Iran has over 2,500 troops in Syria. Until recently nearly all were from the IRGC and most of them officers and career NCOs from combat units who were sent to Syria for a few months to get some combat experience by working with government, Hezbollah and militia units. But now many of the IRGC are being replaced with regular army commandos. All the Iranian deaths (over 240 so far) in Syria are mentioned in Iranian media and until 2016 they were mostly officers or NCOs who were obviously working in or very near to the combat. This year most of the dead have been soldiers. Iran has also been successful at encouraging Iranians to buy property in government held areas (mainly Damascus) and put up new buildings. That makes it appear Iran is very confident that Shia and Iranians will be welcome in Syria for the some time to come and that will only happen if the Assads (or some other Shia tyrant) stay in control.
Despite the mid-March Russian announcement that it is withdrawing troops from Syria Russian warplanes are still supporting Syrian government forces advancing in the northwest around Homs, Palmyra and Aleppo. Russia has made it clear that it is only withdrawing some of its air power and military personnel. The departing forces can be returned quickly if needed. Russia will maintain control of port facilities on the Syrian coast and nearby airbases. Iranian leaders admit they are glad to see Russians leaving as many Iranians believe there is always a possibility that the Russians will side with Israel if Iran makes a serious threat to Israel. The withdrawal announcement is believed to be a Russian effort to get the Assad government to go along with whatever peace deal can be arrived at in the upcoming UN sponsored peace talks. This might include a partition of Syria (which the Assads and Iran oppose) into a Kurdish state in the northeast (which Turkey opposes), an Assad (non-Kurds, non-Sunni) state in the west from Damascus north to Aleppo and west to the coast) and a Sunni state (the rest, which is most of the territory and population of Syria.) The Sunni state would be stuck with most of the Islamic terrorists, which have been largely kept out of the Kurdish and non-Sunni territory. Everyone would apparently cooperate to crush the most troublesome Islamic terrorists. These would mainly be al Qaeda and ISIL Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) affiliated groups. Partition is currently seen as the least worst option. Iran also suspects that Russia would be willing to support the removal of the Assads if it would bring peace to Syria. For the moment Iran will not allow the Assads to be removed under any circumstances.
Further east, despite Iranian pledges of cooperation to take Mosul the U.S. and its Sunni Arab allies fear that Iraq is still on its way to becoming subordinate to Iran. Because of effective Iranian aid in dealing with ISIL the Iraqi government has become less dependent on American and NATO support. Meanwhile Iran supports the increasingly aggressive and autonomous behavior of the Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias that are assisting the Iraqi Army. The Shia militias are also taking control of territory in urban and rural areas, displacing the police and local government. At the end of 2015 there were several thousand American troops already in Iraq and more (most of them Special Forces) on the way. There are now nearly 5,000 (including contractors that are military veterans). The government has made it clear to Iran (which is very hostile to U.S. forces in Iraq) that some American troops are essential. The presence of American troops also makes it less likely that Iran will attempt anything too ambitious (like invading or backing a takeover by Shia militias) and everyone knows that. But Iraqi leaders also know that American troops come and go while Iranian forces are always next door. Most Iraqis are more concerned with Iranian meddling than anything the Americans might do. At the same time Iraqis are wary of the other Gulf Arabs, especially Saudi Arabia. The Shia politicians running Iraq have to move carefully because Iran, Saudi Arabia and America are all making demands, often contrary ones.
