Monday, December 29, 2014

Iran and Petroleum Prices

One of the overlooked stories of 2014 was the causes of and the geopolitical implications from the dropping oil prices. Numerous articles were written covering aspects of it, yet so few actually tried to look at the situation from the most broad of perspectives.

As everyone knows, the price of oil per barrel and at the pump has dropped over the last few months, mostly as a result of the relationship between demand and supply changing. Supply has been ramped up, especially by US producers. The United States now produces the most oil it has since 1985, and more than all of the OPEC countries including Saudi ArabiaAt the same time, OPEC is also producing record amounts.

Many of the countries in OPEC have oil-dependent economies, and fluctuations in the price of oil affect the way their government operates. The budgets are set to expect a certain price of oil, and if the price drops below this, they will have budgetary problems. Iran in particular is facing difficulties, as the sanctions implemented against the Islamic Republic, combined with a lower price of their most important export has greatly reduced potential revenues.

Even though many of the OPEC countries are now facing possible budget deficits, the cartel agreed to not withhold supply and drive up the price of oil. It appears as though the Saudis and the Gulf Nations are willing to withstand lower prices in the short term, because it damages their bitter rival the Iranians, and OPEC's diminished global influence due to US shale oil producers.

Some have framed this as a purely anti-Iran move, but it is a bit more complex than this. If the OPEC members reduce supply, they are not only working with US oil companies, they are acting in a manner that is only beneficial in the short-term. By working together to keep oil prices low, they will soon drive many of the US shale oil companies out of business.

Fracking (shale oil extraction method) was adopted by American (and Canadian) companies because oil had previously been significantly more expensive, and the fracking process can require a higher break-even point to be profitable. If these companies are allowed to continue to operate (by keeping oil prices high), the damage to OPEC countries will continue. Conversely, if these companies are driven out of business, OPEC has a good chance to regain it's control over world petroleum markets.

The US has long had a policy of utilizing Middle Eastern oil over North American for geo-strategic reasons (see citation in my previous blog). Oil production's increase in North America is striking. Is this a last ditch effort to obtain as much shale oil as possible before the environmentally-damaging process is banned? Is there another "back-up" supply of extractable petroleum or is this the US's last 'trump card' in the oil market?

In some ways this looks like a plot between the Saudis and Americans to damage Iran, Russia and Venezuela financially, but there are quite a few other angles which complicate the situation greatly. Lastly, the insistence by Iran that OPEC cut production, shows Iran's financial woes are very real, and that economic mismanagement by the previous administration in conjunction with external pressures have seriously damaged the economy.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Iranian-Russian Nuclear Plant Cooperation

Today it was announced that Russia and Iran intend to build two additional nuclear reactors in Iran with the possibility of building six more. Iran has long stated its intentions to pursue nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels, yet despite this commitment, serious safety concerns persist. As I've written several times (herehere, here and here), Iran has yet to sign the Convention on Nuclear Safety, an incentive-based program intended to improve safety standards at nuclear power facilities. Iran, in fact, is the ONLY country in the world with a nuclear power plant that has not joined the convention. Even Israel, which is not a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is party to the convention. Iran is located in a seismically sensitive part of the world, and the decision to build further nuclear plants given the safety concerns is troubling.

There are a few reasons why Iran has chosen to work with Russia again. Russia took over the Bushehr project from a German company after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and even though the project was delayed many times and problematic, it has finally been completed. Russia is also one of the leaders from the anti-Western camp, and Iran values this position. There may be better, cheaper alternatives for cooperation on a nuclear power facility, yet for now Russia is the logical partner.

Personally I am still very worried about nuclear power facilities in Iran. The safety issues are well-documented, yet no one is paying attention to the potential environmental hazards. A whistleblower from the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran provided a document to The Times which stated that:
...Bushehr, which began operating last month after 35 years of intermittent construction, was built by "second-class engineers" who bolted together Russian and German technology from different eras; that it sits in one of the world's most seismically active areas but could not withstand a major earthquake; and that it has "no serious training program" or a contingency plan for accidents.
This corroborates other claims about problems including cracks resulting from earthquakes, and a broken cooling pump which forced a shutdown of the plant. The plant is designed to sustain up to a magnitude 8 earthquake without serious damage, yet the several meter long cracks mentioned in the previous sentence were the result of a mere 6.4 earthquake.

Even though there are many problems with Iran's nuclear power plants, the Iranians are continuing to build. I hope that they take steps to address these issues, especially the ones relating to safety. The Iranian ambassador to the UN promised that Iran would be working to join the Convention on Nuclear Safety in January 2013, yet this has not happened yet. The world does not need another nuclear disaster, especially so soon after Fukushima.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Next Chairman of the Assembly of Experts

With the recent death of Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani following a a several month long coma, a new chairman of the Assembly of Experts will be chosen soon. The Islamic Republic is still undergoing what Matthew Wells called a 'Thermidor', and fighting between Iranian political factions continues. At such a pivotal time, with remaining questions over the health of the Supreme Leader, the chairmanship is increasingly important and all the factions will want the position to go to someone who will promote their agenda.

Acting Chairman Ayatollah Shahroudi is a possibility for the position, along with former Chairman, Chairman of the Majles, and President of Iran, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani. For years there have been poor relations between Rafsanjani and his family and conservative elements of the Islamic Republic, and a return as chairman of the Assembly of Experts is probably too much to hope for for Rafsanjani. Shahroudi is more likely, but it would not surprise me if someone else entirely gets selected.

The Chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts is more than symbolically important, and at this critical time, the decision is an important one.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

ISIS wants Iran's 'Nuclear Secrets'?

Yesterday The Sunday Times published a report indicating that the 'Islamic State' intends to obtain Iran's nuclear secrets, among other bizarre, ambitious and unrealistic schemes. The nuclear one is most interesting for a variety of reasons.

It appears as though this point was either misunderstood by the reporters, or the Islamic State has no idea how nuclear technology works. If the Islamic State wants Iran's 'nuclear secrets' are they referring to nuclear reactors and enrichment, or are they referring to secrets about nuclear weaponry? The report claims that the Islamic State wants nuclear weapons, but no one believes that Iran actually has nuclear weapons, and most do not even believe that Iran has the requisite technologies developed to make a nuclear weapon if they wished to.

