Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Russia Commits to Fighting Central Asian Drugs and Terrorism

The Obama administration has welcomed Russia’s revived interest in influencing developments in Central Asia as the United States looks to next year withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. Admitting that the United States was unable to meet the needs of nations like Afghanistan and Pakistan, US Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley said agreements reach at this month’s summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Central Asian leaders focused on stabilizing the region and combating terrorism and drugs trafficking contributed to US strategy in the region.

Medvedev’s talks with the leaders of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan come two months after Russia launched an international effort at a forum in Moscow to combat drugs trafficking in Afghanistan. During the Sochi summit Medvedev promised to deepen economic ties with Central Asian nations, revive Soviet-era energy and social development project, significantly increase flood-aid to Pakistan and accelerate and expand Russian helicopter production, especially of the Mi-17 and Mi-35 for export to the region. Russia is already refurbishing some 140 Soviet-era installations in Afghanistan, such as hydroelectric stations, bridges, wells, and irrigation systems in deals valued at more than $1-billion.

Medvedev further announced in Sochi that Russia would spearhead a World Bank-sponsored program to expand hydro-electric dams in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan that would supply surplus electricity to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The four presidents agreed to link Central Asia to the CIS railway system by building a railroad and highway that will connect Pakistan and Tajikistan.

US officials say renewed Russian involvement in Central Asia is fueled by concern in Moscow that regional terrorism and drugs trafficking will fuel separatism in the Black Sea basin. Russia’s renewed commitment comes two decades after Soviet troops fought a 10-year bloody war in the country that lies in many ways at the root of Afghanistan’s current problems.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

US and EU struggle to make Iran sanctions watertight

by James M. Dorsey

Deutsche Welle

The US has designated three Maltese companies owned by an Iranian shipping company for violation of its sanctions regime to restrict the Islamic republic’s ability to import what the US terms as dangerous cargoes.

The focus on shipping is being closely coordinated with the European Union and US Treasury officials say the emphasis on shipping compliments their earlier focus on Iran's banking and energy sectors that forced European banks accused of violating the sanctions regime, including Credit Suisse and Lloyd's, to pay hefty fines.
Barclay's Bank recently agreed to pay $298 million (236 million euros) in penalties for hiding transactions with banks in Iran and other countries sanctioned or embargoed by the US.

"Commerce with Iran requires extraordinary vigilance. Iran has used channels of legitimate commerce, by which I mean banking, shipping, transshipment. They have used all these facially legitimate methods to facilitate illicit conduct," said the treasury's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, Stuart Levey, at the beginning of a Middle East tour to ensure adherence to the sanctions by key Iranian trading partners, foremost among them the United Arab Emirates.

The treasury officials say the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), Iran's national shipper, which owns the Maltese companies - Marble Shipping Limited, Bushehr Shipping Company and ISI Maritime Limited -, is a prime carrier of cargoes related to Iran's missile and other military programs as well as of arms shipments to Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia-cum-political party designated by the US and some European countries as terrorist.

The treasury designated IRISL in 2008, but is now seeking to ensure that its sanctions are effective and prevent the company from circumventing restrictions by renaming and reflagging its vessels or chartering third-party ships. The renewed focus is also designed to make it more difficult for IRISL to obtain insurance and services. In line with the US effort, the EU last month expanded its restrictions on shipping to Iran to include all shipping companies and vessels as well as air transport rather than only IRISL or other Iranian shippers and vessels.

Prosecutors in the southwestern German city of Karlsruhe this month charged a German and an Iranian national with violating the arms embargo and the EU's export ban on dual-use equipment by shipping to Iran a vacuum sintering furnace in July 2007 worth 850,000 euros ($1.1 million). The prosecutors charge that the furnace needed to construct parts for a missile's guidance system and warheads, falls under the embargo because long-range missiles could carry weapons of mass destruction in their payload.
Britain's Lord Chancellor Ken Clarke is investigating claims made by a BBC documentary and The New York Times that Isle of Man shipping companies set up as shells by IRISL are busting sanctions by shipping arms to Iran. The Isle of Man government has denied the allegations. The BBC documentary said Israeli navy commandos seized a cache of arms off the coast of Cyprus last November. The weapons were packed in crates marked IRISL on an Isle of Man-registered vessel, the Visea, that had set sail from Iran to Egypt, the BBC said.

