Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to allow some Huawei equipment to be used in the building of the country’s 5G networks is splitting Western Intelligence services.
In one camp are Britain’s MI5, the equivalent of the FBI, and the General Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) and Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE), equivalents to the NSA. They believe Huawei’s connections to the Chinese government are a controllable security risk.
On the other side are the US and Australian intelligence agencies which have long argued that Huawei is a threat and should be excluded from Western network. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo diplomatically expressed hope that the British will change their minds. The Australians are more outspoken.
Simeon Gilding, a director of the Australian Signals Directorate until December, said his country’s intelligence agency was unable to design cybersecurity controls that could prevent China from gaining backdoor access to Huawei. “We developed pages of cybersecurity mitigation measures to see if it was possible to prevent a sophisticated state actor from accessing our networks through a vendor. But we failed,” he wrote in a blog for an Australian thinktank. He said the UK was relying on “a flawed and outdated cybersecurity model to convince themselves that they can manage the risk that Chinese intelligence services could use Huawei’s access to UK telco networks to insert bad code”.
National Security adviser John Bolton pushed for the assassination of Iranian Gen Qassem Soleimani last summer, according to U.S. officials cited by NBC News. In a break with past U.S. policy, Bolton recommend killing the Iranian general whose battlefield successes had disturbed U.S. policymakers worried about growing Iranian influence in the region.
After Iran shot down a U.S. drone in June, John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser at the time, urged Trump to retaliate by signing off on an operation to kill Soleimani, officials said. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also wanted Trump to authorize the assassination, officials said. But Trump rejected the idea, saying he’d take that step only if Iran crossed his red line: killing an American. The president’s message was “that’s only on the table if they hit Americans,” according to a person briefed
While the chief of Israel’s Mossad had talked publicly about assassinating Soleiman last fall, the Israeli spy service, like President’s Bush and Obama, had declined to kill the Iranian general, even when it had the chance. On Bolton’s advice, Trump abandoned that policy.
If you study the military record of the late Gen. Qassem Soleimani, you’ll see both why U.S military and political leaders feared him, yet did not wish him dead.
The embodiment of America’s stance was President George W. Bush. In January 2008, Bush was informed he had a real-time opportunity to kill Soleimani as he attended a meeting in Syria. Soleimani was known to U.S. intelligence as the commander of Iran’s Al-Quds force, a special operations command with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, akin to the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operation Command. Soleimani was known to have played a leading role in nurturing the anti-American insurgency that bled U.S. forces in Iraq from 2003 to 2011.
Bush was not soft on terrorism or Iran. He knew that upwards of 600 U.S. soldiers had been killed by Iraqi militias sponsored by Soleimani. But the 43rd president also had bruising experience with geopolitical reality: the fiasco of his Iraq invasion. Bush knew better than anyone that, just as eliminating Saddam Hussein unleashed a whirlwind of chaos and terrorism that the United States could not control, so “taking out” Soleimani might have unforeseen bloody consequences for U.S. interests.
Oft-accused of being dim, Bush had actually learned a hard lesson by the end of his failed presidency that Trump may yet absorb: violently removing an enemy can create far larger problems than it solves. Twelve years ago, Bush prudently passed on killing Soleimani.
Was Soleimani assassinated, that is to say, killed for arbitrary political reasons? Or was he the victim of a “targeted killing,” meaning he was a legitimate target of war?
The Defense Department said he was “actively developing plans” to attack Americans. An anonymous source, probably a senior CIA official, told the New York Times the evidence for that claim was “razor-thin.”
Washington chatter aside, Soleimani was a guest of the Iraqi government, which is a military ally of the U.S. government. Iraqi government documents leaked by an anonymous source to The Intercept show that Soleimani wielded wide influence in Iraqi affairs, often with top officials who were also on good terms with the United States. In other words, he was not unwelcome.
Iraqi Prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi told parliament on Sunday that Soleimani came to Iraq to respond to a diplomatic note from Saudi Arabia. While bitter enemies, the Saudi monarchy and the Islamic Republic, were privately negotiating steps to pacify the region, which has been roiled by anti-Iranian and anti-American demonstrations.
