Iran: Dealing With America As The Hated Defender of Shia Islam


August 8, 2014: ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) continues to threaten Iranian influence (via the elected government in a country that is 60 percent Shia) in Iraq. In the last few weeks ISIL has shifted from threatening Baghdad, which is now largely a Shia city. ISIL has noted that Baghdad also has many Shia militias armed and trained by Iran and obviously determined to defend the capital of Shia controlled Iraq. So now ISIL is going after the Kurds who, while largely Sunni have been on good terms with Iran since the 1990s. ISIL sees the Kurds as a threat to their rear if they got tied down battling for Baghdad. ISIL may now regret its decision to go after the Kurds, who are on even better terms with the Americans, who announced today that they will begin providing air support for the Kurds, and the Iraqi forces, against ISIL. This air support, many experienced Islamic terrorists will tell ISIL leaders who have not experienced it, can be devastating to the kind of open military-type operations ISIL has been using for the last few years.

In Iraq the militias have replaced the army as the most reliable military force. But the militias lack offensive ability and that is being taken care of by hundreds of American and Iranian military advisors now working with the Iraqi Army and the militias. The Iranians are more effective because they speak Arabic and take direct control of Iraqi Army units and militias. The American Special Forces troops also speak Arabic but are not allowed to directly control units and must advise and persuade the many Iraqi officers who got their jobs because of their loyalty to Shia politicians, not their military skills or leadership ability. With better leadership the Iraqi troops are quite effective. As the old truism goes, “there are no bad troops, just bad officers.” Most Iraqi troops are Shia and, like all Iraqis, they don’t like being ordered around by foreigners. But in addition to speaking the same language the Iranian officers are Shia and, like their American counterparts, experienced and recognized as more competent than the Iraqi officers they replaced. The problem with the Iranian and American advisors is that they may be too few in number to quickly turn the situation around. The crises in Iraq also means that the Saudis and Iranians have to pause their growing Sunni-Shia feud because both countries have more to fear from ISIL Sunni Islamic terrorism than from each other. Western nations know they are already on the ISIL radar and are cracking down on ISIL fund raising and recruiting in the West. But in Arabia many, if not most, prominent Arabs firmly believe that Iran remains a long-term threat to Arabs and must be stopped.  

Iran has admitted that three of its military personnel have died in Iraq since June. So far Iran has refrained from committing large numbers of combat troops to actually fighting ISIL. This is apparently something the Americans, Sunni Arabs and even many Iraqi Shia Arabs strongly oppose.  Those Iranians killed so far have been trainers and advisors who accompanied those they trained into a combat area, something that is necessary to assess how effective the training is.

An irony is all this haste to unite and battle ISIL is past Iranian support for groups similar to ISIL (which is actually a dissident branch of al Qaeda). Al Qaeda and Iran have never been close but have gotten along, in large part because they have a common enemy (the West). Al Qaeda is a radical Sunni organization that considers Shia Moslems heretics (nearly all Iranians are Shia). Iran has long provided sanctuary for al Qaeda personnel but kept all or most of them under house arrest and observation. Iran made no secret of their hatred towards this Sunni group because al Qaeda had slaughtered over 100,000 Shia in the last two decades. In that period most of al Qaeda's victims had been Moslems, most of them Shia. But at the same time Iran appreciated the successful attacks al Qaeda made (or sponsored) in the West. This is something Iraq wanted but was reluctant to do itself as it feared Western retaliation. Despite the sanctuary for al Qaeda leaders, Iranian leaders continued to be openly hostile to al Qaeda. For example, starting in 2008 Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad publically claimed that the September 11, 2001, attacks were a ploy by Israel or the CIA, to justify a war on Islam. Shortly after that assertion was first made public an al Qaeda leader, Ayman al Zawahri, rushed out an audio tape denouncing the Iranians for casting doubt about the fact that al Qaeda had planned and carried out those attacks. Normally the Shia avoid al Qaeda. But Iran has taken the position that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and provided sanctuary for al Qaeda leaders and encourages Shia to work, when possible, with Sunni terrorists like al Qaeda. The strategy is not popular with a lot of Iranians, although the Iranian government openly approved of the fact that senior al Qaeda leadership (including those outside Iran) had, since at least 2006, advised their subordinates to not kill Shia women and children. That advice has been frequently ignored but Iran has continued to work with al Qaeda when it suited Iranian interests.  One reason for this “support” of al Qaeda is that it aids in Iranian efforts to exploit and benefit from divisions within the Arab world. Currently Iraq, with its Shia majority, is willing to help Iran in many ways and this causes Sunni Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, to accuse Iraq of betraying its Arab heritage. The Saudis also have a problem with Qatar, which backs the pro-Iran Moslem Brotherhood of Egypt. The powerful Shia Hezbollah militia in Lebanon keeps Sunni-majority Lebanon from fully supporting the Sunni rebels of Syria and their battle to remove the Shia government there. Iran has long been a major backer of Hamas in Gaza. Hamas began as a branch of the Moslem Brotherhood and is a Sunni organization that shares many traits (like hatred of Shia) with al Qaeda. Note that al Qaeda leadership officially disapproves of many ISIL actions in Iraq and Syria and is, for all practical purposes, an ally of Iran in this respect.

