This month the American government designated the IRGC
(Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps)
as a terrorist organization. The 100,000 strong IRGC (and several hundred thousand part-timers) mainly exists to protect the religious dictatorship of Iran. That means they terrorize and murder Iranians on a regular basis. Outside Iran, the Quds Force (part of the IRGC) has, for decades, set up and supported terrorist organizations worldwide. For significant operations (Iraq, Syria) many non-Quds IRGC personnel are used as well as some regular Iranian military specialists. Few dispute that the IRGC protects and supports Islamic terrorism but Iran always maintained the IRGC was defending Islam and the religious leaders of Iran and what could possibly be wrong with that. The American designation will mean major problems for known IRGC members who travel outside of Iran and for the many companies (mainly in Iran) the IRGC owns and profits from. Iran responded by declaring the American military international terrorists but that has little or no impact since Iran and the IRGC have been attacking and killing American military personnel (and civilians) for decades.
The IRGC is also quite active, although not as homicidal, inside Iran against Iranians. The widespread anti-government protests continue and the IRGC plays a role in identifying protest leaders as well as organizing counter-protests (using IRGC personnel or Iranians ordered to participate). IRGC will also use operatives in civilian clothes to attack Iranian protesters. Women who continue to protest dress restrictions, especially those who find photos or videos of their actions appearing on the Internet or other media, will be tracked down with the help of the IRGC and then arrested by the lifestyle police and often held in IRGC prisons. The IRGC also has Cyber War units that are used inside Iran to identify Iranians using the Internet to criticize the government. Outside Iran, these hackers are used for raising cash as well as assisting terror operations.
President Hassan Rohani of Iran came to Iraq on the March 11th for an official visit and left many Iraqis wondering if Rohani went home believing Iraqis were feeling comfortable with their eastern neighbor. Iran seems to think Iraq has become an extension of Iran. Yet a growing number of Iraqis are openly demanding that Iran back off. Senior Iraqi Shia clerics told Rohani that Iraqis would not tolerate Iranian pressure or respond well to Iranian pressure.
Actually, it gets worse than that because Iraq, which Iran hoped to annex or at least turn into a compliant client state, is not cooperating. In part, because Arab Shia have always disliked the Iranian (Indo-European) Shia and vice versa. Iraqi Shia get regular reports of how badly Iran still (after thousands of years) treats its Arab minority. So while the Shia dominated government of Iraq pretends to be friendly and grateful towards Iran, it is becoming obvious to Iran that this is all for show and not real. Opinion polls in Iraq make it clear that most Iraqis are hostile to Iran and Iranian intentions. These suspicious attitudes are on the rise. This does not mean the Iraqis are above making some cash in somewhat questionable transactions. But becoming an appendage of Iran is not going to happen willingly no matter how much the Iranians threaten, cajole and scheme.
The Iranian backed PMF militias are also having trust issues. A growing number of PMF members are losing belief in the superiority of the Iranian Shia religious dictatorship. Over a year of increasing popular protests against the Iranian government has not gone unnoticed. Iran has ordered that the Iraqi PMF units purge their ranks of members who appear to have lost their willingness to do whatever they are ordered to do (like trying to overthrow the Iraqi government or attack Iraqi or foreign troops). This includes attacks on PMF units that were never (or no longer) controlled by Iranian advisors or reliable Iraqi Shia Arabs.
Iraqis are particularly angry at pro-Iran PMF leaders who keep talking about attacking American troops as part of a campaign to get the 5,200 American troops out of Iraq. Most Iraqis understand that without the presence of those Americans Iraqi would be even more threatened by most of their neighbors (Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia). Even many Iraqis who are not particularly pro-American recognize this use of American troops as a “protection force.” The Americans aren’t there to fight Iraqis but to keep the neighbors from making life difficult for an independent Iraq.
