talks between them in Baghdad in April, the Saudis demanded that Iran stop those attacks, according to Iraqi officials.

While visiting northeastern Syria last month, General McKenzie, the top American commander for the region, said military officials were developing ways to disrupt or disable communications between the drones and their operators, bolster radar sensors to identify approaching threats more rapidly, and find effective ways to down the aircraft.

In each of the known attacks in Iraq, at least some of the drones’ remnants have been partially recovered, and preliminary analyses indicated they were made in Iran or used technology provided by Iran, according to the three American officials familiar with the incidents.

These drones are larger than the commercially available quadcopters — small helicopters with four rotors — that the Islamic State used in the battle of Mosul, but smaller than the MQ-9 Reapers, which have a 66-foot wingspan. Military analysts say they carry between 10 and 60 pounds of explosives.

Iraqi officials and U.S. analysts say that while cash-strapped Iran has reduced funding for major Iraqi militias, it has invested in splitting off smaller, more specialized proxies still operating within the larger militias but not under their direct command.

American officials say that these specialized units are likely to have been entrusted with the politically delicate mission of carrying out the new drone strikes.

Iraqi security commanders say groups with new names are fronts for the traditional, powerful Iran-backed militias in Iraq such as Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Iraqi officials say Iran has used the new groups to try to camouflage, in discussions with the Iraqi government, its responsibility for strikes targeting U.S. interests, which often end up killing Iraqis.

The Iraqi security official said members of the smaller, specialized groups were being trained at Iraqi bases and in Lebanon as well as in Iran by the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps — which oversees proxy militias in the Middle East.

American and Iraqi officials and analysts trace the increased unpredictability of militia operations in Iraq to the U.S. killing of General Suleimani and the Iraqi militia leader.

“Because the Iranian control over its militias has fragmented after the killing of Qassim Suleimani and Abu Mahdi Muhandis, the competition has increased among these groups,” said Mr. Malik, the Washington Institute analyst.

Jane Arraf reported from Baghdad and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Falih Hassan contributed reporting.

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Second Close Call Between Iranian and American Vessels Raises Tensions

WASHINGTON — For the second time in a month, vessels from Iran and the United States came dangerously close in the Persian Gulf on Monday night, the Navy said on Tuesday, escalating tensions between the two nations as their negotiators have resumed talks toward renewing the 2015 nuclear deal.

According to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, three fast-attack craft from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps sailed close to a Navy coastal patrol ship and a Coast Guard patrol boat as the two American vessels were patrolling international waters in the northern part of the Persian Gulf.

At about 8 p.m. local time Monday, the Iranian boats rapidly and repeatedly approached the American ships, the Firebolt and the Baranoff — at one point coming as close as 68 yards, according to a Navy statement.

The American crews issued multiple warnings via bridge-to-bridge radio and loudspeakers, but the Iranian vessels continued their close-range maneuvers, the Navy said. When the Firebolt’s crew fired warning shots, the Iranians vessels moved away “to a safe distance from the U.S. vessels,” the Navy said.

Iranian forces captured and held overnight 10 U.S. sailors who strayed into the Islamic Republic’s territorial waters.

However, such incidents had mostly stopped in 2018 and for nearly the entirety of 2019, Commander Rebarich said. The episodes at sea have almost always involved the Revolutionary Guards, which reports only to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The earlier encounter this month happened on April 2, when a Revolutionary Guards Corps ship, the Harth 55, accompanied by three fast-attack vessels, harassed two Coast Guard cutters, the Wrangell and the Monomoy, as they were conducting routine security patrols in the international waters of the southern Persian Gulf, the Navy said in a separate statement issued earlier on Tuesday. That episode was earlier reported by The Wall Street Journal.

the deadly attack in 2000 on the destroyer Cole in Yemen — that are specifically devised to take out small fast-attack craft like these from the Iranians. But the American vessels targeted this month have no such weaponry aboard.

The incident on Monday night occurred just days after a leaked audiotape offered a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes power struggles of Iranian leaders. In the recording, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the Revolutionary Guards Corps called the shots, overruling many government decisions and ignoring diplomatic advice.

In one extraordinary moment on the tape, Mr. Zarif departed from the reverential official line on Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Guards’ elite Quds Force, the foreign-facing arm of Iran’s security apparatus, who was killed by the United States in January 2020.

“In the Islamic Republic, the military field rules,” Mr. Zarif said in a three-hour conversation that was a part of an oral history project documenting the work of the current administration.

John Ismay contributed reporting.

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Iran’s Foreign Minister, in Leaked Tape, Says Revolutionary Guards Set Policies

In a leaked audiotape that offers a glimpse into the behind-the scenes power struggles of Iranian leaders, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the Revolutionary Guards Corps call the shots, overruling many government decisions and ignoring advice.

In one extraordinary moment on the tape that surfaced Sunday, Mr. Zarif departed from the reverential official line on Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Guards’ elite Quds Force, the foreign-facing arm of Iran’s security apparatus, who was killed by the United States in January 2020.

The general, Mr. Zarif said, undermined him at many steps, working with Russia to sabotage the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers and adopting policies toward Syria’s long war that damaged Iran’s interests.

“In the Islamic Republic the military field rules,” Mr. Zarif said in a three-hour taped conversation that was a part of an oral history project documenting the work of the current administration. “I have sacrificed diplomacy for the military field rather than the field servicing diplomacy.”

choreograph steps toward returning to a deal.

“The structure of our foreign ministry is mostly security oriented,” Mr. Zarif said.

Mr. Zarif said he was kept in the dark on government actions — sometimes to his embarrassment.

