Iran: Talk Big And Avoid Armed Confrontations

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February 15, 2014: The state controlled media is breathlessly following the progress of what it describes as a “destroyer” and “helicopter carrier” traveling to the Atlantic Ocean. Iran describes these two ships as the “27 th fleet” and that the two ships will stay out there for three months protecting Iranian merchant ships from pirates. In reality the “destroyer” is a 1,500 ton frigate and the “helicopter carrier” is a 33,000 ton oil tanker modified to have a helicopter landing pad and it sometimes carries three helicopters. The helicopter carrier has also been armed with a 76mm gun and tw0 twin-23mm anti-aircraft guns. The main function of the helicopter carrier is to ensure that the frigate does not run out of fuel in the middle of the ocean. This frigate can travel 9,000 kilometers on internal fuel (at 28 kilometers an hour). In other words it has to refuel every two weeks if it keeps moving while at sea. The 27 th fleet has moved south around the southern tip of Africa and towards Venezuela and Cuba where the fleet will recuperate and provide photo ops. The U.S. will be condemned and warned that the Iran Navy is close. This is all for domestic consumption, to reassure Iranians who believe, or want to believe that three decades of sanctions have not reduced their armed forces to impotence. While Iran has the largest armed forces (in terms of personnel) in the region its weapons and equipment are far less capable and for decades its military leaders have been chosen for their loyalty to the religious dictatorship that runs Iran rather than for skill in military matters.

Iran has been unable to buy foreign warships for most of the last 30 years and has never developed the capacity to build modern warships. But Iran has built a commercial ship building industry and that is being used to build obsolete warships (using decade’s old technology, or whatever can be stolen or smuggled in). This stuff is OK for coast guard duties but not for a serious confrontation with the neighbors. Neither the Arabs nor the Iranians have much of a naval tradition, but the Arabs have much better ships and warplanes and sailors nearly as good as the Iranians. Given all that the Iranians prefer to talk big and avoid armed confrontations.

Iran’s major military effort for the last year has been keeping the pro-Iran Syrian Assad government in power. While the Assads are losing on the battlefield and in the media they are winning on the economic front. The influx of cash from Iran and Russia has enabled the government to rebuild its reserve of hard currency to about $600 million. The Assads continue to keep the economy going in areas they control with the help of Iran and Russia. Iran supplies the foreign currency and Russia helps get it into the international banking system so the Assads can still buy foreign goods.   The Assads are fighting a war of attrition. They believe the side with the best economic situation and most reliable troops still in action will prevail. As long as the Iranian cash and military assistance keeps coming, the Assads have reason to be optimistic that they will eventually be the last man standing. 

The U.S. and Gulf Arab oil states are still sending weapons to the Syrian rebels. The American stuff is only for “moderate” groups while the Arabs will arm just about anyone fighting the Assads. The weapons come in openly via Jordan and more covertly via Turkey. Iran and Russia send weapons to the Assads largely by air and sea. The biggest thing Iran has going for it in Syria is the U.S. decision to not intervene militarily. The Americans believe that no matter who wins in Syria there will still be a problem there with Islamic terrorism and by not intervening it saves the United States lots of cash and a few American lives, at least in the short term (until the next election cycle). Iran encourages this thinking by playing up the prominence of the Islamic terrorist groups among the rebels. The U.S. has also accused Iran of aiding Sunni Islamic terrorists to get into Syria.

In Lebanon Iranian backed Hezbollah leaders again continue to proclaim their willingness to keep fighters in Syria to support the Assads. The Sunni Arab nations in the region are warning Hezbollah that this support for Iran could have dire consequences down the road. For the moment the Hezbollah leadership is remaining loyal to its paymaster Iran. But many rank-and-file Hezbollah are not so sure. Sunni Arab nations are exploiting that doubt, seeking Hezbollah leaders who might be amenable to new leadership for their organization, and new sources of financial support.

Another military adventure is in Yemen. For the last three months Iran backed Syrian tribesmen have been fighting Sunni tribesmen over the town of Damaj. This place is about 40 kilometers south of the Saudi border and a Sunni religious school has been there since the late 1970s. The school now has thousands of students, many of them foreign. According to the Shia tribes the school is now producing Sunni Islamic radicals who seek to kill Shia (as Sunni religious conservatives consider Shia heretics.) Damaj has become a battlefield in the struggle over leadership of Islam by Sunni Saudi Arabia (which backs the Islamic conservatives in Damaj) and Shia Iran (which supports the Shia tribesmen of northern Yemen). Since November the fighting has spread beyond Damaj to other areas up there. The Shia are winning and recently marched on the capital. This has the Saudis worried, but Yemeni pride makes it difficult to call on Saudi Arabia for any direct help.