So what are the 'nuclear secrets' the Islamic State desires? I cannot imagine it, but do they wish to build a nuclear reactor or enrichment facility? Does the Islamic State have intelligence that Iran has completed experiments such as those alleged to have occurred at Parchin, and that the information relating to these experiments is still accessible? How would they know of these experiments? Is their intelligence on Iran's nuclear research superior to that of the Israelis, Americans, British, Australian etc?

Additionally, IF Iran has in fact conducted these experiments AND the Islamic State somehow knows about them, does ISIS actually plan on making a nuclear weapon? Why would they want to make a more complicated device requiring more time, expense, material and expertise when a dirty bomb would suffice? Do they even have nuclear scientists that could make a proper nuclear weapon?

Disappointingly, the reporters did not examine these claims critically, noting the problems with the logic, nor clarifying some important points. It is not the responsibility of the terrorists to write something logical. It is however the responsibility of reporters to note when something is illogical, or problematic in some way; especially when it is a 'scoop' of this magnitude. Because the reporters and editors were not careful, this story has become much more of a story than it should be.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Iran has (still) not signed the Convention on Nuclear Safety

This is your bi-monthly reminder that despite promising to join this vital nuclear safety treaty in January 2013, Iran has yet to do so. Yesterday it was announced that Iran is planning on building even more nuclear plants, which would be perfectly fine if we knew that they surpass international safety standards. Unfortunately this is not the case, and Iran continues to endanger the surrounding countries, in addition to its own citizens.

This is nothing new; I've written about why this is a dangerous situation in the past:
Earthquake danger at Bushehr
Iran and Nuclear Safety (or lack thereof)
Iran and the Convention on Nuclear Safety

I hope that whoever is running things in Iran regarding nuclear power, pulls their head out of the sand and signs this treaty before a serious accident happens. This is the last thing that we need.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Ayatollah's Health

Today it was announced that Ayatollah Khamenei had successful prostate surgery. This level of transparency from Iran is unprecedented. While speculation about the health of the Supreme Leader is nothing new, an acknowledgment of the Ayatollah's medical situation by the Iranian government is a drastic shift.

Khamenei is paralyzed in one arm due to an assassination attempt in 1981, but this is not his only health problem. In October of last year, Khamenei was out of the public eye for weeks. Some believed that this was due to recurrence of a long term chronic illness. US State Department cables leaked by Wikileaks alleged that Khamenei has cancer, believed to be terminal. In 2007, Khamenei missed an important religious event, and for a while, there were rumors that he had died.

It is unclear if the prostate operation has anything to do with the Ayatollah's other rumored health problems or if this was the problem from the beginning and he will be in better health in the near future. If the Ayatollah is terminally ill, there may be some interesting times ahead as the administrative body tasked with selecting the replacement is currently a bit unstable.

Ayatollah Mahdavi-Kani the head of the governmental body (Assembly of Experts) responsible for electing (and theoretically replacing a Supreme Leader if necessary) is currently in a coma following a heart attack in June. The newest session of the Assembly of Experts was recently convened without Mahdavi-Kani, and a prominent reformist cleric and member of the assembly was also absent. Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former President, Speaker of the Majles (Parliament) of Iran, and chairman of the Assembly of Experts, whose family has been systematically persecuted, was pictured today kissing the forehead of Ayatollah Khamenei. Rafsanjani may be back in the good graces of the establishment, and able to influence the selection (possibly even getting himself nominated).

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Mossadeq Coup: Misconceptions about the Role of the United States and the CIA

The United States government, namely the CIA, is often blamed for the August 1953 coup removing Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq from power, however a careful examination of older studies, in addition to newly accessible information, reveal that common conceptions of the events and chronology are flawed, despite their prevalence. 

One reason why these misconception exist is that many files from US government sources relating to this time period, and in particular to this event, remain classified or are otherwise inaccessible (most CIA documents regarding the events have allegedly been destroyed). Under United States law, special exceptions can be made allowing documents to be classified for 50 or 75 years rather than the normal 25 years. It has now been over 60 years since the events took place. This means that on at least two occasions, the documents have been determined to be too sensitive to release. 

More documents regarding this series of events will be revealed later this year (UPDATE: the release has been delayed due to fears that it could have an effect on ongoing nuclear negotiations), when the State Department’s FRUS (Foreign Relations of the United States) Iran 1952-54 is re-released including newly declassified documents. While imperfect, these documents are the most reliable and most accessible. It is important see these documents (as well as those previously released) in context, and to correct widespread misconceptions about the coup and the parties involved.

These misconceptions are problematic because of how they have engrained themselves into our understanding of the events. The preeminent scholar of Iran, Richard Cottam—who himself lived in Iran for many years and was an employee of the CIA as well as the State Department—wrote in the 1960s edition of ‘Nationalism in Iran” (also included in the 2nd edition published in 1979) that "The distortions of the Mossadeq era, both in the press and in academic studies, border on the grotesque.”

Since this time there have been many new accounts, ranging from Kermit Roosevelt’s fundamentally flawed yet influential memoir ‘Countercoup’, to the scholarly work of Mark Gasiorowski, to Stephen Kinzer’s highly popular “All the Shah’s Men” and the most recent revisionist histories of Dariush Bayandor and Ray Takeyh. Though the academic work is considerably more accurate than that of Roosevelt and Kinzer, there are still significant errors in both traditional and revisionist narratives, which have affected the mainstream understanding of this monumental event.

Misconception #1: The United States wanted Iran’s oil:
The United States had no oil interests in Iran (it was the British that did). The primary goal of the Americans was to prevent the spread of Communism, and to secondary was to resolve the dispute as quickly as possible (see National Security Council document NSC 136/1). This is not to say that the United States did not have a vested interest in Middle Eastern oil (e.g. Saudi Arabia), but rather that from the American side, co-opting Iran’s oil interests was not the motivation for a coup. Since at least 1943, US policy had been to develop Middle Eastern oil because North American and Caribbean oil would be easier to defend in war[i]. If anything, a quick resolution was the most important factor to the American; something clearly reflected in their efforts to reach a negotiated settlement.

