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.
Towards Increasingly Complex Multipolarity: Scenario for the Future
A “New World Order” (NWO) is emerging before everyone’s eyes, said Aleksandr Fomin, Russian Deputy Defense Minister, in an interview for RT earlier this month. He is quoted by the outlet as saying that:
“Today we are witnessing the formation of a new world order. We see a tendency for countries to be drawn into a new Cold War, the states being divided into ‘us’ and ‘them’, with ‘them’ unambiguously defined in doctrinal documents as adversaries. The existing system of international relations and the security framework is being systematically destroyed. The role of international organizations as instruments of collective decision-making in the field of security is being diminished. Fundamentally new types of weapons that radically change the balance of power in the modern world are emerging, with warfare getting into new areas – into space and cyberspace. This, of course, leads to a change in the principles and methods of war.”
He did not elaborate any further beyond that but it is still possible to make some reasonable conjectures about the NOW’s contours based on empirical evidence to speculate about possible implications.
The processes described by the Deputy Minister can be attributed to a combination of Trump’s US-Chinese trade war that provoked a new Cold War mostly between those two great powers—or “superpowers” according to some—and a World War C, the full-spectrum paradigm-changing processes catalyzed by the world’s uncoordinated attempts to contain COVID-19. The former resulted in purging the U.S. permanent military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies (the “deep state”) of any pragmatic Chinese-friendly influence as well as comprehensively redirecting the might of the American military more fully against the People’s Republic. This second-mentioned observation made it all but impossible for the supposedly Chinese-friendly Democrats to reverse Trump’s grand strategic designs following Biden’s inauguration, which is why they, too, have finally jumped onto the anti-Chinese bandwagon.
As for the World War C, it exacerbated the already intense global competition between the U.S. and China, thereby putting additional pressure on American policymakers to pioneer a strategic breakthrough designed to give them an edge over their top global rival. The specifics of their strategic calculations can only be speculated upon, but it is apparently the case that the previously Russophobic Democrats have recently engaged much more pragmatically with Russia over the past month. This is evidenced by the seemingly surprising de-escalation in Ukraine back in late April from the brink of what many thought would be an all-out war between the two, the U.S. equally surprising decision to impose mostly superficial sanctions on Nord Stream 2, the Pentagon spokesman’s unexpected declaration that Russia is not an “enemy” as well as the upcoming Putin-Biden Summit—despite the U.S. leader previously calling the Russian President a “killer”.
Strategic Designs of the “Deep State”
The Democrats—or rather the “deep state” forces behind them—evidently realized the strategic wisdom of Trump’s grand vision of repairing relations with Russia so that the U.S. can concentrate more fully on “containing” China. This is not due to any newfound appreciation of the Eurasian great power, which many of them still hate with a passion on account of its pragmatic dealings with Trump and implementation of conservative policies that contradict the much more liberal approach preferred by American elites, but due to simple pragmatism countering the geostrategic consequences of Trump’s previous four years of global disruptions. With the U.S. military-industrial complex (MIC) increasingly redirected towards “containing” China more than Russia, as is evident from the doctrines that were promulgated during Trump’s presidency and the subsequent shifts in policies, the “deep state” basically had no other choice but continue the course, no matter how begrudgingly.
This explains the expectation that Bidenэs EU trip will lead to a comparative improvement of relations with Russia, even if only resulting in each of their “deep states” regulating their comprehensive competition with one another more responsibly. Russia would receive a relative relief in pressure along its Western flank while the U.S. could redirect more of its military-strategic focus from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) to the “Indo-Pacific”. The continuation of the Obama-era “Pivot to Asia” under the Trump and Biden Administrations is proven by both of their moves to reduce the U.S. military-strategic commitments in West Asia (Syria/Iraq) and Central-South Asia (Afghanistan). Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was rather unexpected, considering the Democrats’ prior opposition to any of Trump’s policies, but only speaks to how they have been compelled by the circumstances to revise their grand strategic outlook.