Israel wants Iran out of Syria and would prefer that the Syrian Kurds got their autonomy. Israel is willing to make a peace deal with Syria and Turkey. Israel has successfully attacked Iranian efforts to build a military infrastructure (bases, arms factories, forces on the Israeli border) in Syria and this has made the Iranian leadership angrier and very frustrated. Iran is seen as even more unstable and unpredictable than Turkey. While Iran has backed off from the Israeli border and spent more time and effort concealing its operations and personnel in Syria, there are still plans to “destroy Israel.” These apparently revolve around upgrading over 10,000 of the longer (50 kilometers or more) range rockets Iran has provided Hezbollah. The upgrade is mainly about adding GPS guidance systems that will allow for precision attacks on Israeli targets (especially populated areas). Mass use of these rockets could overwhelm Israeli anti-missile defenses.
Russia has taken the lead in brokering agreements or “understandings” to deal with disagreements with Turkey or Iran over who will get what in Syria. So far Russia has had limited success with Iran and Turkey. Israel has been willing to work with Russia and that has proved useful for both countries. Israel and Russia have been cooperating in Syria for years but Turkey and Iran are determined to have their way despite the opposition they are encountering.
Iran has been spending a lot less on Syrian operations because Iran has less cash to operate with. The IRGC budget for foreign operations (especially Syria and Lebanon) have been cut, apparently in a big way. The Iranian mercenary force in Syria is undergoing a reorganization and downsizing. The IRGC explains this away by describing it as a “redeployment for the attack on Israel.” The reality is that there is a lot less cash to pursue that goal and the IRGC is actually trying to avoid more Israeli airstrikes if only because this implies that Israel continues to win this war with Iran. In Lebanon the well-established (since the 1980s when founded by the IRGC) Hezbollah has done the unthinkable and is asking the public for donations because Iranian subsidies have been cut, apparently drastically. The Iran government is spending more money to relieve the economic problems most Iranian face.
Meanwhile, there are a number of complications in Syria that have led to a military stalemate. Many of these revolve around what to do with the Syrian Kurds. Iran has problems with Israel in Syria, as well as its own allies. The Iranians want the Syrian government (controlled by the Assad clan) to accept Iranian domination (as Hezbollah does in Lebanon) and agrees with Turkey that the Syrian Kurds should not get autonomy and should accept rule by the Iranian backed Syrian government as well as Turkish control of border areas. Iran has a major problem in that no one wants them in Syria much less acting as an occupying military force dedicated to starting a war with Israel.
The Russians would prefer that the Turks and Iranians got out of Syria and that the Assads and Kurds worked out a compromise, which the two seem willing to do. Iran is a major impediment to such a deal. The Americans, Israelis and most other Middle Eastern nations agree with this approach.
In Gaza, Iranian agents are trying to convince the Islamic terror groups there to unite and cooperate to make a ceasefire with Israel work. That would enable Iran to pay for a military buildup similar to Hezbollah, which has Iran financed since the 1980s. There are several factors that cripple the “southern Hezbollah” effort. First Iran and Hezbollah are Shia and the Gulf Arab states are largely Sunni and basically at war with Shia Iran because of that. This is crucial because Iran is currently broke, because of low oil prices, revived American economic sanctions and decades of corrupt rule by a religious dictatorship, Iran is unable to finance two Hezbollahs. Actually, payments to Hezbollah have been cut recently and Hezbollah is openly seeking new sources of income. Hamas has always received the bulk of its foreign aid from Gulf Arab oil states and the United States. Both of these sources have largely dried up because Hamas refuses to make peace and allow the formation of a united Palestinian government.
Iranians, Indians and Afghans generally agree that Pakistan has no interest in abandoning its use of certain Islamic terror groups (like the Taliban) as a way to put pressure on neighbors. This is considered a problem for everyone, especially the Afghans. Worse, few people in the region (especially Afghans and Iranians) expect the Taliban to agree to a ban on Afghanistan again becoming a sanctuary for Islamic terrorists. Many Afghans are wondering why the Americans are even negotiating with the Taliban, who have long demonstrated that they cannot be trusted. Iranians are particularly wary of this as they see the Taliban as inherently anti-Iranian. Iran also has issues with the Afghan drug gangs, who continue to produce, with Pakistani cooperation, all that heroin, opium and hashish. Much of it gets out of Afghanistan via Iran and that has turned the Iran/Afghan border into an increasingly bloody battle zone.
