The activities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard have been overshadowed by the attention given to the Iranian nuclear program. However, for the last several decades the IRGC has been heavily involved in a highly coordinated campaign of covert operations that function not just in the Middle East but span the globe.
The Government of Iran uses the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and IRGC-QF to implement its foreign policy goals, including, but not limited to, seemingly legitimate activities that provide cover for intelligence operations and support to terrorist and insurgent groups. The IRGC-QF provides material, logistical assistance, training, and financial support to militants and terrorist operatives throughout the Middle East and South Asia. These activities include economic investment, reconstruction, and other types of aid to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon implemented by companies and institutions that act for, on behalf of, or are owned or controlled by the IRGC and the Iranian government.
Iran also uses the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force – and state-run social service organizations ─ to support terrorism under the guise of providing reconstruction and economic development assistance or social services. Iran's support for terrorism and terrorist organizations, including Hizballah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), and the Taliban. Iran is the primary funder of Hizballah and has long been recognized as the most active state sponsor of terrorism (treasury.gov/tg810.aspx).
Two years after Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini established the “Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in the World,” led by Ayatollah Hussein Montazeri, who was entrusted with the role of creating a movement to establish radical Islamic states throughout the world based on the revolutionary template of Iran.28. With the cooperation of Syria, Iran established the Shaykh Abdallah Barracks of the Pasdaran, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard, in the Baqa’a Valley to extend its influence over the Shi`i population of Lebanon. During the early 1980s, the Pasdaran committed as many as 2,000 of its Revolutionary Guards at its headquarters at Baalbek in southern Lebanon to assist in forming and training Hizballah.
According to its own official budget, during the mid-1990s Iran was reported to have devoted $500 million to supporting radical Islamic organizations that were sympathetic to its cause throughout the world. It was also reported to have established a network of terrorist cells that are “located in at least twenty states, including the U.S., Britain, Germany, France, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Pakistan.
More recently, Iran is reported to have organized Hizballah cells in Azerbaijani territory bordering on Iran. A council of fifteen inﬂuential Azerbaijani religious ﬁgures is said to organize the activities of the cells, whose responsibilities include forming “an army of God” to operate in Azerbaijan. One of the council members has also arranged for young Azerbaijanis to study at Iranian theological seminaries. In 2001, the Azerbaijani National Security Ministry arrested a group of individuals suspected of having contact with Hizballah in Calilabad. Through the IRGC and its subsidiary Hizballah Iran has extended its terror connections beyond the Middle East and the Islamic world.
In an effort to gain allies in its war against the West, during the early 1980s, the Iranian government and Hizballah made an effort to provide ﬁnancial assistance to Sinn Fein, the political section of the Irish Republican Army. Hadi Ghaffari, the president of Hizballah and the Iranian minister tasked with cooperating with the Hizballah movement in Lebanon,93 began to travel to Belfast, Ireland, in order to initiate contacts between his government and the Irish Republican Army. On one occasion, Ghaffari hosted members of Sinn Fein at a luncheon. To demonstrate his support for the IRA, Ghaffari told a 1980 rally in Tehran, “We are ready to blow up British factories and ships.”
In June 1982, IRA leaders secretly ﬂew to Tehran to attend the Conference of World Movements, an international conference of leading figures of international terrorist organizations including Hizballah, the Abu Nidal organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–General Command, the Japanese Red Army, and ETA, the Basque separatist organization. At Fayruzi Palace in Tehran, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard, Muhsin Reza’i, met the leaders of the organizations.
The agenda of the conference was a plan by Iran to fund and arm a new “terrorist international” in exchange for the organizations’ making a commitment to launch attacks against Western targets in Europe to make them pay a price for supporting U.S. policies in the Middle East. In return, the Iranians sent an ofﬁcial delegation to Sinn Fein’s annual conference in Dublin (web.archive.org/ ). The IRGC’s activities are not operated entirely through proxies.
In 2016 it was noted that more than 300 members and officials of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran were assassinated outside of Iran by Iran's special Intelligence teams within a few years after the Iran -Iraq war ended. Two leaders of the Kurdish Democratic Party, Dr. Abdol Rahman Ghassemlou and Sadegh Sharafkandi, along with other members and officials of the party, were killed by the Iranian regime in Austria and Germany.
Although Iran later pledged to the European Union it would stop the assassinations of Iranian dissidents in Europe, the news agency notes that history has shown that in order to achieve its goals, the Islamic Republic often does not abide by its international obligations (clarionproject.org/).
On 2 October 2018, France accused Iran of plotting a terrorist attack on its soil. The alleged attempt was to bomb a People’s Mujahideen of Iran (MEK) rally in Paris – an organization comprised of Iranian opposition with a four-decade-long history of armed struggle and attacks within Iran. An Iranian-Belgian couple carrying an explosive device and materials was arrested in Belgium, followed by arrests of a number of Iranians in France and Germany – including an Iranian diplomat.
On 31 October 2018, Denmark accused Tehran of plotting an assassination against an opposition leader on its soil. Denmark’s intelligence service said the agency believed that Iran “was planning an attack in Denmark” against three activists – members of the separatist Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of al-Ahwaz (ASMLA) (fanack.com/).
In January of 2019 Iran was accused by the Dutch government of directing two political assassinations in the Netherlands. The two murders are alleged to have taken place in broad daylight in 2015 in Almere, a city east of Amsterdam, and in 2017 on a street close to the Dutch foreign ministry in The Hague (theguardian.comiran-behind-two-assassinations-in-netherlands-minister).
In May 2019 U.S officials accused Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) of being directly responsible for attacks on tankers off the United Arab Emirates in what could be a foreshadowing of the conclusion of ongoing investigations into the incident (gulfnews.com/iran-directly-behind-tanker-attacks-off-uae-coast-us-says-1.64179304). Since the beginning of the Iraq insurgency, the activities of Iran have been widely known in regard to its support of Shia militias.
