Questions Abound over Iran “Plot” to Kill Saudi Envoy

October 13, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Alistair Lyon

2011-10-12T013728Z_261663125_GM1E7AC0QST01_RTRMADP_3_USA-SECURITY-IRAN

Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir speaks to the media at the Mideast Peace Conference in Annapolis, in this November 27, 2007 file photo. The United States accused Iran on October 11, 2011 of backing a plot to kill al-Jubeir, escalating tensions with Tehran and stirring up a hornet’s nest in the Gulf, where Saudi Arabia and Iran have long jostled for power.                    

REUTERS/Jason Reed/Files

LONDON (Reuters) – You couldn’t make it up — or could you?

U.S. allegations that an Iranian spy outfit attempted to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington in a convoluted plot involving a U.S. informant posing as a member of a Mexican drug cartel seem bizarre to say the least.

Still, Washington says the drama justifies new international sanctions against Iran and Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief insists that “somebody in Iran” must pay the price.

“The burden of proof and the amount of evidence in the case is overwhelming and clearly shows official Iranian responsibility for this,” Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal said.

The potential consequences are dire in a tense region where the United States and Israel reserve the right to attack Iran to stop it acquiring a nuclear bomb, a goal Tehran disavows.

For starters, the row could throttle any slim chance of resuming negotiations to settle the nuclear dispute.

Saudi-Iranian acrimony has ratcheted up this year, especially since Saudi troops intervened to help Bahrain’s Sunni rulers crush protests led by the island’s Shi’ite majority and fomented, according to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, by Iran.

From across the Middle East’s Arab-Persian and Sunni-Shi’ite faultlines, Riyadh also accuses Tehran of inciting unrest among minority Shi’ites in its own oil-rich Eastern Province, and has often urged the United States in the past to attack Iran, according to diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks.

The plot suspects are Iranian-American Manssor Arbabsiar, 56, arrested on September 29 in New York, and Gholam Shakuri, said to be a member of Quds Force, the covert, operational arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. He is thought to be in Iran.

U.S. evidence rests mainly on Arbabsiar’s alleged confession that he had acted for men he thought were top Quds officials.

MOTIVE AND MEANS

Yet questions abound over the putative plot, not least the classic ones of motive and means. Many analysts are skeptical.

What could Iran hope to gain from an assassination that would have brought fierce retribution? Why try to recruit a hitman from a Mexican drug cartel instead of using its own?

On the other hand, why would the United States, even with a presidential election looming next year, go public with such accusations unless they were well founded, knowing the impact they could have on an already volatile Middle East?

“Killing the Saudi envoy in America has no benefit for Iran,” said independent Iranian analyst Saeed Leylaz. “Why should Iran create hostility when the region is boiling?

Dismissing the “very amateur scenario” as out of character, he said: “Iran might have conducted some political adventurism like denying the Holocaust, but an assassination attempt, particularly in America, is so un-Iranian.”

It would certainly be a departure for Iran, although it has assassinated its own dissidents abroad since the 1979 Islamic revolution, and it has used Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and Shi’ite militias in Iraq to further its own aims.

Decision-making in Tehran is murky and factional rivalry is rife. But the idea that rogue Quds elements could concoct such a momentous plot seems a stretch. That Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would authorize it seems more so.

“The United States would not blame the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) without substantial evidence,” argued U.S.-based global intelligence company Stratfor.

“However, this plot seems far-fetched considering the Iranian intelligence services’ usual methods of operation and the fact that its ramifications would involved substantial political risk,” it added.

Former CIA agent Robert Baer poured scorn on the reported Iranian conspiracy. “This stinks to holy hell,” he told Britain’s Guardian newspaper. “The Quds Force are very good. They don’t sit down with people they don’t know and make a plot. They use proxies and they are professional about it.”

CONSEQUENCES UNCLEAR

How this lurid episode in the adversarial relationships between Iran, the United States and its Saudi ally will play out in a Middle East already in turmoil is not yet clear.

Iran’s parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, said the “fabricated allegations” were a U.S. bid to divert attention from Arab uprisings that Iran says were inspired by its own Islamic revolution which toppled the U.S.-backed Shah in 1979.

Tehran has watched in glee as popular revolts have ousted U.S. allies in Egypt and Tunisia, even if Islam has not been the overt driving force behind the surge of Arab unrest – it may have more in common with Iran’s own street protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in 2009.

Iran, however, is disconcerted by the upheaval in Syria, its only solid Arab ally and overland link to Hezbollah.

The fall of President Bashar al-Assad would damage Iran’s “resistance” axis and perhaps strengthen Saudi Arabia and Turkey, its main Sunni rivals for influence in the Middle East.

Major General Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force, is already on a U.S. sanctions list for allegedly supporting Assad’s violent six-month-old crackdown on dissent.

Nevertheless, it seems doubtful that any of the protagonists would want to use the alleged Iranian plot as a pretext for all-out confrontation in a region the world depends on for oil.

Given that no one was hurt, Iran, the United States and Saudi Arabia may avert any violent fallout — although Washington clearly intends to push for further international punishment of Iran for its defiance of U.S. policy.

“More U.S. sanctions will be about the limit of it,” said Alastair Newton, a former senior British Foreign Office official and now senior political analyst for Japanese bank Nomura. “The U.S. case hardly looks solid, either, so let’s wait and see.”

U.S. officials have themselves acknowledged that the details of the plot smack of a Hollywood script, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton jesting: “Nobody could make that up, right?”

