ANALYSIS: How Iran has its eyes set on Iraq oil

Iran, sensing the increasing international isolation, has long sketched the necessary blueprints to prevent a future already becoming very bleak. For decades Tehran has maintained this entire country and its vast oil reserves in its crosshairs.

Recent developments in Iraqi Kurdistan prove the Iranian regime’s devious intentions and should alert the international community. The government of Iraq, jockeying to maintain ties with both Washington and Tehran, has unprecedentedly agreed to redirect Kirkuk province’s crude to Iran.

This oil will be supplying a refinery located in the city of Kermanshah, close to the recently earthquake-struck region. This decision follows the retaking of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk from the Kurds in the notorious shadow of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani.

Own backyard

Iran has continuously fueled regional tensions across the board, launching parallel proxy wars in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen against the entire Arab World, with a main focus on Saudi Arabia. After Iran enjoyed 16 years of strategic mistakes and appeasement, the Trump administration has expressed major concerns and is taking major action against Tehran.

Iran is already receiving trucks of Iraqi oil, currently based at 15,000 barrels per day valued at around $1 million, with plans to escalate to 60,000 bpd, a Reuters report citing Iraqi officials indicates.

Considering it its own backyard, Iran has pressed Iraq over an oil pipeline project to ultimately export Kirkuk oil through Gulf ports. Tehran’s ultimate objective is to pump 650,000 bpd of Kurdish oil into refineries across Iran and for export purposes, the report adds citing a senior Iranian official.

Pipes are put in place as the land is cleared from ordnance and mines laid down during the Iraq-Iran war 1980-1988, in the massive Majnoon oil field, some 40 kms from the eastern border with Iran, on February 7, 2012, in southeastern Iraq. (AFP)

 

Feeding off Iraq

While the cover story may seem an ordinary economic agreement between two neighboring countries, Tehran cannot deny a malign past of seeking to take advantage of its crisis-riddled western neighbor.

In April 2012 the London-based International Centre for Development Studies confirmed concerns of Iran stealing large amounts of Iraqi oil. Iran’s efforts involved stealing an annual value of $17 billion worth of oil from fields considered mostly Iraqi and not shared between the two oil-exporting rivals, the report indicated.

Those fields enjoy a reserve of over 100 billion barrels, with the majority laying inside Iraq. Iran was taking an estimated 130,000 barrels of Iraqi oil per day, according to the report. The Iraqi oil fields of Dehloran, Naft Shahr, Beidar West, and Aban were the victims of this vast plundering.

The oil fields of al-Tayeb and Fakka, along with various sections of Majnoun, were also targets of Iranian misuse, adding another 250,000 bpd to the above figure.

Iran was stealing a whopping 14 percent of Iraqi oil revenue, depriving this war-ravaged nation of desperately needed funds that Tehran is likely to allocate to notorious belligerence across the region.

Fallen on deaf ears

Iran has also supported the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), a conglomerate of mainly Shiite militia groups. This entity, following Iran’s IRGC paramilitary Bassij prototype, stands accused of smuggling oil from wells across to the country to Iran on a daily basis, according to an April 2017 report citing an Iraqi Oil Ministry source.

The Badr militia, Iraqi Hezbollah, Saraya al-Salam militias and al-Fadilah party militants have also gained significant control over the al-Basra and Maysan refineries and A’las, Oujeil and Hamrin oil wells in Salahuddin province of central Iraq. The Iraqi Oil Ministry has remained silent as PMF leaders have been smuggling hundreds of oil tankers to Iran on a daily basis, the source added.

Salahuddin Govenor Ahmed al-Jabouri’s efforts in urging Baghdad several times to protect A’las and Oujeil oil wells located east of Tikrit from such theft have fallen on deaf ears. On a daily basis dozens of oil tankers are stolen and smuggled through Tuz Khurmatu from these oil wells, the report adds.

The PMF was initially established in response to the attack staged by Islamic State terrorists. Their activities, however, have expanded to Iraq’s political affairs and the PMF also stand accused of flagrant human rights violations. To make matters even more complicated for Iran, Soleimani was spotted near the Iraq-Syria border alongside the PMF, making quite a stir in the media.

Fueling division

The entire history of Iran stealing Iraqi oil can be described as a chapter of Tehran’s silent growth of influence, especially during the years of Obama’s appeasement. Qassem Soleimani, running the IRGC’s international branch known as the Quds Force, is also known to be the right hand of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Alongside the military campaign he runs across the Middle East through Iran-backed proxy militias, Soleimani also has Iran’s oil business heavily on his mind. A September visit to Iraqi Kurdistan by Soleimani came prior to the Iraqi army’s recapture of Kirkuk, resulting from a rift in Kurdish forces leading to the city’s fall into Baghdad control.