In the aftermath of the Iraq war and the fall of Saddam, Iran feared an easy victory so close to their borders. If Iraq became a stable democracy, it would leave the remaining American forces in the country available to divert their resources towards Iran. In an effort to curtail this, Iran conceived the idea that destabilizing Iraq with a strategy of supporting a vast insurgency movement and force the U.S. to direct its resources to combat it. The IRGC imported many weapons and trained numerous insurgents in the use of more sophisticated explosives and traps, particularly explosively formed penetrator (EFPs), that was shipped into Iraq by Iranian intelligence (O’hern, 2008). However, Iran’s insurgency strategy has been far more intricate than simply supporting Shia militias.
In his writings, noted strategic analyst H. John Poole asserts that some of the early Sunni insurgency was actually orchestrated by the IRGC. When discussing noted Sunni terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one-time Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan accused him of cooperating with Iran. The assumption was that either al-Qaeda and Iranian intelligence were coordinating battlefield operations in Iraq or, far from being the head of an al-Qaeda faction in Iraq, Zarqawi was in actuality an Iranian operative.
In late 2004 there was evidence that Iran had been contributing fighters to the Fallujah violence. Brig. Sarkout Hassan Jalal, Sulaimanyah security director, noted that insurgents were being smuggled into Iraq from Iran and then driven to Fallujah. In addition, evidence suggested there were numerous recruits pouring into Fallujah from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. It’s been proven that Hezbollah played a bigger role in the insurgency of Fallujah than did al-Qaeda.
During this time a series of high-profile assassinations were carried out against Sunni leaders which served to further alienate the Sunni community from the greater political system and cause them to boycott upcoming elections. These assassinations were likely the work of Shiite militants and possibly directed by IRGC (Poole, 2005). The IRGC mission has played a bigger role in other global conflicts.
Iran was the main arms supplier to the Bosnian Muslim military forces during the 1992-1995 civil war, in violation of the United Nations arms embargo. Iran supplied two-thirds of the total weapons and ammunition received by the Bosnian Muslim forces during the 1992-95 civil war. From May 1994 to January 1996, Iran transported over 5,000 tons of weapons and military equipment to Bosnia.
Iran sent to Bosnia members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Pasdaran, 2,000 by 1995, Â who supervised the illegal arms shipments and who were incorporated into the Bosnian Muslim Army of Alija Izetbegovic, who made official state visits to Tehran in 1992 and 1993 to secure Iranian arms shipments and military and diplomatic support.
The Iranian Intelligence Agency (VEVAK) established branches and infrastructure in Bosnia. VEVAK had established links to Alija Izetbegovic’s radical, militant, and ultra-nationalist Islamic SDA party before the civil war started in 1992. Once the war started, VEVAK strengthened and expanded its ties to the Bosnian Muslim political leadership and the Bosnian Muslim secret police apparatus. Mohammed Taherian, Â, a top Iranian intelligence agent who had armed the Taliban and was suspected of arming Shiite guerrillas, was sent to Sarajevo as the Iranian Ambassador to Bosnia. Taherian had been the former Iranian Ambassador to Afghanistan. This ultimately worked to make Iran stronger and which increased Iranian influence in Europe (serbianna.com/56).
Iran has had a presence in Latin America for decades. However, its role in the region expanded and intensified after Hugo Chavez took the reins of the Venezuelan state in 1999. As such, the alliance between Venezuela and Iran has strong foundations. Hezbollah, the Iranian backed paramilitary, and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) have also established a presence in the region, training “soldiers of the revolution” in Venezuelan camps, and even helping to design and build the ALBA school, a military training camp in Bolivia. The school’s main purpose is to ideologically indoctrinate soldiers and strengthen the bonds between the armed forces and the new Latin American revolutions. The revolution promoted a civic-military alliance, a situation that has enabled the regime to survive. Venezuela’s own Vice President, Tarek Al Aissami, has been a key liaison between Venezuela and Iran.
Currently, Iran has a presence in 12 countries in the region including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guyana, Paraguay, Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname, and Uruguay. Iran has sought to increase political alliances in the region for which Venezuela and its allies provided a great opportunity. It also sought a strategic position in the region to increase deterring capabilities against the U.S. Additionally, Iran has aspired to reach out to the Muslim community in Latin America.
Indeed, Iran has established a number of networks in the region with mosques and even a TV channel (HispanTV) in Spanish. (HispanTV has given wide coverage to groups that promote anti-Semitic conspiracy theories). Iran also sought to use Latin American countries, particularly Venezuelan banks, to curb the effect of international sanctions. Venezuela issued passports to Iranians and Hezbollah members to facilitate their free travel around the region and the world. Likewise, several Caribbean countries that allied with Chavez established dangerous liaisons with Iran.
Guyana signed an agreement with Iran in which Iran would map Guyana’s mineral resources, including uranium. Dominica signed an agreement with Iran that enabled citizens of Iran, parts of the Middle East, and Central Asia to obtain a second citizenship and a passport. The islands of St. Kitts and Nevis have also sold passports to Iranians.
In 2007, a Hezbollah member stationed in Guyana attempted to carry out a terrorist attack at Kennedy Airport. Likewise, in 2011 Iran tried to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington. Furthermore, sophisticated tunnels built along the U.S.-Mexican border have been designed in the image of the tunnels found along the Israeli-Lebanese border. Intelligence officials have raised the possibility that Hezbollah has been enlisted by drug cartels to design and improve the tunnels along America’s southern border (centerforsecuritypolicy.org/). In addition to an extensive covert campaign, the IRGC has managed to run a successful intelligence penetration of the U.S. intelligence community.
Monica Elfriede Witt, a former U.S. Air Force intelligence specialist, has been charged with espionage on behalf of Iran in an indictment that also charges four Iranians with a cyber campaign targeting U.S. intelligence personnel. She is wanted for her alleged involvement in criminal activities to include espionage and conspiracy to commit espionage.
