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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How Taliban Victory Inspired Central Asian Jihadists
Following the fall of the US-backed Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani on August 15, al-Qaeda-linked Uighur, Uzbek and Tajik jihadi groups widely celebrated the Taliban’s “historic victory” over the “enemies of the Muslim Ummah”. In honor of the Taliban’s rebuilding of the Islamic Emirate, leading Jihadi groups from Central Asia and China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region issued special congratulatory statements, echoed jihadi nasheeds (chants of jihadi glory), arranged a festive feast for their Muhajeers (who immigrated to spread Islam and wage jihad) and gloatingly booed the US military forces leaving Afghanistan on jihadi media.
Turkestan Islamic Party called on all Muslims to unite around the Taliban as one body
Uighur jihadists of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), formerly known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) from Western China, were one of the first to congratulate the Taliban victory. On August 16, in a statement of the TIP’s Syrian branch, released by its propaganda arm, ‘Muhsinlar’, Uighur militants congratulated the Taliban’s emir Haibatullah Akhunzada and all Afghan fellow believers on the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Notably, in its statement, TIP ‘discovered’ the root causes of the Taliban’s victory in the Muslim holy book of the Quran, which refers to Surah al-Fatiha “Indeed, we have given you, o Prophet, a clear conquest” (48:1). The TIP further emphasized that “one generation of Muslims have sacrificed themselves for the religion of Allah, for today’s boundless joy and rejoicing.” The Taliban’s victory is “a fruit of long and arduous struggle and God’s big gift to Muslims worldwide”, the statement reads.
The TIP’s Syrian branch has called on all Muslims to make dua’s (invocation of God) for the Afghan Mujahedeen, to cooperate and support their fellows of Taliban. Uighur jihadists emphasized the need for the integrity of the Islamic Ummah, which should be governed only by the rule of the Almighty as one nation and one country. At the end of the statement, TIP noted that “East Turkestan Mujahedeens, as an integral part of the Great Ummah, celebrated the historic victory of the Taliban with boundless joy, and will stand alongside them shoulder to shoulder.”
It is recalled that ETIM was designated as a terrorist organization by the UN Security Council resolutions 1267 and 1390 on September 11, 2002, for its alleged association with al-Qaeda, its leader Osama bin Laden, and the Afghan Taliban. As part of the “global war on terror,” the US Federal Government designated ETIM as a terrorist organization on August 19, 2002. At that time, China skillfully took advantage of the situation emerging after the 9/11 attacks, achieving the recognition of ETIM as a terrorist group by many members of the U.S.-led “war on terror” coalition.
However, on November 5, 2020, the US Department of State removed ETIM from the blacklist, which provoked a fuming reaction from official Beijing. China on the other hand is pursuing a harsh repressive policy against the Muslim minority in its Xinjiang region detaining more than one million ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in so-called “re-education camps.” Despite the US decision, the post-Soviet Central Asian countries, Russia and China did not exclude TIP from their banned list of terrorist organizations.
According to the latest 2021 UN Security Council’s report, “several hundred Uighur jihadists of TIP located primarily in Afghan Badakhshan and neighboring provinces, whose strategic goal is to establish an Islamic Uighur state in Xinjiang, China.” The report stated that TIP affiliated with both the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and their ties remain “strong and deep as a consequence of personal bonds of marriage and shared partnership in struggle, now cemented through second generational ties.” Moreover, the notorious leader of TIP, Abdul Haq al-Turkestani, has remained a member of al-Qaeda’s elite Shura Council since 2005. For more two decades, the most wanted key Uighur jihadist has been openly loyal to the Taliban’s top leader Haibatullah Akhunzada and the al-Qaeda’s emir Ayman al-Zawahiri. Today, all three top emirs are successfully continuing their faithful jihadi fellowship, skillfully hiding their close relations, and throwing dust in the eyes of the US and its Western partners, tired of the “longest war”.
Thus, it can be assumed that despite the Taliban’s warm relations with the Chinese government after their return to power in Afghanistan, it is unlikely that they will break ties with the Uighur jihadists of TIP. On the contrary, both are expected to remain loyal to the oath of allegiance (bayat). The long relationship between the Taliban, al-Qaeda and TIP has shown that the bayat has a sacred religious value for them.
