Security Brief

Why Are Mysterious Fires Still Burning in Iran?

The incidents could raise fears of a military miscalculation between Tehran and Washington.

A picture obtained by AFP from the Iranian news agency Tasnim on May 30 shows fires burning in a protected area in the Zagros mountain range, near the city of Behbahan, Iran.
A picture obtained by AFP from the Iranian news agency Tasnim on May 30 shows fires burning in a protected area in the Zagros mountain range, near the city of Behbahan, Iran. MILAD KHORASANI/tasnim news/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: A wave of unusual fires is burning across Iran, Western governments accuse Russia of meddling with coronavirus vaccine research, and Trump signs off on covert CIA hacking authorities.

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Mysterious Fires Scorch Iran

Iran, already ravaged by U.S. sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic, now faces another scourge: A wave of mysterious fires torching the country, including a blaze that burned seven ships in Bushehr, a major port city, on Wednesday. The fires include a July 2 explosion at an underground fuel enrichment plant in Natanz that the New York Times reported was part of a covert effort to undermine the Iranian nuclear program.

The incidents have sparked fears in Iran that the United States and Israel are increasing sabotage operations directed at Tehran. No deaths were reported from Wednesday’s fire. Officials in Iran have blamed some of the fires on sabotage, but others appear to have been caused by accidents, equipment failures, and inclement weather, the Times reported.

The fires may raise fears of military miscalculation between the United States and Iran. The blazes come as the United States failed to convince allies on the U.N. Security Council to extend an arms embargo against Iran set to expire in October, as Foreign Policy reported. The Trump administration faces opposition from allies in its efforts to continue its so-called “maximum pressure” campaign—a definitive effort to scupper the 2015 nuclear deal.

A website close to Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Nournews, said this month that an attack on Natanz could cross a “red line” and lead to “fundamental changes” in the Middle East.

What We’re Watching

Hackers target vaccine research. The U.S., British, and Canadian governments have all accused Russian hackers linked to the Kremlin of trying to infiltrate organizations working to develop a coronavirus vaccine. “It is completely unacceptable that the Russian Intelligence Services are targeting those working to combat the coronavirus pandemic,” British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement on Thursday. “While others pursue their selfish interests with reckless behaviour, the U.K. and its allies are getting on with the hard work of finding a vaccine and protecting global health.”

According to the British government, the actors responsible are from a group called APT29, also known as Cozy Bear and The Dukes—a group of Russia-sponsored hackers believed to be behind hacks during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Vaccine research has unsurprisingly become a treasured commodity for intelligence agencies worldwide, as countries rush to develop vaccines against the coronavirus.

Russia revels in Libya quagmire. On Wednesday, the U.S. military accused Russian-backed mercenaries from the Wagner Group of planting landmines around the Libyan capital of Tripoli, a sign that fighting between Libya’s warring factions could continue even as Libyan National Army Gen. Khalifa Haftar retreats. “Imagery and intelligence assessments show how Russia continues to interfere in Libyan affairs. Wagner Group’s reckless use of landmines and booby traps are harming innocent civilians,” said Rear Adm. Heidi Berg, AFRICOM’s director of intelligence, in a statement.

Libya has become a hotbed of geopolitical tussling and proxy fights, with both warring factions backed by various European powers, Persian Gulf states, Turkey, and Russia.

Covert e-ffairs. In 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump signed off on giving the CIA sweeping new authorities to conduct covert cyber attacks, unshackling the agency from restrictions it has sought to loosen since the George W. Bush administration, according to a Yahoo News investigation. The directives give the CIA increased ability to target adversaries like Russia, China, and North Korea, and reduce the burden of proof for targeting media organizations, religious institutions, or other non-state entities believed to be working for rival foreign powers.

Some welcomed the move, while others feared the new powers cede too much decision-making authority from the CIA’s overseers in the National Security Council.

Unwelcome homecoming. The U.K. Court of Appeal has ruled that Shamima Begum, who left London to join the Islamic State in Syria in 2015, can return to the United Kingdom and fight to reclaim her British citizenship—stripped in 2019. The British government could still challenge the ruling, but Begum’s case could have important long-term implications for many European governments grappling with citizens who joined ISIS and who are now detained and in limbo.

Movers and Shakers

 The Pentagon’s new research chief. Michael Kratsios, the White House’s 33-year old chief technology officer, is set to take over as the Pentagon’s acting head of research and engineering, just weeks after Michael Griffin announced he would depart the job. Defense One reports that Kratsios lacks a basic science degree—his predecessor had a doctorate in aerospace engineering—but boasts deep ties to Silicon Valley and worked for the venture capitalist Peter Thiel, once a major contributor to Trump.

 Look who’s back. Sebastian Gorka, an early advisor to the Trump administration known for his right-wing views, will be appointed by the White House to sit on the National Security Education Board. The board is responsible for awarding grants and scholarships to help address the need for experts in critical languages and regions. If you spot a black Ford Mustang with Virginia plates that read “ART WAR,” it might be him.

Campaign shakeup. Trump announced on July 15 that he is demoting his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, and replacing him with former deputy Bill Stepien. The reshuffle is reportedly a response to a disappointing turnout at Trump’s campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after Parscale promised to mobilize hundreds of thousands of supporters for the event.

The Week Ahead

 U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit the United Kingdom from July 20 to 22 to meet with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. He will then travel to Denmark to meet with Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen and other members of the Danish government.

Sen. Mitt Romney will join the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Tuesday, July 21, for an online discussion on U.S.-China relations.

Odds and Ends

 Gone fishing. Turkmenistan’s dictator is renowned for producing some of the most over-the-top propaganda videos, and the latest one is not to be missed. Via Eurasianet: “Turkmenistan’s president goes fishing, with mask (because of “dust,” not coronavirus), catches many fish, gives fish to orphans, who look at fish, then clap, then eat fish, then clap again” (If you’re hungry for more, check out the rap video he made with his grandson.)

That’s it for today.

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Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Dan Haverty is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @dan_haverty

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