On February 8, 2019, a grand jury in the United States District Court, District of Columbia, indicted Witt and a federal arrest warrant was issued for her after she was charged with Conspiracy to Deliver National Defense Information to Representatives of a Foreign Government and Delivering National Defense Information to Representatives of a Foreign Government, specifically the Government of Iran (fbi.gov/monica-elfriede-witt). She is alleged to have revealed to Iran the existence of a highly classified intelligence collection program and the true identity of a U.S intelligence officer. She is currently still at large and suspected of being harbored by the Iranian government (Eye Spy).
The IRGC represents an important factor to Iran’s military strategy. The covert campaigns it has orchestrated throughout the world has allowed the Iranian regime a means to expand its influence without having to risk a direct confrontation with its enemies such as the United States.
The world is currently focused on Iran’s nuclear weapons development and what type of threat a weaponized Iran could be. However, even if Iran were to develop an arsenal, it is unlikely they would use it as any part of an overt military action. Instead, Iran will continue to pursue an indirect campaign as their means of operating militarily in the world and avoid any direct confrontation with stronger powers such as the U.S.
It will also continue to quietly expand its influence in the world with the IRGC reaching out to Islamic communities and working to support organizations and nation-states that have mutual security interests particularly against the United States. The U.S. needs to recognize that they are in a new cold war scenario and the threat of such groups as al-Qaeda and ISIS have long overshadowed the graver terror threats posed by the IRGC and its subsidiary Hizballah.
U.S. traitor identified: Iran penetration of U.S cyber networks continues, Eye Spy Magazine No. 120, 2019 p, 19.
Poole, H. John, Militant Tricks: Battlefield rules for the Islamic Insurgent. Posterity Press, Emerald Isle, NC, 2005.
O’hern, Steven K. The Intelligence Wars: Lessons from Baghdad.
Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York, 2008.
Kuwait plans a future megalopolis – a $100 billion project known as Silk City. The new development is set to transform the oil-rich country but also to hardwire Kuwait into the regional architecture of a rising global power: China (asiatimes.com/).
Since January of 2018, Madinat Al Hareer (translated to Silk City), Kuwait’s future city has been under construction. Conceptualized as a solution to Kuwait’s growing overpopulation and overloaded infrastructure issues, Madinat Al Hareer is also expected to boost Kuwait’s already strong economy.
The city will be connected to Kuwait City via the Jaber Causeway which is still under construction and is highly anticipated due to the numerous attractions it is going encompass upon its completion. With the capability of housing up to 700,000 people, Madinat Al Hareer is going to incorporate multiple other attractions like an Olympic Stadium, nature reservation area over a 2 square kilometers area, and a new airport. A duty-free area in addition to multiple amenities will include business, leisure, athletic and environmental areas, and conventions (weetas.com/madinat-al-hareer-next-big-thing/).
The city also aims to cement Kuwait into a larger, global picture. The selection of the northern area aims at transforming Kuwait into an international hub for huge foreign investments (asiatimes.com/article/a-bridge-to-china-kuwaits-silk-city/).
According to 2008 estimates, Kuwait’s exports, totaling $95.46 billion, consisted of oil, oil products, and fertilizer. Their destinations included: Japan 19.9%, South Korea 17%, Taiwan 11.2%, Singapore 9.9%, the US 8.4%, Netherlands 4.8%, and China 4.4% (2007). Kuwait, with only 130 square km of irrigated land (2003 estimate), less than 1% of arable land, and with an almost non-existent industrial base, depends entirely on imports for almost every necessity and luxury of life. According to 2008 estimates, it imported food, construction materials, vehicles and spare parts, and clothing worth $26.54 billion (f.o.b.). Which came from: US 12.7%, Japan 8.5%, Germany 7.3%, China 6.8%, South Korea 6.6%, Saudi Arabia 6.2%, Italy 5.8%, and the UK 4.6% (2007) (mei.edu/publications/kuwait-looks-towards-east-relations-china).
China is already the largest investor in the Gulf and the Gulf’s number two trading partner. The new transport, logistics and financial hub in the northern Gulf are set to join the People’s Republic’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Kuwait has already become one of the most active partners in the BRI, too, with it looking east for economic development, while China looks west (asiatimes.com/article/a-bridge-to-china-kuwaits-silk-city/).
Kuwait and China have long enjoyed cordial and friendly bilateral relations. Both sides have been working steadily to broaden and deepen cooperation in the political, economic, and social fields.
The Chinese fondly recall that Kuwait was the first Gulf state to establish diplomatic relations with them 38 years ago, on March 22, 1971. Beijing also appreciate[s] Kuwait’s valuable support on such issues as Taiwan, human rights, and others. Kuwait continues to firmly adhere” to the one-China policy, opposes any attempt to forge two Chinas or one China, one Taiwan” and supports China’s any efforts in safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
High-level contacts and bilateral visits reflect the state of relations between countries. The members of the Kuwaiti ruling family holding important positions in the government visited China even before the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1971. The late Amir Shaykh Jabir al-Ahmad Al Sabah visited Beijing in February 1965 when he was Minister of Finance, Industry, and Commerce. Again, in his capacity as Amir of Iraqi-occupied Kuwait, he visited China for three days, beginning on December 26, 1990, to canvass support for ending the Iraqi occupation of his shaykhdom. Following the liberation of Kuwait in February 1991, the late Amir again paid a three-day visit to China to convey his country’s gratitude to the government and people of China for their invaluable support during the darkest days of Kuwait’s history (mei.edu/kuwait-looks-towards-east-relations-china).
The selection of the northern area aims at transforming Kuwait into an international hub for huge foreign investments and will enable us to reach out to far places like the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, Turkey, and Eastern Europe.
In this wider strategy, China plays a key role. Soon after meeting a major delegation from the People’s Republic and signing several key Memorandums of Understanding – including one to begin the first phase of Silk City’s construction. China is involved in Khalifa port in Abu Dhabi, Duqm port in Oman, Jizan in Saudi Arabia, Djibouti and Port Said in Egypt. Kuwait can be part of this, while also connecting to the overland routes of the New Silk Road through Asia and down into Iran and Iraq.
China’s participation in the project – and particularly in the port – is also likely to prove an astute move by Kuwait, as the People’s Republic is often seen as a neutral party in this part of the Gulf. China has good relations with everyone. Countries in the region may have conflicts with each other, but not with China.