Taliban is a source of inspiration for Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad
The Uzbek jihadist group Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ) on its Telegram channel posted a video congratulating the Taliban on the victory over the most powerful evil empire in the world, which it considers the US. The congratulations were unusual, as the three KTJ leaders via video addressed the Taliban comrades in joint jihad in three official languages of Afghanistan – Pashto, Dari and Uzbek. In particular, the KTJ’s top emir Abdul Aziz al Uzbeki, whom the UN identified as ‘Khikmatov,’ spoke in Pashto, the military commander Sayfiddin in Dari, and the main ideologist of Central Asian Salafi Jihadism, the group’s imam Ahluddin Navqotiy in Uzbek.
Abdul Aziz glorified the Taliban’s victory over the foreign invaders and occupiers as a gift from Allah Almighty to the Ummah. He eulogized the vision of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban’s first emir, who once said, “Allah has promised us victory and America has promised us defeat, so we shall see which of the two promises will be fulfilled.” Top Uzbek jihadist further noted that “today, after a long-suffering patience, tireless struggle and great jihadi perseverance, finally came Nusrat (victory) in Khorasan, promised by Allah.” “Because the Mujahedeen are stronger in spirit and faith in God than the invaders, who, despite their military might and immeasurable wealth, fled the country in shame”, concluded Abdul Aziz.
Then, in an emotional speech, the group’s hard Salafi ideologist, Ahluddin Navqotiy, congratulated the Taliban Mujahedeen on behalf of KTJ Muhajeers waging a jihad in Syria’s Idlib province against Bashar al-Assad regime and pro-Iranian radical militias. He expressed confidence that today’s Nusrat of Allah in Afghanistan will become the driving force behind the establishment of Sharia rule in Central Asia.
Noteworthy, the KTJ leader, Abdul Aziz, had close ties with al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, in particular with the Haqqani network. As a native of the Fergana Valley of Uzbekistan, Abdul Aziz made a hijrah (migration) to Afghanistan fleeing the repressive policies of Uzbek President Islam Karimov in the early 2000s. He waged a jihad in Afghanistan as part of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Then, in 2015, along with dozens of comrade-in-jihad, he split the group and joined the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), a splinter faction of the IMU. At the time, Central Asian jihadists split over the internal conflict between al-Qaeda and ISIS struggling for the leadership of global jihad.
On August 20, 2015, when the IMU officially swore allegiance to the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the IJU followed in al Qaeda’s footsteps and renewed bayat to the Taliban’s emir Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. In May 2005, a decade before these events, the US government listed the IJU as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist organization in May 2005.
He belongs to the first generation of foreign fighters from Central Asia, who went through Taliban’s jihadi school in Afghanistan. He gained prestige among the fellow militants as a military strategist, and not as a deep scholar of the Quran or a public orator-ideologist of Salafi jihadism. In 2008-15, Abdul Aziz, along with the IJU’s leadership, was based in the al-Qaeda’s military hub of Mir Ali in North Waziristan. In one of his Jummah Khutbah preaching he admitted that allowing the Pakistani ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) to take refuge in North Waziristan saved the lives of many Uzbek jihadists from the US drone strikes. In 2019, Abdul Aziz made a hijrah to Syrian Idlib province and became the leader of the KTJ group.
Motivations and Strategies of the Central Asian Jihadism
The congratulations from the Central Asian Sunni militant groups to the Taliban were a vivid manifestation of their long-term and tested joint jihadi cooperation, which began in the late 1990s. Thus, Uighur’s TIP and Uzbek’s KTJ complemented a long list of global jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda’s Central Command and its franchises in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), Hurras al-Deen (HD), Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Hamas, congratulating the Taliban on their ‘victory’ over the US and NATO forces.
To celebrate the Taliban’s ‘victory’, Uighur, Uzbek and Russia’s Caucasian Jihadists in Syria also hosted grand feasts for foreign and local Sunni Arab militants and heroized the Afghan Mujahedeen during Jummah Khutbah Sermons. The Central Asian jihadi media widely published photos and videos from these parties and against this background tried to recruit new supporters to make hijrah to Afghanistan and Syria to protect the values of Islam and wage the sacred jihad against the infidels. The dramatic picture of Afghan government soldiers fleeing to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan has made the Taliban and al-Qaeda more attractive for recruiting a new generation of Islamists from Central Asia. Calls to make hijrah, or migrate, to the Taliban’s so-called Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan are also surfacing on jihadist forums. If the Syrian province of Idlib falls, al-Qaeda-aligned and HTS-backed Uzbek and Tajik jihadists’ migration to Afghanistan will be inevitable. The Taliban can easily melt them into Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz societies in northern Afghanistan and use them as leverage over rebellious ethnic minorities.
