Opinion

Khojir and Natanz explosions wreck Iran’s strategy of deception

A handout picture provided by the Iranian presidency on January 8, 2020 shows Iranian president Hassan Rouhani speaking during a cabinet meeting in the capital Tehran. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 12 August 2020

Khojir and Natanz explosions wreck Iran’s strategy of deception

  • Blast near military complex outside Tehran on June 26 has drawn global attention to regime’s stretched capabilities
  • Experts say the explosion and another fire at Natanz are reminders of the threat Iran continues to pose to the region

LONDON: A huge explosion east of Tehran in the early hours of June 26 caused widespread fear and confusion in the Iranian capital. This situation was caused in no small part by the government itself, which quickly started spreading misinformation about the cause and intensity of the blast, which occurred near a military complex.

Despite the regime’s evasive actions and statements, snippets of truth have gradually emerged. Experts agree that the explosion is yet another embarrassment for a stretched regime, but behind it lies a reminder of the threat posed to the region and, further afield, by the Islamic Republic.

When video footage of the blast surfaced online, the Iranian Defense Ministry quickly rolled out a spokesman to downplay the incident. Davoud Abdi, speaking on state television, dismissed it as a minor blast at a gas-storage facility in a “public area” of the Parchin military complex, outside the Iranian capital.

A well-known former site of nuclear activity, an explosion at the Parchin military complex would undoubtedly have been a serious incident. However, analysts and social media users quickly poured cold water on this assertion and identified a different military instalment east of Tehran — Khojir — as the true location of the blast.

Samuel Hickey, research analyst at the Washington-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told Arab News that satellite imagery proves that “the explosion took place at the Khojir missile production complex in eastern Tehran, and not at Parchin as suggested in some media outlets.”

Why Tehran would claim the blast occurred at Parchin, not Khojir, is “an intriguing mystery,” said Hickey.

This question is particularly pertinent given Tehran’s apparent transparency surrounding a July 2 fire at the Natanz complex, a known nuclear facility in Isfahan. The prompt release of pictures of the damage caused and open lines of communication with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) contrasted sharply with its response to the Khojir blast.

This behaviour may suggest a particular sensitivity to information on the activity taking place at Khojir.

Hickey said Khojir “has numerous underground facilities and tunnels whose exact function remains unknown.” So, while specific details of the activity at the site are unclear, he suggests that “providing political cover for any activities at Khojir” is of paramount importance to the regime. 

Hiding the true nature of the Khojir military instalment and its network of underground tunnels, he said, may even “be a higher priority for Tehran than covering for its past nuclear weapons program.”

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READ MORE: Fire flares at Iranian power plant, latest in series of incidents

Iran explosion in area with sensitive military site near Tehran

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As analysts look to build a clearer picture of the incident and its implications, two key questions remain unanswered: What caused the explosion, and why the cover-up?

Experts have now identified what they see as the two most likely scenarios that led to the blast — sabotage by Israel, or a costly mistake by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Eloise Scott, Middle East, North Africa and Turkey analyst at security and political risk consultancy Sibylline, told Arab News that either of these explanations would be highly embarrassing for Tehran and therefore worthy of a cover-up.

She said the blast could very well be a “careless mistake” from “the accidentally trigger-happy Revolutionary Guards.” According to Scott, there is a precedent for this kind of error, not least in the January downing of a Ukrainian jet over Tehran by an IRGC missile.

She did not disregard, however, the possibility that the blast was intentional.

“There’s been a lot of speculation as to whether it was a sabotage incident. I wouldn't discount it. I think it is very plausible that it could have been an Israeli cyber-attack, as we’ve seen them do before,” Scott said.

She says there has been a tit-for-tat exchange of cyber-attacks between Israel and Iran in recent weeks, and the Khojir explosion could very well be the latest front in the ongoing covert battle between the two sworn enemies.

Regardless of whether the blast was caused by sabotage or accident, either explanation “makes the IRGC look completely incompetent,” said Scott.

But this incompetence masks an unpredictable and unstable regime that remains a danger to the region.

Michael Elleman, director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Programme, says despite the wishful thinking of some observers, Thursday’s blast will not significantly curtail the danger posed by the Iranian missile program.