“I was supposed to meet Soleimani in the morning the day he was killed,” Mahdi said, according to news reports. “He came to deliver me a message from Iran responding to the message we delivered from Saudi to Iran.”
The Iraqi parliament proceeded to unanimously disinvite the 5,000 U.S. troops now stationed in the country. The parliament did not set a deadline for their departure, and scores of non-Shia parliamentarians did not vote.
Why Kill Soleimani?
Soleimani was not feared by U.S. (and Israeli and Saudi) policymakers because primarily he was a terrorist (though he sometimes used terror tactics). Mostly the U.S. and allies feared him because he successful. According to journalist Yossi Mellman, Israeli intelligence assessed him as “a daring and talented commander, despite the considerable number of mistakes in his assessments and failed operations in the course of his career.”
First, Soleimani played a key role in driving U.S. occupation forces out of Iraq. As Al-Quds commander he presided over the creation of anti-American militias in 2003 that mounted deadly attacks on the U.S. forces seeking to establish a pro-American government.
One Iraqi militia leader, Qais al-Khazali, who debriefed U.S. intelligence officers in 2008, said he had “a few meetings” with Soleimani and other Iranian officials of similar rank. According to Khazali, Soleimani did not take part in the operational activities–providing weapons, training or cash. He left those tasks to deputies or intermediaries.
Under Iranian tutelage, these militias specialized in using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to kill upwards of 600 soldiers in the U.S. occupation forces, according to general David Petraeus. Soleimani’s attacks–along with the manifest failure of U.S. goals to reduce terrorism and spread democracy–contributed to President Obama’s politically popular decision to withdraw most U.S. troops in 2011.
Forcing the U.S. military out of Iraq was a priority for the government in Tehran, and Soleimani helped achieve it.
Nemesis of ISIS
Second, Soleimani played a key role in driving ISIS out of Iraq–a victory in which the United States ironically helped boost his reputation.
In this battle, Soleimani took advantage of U.S. vulnerability, not hubris. When ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed an Islamic State in western Iraq six years ago, Tehran was just as alarmed as Washington. The Sunni fundamentalists of ISIS regard the Shia Muslims of Iran and Iraq as infidels, almost as contemptible as Christians and Jews.
After the regular Iraqi armed forces collapsed, Iraqi Ayotollah Ali Sistani blessed the creation of Shia militias to save the country. Sistani’s fatwa empowered Iran to mobilize and expanded Soleimani’s existing militia network. The Iranian-sponsored fighters, along with the Kurdish pesh merga, proceeded to do most of the bloody street fighting that drove ISIS out of Mosul, Kirkuk and other Iraqi cities.
As Soleimani moved about openly in Iraq, U.S. commanders did not attack him because he did not attack them. Sometimes, pro-American and pro-Iranian soldiers even fought side by side. Thanks to this tacit U.S.-Iranian cooperation that neither country cared to publicly acknowledge, ISIS was expelled from Iraq into Syria by 2017.
In Iran, Soleimani emerged as a hero in the fight against the deadliest religious fanatics on the planet, especially after ISIS had carried out a terror attack in Tehran on June 2017 that killed 12 people.
In Iraq, the rout of ISIS enhanced the prestige of Soleimani and the Iranian-backed militias. Some of their leaders entered politics and business, drawing complaints about–and demonstrations against—heavy-handed Iranian influence. Many Iraqis grew unhappy about Iran’s new influence, but success made Soleimani an indispensable security partner for the embattled government in Baghdad. That’s why he visited Iraq last week.
Besting the CIA
Third, Soleimani helped defeat ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Syria’s civil war. In 2015, President Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces were losing ground to Sunni fundamentalist forces funded by the CIA and the Persian Gulf oil monarchies. The CIA wanted to overthrow Assad. Iran feared losing its ally in Damascus to a hostile anti-Shia regime controlled by al-Qaeda. Obama feared another Iraq and refused to commit U.S. forces.
Soleimani brought in Iranian advisers and fighters from Hezbollah, the Shia militia of Lebanon which Iran has supported since the 1980s. With help from merciless Russian bombing and Syrian chemical attacks, the Iranian-trained ground forces helped Syria turn the tide on the jihadists. The CIA, under directors Leon Panetta, John Brennan and Mike Pompeo, spent $1 billion dollars to overthrow Assad. They had less influence on the outcome than Soleimani.