Misconception #2: Mohammad Mossadeq was a democratically elected Prime Minister:
While Mossadeq was elected to the Majles (the Iranian Parliament) by democratic means (Iran at the time was not a democracy by any means, though some aspects of it were democratic in nature), the office of Prime Minister was nominated from amongst the Majles deputies by the Shah. In turn, the Majles members either voted for or against the nomination (In his initial appointment Mossadeq was approved by a tally of 79-12)
[ii]. Mossadeq enjoyed massive popularity at different times during his political career, but his position as Prime Minister was never due to a nationwide poll (he was PM on two separate occasions). 

This is not to say Mossadeq’s position was not legitimate. He was chosen by his constituency to be a Majles deputy, this is indisputable. He was not however, chosen by the Iranian people to be Prime Minister. This also does not account for the fact that the Majles was mostly comprised of feudal landowners, intrinsically opposed to Mossadeq and his populism[iii]. Before Mossadeq became Prime Minister, the Iranian public was unhappy with the state of affairs in Iran; Mossadeq with his sincere populism was seen by the Shah as a clever alternative to yet another feudal landowner or military officer[iv]. This is also a key factor in Misconception #6.

Misconception #3: The Eisenhower Administration was determined to remove Mossadeq from power from Day 1:
One of the fundamental misunderstandings concerns the Eisenhower Administration’s decision to remove Mossadeq from power. A cursory reading of the documents supplied in the FRUS volume concerning Iran, reveals that the President was most concerned with the specter of Communism above anything else. Eisenhower even said in a National Security Council meeting that if he had $500,000,000.00 to spare, he would have preferred to give $100,000,000.00 to Iran so that the financial troubles brought on by British sanctions could be alleviated[v]. Eisenhower was likely influenced by the Dulles brothers (Secretary of State and Director of the CIA), but for a considerable period of time the president opposed a coup. He was afraid of destabilizing Iran and the region, which in his estimation, would inevitably lead to a communist takeover.

Misconception #4: The CIA coup was successful:
It is clear from the record that the attempted coup (codenamed TPAJAX) which was undertaken on the night of August 15th, 1953, was a dismal failure. Not only did the Iranian military officers fail in their task to arrest Mossadeq, the CIA did not have a backup plan. Even though Kermit Roosevelt claimed to have magically turned the situation around in only 3 days, the circumstances of what really happened between the failed coup of August 15/16 and the successful one of the 19th is highly contentious. How did the situation turn around so quickly, despite the early setbacks including the arrest of pivotal Iranian conspirators such as Colonel Zand-Karimi, the conduit for communicating with Tehran-based commanders? Roosevelt’s version of events is difficult to accept without reservation, not only because of the style and substance of his writing, but also because of his well-known questionable reliability. 

Misconception #5: CIA documents corroborate each other:
There is an recurrent idea that the CIA is all-powerful, and that classified documents from the CIA are inherently truthful and accurate. Again this ignores the context of the documents. This was the CIA’s first attempted coup, and especially for those involved there was a strong incentive to downplay the failures of the plan and to exaggerate any potential successes. In the various accounts declassified by or leaked from the CIA there are several inconsistencies which calls into question to accuracy of the different accounts. 

Perhaps most striking (though ignored in historiographies) are those found in the most recent CIA history ‘Zendebad Shah’, published internally in 1998 and partially released following FOIA requests from George Washington University’s National Security Archive. In this document, it is written that British Foreign Minister Eden “found the Americans much more receptive to the British viewpoint than they had been under Truman and Acheson. The collapse of the Anglo-Iranian oil negotiations had changed the American’s attitude.” These events however, are taken out of chronological order; the negotiations did not in fact collapse until days after the meeting between Eden and the Americans. On the same page the author also wrote that the US administration ‘abandoned the search for a negotiated end to the crisis.’ Without context, this implies that the US broke off negotiations, while in fact it was Mossadeq that did so.

It is unclear if this is poorly researched document, if the person responsible for it made mistakes in his writing, or if the CIA truly does not have a comprehensive understanding of what happened. Of all the declassified CIA documents on the coup, this one is the most recent (there was another document declassified after this one, but it was written decades prior). Is it unrealistic to expect the newest one to be the most accurate? 

Misconception #6: Westerners and Royalists were the only ones who wished to remove Mossadeq from power:
This is perhaps the biggest misunderstanding of all. While Mossadeq had enjoyed great popularity earlier in his term, his coalition had come under great pressure, and former allies had begun to oppose him. Chief amongst these was Ayatollah Kashani, the speaker of the Majles, and a vital influence for the next generation of politicized clerics, significantly, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. I personally find it very interesting that the US has not made an effort to publicize these connections. Given the tensions between the governments of Iran and the United States since 1979, one would think that undermining the Iranian clerical leadership through showing the links to the coup would be in the interests of the United States.

During the oil crisis, Mossadeq became very unpopular. Things were so bad that when it was clear that his now fractured party would not gain a majority, he cancelled parliamentary elections. In February 1953 there were mass demonstrations against Mossadeq (possibly arranged for or instigated by foreign agents including the CIA); demonstrations of enough severity for Mossadeq to increase security measures in Iran. 

The tendency is to blame the CIA and Americans because we know from the record that there was an attempt to overthrow Mossadeq, but this does not absolve the other participants. There are instances in both the Wilber Report and FRUS where an Iranian general and the former Prime Minister of Iran (allegedly on behalf of a group of military officers) separately contacted US officials inquiring on their interest in conducting a coup d’etat. 

Other issues:
There are two additional issues which I have not addressed as a ‘misconceptions’, because neither of them are considered a key part of the narrative. The role of Ambassador Loy Henderson, who many believe worked with the CIA beyond the scope of his office, has been generally neglected by scholars and journalists. Henderson when interviewed for the Truman Library in 1973, said things which Roosevelt contradicted 6 years later in Countercoup. During this interview Henderson also said that the record would reflect his version of events, if the telegrams were ever declassified.