So, analysis of the jihadist media indicated that al-Qaeda-linked and Taliban-backed Central Asian extremist groups, operating in both Afghanistan and Syria, were deeply inspired by the Taliban’s victory over the pro-Western government of Ashraf Ghani. As a result, small and fragmented Salafi-Jihadi groups from post-Soviet countries have received the biggest boost to unite around the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Consequently, conducive conditions after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan are expected to lead to a resurgence of al Qaeda in the Central Asian region. Latent al-Qaeda sympathizers and other radical Islamists in the “Five Stans” view the restoration of the Islamic Emirate on the other side of the border as the beginning of the great jihad’s revival and the approach of Nusrat. With the decline of ISIS and the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, internal divisions, and inter-group feuds between the jihadist jamaats (group) of Central Asia, sometimes accompanied by bloodshed, are expected to diminish, and the volume of clandestine donations to jihad in the region are also expected to increase markedly.
But the main fear for local authoritarian and corrupt pro-Russian governments is that a Taliban victory could provide a historic boost for Uzbek, Tajik and Uighur violent extremist groups encouraging them in their campaigns to overthrow and replace local regimes. And although the Taliban is viewed by the world community as a Pashtun nationalist jihadi movement, and the Afghan jihad has always been more inward and parochial, nevertheless its ideological influence has always been strong among the Central Asian jihadists.
Despite the fact that the Taliban leadership publicly denies the presence of transnational terrorist groups in the country, a recent UN report revealed that there are about 10,000 foreign fighters in Afghanistan, who are members of al-Qaeda, Uighur’s TIP, Uzbek militant groups Katibat Imam al-Bukhari (KIB), KTJ, IJU and Tajik’s Jamaat Ansarullah (JA). Moreover, some of them took an active part in the recent military attacks against the Afghan army on the side of the Taliban, which led to the rapid fall of Mazar-i-Sharif, the strategically important capital of the Northern Alliance. As we predicted earlier, the Taliban exploited the Central Asian jihadists during the fighting in the north of the country as their “hard power” and political leverage on the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. When the Taliban captured a strategically important security checkpoint near Afghan border with Tajikistan in July, they assigned a Tajik jihadi group Jamaat Ansarullah (JA) to raise the Taliban flag on the site. They also put JA in charge of security in five districts of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province – Kuf Ab, Khwahan, Maimay, Nusay, and Shekay – near the Tajik border.
Although the Taliban has repeatedly promised not to allow Afghanistan to be used as a staging ground for any attacks, they will not sever their ties with Central Asian jihadi groups and will not violate the bayat. Uzbek, Uighur and Tajik jihadist groups are expected to maintain a safe haven in Afghanistan under the tacit and tight control of the Taliban. In the jihadist world, bayat or pledging allegiance is a heavy Islamic commitment reaching under the holy gaze of Allah Almighty, and reneging it is considered a serious offence. Therefore, the Taliban has never disavowed the group’s pledge.
In conclusion, the high fighting spirit and ideological strength of al-Qaeda-affiliated Central Asian jihadist groups in Afghanistan is associated not only with the Taliban’s lightning victory, but also with the humiliating and chaotic US withdrawal from the country. One of the Kyrgyz jihadists in Syria wrote on the KTJ Telegram channel that “the honor and dignity of America today is under the Taliban’s feet in front of the great Ummah.” This indicates that a new generation of Central Asian extremists has emerged on the scene of global jihadism, absorbing in itself the al-Qaeda’s Salafi-Takfiri military ideology, and synthesizing it with the Islamist nationalism of the Taliban, based on the common kindred Hanafi’s al-Maturidi Aqeedah (Sunni Islamic theology school). As the US counterterrorism capacity in Afghanistan weakened in the foreseeable future, the terrorism threat from Central Asian region will grow symmetrically for the US and the West as a whole.