Iran’s domestic missile capacity is increasingly self-sufficient, he told Arab News, and in the past five to 10 years their arsenal has become focused on “increasing accuracy and lethality.”

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The proof of this is clear even in just the last six months, according to Elleman.

“As evidenced by attacks like the missile strike on the Al-Asad airbase in Iraq, Iran’s ballistic missile force has become an increasingly effective battlefield weapon,” he said.

The Tehran blast “will not impact their production capacity in any meaningful way.”

Elleman’s view is echoed by Ian Williams, deputy director of the International Security Program at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, who says the threat from Iran remains high.

“Despite incidents like this, Iran’s missile threat is very real,” he said. “With its missile attacks on US forces in Iraq and its missile and drone attack on Saudi Arabia, Iran has demonstrated that it has capable missiles and the willingness to use them.”

The development of such a dangerous arsenal of long-range missiles, though, has come at a significant cost.

Ali Safavi, a member of Iran's Parliament in Exile and president of Near East Policy Research, says ultimately it is the Iranian people who pay the price.

“The mullahs care very little about the concerns, the welfare and the livelihood of the Iranian people,” he told Arab News. “The Iranian economy is in free fall. Not only due to the maximum pressure policy of the US, but also falling oil prices.”

He accused Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his government of pouring money into the IRGC’s outsized advanced weaponry program, while ignoring schools, hospitals and rampant poverty.

“In such a disastrous economic situation, one would assume the regime would focus the resources they have on addressing their social and economic problems,” Safavi said.

“Instead, they spend hundreds of millions of dollars on these ballistic missiles that they do not seem capable of safely handling.”

The regime’s poorly executed attempt at hiding the truth about the Tehran blast came as no surprise to Safavi, who argues that “deception, denial and duplicity have been a part of this regime’s DNA since 1979.”

The misinformation that followed the Tehran blast is just the latest in a long series of deceptions, he said, adding that the Iranian people are becoming increasingly aware that these cover-ups are futile attempts to hide the fragility of the regime.

Just days after the blast east of Tehran, another explosion at a clinic in the capital’s Tajrish neighborhood added to the jitters amid a devastating outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Fifteen women were among the 19 people who lost their lives in the blast at the Sina Athar health center.

Iran’s military capacity may remain intact after all the explosions, but they have demonstrated that Tehran’s pursuit of regional hegemony in the face of a slow-motion economic collapse is creating domestic problems for which ballistic missiles and other weaponry are no panacea.

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@CHamillStewart


Israel launches official probe into deadly festival stampede

Updated 20 June 2021

Israel launches official probe into deadly festival stampede

  • Some 100,000 people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, gathered for the April 29 holiday festival despite coronavirus restrictions
  • Experts had long warned the Mount Meron complex was inadequately equipped to handle the enormous crowds
JERUSALEM: Israel’s government approved Sunday the establishment of an independent state commission of inquiry into a deadly disaster at a Jewish holy site in April that left 45 people dead.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the commission would investigate major safety shortcomings that led to a deadly stampede at Lag Baomer celebrations on Mount Meron.
It will be headed by a current or former senior judge, and its members selected by the country’s chief Supreme Court justice.
Some 100,000 people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, gathered for the April 29 holiday festival in northern Israel despite coronavirus restrictions limiting outdoor assemblies to 500 people, and longstanding warnings about the safety of such gatherings. The state comptroller’s office had previously issued a pair of reports in 2008 and 2011 warning that the conditions at Mount Meron were dangerous.
Hundreds of people funneled through a narrow passageway descending the mountain’s holy site during the festival. A slippery slope caused people to stumble and fall, precipitating a human avalanche that killed 45 people and injured at least 150.
The police launched an investigation into the disaster, but to date have yet to make any arrests.
The government said the commission would investigate the officials “who made the decisions that led to approving the event and determining the framework that was approved and its terms.”
Powerful ultra-Orthodox politicians reportedly pressured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other government officials to lift attendance restrictions at the religious festival.
Experts had long warned the Mount Meron complex was inadequately equipped to handle the enormous crowds that flock there during the springtime holiday, and that existing infrastructure was a safety risk.
Netanyahu’s political allies, including ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, walked out on a Knesset committee hearing that discussed forming an investigation last month. Families of the mostly ultra-Orthodox victims of the disaster had called on Netanyahu to take action and form an independent state commission to investigate the incident.
Bennett said at the start of his newly formed government’s first Cabinet meeting that “the responsibility is on our shoulders to learn the lessons to prevent the disaster to come.”
“The commission cannot bring back those who died, but the government can do everything to prevent an unnecessary loss in the future,” he said.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, one of the ministers who advanced the motion to launch the commission, said in a statement: “We must make sure that a tragedy of this nature never repeats itself. The taskforce’s purpose is, above anything else, to save human life.”