Levey warned that "some of Iran's most dangerous cargo continues to come and go from Iran's ports, so we must redouble our vigilance over both their domestic shipping lines, and attempts to use third-country shippers and freight forwarders for illicit cargo." Levey's concern is particularly true for freewheeling Dubai and Ras al Khaimah (RAK), the two UAE emirates that operate as major Iranian transshipment nodes. Iran does $12 billion-a-year worth of trade with the UAE, on which it relies for the import of goods, many of which fall under UN or US sanctions.

The UAE recently restricted Iranian use of Dubai's port and its central bank froze accounts of 40 entities and an individual blacklisted by the UN for assisting Iran's nuclear and missile programs. Ras al Khaimah's free zone, home to some 200 Iranian firms, has stopped issuing licenses to new Iranian companies, according to the zone's CEO, Oussama el Omari. "RAK was looking to offer benefits to attract Iranian companies in the past. Now perhaps it's not in their favor to do so due to sanctions so they have changed their viewpoint," said Morteza Masoumzadeh, the head of the Iranian Business Council in Dubai.

The UAE's apparent renewed commitment to the sanctions regime follows the disclosure via satellite imagery of Iranian military installations on Abu Musa, the largest of three islands at the entrance of the Strait of Hormuz occupied by Iran. The installations included three missile launch pads, an elaborate underground market, and a sports field with the words "Persian Gulf" emblazoned on it - a provocative reminder of Iran's hegemonic view of a region the Gulf states describe as the Arab Gulf. UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahayan recently stopped short of comparing Iran's occupation of the islands to Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory. "Iran refuses to allow us to send teachers, doctors and nurses. I am not comparing Iran to Israel, but Iran should be more careful than others," Al Nahayan said.

Ensuring that the sanctions against Iran are watertight is proving difficult despite the stepped up commitment from countries like the UAE. China, Russia, India and Turkey, in response to the latest US and EU sanctions, have moved to capitalize on investment opportunities. The four nations have reiterated their adherence to weaker sanctions imposed on Iran in June by the UN Security Council, but say they are not obliged to follow the recently announced more stringent US and EU rules.

In violation of petroleum-related deals with Iran, China and Turkey recently sold gasoline to Tehran while Russian officials say they will ship gasoline by the end of this month. The four countries are also signing deals to invest billions of dollars in Iran's oil and gas fields, petrochemical plants and pipelines. "Sanctions will not hinder us in our joint cooperation," Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko said at the signing in July in Moscow of an energy partnership agreement with Iran.

In his talks with Lebanese leaders, Levey, according to well-placed Lebanese sources, raised US and EU concerns about a mysterious twice-monthly Iran Air flight from Tehran to the Venezuelan capital of Caracas with intermediary stops in Damascus and Beirut. Current and former EU, US and Israeli intelligence officials assert that Iran Air flight 877 ferries people and weapons to Latin America in advance of possible retaliatory attacks against the US should the US or Israel strike at Iranian nuclear sites. They also say the flight may be ferrying back to Iran sanctioned items for Iran's military programs. Although flight 877 is publicly announced, would-be travelers seeking a reservation are invariably told by Iran Air that no seats are available, Western intelligence sources say.

Former CIA Direct Michael J. Hayden concedes that Western intelligence services are unable to substantially monitor the flights or understand their precise purpose. Hayden says the flights are a concern because they constitute a direct and uncontrolled Iranian link into the Western Hemisphere. "I can tell you that we're really interested in that direct flight… It is something that we are sensitive to," Hayden said. The State Department declined comment on the flight, saying in a statement that "nations have the right to enter into cooperative relationships with other nations."

Release of Spanish Hostages: Questions and Insights

This week’s release of two Spanish hostages by an Al Qaeda affiliate in North Africa raises questions about the steadfastness of the refusal by Western nations to negotiate with terrorists. It also constitutes a victory for the group’s Algerian faction focused more on kidnapping of foreigners as a business than on achieving political goals.