 The U.S. recently admitted that American and Iranian diplomats had since June been discussing how the two countries would coordinate their effort to defeat ISIL. This is actually nothing new as the two countries have in the past cooperated against their common enemy (usually Sunni Islamic terrorist groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban). The Sunni groups continue to murder Shia wherever they are (in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as Iraq, Syria and so on). This is more awkward for Iran, which has made hatred of the United States a primary justification for the Shia religious dictatorship that has run Iran since the late 1980s. Meanwhile Iranian media are pushing allegations that ISIL was invented and is backed by the United States.

Defeating The Sanctions

Iran continues to find ways around the oil sanctions. Oil exports in 2014 have averaged over 1.2 million barrels a day. The sanctions are supposed to keep production down to a million barrels a day or less. Before the current sanctions began in 2012 Iran was producing 3.5 million barrels a day and exporting much of it. Something Iran does not like to discuss publically is the fact that its oil production would have declined even without the new sanctions. That’s because other sanctions have made it impossible to maintain and expand Iranian oil fields, production capabilities and refineries (for internal consumption). These sanctions have been in place for two decades and the Iranian oil infrastructure has been falling apart. Iran wants the sanctions lifted so that it can rebuild and expand its oil industry, a process that would take five years or more.

The $20 billion barter deal with Russia and more success in getting around the oil export sanctions have visibly improved economic conditions for most Iranians. Unemployment is still high but inflation is declining. Inflation was a problem even before the major sanctions began in 2012. In 2010 the government succeeded in reducing the inflation rate from 20 percent (in 2009) to 9.4 percent. Lower inflation reduces a major source of popular discontent. A major reason for lower inflation has been the recent cutting huge subsidies and getting rid of a lot of government spending in general. The business community has been given more opportunity (and government assistance) to innovate and make the economy grow. This is apparently working. While GDP declined nearly two percent last year it is forecast (by the World Bank) to grow 1.5 percent this year and by two percent or more for each of the two years after that. Before oil was discovered nearly a century ago Iran had a strong economy and that had been the case for thousands of years. So, despite the sanctions, Iran has keep the economy growing by getting back to its pre-oil roots. This may be the most positive thing to happen to the economy since the clerics took control back in the late 1980s. Thus while the government makes much of the need to eliminate the sanctions, economic planners see progress despite continued sanctions. That is not the message the government wants to publicize, but it is what will calm the population eventually.