Then there are the negotiations with the UN and the West over Iranian nukes. The Iranians are telling the West that the disarmament discussions, which are supposed to get sanctions lifted, do not include a lot of items Westerners seem to think are negotiable. For example the Iranians will not discuss their missile program or their conventional military forces. The official Iranian line is that they do not have a nuclear weapons program (nor a chemical weapons program either) and that they will only offer up some limitations on how they enrich uranium for their nuclear power plants. Actually there is only one plant but Iran wants to build more.

Meanwhile the U.S. is still strenuously enforcing the economic sanctions against Iran. Many American leaders believe that the Iranians are trying to play the Western nations and get sanctions gradually lifted without really giving anything up. So the U.S. is seeking to keep up the economic pressure. The rest of the West is not so eager and many of Iran’s major oil customers (especially India and China) are ready to get around the sanctions any way they can. The American threats work, as was seen recently when Russia backed off from a barter deal it had proposed to Iran to sell Iranian oil despite the sanctions.

The sanctions have had an impact and that can be seen by the recent expansion of a free food program for the poor. Originally this was just for three million low paid government employees (often provided to poor but loyal government supporters). Now the program has been extended to all poor Iranians who meet the same criteria. Now some 17 million people (22 percent of the population) are eligible.  Meanwhile the senior leadership continues to battle each other over corruption charges. The families of the most senior clerics and Revolutionary Guard commanders have long been accused of corruption and more evidence is being revealed all the time. The accused find this very embarrassing and they cannot respond directly. So allies of the reformers are arrested on manufactured evidence or simply kidnapped or secretly arrested. In effect, there is a civil war going on within the leadership. The only thing all the leadership will unite on is an attack on their control of the country. For the moment there is no such threat.

Thanks to the peace talks with the West and the UN over the sanctions, Iran sold eight percent more oil in January. Iranians in general are now more upbeat and because of that the inflation rate is coming down. All this was not supposed to happen but it’s the result of the change in outlook towards the sanctions. Before the January 24th interim deal (which Iran is declaring as a victory) its oil customers were seriously frightened at the strength and severity of the 2012 sanctions. The interim deal showed that the sanctions could be scaled back without significant concessions by Iran. One Iranian official pointed out that Iran could reverse the effects of the concessions within a month and that Iran was not really giving up anything. UN officials and many Western governments dismiss all this as Iranian efforts to improve domestic morale. The UN believes that the current agreement, which merely gives Iran some concessions ($4.2 billion in frozen funds are released and some sanctions eased) in return for agreeing to negotiate a more permanent deal, is worth it for the rest of the world. But Iranian officials are telling Iranians that there will be no permanent changes in the nuclear program and that full scale uranium enrichment could be resumed within 24 hours. Moreover Iranians are boasting that the interim deal will yield Iran more like $20 billion and good prospects for even more.  The January 24th deal only allows for six months of negotiations. The way these things work the Iranians will demand more concessions to extend the negotiations after no deal is achieved within the first six months. It’s not a promising start when Iranian leaders are telling their people that the negotiations are simply a ploy to weaken the sanctions. Based on recent remarks by senior Iranian officials and their Western counterparts there are some serious differences of interpretation over the current deal and what the negotiations can, or are supposed to, achieve. The next round of talks begins on February 18th.

February 14, 2014: The U.S. protested the recent Iranian policy of putting many senior opposition politicians under house arrest. Iran ignored the American objections and depicted these U.S. objections as another instance of foreign interference in Iranian affairs.

February 13, 2014: The commander of the Quds Force (which handles support of Islamic terrorism, smuggling and espionage in foreign countries) openly called for Iran to be the head of the Islamic world. Pointing out how poorly Sunni (usually Arab or Turk) nations have been at this task, the commander made the case that the Iranians were more skilled at such things and could lead the Islamic world out of the slump it has been in since it glory days over 500 years ago. Quds Force is part of the IRGC (Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) which is personally loyal to the clerics who hold the ultimate power in Iran and are divided by how aggressive Iranian foreign policy should be. The Quds Force represents one extreme of this policy and more moderate clerics are constantly coping with hard-liner calls for greater use of Islamic terrorism to deal with Iran’s enemies. Many in the Quds Force and IRGC believe the propaganda (to reassure the population that the nation is safe from foreign attack) that the military is a lot more capable than it really is. The hard corps Quds and IRGC members believe they are on a Mission From God and that this means Iran cannot fail in its sacred mission to lead Islam into a glorious future. These fanatics are a minority in the national leadership and not the most capable politicians. But since many of these guys supply the IRGC muscle that keeps the clerics in power, they must be tolerated and treated with some respect.

