crushing sanctions.

Locals have observed the presence of Iranian boats and ships in the region. They could have been smuggling goods for sale as much as weapons for distribution to the Houthis through the porous border areas

Furthermore, Iranian mines appear on the beaches or at sea. During the summer 2019 oil tanker crisis, US presented a video of an Iranian boat removing a mine from a sunken vessel, presumably a mine that Iranians or their proxies had planted there before being caught in the vicinity. A US Navy expert described that mine as fitting with Iranian weapons prototype. Some of the tankers said to be attacked by Iran showed evidence of damage by “limpet mines“. Many additional mines were likely planted around the Gulf of Oman. Unexploded mines may be washing up on the beaches.

Omani police are receiving training in Iran as a future development of the relationship. Are they being merely trained in more effective law enforcement techniques or are these police officers doubling as enforcers against local activists, and perhaps, as intelligence gatherers?

According to the locals, Musandam’s  drung gangs  and smuggling activities are generally on the rise, and many are more likely to reach the UAE. The IRGC is known to have backed similar criminal enterprises in Europe and may be smuggling various items to support its shadow economy and funneling  drugs for its operations as well as to destabilize Sunni populations in Oman and  to cause internal issues in the UAE.

According to the locals, Oman have given the Iranian permission to use the bases in the region without knowledge of other countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and the US. These bases are used to train some of the Houthis who reside in the area, to conduct surveillance, to plan operations, and as passage points for smuggled weapons en route to Yemen.

The ineluctable conclusion that follows is that Iran will impact the security of the Arab Gulf and Hormuz through its military bases in Musandam. It is only a matter of time before these bases are used to advance more aggressive destabilizing agenda and to advance additional terrorist attacks, hijackings, and other covert operations.

Conclusion

Following this information, the US, and its Western and Middle Eastern allies, should dedicate intelligence to gather additional information about the Houthi presence in Yemen, the smuggling of weapons across the border which was never confirmed by the Sultanate but could be observed with the help of geospatial intelligence and human sources. It should also examine the mines found in the vicinity of Oman in order to gather additional information concerning the tanker attacks, and to investigate assorted smuggling and criminal activities. Most importantly, the anti-Iran coalition should investigate the allegations of Oman-Iran intelligence and financial cooperation as important links that further the regime’s agenda and allow it to get around sanctions and to succeed in its hegemonic ambitions.

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