Iran and US refusing to budge as tit-for-tat ship seizures in Middle East raise the temperature



Footage released by Iran’s Sepah News reportedly shows Revolutionary Guard Corps boarding the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero.
EPA/Sepah news handout

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

In a world run ragged by multiple crises and an unravelling of American global leadership, military confrontation in the Gulf poses risks that extend well beyond the region itself.

One of the greater risks is to a global economy dependent on the continued flow of oil from Middle East producers in the Persian Gulf.

A Gulf crisis is the last thing the world needs when confidence between Washington and its European allies has been undermined by an unpredictable Donald Trump administration.




Read more:
US-Iran conflict escalates again, raising the threat of another war in the Middle East


Tensions between the US and China over multiple trade and other issues are not helping.

These are high octane moments in the Gulf as America and its allies confront difficult choices in how to deal with an Iran that has clearly decided to test the limits of western tolerance.

Iran’s seizure in international sea-lanes of a British-owned tanker in the Gulf of Oman at the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf itself is highly provocative.

Britain, with Boris Johnson likely to be installed as its new prime minister this week, is facing a test of its resolve. Its ability to navigate its way through this crisis carries with it real risks of wider conflict.

Detention of the Stena Impero in retaliation for Britain’s seizure earlier this month off Gibraltar of the Iranian oil carrier, the Grace 1, represents a significant escalation of what had been a war of words between Tehran and London.

Iran’s wider purpose is to raise the costs to the west of maintaining security in the Persian Gulf in response to American-imposed sanctions that are strangling the Iranian economy.

Attacks on oil tankers and facilities in the Gulf over the past month are widely attributed to Iran or its proxies. These attacks have reminded the international community that one-third of the world’s seaborne oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz every day.

Iran has the ability, if only temporarily, to shut down a choke point that is critical to the well-being of the global economy. Interference with oil shipments from the Gulf would prompt a spike in prices and prove a drag on slowing economic activity globally.

Tehran’s regime is playing a high stakes game born of its worsening economy. American-imposed sanctions are doing real harm to livelihoods and well-being of Iranians.

Reports of sporadic civil unrest over rising prices and shortages attest to the challenges facing the regime.

Sanctions are crippling Iran’s ability to export its oil, overwhelmingly its main source of foreign exchange. The US says that since oil sanctions were tightened last November, Iran has lost something like US$10 billion in revenue foregone.

The International Monetary Fund reports that Iran’s economy shrank by 3.9% last year. It is expected to shrink by a further 6% this year. Unemployment has risen sharply.

At the same time, the value of the Iranian rial against the US dollar has collapsed by 60% in the past year, adding to cost of imports and fueling inflation.

There are reported shortages of imported medicines.

It is against this background that Tehran has clearly embarked on a campaign to remind the West of its ability to increase the costs of maintaining regional security.

Tehran’s message is this is not a zero game.

For Washington and its allies, the question becomes: how does the international community respond to Iranian provocations?

Does it allow the US, egged on by the Sunni Gulf state like Saudi Arabia, to lead it into a military confrontation with Iran, or does it seek to deescalate potential conflict?

This is a question the federal government needs to ponder since it is likely Australia would be asked to make a contribution in the event of a continued deterioration of the security environment.

Given the stakes involved, the wisest course would seem to be reopening discussions with Tehran about Gulf security and an American-imposed sanctions regime.

However, this will be easier said than done.

Washington would need to unscramble an ill-advised decision to abrogate a 2015 agreement to freeze Iran’s nuclear program. The US reimposed sanctions that had been eased under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated painstakingly over some months by the Barack Obama administration.




Read more:
Trouble in the Gulf as US-Iran dispute threatens to escalate into serious conflict


Trump’s decision to abandon the JCPOA and reimpose sanctions is what has brought the Gulf to the brink. If conflict results, this will be a heavy price for capricious American policymaking.

Iran was complying with its obligations under the JCPOA. But it has now indicated it will resume enriching uranium above agreed levels.

Faced with the possibility of renewed conflict in the Gulf, Trump himself has offered to talk to Iranian leaders “without preconditions”. Tehran has said it will not negotiate without an easing of sanctions.

Overcoming this impasse will require concessions Washington has not yet indicated it is prepared to make. In the meantime, the risk of wider conflict grows.

This is just the scenario Middle East experts have been warning about.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Iran Crisis – Ship Attacks in the Gulf


Anti-Christian Sentiment Heats Up


Terrorist threat in Iraq emerges at importune moment for Copts.