The Eurasian “Balancing” Act
The arguably emerging NWO will be characterized by plenty of “balancing”, especially as regards Russian, Turkish, Indian, and Chinese grand strategies in Eurasia:
The Eurasian great power will seek to optimize its Afro-Eurasian “balancing” act between West and East, the former comprising the U.S./EU while the latter encompassing China vis-a-vis BRI; India with respect to the possibility of jointly leading a New Non-Aligned Movement (Neo-NAM); Turkey insofar as managing their “friendly competition” especially in West Asia, the South Caucasus, Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), and perhaps soon in Central Asia as well; and Africa when it comes to scaling up the export of Moscow’s “democratic security” solutions to hybrid war-threatened states.
The West Asian great power will double down on its “Middle Corridor” to China via the South Caucasus, Caspian Sea and Central Asia (made all the more viable after its Azerbaijani ally’s victory in last year’s Karabakh War); expand the aforementioned to more closely connect with its Pakistani ally via a revival of the Lapis Lazuli Corridor; further entrench itself in Northern Syria; leverage its Muslim Brotherhood allies for the purpose of expanding its ideological influence throughout the international Muslim community; and continue making inroads in Africa and CEE (especially through arms sales).
The South Asian great power will attempt to use Russia and the U.S. as “balancing” partners for preventing disproportionate dependence on China (though probably moving closer to Moscow than Washington in response to the latter’s recent pressure upon it via S-400 sanctions threats, negative media coverage of its government, violation of its exclusive economic zone and continued failure to reach a free trade deal); explore a detente of sorts with China for the sake of pragmatism; and revive the joint Indo-Japanese Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) to attract more (mostly Western) stakeholders to its campaign to economically compete with China across the Global South.
The East Asian great power will pursue the formation of a Chinese-Muslim bloc in the Eurasian Heartland by leveraging its strategic partnerships and planned W-CPEC+ connectivity with Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey (which might extend as far as Syria and also facilitate the latter three’s incipient plans to create their own Muslim bloc); increasingly rely on S-CPEC+ to expand Chinese-African connectivity via Pakistan (thus importantly avoiding the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca); intensify trade relations with the RCEP states (especially the neighboring ASEAN); explore improving relations with India for pragmatic reasons (so as to avoid a US-provoked two-front war along their frontier and the South China Sea); and ultimately rally the entire Global South behind it via BRI.
Convergences & Contradictions
With the above insights in mind, it is important to point out some key convergences and contradictions:
- All four great powers are interested in economic connectivity, though India is still reluctant to join BRI and will likely remain that way, hence its desire to revive the AAGC and possibly even incorporate Russia into this trans-continental trade framework (focusing on the Arctic, Far East, ASEAN, and Africa);
- Neither of these primary players has any interest in provoking instability, though Turkey’s efforts to expand its influence across the Ummah via its Muslim Brotherhood allies could prolong instability in West Asia and North Africa;
- Each of them is also actively expanding their influence through regional institutions such as Russia’s Eurasian Union, Turkey’s Turkic Council, India’s BIMSTEC, and China’s BRI-linked structures, all of which could better coordinate if Turkey ever joins the SCO (since it is the only of the four nations that is not a SCO member).
-China’s growing economic influence in Central and West Asia could eventually displace Russia’s traditional and newfound role in those two regions, compelling Moscow to increasingly “accommodate” Beijing to gradually cede its current and envisioned leadership there to the People’s Republic;
-Russia is becoming worried that Turkey’s expansion of influence in Moscow’s traditional “spheres of influence” (South Caucasus and Central Asia) might become “unmanageable”, with the worst-case scenario resulting not in “accommodation” like with China but a more intensified trans-regional competition there;
-India’s predicted revival of the AAGC (including with some role for Russia even if in the Arctic and Far East only, as well as a leading role for the U.S.) will heighten China’s threat perception of the South Asian state if it succeeds in expanding its economic influence across the “Global South” and especially along Beijing’s borders.
