Foreign Relations & International Law

Iran Attacked by Separatists, Nuclear Deal Takes Center Stage at United Nations, Israel and Russia Spar over Downed Plane

J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, September 25, 2018, 12:42 PM

Iran Responds to Attack on Military Parade

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Iran Responds to Attack on Military Parade

Four gunmen opened fire on a military parade in Ahvaz, Iran, on Saturday, killing 24 people and wounding at least 70. Many of the dead were soldiers from the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps, but also among them were civilian spectators and at least one child. Ahvaz is situated in Khuzestan Province in southwest Iran; the area has a large Sunni population and was hit particularly hard by the country’s war with Iraq in the 1980s, which Saturday’s parade commemorated. Two militant groups have claimed credit for the attack. The more credible claim comes from the Ahvaz National Resistance, which one spokesman for the group told Reuters is an umbrella group for separatist Arab militants in southwestern Iran. The Islamic State also claimed credit, but the group has a history of trying to claim responsibility for attacks in which it was not involved.

On Monday, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry said it had arrested 22 people in connection with the attack and seized weapons and communications equipment from the house where the terrorist cell was based. Iranian diplomats have also summoned officials from Denmark, the Netherlands, and Britain to discuss the attack, claiming that the Ahvaz separatists who committed the shooting have ties to supporters in Europe. The brunt of Iran’s anger, though, has been directed at the Gulf states, Israel, and the United States. In a statement posted online, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the attack “a continuation of the plots of the regional states that are puppets of the United States,” and a military spokesman claimed that the gunmen were trained by the Gulf Arab states and had ties to the United States and Israel.

Though there’s no evidence to support that link at present, the Wall Street Journal noted on Sunday that the Saudis have warm ties with ethnic and religious minority groups in Iran, and that a spokesman for the Ahvaz separatist movement posted pictures on social media of a 2016 meeting with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. The Journal also noted that John Bolton, before becoming national security adviser, wrote a policy paper on Iran (supposedly at the behest of Steve Bannon and published by National Review in August 2017) advocating U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and a campaign to create external pressure and internal discord in the country, including “assistance to Balochis, Khuzestan Arabs, Kurds, and others.” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert offered a statement of solidarity against terrorism, saying, “We stand with the Iranian people against the scourge of radical Islamic terrorism and express our sympathy to them at this terrible time.” Other officials took a different tack: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, responding to accusations from President Hassan Rouhani of U.S. complicity, said Sunday, “He can blame us all he wants. The thing he’s got to do is look at the mirror.”

Both Khamenei and IRGC officials have called for swift revenge. One statement from the IRGC read on state media promised that, “Considering (the Guards’) full knowledge about the centers of deployment of the criminal terrorists’ leaders ... they will face a deadly and unforgettable vengeance in the near future.”

U.S. and Iranian diplomats have spent recent weeks trading threats while leaving a window open for diplomatic talks. After anti-government protesters in Basra, Iraq, set fire to Iraqi political party offices and the Iranian consulate and attackers lobbed rockets at the U.S. consulate, U.S. and Iranian officials accused each other of ginning up the unrest. Last Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN, “We will not let Iran get away with using a proxy force to attack an American interest; Iran will be held accountable for those incidents.” The next day, in a speech commemorating the start of the Iran-Iraq War delivered before the attack in Ahvaz, President Hassan Rouhani vowed that Iran would resist and outlast U.S. pressure the way it had Iraq during that grueling, stalemated conflict a generation ago. “The same will happen to Trump. America will suffer the same fate as Saddam Hussein,” he said.

But even as U.S. and Iranian officials warned of confrontation, others were laying out conditions for de-escalation and diplomatic talks. In a speech last week at the Hudson Institute, Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, said that the Trump administration would like to negotiate a treaty with Iran to address the country’s nuclear program, currently constrained by the JCPOA, and other issues, including Iran’s missile development. That was a sticking point in previous negotiations, though, and Hook acknowledged that “the Ayatollah, the president and foreign minister have all indicated they are not interested in talking.” On Monday, Rouhani issued his own conditions for negotiations while in New York ahead of the U.N. General Assembly this week. “If Trump wants to talk to Iran, then he first should return to the nuclear deal,” he said.

Remaining Parties to Nuclear Deal Propose Plan to Evade U.S. Sanctions at U.N. General Assembly

The future of the JCPOA is expected to be a point of contention at the U.N. General Assembly. Leaders from around the world are in New York this week for the opening session, which will feature speeches from presidents and prime ministers, diplomatic meetings, and a U.N. Security Council meeting on Wednesday chaired by President Donald Trump. The Security Council session was originally slated to focus on Iran, but was changed to the broader subject of “nonproliferation, constitutionalism and sovereignty” to circumvent a rule that would have allowed Iranian diplomats to attend and directly rebut Trump’s comments. It is unclear whether the substance of Trump’s plans have changed, though; after the switch was made, Trump tweeted on Friday, “I will Chair the United Nations Security Council meeting on Iran next week!”