The Azeri Problem
Russia and Iran are hustling to end nearly a week of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Both these countries were formerly part of the Soviet Union. Forces from the two nations began firing at each other on April 2nd and a cease fire was negotiated and implemented on the 5th. But now that deal is in danger because some shooting has resumed. Since the 2nd nearly a hundred have died and more than twice as many wounded. Russia considers itself the “protector” of Armenia but has managed to maintain good relations with Azerbaijan as well. In doing that Russia established one of the more successful peacekeeping operations since the Cold War ended in 1991. Iran has tried, and not always succeeded, to be on good terms with Azerbaijan, if only because about a quarter of the Iranian population are Azeris. At the same time Iran and Russia, traditional enemies, have become allies and those links are being used to deal with latest round of violence. Iran has long harbored an intense interest in Azerbaijan. This is because most of the Turkic and Moslem Azeris live in Iran. Up until 1813, modern Azerbaijan was part of Iran. Then the Russians showed up. Armenia and Azerbaijan were the last Russian conquests as the tsar’s soldiers and Cossacks advanced down the Caucasus region (between the Black and Caspian Seas) in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Russians stopped when they ran into the Turkish and Iranian empires, but not before taking a chunk of Azerbaijan from Iran. The Iranians have not forgotten. In effect, most of "Azerbaijan" is in Iran and Iran has long hoped to reunite all Azeris under their rule. Many Iranian Azeris have risen to senior positions in the government. Despite that, most Azeris would like all Azeris united in a single Azerbaijan. This is not a popular idea within Iran. The Russians, on the other hand, have come to accept the 1991 loss of Azerbaijan and Armenia.
This cooperation comes at the same time as Iranian and Russian announcements that deliveries of S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems have resumed. Israel believes that not enough components have arrived in Iran to get the S-300 operational. It is also believed that Iran blames Israel for negotiating a secret deal with Russia (involving Syria and other matters of mutual interest) to delay the Iranian effort to get the S-300 systems delivered. These S-300s are not yet operational and the Iranians are angry about it. The Iranians are also angry about some Russian behavior in Syria, mainly the Russians insisting that everything be done the Russian way.
Dissidents And Disagreements
In March 2015 an Iranian military helicopter pilot (major Ahmad Reza Khosravi) fled to Turkey and was granted asylum. Now Khosravi is openly threatening to move to Israel and work against the religious dictatorship in Iran if Iran does not stop trying to kill or kidnap him as well as threatening the wife and child he left behind. Khosravi fled to Turkey because he opposes the Iranian government but kept quiet and let it be known that if Iran left him and his family alone he would continue to keep quiet. The Iranian government did not agree and now it has the bad publicity it doesn’t want. Iranian leaders apparently feel it is better to be feared than loved. Khosravi also wants the government accept his resignation from the military but the government refuses to do that, just as it had refused several earlier attempts to resign. Khosravi has been in the military for 19 years and serves in a unit that supports the secret police. Khosravi believes that the government fears more pilots would defect if the government did not demonstrate it could get defectors back or kill them. Iran has been accused of this sort of bad behavior before, but usually in Europe, not neighboring Turkey.
Iranian leaders arrived in Turkey for a state visit and to do some business. While Turkey publicly accuses Iran of wanting to replace ISIL with Iranian sponsored terrorism once ISIL is destroyed the two countries are still willing to improve economic relationships. This is the sort of love/hate relationship the Turks and Iranians have had ever since the Turks and Iranians first bumped into each other a thousand years ago. Neither was able to conquer the other and for the last few centuries there has been a stalemate. But the competition continues.
The U.S. has clarified its interpretation of the 2015 treaty that lifts sanctions by confirming that Iran only has to shut down its nuclear development program. There are no such restrictions on the ballistic missile program or the Iranian support for Islamic terrorism. This includes aggressive actions against Israel and Sunni Arabs. Many American allies, especially Israel and the Gulf Arab states, were disappointed with this U.S. “clarification.”
April 14, 2016: As part of the preparations for the annual April 18th National Army Day celebration the government controlled mass media began showing a lot of videos and pictures of new and existing equipment. Foreign intelligence agencies find these photos a useful tool in determining which new weapons (which Iran regularly announces with much publicity) are only for show and which are mass produced. Nothing new this year. The most frequently seen “new” items are low end stuff (rifles, mortars) or refurbished vehicles and aircraft from the 1980s or earlier. Iran is planning on changing that via large arms purchases from Russia. But the United States and the UN are getting in the way by interpreting the treaty lifting sanctions as only allowing “defensive” weapons and not accepting the broad interpretation of “defensive” that Iran and Russia are promoting.
