Spies, scientists and subterfuge in Iran; From Nobel Prize to civil war in Ethiopia

🎬 Hollywood script writers are gonna have to up their game

Good morning! A warm welcome to our 111 new subscribers - make yourself at home and come and join us for a few delectable morsels.

Before we start, this week brings sad news of Maradona's death at age 60. The Argentine ⚽ wizard lit up the '82, '86, '90, and '94 World Cups as a player and then, most hilariously, the 2018 World Cup in Brazil as an over-refreshed VIP:

The 'Hand of God' is a defining moment in sports history. Upon hearing the opposing goalkeeper never got over it, the ever-controversial Maradona wrote:

the 'thermos-head' got cross because of my hand goal.... he didn't invite me to his testimonial... How many people go to a goalkeeper’s testimonial anyway?

Maradona bolstered Argentina's international standing during difficult times. Sports diplomacy is a bit of a buzz word in modern foreign services but he did more to bring together countries around the world than official programs ever could. An undiplomatic ambassador par excellence.

This week:

  • the remarkable assassination of Iran's top nuclear scientist. If you pitched this in the writers' room of Tehran you'd have been told to make it more believable.

  • Ethiopia is in the throes of civil war, adding yet one more conflict to the turbulent Horn of Africa.

We’ve also got a specific request: please tell two people about us and suggest they subscribe!

Share International Intrigue


1. Unbelievable plot twists in Israel-Iran drama (warning: contains spoilers 🙈)

By John

If you take one thing away from this, it's to keep an open mind. A lot goes on in the shadows that can be spun by those with agendas. Also: there are no foreign journalists in Iran. Just like in other closed regimes, the most reliable information is spread through Telegram, Signal, and other secure platforms.

Iran's top nuclear scientist assassinated

Last Friday, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh (fah-KREE-za-day) was killed outside Tehran. After an explosive device stopped the car he was in, he and his bodyguards were shot, possibly by a ‘remote control automatic machine gun’.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javid Zarif gave this particular plot twist 0/10:

Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today. This cowardice—with serious indications of Israeli role—shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators.

Obviously Mossad (Israel's intelligence agency) and the CIA declined to comment, but the New York Times reported that:

One American official — along with two other intelligence officials — said that Israel was behind the attack on the scientist.

Who was Mohsen Fakhrizadeh?

According to western diplomats, he was Iran's Oppenheimer; the 'Father of the Iranian Bomb'. He was reportedly the #1 target for Mossad.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even told the world to "remember that name" during a briefing on the Iranian nuclear threat (at 9:22 min). Iran never allowed him to talk to nuclear inspectors and repeatedly insisted he was only an academic at a university in Tehran 🤥.

Bad neighbours

The Iran Nuclear Deal is no more, but what was it? 💣

tl;dr: in 2015 Iran agreed to drastically limit its capability to produce weapons grade uranium. In return, the US and others removed economic sanctions from Iran. (See the more technical aspects of the deal).

Then the 🐘 in the room decided to swing his… trunk:

President-elect Biden wants to resurrect the deal but, despite his evident mastery over The Reaper, the Iran deal 2.0 might be DOA.

Your questions (sort of) answered

Did Netanyahu meet US Secretary of State Pompeo and the Saudi Crown Prince last week?
Yes, but draw your own conclusions about the timing because we'll never know whether it's connected 🤐. Oh btw the Saudis and Iranians don't get along either.

Trump was apparently going to bomb Iran two weeks ago but didn't. Are they connected?
Who knows. Israel might be maximising its remaining Trump time to inflict damage on Iran. Trump openly boasted about killing Iranian General Soleimani in January, but President Biden and his boffins won’t look kindly upon this kind of brazen action.

These are pretty bold attacks... is this stuff legal?
No, but what even is international law anymore? Besides, the point might be to goad Iran into thoughtlessly retaliating. A conventional war would be disastrous for Iran.

Zoom out

The Israel-Iran relationship is like that of the expensive carpet-owning human and the non-house-trained puppy: one side is far more powerful, but the other incredibly skilled at causing damage with what limited resources it has.

It’s a question of strategy: do you double down on Netanyahu's policy of fire and brimstone hoping to force Iran into negotiations from a weak position, or do you try again to use statecraft and diplomacy to engage Iran and hope they're sincere?

A coherent strategy consistently executed is often more important than which strategy you choose. Policy toward Iran has chopped and changed so much that there has been no time to build trust, even if all sides had been onboard.

Right now the outlook is grim: an escalating conflict in which one side thinks it can win and the other will never accept defeat. That’s a recipe for a real disaster.


2. War & Peace in Ethiopia: Will conflict bleed into the Horn of Africa? 🕊

By Helen

The Horn of Africa is not a region one usually associates with peace and stability.

