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Biden Secretly Limits Counterterrorism Drone Strikes Away From War Zones

NYT > Middle East

The Biden administration has quietly imposed temporary limits on counterterrorism drone strikes and commando raids outside conventional battlefield zones like Afghanistan and Syria, and it has begun a broad review of whether to tighten Trump-era rules for such operations, according to officials. The military and the C.I.A. must now obtain White House permission to attack terrorism suspects in poorly governed places where there are scant American ground troops, like Somalia and Yemen. Under the Trump administration, they had been allowed to decide for themselves whether circumstances on the ground met certain conditions and an attack was justified. Officials characterized the tighter controls as a stopgap while the Biden administration reviewed how targeting worked -- both on paper and in practice -- under former President Donald J. Trump and developed its own policy and procedures for counterterrorism kill-or-capture operations outside war zones, including how to minimize the risk of civilian casualties. The Biden administration did not announce the new limits.


U.S. Aircraft Carrier Returning Home After Long Sea Tour Watching Iran

NYT > Middle East

The aircraft carrier Nimitz is finally going home. The Pentagon last month ordered the warship to remain in the Middle East because of Iranian threats against President Donald J. Trump and other American officials, just three days after announcing the ship was returning home as a signal to de-escalate rising tensions with Tehran. With those immediate tensions seeming to ease a bit, and President Biden looking to renew discussions with Iran on the 2015 nuclear accord that Mr. Trump withdrew from, three Defense Department officials said on Monday that the Nimitz and its 5,000-member crew were ordered on Sunday to return to the ship's home port of Bremerton, Wash., after a longer-than-usual 10-month deployment. The Pentagon for weeks had been engaged in a muscle-flexing strategy aimed at deterring Iran and its Shia proxies in Iraq from attacking American personnel in the Persian Gulf to avenge the death of Maj. General Suleimani, the commander of Iran's elite Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, was killed in an American drone strike in January 2020.


In Abrupt Reversal of Iran Strategy, Pentagon Orders Aircraft Carrier Home

NYT > Middle East

The Pentagon has abruptly sent the aircraft carrier Nimitz home from the Middle East and Africa over the objections of top military advisers, marking a reversal of a weekslong muscle-flexing strategy aimed at deterring Iran from attacking American troops and diplomats in the Persian Gulf. Officials said on Friday that the acting defense secretary, Christopher C. Miller, had ordered the redeployment of the ship in part as a "de-escalatory" signal to Tehran to avoid stumbling into a crisis in President Trump's waning days in office. American intelligence reports indicate that Iran and its proxies may be preparing a strike as early as this weekend to avenge the death of Maj. Senior Pentagon officials said that Mr. Miller assessed that dispatching the Nimitz now, before the first anniversary this Sunday of General Suleimani's death in an American drone strike in Iraq, could remove what Iranian hard-liners see as a provocation that justifies their threats against American military targets. Some analysts said the return of the Nimitz to its home port of Bremerton, Wash., was a welcome reduction in tensions between the two countries.


Pentagon Sends More B-52s to Middle East to Deter Iranian Attacks on U.S. Troops

NYT > Middle East

Two American B-52 bombers flew another show-of-force mission in the Persian Gulf on Wednesday, a week after President Trump warned Iran that he would hold it accountable "if one American is killed" in rocket attacks in Iraq that the administration and military officials blamed on Tehran. The warplanes' 36-hour round-trip mission from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota was the third time in six weeks that Air Force bombers had conducted long-range flights about 60 miles off the Iranian coast, moves that military officials said were intended to deter Iran from attacking American troops in the region. The United States periodically conducts such quick demonstration missions to the Middle East and Asia to showcase American air power to allies and adversaries. But tensions have been rising in advance of the Jan. 3 anniversary of the American drone strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran's elite Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and the Iraqi leader of an Iranian-backed militia -- deaths that Iranian leaders repeatedly insist they have not yet avenged.


Killer Robot? Assassination of Iranian Scientist Feeds Conflicting Accounts

NYT > Middle East

Humiliated by the killing of a top nuclear scientist, Iranian officials sought this week to rewrite the attack as an episode of science fiction: Israel had executed him entirely by remote control, spraying bullets from an automated machine gun propped up in a parked Nissan without a single assassin on the scene. Even hard-liners mocked the new spin. "Why don't you just say Tesla built the Nissan? It drove by itself, parked by itself, fired the shots and blew up by itself?" one hard-line social media account said. "Are you, like us, doubting this narrative?" Since the killing of the scientist on Friday, contradictory reports in the official news media about the escape or even existence of a hit team -- along with assertions of prior warnings from the Interior Ministry about the attack -- revealed tensions between competing Iranian intelligence agencies as each sought to dodge blame for an egregious security lapse.