For Kuwait, it’s in their interest that both of its neighbors, Iraq and Iran, see the port as a friendly facility. The potential for Kuwait to play a much bigger role in the region lies in its being a conduit to these other markets.
Far from just economic gain, developing the region presents Kuwait with a needed security measure. Silk City’s planners see a future in which this region and the adjacent Al Bubiyan island – opposite Iraq’s Al Faw peninsula and a short distance from the Iraqi port of Um Qasr – will be transformed. A major population right on the border with Iraq will also help assert Kuwaiti rule over this largely empty region.
After Iraq invaded through this area in in the first Gulf War, Kuwait realized that population is a good stabilizer of territory – a first line of defense. Silk City is a way of consolidating sovereignty over this area.
Iraq and Kuwait have several contentious issues between them – such as still-missing Kuwaiti POWs from the 1990-1991 war and Iraqi war reparations, which Baghdad still pays (asiatimes.com/article/a-bridge-to-china-kuwaits-silk-city/).
China’s developing partnership is not solely relegated to Kuwait. Last February, Qatar-China Business Forum was organized by China’s Ministry of Commerce in Beijing. The conference aimed to strengthen joint cooperation, promote bilateral trade, investment and industrial relations. Also discussed were prospects for new partnerships between the two countries. The forum, which was attended by Qatari and Chinese officials and businessmen, decision-makers, investors, and executives from major companies, resulted in the agreement between the two countries to boost their ties.
Another crucial institution is the China-GCC Strategic Dialogue, which was founded in 2010 to upgrade Sino-Gulf ties by upgrading the relationship to the level of strategic. To date, the China-GCC Strategic Dialogue has established strategic partnerships with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, and the UAE, and has engaged in negotiations with Bahrain.
A number of other institutions have also been established to support China-Gulf interactions, such as the China-GCC Cooperation Forum, China-GCC Trade and Economic Joint Committee, China-Arab States Economic and Trade Forum, and China-GCC Countries Forum on Economic Trade Cooperation (mei.edu/kuwait-looks-towards-east-relations-china).
Former President Hu Jintao twice made that point during his visits to Saudi Arabia to express his support and interest in the organization. I noticed in my meetings with Hu during his official visits to Saudi Arabia in April 2006 and February 2009, how much he knew about the GCC and how keen he was to cement that relationship. His knowledge of the minute details of GCC-China relations was unusual and duly impressive. China has for some time made it clear that it considered the GCC, as an organization, one of its top priorities, in addition to its interest in GCC member states individually. With its keen advocacy of Third World capabilities, it considers the GCC an effective regional organization composed and run by developing nations, like China itself. (arabnews.com/news/511401).
These institutions have served as an important platform for China’s soft-power efforts. For example, various meetings, summits, and agreements organized by these institutions have been utilized to raise awareness about each other and to universalize each other’s interests. In addition, these institutions have also served as platforms to propagate Chinese political views on regional issues and to present China as an alternative to Western powers.
China’s dependence on Gulf oil has been increasing gradually since 1993 when it became a net importer of oil. Last year, it overtook Japan as the second largest importer of oil after the US. Today, it imports 32% of its energy needs. It is estimated that by 2030, China will need to import more than ten million barrels per day (b/d; i.e., more than three-quarters of its domestic consumption). In 2008, China’s oil imports of about 3.6 million b/d were estimated to have cost it around $130 billion. Presently, more than half of China’s oil imports come from the Gulf, with Iran and Saudi Arabia claiming the lion’s share. Within a decade, the Gulf’s overall share is expected to rise to over 70%. Obviously, China’s ever-growing reliance on imported oil will increase its dependency on the Gulf.
Trade between the Gulf states and China is not a one-way affair. During the years 2003-2007, Gulf imports from China more than quadrupled, from around $7 billion in 2003 to $30 billion in 2007. Likewise, total two-way trade also grew almost four times over the same period, from $15 billion to $58 billion. Bilateral trade during 2008 is estimated to have topped the $80 billion mark.
The Gulf states are also increasingly sending significant sums of portfolio investments into China. Bitten by American protectionism, such as the Dubai Ports debacle in 2006, and impressed by a higher growth rate and attracted by better returns in Asia, Gulf investors are gradually turning from West to East — mainly China. All the major sovereign wealth funds of the Gulf have already made significant investments in China; the Kuwait Investment Authority has doubled its investments in Asia over the past two years. The GCC’s “look towards the East” policy and China’s “Go Outward” policy are converging on a win-win position for both sides, with far-reaching consequences for the future of the global economy (mei.edu/kuwait-looks-towards-east-relations-china).
China is the second largest consumer of oil in the world, and this consumption is only likely to grow as is continues building the industrial sector of its economy. It is imperative that it has steady access to a large abundance of oil and that means having strong ties to oil-rich nations to ensure a steady supply. At the same time having a strong influence in the Middle East with the same countries that supply the United States would give China tremendous influence in the world.
China is seeking to accomplish two goals: ensure a large amount of oil on a steady basis to reliably power its economy and secure relations with wealthy trading partners that Chinese businesses can export goods and services to. By investing in many projects such as Silk City, China seeks to avoid the complications the U.S has had with the Arab world’s difficult political culture. Controlling several businesses and having partial ownership of essential projects would give China a great deal of entrenched power in the region that would make it more influential in regional politics.
At the same time, many of the Gulf counties have been steadily growing their economies, diversifying their economic interests outside of petroleum, and becoming some of the richest nations in the world. China wants to tap into this economy and ensure their businesses have an open window to sell into this market.
Another facet that needs to be recognized is the security issue. The US relies heavily on the oil supply from the Middle East to support its economy. Eventually, China hopes to supersede the US not only as the Arab world’s trading partner but as a security ally.
Having an entrenched position within these countries assumes that eventually, China may actually arrive at a place where it could influence the balance of power between it and the US by being able to influence the direction of oil supplies and Arab-US relations in general.