Russia, Turkey and UAE: The intelligence services organize and investigate
The FSB (Federal’naja Služba Bezopasnosti Rossijskoj Federácii, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation) – created in 1995 from the ashes of the Komitet Gosudarstvennoj Bezopasnosti (KGB), the State Security Committee – is ready for additional responsibilities under the new national security strategy. President Putin’s recent redefinition of the FSB’s role provides some indications on the national security strategy that will soon be announced – a strategy that will affect seas, borders and the security of strategically important intelligence.
On June 1, 2021 President Putin issued a decree outlining the new priorities that will be given to the FSB in Russia’s revised national security strategy, which replaces the one that officially ended last year.
The changes to the Intelligence Service’s regulatory framework, including the peripheral one, provides some indications on the Russian security priorities. Some of the main changes include additional responsibilities for intelligence security, counterterrorism, border control and stronger protection of maritime interests.
Border control and the various references to counterterrorism in its broadest sense – as recently defined by Russia – means entrusting the security service with a number of new areas and tasks, including the redefinition of procedures to detect political radicalisation.
Border control is also strengthened in the revised rules, with FSB border guards acquiring records, filing and storing biometric data and obtaining and processing DNA information obtained during border checks.
The details on access to Russian soil shed light on the Kremlin’s problems with its own fellow countrymen. In the article on the FSB’s involvement in controlling entry into Russia, the decree mentions the “territories requiring special authorisation” such as Transnistria, some parts of Georgia and Eastern Ukraine, and states that the FSB will be involved in a national programme to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of Russians living abroad.
Intelligence is a valuable asset and its security has always been one of the Kremlin’s main concerns. Therefore, the new strategy makes the FSB the leading agency, not just the end user regarding computers, security and telecommunication encryption.
It will oversee and supervise the implementation of the new technological security throughout the community. All this was outlined in December in a law that redefined the role of the FSB’s Centre for State Licensing, Certification and Protection. It will grant licences for the use of “special technical means and equipment intended to receive information secretly”.
The FSB will also examine patents for classified inventions. In addition to its official role in intelligence warfare, the FSB has been tasked with producing more security measures to protect the identity of Russian intelligence agents, and keep the confidentiality of its own officials, officers and soldiers.
The Internal Security Service will also set up a new procedure to inspect agents and individuals entering the army, the intelligence services and the Federal Administration. Using the protection of marine life as an additional task, the FSB will also have increased responsibilities for the seas, including competence and powers over the protection of fishing grounds outside Russia’s exclusive economic zone, the establishment of checkpoints for fishing vessels entering or leaving the zone, and the power to suspend the right of passage for foreign vessels in certain Russian maritime zones.
The Service will also define the structure of operational offices in maritime zones. These measures follow a law adopted last October outlining the FSB’s role in “establishing control and checks in fisheries and the conservation of sea biological resources”.
An important concept in Russian history and life is the silovik. He is a representative of law enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies, armed forces and other structures to which the State delegates the right to use force. This concept is often extended to representatives of political groups, but also to businessmen, associated with power structures in Russia or formerly in the Soviet Union.
As a jargon term, this word is used in other languages as a broad political term in everyday conversation and in journalism to describe political processes typical of Russia or the former Soviet Union. The etymology of the word is the Russian word sila, meaning strength, force and power.
Trying to renew the aforementioned concept, President Putin provides momentum and injects new impetus into the meaning of this word. After putting the issue on the agenda of the National Security Council of May 28 last, the President is now pushing for the publication of the national security strategy. It has been delayed despite the fact that the Deputy Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation (Sovet bezopasnosti Rossijskoj Federacii), Sergej Vachrukov, had announced it was to be published in February.
As we might commonly believe, the steps to strengthen the Russian secret services are not so much focused on the aforementioned and movie-style “derby” between secret agents, but are mainly targeted to Russia’s traditional “Ottoman” adversary, namely neighbouring Turkey.
President Erdogan’s official meeting with the UAE’s National Security Advisor, Tahnun bin Zayed al-Nahyan, and the renewed ties with Abu Dhabi are the result of behind-the-scenes regional intelligence operations in which the Kremlin wants to see straight and clearly.
While there is still a deep political divide both between Russia and Turkey, and between Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, the Turkish President hopes to encourage future Emirates’ investment. Turkish President Erdogan’s unprecedented meeting with the UAE’s national security representative, the aforementioned al-Nahyan, in Ankara on August 18 can be largely attributed to the work of the two countries’ intelligence services over the last few months.