In a statement to Spanish newspaper El Pais, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an Al Qaeda affiliate that operates primarily in Algeria, Mauritainia, Mali and Niger suggested that Spain had met its demand for payment of a $5 million ransom for the hostages. The Spanish government has declined to comment on whether it had cut a deal with the militants. The hostages were kidnapped in Mauritania in November while riding in a convoy delivering supplies to poor villages.

It became apparent that the two hostages, Albert Vilalta and Roque Pascual, were about to be released after Mauritania last week threw the jihadists a bone by extraditing to Mali a key Malian AQIM operative, Omar Sid'Ahmed Ould Hamma. Hamma had been convicted to 12 years in prison for kidnapping the two Spaniards as well as Alicia Gomez, a third Spaniard who was released in March. His release had been part of AQIM’s demands.

Spain's ransom payment and Hamma's release would not be the first time European and West African authorities have entered into negotiations with AQIM. Mali released four Islamists earlier this year in an apparent swap for French hostage Pierre Camatte, freed by AQIM in February. The release soured its relations with Algeria, Mauritania and Niger who accused Mali of being soft on terrorism.

The group, which grew out of the Salafist movement in Algeria and has since shifted south into the vast and lawless Sahel, also killed British captive Edwin Dyer last year after London refused to give in to its demands.

Analysts and Malian officials say Hamma’s release was as much designed to achieve the release of the remaining hostages as it was to deepen divisions within the Al Qaeda affiliate and complicate its relations with allied rebel Tuareg tribesmen. The Tuareg accuse the Malian government of failing to implement a 2008 agreement that was supposed to end their tribal insurgency and grant the Tuareg greater rights.

Relations between Al Qaeda and the Tuareg became strained last month when an AQIM commander, Abdelhamid (Hamidu) Abu Zaid, accused the Tuareg of assisting a French-Mauritainian attack that last month failed to liberate 78-year old French hostage Michel Germaneau and killed six jihadists. Abu Zaid charged that the Tuareg had pinpointed the whereabouts of the AQIM operatives. In retaliation, Abu Zaid abducted and killed Mirzag Ag El Housseini, a Tuareg customs officer whose brother is senior commander in the Malian army. In a statement, AQIM’s leader in Mauritania, Abu Anas al-Shanqiti, warned that his group would retaliate against the “traitorous apostates, children and agents of Christian France” who had cooperated in the raid. The French Foreign Ministry says its forces are “fully mobilized” to counter “threats uttered by assassins.”

Abu Zaid had been urging the commander of AQIM’s wing in Algeria, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, under whose control the Spaniards were, to execute them in retaliation for the French-Mauritanian raid. Mali had been quietly negotiating the release of the Spanish hostages with Belmokhtar. Malian officials say that the extradition of Hamma enabled Belmokhtar to cut a deal and claim political success. Hamma’s extradition contrasts starkly with Mauritania’s participation in the French-led raid and its past refusal to negotiate with the jihadists.

In its statement, AQIM said the release of the hostages demonstrated to France that "it was possible to deal rationally with the Mujahedeen (Islamic fighters). It was possible to avoid the aggravation, irritation and anger that led to the killing of their national."

 Saudi Legal Reform Put To The Test

A spate of recent religious opinions and court rulings ranging from the bizarre to endorsement of mutilation issued by prominent Saudi sheikhs and judges highlight the difficulties King Abdullah is encountering in clamping down on fatwas and his efforts to reform and codify the kingdom’s largely unwritten Islamic legal regulations that govern the kingdom’s criminal, civil and family courts. To be fair, few, if any, of the more outrageous Saudi legal opinions and rulings have recently been put into practice.

In the latest ruling sparking international concern, Saudi judge Sheikh Saud Al-Yousef this month ordered a man to be paralyzed in retribution for injuries he allegedly caused with a meat cleaver during a fight two years ago. Applying the principle of ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,’ the judge ruled that the man should be injured at the same place on his spinal cord to cause identical crippling damage to what he inflicted on his victim 22-year-old Abdul-Aziz al-Mitairy. The man was originally sentenced to seven months in prison by a court in the northwestern town of Tabuk, but his victim subsequently petitioned the court to impose an equivalent punishment on his attacker in accordance with principle of qisas, retribution, embedded in Islamic law. Past Saudi applications of qisas have involved eye-gouging, tooth extraction, and death in cases involving murder. Two Saudi hospitals, including Riyadh’s prestigious King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center, rejected on ethical grounds the judge’s request that they implement his ruling.