“… the presence of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, exacerbated tensions among the Kurds and the government in Baghdad,” US Senator John McCain said in Washington recently.

Iraqi porters sit on their carts as they wait for customers overlooking Iran bound oil tankers at the new Zurbatia checkpoint, 120 km southeast of Baghdad November 17, 2007. (Reuters)

 

Iran has since 2003 been known to fuel division across Iraq and Soleimani’s recent stop in Kurdistan came after a referendum that Iran vigorously opposed, and was followed suspiciously with Kirkuk’s sudden fall. “The recapture of Kirkuk was coordinated with Soleimani,” according to the abovementioned Reuters report.

This can lead to a conclusion that Iran, sensing harsh times ahead, is providing increasing control to the IRGC over the vital oil sector in its already troubled economy.

This may seem a flawed decision by Tehran considering the IRGC’s recent terrorist designation by Washington. Yet it also sheds light on Iran’s dependency on the IRGC to further advance domestic and regional policies.

Changing times

Iran will resort to further such desperate measures in the coming future, comprehending how the tide is changing drastically against its interests.

A possible agreement between the US and Russia over Syria following a recent meeting between President Donald Trump and his counterpart Vladimir Putin; the surprising resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his visit to Paris; France raising the tone against Iran’s ballistic missile program; and growing domestic unrest witnessed following the recent earthquake in western Iran are all tallying Tehran’s deepening concerns.

Conditions are shifting fast, and Tehran believes desperate times call for desperate measures. Vital now is for the international community to increase the velocity of restrictions damning this regime. With ISIS’s days of authority coming to an end Iraqi Parliament Speaker Salim al-Jubouri has called on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to disband the PMF.

Sunday’s Arab Summit session in Cairo ended in a statement describing Iran as a “dangerous dagger”in the region, especially in its approach towards Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries.

“Ballistic missiles fired at Saudi Arabia have amounted to 76 rockets, all Iranian-made, and therefore we affirm our full solidarity with Saudi Arabia in everything it takes to protect its national security,” said Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit during the emergency meeting. The entity went as far as saying it will not declare war on Iran at this stage.

US President Donald Trump signaling future pressure on Iran’s oil exports, Congress passing a billaimed at blocking the sale of commercial aircraft to Tehran and the Bahrain Interior Ministry revealing further details of an Iran-linked terrorist cell are also further steps in this direction.

This is the nature of measures needed against Iran these days.

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ANALYSIS: How the tide turned against Iran in Iraqi Kurdistan

Despite all the brouhaha made over Iran’s “lightning” advances in Iraqi Kurdistan, the entire scene change in less than 48 hours.

Tehran desperately needed to respond to US President Donald Trump’s lambasting October 13th speech launching a major policy shift and designating the Iranian regime’s crown jewel, the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), as a terrorist organization.

The flag representing the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), brought down by Iran-backed militia forces known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), was raised once again Wednesday night.

Despite the tens of thousands of locals who fled their homes, footage on social media showed armed residents stationed in the streets of Kirkuk, Khaneqein and a number of other cities.

With locals taking matters into their own hands, and international pressure escalating on Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered all armed forces other than local security units to withdraw, forcing the PMF to retreat.

This is literally a slap in the face for Tehran.

Conflicting Reports

Rumors and various reports stream out of Iraqi Kurdistan on a constant basis. Reports indicate forces loyal to the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by KRG President Masoud Barzani arresting a number of ISIS commanders in the town of Hawija.

Further reports claim of these ISIS units coordinating attacks with Iran’s Quds Force and its commander, Qassem Soleimani. In this regard, allegations have been raised accusing the PMF of launching attacks targeting Kurdish areas aimed at releasing these very ISIS commanders.

As always, rumors and allegations are endless. Without a doubt, however, is the fact that the Iran-backed PMF units, considered Tehran’s “national treasure” in Iraq, have been forced to withdraw from Kurdish cities.

Many reports of these units attacking Kurdish homes, plundering people’s property and even setting their residents on fire were posted in the mere 48 hours of their presence in these cities. PMF units are known to have committed similar crimes in Sunni Arab cities following their cleansing of ISIS forces.

The United Nations expressed its worries and Washington called an end to all clashes and disputes.

The Iranian opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran issued a statement strongly condemning the IRGC’s “aggression and occupation,” adding Suleimani had been “plotting for it in Sulaimaniya and Baghdad and other areas of Iraq.”