This forecasted state of strategic affairs will facilitate certain divide-and-rule schemes by the U.S., which might:
-Intensify its information warfare against BRI all across the Global South in order to provoke color revolutions against Chinese-friendly governments there so as to deprive Beijing of the resources and markets that it requires to sustain its planned growth while perhaps also replacing its lost investments there with AAGC ones;
-Refocus its strategic partnership with India on the economically-driven AAGC as opposed to the military-led Quad in order to provide the South Asian great power with financial, leadership and organizational assistance that it requires to compete with China across the Global South and exploit the U.S. planned hybrid war gains there;
-Consider co-opting Turkey sometime in the future in order to leverage its newfound influence in Russia’s traditional spheres of the South Caucasus and Central Asia, thus provoking the earlier mentioned worst-case scenario of intensified competition in the region.
These speculative schemes can be preempted through the following ways:
-China must successfully convince its targeted audience in the Global South that it is pioneering a truly new model of international relations that is much more beneficial for the majority of their people than that the U.S. seeks to retain (albeit through “Lead From Behind” reforms) even if it still takes time to materialize;
-China and India must seriously consider very difficult mutual compromises in order to restore the lost trust between them, especially in the economic-financial-tech spheres, in order to ensure that BRI and the AAGC converge rather than compete, heralding the best-case scenario of a “Renaissance 2.0”;
-Russia and Turkey must sustainably regulate their “friendly competition” through more than just the trust between their present leaders that has been responsible for managing this so far, necessitating some sort of institutionalized framework among them as well as the states within their overlapping “spheres of influence”.
The NWO that was described up until this point is disproportionately dependent on the following conditions:
-The U.S. and Russia successfully beginning a new era of relations, whereby they sincerely intend to regulate their comprehensive competition more responsibly, with an aim towards eventually clinching a “new détente” that would prospectively consist of a series of mutual compromises all across Eurasia;
-India and Turkey continuing to “balance” between the U.S. and Russia so as to ensure their rise as great powers in an increasingly complex world order, which will in turn improve their strategic leverage vis-a-vis China and enable them to expand their envisioned “spheres of influence” more sustainably;
-China continuing to formulate its grand strategy under the unofficial influence of the Mao-era “Three Worlds Theory” wherein the People’s Republic as the largest developing (“Third World”) nation aims to consolidate its leadership over the Global South through win-win BRI deals that lead to a Community of Common Destiny.
Nobody seems to know for sure what sort of the NWO exactly Russian Deputy Defense Minister A. Fomin envisioned when he shared his thoughts about this with RT earlier in the month, but the present analysis attempted to compellingly make the case that this emerging scenario will represent a much more complex version of multipolarity than the current one. Trump’s U.S.-Chinese trade war, which in turn provoked the new Cold War between these two great powers, combined with the black swan event of a World War C to inspire the U.S. “deep state” to pragmatically recalibrate America’s grand strategy away from its hitherto unsuccessful attempts to simultaneously “contain” both Russia and China. The resultant outcome could fundamentally transform the geostrategic situation in Eurasia, both by providing the U.S. with new opportunities to divide and rule the supercontinent but also by giving Russia and China a chance to finally stabilize it in a sustainable way.
From our partner RIAC
UN: Revealing Taliban’s Strategic Ties with Al Qaeda and Central Asian Jihadists
As the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the deadline for the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan draws near, the region has been witnessing sudden adjustments. The Taliban have not only intensified assaults against the Afghan government forces and captured new territories but also began to demonstrate their regional ambitions to reduce Washington’s influence in Central and South Asia. As the US military has completed more than half of its withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban believe that they defeated America after 20 years of grueling war. The Taliban leaders, who were driven by the latest military successes, began further setting their own conditions for the neighbors and stepping on the toes of Washington in order to prevent the establishment of a new US military base in Central Asia.
On May 26, the Taliban issued a statement warning Afghanistan’s neighbors not to allow the US to utilize their territory and airspace for any future military operations against them. The Sunni Islamist jihadi group cautioned that facilitating US military operations by neighboring countries in the future will be a “great historical mistake and a disgrace that shall forever be inscribed as a dark stain in history.” They further emphasized that the presence of foreign forces is “the root cause of insecurity and war in the region.” The insurgent group strictly warned without elaborating that “the people of Afghanistan will not remain idle in the face of such heinous and provocative acts”. At the end of the statement, they exerted political pressure on the Central Asian states, threatening that “if such a step is taken, then the responsibility for all the misfortunes and difficulties lies upon those who commit such mistakes.”
