Government boasts of victories in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, alliances with Turkey, China and Russia to oppose the West plus the end of sanctions has not had the desired effect on most Iranians. Opinion surveys showed that 90 percent of Iranians backed the Syrian operations in 2015 but that dropped to 73 percent in 2016 and is now less than 30 percent. There were similar declines regarding Iranian support for Hezbollah and Shia militias in Lebanon, Syria. Yemen and Iraq. Most Iranians are more concerned with own circumstances, which have not improved much despite all the government boasting of victories elsewhere. The 2015 treaty that lifted sanctions promised much but, for the average Iranian, delivered little. While the religious leaders who have controlled the government since the 1980s are obsessed with making Shia Islam dominant in the region and destroying Israel the average Iranian notes there has been little progress in providing jobs or economic opportunities for most Iranians. While the religious dictatorship can, in theory, do whatever it wants as a practical matter that is not so. That’s why opinion polls are still allowed. The religious leaders remember that they overthrew the monarchy in large part because the last shah (emperor) lost power largely because he ignored public opinion. There is disagreement within the religious leadership over how much public opposition you can ignore. At one extreme you have IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) generals who, like the late shah, are inclined to ignore public opinion and put down with force any public displays of dissent. At the other extremes you have religious leaders to are willing to compromise with many popular demands, especially those related to economic freedom and curbing corruption. That goal collides with the IRGC, which is all about controlling all manner of personal freedoms and tolerating corruption when it benefits the IRGC.
Another major complaint most Iranians share is growing opposition to the use of lifestyle police to enforce unpopular rules about how women should dress and behave as well as prohibitions on all sorts of traditional Iranian pastimes (like drinking alcohol and watching what they want in movie theaters, TV and the Internet). What apparently scares the hardliners most these days is the Internet and the growing popularity of cell phones that provide access to the Internet. The constantly growing supply of social media apps is particularly scary because more of them use encryption and are designed to be difficult to monitor and censor. Among Iranians one of the more popular messaging apps these days is Telegram, which allows any user to establish a news site and start posting things that the lifestyle police do not like. Not just pictures of women showing their hair (and sometimes much more) but messages criticizing the government and doing in accurate and embarrassing detail. The hardline clerics want to crack down hard on “immoral” Internet use and are unwilling to give any ground in these areas. Many of the senior clerics pay more attention to Iranian history and know that the hardliners could be crushed if it came to a fight and most Iranians do not want that sort of bloodshed, at least not yet. But most Iranians also want change and in the past they have shown a willingness to fight if pushed too far. Violent rebellion is still a possibility, especially with so many new “reformers” being former hardliners who now are all for less corruption, intrusive lifestyle police and restrictions on foreign trade but still want America and Israel destroyed one way or another. Yet these same anti-American reformers also want better relations with Turkey and the Arabs as well as less dependence on Russia. As usual, not all is what it seems in Iran.
Meanwhile the government is busy trying to comply with the 2015 treaty to get most of the sanctions lifted and so far that is working, at least on paper. Even then international economists believe it will be several more years before the Iranian economy gets moving again. The main reasons are the internal corruption and factional political battles within the religious government. Another problem that rarely gets discussed outside of Iran is that half the population consists of ethnic minorities (mainly Turks, Kurds and Arabs), and some of these groups (Arabs, Kurds and Baluchis) are getting more restive and violent (for different reasons). Meanwhile, the Islamic conservatives are determined to support terrorism overseas and build nuclear weapons at home rather than concentrating on improving the economy and living standards. Expensive efforts to aid pro-Iran groups in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon have worked but have to be presented as examples of the ancient Iranian empire being reborn. That was a propaganda theme the late shah pushed. The current government, like the late shah, saw foreign adventures as a way to distract an unhappy population. The nukes are still important because Iran has been increasingly vocal about how Iran should be the leader of the Islamic world and the guardian of the major Islamic shrines (Mecca and Medina) in Saudi Arabia. Iranians believe that having nukes would motivate the Arabs to bow down. The Arabs have been kicked around by the Iranians for thousands of years and take this latest threat very seriously. But so do a growing number of Iranians, who are generally less enthusiastic about the risks, and costs, of empire building.