Gunmen Assassinate Iran's Top Nuclear Scientist in Ambush, Provoking New Crisis

NYT > Middle East

Iranian officials, who have always maintained that their nuclear ambitions are for peaceful purposes, not weapons, expressed fury and vowed revenge over the assassination, calling it an act of terrorism and warmongering that they quickly blamed on Israeli assassins and the United States. The White House, C.I.A. and Israeli officials declined to comment. But Mr. Fakhrizadeh's assassination -- only 10 months after the United States killed the powerful spymaster at the head of Iran's security machinery in a drone attack in Iraq -- could greatly complicate President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s plans to reactivate the 2015 nuclear agreement between Tehran and six other nations, which curtailed Iran's nuclear activities. Mr. Biden's transition team had no immediate comment on the assassination. President Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear accord in 2018, unraveling the signature foreign policy achievement of his predecessor, Barack Obama, and isolating the United States from Western allies who tried to keep the agreement intact.


Trump Is Said to Be Preparing to Withdraw Troops From Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia

NYT > Middle East

But the president's aspirations have long run into resistance, as his own national security officials argued that abandonment of such troubled countries could have catastrophic consequences -- such as when the United States pulled out of Iraq at the end of 2011, leaving a vacuum that fostered the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Mr. Trump has also repeatedly pushed to withdraw from Syria, but several hundred U.S. troops remain stationed there, partly to protect coveted oil fields held by American-backed Syrian Kurdish allies from being seized by the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. The current deliberations over withdrawals would not affect those in Syria, officials said. The plan under discussion to pull out of Somalia is said to not apply to U.S. forces stationed in nearby Kenya and Djibouti, where American drones that carry out airstrikes in Somalia are based, according to officials familiar with the internal deliberations who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Keeping those air bases would mean retaining the military's ability to use drones to attack militants with the Shabab, the Qaeda-linked terrorist group -- at least those deemed to pose a threat to American interests.


Two Are Accused of Hacking U.S. Websites With Pro-Iran Messages

NYT > Middle East

Two men have been indicted on charges stemming from the hacking of dozens of websites based in the United States, actions that the federal authorities said were taken in retaliation for the death in an American drone strike of Maj. The men, Behzad Mohammadzadeh and Marwan Abusrour, were charged with conspiracy to commit intentional damage to a protected computer and intentional damage to a protected computer, according to the indictment, which was dated Sept. 3 and unsealed on Tuesday. Mr. Mohammadzadeh, a citizen of Iran who the authorities believe is about 19 years old, and Mr. Abusrour, who is about 25 and whom the indictment identifies as "a stateless national of the Palestinian Authority," are believed to be in their home countries. The indictment, announced by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Massachusetts, did not identify or describe the approximately 51 websites that were attacked. The attacks began days after American officials announced the death of General Suleimani, Iran's most powerful security and intelligence commander, in a drone strike at Baghdad International Airport on Jan. 2, according to the indictment.


Lawmakers Aim to Prevent Trump From Bypassing Ban on Armed Drone Sales

NYT > Middle East

The move set off a wave of criticism from many Democratic and some Republican lawmakers, who said the decision undermined the pact. By ignoring a part of the agreement it finds inconvenient, they say, the Trump administration is encouraging other nations to do the same. And the sale of advanced armed drones could lead to the proliferation of the technology across the globe. The lawmakers are especially concerned about sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have used American-made weapons to carry out a devastating war in Yemen that has left thousands of civilians, many of them children, dead. "If we allow Trump to start selling drones, we set a dangerous precedent that allows and encourages other countries to sell missile technology and advanced drones to our adversaries," Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut and a sponsor of the bill, said in a statement on Wednesday.


Iran Says It Detained Leader of California-Based Exile Group

NYT > Middle East

Iran on Saturday said it had detained an Iranian-American leader of a little-known, California-based opposition group for allegedly planning a 2008 attack on a mosque that killed 14 people and wounded over 200 others. Iran's Intelligence Ministry also asserted that the detained man, Jamshid Sharmahd of the Kingdom Assembly of Iran, planned more attacks around the Islamic Republic amid heightened tensions between Tehran and the United States. Mr. Sharmahd's reported arrest comes as relations between the U.S. and Iran remain inflamed in the wake of President Donald Trump's 2018 decision to withdraw America from the 2015 multinational nuclear deal. In January, a U.S. drone strike killed a top Iranian general in Baghdad. Iran responded by launching a ballistic missile attack on U.S. soldiers in Iraq that injured dozens.