CAIRO, Egypt, November 22 (CDN) — As bombings and other attacks continue against Christians in Iraq, Christians in Egypt have gathered to pray and plan for their own safety.

When a group of Islamic extremists on Oct. 31 burst into Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad during evening mass and began spraying the sanctuary with gunfire, the militant organization that took responsibility said Christians in Egypt also would be targeted if its demands were not met. Taking more than 100 congregants hostage, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) called a television station and stated that the assault came in response to the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt allegedly holding two Coptic women against their will who, the ISI and some others believe, converted to Islam.

The group issued a 48-hour deadline for the release of the women, and when the deadline passed it issued a statement that, “All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers are legitimate targets for the muhajedeen [Muslim fighters] wherever they can reach them.” The statement later added ominously, “We will open upon them the doors of destruction and rivers of blood.”

In the attack and rescue attempt that followed, 58 people were reportedly killed. A week and a half later, Islamic extremists killed four people in a series of coordinated attacks against Christians in Baghdad and its surrounding suburbs. The attackers launched mortar rounds and planted makeshift bombs outside Christian homes and one church. At least one attack was made against the family members of one of the victims of the original attack.

On Nov. 15, gunmen entered two Christian homes in Mosul and killed two men in the house. The next day, a Christian and his 6-year-old daughter were killed in a car bombing. At the same time, another bomb exploded outside the home of a Christian, damaging the house but leaving the residents uninjured, according to CNN.

The threats against Christians caused a flurry of activity at churches in Egypt. A 35-year-old Protestant who declined to give her name said Christians in Cairo have unified in prayer meetings about the threats. An SMS text message was sent out through prayer networks asking people to meet, she said.

“I know people are praying now,” she said. “We have times for our people to pray, so all of us are praying.”

Security has increased at churches throughout Egypt. In Cairo, where the presence of white-uniformed security police is ubiquitous, the number of uniformed and plain-clothes officers has doubled at churches. High-ranking police officers shuffle from one house of worship to another monitoring subordinates and enforcing new security rules. At times, parking on the same side of the street as a church building, or even driving by one, has been forbidden.

On Nov. 8, leaders from the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox churches gathered to discuss how to improve security at churches. According to the leaders of several churches, the government asked pastors to cancel unessential large-scale public meetings. Pope Shenouda III canceled a celebration to commemorate the 39th anniversary of his installment as the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Guests at a recent outdoor Christmas bazaar and a subsequent festival at the All-Saints Cathedral in Zamalek
were greeted with pat-downs, metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs.

Some church leaders, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the security improvements are haphazard, while others say they are genuine efforts to ensure the safety of Christians.

Most Christians in Cairo avoided answering any questions about the attacks in Iraq or the threats made against Christians in Egypt. But Deliah el-Sowkary, a Coptic Orthodox woman in her 20s, said she hoped no attacks would happen in her country. Noting the security present at all churches, still she said she is not that worried.

“I think it’s different in Egypt than in Baghdad, it’s more safe here,” El-Sowkary said.

Almost a week after the bombings, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak issued a statement through the state-run MENA news agency that the Copts would be protected from attacks.

“The president affirmed his extensive solicitude for the protection of the nation’s sons, Muslims and Copts, from the forces of terrorism and extremism,” the agency stated.

 

Pressure Cooker

The security concerns came against a backdrop of heightened tensions between the Muslim majority and the Coptic Christian minority over the past few months, with weeks of protests against Christians in general and against Shenouda specifically. The protests, held mostly in Alexandria, ended two weeks ago.

The tension started after the wife of a Coptic priest, Camilia Zakher, disappeared in July. According to government sources and published media reports, Zakher left her home after a heated argument with her husband. But Coptic protestors, who started gathering to protest at churches after Zakher disappeared, claimed she had been kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam.

Soon after, Egypt’s State Security Intelligence (SSI) officers found her at the home of a friend. Despite stating she had left of her own free will, authorities brought Zakher back to her husband. Since then, Zakher has been in seclusion. It is unclear where she is or if she remains there of her own free will.

Unconfirmed rumors began spreading that Zakher had converted to Islam and was being held against her will to force her to return to Christianity. Protests outside mosques after Friday prayers became weekly events. Protestors produced a photo of unknown origin of a woman in Islamic covering whom they claimed was Zakher. In response, Coptic authorities released a video in which the priest’s wife stated that she wasn’t a Muslim nor ever had been.

Another rumor began circulating that Zakher went to Al-Azhar University, one of the primary centers of Islamic learning in the world, to convert to Islam. But Al-Azhar, located in Cairo, released a statement that no such thing ever happened.