August 7, 2014: A policeman who murdered a jailed blogger in 2012 was convicted of “semi-premeditated” murder and sentenced to three years in jail and two years of exile in his remote home village. This was considered an effort to placate hostile global (and local) reaction to the revelation that someone jailed for saying something critical of the government could be murdered in jail and no one would pay for it. The sentence will be reviewed by higher courts and may be reduced. The government campaign against media criticism is run by the intelligence service (like the CIA) and secret police via a small group of judges and prosecutors. The intel service monitors local and international media and identifies individuals inside Iran who are believed to be making the most effective anti-Iran comments. These individuals are threatened first, then arrested and prosecuted if they will not shut up. Despite increased prosecutions in the past few years the criticisms continue.

August 6, 2014: Russia confirmed (after first denying it) that it will go through with a $20 billion barter deal with Iran. Under this agreement Iran will ship oil to Russia (itself a major oil exporter) in return for an equal value of manufactured items. This deal violates the sanctions on Iran and means Russia will risk lawsuits and more sanctions on itself. At the moment Russia is the target of increasing sanction because of Russian efforts to take territory from neighboring Ukraine. Previously Russia denied this Iranian deal was being negotiated, then Russia admitted the deal existed but complained that the United States was interfering by threatening to punish Russia for violating the international sanctions against Iran. Russia will get the Iranian oil (about 500,000 barrels a day) at a discount and then export it along with most Russian oil at the world price and make a profit. Russia will ship manufactured goods at undiscounted prices to Iran, so Russian manufacturers will also make money. But Iran will be able to boost its exports considerably despite the sanctions.

August 5, 2014: In the last month the government has changed its mind about backing the beleaguered and much criticized Iraqi prime minister Maliki. But Iran now admits that it cannot find a suitable candidate to back as a replacement. For a long time the main reason Iran backed Maliki was because Maliki has been reliably pro-Iran for a long time. Maliki has also been notoriously corrupt and tolerant of corruption among his subordinates and allies. This has crippled the Iraqi security forces and led to the current crises with ISIL overrunning western and northern Iraq this year. Since July Iran made it clear it would support any other prime minister the newly elected Iraqi parliament chose. That parliament appears to be just as deadlocked as earlier ones, more concerned with their personal finances than the welfare of the country. Iran is using its influence to try and break this deadlock but the Iraqi politicians seem incapable to united action. Meanwhile the Iranians agree with Maliki on one thing; the Sunnis, especially the Islamic radical ones, cannot be trusted and ISIL must be crushed. For all Maliki’s faults he has proved capable to holding together a ruling coalition that is pro-Iranian. So Iran will go with what it’s got for the moment.

August 4, 2014: The government openly boasted of sending long range rockets to Gaza and ordered that an effort be made to get modern surface to air missiles into Gaza so Hamas can shoot down Israeli warplanes and helicopters. Actually, the shoulder fired missiles have been in Gaza for some time but Israeli aircraft have effective defenses against these missiles. Iran apparently wants to get larger and more effective anti-aircraft systems into Gaza. Iran has not commented on the fact that the Hamas use of rockets (over 3,200 fired so far) this time around has been a complete failure, with only three Israeli civilian (the main target for these rockets) deaths resulting mainly because of the Israeli Iron Dome anti-rocket system.

The government is upset about the refusal of women to respond to calls to have more children. The government also wants fewer women in universities and is trying to persuade women to have more children as an alternative to education. The government also wants fewer urban reform activists. Many of these are university students and more than half are women. Decades of living under a religious dictatorship has produced rising unemployment and less optimism among most Iranians. That has led to a plunging birth rate. The government is ignoring its role in all these problems, mainly because the ruling clerics see themselves as on a Mission From God and beyond criticism.

August 3, 2014: State controlled media has had to remove some of its posted (on the Internet) criticisms of ISIL because the same practices ISIL is imposing in Iraq have long been government policy in Iran. These included clothing and other restrictions on women. It’s unclear how the state-employed journalists could make such a mistake, although perhaps it wasn’t a mistake. There have been no reports of any state-employed journalists being punished, at least not yet. Meanwhile state controlled media are reporting harsher punishments this year for violating Ramadan (the annual, month long Moslem period of fasting by day and feasting by night) rules. Senior clerics threaten the death penalty for those caught multiple times eating during the day in public. One violation will get you a public whipping.