The other and perhaps most curious issue is the role of the Dulles brothers. The two of them were partners with the American firm (Sullivan & Cromwell) representing the AIOC interests in the United States before their positions as head of the CIA and State Department. The Dulles brothers’s firm had done work with United Fruit Company, one of the corporations which benefited the most from the CIA’s coup in Guatemala in 1954. Both brothers were also major shareholders in United Fruit. It may be difficult to determine if the Dulles brothers used their position to benefit them and their associates financially, and the lack of a comprehensive record from either the CIA or State Department, not to mention Eisenhower’s obsession with secrecy a difficult matter to ascertain. If this is a coincidence it is a truly remarkable one. 

What this means for the new FRUS release:
While there may be new details revealed with the updated release of the FRUS documents, it is likely that the biggest gaps in the record (determining when and why Eisenhower changed his mind and decided to support a coup, as well as what happened between August 16th and 19th) will remain unfilled. Furthermore, it is important to recognize that the contradictions between different versions still remain, and are likely to be even more convoluted by the pending release.

"The early accounts of various participants differed widely enough to make it impossible to follow the slender thread of truth through the dark night.”
—Donald Wilber in ‘The Wilber Report’


[i] 1 December 1943, folder: ‘Petroleum Reserves Corporation Activities. 7/3/43-1/1/44’ box 1, Records of the Petroleum Division, RG 59 via Anderson, Irvine H. "The American Oil Industry and the Fifty-Fifty Agreement of 1950." Musaddiq, Iranian Nationalism, and Oil. By James A. Bill and William Roger Louis. 1988. 151

[ii] In the executive system of the time, Prime Minister was elected by the Parliament (Majles). Mossadeq was voted in by a 79-12 margin. See Foran, John. "Democratization, Separatism, Nationalization, Coup." Fragile Resistance: Social Transformation in Iran from 1500 to the Revolution., 1993. 285.

[iii] Cottam, Richard W. Nationalism in Iran. 1964. 49

[iv] Azimi, Fakhreddin. Iran: The Crisis of Democracy. New York: St. Martin's, 1989. 257

[v] Memorandum of discussion at the 135th meeting of the National Security Council, March 4, 1953, FRUS, 1953-1954, Vol. X:Iran, p. 691-701

Additional Resources:

Wilber Report (Mostly unredacted):

Monday, August 11, 2014

Israel's Hasbara Machine Misfiring or Overhyped?

Israel expends a lot of effort and spends a lot of money on 'Hasbara', literally 'explaining', but understood by most to be a euphemism for 'propaganda'. Despite this, the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas has produced in a series of crude and seemingly carelessly designed graphics.
I first noticed this when the IDF published this aerial or satellite photo of a property where rockets were alleged to have come from.
Source: IDF's Facebook page. July 23, 2014

Strangely enough there are two overlapping property or lot outlines depicted here. I spent many of my school breaks working at my local municipality with aerial photography and I have quite a bit of experience with tracing building outlines or designating property outlines. I also know that hiding one or the other from this image is a quick task that takes less than a minute, even if one was unfamiliar with basic GIS (geographic information systems, a way of storing spatial data digitally) and mapping software. 

I figured this was nothing more than a slip-up until I remembered the maps from the IDF and Israel's Foreign Ministry showing the range of the various rockets employed by Hamas. These rockets have an estimated maximum range. To show this, for some reason the Israelis decided that they would use a circular outline. This is illogical because not every rocket will leave from the same location, so a rocket with a 30 km range will not be able to travel 30 km north into Israel if it is launched from the southern Gaza Strip.
In GIS programs there is a function called "buffering" where a line is drawn at a specific distance from another line (in this case the Gaza-Israel border). This results in a line that is nor perfectly curved.
This is what the buffer function looks like. SOURCE:
A properly buffered map of the range of the various rockets used by Gaza-based militants looks like this (it is possible to do this in a 2D photo as well)
Source: NY Times
It is clear here that the range of the rockets is based upon the boundary of Gaza rather than a specific point. In reality it doesn't change anything, but it is still strange that such amateurish efforts would be accepted.

Buffering and property outlines are not the only mapping problems that the IDF has had. They've also published a few strange maps.

The first is a map of tunnels built by Hamas for the purposes of attacking Israel. For someone who is not as familiar with cartography this may not look like a bad map, but for someone from this background, the level of clutter, the amount of extraneous color and information, as well as the lack of a compass arrow or a proper legend is striking.

Source: IDF's Facebook page
The following tweet by the IDF's Spokesperson was probably the most surprising instance for me; it was so clearly flawed I am not sure how they approved it in the first place:

It doesn't take a Cartography or GIS major to notice that it appears as though a lot of the red dots on the left side of the larger image are coming from the Mediterranean Sea. Strangely enough, the IDF later corrected the image, shifting the dots, aligning the drawn western border with the ocean.

The IDF's recent hasbara efforts, especially related to maps and images appear crude and half-hearted. For a program that is considered by many to be slick and monolithic, it is producing some fairly low-quality work.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Successful Operation for the Iron Dome?

After a 10th update to my original Iron Dome blog from March 2013, I've decided to start a new blog post related to the system and its coverage in the media. This should hopefully make new information easier to access.

Today Israeli intelligence analyst Yossi Melman tweeted:
Rockets summary: 3361fired 584 intercepted 115 landed in populated areas 2542 in open zones 120 disintegrated in #Gaza. daily average 120
— Yossi Melman (@yossi_melman) August 5, 2014

As Update 10 in my previous blog post explained, this equates to an approximate Iron Dome success rate of 83.5%. As of yet it is unclear where the "failures" occurred. Some may have been due to a lack of coverage in the area (the rocket attack which resulted in the death of a Bedouin was partially due to the area not being protected), while others were due to technical malfunctions. The location of strikes are not publicly available, so it is hard to map the exact locations where rockets landed (the IDF has released an image of a map of the locations where rockets were allegedly launched from, but as my next blog will explain, this is of questionable accuracy).