No independent media interviews of Zakher have taken place because, according to the Coptic Church, the SSI has ordered church officials not to allow public access to her. Along with their accusations about Zakher, protestors also claimed, without evidence, that a similar thing happened in 2004 to Wafa Constantine, also the wife of a Coptic Orthodox priest. Constantine was the second woman the ISI demanded the Copts “release.” Like Zakher, her location is not public knowledge.

The month after the Zakher incident, Egyptian media reported in error that the SSI had seized a ship from Israel laden with explosives headed for the son of an official of the Coptic Orthodox church. The ship was later found to be carrying fireworks, but another set of Islamic leaders, led in part by Nabih Al-Wahsh, an attorney famous for filing lawsuits designed to damage the church, declared without any evidence that Copts were allied with the Israelis and stockpiling weapons in the basements
of their churches with plans to overthrow the Muslim majority.

The claims were echoed on Al-Jazeera by Dr. Muhammad Salim Al-’Awa, the former secretary-general of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, and in a statement issued by the Front of Religious Scholars, a group of academics affiliated with Al-Azhar University.

There was no time for tensions to cool after Al-’Awa and the others leveled their allegations. The next month, Bishop Anba Bishoy, the secretary of the Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church, told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masri Al-Yawm that Muslims were “guests” in Egypt, inflaming a Muslim population already up in arms.

“The Copts are the root of the land,” the bishop said. “We love the guests who came and settled in our land, and regard them as brothers, but they want to control even our churches? I reject anything that harms the Muslims, but as Christians we will do everything, even die as martyrs, if someone tries to harm our Christian mission.”

Around the same time, the Front of Religious Scholars called for a complete boycott of Christians in Egypt. The group called Christians “immoral,” labeled them “terrorists” and said Muslims should not patronize their businesses or even say “hello” to them.

The statement by the scholars was followed by a media leak about a lecture Bishoy was scheduled to give at a conference for Orthodox clergy. In his presentation, Bishoy planned on questioning the authorship of a verse in the Quran that calls Christians “blasphemers.” Muslims believe that an angel revealed the Quran to Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, who transmitted it word-by-word to his followers. Bishoy contended there was a possibility the verse in question was added later.

The mosque protests became even more virulent, and the conference was abruptly cancelled. Bishoy was forced to issue an apology, saying he never meant to cast doubt on Islam and called Muslims “partners” with the Copts in Egypt. Shenouda also issued an apology on national television. By comparison, an Islamic publishing house that rewrote and then issued what it termed the “true Bible” caused barely a stir.

Al-’Awa then blamed the deteriorating state of Muslim-Christian relations on Shenouda and Bishoy. He accused the Coptic Orthodox Church of exploiting the government’s “weak stance” toward it and “incarcerating anyone [who] is not to its liking.”

The Al-Azhar Academy of Islamic Research issued a statement that declared, “Egypt is a Muslim state.” The statement further went on to read that the Christians’ rights were contingent on their acceptance of the “Islamic identity” of Egypt. The statement was endorsed by Ali Gum’a, the mufti of Egypt.

The statement also referenced an agreement made between Muhammad and a community of Egyptian Christians in the seventh century as the guiding document on how Christians should be governed in a Muslim-dominated state. If ever codified into Egyptian law as many Muslims in Egypt desire, it would legally cement the status of Christians in the country as second-class citizens.

In 639, seven years after Muhammad died, Muslim armies rode across from Syria and Palestine and invaded Egypt, then controlled by the Byzantines. At first the Muslims, then a new but well-armed minority within Egypt, treated the conquered Christians relatively well by seventh century standards. But within a generation, they began the Islamization of the country, demanding all official business be conducted in Arabic, the language of the Quran, and Coptic and Jewish residents were forced to pay special taxes and obey rules designed to reaffirm their second-class status.

In the centuries since then, the treatment of Christians in Egypt has ebbed and flowed depending on the whim of those in power. After the coup of 1952, in which a group of men known as the Free Officers’ Movement took power from a European-backed monarch, Copts have seen their treatment decline.

In 1971, then-President Anwar Sadat introduced a new constitution designating Islamic law as “a principle source of legislation” in Egypt. In 1980, the National Assembly made Islam the official religion of the state.

Estimates of the Coptic population range from 7 to 12 percent of Egypt’s 84 million people. They are accepted by some in Egypt and openly discriminated against by others. Violent attacks against Christians – which the government does little to prevent – accentuate tensions.

The state also routinely harasses converts to Christianity from Islam. Many have to live in some sort of hiding.