August 2, 2014: Kurdish officials admitted that they allowed 200 Iranian Revolutionary Guards (the elite force that defends the religious dictatorship in Iran) to land at a Kurdish airport and move to Kirkuk to help defend Shia holy places there from possible ISIL attack. This is the first known (or admitted) movement of Iranian troops into Iraq via Kurdish controlled northern Iraq. Many Shia holy places in northern Iraq have recently been destroyed by ISIL and this distresses the Iranian government and many Iranians as well.       

July 29, 2014: A noted Hezbollah commander was killed near Mosul. The dead man, Ibrahim al-Haj, was apparently brought in from Lebanon to help with the training program Iran is carrying out to help form and upgrade pro-government militias among Shia at risk of ISIL attack. Hezbollah members are Arabs and are more adept at training Arabs than the Indo-European Iranians. There are several hundred Iranians in Iraq but Iran has not sent in a lot of combat troops yet. This is apparently part of an informal understanding with the United States to cooperate in helping the Shia government of Iraq defeat ISIL.

The government called on other nations (especially Sunni Arab ones) to assist Iran in getting more weapons to Hamas. Most Arab states are opposed to this as the Gaza population is nearly all Sunni and more Shia (Iranian) influence there is not appreciated nor desired.

July 19, 2014: Qatar and the U.S. recently signed a deal for $11 billion worth of American weapons. Earlier this year Qatar announced orders for $23 billion of new weapons and military equipment. Qatar spread it around, thus U.S. firms only got about 47 percent of these orders. Because of the shortage of local technical staff, the price also includes lot of expensive Westerners to maintain it all. Among the items purchased were 24 AH-64 helicopter gunships, 22 NH90 transport helicopters, two aerial tankers and lots of air defense gear, including U.S. missiles that can intercept Iranian ballistic missiles. Even without nuclear warheads these Iranian missiles can hit expensive and difficult to replace oil facilities, causing billions in damage. Qatar and other Arab states are all clamoring for American anti-missile systems.

July 18, 2014: The UN and the Western nations blinked and agreed to extend for another four months the negotiations over the embargo and the Iranian nuclear program. This comes despite the fact that the negotiation deadline was July 20th and that deadline was supposed to motivate Iran to terminate its nuclear program. Inside Iran this extension was hailed as a victory and an indication that Iran would ultimately prevail against this effort to thwart Iranian nuclear ambitions. Iran has always insisted that it wants to expand its uranium enrichment program, not reduce or eliminate it. Iranian leaders openly call for having 190,000 centrifuges. Iran currently has 19,000, but only 9,000 are in use and the West wants this number reduced. Iran never showed any sign of wanting to compromise on this issue. The July 20 deadline was backed with the threat of stronger sanctions. Iran always believed it could talk its way out of all this and based on past experience many Iranians believed that would happen and the extension is considered proof of that.

July 17, 2014: Twice in July (the 14th and 17th) Israeli Patriot anti-aircraft missiles were used to shoot down Iranian Ababil UAVs used by Hamas to seek out or attack Israeli military targets.  This was the first time Israeli Patriots had something to shoot down since the 1990s. Hamas said it used its Ababil UAVs both for reconnaissance and, with the cameras replaced with explosives, as cruise missiles. Hamas also released pictures of an Ababil carrying four unguided rockets. This may have just been a propaganda photo because firing small, unguided rockets from an Ababil would not be very effective. Iran has supplied both Hezbollah and Hamas with UAVs.

July 14, 2014: In Syria rebels and government forces both appear to be using the American BGM-71 TOW (Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided) anti-tank missile. The Syrian forces, however, must be using the Iranian copy of TOW, the Toofan. This first appeared in 2000 and by 2010 the Iranians had also copied some of the most recent American TOW missile designs.





Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close