Inevitably, China will become a significant power in the Middle East. From this, one of two scenarios is likely. The first scenario is through massive investments in infrastructure and business development in many of the sheikdoms. China will gain enough soft power to force the Arab world away from dealings with the US. The second consideration is that the Arab nations will use the situation to their advantage by leveraging the power balance between the US and China to gain more beneficial terms in future dealings with either.
My topic for June's Report:
Kuwait's Silk City and China's Growing Foothold in the Middle East
The borders of Colombia have long been violent and lawless with criminal traffickers and guerrilla armies controlling much of the land. However, the recent de-activation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the deteriorating state in Venezuela has intensified this situation and allowed it to subsequently pour over into neighboring states. This has ushered in a new wave of criminal organizations that are destabilizing the region.
The Colombia-Venezuela border region has for years been a hub for criminal activities of all kinds. From drug trafficking to contraband fuel trade and extortion, Colombia’s most powerful organized crime groups have long used the border region. Most importantly, Venezuela serves as a fundamental trans-shipment point for drug shipments consistently trafficked by Colombian organized crime groups and destined for markets in the United States and Europe.
Venezuela’s continued spiral into an economic, political and social crisis and the demobilization of Colombia’s largest guerrilla group have shifted criminal dynamics on the Colombia-Venezuela border, transforming the region into one of the most important organized crime hubs in Latin America.
Historically, the main actors controlling the border region’s drug market have been the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL).
The demobilization of the FARC is causing criminal dynamics along the Colombia-Venezuela border to take a new form. This is being aided by rampant corruption from the Venezuelan government. Systemic corruption and criminality within the ranks of Venezuela’s security forces, which President Nicolás Maduro has largely turned a blind eye to, is one factor contributing to these shifts. The Venezuelan non-governmental Fundación Redes recently criticized the loss of a significant amount of military weapons and munitions belonging to the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana — FANB) from several border states. According to the foundation, the weapons were delivered to Colombian criminal groups.
According to Fundación Redes Director Javier Tarazona, the Maduro administration and Venezuela’s security forces, particularly the shadowy groups within the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana — GNB) and the military commonly referred to as the Cartel of the Suns, are complicit in working with Colombian criminal groups operating on the border. (insightcrime.org/).
This criminal activity has also spread to the other side of the Colombian border. Since January of this year, Ecuadorean security forces are on high alert after receiving reports Colombia’s ELN guerrillas are planning a cross-border attack, highlighting what has until now been a major blind spot in Ecuador’s border security strategy. Security forces in Colombia have issued an alert to their Ecuadorean counterparts that the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberacíon Nacional – ELN) is planning an attack against military or police in the border region. The report identifies facilities and units in the municipalities of Mira in the province of Carchi and San Lorenzo in Esmeraldas as potential targets.
Police officials reported that, while the ELN was in Ecuador for peace talks, they also worked hard to build a support network within the country. According to the official, the rebels established contacts with high-level national government officials and local political and community leaders in the border region. While authorities believe their main aim was to establish political ties, they are concerned the guerrillas could also have been looking to set up logistical support networks and supply lines.
Sources in Ecuador also talk of a different concern – that the ELN will look to build on the foundations they established during peace talks to use Ecuador as a rear guard, logistical hub and supply line. This would also potentially increase their criminal earnings as it would allow them to control movement through what is one of the main cocaine-trafficking corridors out of Colombia and a region where illegal gold mining is on the rise (insightcrime.org/).
Ecuador’s areas bordering Colombia have long suffered challenging security dynamics. Ecuador’s three border provinces–Esmeraldas, Carchi, and Sucumbios–have higher homicide rates, stemming from the level of criminal activity associated with the cross-border illegal trafficking of cocaine, gasoline, and other contraband, as well as human trafficking.
Even for a historically complex area, the violence that has occurred over the past few months in Ecuador’s northern border region is unprecedented, with bombings, gratuitous attacks, and threats occurring at an inimitable scale. The growing violence shows no sign of easing up.
Few people have gained international notoriety in such a short span of time as Walter Patricio Arizala Vernaza—known commonly as 'Guacho'—an Ecuadorian citizen who was part of the 29th Front of the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group. Guacho rejected the 2016 peace agreement between the FARC and the Colombian government and decided to dedicate himself to the trafficking of drugs on the border via the Oliver Sinisterra Front. Although both the Colombian and Ecuadorian authorities have prioritized his capture, Guacho remains at large.
The recent attacks are likely a show of strength by criminal groups and are also in retaliation for government seizures of narcotics—Guacho’s way of demonstrating who is in charge and that he fully intends to take advantage of lucrative illicit activity along the border area. Now that a formal peace process is underway in Colombia, FARC dissidents no longer have the same ideological motives for their struggle and are instead motivated by financial gains.
The conflict is no longer confined to the same geographical boundaries. In the same light, the vacuums of power left by former FARC Fronts are attracting offshoots of national and international criminal groups who aim to gain control of profitable activities (forbes.com). Many of these attacks have been carried out next to police stations within the border area (bing.com/).
In 2018 there was a number of bomb explosions and kidnappings in the northern province of Esmeraldas, bordering Colombia. On 27 January 2018, a car bomb was detonated outside a police station in the town of San Lorenzo. Twenty-eight people were injured, and the Ecuadorean government declared a state of emergency in Esmeraldas. A further bomb attack on 20 March of last year in Mataje left 4 soldiers dead and 11 injured. The Ecuadorean authorities have declared these attacks to be terrorist incidents.
On 26 March, 2 journalists and their driver from the leading local newspaper, El Comercio, were kidnapped and subsequently killed. On April 17, 2018, the government revealed that two other people were being held captive by the same group who killed the journalists, and who are thought to be responsible for at least 10 attacks on the border in the past few months. Also, on 17 April, an Ecuadorean couple was kidnapped and killed. These kidnappings and bomb attacks occurred within 20km of the border.
On 4 April a home-made explosive was detonated in the town of Viche, on one of the main roads connecting the highlands to the coast and various popular beach destinations. This was outside the 20km exclusion zone, in the area of Esmeraldas province (gov.uk/terrorism).