New compensation offer made over Suez Canal blockage — lawyer

Updated 20 June 2021

New compensation offer made over Suez Canal blockage — lawyer

  • The Ever Given container ship has been anchored in a lake between two stretches since it was dislodged on March 29
  • The Suez Canal Authority (SCA) demanded $916 million in compensation before lowering it to $550 million

ISMAILIA: The owners of a giant container ship that blocked the Suez Canal in March have made a new offer in a compensation dispute with the canal authority, a lawyer for the authority said on Sunday.
The Ever Given container ship has been anchored in a lake between two stretches of the canal since it was dislodged on March 29. It had been grounded across the canal for six days, blocking hundreds of ships and disrupting global trade.
The Suez Canal Authority (SCA) demanded $916 million in compensation to cover salvage efforts, reputational damage and lost revenue, before publicly lowering the request to $550 million.
The Ever Given’s Japanese owners Shoei Kisen and its insurers have disputed the claim and the ship’s detention under an Egyptian court order.
Negotiations had been continuing until Saturday, SCA lawyer Khaled Abu Bakr told a court hearing in Ismailia over the ship’s detention.
The ship’s owners had put in a new offer, he said, without giving details. The SCA’s chairman previously said Shoei Kisen had offered to pay $150 million.
The court had been due to rule on the case on Sunday but Shoei Kisen’s legal team asked for a postponement to allow more time for negotiations, one of their lawyers said.
This week UK Club, one of the ship’s insurers, said it was engaged in “serious and constructive negotiations” with the SCA, and was “hopeful of a positive resolution to these negotiations in the near future.”

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Lebanon’s Hezbollah hails Raisi’s election win in Iran

Updated 20 June 2021

Lebanon’s Hezbollah hails Raisi’s election win in Iran

  • Raisi, a former judiciary chief, won nearly 62 percent of the vote in Friday’s election

BEIRUT: The head of Lebanon’s powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah on Sunday congratulated ultraconservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi on winning Iran’s presidential election, describing him as a “shield” against Israel and other “aggressors.”

Raisi, a former judiciary chief, won nearly 62 percent of the vote in Friday’s election on turnout of 48.8 percent, after his most prominent rivals were either disqualified or pulled out of the race.

“Your victory has renewed the hopes of the Iranian people and the people of the region who see you as a shield and a strong supporter... for the resistance against aggressors,” Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said in a statement.

Hezbollah, long designated a terrorist organization by the United States, forms an “axis of resistance” against Israel together with Iran and Syria.

The Lebanese movement fought a devastating war with Israel in 2006, and its fighters have also battled against rebels trying to oust the regime of Syria’s President Bashar Assad.

Assad, whose government counts Iran as one of its top allies, wished Raisi “success in his new responsibilities... and steering the country in the face of external pressure.”

Hezbollah, a powerful force in Lebanese politics, also has close ties with the Islamist Palestinian group Hamas which rules the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip.

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said “Iran has always been a main, strong and real supporter of the Palestinian resistance and our national cause” as he congratulated Raisi.


Bassil attacks attempts to form the Lebanese govt

A demonstrator carries a national flag during a protest against mounting economic hardships, in Beirut. (Reuters/File)
Updated 21 June 2021

Bassil attacks attempts to form the Lebanese govt

  • The politician criticizes Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and the head of the Lebanese Forces Party, Samir Geagea

BEIRUT: The head of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), Lebanese MP Gebran Bassil made a speech on Sunday attacking all attempts to form a government. He declared his rejection of the “three-eight formula that is being worked on to form a government of 24 ministers.”