It’s endured ethnic tensions, a colonial legacy, proxy wars, food shortages (worsened by locust plagues 😱): basically, a ton of problems which make us really feel for the pirates who hijacked Tom Hanks’ ship. (Also, just never travel with Tom Hanks.)

And yet stability is what the region’s experienced since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy made peace with Eritrea in 2019 after decades of fighting. For that, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Ethiopia’s future looked bright: it’s Africa's second-largest country, the economy was growing, and it was even sending peacekeepers to help its neighbours.

Skip to November 2020, and Ethiopia is in a civil war.

Ethiopia's game of thrones 👑

The Tigray region in northern Ethiopia is ruled by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). They dominated Ethiopian national government for nearly 30 years. But by 2018, the TPLF's rule had become 'repressive and regressive', and Ethiopians protested for change.

Enter Prime Minister Abiy, a young, progressive politician. The TPLF became increasingly sidelined from central government but stayed in power in their region. Crucially, they remained well-armed and battle-hardened from fighting Eritrea.

Things remained tense. In September, TPLF defied the central government's orders to postpone elections (because COVID), and held local elections anyway. Prime Minister Abiy punished the TPLF by cutting off their federal funding. 😬

A recipe for civil war

Ethiopia has all the ingredients for a steaming fresh batch of civil strife:

  • ✊🏽 A minority region which felt sidelined by its central government and wanted to do something about it (the Tigray region has only 6% of Ethiopia's population but was the most prosperous and powerful until 2018)

  • 🏢 A central government which wanted to flex its power and keep control over the whole country

  • ✝️ Historic social, ethnic, and religious tensions

  • 🌏 A foreign force getting involved behind the scenes to ensure the war goes in their favour (Eritrea allegedly backs the Ethiopian Government)

Crossing the last red line: the slide into civil war

➡️ On November 4, Prime Minister Abiy starts military operations in the Tigray region after the TPLF tried stealing artillery equipment from a defence base. He declared a state of emergency, suspended political and civil rights, and cut internet and phone connections. Heavy fighting followed, with deaths on both sides.

➡️ By mid-November, the TPLF had responded with rocket fire at its neighbouring provinces and at the main airport in Eritrea.

➡️ On November 28, fighting stops and Prime Minister Abiy's forces claim they've regained control of Tigray's capital city, Mekelle:

"I am pleased to share that we have completed and ceased the military operations in the Tigray region" - Prime Minister Abiy

What does this mean for Ethiopia?

Despite Prime Minister Abiy's confidence, the civil war isn’t over.

The TPLF aren't giving up - they saw these clashes as a 'right to self determination', and have retreated into the region's mountains 👇🏼. They will likely keep the central government on edge with guerrilla warfare - their specialty.

PM Abiy's Jon Snow-like reputation is on shaky ground. Though he claimed the clashes unified the country, they’ve raised red flags to other regional governments who worry about his ambitions to consolidate power.

What now for the region, and us?

The civil war is bad for the region. Nearly 40,000 refugees have fled to neighbouring Sudan, a country already struggling with its own problems. Ethiopia had also been a key mediator in other regional peace deals. Now those deals have been jeopardised by the fighting and Ethiopia’s pullback from peacekeeping roles.

For the rest of us, an unstable Horn of Africa region is bad for international maritime trade. An estimated US$700 billion worth of trade goes through the region, and fighting threatens these vital shipping routes.

Finally, and tragically, conflicts like this show how little international organisations can do to help (e.g. mediating, sending aid) when governments reject outside assistance in the name of domestic political affairs.


Extra Intrigue ➕

We’re learning what works and what doesn’t as we grow. Our new section features quick hits of foreign news to keep you extra intrigued and up to date:


🎯 Last week we got a spot-on comment regarding RCEP from reader Sarah Brewin:

...on the point about RCEP being weak on dispute settlement, I'd just add that it does not include investor-state dispute settlement which imo v much deserves a ✔

Investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) is very controversial. Here’s a law firm arguing for ISDS (because 🤑), and an academic arguing against it. Thanks for the comment, Sarah!

Lastly, a heartfelt thank you. We’ve already got subscribers working in governments, large corporations, professional services, start-ups, NGOs, and more. We’re building a great community so please continue to comment, share and give us feedback!

This week's prompts:

  1. International Humanitarian Law is pretty clear that killing civilians is illegal. But if no one cares if the law is broken, should we just get rid of it?

  2. We’ve evolved over our first 4 editions. We’d love to hear your thoughts, in particular: is it too deep/not deep enough? Too serious? What about the length? (Can’t wait for the banter answers to that one!)

    Tweet at us: @intintrigue and ⬇

    Leave a comment

    Subscribe now