On Sunday, the private intelligence company Stratfor took a stab at summing up in a few words the complexities of recent geopolitical maneuvering on the part of the U.S., Russia, Iran, and Israel. -- According to this interpetation, Russia and the U.S. are renegotiating their understanding of their own geopolitical relationship while also participating in the complex Iran-P5+1 standoff over Iran's nuclear program. -- Tehran fears, with good reason, being abandoned by Moscow, and is stoking a local Yemeni-Saudi border war as a way to "distract U.S. attention from Russia" by "attempting to escalate tensions with the United States." -- Israel, meanwhile, "doesn't want a U.S.-Russian understanding on Iran to defuse the nuclear crisis so long as Israel’s national security is not genuinely preserved," and is "trying to wrap up (what the Israelis view as) the aimless diplomatic phase of the negotiations and push the United States into more aggressive action against Iran." -- In a piece posted Monday, Stratfor said that Iran's announcement that it was dispatching naval forces to the Gulf of Aden means that Iran is "using the naval assets to protect its supply lines to the Houthi rebels." -- Because of increased Saudi vigilance in the Red Sea, Stratfor said, "Iran has shifted to a longer route that also begins at Asab Harbor, but then snakes around the heel of the Arabian Peninsula in the Gulf of Aden before reaching Shaqra on the southern Yemeni coast. From Shaqra, the supplies go to Marib in central Yemen, on to Baraqish and finally reach the Saada Mountains. Throughout the supply chain, bribes are paid to various tribes to facilitate the arms shipments." -- (See link to map below.) -- "[T]he potential for an incident or conflict at sea between is certainly on the rise." ...
THE RUSSIAN PIVOT IN THE IRANIAN NUCLEAR ISSUE
November 15, 2009
From a critical meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, to an escalating proxy battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia on the Saudi-Yemeni border, this was a loaded weekend by STRATFOR’s geopolitical standards.
We’ll begin with the pivot of this story: U.S.-Russian relations. Obama and Medvedev sat down in Singapore for their fourth one-on-one meeting, seeking an understanding on issues deemed vital to their national security interests. The Russians, in a nutshell, want the Americans to keep out of the former Soviet periphery, which Moscow sees as its proper sphere of influence. But Moscow now has an additional favor to ask of the West.
Fundamental shifts are taking place in the Kremlin that have revealed Russia’s desire for Western investment in strategic economic sectors. A number of European and U.S. investors eagerly await Washington’s cue to re-enter the Russian market, but Washington first has to determine the geopolitical price Russia is willing to pay for this investment.
A big portion of the cost will be tied to Iran. If the United States can coax Russia into abandoning support for Tehran, the Obama administration will gain valuable room to maneuver with the Israelis, and the door will open for a wider understanding between Moscow and Washington. Of course, any potential U.S.-Russia understanding will be loaded with sticking points. Medvedev has hinted at possible cooperation against Iran -- saying Russia was open to exploring stronger options in dealing with Tehran, including further sanctions. But there is still much more to be discussed, and we see no clear sign that Russia is willing to fundamentally shift its position on Iran just yet.
Still, Iran has plenty to be worried about. Tehran and Moscow are perfectly capable of having a constructive relationship so long as they both face a greater threat (in this case, the United States). Should Russia and the United States come to terms, however, the strategic underpinnings of the Russian-Iranian alliance would collapse and Iran’s vulnerability would soar. With Iran’s anxiety over a Russian betrayal rising, high-level officials in Tehran are adopting a more aggressive tone against Russia.
For instance, the Joint Armed Forces chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi, and the head of the parliament’s Foreign Policy and National Security Commission, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, have lambasted Russia in the past week for failing to supply Iran with the promised S-300 strategic air defense system. Boroujerdi even issued a veiled threat against Russia when he said, “Iran is not a country which would stop short of action in dealing with countries who fail to deliver on their promises.” It remains unclear to us what Iran actually could do to legitimately threaten Russian security and to sabotage a potential U.S.-Russian understanding, but the shift in tone is unmistakable.
Meanwhile, the Iranians hope to distract U.S. attention from Russia with a proxy war in the border region between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is exploiting an internal Yemeni conflict by supporting Shiite al-Houthi rebels, seeking to undermine neighboring Saudi Arabia’s security. In a sign that Iran is attempting to escalate tensions with the United States, Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani on Sunday accused Washington of supporting Saudi air strikes targeting the al-Houthi rebels. But Washington is taking great care to avoid acknowledging its role in this proxy battle (a role that so far involves advising the Saudi and Yemeni militaries and supplying satellite imagery of al-Houthi targets for air strikes). The Obama administration would prefer to avoid getting drawn into a crisis with Iran and would rather give the impression that the nuclear negotiations with Tehran are continuing, while it tries to reach a compromise with Russia.