In a statement condemning the ruling, Amnesty International said another hospital had advised the judge that it was medically possible to administer to the perpetrator an injury identical to the one that he caused. “Under international human rights law, the use of this sentence would constitute a violation of the absolute prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” the statement quoted Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa Acting Director Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui. Sahraoui suggested the court imprison, fine or flog the condemned man.

In an apparent effort to counter international criticism, the judge and a senior Saudi official attempted to downplay the judge's request. The official told CNN that paralysis was never considered as a punishment in the case. Al Riyadh newspaper quoted the judge as saying that "The proceedings in this case are still pending and no verdict had been issued in that regards." Al-Yousef said the court had queried a number of hospitals and other authorities about surgical paralysis in order to convince the plaintiff about the impossibility of carrying out such a medical procedure."The plaintiff was demanding punishment of the attacker, and the judicial ruling in this case only includes the plaintiff's eligibility for blood money," he said.

Earlier this month, Saudi authorities pulled the plug on the daily radio program of Sheikh Abdel Mohsen Obeikan, a cleric and royal court adviser who earlier this year earned notoriety by decreeing that women could give men breast milk to avoid illicit gender mixing. Saudi Arabia bans women from mixin with men who are no their guardians defined as their husband or first line relatives such as father or brothers. The decision followed a controversial royal decree by Abdullah authorizing only members of the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars to issue fatwas in a bid to put a halt to religious rulings that embarrass the kingdom.

The Tabuk judge ordered the mutilation after Abdullah issued his decree. Among other rulings this year, Sheikh Yousuf Ahmad, a lecturer at the Imam Mohammad bin Saud University in Riyadh, suggested that only Muslim maids could work in Saudi homes. He also called for the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam's holiest site and the world's largest mosque, to be demolished and rebuilt to ensure segregation between the sexes in the shrine. Saudi clergy are debating women’s right to engage in competitive sports with the kingdom under increased pressure from the International Olympic Committee to ease restrictions.

Abdullah recently won a major victory when the kingdom’s top religious body endorsed his proposed codification of Saudi law needed to meet World Trade Organization and human rights standards, encourage foreign investment, standardize legal practice and grant courts enforcement powers. Lawyers and analysts caution however that codification may take several years given conservative fears that it could undermine Saudi Arabia’s puritan interpretation of Islamic law as well as the independence of judges by making them adhere to written rules and regulations.

Testing the Saudi winds of reform, Suliman al-Reshoudi, a 73-year old former judge imprisoned without trial for the past three years ago on vague allegations related to his legal support of democracy advocates, has opened a court case to force the Interior Ministry and security services to either formally charge or release him. The case, the first of its kind in Saudi Arabia, is based on a yet to be tested legal offering protection to detainees introduced after Al-Reshoudi’s arrest in 2007.

Iran Shuts Down European Company

Iranian security officials have shut down the local office of European cosmetics firm Oriflame in a move likely to scare away foreign investors at a time that Western companies are leaving Iran or scaling back operations because of international sanctions that restrict trade with the Islamic Republic.

Iranian officials and Oriflame executives say authorities arrested five company employees, including a Swedish national. The authorities accuse Oriflame, a publicly held $1.6 billion cosmetics firm that eschews animal testing and claims to use natural ingredients, of running a $70 million pyramid scheme involving 250,000 cases of fraud.

Company officials and analysts say the charges are a pretext for Iranian concerns that Oriflame’s business model empowers thousands of Iranian women by allowing them to earn substantial amounts as independent sales consultants. They said the charges were moreover an attempt to distract attention from the fact that busting the sanctions aimed at punishing Iran for its nuclear program has sparked a booming business for government-run sanction busting companies that operate through fronts in Venezuela and Central Asian countries, including Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.

Oriflame warned its investors in recent months that it was finding it increasingly difficult to operate in Iran with authorities obstructing its sales and waging a media campaign against it. Despite the shutdown of its Tehran office, Oriflame said it was determined to maintain operations in Iran, which accounts for 20 percent of the company’s Asian sales. Oriflame with operations in 62 countries was founded in Sweden in 1967, but has since moved its headquarters to Switzerland and Luxemburg.