Given the past experience of US military presence in the region, the Taliban’s threatening appeal is most likely addressed to the governments of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. After the 9/11 attacks the Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek governments hosted the American military to wage a campaign against the Taliban, Al Qaeda and their Salafi-Jihadi subsidiaries. But virtually every US military base in Central Asia was suddenly expelled when the personal interests of the regional authoritarian leaders have been infringed upon. Uzbekistan expelled the US base from Karshi-Khanabad amid strong political disagreements over a bloody 2005 crackdown on protesters in Andijan. The Dushanbe and Kulob airports in Tajikistan were used very briefly by the NATO forces. The US base at the Bishkek airport in Kyrgyzstan also was closed in 2014 under heavy Russian hands. It is no secret that following the expel of US military bases, some political leaders of Central Asia became skeptical of Washington, thus further perceiving it as an unreliable partner.
The Taliban’s warning to the Central Asian states is fully consistent with the strategic expectations of Al Qaeda, its loyal and faithful ideological partner in the global jihad, both of which jointly seek to push the US out not only from Afghanistan, but also from Central and Southeast Asia. Based on propaganda releases and the rhetoric on Telegram channels, the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups which are linked to the Taliban and Al Qaeda, strongly supported the withdrawal of US forces from the region. Consequently, Uighur and Uzbek jihadists potentially see the Taliban and Al Qaeda as powerful parent organizations, whose resurgence in Afghanistan offers major advantages for their military and political strengthening. Unsurprisingly, Al Qaeda and Taliban aims to oust the US forces from the region, hence playing into the hands of Moscow and Beijing, considering that both unlikely to welcome an increased US military presence in their backyard.
Taliban leaders are well aware that the possible deployment of US military assets in Central Asia will impede their strategic goal in rebuilding the so-called Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Today Washington is actively working with nations surrounding Afghanistan on the deployment of its troops to support Afghan forces “over the horizon” after withdrawal from the country on September 11. The US air support for the Afghan military could thwart Taliban plans to quickly seize Kabul and force them to sit at the negotiating table with the Ashraf Ghani administration. The Taliban have consistently and clearly emphasized in their numerous public statements opposing the negotiation and power share with the Kabul regime. They consider themselves the only and undeniable military-political force that has the right to rule the country in accordance with Sharia law. The Taliban jihadists are determined to continue waging jihad until establishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and their emir, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, becomes the country’s “lawful ruler”.
On June 6, 2021, the Taliban once again appealed to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan “to resolve their border issues through a dialogue” and “seeking a logical solution that would benefit both sides.” Recall, during the two-day border conflict between the armed forces of the two post-Soviet countries at the end of April, more than 50 people were killed, hundreds were injured and thousands were forced to leave their homes. In its statement, the Taliban, called on Tajik and Kyrgyz leaders to value “the peace and security of their respective nations.” According to the local analysts, Taliban’s “peace-aiming appeal” looks like a mockery of the Afghan people suffering from their bloody jihad.
Taliban’s “Soft Power” Under Construction
The question to be posed is what kind of leverage does the Taliban has with the Central Asian states to put pressure on them in preventing the possible deployment of new US military bases in the region?
The Taliban, an insurgent Islamist group that has yet to come to power, does not have any economic or political leverage over the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. But it is imperative to mention that the Taliban holds “soft power” tools, such as Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi terrorist groups affiliated with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. These groups challenged the region’s secular regimes, hence aiming to establish an Islamic Caliphate in the densely populated Fergana Valley, sandwiched between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
It is no secret that the Central Asian post-Soviet countries consider the Al Qaeda-linked Uzbek and Uighur Sunni Salafi-Jihadi groups hiding in Taliban-controlled Afghan soil as a threat to the security of the entire region. Recall, the first group of radical Islamists from Central Asia who found refuge in Afghanistan in the mid-90s was the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which had close and trusting ties with both Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Currently, Uighur fighters of Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) from China’s Xinjiang, Uzbek militant groups such as Katibat Imam al-Bukhari (KIB), Katibat Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ), the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) and Tajik militants of Jamaat Ansarullah (JA) wage jihad in Afghanistan under the Taliban’s umbrella.