At the same time, Afghans worry that Iran has some secret plans for the 10,000 Afghan Shia who returned to Afghanistan after serving several years as Iranian mercenaries in the Syrian civil war. The risk of death or permanent injury was great but the pay was good (up to a thousand dollars or more a month) and, until the Americans revived economic sanctions against Iran in 2017, it was relatively easy to have that money sent back to families in Afghanistan or Iranian refugee camps. Many of these Afghan Shia stayed in Iran or even accepted the Iranian offer to settle in Syria in a program for militia veterans that is less extensive than Iran hoped because of budget problems. The American sanctions have reduced what Iran can afford to spend in Syria and that is why so many Afghan Shia militiamen were discharged and sent back to Iran or Afghanistan. Those who arrived back in Afghanistan were respected by their families for their efforts (and the money sent back) but most Afghans, even many Shia, are suspicious that Iran may eventually try to revive their Afghan mercenary units inside Afghanistan.
This Pakistani use of Islamic terrorists has caused problems with neighbors like Iran (Pakistani zealots kill Pakistani Shia), China (Pakistani zealots attack Chinese investments and the Chinese running them) and India (Pakistani zealots seek to terrorize India and seize control of Kashmir and eventually all of India). These neighbors have become increasingly forceful in their demands that the Pakistani government do something about this. Pakistan placates the Iranians by refusing to provide military assistance to the Arabs in Yemen, or against any Iranian military operation directed at the Gulf Arabs. Now Pakistan has to deal with increasingly angry Arabs who threaten to halt the cash infusions that the Pakistani economy increasingly depends on. The Chinese demand quick and effective action against Pakistan supported Islamic terrorists who threaten Chinese investments. This was one of the reasons for the 2014 campaign against many of the Islamic terror groups operating from Pakistani bases. Pakistan had hoped the Chinese would replace the Arabs as a source of cash support but the Chinese don’t operate that way. China makes investments and does not provide cash gifts like the Arabs and, until recently, the Americans. The United States has halted all cash support for Pakistan because the Pakistanis would not shut down Islamic terror groups that attacked American interests. Now the Pakistanis know that if the Chinese feel they are being played like the Americans were, the Chinese will not be patient or forgiving. The Americans are no longer as accommodating as they used to be and the Iranians never were. India is a nuclear power with a larger army and economy than Pakistan. India is also losing patience and threatening war. Pakistan has to worry about too many past mistakes catching up with them at once. China has told Pakistan openly that China is not an ally or protector of Pakistan. China is a business partner and as long as business continues there will be a Chinese presence in Pakistan. The same rules are applied to everyone else. China does business with Iran and the Sunni Arab states Iran is at war with. Same with Russia and Ukraine. China will make some efforts to protect its investments but is reluctant to send in troops, or free money.
April 18, 2019: In Syria, the government is suffering a serious fuel shortage. Since late 2018 Iran has not been able to smuggle in petroleum products by sea. The Americans have been successful at finding the halting the use of tankers. Egypt has cooperated by honoring American requests to block suspected smuggling tankers from the Suez Canal. Tankers that can fit through the Suez Canal but take the long way (around South Africa) to Syria are automatically suspicious. Iran is short of cash to pay for more detection-proof smuggling efforts and is doing what it can by sending fuel to Syria via truck.
April 17, 2019: Iraqi border police arrested an Iranian cleric at a border crossing and accused the cleric of being part of a criminal gang that smuggled drugs into Iraq. Iran protested this but most Iranians know that many of their clerics are corrupt and are often protected by the senior Shia clerics to operate the religious dictatorship in Iran.