I would imagine that many of the rockets which were not intercepted landed primarily in Sderot, and Ashkelon, while Beer Sheva and Ashdod also experienced a few failures. While not much more than theory, this would again lend credence to my earlier guess from my previous Iron Dome blog that there is a difference in success from the different types of rockets. As far as I know there were no failures in Tel Aviv, so the logical assumption would be that the smaller cities (subject to a different quantity and type of rocket) experienced the failed intercepts. There is a slight possibility that there were failures in Tel Aviv, but given the high number of sirens and corresponding explosions heard by Tel Avivians during this last conflict, it seems unlikely. It would not be easy to hide the results of the explosion of a 175 pound warhead in an urban center.

At the same time, it is interesting that with a success rate of just over 4/5 that there were no catastrophic events in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem during the last few weeks. It seems as though the Iron Dome may be operating at a different efficiency rate in different areas which are subject to different types of rocket attacks.

Uzi Rubin wrote a new blog for Reuters on the Iron Dome. Key points not covered already in his previous critiques
1) Postol and Lloyd used the same data, yet Lloyd's assessment is that the Iron Dome's success rate is 6-8 times greater than Postol theorizes.
2) Hundreds of rockets were fired at Ashdod, yet only 12 hit residential areas
3) There have been around 135 rockets fired at Tel Aviv, yet not a single one has landed within the city (intercepted rocket debris has, but that of course isn't the point).

Theodore Postol was given a chance to respond to Rubin's criticism which he did so here:

I am not a scientist so I cannot comment on the first refutation, the rest of them I can, however.

2) Arguing that someone's argument is wrong, doesn't automatically prove the thesis of the other person (unless it is a binary argument) so this is not a valid argument.

3) Postol keeps talking about his data that he collected, though in all of his papers, memos and articles he has NEVER actually shared this data.

4) If Postol doesn't know what system was in place before, then how can he say that the system didn't work before and it suddenly works now? The warning siren system has been installed in various locations in Israel since at least 2005. In 2006 Human Rights Watch credited the warning and sheltering system with saving lives. Again Postol's argument is not a good one.

Finally Postol said that "There will certainly be impact craters in the areas where Iron Dome is reputedly defending against the rockets. In fact, the number should be nearly the same number as if Iron Dome didn’t exist." Unfortunately this is a terrible argument again. There were approximately 135 rockets sent to Tel Aviv. WHERE ARE THE 135 IMPACT CRATERS?! The rockets which targeted Tel Aviv are Fajr-5 (called M-75 by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad), and carry a 100-175 pound warhead depending on variety. The Israelis, in general, put a special emphasis on intelligence matters and are careful to not divulge locations of rocket strikes unless necessary. At the same time, I cannot imagine that 135 warheads each measuring 175 pounds struck Israel's 2nd largest city and no one noticed. Tel Aviv is a hyper-connected city; everyone has smartphones, why aren't there tweets, and Facebook posts with these impact craters? Is Postol alleging that the entire nation of Israel is conspiring to hide massive bombs going off in their city? What about all the foreigners in Tel Aviv, are they in on the plot?

Postol's analysis again is awful, but he has put all of his eggs in the basket, so I cannot see him backing down any time soon. I have heard stories of Postol's obstinance and unwillingness to see other points of view and it appears as though these stories are repeating themselves.

Richard Lloyd posted a .pdf with his calculations and illustrations. It is clear from the illustrations on pages 9-12 that he and Theodore Postol are working together in some capacity, because the illustrations nearly exactly match ones used previous by Postol (figures 5-8).

This again brings to mind Rubin's critique that if they used the same information why are their estimates so different. It appears to me as though Lloyd has a better understanding of how an intercept works because he explicitly writes about the distance between the intercepting Tamir missile and the oncoming rocket, while Postol is more concerned with angles. It is important to consider the simple fact that the intercepting explosions theorized by both Postol and Lloyd are conical in nature and therefore will expand more, the further it moves away from the Tamir missile.
A explosion would cover a wider area less densely from further away
This situation would also result in less intercepting steel rods (or whatever the Tamir missile uses for interception) per unit of space which could explain why the intercept rate is higher for the larger rockets sent to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (and possibly could account for differences between those sent to Sderot vs Ashdod and Beer Sheva). A larger size warhead presents more of a target, while a smaller warhead is more difficult to hit. This could be especially true if Postol and Lloyd are underestimating the distance from the interceptor to the oncoming rocket. This would also partially explain why the Iron Dome is unable to intercept mortar bombs which have a relatively small volume of explosive material (the other reason is time allowed for intercept). 

These scientists are using publicly available videos instead of raw data. This leaves a lot of room for error. While their models are not terrible (though Lloyd's clearly superior to Postol's), a lack of access on their part to the obviously classified Israeli data severely undermines their work.

The more I learn about the methodologies of the two, the more I believe the Israeli side, and not just because of my personal experience in Tel Aviv during Operation Pillar of Freedom.

The IDF has reportedly claimed that an upgraded version of the Iron Dome intercepted at least 10 mortars during the last round of violence. I find this hard to believe but I am not the expert here. I would think that because the size of the warhead is small, and the flight time of the projectile is short, hitting it in less time would prove more difficult than a rocket sent to a city further away.

This took me a while to notice, but earlier today when I was reviewing the (Hebrew) totals of damage claims from 2012's conflict I noticed that 40 of the claims were agricultural, and over 1000 were vehicles. Only ~2/3rds of the damage claims were relating to structures. The point of the Iron Dome is to defend structures and people (I have discussed this topic previously and it is not worth repeating), and since we know people are not plants, and people are also not cars (and no people in cars were killed), the number of damage claims in places that were primary objectives was even fewer than the number which Pedatzur, Postol and Lloyd referenced as a larger than expected value. There is the chance that quite a few of these cars were parked outside homes, but there is also the chance that they were in other places far from structures. There is also the possibility that these vehicles were agricultural in nature. Again this method of taking damage claims and extrapolating to mean something far greater is cumbersome, and as I have demonstrated, prone to misinterpretation. Even if these figures were in some way troubling, the fact remains that they are in fact not nearly as high as one would expect.