There is a desire to turn a new page after eight years of icy relations, crystallised by the 2013 overthrow of Egypt’s leader Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood’s member close to Turkey and firmly opposed by the United Arab Emirates.
Steps towards reconciliation began on January 5, 2021 at the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in al-Ula. The Summit marked the end of Qatar’s isolation, thus paving the way for a resumption of relations between the UAE and Turkey. After the Summit, al-Nahyan flew to Cairo where he met President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who strongly encouraged him to begin a new chapter with Turkey.
At the same time, Egypt’s intelligence service, Mukhabarat al-Amma, engaged in secret talks with its Turkish counterpart, the Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatıı. However, it was al-Nahya’s meeting with the Turkish intelligence Chief, Hakan Fidan, in Cairo a few weeks later that achieved the first results.
That meeting was organized by the Chief of the Mukhabarat al-Amma and by Abbas Kamel, al-Sisi’s regional Director, along with Ahmed Hosni, the strongman of Jordanian Dayirat al-Mukhabarat al-Amma, that King Abdallah II had sent from Amman. Since then, there were eight additional meetings between Turkey and Abu Dhabi, which then led to the aforementioned meeting of President Erdogan with al-Nahyan, with the possibility of holding a future Summit between them.
This rapprochement still has difficulty hiding the deep divide between the two countries on key regional issues such as their respective positions on Syria and Libya, in particular. While they have managed to find some common ground for understanding – ending smear campaigns and trade blockades; resuming visa issuance; direct air links and the return of Ambassadors – President Erdogan and al-Nahyan are simply keeping quiet about their current irreconcilable differences.
Political considerations are put aside to facilitate future UAE’s investment in Turkey.
On August 25, the Emirates’ Group International Holding CO announced it would invest massively in Turkey’s health and agrifood industries, while it seems that the sovereign fund Abu Dhabi Investment Authority is willing to lend Turkey 875 million US dollars.
Is it just business? Russia is investigating.
Power Vacuum in Afghanistan: A By-product of An Incompetent Geopolitical Contract
I still recall the evening of December 18, 2011, when I read the news of the last U.S. troops being pulled out of Iraq, that ended an eight-year-long military involvement in the region. Somehow the news instantly gave me an uneasy feeling knowing that a catastrophic storm was awaiting and will mark the beginning of a cataclysmic civil war. Within hours of U.S. military troops leaving the land, Iraqi’s rival Sunni and Shi’ite factions resumed a kind of political infighting that threatened a lurch back into turmoil. Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered an immediate dissolution of his Sunni deputy and issued an arrest warrant for the Sunni Vice President. Not only Sunnis gradually lost the authority of power in the government and security discourse, but the Sunni elites, who challenged Maliki were subsequently either tortured or killed. Out on the streets, after the ISF raided the home of Iraq’s minister of finance, who was also a member of Iraqiya coalition, Sunni protest broke out in Fallujah; and the fire spread across the country. Iraqi Security forces killed between 50-65 civilians on Maliki’s order. This led to the most notorious consortium in the history of global terrorism – an alliance between the Sunnis and ISIS. On July 21, 2013, ISIS initiated a 12-month campaign called the ‘Soldier’s Harvest’ on Iraqi security forces, teamed up with Sunni tribal leaders and former Baathists, and ultimately forcing ISF to evacuate Fallujah and remnants of its government. Soon after, ISIS attacked Abu Ghraib prison freeing up to 1000 minacious inmates, including senior al-Qaida leaders and militants. Empowered and endued with Sunni support, ISIS officially seized Fallujah, parts of Ramadi and Mosul, by June 2014. By gripping Mosul alone, ISIS gained $480 million in stolen cash and armed itself with two divisions’ worth of military weapons and ammunition that were left behind by the U.S. military troops. And, within six months, ISIS became the world’s most well-funded and equipped terrorist group in the world – controlling approximately 100,00 square kilometers of territory across Iraq and Syria at its zenith. Not just the Middle East, ISIS spread its terror tyranny globally as well with strategic attacks on Paris and Brussels.
So, what led to the birth of ISIS? Two words – Power vacuum; and the U.S. policy in Iraq between 2010 and 2011 actively created this geopolitical conditions in which ISIS thrived.
