Thursday, June 30, 2011

Iran's New Toys: Missile Silos!

  The Middle East sure is a fun zone these days. At least for those of us who derive a certain schadenfreude from watching the world burn. "The best laid plans of mice and men..." and all that jazz. But apart from the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria which are all Sunni Arab based, we tend to forget about that old faultline in Islam that Iran represents; the Shia. Iran, as the champion of this particular branch of skygod worship, wants to become a regional force in the Middle East and why wouldn't they? They're sitting on an ocean of oil and natural gas and have a population of 72 million. Tehran has tree lined boulevards and it's an hours drive to ski resorts from downtown. Mobile phone ownership per capita is higher than some euro countries. Problem is, the country is a theocracy run by a doomsday religious cult. And they're losing a war against their own young people which makes them extra twitchy.

 There's nothing this Iranian theocracy likes more, other than attempting to attain regional theater parity with the Israelis on the nuke front, than trolling the same Israelis and the US with the possibility that they might have some new toys to play around with in their sandbox. Sure, the toys they'd really like to have would be some actual nukes or, barring those, a few batteries of the Russian S-300 missile system that would make any US/Israeli air campaign against Natanz orders of magnitude more difficult. But the Iranians already did have a bunch of S-300s bought and paid for until the Israelis found out about the deal last year and shat all over it before the system was delivered, scuttling the Iranian's defense gasm with some diplomatic pressure and a snarly phone call to the Russians from Hillary Clinton. The Russians just shrugged and kept the money which sure pissed the Iranians off mightily. But that's par for the course in the sleazy world of international arms deals these days. I still wonder what kind of pressure the Israelis put on the Russians not to sell the Iranians that SAM system but then again, Israel has a sizable Russian population, so I'm sure there were plenty of phone numbers to speed dial in Mossad's little black book.

   The first Iranian nuke underground test is still years away. The US and Israel made sure of that when they deployed the Stuxnet computer worm against Iran's shitty computer system earlier this year. That sure was a kick in the nuts to Iran's nuclear ambitions and has delayed them by at least an extra year and barring a North Korean document dump, it'll be at least 2015 before there's a Shia nuke and the "big red button of win" ends up on the Ayatollah's desk. As I've said before, an Israeli air strike on Iran's nuke facilities would be the ultimate popcorn war but the Israelis found a cheaper way to delay that program. They basically hacked the Matrix and 'uploaded a virus' into the Iranian's 'Pentium II" that blue screened them hard and now they have to go and buy a whole new computer non Windows based system. This plan sure worked out a lot cheaper for everyone than a bombing mission.

   But the Iranians are still pissed.

   And looking for ways to piss off the West.

   It looks like they found a new way this week. The State News Agency just reported on 10 days of Iranian war games called ''Great Prophet 6" (apparently the first 5 prophets were just mediocre) and splashed some dick waving pics of their brand new 'missile silos', large holes in the desert that can withstand an airburst and chuck a Shahab 3 (range 1200 miles) back at Israel or US bases in the Gulf in the event of an  air strike on Iran. Thing is, missile silos, while nice and all, are primarily defensive weapons that hark back to the '80s and the heady days of the Cold War and Defcon 5. Obsolete in some ways, a lot of silos in the US have been converted into post apocalyptic survival shelters where rich Wall Street types can buy a berth and sit back after civilization implodes (any day now surely) while the rest of us plebs massacre each other for the last can of chicken soup in the looted Seven Eleven. Some Iranian colonel went on Iranian State TV and stated that the silos "function as a swift reaction unit" meaning the missiles are always in a vertical position with the co-ordinates of Tel Aviv locked in. That is, of course, if Stuxnet hasn't fucked with them too and makes the Kebab 3s U turn back to Tehran soon after launch.

