Why the "New" Middle East Crisis Is Giving Me Déjà Vu

Why the “New” Middle East Crisis Is Giving Me Déjà Vu

by | published January 10th, 2020

Personal reminiscences have intersected with current events over the past several days. In rapid succession, five occurrences have taken place in Iraq. They are the first stages in an intensifying new dynamic in power politics.

Let me briefly review.

  1. A December 27 missile assault on the K-1 airbase in Kirkuk in which one U.S. contract employee died. The U.S. has blamed the Iranian-backed, Iraqi-manned Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) militia. KH is a subgrouping in the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella organization of over 40 Iraqi militia groups, mostly Shiite. KH denied the charge.
  2. On December 29, the U.S. in retaliation hit five KH supply, command, and control locations in Iraq and Syria. Those strikes resulted in 25 dead and 55 injured.
  3. On December 31, in response to the casualties from the U.S. strike, a crowd attacked the US embassy in Baghdad.
  4. On January 3, Iranian Quds Force commander General Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi deputy PMF head Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed by a U.S. drone strike at Baghdad Airport. “The Engineer” (i.e., the translation of “Abu Mahdi”; the fellow’s given name was Jamal Ja’far Muhammad Ali Al Ibrahim) coordinated PMF groups closely aligned with Quds.
  5. On January 8, Iranian missiles struck two Iraqi bases housing U.S. military personnel (Al-Asad in Western Iraq and Irbil in northern Iraqi Kurdistan). No injuries were reported at either target.

The first four of these took place while I was outside the U.S. at meetings to discuss strategic energy issues and the investment developments issuing from them. Those sessions took place onboard a ship in waters off the British West Indies. I returned from the eastern Caribbean late Sunday.

What has been unfolding in the Persian Gulf fundamentally altered the directions of our discussions. Nonetheless, a consensus is emerging among major global energy investors on what to emphasize in the sector moving forward as the tensions intensify.

Another round of talks will take place this weekend, this time via conference call. I’ll have more to say on all of this next week here in Oil and Energy Investor.

But there’s plenty to talk about right now…

That Time I Was a “Pencil” in Iraq

Shortly after entering government service, a fabled legend in the intel business said that I would be trained as a “pencil.” Sometimes I would be the point of an operation he told me, other times I would need to be the eraser.

Awaiting further developments from my upcoming conversations tomorrow and Sunday, I find myself recollecting events that today appear all too familiar. So, I thought you might like to hear a bit about two earlier Iraqi experiences from my more than two decades of being on the sharp end of the pencil.

The first happened in late July 1987. I was at the time living in London, with a “day job” lecturing at the London School of Economics (LSE) and having a research appointment at the Centre for Strategic Studies (CSS).

My other job was in U.S. intelligence ad hoc special operations. What was transpiring at the time would be my first entre into Persian Gulf assignments. My “shadow career” up until then had been in counterintelligence, directed against Soviet operatives and assets primarily in Europe.

Washington had just instituted Operation Earnest Will, a move to reflag and protect Kuwaiti oil tankers during the ongoing Iran-Iraq War. That would officially continue until late September of 1988 and involve some rather deadly episodes in the so-called “Tanker War.”

Earnest Will was the very public side of American involvement in the hostilities, widely proclaimed as an attempt to keep the shipping lanes open. Kuwait at the time was a strong ally of Iraq in the war.

Yet there was also a parallel policy underway, largely of the secret variety, and kept away from public view. This was known as Operation Prime Chance, a covert military/intel special op to thwart Iranian attacks on the vessels, assess capabilities in Tehran, while increasing the cost and inconvenience to “other powers” (feel free to read the still-extant U.S.S.R. here) from supporting Tehran.

It was this last element that comprised my initial segue into Persian Gulf matters.

CSS is in the British Foreign Office complex on King Charles Street, close by the Prime Minister’s offices at 10 Downing Street. It is also a direct conduit to both U.K. domestic and foreign intelligence agencies downriver; respectively MI5 at Millbank and MI6 at Vauxhall Bridge.

On July 31, 1987 I was doing research at CSS when armed guards came in. Without a word of explanation, they physically pulled several of us out of our chairs and escorted us to the street.

A declaration of the U.K. Official Secrets Act was underway. When enforced it requires that all foreigners be physically removed from designated locations. Both CSS and the Foreign Office are on that list.

The reasons for my ouster were the first U.K. vessel coming under attack in the Tanker War and a British penchant to be heavy-handed in security matters.

Subsequent events would strain American relations in both London and the Gulf. Seems Prime Chance had not been discussed with our erstwhile allies before certain games were played in the region with knock-on effects in London. The requirement of covering our posteriors on these matters I gladly left to higher pay grades.

Much of what unfolds next remains a story for another time with much not yet unclassified, although I have discussed one particularly memorable episode in The Tragic Tale of the Brown Snakein the December 2018 issue of Energy Advantage.

The other personal remembrance coming back to “haunt” my present results from the recent attack on the embassy in Baghdad. This memory comes from April 2007.

When I Was “Our Man in Baghdad”

At the time I was the choice to become deputy director of the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office (IRMO) in Baghdad.

Among other responsibilities the assignment involved coordinating efforts to rebuild Iraqi infrastructure among some two dozen contributing nations, with the bulk of the non-U.S. funds coming from Europe. And of course, there were some intelligence aspects to the job as well (which, frankly, limited my genuine competition).

In anticipation of the posting, I was at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, one of several trips I made there during the period.

Embassy personnel would look forward to Friday afternoons and an impromptu social gathering that would take place around the swimming pool in the embassy complex.

Personal photo of the swimming pool, US Embassy, Baghdad
Now standing orders attempted to discourage the weekly event on security grounds. Yet it would take place anyway. In April 2007, the US Department of State (DOS) issued two directives on the subject for embassy personnel. The first was the standard discouragement, by this time issued weekly.

However, accompanying on this occasion was a curious new requirement that personally issued Kelvar helmet and flak vest had to be brought along should you end up at the pool anyway.

Made for some unusual photos…

Poolside lunch, Baghdad embassy style
On Friday, April 20, 2007, I went to the party, had a few beers, and left to finish some work. Two hours later four mortar rounds hit close by, two grazing the swimming pool itself. By next morning the pool was officially closed… and the helmet/vest fashion show was now standard apparel for everybody anywhere in the embassy compound.

Eventually (and much to the relief of my wife Marina), the Bush Administration decided the position I was to fill had to be held by somebody holding down a career State Department slot – even though I had been the DOS choice for the job to begin with.

There is a long story here that I may someday be able to tell. Suffice it to say that the DOS seventh floor leadership back at Foggy Bottom in D.C. had concluded IRMO was a political mess and wanted no part of running it.

That’s when they went searching for somebody like me – having the requite security clearances but not carrying the DOS imprimatur. Seems they were looking for somebody outside to blame when everything sent south. The White House subsequently intervened and changed the “rules of engagement.”

I would continue to work with IRMO and other components of the U.S. presence on several projects. Early on, IRMO staff presented me with this. It is still sitting on my desk as I write this.

However, upon opening the box, a deeper message is conveyed. In Baghdad you had no choice; roll the dice and cut the cards while awaiting policy decisions on what to do next.

I talked about what this was like in a May 2019 Oil & Energy Investor.

Next time: what impact the threat and counter treat underway between Washington and Teheran has on where to invest.


Kent Moors

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  1. David Bolick
    January 11th, 2020 at 05:45 | #1

    I’m not sure what this Reply section is for, but I’m compelled at this point to say you are one Amazing, Intriguing, Fascinating person.

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