The threats from Colombian groups have extended farther than just terrorism. On October 17, authorities in Ecuador arrested seven soldiers and seven civilians for their alleged role in trafficking weapons to the Oliver Sinisterra Front (Frente Oliver Sinisterra), an ex-FARC mafia group — networks of dissident fighters from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). An investigation into several soldiers in Ecuador who are accused of supplying weapons to an ex-FARC mafia network operating in a key border region suggests that groups of former FARC fighters are growing stronger and building the capacity to corrupt military personnel.
Authorities are searching military facilities in Guayas, Esmeraldas, Loja, Santo Domingo and Pichincha provinces where they say weapons and ammunition slated to be trafficked were hidden among provisions of toilet paper and rice, according to El Comercio.
On October 9, authorities intercepted a taxi in the town of Quinindé in Esmeraldas that was reportedly trafficking weapons and ammunition hidden in sacks of rice. Investigators believe that the arms trafficking network has been operating since at least 2016.
Ecuador’s army said in an October 17 press release that the institution “deeply regrets” that some of its members may have been involved in trafficking firearms and ammunition to a criminal group, and that it will cooperate with authorities in their investigation.
Colombia’s ex-FARC mafia networks are quickly emerging as a dominant player in the country’s criminal world, and the recent arms trafficking investigation implicating members of Ecuador’s army suggests that authorities may be further from taking down Guacho and his network than they have let on.
Corrupting security forces is essential for criminal groups such as Guacho’s to survive and continue operating. These connections may explain why he has been able to avoid capture, especially after he was wounded last month during a Colombian military operation (insightcrime.org/news/).
Venezuela’s descent into further chaos has created a safe haven for criminal and radical groups once indigenous to Colombia and emboldened them to expand and challenge local security forces. Ecuador, which had not been readily affected by the violence in Colombia, is totally unprepared with an under-equipped military to deal with the wave of criminals pushing across the border (bing.com).
This situation has the potential to degenerate into something similar to what was seen with ISIS in the Middle-East ─ with rebel and criminal groups wrestling for control of territory from the government and destabilizing the region. In this case, we are watching several organizations such as the ELN who have long been at odds with US policy in the region and are looking to export their revolution.
In other cases, the new criminal groups emerging from the ashes of recently deactivated guerrilla armies have taken over the old cocaine-producing areas. They have set themselves up to control a new phase of drug trafficking organizations taking the region back to the old drug cartels of Medellín and Cali, establishing a new front for cocaine trafficking in North America.
Summary: Israel has been highly vocal about the oil smuggling being conducted by Iran. It is in clear violation of the sanctions in effect. Iran has responded by heightening its military presence in the Gulf of Aden with naval force and promising a firm response to any perceived hostilities.
Additional Considerations: In early March, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged world powers to foil any effort by Tehran to evade US sanctions. The Israeli leader told naval officers that Iran was still resorting to clandestine measures to ship fuel that it first used prior to a 2015 nuclear deal easing Western sanctions on its oil sector. He stated Iran is trying to circumvent the sanctions through covert oil smuggling over maritime routes and, to the extent that these attempts widen, the navy will have a more important role in blocking these Iranian actions (algemeiner.com/). According to maritime experts, Iran has used a variety of measures to evade sanctions including changing the names of ships or flag registries, switching off location transponders on ships, and conducting ship-to-ship transfers offshore and away from large trade hubs.
An Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander responded that enemies will regret any confrontation with the Islamic Republic. Major General Gholamali Rashid was quoted by Tasnim news agency as saying. "We never welcome any war, but we are ready to respond to any invasion. We hope the aggressors do not need to understand this point by trying it and paying a high price." Iran's navy has extended its reach in recent years, dispatching vessels to the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden (middleeasteye.net/irans-defence-minister-warns-firm-response-if-israel-acts-against-its-oil-shipments).
While Iran hasn’t confronted any militaries, it has asserted military force. In early March, Iranian naval forces saved one of the country’s oil tankers from a pirate attack in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, which links the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea. Commandos of the Navy’s 60th flotilla of warships, which patrols the Gulf of Aden waters in an overseas mission, saved the tanker carrying 150,000 tons of oil products (iranian.com/navy-foils-pirate-attack-on-iranian-oil-tanker/).
The Israeli Prime Minister has threatened possible military recourse if Iran continues to violate the sanctions, explaining that the future role of the Israeli navy will be to block such smuggling operations. However, this statement is made at a time when the Israeli navy consists primarily of missile corvettes and a small fleet of submarines and already has an extensive mission in the Mediterranean and Red Seas (reuters.com/israels-navy-could-act-against-iranian-oil-smuggling-netanyahu-idUSKCN1QN2EM). It also comes at a time when Iran is in the process of modernizing its own armed forces. The new Persian year beginning on March 21, 2019, was dubbed as Iran's year of Defense Products and Achievements Booms by the country's defense minister. They decided to showcase a part of Iranian defensive and technological advances. They intended to display much defense achievements, including all-Iranian fighters of Kowsar, Toofan armored vehicle, Fateh submarines, and Hoveizeh cruise missile that were all the result of Iranian experts (globalsecurity.org/2019/iran-190313-irna01.htm). Back in February 2018, Leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, called for efforts to maintain and boost Iran’s defense capabilities hitting back at the enemies for disputing the country’s missile program.
On March 12, Iranian Defense Minister, Brigadier General Amir Hatami, highlighted the country’s military preparedness to counter foreign threats and said the Islamic Republic is boosting its defense power to prevent war.
“What they are telling us today is that you should not have missiles and defense power while they allow other countries to make our region filled with weapons and bombs.”
Iranian officials have repeatedly underscored that the country will not hesitate to strengthen its military capabilities, including its missile power, which are entirely meant for defense, and that Iran’s defense capabilities will never be subject to negotiations (tasnimnews.com/en/news/iran-boosting-defense-might-to-prevent-war-minister).