   But that right there is the purpose of these missile silos. To show the US and Israel that if Iran gets bombed, no matter what, we Iranians are going to get to launch at least one reciprocal strike and you don't know where those missiles will go. Could be Tel Aviv. Could be Saudi Oil terminals. Could be US bases. The point is they can make an attack on Iran costly and the outcomes unpredictable. Not least for the global economy which is basically the "oil" economy.

   Right now, the location of these silos is obviously secret (Abriz and Khorramabad in northwest Iran) but I'm sure any prospective US air attack on Iran will first involve a quick Pentagon scan of Google Earth to find them. In a world where you've got satellites that can read your golf ball from space, hiding stuff these days is tricky. Still, this is an advance from an Iranian point of view. Previous iterations of the Shahab 3, a liquid fueled piece of Iranian tech that can hit Tel Aviv, were all mounted atop dodgy looking mobile platforms with dozens of wheels that looked like something from Gerry Anderson's '60s era kids TV series "Thunderbirds". Another unidentified Iranian officer told state television that “only a few countries in the world possess the technology to construct underground missile silos. The technology required for that is no less complicated than building the missile itself.” That's a bit of a fucking stretch. I mean any country with a decent subway system is already half way there and that just leaves a few technical issues like venting the propellant gasses, rolling open the blast doors and on which floor to stash Dr Strangelove's wheelchair.  

May or may not be a pic of Iran's silo loaded with a Shish Kebab 3

   The Iranians really would like to up the ante as a regional player in the Middle East. It really pissed them off in April when the Saudis marched into Bahrain with tanks and started slapping around the Shia protestors there because they make up 60% of the population and suddenly wondered why they can't vote. That's a legitimate beef but went largely unreported in Western countries where it pays to keep your mouth shut about the Saudi's incase they tighten the nozzle on the oil wells to remind everyone whose boss. That would hamper the "economic recovery". Those Sunni Arabs sure do suck up to the Zionists and the US from an Iranian point of view.  The nut job theocracy in Iran wishes for the days when Babylon had Hanging Gardens and streetlighting and everyone feared their elite unit, the Immortals. The only way the Iranians feel they are gonna get some respect these days is if they can slap a nuke together, nukes being the modern elite unit. It's pretty funny the way they keep denying they want one, conducting numerous "talks" to stall the Euros and Turks and Russians with bullshit while sending a bunch of dipshit diplomats to act innocent in front of the world's TV cameras and swear on their momma's burka that they have absolutely no interest in the 'big one' but instead just want a little taste of nuclear fission for electricity generation and 'medical purposes'.

   Still, you could forgive Iran for wanting a nuke.

   The Iranians have noticed that when you get named a member country of the "Axis of Evil" possibly the best way to maintain sovereignty is to fast track some uranium into something blowable. It worked for North Korea. Iran figures, since it's surrounded on all sides by Americans, maybe the only route to autonomy and stopping the Americans grabbing your oil is a nuke. Another thing a Persian big one will do, is stop the Sunni's acting against Iranian proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria (assuming Assad manages to massacre enough people to stay in power). Pulling those under an Iranian nuke umbrella would sure tip the balance of power in the Mid East to the Shia and have the Saudi's racing to get their own centrifuges churning.

Iran: For some reason, being surrounded by US "democracy" doesn't make them feel good.

   The IAEA said a few weeks back they had evidence that the Iranians were working on 'nuclear triggers', you know, those complex devices that fit in suitcases and usually make an appearance as McGuffins, important plot points in Bond and Bourne type spy movies. The report said it had asked Iran about evidence of “experiments involving the explosive compression of uranium deuteride to produce a short burst of neutrons” — the speeding particles that split atoms in two in a surge of nuclear energy. The Iranians apparently just nodded sheepishly and promised to get back to them on that one.