I've been spending the last few weeks trying to figure out the motivations for the 3 main anti-Iron Dome people; Ted Postol, Richard Lloyd and Reuven Pedatzur. I have found some very interesting, and revealing information about a few of them and the reasons for their vociferous opposition to the system.

Reuven Pedatzur was a primary supporter of the THEL (Tactical High Energy Laser) system which was jointly developed by Israel and the United States. It was known as Nautilus at the time, and is now known as SkyGuard. For those interested in defensive systems, it is similar to the system has been publicized a few times recently following successful tests by the US Navy. The General Accounting Office (now know as the Government Accountability Office) found significant problems in the manufacturing of the system. There were also problems with the size, vulnerability, and performance in acclimate weather. The model intended for Israel was large, approximately the size of 6 school buses. This would provide an easy target for terrorists, something especially dangerous given the chemicals involved in creating the laser beam. The system also faired very poorly in cloudy or dusty situations, rendering it nearly useless in the arid regions of Israel, as well as the areas with heavy precipitation or cloud cover. It had some additional problems, though they could likely have been overcome with time. The two main arguments by Mr. Pedatzur against the Iron Dome was that each interceptor cost between 10 and 20 times more money than a similar result (destroyed rocket) by the THEL, and that Iron Dome was incapable of defending Sderot. We all know now that Sderot is and has been defended by Iron Dome for years so this is not an issue. As far as the money is concerned, it was estimated that DOZENS of THEL systems would need to be purchased to properly cover Israel (at the time the threat was only very short range projectiles, so it is unclear if this number would be increased even further with the new types of rockets employed by Palestinian militants) and each THEL system would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. With both of Pedatzur's main points now irrelevant, the most important factor distinguishing the two is Iron Dome's ability to operate in any climate.

Richard Lloyd previously worked for Raytheon, where he devised many new products such as this one, a wide area dispersal warhead. In all of Lloyd and Postol's diagrams they show an interceptor with a conical dispersal (radial-pattern warhead), while the warhead designed by Lloyd covers a much greater area (in essence half of a sphere). If Lloyd was hoping to use this warhead for the Iron Dome rather than the one that they settled on, I could see why he would be quite upset with a different model being used instead.

I also managed to find a very interesting patent from Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, titled "Warhead for Intercepting System". It is clear from the "FIELD AND BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION" that this warhead was developed with the Iron Dome in mind. What was most interesting was the following sentences from the patent:
"The approach used by larger systems designed for intercepting medium-range or long-range ballistic missiles is not readily scaled down for application to short range rockets of the types described above. Specifically, the relatively low velocity of the target rocket itself renders collision with small low velocity particles ineffective to defeat the rocket. Instead, a high velocity impact is required to reliably defeat the rocket. Although such a high velocity impact could in principle be produced by a fragmentation warhead, classical fragmentation warheads of suitable dimensions are typically not sufficient."
This indicates that the Israeli scientists realized that the approach for larger systems (like Patriot) DID NOT WORK, so something NEW was required. They go on to describe a "projectile blade" which I do not quite understand myself, but appears to be something new enough where a patent would be necessary to protect the invention. This patent was first filed in 2007, so while it may not be the final product used, it almost certainly is related in some way. There were also quite a few patents from Rafael dealing with 3D modeling, and trajectory tracking of projectiles and optimization of current processes. These patents while very interesting and almost certainly intended to track rocket fire originating from Gaza.

AviationWeek's Bill Sweetman recently wrote a great succinct blog about how Postol's methodologies are problematic from a technical perspective. He states that Postol's claims about access to specific information is false, and many of Postol's assumptions are false, and/or highly unlikely. Sweetman also notes the possibility that Iron Dome's Tamir interceptors use 'explosively formed projectiles' like the Trophy system which protects Israel tanks. (For what it is worth, Trophy has been billed as the 'Iron Dome' of Israeli tanks, so this assumption makes sense). Is it a coincidence that 'explosively formed projectiles' is a MAJOR part of the patent I mentioned several paragraphs ago? Perhaps this is the entire basis of this technical achievement which Postol either doesn't care to admit, or is too lazy to research?

Mr. Sweetman also notes (just as Uzi Rubin and I have) that Postol's entire argument is based upon cell phone and low-quality hand held camera footage. He does not have ANY spatial reference in the videos and he does not have a 3D modeling of the trajectory and intercept of the rockets. He has however, made assumptions about the way things are, both related to the system, as well as other factors. If you recall UPDATE 2 of this blog where I talk about Postol's claim that the shelter and warning system saved lives, while he also acknowledged that he had no clue what systems were in place in 2006. I demonstrated why this assertion (among others) was foolish, and why it seems as though Postol is blindly pursuing some goal of his, while creating his own invalid evidence. This is not the scientific method. Similarly if the patent that I mentioned has anything to do with the warhead used by the Tamir interceptors, I would think that Postol's entire conception of how this intercept works is incorrect. Uzi Rubin alluded to this in the blog hosted by ACRS-ME. If Postol doesn't understand how something works, AND his evidence is bad, AND his reasoning is problematic, how can he consider himself an expert? How come no one is questioning him? How can he get away with this? Once the whole house of cards collapses, what is left?

As far as I can tell Postol does not own any patents (though he is quoted in a few), so his interest in this does not appear to be financial. He did argue in a New York Times op-ed for his own proposal to intercept North Korean and Iranian ICBMs with drones just after the missiles were launched. Postol claims that all launch sites are known, though the ability to conceal something from an enemy should NEVER be underestimated. There are a lot of reasons why this proposal is foolish, but it is not worth my time. They are rather simple problems, that most college students with an iota of critical thinking ability could come up with.

In recent weeks there have been numerous announcements of new Israeli defense tech, often referred to as 'the Iron Dome of xxxxxxx'. In most cases, it seems to be just branding, as most of them are not similar to Iron Dome in any way, except for being a defensive shield.