Stages of Power Vacuum – From The Birth of ISIS in Iraq to Rise of The Taliban in Afghanistan
If one thing that we have learned from the U.S led invasion in Iraq is that an incompetent geopolitical contract abhors a political vacuum. In political science, the term power vacuum is an analogy that deconstructs and artificially manufactures power relations and political conditions in a country that has no identifiable central power or authority. In a critical situation like this, the inflow of armed militia, insurgents, warlords, dictators, and military coups to fill this vacuum becomes an organic response, and it comes with a cost – the cost being a noxious civil war and national unrest. On the other hand, a power vacuum can also thrive in conditions following a constitutional crisis where the majority of the ruling government entities resign or are removed, giving birth to an unclear anecdote regarding succession to the position of power.
What happened in Iraq starting December 2011, and what is happening in Afghanistan today in 2021, is a result of a power vacuum – a by-product of an incompetent geopolitical contract. Twenty years after being forced into power annihilation by the U.S led military bases in Afghanistan, the Taliban is now actively resuming its power as the U.S continues to execute its full exit. Within hours of Joe Biden announcing the official termination of U.S military involvement in the country, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani worded a farewell post on social media, vocalizing that he must leave the country to prevent bloodshed. Today, the only remnant left of his political presence is his departing statement, “Long Live Afghanistan.” With the President fleeing the country, and creating a constitutional crisis of succession to the position of power, what we are witnessing is the manifestation of the initial stage of power vacuum. Soon after the President abandoned the country, the Taliban released a statement declaring that the group has taken over Kabul, a capital city of 6 million civilians, and is working to restore law and order. Considering the reputation of the Taliban – infamous for brutality, repression of women, and execution of religious minorities in the past, the idea of restoration of law and order appears antagonistic.
However, I am not interested in deconstructing the inimical and deleterious ideologies of the Taliban, but unfolding the mechanisms of the power vacuum in Afghanistan. With the Taliban now actively trying to fill this power vacuum created after Ghani’s disappearance, the second stage is at play. The primary question here is not about who will form the national government, but what type of alliance will be established among entities to procure this power. The typology of this alliance – its fundamental values, utility, durability, and workability, will regulate Afghanistan’s democracy and sovereignty in the coming years. If one turns back to 2011 in Iraq, you will recall how the alliance between Sunni tribal leaders and ISIS gave birth to a global terror reign. This was a direct result of abysmal policy deliberation and the abrupt exit of the U.S military troops from Iraq. So, the question is – now that the U.S military troop has ended its twenty-year-long involvement in Afghanistan, what type of alliance will be formed to fill this power vacuum? Will it be as catastrophic as Iraq? As the Taliban continues to coercively occupy the cities, Matthew Levitt, Director of Counterterrorism and Intelligence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy adds, “The possibility is very strong that Afghanistan will have both – a weak government and a government that has a close alliance with the elements of al-Qaeda. To add, there is an element of ISIS, ISIS Khorasan, as well. Although the Taliban doesn’t like them, but as we are witnessing the effort to evacuate people through Kabul airport and the threats of ISIS suicide bombers coming into Kabul, the fact is that the Taliban probably won’t for a very long time have control over all of the city, let alone all of the country. So, there will be an element of a safe haven even for groups that the Taliban doesn’t like – groups and alliances that will use Afghanistan as a base from which to operate and carry out terrorist attacks nationally and globally.”
It is worth noting that the alliance between the Taliban and al-Qaeda started with its leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who pledged their allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Omar in kid 1990s, and accepted Omar as Amir al-Mu’minin (Commander of the Faithful) of all Sunni Muslims. Al-Zawahiri later re-affirmed this pledge to Omar’s successors. Soon after, al-Qaeda gained substantial freedom to operate in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. In return, al-Qaeda doled out money to the Taliban. Since then, to up till now, the alliance between Taliban and al-Qaeda has flourished mutually. Soon after the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda congratulated the group and spoke about their alliance for Kashmir liberation in India. A letter was addressed to the Taliban by al-Qaeda and was shared on Twitter by a journalist. It read, “Allah! liberate the Levant, Somalia, Yemen, Kashmir, and the rest of the Islamic lands from the clutches of the enemies of Islam.”