Conclusion: It is not plausible that the hostilities will amount to more than posturing. Both countries are playing to the international community. Israel does not have the resources to effectively carry out their threats against Iran’s oil smuggling. Its hope is that by bringing attention to the situation, it will ultimately force the hand of other countries to enforce the sanctions with their naval force.
Many things are driving Iran’s aggressive response and militaristic talk. Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, had been a strong supporter of multilateral nuclear deals that had been made with the US. The sanctions the US has imposed on them and the tough stances taken by the Trump administration have left Rouhani politically weakened against the hardliners who had opposed his reforms (news.yahoo.com/rouhani-calls-irans-political-factions-end-infighting-unite-225506534.html). He is now trying to save face and recoup lost political capital by taking an aggressive stance against the West.
The best-case scenario is that all parties will be brought back to the negotiation table and negotiate some practical resolution. While this avenue may be pursued and be achievable down the road, it is unlikely that any such overture will be made in the immediate future. In the meantime, the expectation is that everything will amount to little more than aggressive speeches and saber rattling. The US will continue to publicly support Israel while offering at best token support to the issue while Iran will promise militaristic action in an effort to save face. It will be crucial in the next few months that no one make excessive moves that could heighten the situation.
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Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has tried to maintain a position as a global military force. Though Russia projects the idea of being a modern military, evidence suggests that its true state is far less than what it purports to be.
In May 2018, the NATO alliance would closely monitor Russia's ongoing military drills in the Baltic Sea closely but did not want to worsen relations with Moscow that were already at a low ebb. The Russian Defense ministry said the exercises involved the firing of live ammunition at sea and air targets, shipborne helicopters conducting training flights and practicing searches for enemy submarines, with three corvettes and a frigate participating.
The Russian defense ministry said its Baltic Fleet, based out of its exclave of Kaliningrad, was undertaking what it called ‘routine training’ in the Baltic Sea. Germany's Bild newspaper reported in 2017 citing Russian sources, that the "Zapad" drills were a rehearsals in case of an invasion of the Baltic states and Belarus. Since then, Russia has undertaken numerous exercises that have served to unsettle former Soviet states and Western Europe (dw.com/a-43259850).
It has also undertaken a broad military excursion into the Middle-East with its campaigns to assist the Syrian government of the Assad regime. Russia has used these military exercises as a means to promote itself as a strong military power. However, despite the large-scale show of force, Russia’s true state of military power is far less than what it attempts to project.
In July 2016, Deputy Finance Minister Sergey Storchak admitted Russia’s Reserve Fund may be depleted in 2017. Russia’s Reserve Fund declined by 3.7% in June to 2.5 trillion rubles ($39 bln) while the National Wealth Fund (NWF) dropped by 3% to 4.7 trillion rubles ($73.4 bln). In dollar terms the funds amounted to $38.22 and $72.76 bln, respectively, as of July 2016. In May, the Finance Ministry spent $2.67 bln, €2.34 bln and £0.41 bln worth of funds from the Reserve Fund for financing the budget deficit. No disbursements were reported for June. On the whole, the Finance Ministry may spend a total of 2.2 trillion rubles ($34 bln) to finance the budget deficit, over which the Central Bank had concerns that it may cause a structural liquidity surplus of the banking sector (tass.ru/886656). This was on top of the drastic drop in energy prices that occurred at the time. These financial issues coupled with the high expenditures acquired from the excursions into the Ukraine and Syria had raised serious concern about whether Russia could afford to continue its military modernization program.
During this time most of their heavy armor tanks are still Cold War era. They still continue to use the TU-95 bombers, another cold war relic, for operations aimed at harassment of western militaries (nationalinterest.org/just-how-dangerous-russias-military-16981). By 2018, the US had an overwhelming advantage in conventional forces, including a much stronger navy and air force. Russia's battleships are old, but they are often equipped with very modern cruise missiles.
In regard to naval build up, the Chinese are now undertaking a very ambitious program of ship building and are proving more successful in developing a global blue Navy fleet than Russia. Russia is lacking in many areas of modern military technology, including drone design and production and electronic components, as well as radar and satellite reconnaissance and are still heavily dependent on foreign countries to supply such technologies.
France and Germany were making double-use satellites, which were basically military satellites and recon satellites, for Russia. This has since stopped. For example, Russia is currently producing surveillance drones under an Israeli license, and it is completely lacking in assault drone capability. The technology the Russians produce organically comes with its own problems.
The legacy of the Soviet Union is still very much present in the modern Russian army, as many of its cutting-edge systems are the development of good, old Soviet systems and the modernization of that type of technology.
Russia is also working on updating its command and control centers, which serve to process information from the battlefield then feeding it to the troops. These problems were exacerbated by the 2014 Crimean crisis, according to the analyst. In the years leading up to the showdown with the West, Moscow was spending at least $500 Million per year in the US shopping for the so-called double-use merchandise, which can be used for both military and civilian purposes (dw.com/a-43293017). In 2018, Golts says, the forces were supposed to receive 203 planes and helicopters ─ in fact, they obtained 126. Long-range aviation was supposed to acquire six new planes ─ they received five. The navy was supposed to gain 35 new ships ─ it took possession of only 25. Promised refittings were delayed. So, “in the best case,” the Russian military fulfilled only about 70 percent of its goals, and it is not just in technology and weapons that Russia is behind.
In late 2018, the Russian military announced it had formed ten new brigades and divisions and planned to form another 11 in 2019 bringing the total of new units created since 2014 to about 40. Moscow has dramatically increased the number of divisions and brigades in its Armed Forces even as it has reduced the total size of its uniformed personnel. The result is the return of the paper divisions that were characteristic of the last years of the Soviet Union. In such Soviet units, officers were in place but not the enlisted men who would have the experience and unit cohesion to make the military an effective fighting force.
Paper divisions have plagued their commands in the past. Such units sound impressive but in fact are hollow shells incapable of performing their tasks. Like former Soviet times, these new units are only being staffed by officers. Such regiments and divisions formed 80 percent of the Russian army before the former defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov’s, reforms. They were absolutely incapable of performing their mission, as anyone could see from the Chechen wars and the military conflict with Georgia. Despite their failed past, paper divisions are evidently returning, and with them, low military preparedness. In truth, since 2015, the number of professional soldiers has not increased, and the size of the draft quota in 2018 compared to the previous year was smaller by 14,000 men.