The Israelis don’t appear to be completely on board with this U.S. plan. On the one hand, Israel has a common strategic interest with the United States in keeping as much distance as possible between Russia and Iran. On the other hand, Israel doesn’t want a U.S.-Russian understanding on Iran to defuse the nuclear crisis so long as Israel’s national security is not genuinely preserved. If Washington manages to secure Russian cooperation against Iran, the Obama administration would gain time and space to talk Israel down from taking more aggressive action against Iran. Israel is operating on a different timeline: It wants to lock Washington into a situation that requires more decisive U.S. action against Iran, whether that means stringent sanctions or potential military strikes.
A report by Israel Radio this weekend appears to support this hypothesis. The report quoted an unnamed Western official as saying that Iran has completely rejected a U.N.-brokered nuclear proposal, but that Obama has postponed an official announcement on the failure of the talks for internal political reasons. To the contrary, Iran has been playing a careful game with the nuclear proposal -- protesting the offer publicly but also hinting at the regime’s acceptance of the deal -- in order to add confusion to the negotiations and drag out the talks. Neither the United States nor Iran has confirmed or denied the Israel Radio report, which leads us to believe this is Israel’s way of trying to wrap up (what the Israelis view as) the aimless diplomatic phase of the negotiations and push the United States into more aggressive action against Iran.
There are a lot of moving parts to this conflict, but all appear to pivot on what actually transpires between the United States and Russia. The Obama-Medvedev meeting revealed a change in atmospherics toward Iran, but we -- like the Iranians -- are watching for signs of a real shift in Russian policy.
IRAN: A NAVAL DEPLOYMENT AND THE HOUTHI REBELLION
November 16, 2009 -- 2207 GMT
The Iranian navy has dispatched commandos and warships to the Gulf of Aden, Iranian naval chief Amir Qaderpanah said Nov. 14. Qaderpanah added that the deployment was ordered to protect Iranian cargo ships and oil tankers from Somali pirates.
While Somali pirates may be a security issue in the Gulf of Aden, this is not the only reason for the deployment. Iran is engaged in an escalating proxy battle with Saudi Arabia in the Saudi-Yemeni borderland, where Iran has been arming a Shiite Houthi rebellion to threaten Saudi Arabia’s underbelly. Iran appears to be using the naval assets to protect its supply lines to the Houthi rebels.
Though there is no shortage of weapons in Yemen, Iran has ensured that the Houthis remain well-stocked. STRATFOR sources have reported that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are training Houthis on how to produce improvised explosive devices for use in their insurgent campaign against Saudi and Yemeni forces.
According to STRATFOR sources, the traditional supply route Iran uses to arm the Houthis starts at Asab Harbor on the Eritrean coast. IRGC officers buy and transport weapons in Somalia and Eritrea, and then load them onto ships at the harbor. The ships then cross the Red Sea northward to Salif on the Yemeni coast. From Salif, the supplies pass through Hajjah and Huth in northern Yemen before reaching Saada, where the Houthi rebels are concentrated.
This route, however, has become more problematic for the Iranians ever since Saudi naval forces deployed three warships along the Red Sea coast of northern Yemen on Nov. 12 to interdict the arms, though STRATFOR is still examining Saudi interdiction tactics and the quality of the intelligence used to identify arms shipments. This traditional route is still being used to transport light arms, but given the Saudi deployment, Iran has shifted to a longer route that also begins at Asab Harbor, but then snakes around the heel of the Arabian Peninsula in the Gulf of Aden before reaching Shaqra on the southern Yemeni coast. From Shaqra, the supplies go to Marib in central Yemen, on to Baraqish and finally reach the Saada Mountains. Throughout the supply chain, bribes are paid to various tribes to facilitate the arms shipments.
[MAP CAPTION: Iranian weapons supply routes to Houthi rebels]
The IRGC also has been involved in ferrying Hezbollah fighters to Yemen to support the Houthi insurgency. A STRATFOR source claims that around 60 of Hezbollah’s fighters have died in the conflict thus far. Their corpses were sent by boat to Asab Harbor in Eritrea, from which the IRGC flies them to Damascus. From the Syrian capital, the bodies are transported by land to the fighters’ home villages for burial.
It is not yet clear how aggressive Saudi and Iranian rules of engagement are, or how close they are to coming into conflict with one another. But with Iranian warships apparently facilitating the smuggling of arms that Riyadh is intent on interdicting, the potential for an incident or conflict at sea between is certainly on the rise.