April 13, 2016: Armenia, Russia, Iran and Georgia agreed to build an “energy corridor” that will consist of an electrical power transmission system that will go from Iran to Russia and link all four countries into an electric power network. The corridor is to become operational by 2019 and will eventually be able to handle up to 1,000 MW.
April 11, 2016:
Afghanistan, Iran and India agreed on details of the joint venture (mainly between Iran and India) whereby India will spend $100 million to upgrade the Iranian port of Chabahar and allow Indian ships to move cargo in and out of Afghanistan via Iranian roads, railroads and the port of Chabahar. During 2004-9 India spent over $70 million to build a 218 kilometer highway from Kandahar (the major city in southwest Afghanistan) to the Iranian border. That connects to Iranian roads and railroads that go the thousand kilometers to Chabahar. This gives Afghanistan easy access to the ocean without going through Pakistan (and its bandits, corrupt officials and unreliable politics).
April 1, 2016: In the east a dozen Afghan smugglers were intercepted by border police on the Iranian side of the border. Three of the Afghans were killed during a brief gun battle while two were captured and the rest apparently fled back into Afghanistan. This sort of thing happens regularly on the Iran border as armed Afghan drug smugglers try to get heroin and opium into Iran. There are hundreds of casualties a year (most of them smugglers) on the Afghan border.
March 31, 2016: In the southeast four policemen died in a clash near the Pakistani border. It is unclear if the enemy was drug smugglers or Baluchi tribal separatists.
March 29, 2016: Iran and Pakistan have signed a number of new economic and border security agreements. The economic deals relate to increasing trade with Iran now that international sanctions are being lifted. The border agreements mean to make it difficult for smugglers, tribal rebels and Islamic terrorists from easily moving back and forth.
March 28, 2016: For the third time in in three weeks a warship on anti-piracy patrol near Somalia stopped and searched a ship and found a large shipment of weapons being smuggled to Shia rebels in Yemen. This time it was an American destroyer that caught the boatload of weapons. The previous shipment was found by a French frigate. On the 7th an Australian warship caught a fishing boat 300 kilometers off the coast of Oman and found over 2,000 weapons, most of them AK-47s. At first it was unclear if the weapons (which seemed to be from Iran) were headed to Shia rebels in Yemen or black market weapons dealers in Somalia. Further investigation confirmed that all three shipments were headed to Shia rebels in northern Yemen.
March 26, 2016: In the northwest the local Kurdish majority complains that they are being singled out for punishment because the Kurds are among the many Iranians who defy the religious dictatorship each year by celebrating Nowruz (Festival of Fire). This is a tradition that began nearly 4,000 years ago and was a part of the New Year (which started in Spring, as it did worldwide until Christians changed that) festivities under the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian religion. This ancient faith dominated what is now Iran for over four thousand years until most Iranians were converted at sword point by invading Moslem armies. As with new converts to any religion some aspects of the former religion remained and were tolerated. However this was always a problem for conservative Islamic clergy who usually lose out when they attempt to completely extinguish ancient religious customs (like the Christmas tree, Halloween and so much more in the West). The Iranian religious dictatorship has been trying to suppress Nowruz since the 1990s and have been losing during the last decade and will not admit defeat. Iran may be angrier than usual at the Kurds this year because Kurds in Iraq and Syria are openly renouncing Islam and returning to the Zoroastrian religion. Much to the distress of the religious dictatorship the secret police report that many young Iranians are seriously discussing doing the same. Kurds have a particular affection for Zoroastrianism because tradition has it that it first appeared among Kurds. According to Islamic law switching to another religion is not allowed and in many Moslem majority countries is a death penalty crime.