Iran’s True Colors

The actions of Iran’s IRGC and the Quds Force in Iraqi Kurdistan, parallel to Suleimani’s presence, made Tehran’s deceitful role and intentions crystal clear for all parties.

Various outlets have accused the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), defragmented following the death of former leader and Iraqi president Jalal Talibani, of signing behind-the-curtain deals with Iran.

Suleimani has been in Kurdistan for at least two weeks and there are rumors of Talibani’s family agreeing to stand down in the face of PMF units entering Kirkuk and other Kurdish regions.

Iran, of course, has not remained silent and used its influence in an attempt to save face and make further threats. The Iraqi judiciary issued an arrest warrant for PUK Deputy Director General Kosrat Rasul. In contrast to Iraqi Kurdish politician Barham Salih and members of the Talabani family who expressed their gratitude for Iran’s “support” of the Kurds, Rasul described the events taking place in Kirkuk as an occupation, going on to accuse certain figures of becoming Tehran’s 5th column.

There are now even reports heard of the Iraqi judiciary summoning Barzani himself to a court of law on charges of threatening Iraqi security, illegal oil smuggling, along with other administrative and legal violations.

America Steps In

There is word of senior Trump administration officials contacting al-Abadi, threatening military action if the PMF refuses to withdraw from Kurdish cities. Rumors also indicate Moscow made similar threats, as all parties sense the dangers of a fresh round of military conflict in Iraq playing into the hands of the all but completely annihilated ISIS, and more importantly Tehran.

Fresh in the minds of all parties are scenes of PMF units staging attacks on Sunni communities, committing atrocities against entire towns and villages. Such an outcome would only play into the hands of Iran as the sole benefactor of increasing turmoil in Iraq.

The Big Picture

Without a doubt the expansion of PMF units across Iraq, and as a result the IRGC Quds Force’s influence in this very important stretch of land, has raised eyebrows and concerns in Washington.

The PMF is specifically seeking to occupy certain areas to facilitate the land bridge sought by the Quds Force between Tehran and Damascus, stretching to Lebanon and the shores of the Mediterranean. With such means the Quds Force would enjoy the ease of providing necessary arms and equipment for the Lebanese Hezbollah, and beyond.

As various forces enter and exit the restive cities of northern Iraq, efforts are also underway to launch talks between Baghdad and the KRG capital, Erbil.

Iraqi President Foad Masoum, himself a Kurd, has been travelling between these two cities in attempts to have al-Abadi and Barzani agree to sit for negotiations. Al-Abadi was also recently the guest of Saudi King Salman in a visit to Riyadh that certainly caught the attention of Tehran.

“We are open and we want to move away from the past,” he said in the Saudi capital. “The region cannot tolerate any further divisions. Interference in the internal affairs of other state should stop.”

Looking Forward

Iraq will be holding general elections next year and al-Abadi is currently under pressure from two Shiite fronts.

Tehran-backed elements led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have long been planning their return to power. Supporters of Muqtada Sadr, a Shiite cleric distancing from Iran and establishing closer ties with Saudi Arabia, is seeking to institute his position. It is a very high probability – and a nightmare scenario for Tehran – that Sadr may ally with secular Shiites led by Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi, alongside a number of Sunni groups to establish a coalition government.

The developments in Kurdistan have raised the intensity level in Iraq. Iran understands very well that the fall of the ISIS will allow the US and international community to focus on the main element threatening the entire region.

As explained in a White House press release prior to US President Donald Trump’s landmark October 13th Iran policy speech:

• Over the last decade and a half, United States policy has also consistently prioritized the immediate threat of Sunni extremist organizations over the longer-term threat of Iranian-backed militancy.

• In doing so, the United States has neglected Iran’s steady expansion of proxy forces and terrorist networks aimed at keeping its neighbors weak and unstable in hopes of dominating the greater Middle East. Recently, the Iranian regime has accelerated the seeding of these networks with increasingly destructive weapons as they try to establish a bridge from Iran to Lebanon and Syria.

• The Trump Administration will not repeat these mistakes.

Iran sought to recover following the IRGC’s terrorist designation by the US Treasury Department under Trump’s orders. With its supported units forced to withdraw from Kurdish cities, this crusade has not only backfired, but transformed into yet another slap in the face for Tehran’s rulers.

These major developments have sparked major diplomat efforts, as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has launched a trip to the Middle East, with a first stop in Riyadh and making a call for Iranian “militias” to leave Iraq.

Analysts view this as a Washington push to establish a Saudi-Iraq alliance aimed at countering Iran’s regional belligerence.