The net effect of Soleimani’s three victories—abetted by U.S. crimes and blunders—was, for better or worse, to bolster Iranian influence across the region. From Afghanistan in the east to the Mediterranean in the West, Iran gained political ground, thanks to Soleimani. He perfected the art of asymmetric warfare, using local proxies, political alliances, deniable attacks, and selective terrorism to achieve the government’s political goals.
(Soleimani, it is worth noting, had no record of attacking non-uniformed Americans. While Pompeo said that Soleimani “had inflicted so much suffering on Americans,” it is a fact that not a single American civilian was killed in an Iranian-backed terror attack between 2001 to 2019.)
Iran’s cumulative successes provoked dismay Washington (and Tel Aviv and Riyadh). In the course of the 21st century, Iran overcome international isolation and to actually gain, not lose, advantage to its regional rivals. He also became a media personality in the regime using selfies from the battlefield to promote an image of an accessible general who liked to rub shoulders with his men.
Along the way, Iran maintained a terrible record on human rights at home, persecuting journalists, bloggers, and women who spurn the hijab. Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security didn’t kill Americans but it did take a number of hostages, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian. Across the region, Iran’s ambitions stirred up widespread opposition from secular, feminist, and nationalist movements that reject the theory and practice of Iranian theocracy.
These non-violent movements, however, never advocated that the United States attack their country. They are not welcoming Soleimani’s death, and they are unlikely to support the U.S. (or Israeli) attacks in the coming conflict. Quite the contrary. The anti-Iranian demonstrations in Iran and Iraq are over for the foreseeable future. Iranians and Iraqis who publicly supported the United States and opposed the mullahs, have been silenced. In death as in life, Soleimani had diminished the U.S. influence in the Middle East.
Israeli attacks in three Middle East countries are pushing a volatile region that is already the scene of two long-running wars, closer to a third. The lethal strikes show how the Trump administration has effectively outsourced the military component of its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. As a result, one U.S. ally–Israel–is attacking in another American ally—Iraq, supposedly for the sake of advancing American interests.
On Saturday, Israel confirmed that its warplanes struck an Iranian-operated base in Syria that was allegedly preparing to launch a major drone attack against Israel. On Sunday an armed drone struck a Hezbollah media center in the suburbs of Beirut. Hezbollah said it was the first Israeli attack in Lebanon since Israel and Hezbollah fought to a draw in 2006.
Later Sunday another drone strike in Iraq killed a commander of one of the Iranian-backed militias, known as Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Israel did not confirm or deny the latter two attacks but most news sources assume Israel was responsible. Last week “senior U.S. officials” told the New York Times that Israel was behind three other unattributed attacks in Iraq.
Israel says that the PMFs constitute a threat to its security, by enabling Iran to move its short-range ballistic missiles closer to Israel. But Iraqis see the PMF, a coalition of some 60 militias, as necessary protection against ISIS. The PMF sprang up in 2014 when ISIS routed the Iraqi government forces and took over much of western Iraq. Supported by Iran and blessed by Iraq’s Ayatollah Sistani, the PMF fought alongside U.S. troops in driving ISIS out of western Iraq. Without the PMF, ISIS would probably still hold large swathes of the country.
Since 2017, the Iraqi government has been incorporating PMF personnel and weapons into its armed forces, with the goal of lessening the country’s dependence on Iran and gaining military units with battlefield experience. Faleh al Fayadh, the chairman of the PMF coalition, is Iraq’s national security advisor. The idea was to weave the two forces together. Now Israel hopes to divide them.
Not surprisingly, the Israeli attacks are being denounced in a country where the U.S. is far from popular.
Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdul Mahdi ordered the U.S. military to ask permission before undertaking any flights in the country (U.S. commanders said they would comply “immediately.”) Iraq’s country’s ceremonial president, called the attacks “a blatant hostile act” that crossed the red line of Iraqi sovereignty. A pro-Iranian bloc holding 10 percent of the seats in the Iraqi parliament called the attacks a “declaration of war.”