(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Tehran, Peter Apps and Dmitry Zhdannikov in London, and Washington/New York bureaux; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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Analysis: Arab Spring Likely to Leave Oil Firms Unscathed

June 23, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Tom Bergin

2011-06-15T172504Z_01_BTRE75E1CDW00_RTROPTP_3_INTERNATIONAL-US-TUNISIA-TOURISM

A Tunisian artisan makes tributes to the “Arab Spring” revolution by etching flags on bronze plates in the medina, the old city of Tunis, June 14, 2011.

REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

LONDON (Reuters) – Western oil firms are unlikely to face widespread asset seizures or contract revisions as a result of Arab uprisings, thanks to deft diplomacy, legal protections and efforts to depict themselves as partners of the local citizenry.

In the past, big political shifts in the Middle East have often been followed by the eviction of foreign oil producers — Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran to cite a few examples.

This time around, upheaval has hit Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia and Syria — not the biggest oil producers in the Arab world but among the most open to foreign investment. Companies including BP Plc, Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell have spent billions there.

“I wouldn’t describe us as worried. We’re being vigilant,” said Bob Dudley, chief executive of BP, echoing comments from other companies.

The new governments that have emerged, or may emerge, are expected by and large to remain supportive of foreign investment, because they will wish to maintain output and government revenues.
“I don’t see there being a large nationalistic wave,” said Richard Quin, Middle East analyst at Wood Mackenzie.

In the past popular anger toward a regime has spilled over to the companies that supported it, but oil companies say that over the past two decades, they have positioned themselves on the side of communities, rather than as agents of government.

“Companies now are not so closely aligned with governments,” said Mahdi Sajjad, president of Syria-focused Gulfsands Petroleum, whose shares have been hit by investor fears about the unrest.
In part this has been achieved by investing in community engagement projects. Oil contracts that are more transparent and more favorable toward host nations also play a big role.

Contract Changes

Up to the 1970s, oil contracts were opaque and seen as beneficial to companies and the region’s frequently corrupt governments — at the expense of citizens. Now contracts usually follow internationally accepted models.

This will help oil executives argue they are giving host nations the best deal that a new leadership could hope to get and, therefore, that existing contracts should be respected.
“We look at it (investment) from a perspective of the fundamental stakeholders, the population of the country .. rather than through the lens of the current incumbent government,” said Frank Chapman, chief executive of British Gas producer BG Group.

“What we are doing in Tunisia and Egypt is sustainable,” he added.

Oil companies have beaten a path to new leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, and, an Italian ministerial source told Reuters last month, even to Libyan rebel leaders. Companies say the signals received so far do not point to widespread asset seizures.

If new governments do seek to expropriate oil fields or to rewrite contracts, companies will find they have greater legal protection than they did when the last wave of nationalization swept through the Arab world in the 1970s.

Modern contracts bar governments from taking unilateral action to seize assets and can limit their ability to hike taxes. And if there is a dispute over whether the government has overstepped its authority, companies don’t have to worry about arguing their cases in front of potentially biased local courts.

“Contracts usually provide for arbitration in a neutral venue,” Anthony Sinclair, a partner with law firm Allen & Overy said.

Potential for Loss Still

In addition, many countries have signed bilateral investment treaties, known as BITs, which commit them to protect foreign investments in their territories.
“There are close to 3,000 of these treaties in existence,” Sinclair said.

These will help deter unilateral moves against companies, but they will not protect companies against all losses. International litigation can drag on for decades, during which opportunities are lost, said Harry Clark, partner at Dewey & LeBoeuf. This suggests companies might agree to unfavorable contract changes that would not be upheld in court.

Also oil companies can face a big financial hit if instability delays production.

“The oil industry values everything in net present value terms … (and) because you are pushing things out, on a discounted cash flow basis, that will erode value,” said Quin.
BP and other companies have suspended operations in Libya, while French oil major Total said it lost production at one field in Yemen due to the conflict there.
Sajjad said Gulfsands’ operations in Syria were unaffected, but the conflict could create difficulties in importing equipment there and in other countries — especially if new sanctions are imposed against governments fighting revolts.

There is little companies can do to limit such losses.

Yet some executives say the problems thrown up by the Arab Spring simply reflect the intrinsic nature of the oil business.

“It is always like that in exploration, you can always face different kinds of issues .. This is part of life for an oil and gas company,” said Total head of strategy Jean-Jacques Mosconi.

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Amnesty: Iran Steps Up Public Executions

April 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

LONDON (Reuters) – Iran has sharply stepped up its use of public executions, hanging 13 men this year, nearly as many as in all of 2010, in an attempt to intimidate its citizens, Amnesty International said on Wednesday.

Eight of the hangings have taken place since mid-April, including two juveniles convicted for a rape and murder committed when they were 17, the human rights group said.

“It is deeply disturbing that despite a moratorium on public executions ordered in 2008, the Iranian authorities are once again seeking to intimidate people by such spectacles which not only dehumanize the victim, but brutalize those who witness it,” said Amnesty official Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

Iran executed at least 252 people last year, 14 in public, Amnesty said.

Human rights groups often criticize Iran, saying the Islamic republic has one of the highest execution rates in the world.

Murder, adultery, rape, armed robbery, drug trafficking and apostasy — the renouncing of Islam — are all punishable by death under Iran’s Islamic law practiced since the 1979 revolution.

(Reporting by Tim Castle; Editing by Maria Golovnina)

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