These new and under-equipped paper divisions will make the Russian military wholly ineffective, particularly against forces of Russia’s smaller neighboring countries. But it is important to underscore that those who take Russian propaganda about its military buildup at face value are deceiving themselves—which is exactly what the Kremlin hopes for (jamestown.org/). Despite the depleted state of the Russian military and the façade it presents, the Russian military shouldn’t be dismissed.
While it possesses only a fraction of the capabilities of the US military, Russia remains the dominate force in the post-Soviet countries. Its military still presents a challenge to the security of Western European countries who would be at a serious disadvantage without US support. Many Russian weapons systems, though antiquated, are still formidable in combat. Its Soviet TU-95 bombers continue to effectively run harassment operations against NATO countries.
Russia remains one of the few militaries capable of conducting expeditionary operations. In its current state, it has the capacity to undertake several small scale interventions and conduct access and area denial to the Baltic, Black Sea and Arctic Basins (nationalinterest.org/just-how-dangerous-russias-military-16981).
Russian armed forces provide Moscow with clear military superiority in the post-Soviet region, despite Russia's troops not being able to match the whole of NATO. Russia is considered one of the world's strongest nations when it comes to military power and still has plenty of arrows in its quiver, most notably the massive nuclear arsenal of some 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads (dw.com/a-43293017). On a global level it still trying to expand it parameters.
A deal between Sudan and Russia on navy port visits could morph into a permanent Russian military presence on the Red Sea coast, the head of Sudan’s parliamentary defense committee told Sputnik. The draft agreement includes security provisions for seamen who will be allowed to go ashore unarmed. Navy ships carrying weapons of mass destruction, nuclear fuel, biological weapons, radioactive substances, toxins or drugs will be banned from entering ports.
The Sudanese Navy is gaining first-hand experience of Russia’s cutting-edge military equipment to help train its naval forces, boosting strategic ties between the two nations (sputniknews.com/201901121071422796-russia-naval-base/).
The geographical map and the Russian order of battle make the Baltics a vulnerable flank for NATO. Russia can invade and capture the Baltics, seize a small parcel of land or deploy forces between Kaliningrad and Belarus, effectively severing the Baltic States from the rest of NATO. Hence, Russia has a panoply of invasion options while NATO’s defense options are slim.
A NATO high-end fight is ultimately an airpower dependent fight. In a Russian contingency, most of NATO’s firepower is in its air force, not its land force. Taking on a large and well-equipped land army like Russia’s is impractical for Europe’s comparatively lighter forces. American land power is not substantially better positioned or equipped for such a fight either.
Russia poses both an irregular and a conventional threat, but the latter is very unlikely to materialize. The former, however, can effectively bedevil NATO, and Russian irregular capabilities remain largely unaddressed. Thus, in a plausible scenario, Russia’s conventional forces will most probably be used for diversion in support of a sub-conventional challenge to the alliance, much as they were on the eastern border of Ukraine. In other words, Russia’s army likely won’t invade, but instead will intimidate NATO, preventing a response to irregular or political warfare. A greater NATO presence does not translate into an answer for this problem (warontherocks.com/the-expensive-pretzel-logic-of-deterring-russia-by-denial/).
Given the lack of transparency by the Russian government, it is difficult to accurately measure the overall status of the military. In early December 2018, Army General Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief of the General Staff and First Deputy Defense Minister gave his annual address to foreign military attachés in Moscow. His speech concluded assessing the challenges within the international security system as well as the negative roles played by the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
He addressed the “main source” of destructive factors in the international security system, identified as US efforts to preserve its dominance and exclude competition by other countries. He then attacked the Transatlantic alliance: NATO’s answer to a supposedly mounting threat from Russia is to expand its military presence near our borders. He justified these assertions in terms of the “crisis phenomena” spreading within the global economy, portraying increased tensions over several types of resources, including energy and water.
Gerasimov outlined ongoing military modernization. He explained the various advances in modernizing a nuclear deterrent, enhancing aerospace defense, improving air defense with more S-400 systems and noting that work continues on modern hypersonic precision missile systems such as the Kinzhal. Also, in the conventional Armed Forces, Gerasimov noted the need to further improve command and control and Electronic Warfare capability (jamestown.org/gerasimov-highlights-the-need-to-sharpen-russias-military-dagger/). Russia’s projection of military power is part of its effort to maintain the image of being a world power or, at the very least, the dominate power in the region. It still has aspirations to recoup or at least regain dominate control over its former republics. Beyond that, it still maintains very real concerns about NATO and the growing influence of the US in the region.
Russia is trying to preserve its influence as a major global power. The prices of energy have dropped, heavily reducing its vast natural resources as a means of influence. This has caused Russia to fall back on its military force to maintain its formidable image. Its military still possesses superior strength to many of its neighbors and certainly remains one of the dominate military powers in the world. However, Russia is no longer the Soviet power of the cold war days, and its current position limits its resources. Their incursions into the Ukraine and its adventurism in Syria have deeply exhausted their assets.
Russia will continue to rattle its saber and make moves aimed at promoting the image that it still is a world power capable of serving as a direct challenge to the US. However, it would be impractical for the Russians to use direct military action toward any neighboring countries or overt military force against NATO members. Instead it will pursue a strategy of indirect operations working through its intelligence organs and military Special Forces elements using s series of proxy organizations.
Russia’s strategy will continue to revolve around the concept of trying to reassert control over the old Soviet states and intimidating Western Europe into a more submissive role while trying to maintain influence in strategically significant locations such as the Middle-East. It will attempt all this while operating at an arm’s length from anything that could place it in direct confrontation with the US.
My next report is due out on March 1.
The subject: The Eroding Paper Tiger of the Russian Army.
Russia has been touting itself as a powerful military force on a global spectrum. Far from the image they like to promote, Russia and its military are really more of a paper tiger.
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