February 12, 2014: Iran celebrated the 35th anniversary of the revolution that overthrew the monarchy and made it possible for senior clerics to hijack the new constitution and establish a religious dictatorship. Speakers at the celebrations called for the destruction of Israel.

February 10, 2014:  Iran announced the development of new centrifuges (for turning low potency uranium into concentrated uranium capable of running a nuclear or reactor or, with much more enrichment, work in a nuclear bomb) that are 15 times more effective. If true, this would enable existing Iranian centrifuges to produce far more nuclear fuel that it needs, or simply produce weapons grade uranium faster. About 53 percent of the 19,000 centrifuges Iran has are very old models and if these were replaced with the latest models Iran would be even more of a nuclear threat.

February 7, 2014: On the Pakistani border Sunni (Baluchi) separatists ambushed and kidnapped five Iranian border guards. The Iranians are being held just across the border in Pakistan (Baluchistan). There are Baluchi tribes on both sides of the border. The religious dictatorship in Iran is hostile to Sunnis and the Iranian Baluchis do not like this at all. The Iranian Baluchi rebels have become bolder and more successful in their attacks on Iranian security forces. Iran has responded by executing more captured Baluchi rebels and that has resulted in even more Baluchi violence. Iran wants the Pakistani government to help find the five Iranian border guards but the Pakistanis already have their hands full with the Baluchi rebels in Pakistan.

January 31, 2014: The first round of Syrian peace talks in Switzerland ended without accomplishing much. A second round of talks is supposed to happen in the second week of February. The rebels never wanted any part of this, as they see the talks as a ploy by the Assads and their allies to slow the rebels down. The main obstacle to real talks is the rebels’ insistence that Assad has to go while the Syrian government refuses to even discuss removing the Assads. Some of the rebel factions (the SNC, or Syrian National Council) are represented at the talks and to even get that the UN had to rescind an invitation for Iran to attend. The only thing anyone expects out of these talks is some agreements to let aid get to civilians inside Syria and to get women and children out of places under siege (by rebels or government forces).

January 26, 2014: While Iran’s Arab neighbors tend to talk of good relations with their scary neighbor, the actions of the Arabs say something else. For example Kuwait recently ordered another 56 Patriot PAC-2 from the United States. In addition Kuwait is having seven launchers modified to handle the smaller PAC-3 missiles from existing PAC-2 launchers. Patriot missile. Kuwait is increasingly concerned with Iran's growing arsenal of ballistic missiles, thus the new order for the PAC-3s and PAC-2s that can handle missiles as well as aircraft.

Israel is even more concerned, and more intent on stopping Iranian missiles. Thus on January 3rd Israel carried out another successful test of its Arrow 3 anti-missile system. Arrow 3 remains on track to enter service in 2015. This version of Arrow can destroy missiles at higher altitudes (over 100 kilometers) and farther away. Testing of the new Block 4 version of its Arrow 2 anti-missile missile was completed in 2012 and version 4.1 is now in service. The Arrow 1 has been replaced with the 1.3 ton Arrow 2, which can shoot down ballistic missiles fired from Iran.

It was recently revealed that Saudi Arabia had secretly upgraded its 1980s era Chinese ballistic missiles with more modern DF-21 models. Iran is the main target for the Saudi missiles. Iran has several dozen ballistic missiles that could reach the Saudi missile bases, but Iran’s official position is that their ballistic missiles are meant for Israel. The Saudis also indicate that their ballistic missiles are meant for Israel as well as Iran. In 2013 satellite photos of a Saudi Arabian ballistic missile base showed some of the launching pads (for the Chinese ballistic missiles) touched up with arrows painted on the pavement, one pointing towards Israel and the other towards Iran. Mass media picked up on this and began running headlines of Saudi missiles aimed at Israel. That gave a distorted view of current Arab-Israeli relations. While the Saudis would certainly point their missiles at Iran, the arrow pointing towards Israel is probably their more to placate Saudi extremists than as an indication of Saudi military strategy.

January 25, 2014: Pakistan has suspended bus convoys carrying Shia pilgrims through Baluchistan to Iran, at least until security (against Sunni Islamic terrorists) can be improved.

 

 

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