The Taliban still strongly support Uzbek and Uighur jihadists despite the 2020 US-Taliban peace agreement that requires the Taliban to sever ties with Al Qaeda and all Central Asian terrorist groups.
In response to documentary evidence of the UN Security Council and the US Defense Intelligence Agency on the Taliban’s close-knit relationship with Al Qaeda and their failure to fulfill the obligation, the Taliban have adopted new tactics to publicly deny the presence of transnational terrorist groups in the country and their ties to them. The Taliban still insist that there are no foreign fighters in the country. But regular UN reports reveal the true face of the Taliban, who are trying to hide their deep network links with Al Qaeda and Central Asian Islamists — a decades-old relationship forged through common ideology and a history of joint jihad.
Thus, a recently released report by the UN Security Council’s Taliban Sanctions Monitoring Team confirms that there are “approximately between 8,000 and 10,000 foreign terrorist fighters from Central Asia, the North Caucasus and China’s Xinjiang in Afghanistan. Although the majority are affiliated foremost with the Taliban, many also support Al Qaeda.” The UN report stated that Uzbek and Uighur jihadists’ ties with the Taliban and Al Qaeda remain “strong and deep as a consequence of personal bonds of marriage and shared partnership in struggle, now cemented through second generational ties.” Further the UN monitoring team revealed Al Qaeda’s core strategy of “strategic patience,” according to which the group would wait for “a long period of time before it would seek to plan attacks against international targets again.”
According to the report, “several hundred Uighur jihadists of Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) located primarily in Badakhshan and neighboring Afghan provinces, whose strategic goal is to establish an Islamic Uighur state in Xinjiang, China.” To achieve its goal, TIP facilitates the movement of fighters from Afghanistan and Syria to China. Abdul Haq al-Turkistani, who is a member of Al Qaeda’s Shura Majlis, leads the Syrian and Afghan branches of TIP for more than two decades. According to the UN monitoring group, “Uighur militant Hajji Furqan, the TIP’s deputy emir, is also a deputy leader of Al Qaeda and responsible for the recruitment of foreign fighters.” Such mixed appointments of group leaders highlight the close and deep ties between the troika: Taliban-Al Qaeda-TIP.
The UN report found more evidence of close cooperation between Uzbek IMU jihadists and the Taliban. The report stated that the “IMU fighters are currently based in Faryab, Sar-e Pol and Jowzjan provinces, where they dependent on the Taliban for money and weapons”. The UN monitoring team also highlighted the activities of Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups such as KIB, IJU and Jundullah, which are waging jihad in the northern Afghan provinces of Faryab and Kunduz under Taliban shelter and control. “The Taliban has forbidden these groups from launching independent operations, resulting in a reduction of their income.” In conclusion, UN analysts noted that pressure on the Taliban to cut their ties with Al Qaeda and Central Asian Salafi groups has not succeeded. Thus, the UN report once again refuted the Taliban’s assertion that Al Qaeda and Central Asian jihadists are not present in Afghanistan.
Thus, it can be assumed that while US military pressure persists, the Taliban’s tactics will continue to publicly deny their trust relationships and close ties with Al Qaeda, Central Asian jihadists, and other transnational terrorist groups in the country. But as long as the Taliban’s perception of its own level of influence and control in Afghanistan remains high, insurgents will continue to insist that they are abiding by the accord with the US.
The Taliban’s strategy is to build the foundation of their “soft power” through the patronage and protection of Al Qaeda and Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups in Afghanistan. Thus, in this complex process, not only material interests, but also common religious roots originating in the Hanafi school of Sunni Islamic theology and mutual sympathy for jihadist ideological visions might play a significant role.
Cyber-attacks-Frequency a sign of Red Alert for India
The biggest target is in terms of transportations, nuclear power plants, Power system Operation Corporation Limited, V.O. Chidambaram Port Trust, Telangana State Load Dispatch Centre, logistic industries and research organisations which eventually can lead to destruction of the whole ecosystem. The confidentiality breach in the case of medical data leak as reported by a German cyber security firm –Greenbone Sustainable Resilience wherein Picture Archiving and Communication Servers were linked to public internet without any requisite protection is a point of concern. Then, there are certain individualistic attacks such as hacking email and financial crimes (banking), etc. In the last two years the attacks radar of focus has been defence, government accounts and the vaccine manufacturing companies.