On the night that Iran decided to retaliate against the United States for the killing of General Suleimani, two Quds Force commanders went to see the Iraqi prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, to inform him that in about 45 minutes Iran would be firing missiles at a military base where U.S. troops were stationed, Mr. Zarif said. The Americans knew about the strike before he did.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry informed him that Israel had attacked Iranian interests in Syria at least 200 times, to his astonishment, Mr. Zarif said.

downing of a Ukrainian jetliner in Iran that killed 176 on board on the morning after Iran attacked the air base.

The Guards knew immediately that their missiles had hit the plane, but only admitted to it three days later.

Soon after the plane was brought down, Mr. Zarif attended a small meeting of the national security council with two top military commanders, and said the world was demanding an explanation. The commanders, he said, attacked him and told him to send out a tweet saying the news was not true.

“I said, ‘If it was hit by a missile, tell us so we can see how we can resolve it,’” Mr. Zarif recalled. “God is my witness, the way they reacted to me is as if I had denied the existence of God.”

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Iran Rattled as Israel Repeatedly Strikes Key Targets

BEIRUT, Lebanon — In less than nine months, an assassin on a motorbike fatally shot an Al Qaeda commander given refuge in Tehran, Iran’s chief nuclear scientist was machine-gunned on a country road, and two separate, mysterious explosions rocked a key Iranian nuclear facility in the desert, striking the heart of the country’s efforts to enrich uranium.

The steady drumbeat of attacks, which intelligence officials said were carried out by Israel, highlighted the seeming ease with which Israeli intelligence was able to reach deep inside Iran’s borders and repeatedly strike its most heavily guarded targets, often with the help of turncoat Iranians.

The attacks, the latest wave in more than two decades of sabotage and assassinations, have exposed embarrassing security lapses and left Iran’s leaders looking over their shoulders as they pursue negotiations with the Biden administration aimed at restoring the 2015 nuclear agreement.

The recriminations have been caustic.

The head of Parliament’s strategic center said Iran had turned into a “haven for spies.” The former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps called for an overhaul of the country’s security and intelligence apparatus. Lawmakers have demanded the resignation of top security and intelligence officials.

explosion at the Natanz nuclear enrichment plant last month. But it was unclear who he was, whether he had acted alone and if that was even his real name. In any case, he had fled the country before the blast, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry said.

killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the leader of the Quds Force, in January of last year. Israel assassinated Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s chief nuclear scientist and a brigadier general in the Revolutionary Guards, in November.

Even if General Hejazi died of natural causes, the cumulative loss of three top generals was a significant blow.

The attacks represent an uptick in a long-running campaign by the intelligence services of Israel and the United States to subvert what they consider to be Iran’s threatening activities.

Chief among them are a nuclear program that Iran insists is peaceful, Iran’s investment in proxy militias across the Arab world, and its development of precision-guided missiles for Hezbollah, the militant movement in Lebanon.

daring nighttime raid to steal a half-ton of secret archives of Iran’s nuclear program from a warehouse in Tehran.

Israel has also reached around the world, tracking down equipment in other countries that is bound for Iran to destroy it, conceal transponders in its packaging or install explosive devices to be detonated after the gear has been installed inside of Iran, according to a former high-ranking American intelligence official.

an explosion in the Natanz nuclear plant in July. The explosives had been sealed inside a heavy desk that had been placed in the plant months earlier, Fereydoon Abbasi-Davani, the former chief of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said.

The explosion ripped through a factory producing a new generation of centrifuges, setting back Iran’s nuclear enrichment program by months, officials said.

more recent explosion at Natanz this month except that it destroyed the plant’s independent power system, which in turn destroyed thousands of centrifuges.

It would have been difficult for Israel to carry out these operations without inside help from Iranians, and that may be what rankles Iran most.

execution.

But the infiltrations have also sullied the reputation of the intelligence wing of the Revolutionary Guards, which is responsible for guarding nuclear sites and scientists.

A former Guards commander demanded a “cleansing” of the intelligence service, and Iran’s vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, said that the unit responsible for security at Natanz should be “be held accountable for its failures.”

The deputy head of Parliament, Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, told the Iranian news media on Monday that it was no longer enough to blame Israel and the United States for such attacks; Iran needed to clean its own house.

As a publication affiliated with the Guards, Mashregh News, put it last week: “Why does the security of the nuclear facility act so irresponsibly that it gets hit twice from the same hole?”

But the Revolutionary Guards answer only to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and so far there has been no sign of a top-down reshuffling.

After each attack, Iran has struggled to respond, sometimes claiming to have identified those responsible only after they had left the country or saying that they remained at large. Iranian officials also insist that they have foiled other attacks.

were arrested last month in Ethiopia for plotting to attack Israeli, American and Emirati targets.

But any overt retaliation risks an overwhelming Israeli response.

“They are not in a hurry to start a war,” said Talal Atrissi, a political science professor at the Lebanese University in Beirut. “Retaliation means war.”

Conversely, the timing of Israel’s latest attack on Natanz suggested that Israel sought if not to derail the talks, to at least weaken Iran’s bargaining power. Israel opposed the 2015 nuclear agreement and opposes its resurrection.

the covert, regionwide shadow war between Israel and Iran has intensified with Israeli airstrikes on Iranian-backed militias in Syria and tit for tat attacks on ships.

But as Iran faces a struggling economy, rampant Covid-19 infections and other problems of poor governance, the pressure is on to reach a new agreement soon to remove economic sanctions, said Ms. Vakil of Chatham House.

“These low-level, gray zone attacks reveal that the Islamic Republic urgently needs to get the J.C.P.O.A. back into a box” to free up resources to address its other problems, she said, referring to the nuclear deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon.

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