The Iraqis admitted that it will take another three months (or longer) to take Mosul. Most Iraqis accept this because it is understood this approach also keeps civilian casualties down and keeps the Iran backed Shia militias out of the fighting. That prevents more atrocities against non-Shia civilians in general and Iraqi Sunnis in particular. More importantly it shows Iran that Iraq can take care of this without a lot of Iranian help. While over half of Iraqis are Shia they do not want the country dominated by Shia (but non-Arab) Iran. As a result many of the Iran backed Shia militias have proved reliable (in their treatment of non-Shia civilians) when assigned to police and protect areas ISIL had recently been driven from. Sunni civilians are often warned by ISIL that Shia militias will kill them, rape the women and generally misbehave. But most of the Shia militiamen bring with them needed food and medical aid and generally behave well. Yet the government knows there are violently pro-Iran Shia Iraqis in some of these militias so the risk of bad behavior is always there. Perhaps to avoid that the government announced that some Iraqi Shia militias would be allowed to cross into Syria to aid in the effort to drive ISIL out of eastern Syria.
Iranians are also present among the several thousand foreign troops, all of them advisors or specialists (like American air control, intelligence or communications specialists) working with the 30,000 Iraqis fighting to drive ISIL out of Mosul. There are over a thousand Iranians providing training, advisory and support assistance to the pro-Iran Shia militias. The Iraqi government fears that these IRGC advisors and trainers are secretly building pro-Iran armed militias in Iraq. That’s simply not true because the IRGC is quite open about what they are doing to encourage Iraqi Shia to organize armed groups so they can work with Iran someday to impose the same kind of religious dictatorship in Iraq that has existed in Iran since the 1980s.
The UN continues to push for peace talks but the Iran backed Shia rebels are apparently not interested, at least not yet. Iran senses victory in Syria this year and everyone is waiting to see what the new U.S. government will do about Iranian support for the Shia rebels in Yemen. The previous American government agreed to lift many economic sanctions on Iran and as part of that deal provided Iran with billions in cash and refused to put much pressure on Iran for supporting military operations in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere (in areas that attract less media attention, like Africa and South America). That is expected to change this year but it is unclear how soon and how much.
Captured rebel commanders admit (some say boast) that Hezbollah and Iranian personnel run military training camps in the north (Saada province) where the Shia rebel tribes have their ancient homeland. Despite overwhelming evidence of Iranian weapons being supplied to the Shia rebels the Russian and Chinese support in the UN blocks any international action against Iran. The Arab coalition has imposed an air, sea and land blockade of rebel territories but continued control of much of the Red Sea coast and the inability to search all the numerous small cargo and fishing boats operating along the coast make it possible to well-paid smugglers to get most shipments through. The continued prevalence of accepting bribes from truckers wishing to avoid a search of their cargo allows smugglers to also use a land route via Oman. Iran makes no secret of the fact that it is supplying the cash (for bribes and the rebel payroll) as well as advisors. Also important is the Iranian run media campaign that has managed to get more attention paid to civilian casualties from the Arab coalition air attacks (the rebels have no air support). The smuggling not only keeps the Shia rebels supplied with ammo and light weapons (assault rifles, machine-guns. RPGs launchers) but also some very large items, like Iranian Zelzal-3 unguided rockets. Several of these have been fired at targets in Saudi Arabia and are easy to identify by examining fragments of the missile after it hits the ground. These rockets are very large. Zelzal-3 is a 9.4 meter (30 foot) long, 610mm (24 inch) diameter, 3.9 ton missile.
Another factor the Iranians are taking advantage of is the unwillingness of the Arab coalition to risk a lot of their own troops getting killed in combat. The Yemen war is not popular with the other Arab nations because Yemen is seen as its own worst enemy and no friend of the other Arabian states. But these Arab neighbors had little choice but to intervene in 2015 when the Yemen unrest became a full civil war as Shia rebels sought to take control of the entire country. Neighboring Arab states quickly formed a military coalition to halt that. The Arab coalition appeared to be succeeding because by 2016 pro-government forces were close enough to launch a major assault on the rebel-held capital. At that point Arab coalition casualties also increased and the Arab coalition governments were reminded how unpopular the Yemen intervention was at home. The U.S. refused to send in ground troops but the Arabs eventually did. The Arab troops made a big difference despite suffering some embarrassing defeats along the way. This was an impressive display of Arab military capabilities, which benefitted from all the money spent on high-tech weapons since the 1990s.