Cyber Security – Individualistic awareness need of the hour
The target of the individual in a peculiar case which led to heinous crimes casted was due to opening of a document which was a bait to install Netwire- a malware. The bait was eventually delivered through a file and what prompted a person to open that link was a Drop box sent to him on his email was actually opening a Pandora Box of malicious command and control server. An emphasis to understand the technicality that Netwire stands for a malware which gives control of the infected system to an attacker. This in turn paves way for data stealing, logging keystrokes and compromise passwords. In the similar vein the Pegasus used the tactic to infiltrate the user’s phones in 2019.
Cyber Security – Attacking Power Distribution Systems
The intrusions by Chinese hacker groups in October, 2020 as brought out by Recorded Future was done through Shadow Pad which opens a secret path from target system to command and control servers. And, the main target is sectors such as transportation, telecommunication and energy .And , there are different tags that are being used by the Chinese Espionage Industry such as APT41, Wicked Spider and Wicked Panda , etc.
The institutions backing legitimisation
The Institutions which are at working under the cyber security surveillance are the National Security Council and National Information Board headed by National Security Adviser helping in framing India’s cyber security policy .Then, in 2014 there is the National Critical Information Infrastructure Protection Centre under the National Technical Research Organisation mandating the protection of critical information infrastructure. And, in 2015 the National Cyber Security Coordinator advises the Prime Minister on strategic cyber security issues. In the case of nodal entity , India’s Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-in) is playing a crucial role under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology(MEITY).But, there is a requirement of clarity in National Cyber Security Policy of 2013 and the needed updates desired in it respectively.
A cohesive approach – Data Protection and Privacy Importance
The Data privacy i.e. the personal data protection bill is an important imperative in which services of private actors can be bridged through a concerned law which is missing link in that sense. The point of Data localisation falls squarely within this dimension of Section 40 and 41 of the draft bill where in the Indian stakeholders have the capacity to build their own data centres .In this contextualisation there also a need to understand certain technicalities involved in terms of edge computing which in a way is enabling the data to be analysed, processed, and transferred at the edge of a network. An elaboration to this is the data is analysed locally, closer to where it is stored, in real-time without delay. The Edge computing distributes processing, storage, and applications across a wide range of devices and data centres which make it difficult for any single disruption to take down the network. Since more data is being processed on local devices rather than transmitting it back to a central data centre, edge computing also reduces the amount of data actually at risk at any one time. Whereas on the other hand, there is insistence on data localisation has paved the way for companies such as Google Pay to adhere to the policy and synchronise their working with the United Payments Interface (UPI).
What do you understand by Data Share?
In the recent case of WhatsApp privacy issue and drawing in parallel other organisation a similar platform such as Facebook and Google shared the data to the third party with a lopsided agreement and with continuance of the data trade business industry. In 1996 the internet was free so was perceived as carte blanche , a safe harbour falling under the Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act in the United States but with the evolution of the circumstances the laws in that specifications are also required to change in that respect. In relations to the Indian law under the Information Technology Act, 2000 under the Section 69 the Indian government has the powers to monitor and decrypt any information that’s store in any computer resource but on certain conditions such as in regards to the sovereignty, defence and security of the country.
Cyber-attacks understanding on the International Forums
In terms of Lieber Code of Conduct of 1863 or be it Hague Convention of 1899 there is a need of updating the definitions and where in the cyber army falling under the categorisation of civilians , not possessing any of the warfare weapons cause the main weapon that they possess is a malware which is invisible but can have deep repercussions leading to destruction of that particular economy altogether .So, in recent evolving circumstances there is an undue importance to for the target country to respond with equal force and having a right to self-defence in this manner regardless of the attack being from a non-state actor from a third country and masquerading under the civilian garb .Henceforth , there a thorough understanding of the complex environment that one is dealing with , there is undue emphasis to change and respectively update with the current world.
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