But if Iraqis think the Israeli attacks are declaration of war on them, there’s no doubt who the Americans favor. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted Monday that U.S. fully supports Israel’s “right to defend itself.” Fifteen years after attacking Saddam Hussein’s regime, the United States supports a secret war on the government that replaced him.
“The attacks in Iraq underscores the contradictions in US policy,” said Paul Pillar, former CIA analyst for the region. “Here we have the administration not only not criticizing but actually applauding Israel for an armed attack on the territory of a friendly state that we are trying to help in other ways.”
Pressuring Iraq to join the campaign of “maximum pressure,” Pillar said in a phone interview, “is totally contradictory to the prosperity and stability of Iraq. They are dependent on trade with Iran and they are dependent on the popular mobilization forces for security. The attacks only increase Iraqi resentment of United States and increases Iraq’s sense of dependence on Iran to protect itself.”
The reason why Israel and the United States are so hostile to Iran, is that the Islamic Republic has taken advantage of U.S. blunders since 9/11 to consolidate its prestige and allies, while the U.S. and its allies have lost strength.
The U.S policymakers sought to replace Saddam Hussein’s government with an anti-Iranian regime in 2003. They failed. Iran cultivated good relations with the new government and gained power and influence in Baghdad where it once had none.
In 2011 U.S. policymakers thought they could overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria by supporting Syrian “moderates” (of whom there were few) and al-Qaeda linked fundamentalists (of whom there were many). They failed. Iran supported Assad and (with Russian, Iranian and U.S. help) has mostly routed ISIS. Iran is now entrenched in Assad’s Syria as it never was before.
In 2015 U.S. policymakers thought Saudi Arabia could defeat the Houthi rebels in Yemen and deal a blow to Iran, the Houthis’ ally. They thought wrong. The Saudi coalition has inflicted the world’s worst humanitarian crisis on Yemen, yet achieved none of its goals. Now the U.S. is seeking peace talks to end the war and the Houthis are openly embracing the Iranians.
Now U.S. policymakers expect Iraqi government to ignore Israeli attacks and support the U.S. campaign against Iran, a larger neighboring country that supports its economy and security. With the U.S. track record in the region, there’s little reason to think this will succeed. What Trump Iran’s policy lacks in coherence, it makes up for with recklessness.
Of course, the incoherent Trump could change his mind. He ordered and called off an attack on Iran for shooting down an unmanned surveillance drone, a sign that he has no desire to be a wartime commander-in-chief going into an election year. At the G-7 summit, he played along with the gambit of French President Emmanuel Macron to open the door to talks with Iran. If the U.S. lifts sanctions, Iran is willing to talk, President Rouhani replied.
The Israelis are worried Trump might accept. Afterall, Trump threatened North Korea with fire and fury, only to warm up to Kim Jong-il and embrace negotiations over the objections of his advisers. Israeli escalation in Iraq—and the expected response from Iran and Hezbollah—will make it harder for Trump to change directions on Iran, which is why the attacks are likely to continue.
The United States, Australia, and New Zealand, have barred their country’s companies from using the Chinese telecom Huawei to provide the technology for their 5G networks.
Britain, whose telecomm industry is heavily invested in Huawei, has resisted, saying the security problems posed by Huawei technology are manageable. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has put U.S. allies on notice that Washington will not share intelligence with them if they do business with Huawei.
Gen. Gordon Messenger, vice chief of the
British Defence Staff, said
in March that his government was “very alive to the risks” of “Made in China”
5G but had to be practical.
“We’re of the view that to simply
suggest that one ban outright ban Chinese componentry from any future network
that one delivers is, let’s just say, a very tall order,” Messenger said.
“There is absolutely the ability to go into this with eyes open, recognizing
the risks, recognizing the threats, and understanding the technology in
building a 5G network that we can depend on and assure.”
UK digital minister Nicky Morgan told BBC radio:
“We will make the right decision for the UK. I would hope we could do something by the autumn. We’ve got to make sure that this is going to be a decision for the long term, making sure that we keep all our networks secure.”
It sounds like they’re going to go along with the United States.