Earlier today however, it was announced that there are plans to make a ship-based version of Iron Dome, called C-Dome (I assume this is a play on words), which uses the same intercepting missiles (TAMIR). This is significant because many other forms of intercepting defensive systems are not like the Iron Dome, and shows the possibility of adapting this technology to a new environment. Israel has reportedly had problems selling the Iron Dome to others (mostly because there are very few that face the same type of asymmetric threat as short-range unguided rockets), and this would be a possibly massive breakthrough.

The obstacle is that so far Iron Dome has only defended against unguided rockets, and a ship at sea is not likely to be a reasonable target for an unguided projectile traveling more than a few miles. A ship is a small target relatively, so unless the projectile is a guided missile, it would be near impossible for the rocket to hit the target. If the new C-Dome is intended to defend against guided missiles then this would be a huge step forward for the technology. As of yet, the Iron Dome has only been used against unguided rockets, and even if there have been tests defending against guided missiles, Rafael has yet to disclose this.

If this technology is possible it could be very important, but it is unclear what exactly this would be used to defend against, and therefore if there are other navies with the same or similar needs.

More details about the C-Dome were revealed in the last two days. Russia Today's article mentions that the system is expected to be capable of intercepting guided missiles. Ynet confirmed that the interceptors used by C-Dome will also be of the 'Tamir' variety, quoting Rafael's spokesman who said that the missiles are more than 99.5% comparable to those used in the Iron Dome system.

The ability to intercept guided missiles is very important, and it is interesting that they intend to use Tamir interceptors and the 'special warhead' which has been specially designed to avoid the scalability problems I previously mentioned (UPDATE 6 relating to the Rafael patent). Assuming this product works as planned, there would undoubtedly be a huge market to fill. Iron Dome and/or C-Dome have the advantage over laser and rail gun type defensive systems as they are able to engage multiple targets simultaneously, but there already are two potential competitors: Raytheon's RAM (Rolling Airframe Missile), and MBDA's VL-Mica. Rafael's system however has the advantage of the brand of the battle-tested Iron Dome and Tamir.

Despite many claims that Rafael is incapable of finding foreign buyers of Iron Dome, Israel National News (Israeli far-right settler news organization) reported that the US Army will be purchasing a battery.
—More to come—

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Gaza Explosions and Rockets Seen from Space?

Earlier today a tweet went viral (over 12,000 retweets and over 3,000 favorites as of 0344 GMT 24/7/14; nearly 43,000 retweets, and over 12,000 favorites as of 2115 GMT 26/7/14) from astronaut Alexander Gerst, currently residing in the International Space Station (ISS):

Maybe because I am spatially hyper-aware, but this immediately set off alarm bells for me. After taking a second with the image, I saw that the photo clearly is showing something entirely different from what the astronaut has implied.

The image is oriented with West at the top, and North to the right. The lights are from cities and highways. On the upper right Haifa and Haifa Bay are clearly visible. On the lower portion, Amman is clear (note the different color of lights for this city). In the middle of the image is Jerusalem, with the Tel Aviv metropolitan slightly above and to the right (Northwest). Between the two is Ben Gurion Airport. To the left (South) of Tel Aviv are Ashdod and Ashkelon respectively. Below and to the right (Southeast) of Ashdod and Ashkelon, Beer Sheva is clear, with the line between Beer Sheva and Tel Aviv being Highway 6. All the way to the upper left (Southwest) is al Arish, with Gaza between there and Ashkelon. Just to the lower right (Northeast) of Gaza is Sderot.

I have crudely annotated the image to show this. Remember the distance from Gaza City to Haifa is approximately 90 miles.

Unfortunately, due to Mr. Gerst being unclear with his words, and a whole lot of people (including a LOT of world-renowned reporters and their editors) not asking the right questions, the public is now of the opinion that this is a photo of explosions and rockets in Gaza. I will not contest Mr. Gerst's assertion that the rockets and explosions are visible from the ISS, but they are certainly not visible in the image he shared. Imagine how large an explosion would have to be for it to show up on a picture from space with such a large amount of land displayed (my guesstimate is that it shows about 180 miles by 110 miles). While Mr. Gerst apparently thinks that it is a sad photo, I think it is an awesome photo; I love how city lights look from space. If anything, I find this image to be awe-inspiring because of how to shows the mark of human civilization in the world.

UPDATE: finally Mr. Gerst acknowledged that there are no explosions visible in his photo. Unfortunately he did not post any correction to this on twitter, did not correct the many reporters and news sources that said there were explosions in the photo and simply posted a link to his blog where he briefly (and insufficiently in my opinion) discussed why the photo made him sad.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Iranian government doesn't care about Syrians

Earlier today the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani tweeted the following:

While what is happening in Gaza and Israel today is clearly a tragedy, it is far from one of the 'biggest tragedies of our time'. For example: MILLIONS in Syria are now displaced, and hundreds of thousands are dead, and at the same time Iranian support for Assad and Hezbollah continues unabated. The hypocrisy is self-evident so it is not worth writing much about. I hope that Iranians realize what their government is doing in Syria and are just as upset about that, as they may be with the situation in Gaza.

For an excellent review of Iranian-Syrian relations I recommend this IranPrimer article: Iran and Syria

(This is no way is meant to excuse misdeeds or hypocrisies of other governments. I spend most of my time focusing on Iran rather than other places)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Iran denies supporting Bahraini opposition forces

Bahrain's Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmad bin Muhammad Al Khalifa claimed that Iran was helping train opposition forces and interfering in Bahrain's internal affairs several days ago. This is a fairly regular occurrence and seems to happen every few months (January 2014, March 2014,  April 2011, May 2011 etc). Yesterday the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman denied this claim and expressed indignation that Bahrain was not respecting the civil rights of its citizens. The human rights situation is not great in Bahrain (See Human Rights Watch on Bahrain), but there are other places with a poor human rights record that Iran does not seem to have a problem with, such as North Korea, Sudan and Syria, and the situation in Iran is also nothing to brag about. 
This is probably a non-story like almost every other story in the news regarding Iran. At the same time, the fact that this event has had almost no coverage at all is interesting considering the other concurrent diplomatic issues. A United States government official in Bahrain was recently expelled from the country, and Bahrain has reportedly improved ties with the Kremlin. I don't see relations between the US and Bahrain suffering too much more, especially given the US Navy base in the kingdom, but the recent decisions by the Bahraini ruling family are interesting to say the least. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