Bassil, an ally of Hezbollah, said that “actual parity between Muslims and Christians is through having 12 ministers named by Christians and 12 ministers named by Muslims, not eight ministers named by Christians and 16 ministers named by Muslims.”
Bassil, who was described by the British newspaper The Times as “the most hated man in Lebanon,” strongly criticized Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Hezbollah’s main ally, as well as the head of the Lebanese Forces (LF) Party, Samir Geagea, the rival Christian party on the Lebanese political scene, accusing him of failing to defend the Christian interests.
Bassil said he had decided “to seek help from his friend Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Hezbollah,” as he accepts what Nasrallah believes about forming a government.
“Bassil seemed to open the battle for the parliamentary and possibly presidential elections by presenting himself as a sole defender of the Christian community’s rights.”
The coordinator of the Rally for Sovereignty, Naufal Daou, said that “Bassil’s request for Nasrallah’s assistance is ... rather an attempt to bully through weapons and a recognition of Nasrallah’s authority in exchange for some positions and quotas.”

FASTFACT

Hezbollah activists celebrated on social media the victory of Ebrahim Raisi in the Iranian presidential elections.

Daou addressed Bassil by saying: “Isn’t it better ... to seek the assistance of the Lebanese constitution and Lebanon’s true Arab friends in the interests of the Lebanese people instead of resorting to arms? The constitution is a reference, not a party that owns weapons.”
A member of the parliamentary Strong Republic bloc, MP Wehbe Qatisha, said that Bassil “has entrenched himself in sectarianism.”
Former MP Fadi Karam said that Bassil and his team “ruined the country, destroyed the state, and devastated the people through their alliances with the enemies of freedom and with the axis of humiliation and backwardness.”
Bassil affirmed that “our intention is to restore the role they took from us between 1990 and 2005,” referring to reducing the powers of the presidency in accordance with the Taif Agreement for the benefit of the Council of Ministers. He accused the other parties of not respecting the text of the agreement.
A few hours before Bassil’s speech, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Al-Rahi in his Sunday sermon called on “the Lebanese people to be vigilant.”
He strongly criticized “the ruling political group ... for its inability to rule the people and the country. Officials are blocking the formation of the government under the pretext of powers. What powers are you looking for? ... Our problem is not a lack of powers, but a lack of responsibility,” he said.
Al-Rahi stressed that “our army is always ready to confront any breach of security, and the time has come for the state to clarify its position and recognize the army as the sole legitimate party that is responsible for Lebanon’s security, sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity.”
Meanwhile, Hezbollah activists celebrated on social media the victory of Ebrahim Raisi in the Iranian presidential elections.


Libya’s Haftar closes border with Algeria

Updated 20 June 2021

Libya’s Haftar closes border with Algeria

  • The armed forces has closed the Libyan-Algerian border and declared it a military zone
  • Most of the country is still controlled by armed groups

TRIPOLI: Forces loyal to Libya’s eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar have closed the border with Algeria, they said on Sunday, after major deployments of his forces to the south underscored his continued role despite efforts to unify the country.

Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) last week sent troops into the southern city of Sebha, which was already allied to eastern forces, and then on Saturday to a southern border crossing with Algeria.

“The armed forces has closed the Libyan-Algerian border and declared it a military zone in which movement is prohibited,” said the Moral Guidance Department, an LNA media unit.

The nearly 1,000-kilometer (620 miles) border between Algeria and Libya cuts through mostly uninhabited desert and has few crossings.

Haftar was put onto the back foot last year after the collapse of his 14-month offensive against Tripoli, while a new unity government backed by a UN-facilitated peace process has called into question his political position.

However, despite progress toward a political solution for Libya after a decade of violence and chaos, most of the country is still controlled by armed groups, corruption is rampant and the outside powers involved in the conflict have not withdrawn.

Progress is expected on Sunday in implementing the terms of a military cease-fire in place since September, with the planned reopening of the main coast road across front lines, and foreign powers will convene in Berlin this week for Libya talks.

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