The Protestant woman said she was not sure whether attacks would happen in response to the threats, but whatever happens, she said she expects that Christians in Egypt will continue to endure persecution.

“According to the Bible, we know this is going to happen,” she said. “This is not new or novel for us. The Bible said that we will be persecuted. It is expected.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Republic of Somalia’s jihad-related chaos and violence


In a report that comes as no surprise to many counterinsurgents, officials from the United Nations released a sharp rebuke of war-torn Somalia’s government. In its report, the UN officials called the Somali security and federal transitional government "ineffective, disorganized and corrupt" despite international assistance, reports Law Enforcement Examiner.

"Despite infusions of foreign training and assistance, government security forces remain ineffective, disorganized and corrupt — a composite of independent militias loyal to senior government officials and military officers who profit from the business of war and resist their integration under a single command," the report reads.

"Efforts to restore peace and security to Somalia are critically undermined by a corrosive war economy that corrupts and enfeebles State institutions… Commanders and troops alike sell their arms and ammunition – sometimes even to their enemies. Revenues from Mogadishu port and airport are siphoned off. Some government ministers and members of parliament abuse their official privileges to engage in large-scale visa fraud, smuggling illegal migrants to Europe and other destinations, in exchange for hefty payments," states the UN report.

According to officials, the extensive report should be released in New York City this week so members of the UN Security Council may peruse the contents.

"During the course of the mandate, government forces mounted only one notable offensive and immediately fell back from all the positions they managed to seize," the report read. "The government owes its survival to the small African Union peace support operation, AMISOM, rather than to its own troops."

During the 1990s, a group of Saudi-educated, Wahhabi militants arrived in Somalia with the aim of creating an Islamic state in this dismal African country. Also, the renowned Al-Qaeda established an operations base and training camp. They would routinely attack and ambush UN peacekeepers. In addition, they used Somalia to export their brand of terrorism into neighboring Kenya.

Leading members of Al-Qaeda continue to operate, mostly in secrecy, in Somalia and have built up cooperation with some of the warlords who control food, water and medicine. And the people of Somalia starve, mourn and die.

Since 2003, Somalia has witnessed the growth of a brutal network of Jihad with strong ties to Al-Qaeda. In fact, when the US forces faced a bloody battle in 1995 during what became known as the Black Hawk Down incident, it was Al-Qaeda joining with a local warlord who killed and wounded US special operations soldiers.

Somalia has been without a functioning national government for 14 years, when they received their independence from Italy. The transitional parliament created in 2004, has failed to end the devastating anarchy. The impoverish people who live in the ruined capital of Mogadishu have witnessed Al-Qaeda operatives, jihadi extremists, Ethiopian security services and Western-backed counter-terrorism agents engaged in a bloody war that few support and even fewer understand.

In an incident that gained American press attention, Somali-based terrorists armed with rocket-propelled grenades launched an unsuccessful attack on Seaborn Spirit as it rounded the Horn of Africa with American, British and Australian tourists on board. For unexplained reasons, the attack is being treated as an isolated incident and the terrorism link is being all but ignored by journalists. The term "pirates" is routinely used with only a few reporters calling the attackers "terrorists."

The ship came under attack during the early morning hours when the heavily armed terrorists in two speedboats began firing upon the ship with grenade launchers and machine guns. They assailents were repelled by the ships crew who implemented their security measures which included setting off electronic simulators which created the illusion the ship was firing back at the terrorists.

According to passenger accounts of the attack, there were at least three rocket-propelled grenades or RPGs that hit the ship, one hit a passenger stateroom without inflicting injuries.

When a Somali Federal Government was established in 2004, it remained a government in exile since the capital of Mogadishu remains under the control of a coalition radical Islamists who’ve instituted Sharia law and a justice system known as the Islamic Courts Union.

In the winter of 2006, Al-Shabaab initiated a large-scale insurgency using the same tactics as al-Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah, complete with assassinations of government and military officials and suicide bombings targeting aid workers and transitional government officials.

In their report, UN officials blame the government for its failure to control Somalia and point to a lack of professional commanders, and a military that resembles an amateur militia rather than a professional Army.

The UN report points out that The Somali National Security Force was meant to have 8,000 soldiers fully trained and deployed. However, as of the beginning of the New Year, there are fewer than than 3,000 fully trained and equiped soldiers.

"One of the reasons the Islamic Courts Union and Al-Shabaab have both been somewhat popular is because people were sick of clan-based politics," according to the UN report.