Turkey And Other Unnatural Acts
This is all about good news/bad news. The good news is that economic and diplomatic relations with Turkey are better than they have been for years. For example imports from Turkey were up 40 percent in 2016 (to about $5 billion). Iran and Turkey have established an unprecedented level of military cooperation in Syria and against Kurdish rebels throughout the region. The bad news is that all the good news is unnatural.
Many Turks have demonstrated against and criticized Turkish cooperation with Iran, Russia and the Assad government of Syria. All three of these groups have long been seen as enemies of Turkey. In early January Turkey threatened to withdraw from the temporary alliance with Russia and Iran in Syria. Turkey was angry at Iran for tolerating repeated violations of the recent ceasefire deal by Iranian mercenaries (mainly Hezbollah) in Syria. The Turkish government justifies the alliance with Iran and Russia in Syria by referring to increased cooperation with Russia and Iran since the 1990s. But in Syria the Turks have to deal with the fact that Iran is run by a religious dictatorship and Turkey and Russia are not. Iran justifies breaking agreements by blaming it on the many religious fanatics in its government and military. Russia is willing to ignore that sort of thing, Turkey isn’t. At same time a growing number of Iranians openly demonstrate against the alliance with Russia. For decades Russia was depicted (by Iranian media, governments and personal experience) as a dangerous enemy of Iran. Russia and Iran also openly disagree over some key items. Russia openly supports Israel’s efforts to defend itself from Hezbollah or Iranian missile attacks. Russia is also willing to have the Americans join in the effort to craft a peace deal at the conference going on now in Kazakhstan. Iran insisted that the Americans not show and the new U.S. government was OK with that.
The unusual alliance of Iran, Turkey and Russia is seen by all three countries as historically unnatural and unsustainable. Iran has long been fighting the Russians and Turks over who had the most power, control and influence in the areas where they were neighbors. Each of the three still have fundamental differences with the other two and popular opinion in all three nations shows widespread distrust of these “unnatural” allies. But most Iranians also remember that many times in the past Iran has made such unstable alliances work, for a while at least.
Then there are the Arabs, who have never been seen as in the same league with the Turks and Russians. Except for a few centuries after the founding of Islam 1,400 years ago, the Arabs were not taken seriously by Iranians. Most Arabs remember this and don’t like or trust the Iranians. Even in Iraq, where most of the Arabs are Shia and more inclined to be pro-Iran, Shia Arabs tend to fear and distrust Iran. The people of Arabia (nearly all of them Arabs) see Iran as an ancient and now very active threat. Throughout the Arabian Peninsula this can be seen in has quietly (or openly in Yemen) supports Shia Arabs who fight Sunni Arab governments. Oil changed Arabia more than anything else in the past thousand years because it gave Iran a reason to take control of the desert portions of Arabia, especially the areas holding the oil (mainly just south of Kuwait) and the most holy shrines of Islam in the south west, near the Red Sea.
January 23, 2017: The pro-Assad coalition of Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government are holding peace talks with the Syrian rebels beginning today in the Central Asian city of Astana (the capital of Kazakhstan). The U.S. was not invited when these talks were announced in December but Russia later asked that someone from the new (after January 20th) U.S. government attend. In the end the U.S. declined to send anyone. Most of the rebels were not invited either. Only the FSA rebel coalition was, because it does not support Islamic terrorism. Three rebel larger groups (Ahrar al Sham, Fatah al Sham Front and the Kurds) were not invited, nor was ISIL, the group everyone hates. At the end of 2016 discussions between Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government apparently agreed to some general terms for such a deal. It would consist of a ceasefire with groups now in control of parts of Syria recognized as the temporary ruler of those areas. If the ceasefire held, there would be new elections. The Assads would not participate, but only if they were granted immunity to prosecution so the Assads could go into comfortable exile. All this assumes that ISIL control of any territory in Syria is eliminated. This is an old proposal, but it always depended on ISIL not being part of the mix. That is now a possibility that still doesn’t have enough support within Syria to work. So far it looks like the Astana talks will produce nothing of value.
January 20, 2017: In the northwest IRGC troops and Kurdish rebels (from the Zagros Eagles) clashed outside Mariwan at night. There were no casualties.
