The war of words (and occasional violence) between the Sunni Arabs of Arabia and the Shia Iranians does have one beneficial angle. Each side accurately accuses the other of various political crimes and gets these ugly facts out into the open. Many of the accusations are not made up but are simply accurate accounts of what is going on. Thus Iran broadcasts details of how the Sunni states on the Arab side of the Gulf discriminate and generally abuse their Shia citizens. The Arab media, using equally excellent sources inside Iran, detail how the religious dictatorship in Iran abuses its own people. For people on both sides of the Gulf these media battles are quite informative. Western diplomats and intelligence services also find this rather large flow of accusations to be most informative.
The war between Shia and Sunni has been going on for over a thousand years and is normally a low key affair, marked by obscure theological arguments and a lot more social bigotry against the “others.” Since Shia have always been the minority, they get the worst of it. The Shia are also more vulnerable because of their custom of revering many of their notable historical figures with shrines. Sunni call this blasphemous idolatry and often attack or destroy the shrines and frequently hide or destroy the corpses of these ancient Shia leaders. While senior clerics from all sides oppose the desecration of graves, Sunni holy warriors, and many lower ranking clerics, are not restrained. Recent Sunni terrorist attacks on Shia shrines in Iraq and Syria has made it more difficult for Iran to aid al Qaeda (which is basically a Sunni religious fanatic organization) against their common enemies (the U.S., the West, current governments in Arabia). Al Qaeda leaders sometimes try to restrain their followers when it comes to Shia shrines, but that message does not have much impact at ground level. This is bad for both Iran and its Sunni neighbors because the street level anger and hatred will persist long after the leadership agrees to halt the warmongering.
The U.S. has organized an international mine clearing force in the Persian Gulf, with ships and personnel from 41 nations and is conducting mine clearing exercises in the Persian Gulf for the rest of the month. Naval mines are the most effective weapon Iran possesses if it decides to attack shipping in the Persian Gulf.
Iranian support for Syria in its fight against Sunni rebels is becoming more obvious. The government is now openly calling for volunteers to go fight in Syria. So far members of the Quds Force and others from the armed forces have been ordered to Syria to act as trainers and advisors. This is considered a survivable assignment, but Iranian troops fighting alongside Syrian ones is rather more dangerous and volunteers are being sought. Efforts to get Iraqi Shia to fight in Syria has not been very successful, in part because that same Syrian government (led by the Shia minority in Syria) supported the Sunni terrorists based in Syria after 2003, and helped them get into Iraq to kill over 50,000 Shia. This is less of an issue in Iran, where disdain for Arabs extends to dead Shia Arabs as well. But many Iranians see this support of the Syrian dictatorship as something they are being forced to pay for, with obvious hits to the standard of living for the average Iranian. For the average Sunni Iraqi Arab, fighting against the Shia government of Iran is a rather more attractive proposal and over a thousand Iraqi Sunnis have gone to Syria, while less than a hundred Iraqi Shia have done so.
Iran has been particularly helpful in equipping and training the pro-government Syrian militias. The Iranian Quds Force has long experience in this sort of thing, having organized Hezbollah in Lebanon 30 years ago. Quds is increasingly busy in Syria and now the Iranian Army has been told to assist with training, or retraining, Syrian soldiers. The Iranians are believed to be behind the Syrian adoption of savage new tactics in the fighting around Damascus. These new methods involve mass killings of civilians, especially military age men, during daytime raids into pro-rebel villages.
Late last year the Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander openly bragged that members of the Quds Force were operating in Syria. Quds has long been Iran's international terrorism support organization. The Quds Force supplies weapons to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, as well as Islamic radicals in Somalia, Iraq, and elsewhere. Quds has been advising Syrian forces on how to deal with the rebels and occasionally helping with raids and interrogations. Iran is also bringing in some badly needed special weapons and equipment. Most of this is coming in by air via Iraq. Syrian rebels are getting more and more proof of Iranian aid out to the world. Now the rebels are facing “special troops” trained and advised by the Iranians.
Iran is also very concerned about its protégé Hezbollah in Lebanon. This Shia militia is increasingly unpopular in Lebanon and its support of the Shia Assad government in Syria is not popular in Lebanon either. Lebanon has been the victim of Assad plots, assassination, and general bad behavior for decades. Hezbollah tries to ignore this, but most Lebanese don’t.
Iranian efforts to reinforce Hezbollah are being hampered by Israeli air strikes. The first one was in January, but there have been two more in the last week with Israel hinting that there are more to come. Iran has long shipped weapons to Hezbollah via Syria, and with that route in danger of being cut, more missiles and other military equipment are being trucked to from Syria to Lebanon. Israel is determined to halt the movement of these long range missiles and Russian anti-aircraft systems to Lebanon. Israel has increasingly been working, usually quietly and unofficially, with Sunni Arab states to oppose Iranian sponsored terrorism and the Iranian nuclear weapons program. It appears that some of that cooperation is at work in Syria, where the principal financial and weapons suppliers for the rebels are Jordan and Arab Gulf states, some of them long-time silent partners with Israel in counter-terrorism matters. So far the only air support the Syrian rebels have received has come from Israel, not NATO. This annoys Iran a great deal because, as a practical matter, there is nothing Iran can do about it.
Hezbollah has responded by sending more armed men into Syria and threatening to openly declare war on the rebels if rebel interference with Hezbollah convoys does not cease. Hezbollah is less eager to threaten Israel with retaliation because the majority of Lebanese would like to see Hezbollah taken down a notch or two. Attacking Israel and getting beat up by the Israeli response would do that. Israel has been openly preparing that response for the last seven years.
Faced with growing popular discontent over poverty, shortages (because of the new international oil sales sanctions), and police state behavior, Iranian clerics are seeking scapegoats. Blaming Israel and the United States does not work anymore, so new culprits are being sought. Some clerics are blaming these problems on Israelis using magic to force most nations on the planet to back the new sanctions. Another cleric blamed recent earthquakes (and other natural disasters) on Iranian women who wear short skirts, revealing tops, and other immodest clothing.
Government officials are claiming that new economic policies are neutralizing the impact of the new economic sanctions imposed a year ago. While Iran has adapted, that has not eliminated the pain from having their oil export income cut 27 percent last year and headed for a steeper fall this year. Other sanctions have made many import items difficult to get at any price. Iran says it will manufacture more goods locally, which will mean more expensive and shoddier replacements for the imports. The government tries to hide the fact that unemployment and inflation are going up while family income is declining. The government has not budged on its refusal to halt its nuclear weapons program. So the West is increasing sanction enforcement efforts. No one is willing to go to war with Iran over the matter, so it’s got to be more non-military pressure or surrender.
May 6, 2013: In Kenya a court sentenced two Iranians to life in prison for plotting to carry out terror attacks in Kenya. The two were arrested last year in Kenya and were caught with 15 kg (33 pounds) of explosives and other bomb making materials. The two were apparently under orders to attack American or Israeli targets in Kenya. Such Iranian sponsored terrorism has caused considerable death and destruction in Kenya in the past.
May 4, 2013: After months of negotiations India has agreed to spend $100 million to upgrade the Iranian port of Chabahar and Iran would allow Indian ships to move cargo in and out of Afghanistan via Iranian roads, railroads, and the port of Chabahar. The Pakistani port of Gwadar is 72 kilometers east of Chabahar but Indian relations with Pakistan are too unreliable to allow use of Gwadar (which is now controlled by Chinese firms). 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). Afghanistan likes having close relations with Pakistan because both India and Afghanistan have had problems with Pakistani hostility and support of Islamic terrorists.