April 16, 2019: In Syria (Aleppo), eleven people were killed when Russian troops clashed with an Iran backed local militia. Three of the dead were civilians while the rest were militia (nationality not mentioned). Russia has sent military police battalions, composed of Russian Moslems, to Syria to deal with troublesome pro-government militias. The most bothersome militias tend to be the ones created by Iran using foreign mercenaries and the Russian military police have orders to arrest or open fire on any of these militias that misbehave. Syria cannot do this without offending Iran while the Russians can and everyone understands that the Russians are performing a needed serviced.
In Yemen, the government revealed that it had shot down eleven rebel UAVs equipped with explosives and sent to attack the Yemen parliament which has resumed meeting in the southeast (Hadramawt province). There is still some threat from these Iranian supplied UAVs, but while these are smaller and easier to smuggle in there appears to be a limited number of them left in Yemen because of the numerous Arab air raids during 2019 against bases they operate from. While the ballistic missile attacks have been halted there has only been a reduction in the use of armed (with explosives) UAV attacks. Government forces first encountered Iranian UAVs equipped with explosives in early 2018. There were a few successful attacks with these UAVs used as cruise missiles but since late 2018 the coalition has been quick to detect and destroy these UAVs, either in the air or on the ground.
April 15, 2019: Massive flooding has done enormous damage in northern Iran and has left 79 dead and caused over two billion dollars in damage so far. Yet few foreign nations are sending much, if any, aid. Back in 2000 and 2003, when even more devastating (especially in terms of injuries) earthquakes hit Iran the outpouring of international aid was huge. It included the United States which not only sent material but also medical and rescue personnel who operated field hospitals and search and rescue operations. In 2019 Iranians have noted the lack of international disaster relief and the inability of the government to provide much help either. This attributed to the continuing government emphasis on supporting overseas military and terror operations on a large scale. That results in a lack of money for essential projects in Iran, including such basic items like pay salaries to some government employees to workers in companies owned by corrupt government officials or the IRGC. Since 2005 or so the Iranian government has become more hostile, deliberately unleashing the IRGC and Quds force in more areas with orders to create more mayhem. Actions have consequences. Yet some nations did send aid, but not much of it and some of the aid was controversial. In Iraq, Shia political and religious leaders are openly criticizing pro-Iran PMF militias going to Iran to assist in the areas where floods occurred. The same heavy rains have caused flooding in northern Iraq and assistance is needed there as well. The Iraqi Shia leaders insisted that Iraq came first. The PMF militias are now part of the Iraqi armed forces and are paid for that. Iran backed PMF militias are unpopular in Iraq because they tend to do what they want and disobey orders from Iraqi military leaders who, in theory, oversee PMF militias.
The Iranian government needs all the help it can get with the flood relief because so far the government has not done a lot for the victims of the floods and people in the flooded areas are angry at the government for that. Lebanese Hezbollah militiamen also showed up in Iran to help with the floods, which makes sense since Iran helped create Hezbollah in the 1980s and has provided the group with billions of dollars in aid since then. Saudi Arabia and the UAE 95 tons of food and other emergency supplies to help with the flood relief effort. Turkey is sending five truckloads of supplies.
In Yemen, the Iran-backed Shia rebels now say they will finally implement the December peace deal that was supposed to reopen the Red Sea port of Hodeida, which is essential for delivering emergency food and other aid to northern Yemen. Iran had persuaded the Shia rebels to stall but that advice lost its appeal as the rebel situation worsened everywhere, not just at Hodeida. Iran had problems of its own at home and elsewhere and as not been able to help much.
April 14, 2019: American sanctions enforcement officials are pressuring India to crack down on Indian shipping companies who break the law (several laws actually) by having their tankers move Iranian oil to Syria. This is done by shutting off AIS (legally required tracking system) as it approaches Syria, unloading the oil and then leave. The Americans have identified many of the Indian owned tankers doing this sort of thing, including one that ran aground on the Syrian coast and was stuck for a while before tugs could be brought in to pull it off the beach.