   The I.A.E.A.’s last comprehensive report, issued in February, listed seven outstanding questions about work Iran had conducted on warhead design. The documents in the hands of the agency raise questions about work on how to turn uranium into bomb fuel, how to cast conventional explosives in a shape that can trigger a nuclear blast, how to make detonators, generate neutrons to spur a chain reaction, measure detonation waves and make nose-cones for missiles. Obviously, Iranian scientists have been googling this shit like crazy for ages but so far the jury is out on how much they do know and how long it'll take before they can translate that shit from the North Korean. It seems the blue screen of death Stuxnet worm has run its course with reports out of Iran's main facility at Natanz saying it's enriching uranium at a slightly faster rate than before Israel forced them to buy a whole new computer.

   Of course, if all this doesn't work out, the Iranians are busy working on their next dastardly plan sure to piss off the US and Israel next month. Tehran just announced its intention to fire into space in early July a Kavoshgar 5 rocket piloted by a monkey. I shit you not.

   The first Iranian monkey in space is sure to piss off the capitalist pigs.

   Lucky little bastard.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Yemen and History: Middle East civil war by the usual rules?

   There's about to be another civil war in the Middle East.

   This time in Yemen.

   Don't expect 24/7 news coverage of this war either. I mean, who really gives a shit about Yemen anyway? Nobody. Yemen has no significant oil, gold or diamonds which means they're safe from anybody caring what goes down in their tribal desert shit hole at the ass end of Arabia. Yemen doesn't even benefit from a useful bit of strategic geography where someone might want to park an aircraft carrier or stash a secret rendition site. And after Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, Western nations and their media are pretty much burned out on the Middle East by this stage of 2011. Even the Chinese, who are busy recycling their US treasury notes on an African buying spree, don't seem much interested in this desolate chunk of Middle East real estate.

   Desolate places are still no guarantee that foreign governments won't take an interest in your little corner of the world. But the tiny puddle of oil that Yemen's economy is currently running on is expected to be sucked dry by 2017. They do have significant natural gas deposits but so do a lot of other places less knee deep in shit and there's currently a glut of methane on the world market right now, which, unlike global oil production, hasn't already peaked. Yemen's gas just isn't worth the hassle for the global corporate elite since outside the capital, Sana'a, the country is a medieval feudal hellhole where the idea of law and order is some shitty Islamic Sharia version of justice where it's cool to bang twelve year olds and stealing an apple is worth a left hand.

   Yemen is really just a wayward chunk of Africa but the strategic energy chess game being played out worldwide right now means that global power players lump Yemen into the wider narrative of the Middle East. Energy and resource wars are gonna be big this century. That'd normally mean Yemen would get ignored. But Yemen just happens to make up the southern border of the real energy prize a few hundred miles north. The Saudi oil state is what makes Yemen's civil war interesting. Their shitty little war might actually matter in the grand scheme of things if it manages to spill over into the Saudi oil prize. Of course, the Saudi monarchs will do everything to make sure this doesn't happen just like they did in Bahrain; nobody gave a shit there when they sent tanks to slap around the Shia majority in that country just to warn their own Shia not to get any fancy ideas about 'democracy'. Truth is, the Saudis see democratic contagion everywhere and fear its spread into their medieval petro kingdom.

  The reason the US cares about Yemen and bothers to deploy CIA, special forces and Predator drones and toss some cash at the Yemeni authorities is yet again the threat of 'terror'. All that barren wasteland combined with illiterate Islamic tribesmen scares the shit out of politicians in the US who see every empty bit of desert in the Middle East as a haven for al-Qaeda. The current Yemeni leader, President Ali Abdullah Saleh (more on him later), likes to play the 'al-Qaeda card' whenever things are going bad for him politically so he can extort some extra cash and weaponry out of a jittery US. The 21st century has truly marked the death of 'American badassery'. At least the WWII McAuliffe kind of badass that scribbled "nuts" on a note to the Wehrmacht at Bastogne. That type of Yank badass is long dead when you consider the pussies who run the US today get scared shitless by a group of Iron Age tribal desert dwellers who shit in outhouses and do that monkey bar training thing the news networks play everytime they want you to be scared of bad guys in some foreign desert. When was the last time fools like that got to challenge an empire anyway? Probably not since a bunch of testicle waving Germanic forest men sacked Rome in 410.