January 19, 2017: In Ukraine police seized several crates marked “aircraft parts” headed for Iran via air freight. On closer inspection the aircraft parts turned out to be components for older Russian ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles). Iran needs these parts to keep many of their older weapons operational. Iran is still subject to many restrictions on the importation of weapons. Ukraine used to be a good source of such forbidden spare parts but since Russia began trying to annex portions of Ukraine in 2014 (with some success) Ukraine has been more dependent on Western support. In return they are supposed to abide by the many arms export sanctions they used to ignore.
January 17, 2017: Syrian government officials signed contracts with Iranian companies controlled by senior officers of the IRGC. These deals were very favorable to the IRGC and even some pro-Assad Syrians openly described this as a payoff. This sort of corruption is nothing new and has been an open secret in Iran for over a decade. Over the last few years it has become a documented secret. In 2014 it became widely known how the IRGC defied the religious leadership and planned to stage a coup and replace elected politicians they disagreed with. The IRGC never carried out these plans, but now it is known that the plans existed. This has to be put in context. The Iranian government is basically a religious dictatorship that seized control in the 1980s and has just barely coped with declining popularity. There are many factions, some much more radical than the majority. Eventually the loss of oil income or other economic disaster could screw things up enough to trigger a popular rebellion. That could get very nasty as the government has an army of religious fanatics (the IRGC) to deal with such unrest. IRGC is more than just the “royal guard” of the Iranian dictatorship. Originally founded to do the clerics dirty work, and keep an eye on the Iranian armed forces, and population in general, the IRGC has grown to become a state-within-a-state. The IRGC not only has 150,000 armed members, it also controls billions of dollars’ worth of businesses inside Iran, and runs numerous terrorist operations outside the country. The IRGC, or at least large parts of it, can be depended on to follow orders and slaughter rebellious Iranian civilians. The ruling clerics are determined to avoid losing power like the East European communist dictatorships did in 1989. The clerics have made sure most Iranians know this and what the price of rebellion would be. But the clerics must now deal with another ancient problem in Iran, disloyalty among the “guardians” of the rulers. Who guards the guards? In Iran, no one and that is now a very real problem for the general public as well as the unelected senior clerics who rule in the name of God but only with the support of the IRGC. At the moment the senior clerics believe only a small minority of the IRGC are a danger. But that could change, because the “dangerous” faction has been growing in numbers and boldness. Attempts to purge the IRGC of these dangerous people have failed. The IRGC protects its own, so far and in Syria they demanded to get paid.
January 16, 2017: In the capital (Tehran) anti-aircraft guns opened fire on a commercial UAV taking pictures. This is the second time since late December that this has happened. In both instances the UAV belonged to a government owned organization and was fired on because it flew too close to a forbidden zone. The anti-aircraft gunners rarely have anything to shoot. In both the recent incidents one machine-gunner apparently erred in opening fire and nearby gunners saw that as an opportunity to join in. In both cases the UAV operator noticed the gunfire (from heavy machine-guns and autocannon) and quickly steered the UAV out of the area. No reports on civilian casualties from machine-gun bullets or shell fragments coming down on populated areas.
January 8, 2017: In the west, outside Baneh, Kurdish rebels from the Zagros Eagles launched an attack on an IRGC base.
January 6, 2017: In the southeast, outside the city of Zabol armed Afghan smugglers attacked an Iranian border post in mid-day, killing one soldier and wounding three.
January 4, 2017: Germany revealed that they had indicted a Pakistani man on espionage charges because he was caught spying for Iran and seeking to gather information on pro-Israel Germans targeted for assassination by Iranian agents. German intelligence analysts believe this is part of a larger program to go after pro-Israel locals in several European countries. Iran is apparently preparing for the possibility that Israel might bomb Iranian nuclear weapons facilities. If that did happen Iran would have limited ways to retaliate effectively. Attacking Israel with ballistic missiles might just increase the degree of humiliation as Israeli anti-missile systems shot down those missiles. Ordering Hezbollah to launch another large scale rocket attack on Israel could also backfire. But assassination for pro-Israeli foreigners would send a message that Iran could plausibly deny. The current case is, however, the first known instance of a German politician being targeted. Iranian backed assassinations have occurred in Germany before, but these were all against Iranian exiles opposed to the religious dictatorship. But now Iran sees Germany as a better place to operate because of the large number of Moslem illegal migrants the Germans have let in as well as the German legal system apparently being more tolerant to anti-Israel terrorism than many other Western nations.