April 13, 2019: In western Syria (Hama province), Israel launched another airstrike, from Lebanese airspace, on Iranian guided missile facilities. This site is rumored to be where Iran is carrying out nuclear weapons research. Foreign technical experts have been seen at the site, including some North Koreans and “Russian speakers.” Several people were killed, including two Iranians, and possibly other foreigners. Numerous structures were destroyed. Israel apparently coordinated this attack with Russia, which is according to an understanding Russia has with Israel.
April 12, 2019: In the west (Khuzestan province), riot police and IRGC personnel were deployed to deal with more public protests against how the flood damage was handled (or ignored). Since 2003 the Iranian Arabs in Khuzestan have been increasingly vocal, and often violent, about the harsh and increasingly corrupt rule of the Iranian Shia. Iran is acutely aware of how unruly its own Arab minority (a few percent of the population) can be. Most Iranian oil is pumped from the ancestral lands of these Arabs, who are bitter about how they receive little from all that oil income. 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 was overthrown in Iraq and the Shia majority won elections to take power. Iranian Arabs noted that the Iraqi Shia were now getting most of the Iraqi oil income, unlike just across the border in Khuzestan. Since 2003 hundreds of Iranian Arabs have been arrested for separatist activities. Many are still in prison and over 30 have been executed.
April 11, 2019: The government announced it was reviving many of its nuclear research projects. While all of these are described as dealing with nuclear power, many are dual-use (can also be used for nuclear weapons research).
April 8, 2019: The United States designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization. This is expected to interfere with Iranian arms smuggling operations. Iran’s second largest airline, Mahan Air, began scheduled service to Venezuela recently. Iran is believed to already have some IRGC personnel in Venezuela and has discussed sending more, but openly. The Quds Force supports many illegal, and some legal Iranian and Hezbollah operations in South America. These are no secret and one of the few countries where Quds and the IRGC can operate openly is Venezuela. The U.S. blacklisted Mahan in 2011 because it was being used to support Quds Force operations. In January 2019
Germany banned Mahan Air from landing in Germany. The IRGC was shown to be operating Mahan Air to move equipment and personnel for terror operations in and out of Germany. The IRGC operates several freighter aircraft, most of them B-747s. The IRGC owns several Iranian airlines, including Mahan Air. The IRGC has been noticed using two B-747 freighter air aircraft they acquired in early 2017 when the IRGC revived a bankrupt Iranian air freight company. At first, it was thought this was simply another example of the IRGC taking over more of the Iranian economy. But by studying how the two 747s were used Israel concluded that these air transports were being used to move military equipment. One clue was the fact that so many flights tried to stay as far away from Israeli air space as possible even if it meant greatly increasing the cost of the flights.
In response to IRGC being declared a terrorist organization China, a key Russian and Iranian ally, has openly suggested that Iran undertake a “strategic retreat” from Syria to prevent further chaos in the region that would endanger Chinese investments in Iran and, eventually, post-war Syria. China believes Iranian aggressiveness against Israel and Sunni Arab states is self-defeating and potentially trouble for nations, like China, that do business with Iran despite the sanctions.
Israeli media revealed that Hezbollah, with Iranian help, had established a new missile factory in the Lebanese capital (Beirut). Also revealed were the location of some Hezbollah bases in Syria, including several near the Israeli border.
April 7, 2019: In Yemen, the Shia rebels launched another Iranian UAV (carrying explosives) at a target in southwest Saudi Arabia. The UAV was shot down by the Saudis as it entered Saudi air space.
April 4, 2019: Pakistan has reopened one of the 11 air routes Indian air routes use to reach Afghanistan, Iran and points west.