   For a desolate place, Yemen sure has some interesting history.

   This is mainly due to the fact that Yemen wasn't always such a desolate place. It was once home to a whole bunch of ancient civilisations that controlled lucrative trade and spice routes. Yemen's history stretches back to the 12th century BCE when it was a wealthy place, so much so that Roman historian Ptolemy referred to it as "Arabia Felix" (Happy Arabia) in the second century AD. The kingdom made a fortune exporting spices and aromatics to the Mediterranean, India and Mesopotamia when sweet smelling stuff like that could make bad food taste good and dead bodies smell less rank, qualities greatly prized by just about every culture in antiquity. Unlike today, agriculture flourished in Yemen due to an advanced irrigation system that included water tunnels through mountains and the impressive 'dam of Ma'rib', built 700 years before the Romans nailed Christ to a bunch of two by fours.

   After centuries of prosperity, around 600 AD, a serial bigamist and itinerant sheep herder started a religion that spread across Arabia and soon Yemen became one more province in the growing Islamic empire. Hardcore religion brought with it all the usual strife and soon the once proud kingdom became the tribal desert shithole of battling local Imams that it still is today. All those irrigation tunnels and dams were reduced to dust as the locals killed each other over whose version of 'what happens after you're dead' was the correct one. Religion tends to have that effect on people. It justifies war and makes killing profitable. Not least because those who die in battle get hoodwinked into believing that they don't really die. They go to a 'better place'. Yemen proved no less susceptible to this mind virus as anywhere else on this sad planet.

   The Ottomans swept into this divided land in the 1500s and conquered it easily. But for the next 400 years the Ottomans didn't seem much interested in the place, it being a constant war zone of unruly battling tribes and power hungry holy men. The Turks just couldn't figure out what to do with their bit of desert so they elected to retain control of a few coastal territories they thought might be useful to park some ships in if shit ever hit the fan on the southern flank of their empire.

   Next came the British.

   We're talking mid 19th century British here, you know, the ones who were pretty damn good at playing the empire game. To them, Yemen's geography had become strategically interesting, especially for the British East India Company, the prototype of the modern corpo war outfit, a Victorian Halliburton if you will; so the British nabbed the port of Aden just so it could provide a coaling station for ships on route to the jewel in their crown, India. The British around this time had perfected the semi private model of empire building where you invade with the minimum number of state supplied Redcoats to kill enough natives to first establish the colony and then let the East India company and the money men handle the administration and the technical details of dividing and conquering the locals. Once the Suez Canal opened in 1869, the British expanded their Arabian colony further into Yemen as easy access to the Red Sea made them jizz their pants at Aden's new strategic importance.

   In 1904, the colonials drew one of those maps in Yemen that made no sense outside the smoke filled halls of a British officer's club. An arbitrary line drawn across the shifting desert, it divided Yemen into North and South with the Ottomans taking the North and the British gobbling up the South. Lax administration in the border region allowed the mountain tribes room to plunder the desert valleys for gold and pussy. These tribes weren't farmers or sheep herders or merchants yet have always played a big part in the Yemeni economy. They thrive best in chaos and make a living stealing shit, plundering farms and running protection rackets; exploits which basically made administration a nightmare for the British. Facing this administrative nightmare, the sedulous British signed a whole bunch of treaties with these local bandits to try to keep a lid on the cauldron. This resulted in numerous new sheikdoms, emirates and local strongmen that became collectively known as the 'Aden Protecterate', nominally under control of the British. Don't you just love the monikers the colonial pencil pushers come up with to hide the fact that they just stole all the land in some foreign desert? Same shit, different century.