January 3, 2017: In Venezuela the beleaguered president Maduro reshuffled his cabinet and appointed Tareck El Aissami, a former interior minister, as his deputy and, apparently, successor. Aissami has been accused of dealings with Hezbollah, Iran and drug gangs, which have been able to move cocaine through Venezuela if the pay off the right government officials. The drugs often move on to Cuba, which taught the current Venezuelan government how to make this sort of thing work. Since 2000 Iran and Hezbollah have been welcome in Venezuela.
January 2, 2017: In the southwest (Khuzestan province) local Arab separatist from ASMLA (Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Al-Ahwaz) bombed an oil pipeline in two places. This is the first time this group has been active since 2015. But there are other active Arab rebels. In July 2016 the al Farouq Brigade carried out two pipeline attacks. At the same time the Hawks of Ahwaz took credit for a fire in a local petrochemical plant. Hawks of Ahwaz took credit for two other similar fires that have occurred since 2015. Iran is acutely aware of how unruly its own Arab minority (a few percent of the population) can be. There are a growing number of terrorist incidents inside Iran traced to Iranian Arabs. Most Iranian oil is pumped from the ancestral lands of these Arabs, who are bitter about how they receive little benefit from all that oil wealth. The three million Arabs in Khuzestan province (formerly Arabistan) are Shia and have been ruled by non-Arab Iranians for centuries. Arab unrest here has grown since 2003, when the Sunni dictatorship of Saddam Hussein was overthrown in Iraq and the Shia majority won elections to take power. Since 2003 hundreds of Iranian Arabs have been arrested for separatist activities. Many are still in prison and nearly 30 have been executed.
December 31, 2016: Despite denials from the Iranian government Afghan border guards confirmed that their Iranian counterparts regularly accept the bodies of known Taliban for burial by their families living in Iran.
December 30, 2016: In southern Syria (outside Damascus) an Iranian general (Gholam Ali Gholizadeh) was killed while commanding (“advising”) Iranian mercenaries fighting for the Assad government. Gholizadeh was a veteran of the 1980s war with Iraq and third Iranian general to die in Syria since September. Iran admits it has troops (over 3,000) in Syria. Iran insists they are all volunteers, which explains the presence of so many retired officers. Many Iranian officers and NCOs in Syria are not volunteers but realize serving in Syria provides useful combat experience and improves promotion prospects. If you are killed you are hailed as a hero and if disabled the government usually provides a civilian (often government) job. In Syria the Iranian military are needed to help government army units as well as the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian recruited militia units. Most of the Iranian deaths in Syria are mentioned in Iranian media those losses have been increasing in 2016, running at over 50 a month. There are even more monthly losses for the thousands of foreign mercenaries Iran has recruited.
December 27, 2016: Pakistan, Russia and China officials met in Russia to discuss the security situation in Afghanistan. China and Russia agreed to try and get UN sanctions against the Taliban lifted in order to encourage the Taliban to enter peace talks with Afghanistan. The U.S. had earlier revealed evidence of the Taliban getting some help (sanctuary, diplomatic support and information) from Iran and Russia in return for assistance in keeping ISIL out of Iran and Russia. Afghanistan accuses Russia and China of cooperating with Pakistan is trying to control Afghanistan via the Taliban (which was created by Pakistan in the 1990s for just that purpose). Afghanistan accuses Iran of secretly working with the Taliban when it will help keep Islamic terrorists out of Iran. Russia has also come out in support of the Chinese financed rail link between China and the Indian Ocean via Pakistan and new port facilities (and a Chinese naval base) on the Pakistani coast. India sides with the U.S. in criticizing China for blocking UN sanctions against some Islamic terrorist leaders who have proved useful to China. Afghan politicians openly accuse Saudi Arabia and Iran of supporting Islamic terrorists when it is in their interests, even if it means problems for other countries, like Afghanistan. Russia admits such links and points out that to fight terrorists you often have to cooperate with some of them.
December 26, 2016: In northern Iraq, Iran (the IRGC) is believed responsible for the terrorist bombing at the headquarters of the PDK-I in Erbil. The two explosions killed five PDK-I members and two Kurdish policemen.