Even without the Iranian delegation in attendance, Trump will face pushback from the other members of the Security Council—all parties to the JCPOA, which Trump withdrew from earlier this year. Those countries are working to buttress the agreement and insulate it from the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions. In a statement issued on Tuesday morning, Germany, France, Britain, Russia, and China reaffirmed their commitment to the nuclear deal and agreed to set up a “special purpose vehicle,” a financial instrument designed to allow businesses to circumvent U.S. sanctions to continue doing business with Iran. European diplomats have been discussing potential ways of evading the sanctions regime for months, but Tuesday was the first time the measure was formally agreed to by the remaining parties to the agreement. As the statement circulated on Twitter on Tuesday morning, though, some experts suggested that the special purpose vehicle would not prevent the United States from penalizing companies that do business in both Iran and the United States. “The question is whether this will work, because of course the U.S. will continue to exert colossal pressure on the European Union and, with a strong desire, can easily trample down any mechanism,” Vladimir Yermakov, Russia’s top non-proliferation diplomat, told the Financial Times. “Everything depends on how far the Americans want to go and how far our European colleagues will allow them to go.”

When asked about plans to circumvent U.S. sanctions on Iran on Sunday, Amb. Haley said that the United States would not issue exemptions and would enforce the penalties it sets out. “We’re not going to give exemptions to Iran. We’re not going to give them any- allow them any money to continue to build their nuclear weapons and so we’re going to continue to stay tough on this,” she said. As Daniel Larison noted for the American Conservative, Haley’s claim that Iran has a nuclear weapons program is baseless and contradicted by the assessment of the International Atomic Energy Agency and other experts who affirm that Iran is abiding by the JCPOA and has not worked on nuclear weapons development in more than a decade.

In his General Assembly speech on Tuesday morning, Trump did not claim that Iran has an active nuclear weapons program, but described his policies as a bulwark against its nuclear development, missile program, and broader regional policy. He called the JCPOA a “windfall” for the Iranian government and stressed that other Middle Eastern countries—presumably meaning Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel—supported the U.S. withdrawal from the deal.

Tensions Simmer Between Russia and Israel over Syria

Tensions between Israel and Russia remain heightened a week after a Russian military plane was shot down by a Syrian air-defense system that was targeting Israeli jets conducting airstrikes on regime targets in Latakia. In the days after the Russian IL-20 was downed, killing the 15 crew aboard, both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to defuse the diplomatic crisis; on a phone call on the day of the crash, September 17, Netanyahu told Putin he would share Israeli intelligence on what happened and stressed the Assad regime’s culpability, and Putin told reporters that it appeared to be “a chain of tragic accidental circumstances.” But over the weekend, Russia’s Defense Ministry hosted a press conference placing the blame for the crash “entirely with the Israeli air force and those who made the decision to carry out such actions.” According to the account given by Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, a spokesperson for the ministry, Israeli officials deliberately misled the Russian military about the airstrikes and that Israeli jets purposefully shielded themselves with the Russian plane. “This is an extremely ungrateful response to all that has been done by the Russian Federation for Israel and the Israeli people recently,” Konashenkov told reporters.

On Monday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced Russia would be delivering S-300 air-defense systems to Syria, upgrading the S-200 systems that shot down the IL-20 last week. As AFP reports, Russia had planned to deploy the S-300 to Syria in 2013 but did not at Israel’s request. "We are certain that the realisation of these measures will cool the 'hot heads' and will keep them from poorly thought-out actions which threaten our servicemen,” he said. After Shoigu’s announcement, Netanyahu spoke with Putin by phone and warned against supplying the S-300 to “irresponsible players.”

It’s a dramatic pivot in Israeli-Russian relations. Just last month, the Financial Times was noting that Israel’s pragmatic approach, praised by Russian diplomats for being “non-ideological,” had brought the two countries closer together despite their occasionally conflicting interests in Syria. The downing of the Russian plane, Al-Monitor’s Maxim Suchkov writes, “a wake-up call for Moscow to rethink the security of its personnel” as it enters this complicated late phase of the Syrian civil war. “We should have seen it coming,” one anonymous Russian diplomat told Suchkov. “When you have that many forces that close to one another the risk of an accidental mistake is high. You think the war is coming to its end but parties are acting in an even more uncompromised way and we, sadly, may end up seeing more of such incidents.”

Russia is also concerned about another flashpoint in Syria. Last week, Russian and Turkish officials finalized their plans for the demilitarized zone they are jointly implementing around rebel-held Idlib province. At least one prominent rebel faction, Huras al-Din, has declared that they will resist being cleared from the DMZ, calling it part of a plan “to eliminate the jihadist project” in Syria. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the most prominent rebel group in Idlib, has expressed skepticism about the plan. “A lot of provisions fall directly in the interest of the murderous regime in Damascus,” the group said in a statement, and the Wall Street Journal reports that it opposes plans for disarmament.

On Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested that Turkey plans to also create safe zones farther east, where Turkish-backed forces have captured territory from the Islamic State. Those forces have at times clashed with U.S.-backed forces, prompting U.S. and Turkey to agree to joint patrols near Manbij to prevent conflict. U.S. officials signaled earlier this month that it does not have any plans to withdraw from Syria anytime soon. “We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias,” National Security Advisor John Bolton said on Monday. Later in the day, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said that he and Bolton were “on the same sheet of music,” but stressed that the U.S. mission in Syria is focused on counterterrorism, not Iran. “Right now our troops inside Syria are there for one purpose, and that’s under the U.N. authorization about defeating ISIS,” he told

J. Dana Stuster is the deputy foreign policy editor for Lawfare and a PhD candidate at Yale University. He worked previously as a policy analyst at the National Security Network and an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

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