If this alliance continues to grow stronger to seize power, the probable birthing of one of the deadliest terror organizations is certain – a terror entity that would not only have passive support of the Taliban but would surpass the atrocities committed by ISIS in Iraq. This is a direct result of Biden’s ham-fisted deliberation to exit Afghanistan abruptly, leaving a space to harbor national unrest, the collapse of a democratically elected government, procurement of this political vacuum by insurgents, and brutal violence by the Taliban against its civilians. In short – the fall down of Afghanistan democracy.
The third stage of the power vacuum is yet to mature in Afghanistan. This stage expediates the process of procurement of power, if any of the entities trying to seize power acquires economic funding and gets equipped with advanced military weapons. Jan Pieterzoon Coen, a leading officer of the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century, said, “There’s no trade without war; there’s no war without trade”. He was right. The establishing of power requires a trade that allows an alliance of immaterial ideology between groups and hoarding of material resources (weapons and money) to execute the ideology. In 2011, the Islamic State armed itself with two divisions’ worth of military weapons and ammunition that were left behind by the U.S military troops. They used these weapons to terrorize the civilians, execute opposition, and expand their captured territory. Another material resource may include stolen or funded cash apart from military machinery. For example, by gripping Mosul alone, ISIS gained $480 million in stolen cash. And, within six months, ISIS became the world’s most well-funded and equipped terrorist group in the world – controlling approximately 100,00 square kilometers of territory across Iraq and Syria at its zenith. So, what we observe here is that the acquisition of economic funding or military weapons gives birth to an effectively exercised political control through coercive means, and internalization of this coercive mechanisms by the civilians. In both cases, the mission is accomplished – an attempt to seize power vacuum by occupying the land and psyche of its civilians. Today, a similar narrative is at play in Afghanistan. The speed with which the Taliban swept across Afghanistan is reminiscent of Islamic State militants taking weapons from the U.S.- supplied Iraqi forces, who like the Afghan Air Force offered little resistance. Grey Myer and Scott Neuman writes, “The Taliban wasted no time in gloating over their new war booty. Photos and video posted to social media show the Taliban posing with captured aircraft, trucks, Humvees, artillery guns and night-vision goggles captured. Such equipment could be used to suppress internal dissent or fight off their rivals. Before the Taliban captured it, the Afghan air force had more than 40 operational U.S.-made MD-530 helicopters. The Taliban has already shown itself ready and willing to use U.S.-made small arms and other technology. Non-weaponry technology like the Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment, U.S. devices containing biometric data, could be used to find potential threats in hiding. I have fallen into the hands of Taliban.” This stage is climacteric
in materializing the procurement of power into a reality. Even if they would be protest in Afghanistan against the rise of the Taliban as the central power, Taliban will use the overwhelming amount of potential weaponry to stifle the dissent and expand their captured territory to places like Panjshir valley.
Who will procure the power in Afghanistan?
The Taliban will eventually seize power, but it would form a weak government, with under-the-table alliance with al-Qaeda; and would potentially foster the inflow and breeding of other groups like ISIS and ISIS Khorasan in Afghanistan. With opium and rich copper deposits, the international intervention is likely to be seen – motivated by self-interest as opposed to the interest of advocating for civil rest and peace in Afghanistan. Beijing has already held a talk with Taliban officials over the implementation for strategic engagement. It is highly possible that the $25 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project is extended to Afghanistan now that the U.S has vacated the country. Financial support would most likely be delivered hand-in-hand with Beijing’s strongest ally in the region – Pakistan, allowing the Chinese government to persuade the Taliban to sever links with East Turkestan Islamic Movement group, who have executed terrorist attacks in Xinjiang province. On the other side of the border, India – a Hindu extremist governed country, is also in injudicious talks with the Taliban. Taliban’s close association with al-Qaeda can potentially create a political defilement and unrest in Kashmir, India. This may manifest into border security threat and infiltration of terrorists – manufactured by al-Qaeda, but with the Taliban’s blessings as the central power. To conclude, to think of Afghanistan as a ‘graveyard of empires’ is a zombie narrative. It is being revived to deflect, distract and distort the failure of Biden and the U.S military policies in Afghanistan. The truth is far simpler than we complicate – The creation of a power vacuum in Afghanistan is a direct result of abysmal foreign policy deliberation and the abrupt exit of the U.S military troops. It is indeed a by-product of an incompetent geopolitical contract. Biden’s administration must be held accountable for harbouring a space for demolition of a democratically elected government and rise of the Taliban terror in Afghanistan.
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