   When the Ottoman empire fell apart in 1918, Northern Yemen fell into the control of a local Imam named Muhammed. Big surprise there. He died in 1962 and his son got deposed after the Egyptians helped finance a revolution that created the Yemen Arab Republic in the north with Sana'a as the capital. The Saudis chucked some cash at royalist forces that opposed the revolutionaries and that started yet another fucking civil war in Yemen and more people died in the desert.

   The British held on to Aden and Southern Yemen until 1967. This had a lot to do with the discovery of oil on the Arabian peninsula in the 1930s. That suddenly made Britain's hodge podge tribal 'Protectorate' a whole lot more valuable. Aden became a 'crown protectorate' (imperial speak for we own the oil) and flourished while the tribal hinterland saw no piece of the action. By the 1960's pan Arab nationalism was pressuring the British to leave. As a counter to Egypt's creation of the United Arab Republic, (a union with Syria and North Yemen aimed at stopping the commies), the British countered by attempting to unite all those divided and conquered sheikdoms and emirates into some kind of shitty confederation called the 'Federation of South Arabia'. Aden was incorporated despite the fact that the people there were quite happy with their oil money and had no interest in sharing it with a bunch of camel jockeys from the desert.

   The temporary closure of the Suez Canal in 1967, rioting in Aden, hundreds of guerrilla attacks, killings of off duty British personnel (what we would today call 'terrorism'  as if 'terror' is some illegitimate  war tactic just because conventional forces find it hard to counter). Let's face it, the dirty little secret of modern war is that 'terrorism' works. It sure helped to finally 'convince' the British to fuck off home with the office furniture and a "congratulations, you're independent" note pinned to the wall of some administration building. The factions in this newly independent "People's Republic of South Yemen" did what most former colonial provinces do once the pasty white men fly home and promptly started massacring each other for a piece of the action.

   Both North and South Yemen spent the next twenty years trying to get their shit together towards unification. The British drawn border was badly defined and militarized and there was oil underneath it. To bag the cash, North and South would have to agree on peace. The current leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh of the then Northern United Arab Republic and Ali Salim al-Baidh (leader of the mess the British left) came to a deal in May 1990 that was ratified by the populace and for the first time in hundreds of years of broken and fractured tribal history, Greater Yemen was politically united.


   There were still the tribal factions unhappy with the deal who, as always, needed chaos to make a living. There was still political infighting and distrust between politicians from both north and south of the old colonial border. In 1994 all this culminated in, you guessed it, yet another fucking civil war in Yemen.  Highlights included a pretty awesome tank battle in Amran near Sana'a and South Yemen bombing Sana'a with a bunch of Soviet era Migs and the North responding by bombing Aden. The South tried to secede but the international community weren't buying it because war is bad for business when foreign oligarchies don't have fingers in the pie. The Saudis gave billions in cash and weapons to the South, as always, fearing a united Yemen and what that might inspire in their own subjects. The North made a push toward Aden, captured the oilfields and that's when the UN tried to call a winner and demanded a ceasefire. That failed and the North marched into Aden while the leaders in the South fled.

A North Yemeni soldier whips out his large weapon in 1994's civil war.

   This victory further consolidated Ali Abdullah Saleh's power.

   This guy is your typical sleazy Middle East 'democratically elected' dictator. Yemen has been paying lip service to the idea that it is a democracy since unification in 1990. But in a place where people vote on tribal, ethnic and religious fault lines, this isn't exactly the place where you are going to run an election campaign to change minds. Like Mubarak, Saleh's been in power so long he doesn't know how to step down. It took an RPG attack on his presidential compound on June 3rd to finally get him medivaced to a Saudi hospital. He's currently down but not out.