Airlines serving Afghanistan have been demanding that the government do something about the continued Pakistani ban on anyone using their air space. Pakistan is apparently planning to gradually reopen these routes. These flight bans have been in place for nearly two months and have cost Afghanistan, airlines and passengers over $10 million so far. Because of the air battles in Kashmir between Pakistan and India in late February Pakistani airspace has been closed since then and it is costing Afghanistan a lot of money and costing people flying to or from Afghanistan a lot more cash and time as well. Afghanistan gets a $500 fee for every commercial aircraft that passes through Afghan air space and in a normal month there were over 400 such flights a day. But because of the Pakistani flight restrictions, Afghan international air overflights are down to 20-30 a day. In the last month alone that has cost Afghanistan over seven million dollars. Flying from Afghanistan to India became more difficult. For the first time Iran allowed Afghan transports to reach India via Iranian air space (to the Indian Ocean and then east to India.) This took a lot longer (and was more expensive in terms of fuel and other operating expenses). Via Pakistan, the flights take 90 minutes. Via Iran, the same flights take 300 minutes. Thus passengers had to pay $300 to fly to India versus the usual rate of $160. The air space closures have no end date because Pakistan called the air space closure indefinite, at least until the Pakistani government changes that.
April 3, 2019: The United States declassified its data on Iranian attacks on American troops from 2003-11. This data showed that Iranian-backed groups were responsible for 17 percent of the American combat deaths in Iraq. That’s 608 dead and more than two thousand wounded.
March 27, 2019: In Syria, Israel launched another airstrike on Iranian facilities, this time outside Aleppo. Seven people were killed and at least one warehouse full of weapons and explosives blew up. Israel apparently coordinated this attack with Russia, which is according to an understanding Russia has with Israel.
March 25, 2019:
Iran and Syria have made it official; Iran will assist the Assad government in regaining control of all of Syria and will back efforts to reopen all border crossings with Iraq.
In southern Israel, a long-range rocket fired from Iran backed Hamas into Israel exploded in a village outside Tel Aviv, wounding seven Israelis. The rocket was not intercepted by Iron Dome because there was no Iron Dome stationed that far from Gaza. At first, Hamas insisted the rocket attack was an accident. Then they said it was carried out by Iranians without permission from Hamas leaders. Finally, Hamas leaders admitted that they ordered the attack. It is unclear why efforts were made to deny responsibility. In the end, Egypt was able to confirm that Hamas had ordered the attack and some Hamas officials confirmed that. In retaliation for his attack, Israel carried out dozens of air and artillery strikes against Hamas facilities in Gaza. This included bombing the new Hamas headquarters and intelligence service buildings. Hamas believed Israel did not know the location of these buildings but the Israelis did and demolished the two multistory buildings in a residential neighborhood. Egypt quickly arranged a ceasefire in Gaza but that did not last because rockets were again fired into Israel and these attacks and Israeli retaliation attacks continued for two more days.
The United States officially backed the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights, which Syria still considers as Syrian. Israel has occupied the Golan Heights since 1967 when they took the area after Syrian used these heights to attack Israeli territory to the south that was on lower ground. In 1981 Israel annexed the area. The UN opposed this but that had no impact on the situation. Israel points out that Syria has never made a serious efforts to retake the Golan Heights since 1973. In that respect Israel considers the Golan Heights abandoned property and has absorbed it. Iran has told Syria that Iranian forces will help return Golan to Syrian control. Syrian leaders are nervous about that offer because the Iranians don’t seem any more likely to take Golan back than anyone else.
March 22, 2019: In the southeast, across the border in Baluchistan Pakistan turned over four Iranian soldiers who had been taken in October 2018 by Iranian Sunni Baluchi separatists. Pakistani troops found the four were being held in an area where the borders of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan met and was able to rescue the Iranian troops. This Baluchi border violence has been going on for decades. Pakistan keeps getting blamed for the continued presence of Iranian Sunni separatists in Pakistani Baluchistan. Pakistan tries but the Baluchis live on both sides of the border and Iranian and Pakistani Baluchis want to create an independent Baluchistan that includes a chunk of southeast Iran where most of the Iranian Baluchis live. One of the usual suspects, Iranian separatist group Jaish al Adl, is particularly hated by the Iranians. In late 2018 Iran threatened to send troops across the Pakistani border to find and destroy Iranian Jaish al Adl camps in Pakistan if the Pakistani security forces did not take action and neither did the IRGC.