New CIA documents on the TPAJAX plot

A new CIA document has been released on the Mossadeq coup. There is a lot to go over, and I will be writing about this at length eventually. For now the documents can be accessed here with commentary by Malcolm Byrne. The usual caveats about the quality of his work and biases apply as normal. (A lot of the information in this account contradicts scholarly work by Byrne and Gasiorowski)

Section A: here
Section B: here
Section C: here

Friday, June 6, 2014

More Iranian Military Posturing

The head of the Iranian Navy stated that several Iranian destroyers will be traveling to the south Indian Ocean as a show of force. While stereotypically hyperbolic, this is at least moderately feasible. Several months ago Western media outlets were in an uproar over statements that Iran was sending a fleet to the East Coast of the United States. This turned out to be an absurd exaggeration, EA Worldview has a good rundown of that story here:

So is this new claim something worth paying attention to? It is possible that the ships may in fact reach their destination because the location which Iran's ships are traveling is remote, and is much closer to Iran's borders than the United States. Unlike the nonsense about the Iranian ships traveling to the Eastern Seaboard, it is not an inherently bellicose move, but it again demonstrates Iran's ambition.

Though Iran has a very long way to go to catch up to the military might of the United States (or even Israel), this event is most important for a reference point in understanding the priorities of the Iranian government and military, the most relevant one being prestige.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Head of Assembly of Experts Mahdavi-Kani in coma

With the Ayatollah Mahdavi-Kani reportedly in a coma following a heart attack, a new head of the Assembly of Experts will likely have to be selected at some point in the near future. 

The Assembly of Experts is a body of Mujtahids that are responsible for electing and removing the Supreme Leader. As I have written before, Iran’s governmental structure is complicated at best, and while in theory this group has these powers, there is virtually no chance of them removing the Supreme Leader at any point (and even if they wanted to, the Supreme Leader has other powers, including complete control of the judiciary and armed forces, which would make this near impossible). That being said, they do have the authority to select the next Supreme Leader when the time comes. 

The chairmanship of this group is of particular importance. Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had been the chairman prior to his decision to express some support for the Green Movement of 2009, but was forced out and replaced by Ayatollah Mahdavi-Kani. Mahdavi-Kani is less hardline than some of the alternatives so this was actually seen as a minor victory for Rafsanjani who stood to lose a lot more. 

Rafsanjani’s family has been heavily persecuted by the state as well as his domestic rivals which I have also written about in the past, and I would be very surprised if Rafsanjani was reinstated. And even though the Supreme Leader recently delegated additional constitutional powers to the body which Rafsanjani is still the chair of (the Expediency Council), it seems unlikely that there would be another significant move to benefit Rafsanjani. Khamenei and Rafsanjani are still rivals and the Supreme Leader does not want to empower him.

UPDATE 1: A list of folks who have reportedly visited the Ayatollah include the Supreme Leader, the President, the head of the Basij, Khomeini's grandson and others.

UPDATE 2: Ahmed Khatami, the hardline cleric evidently cancelled the upcoming elections to replace Ayatollah Mahdavi-Kani. Ayatollah Rafsanjani was a (the?) favorite to replace the comatose Mahdavi-Kani, despite habitual and continuing persecution against Rafsanjani and his family from regime insiders.

UPDATE 3: Ayatollah Mahdavi-Kani has died according to multiple sources (PressTVFars etc). It is unclear what steps will be taken to replace him, if the acting chairman (Shahroudi) will be promoted, or if there will be elections. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

Wikileaks and Afghanistan

Earlier this week internationally recognized news organizations suffered heavy criticism from the anti-secrecy organization Wikileaks for redacting the name of a nation surveilled by the NSA. Even Glenn Greenwald voiced his support for redacting the country’s name for fears “that doing so could lead to increased violence.” Following this, the Wikileaks Twitter account (widely assumed to be run by Julian Assange directly), engaged Mr. Greenwald with vitriolic language and slurs, culminating in the account claiming that it would release the name of the target nation in 72 hours

72 hours passed, and Wikileaks did not released the name. 3 hours after the deadline the account posted the following tweet:
Bizarrely enough a mere hour and a half later, the handle did in fact publish the name which turned out to be Afghanistan.

While it is unclear if this in fact is true, it is certain that this action appears to be a desperate attempt at gaining attention. Anyone who has followed the news and has a memory beyond the last minute is probably more than aware of the strife in Afghanistan, and the widely varied sources of violence. It was only a few months ago when the Taliban, one of the most significant insurgent groups in the country attacked the United States Consulate in Herat, killing 3. Months before this, the Taliban set off a car bomb, murdering a US diplomat and four other Americans

The Taliban are not the only group which has attacked American and International interests in Afghanistan:

In September 2012 there were widespread riots over the film “Innocence of Muslims”, even though many of the rioters had not in fact seen the film clip. 

In February 2012 there were riots for a week over American troops dumping Korans in a garbage dump and burning them (the ones responsible were disciplined by the US Army). 

On April 1, 2011 the United Nations compound in Mazar-e Sharif, was stormed and as many as ten foreigners were murdered (some may have been decapitated) in response to the burning of a Koran a week and a half earlier by an American pastor. The riots continued throughout the country for a week following the attack on the compound. 

Earlier in 2011 thousands demonstrated in Qalat after young Afghan children alleged that foreigners had ‘disrespected the Koran’. 

What is clear from this brief catalogue of recent events is that Afghanistan remains a very tense place with unrest possible at any moment and for any reason. Something like what Wikileaks has alleged can prove to be deadly, even for innocents or civilians whose presence in the country is entirely innocent and well-intentioned. 

I do not know if Afghanistan is the country redacted by Glenn Greenwald, but if it is, the callousness of Julian Assange is horrifying. It would truly demonstrate how egomaniacal Julian Assange is and how little he values a human life that is not his own.