    Saleh is a member of the Hashid tribe, the second largest in Yemen, mountain men from the North going back to the first century AD and part of that power block in Yemeni politics that have always thrived on chaos. But even they want him gone now. He's grown too fat on power for too long. As with a lot of these sleazy Mid East leaders, he can be shrewd when it comes to playing his chips in the wider casino of global power politics and also pretty stupid. Just like Mubarak, he collected a paycheck from the US albeit for different reasons. Where Mubarak got tossed two billion a year to keep Suez running smoothly and not fuck with Israel, Saleh likes to play the al-Qaeda card whenever he's short on cash. On the other hand, Yemen under Saleh was the only Arab country to continue to support Saddam Hussein after he annexed Kuwait in 1990. That pissed off a whole bunch of his Arab neighbors not least the Saudis who expelled a million Yemenis and built a border fence to prevent them coming back. He's also pretty friendly with Iran and has supported their nuke program which really pisses off the US. And despite all this, fear of the 'terrorists' on monkey bars in the desert trumps all.

   Saleh is not exactly book smart or a student of history. He became a corporal in the army as a school kid and slowly worked his way up to colonel using political connections. He became a member of parliament and took a strongman governorship of a small province. Like a lot of these leaders in the Middle East, he knows how to play and manipulate people in the internecine warfare of Arab social structures. That's how you get to the top in desert cultures. They respect strongmen. Money helps but if shit hits the fan there's always intimidation and violence to fall back on if shit doesn't go your way.

Saleh playing the al-Qaeda card on Bush for spare cash.
    So why civil war now?

    Tunisia and Egypt are why. The Arab Spring. 65% unemployment among the youth. A satellite dish poking out of every mud hut and apartment block balcony that picks up hundreds of TV stations that collectively depict a better life elsewhere. This civil war is going to be different from all the previous ones. Because this time it's street based and not some politicians pocket war. It started as a genuine protest movement in cities like Taiz, Sana'a and Aden in February. The opposition movement is fractured though and includes students, enterprising tribes like the Houthis who see a chance for profit in chaos, a spectrum of political parties and even some young Hashid who want the tribe to take back power and make some decent bank before the oil runs out.

   On the other hand, soldiers, government officials and the civil service and anybody receiving a steady paycheck held counter demonstrations in support of the government. Saleh appeared on TV promising to leave when the 'time was right' and assured the populace that he'd sign some piece of paper meeting the protesters demands but then failed to show up at the signing three times. This all came to a head on March 18 when Saleh saw that bullshitting his way out of the problem wasn't going to work so he fell back on those tribal desert instincts of his that say there is no problem that can't be solved in Yemen by killing people. Army snipers shot dead 52 protesters in Sana'a.

   This even pissed off his own Hashid tribe who quickly declared their support for the opposition. Street fighting broke out in the northern suburbs of Sana'a that included arty and mortar fire.  Tribesmen attacked power lines resulting in blackouts in the capital. The price of water tripled in Sana'a because there's none left running in the pipes. Not all that surprising for a desert. The capital is a pressure cooker ready to blow.  It's now a lack of water and power that are helping to fuel the protests not just people pissed off because satellite TV showed them they'll never bang Miley Cyrus.

   Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, the recuperating Saleh believes he can ride this out. Seeing Mubarak getting tried for war crimes in Egypt after being tossed out of power doesn't make stepping down look like a fun option. A promise of immunity in the Arab world is about as comforting as a slice of cake from Robespierre. And besides, after 32 years of power politics and with violence spreading across Yemen, he believes that gives him a better seat at the negotiating table. And it probably does. Especially if Yemen becomes a failed state like next door Somalia. Then all those square miles of desert really do become the place for the bad guys to pitch their monkey bars. The US have been conducting drone attacks on these wannabee al-Qaeda groups but they need a stable government in Yemen to continue operations or else it's Black Hawk down all over again. The current US drone attacks serve to piss off the average Yemeni who see the Islamic fundies in the desert as just small local gangs of whack jobs that no one cares about. In fact, with the situation rapidly deteriorating into yet another fucking civil war in Yemen, the average Yemeni views al-Qaeda exactly how the rest of the world views Yemen...

   A bunch of crazy people in some backward desert nobody gives a shit about.