Western governments fear that Somalia’s instability may provide a safe haven for international terrorist groups. Al-Shabaab members have cited links with Al Qa’ida although the affiliation is believed to be minimal. The group has several thousand fighters divided into regional units which are thought to operate somewhat independently of one another.

The US has launched selected air attacks against Al-Shabaab leaders thought to have ties to Al Qa’ida, but analysts say this has only increased their support among Somalis.

The Western-backed Ethiopian military invaded Somalia in 2007, but many analysts believe this too augmented Al-Shabaab’s military campaign against the transitional government. The Ethiopians withdrew in January of last year after over 16 months of Al-Shabaab attacks on its forces.

The transitional government is preparing a major military offensive to retake the capital Mogadishu from Al-Shabaab and various other militant groups in the coming weeks.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

AUSTRALIA: ENVIRONMENTAL DISASTER UNFOLDING ON QUEENSLAND COAST


An environmental disaster is unfolding on the Queensland coast, with the oil spill from the Hong Kong-flagged ship Pacific Adventurer. The Pacific Adventurer was badly damaged during the Cyclone Hamish weather event last week.

The Pacific Adventurer somehow managed to get caught up in the cyclone despite very early warnings concerning the cyclone. Some 31 containers containing ammonium nitrate were washed into the sea during the cyclone and as this occurred the ship itself was badly damaged, leaking some 230 tonnes of oil into the ocean. The initial report from the ship was that some 30 tonnes of oil had been lost.

The environmental disaster is huge, with the oil now affecting over 60km of coastline, including the eastern coast of Moreton Island. Sea life is being severely impacted by the disaster.

The cleanup is being done at a rate of about 1 to 2 km a day, which means it will take quite some time to complete.

Also of concern are the 31 containers of ammonium nitrate that are still missing and which could further contaminate the region. Navy mine hunters are being called in to search for the containers which remain a shipping hazard.

SPAIN: CRUISE SHIP GANGWAY COLLAPSES


While passengers were disembarking from the Italian-owned MSC Fantasia in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, the gangway has collapsed into the sea. The collapse occurred after strong winds caused mooring ropes to break away from their mooring, allowing the ship to move away from the dock, which in turn caused the gangway to collapse into the ocean.

The gangway with four passengers fell some 15 metres into the sea and were rescued by the ship’s crew. An eighty year-old passenger hit his head during the collapse and is now in hospital.

The MSC Fantasia is a 333 metre cruise ship owned by MSC Cruises and can accommodate 4 000 passengers, along with 1 325 crew.

CRICKET: AUSTRALIA BACK ON TOP OF WORLD CRICKET???


Having won the first test in convincing style in South Africa, Australia has started the second test in the same vain, ending the first day at 4 for 303. Phillip Hughes (115) and Simon Katich (108) both scored centuries as Australia poured on the early pressure. Both Ricky Ponting (9) and Michael Clarke (3) failed, with Mike Hussey (37 not out) Marcus North (17 not out) steadying the ship at the end of the day.

Australia’s form in South Africa raises the question of whether or not Australia is again resting easily in the number one position in test cricket, having seen off the South African challenge for the time being.

As a consequence of the Pakistan terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team and match officials in Lahore, security has been massively intensified in South Africa.

SOMALI PIRATES: Beyond Time to Crush Them


Somali pirates have captured yet another large ship off the coast of Somalia. This time the ship was carrying military hardware and supplies to the Kenyan government. The Ukrainian freighter had 33 T-72 battle tanks on board, as well as grenade launchers and ammunition bound for the Kenyan military in a legal arms purchase. The shipment is valued at about $30 million dollars.

The ship is called the ‘Faina’ and has a crew of 21 sailors from Russia, Ukraine and Latvia.

When the ship was nearing the Kenyan port of Mombasa, about 320 km from land, it was surrounded by three speed boats with armed Somali pirates on board.

The Somali coast is infested with pirates, with estimates suggesting that there are up to 1 000 pirates operating in the region. Pirates have seized some 25 vessels this year and attacked at least another 25, with 14 vessels still being held by pirates.

In my opinion it is high time, indeed beyond time, to crush the pirates of Somalia. According to reports there are now US and Russian warships patrolling the region. But more needs to be done, with a relentless campaign needed to remove the pirate problem.

Currently vessels are being held for ransoms that on most occasions are being paid. By paying the pirates, the pirate problem is only being encouraged. The pirates must be stopped – not only off Somalia, but in all areas in which they operate, including Nigeria, Aden, Indonesia, etc. Perhaps a force under the direction of the UN Security Council is what is required.