Iran: The Borders Are Burning


November 11, 2014:  The nuclear disarmament talks reach another deadline on November 24th, after which there will be still more economic sanctions if Iran does not cooperate. This deadline has generated more rumors than progress. The American president is rumored to have written a personal letter to the Iranian religious leader (who has the final say on everything in Iran) urging acceptance of some kind of unspecified compromise on nuclear weapons. Iran has said nothing about any such letter and shows every indication of continuing to insist that it has no nuclear weapons program while at the same time refusing to let the UN verify that. The UN is particularly upset at Iran refusing to let some UN technical experts into Iran and the refusal to let any UN personnel near certain military or scientific facilities. The UN accuses Iran of being uncooperative and implying that the Iranians are hiding something. Meanwhile it’s something of an open secret in Iran that the nuclear program exists and most Iranians are quite proud of that. There is also a growing pile of evidence, especially from intercepted Iranian smuggling operations, showing that someone in Iran seems to be working on nuclear weapons. Since Iran is a religious dictatorship it’s likely that the senior leaders believe that with God on their side the nuclear program will somehow be able to continue without triggering a popular revolution because of the sanctions and the economic problems the sanctions cause.  Iran wants the economic sanctions lifted but is only willing to offer limited concessions over its nuclear research efforts and is not willing to allow the kinds of intrusive inspections demanded to ensure compliance.  

Iran is also trying to link its cooperation against ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria) and the sanctions and the rumored letter from the American president is said to have discussed this option. In short the Iranians are saying that if the UN wants help against ISIL they need to back off on the sanctions and nuclear inspections. So far the UN is not reacting well to these “unofficial” proposals. Iran openly proclaims that ISIL will be attacked by the Iranian armed forces if they make, or attempt to make, any attacks inside Iran. This appears to have worked. Iran is largely intent on hurting ISIL in order to help the pro-Iran governments of Iraq and Syria. Iran prefers to do that sort of thing quietly.

Iran continues to be an unofficial member of the anti-ISIL coalition. The Iranians appear to believe that the U.S. air strikes and all the military aid (from Iran, the U.S. and other NATO nations) going to the Iraqi Kurds, plus a new government in Iraq, will be able to deal with ISIL in Iraq. Iran has been very active in supporting the Shia Arab government in Iraq against ISIL, but not very public about it. This is because many of the things that ISIL is hated for (restrictions on women and on what people drink and do for entertainment) are the same things that have long been enforced in Iran (and Saudi Arabia). It is possible for Iran to condemn the ISIL tendency to slaughter lots of people just for being different (not Islamic or not Islamic enough) but they are reluctant to go into much detail, as least in the media. Iran would like ISIL to just go away, permanently and with great violence if necessary. Iranian aid can make a big difference, even if the Iranians don’t send in troops to fight. Iranian trainers, military advice and cash are another matter. This sort of thing worked wonders in Syria. Performing similar magic in Iraq means shoving corrupt Iraqi officials and officers out of the way and taking care of Iraqi troops with Iranian cash. This is apparently happening and most of the recent victories by the Iraqi Army are attributed to Iranian leadership, training and, where needed, cash. A critical element in all this is the training for Iraqis using experienced (in that sort of thing) Iranians. This is insulting to many Iraqis, especially senior politicians. But at the moment it may be preferable to being murdered by ISIL gunmen. Meanwhile Iran continues to blame the West for “creating” ISIL thus ignoring the fact that the growing Sunni/Shia conflict that Iran sponsors heavily has more to do with ISIL than anything the West does.

What is most disturbing to Iraqi and American officials is the fact that most of the thousand or so Iranian advisors and training specialists are from the Quds Force (similar to the U.S. Special Forces, but which specializes in supporting Islamic terrorists not fighting them). It was Quds that helped form Hezbollah in the 1980s and built that Shia militia into a major force within Lebanon. Iraqis fear Quds will try and do the same thing in Iraq and even many Iraqi Shia don’t want that. At the moment Iraq needs all the help it can get and Quds officers and trainers have been very useful. But Quds comes in with an agenda, and an implied promise of freedom for Quds to do its own thing, which includes making Iraq a vassal state of Iran. This is not easy to do and despite a quarter century of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran still has limited influence there. That influence is being weakened as Lebanese see Hezbollah operations inside Syria (at the behest of Iran) causing morale problems within Hezbollah. Worse, more of the Syrian violence is spilling over into Lebanon. This is exactly what most Iraqi Shia have long feared would happen if Iran became too powerful inside Iraq.

Iran is also spending a lot of money, and deploying more military advisors and trainers, in Lebanon. There the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia has suffered heavy losses in Syria as well as inside Lebanon along the Syrian border. Iran has helped Hezbollah close the Lebanese border with Syria to Sunni Islamic terrorists (ISIL, al Nusra and others). This has reduced the number of terror attacks against Shia inside Lebanon but has required stationing over a thousand Hezbollah gunmen on the border. Meanwhile another 4,000 Hezbollah fighters remain inside Syria where they help keep the pro-Iran Assad government alive.  Hezbollah tried to use the ISIL threat against Lebanon to justify Hezbollah grabbing more power in Lebanon, where Shia are a third of the population but far more powerful politically because Iranian cash, weapons and training have made Hezbollah too strong for the elected Lebanese government to suppress or even oppose effectively. This is not working so well now because it’s not just ISIL that Hezbollah is fighting but other Syrian Sunni rebel groups like al Nusra and a growing number of Sunni Islamic terrorist groups within Lebanon. The thousands of Hezbollah casualties suffered in Syria over the last three years has made Hezbollah less popular among Lebanese Shia and Lebanese in general. Hezbollah has to face the fact that when this Syrian rebellion and ISIL stuff is settled, Hezbollah will be a much weaker organization and a more militarized one. The years of fighting has created a large force of Hezbollah fighters who are now part of a full time Hezbollah “army” and have become professional soldiers. That, and the presence of more Iranian advisors and trainers has led many Lebanese to see Hezbollah as an occupying force consisting of Lebanese “mercenaries” working for Iran. This is fine with Israel and abhorrent to the majority of Lebanese. For Iran it’s a disaster in the making because Iran had always sought to portray Hezbollah as a Shia militia dedicated to the destruction of Israel, not the hired guns for an unpopular Arab dictator next door. 

Iran is also catching some heat for its involvement in Yemen. The U.S. and the Sunni Arab Gulf States (particularly Saudi Arabia) see the recent changes in Yemen as an Iranian ploy to gain greater influence, if not control, in Yemen. This is being done with the help of deposed (in 2012) president Saleh who obtained immunity from prosecution (for past crimes) in return for leaving peacefully. But Saleh still had many allies, including many in the security forces. A purge of the security forces did not change this as much as the new government thought. Saleh has kept his head down as the Shia rebels took control of the capital and the government in October, but his influence is difficult to ignore. On the plus side the current (nominally Sunni dominated) government and the Shia rebels agree on the need to destroy AQAP and the Islamic terrorists are losing ground as the Shia forces move south. But once the Shia take Aden, they will have a more difficult time in western Yemen, which is largely desert, Sunni and thinly populated. Lots of hiding places and a difficult area to control, for anyone. Iran has not actively intervened in Yemen and the Sunni Arab states that border Yemen are not willing to invade to thwart the Shia rebels. This is because it’s not just Iran and the Shia rebels who are the problem but all the factions there. The Shia are only a third of the population but they are united while the Sunni majority is split into numerous factions. If any neighboring country invaded the Yemenis would unite to oppose this. This factionalism has long been a serious problem in Yemen and the Shia rebels attract some Sunni support by demanding a less corrupt and more competent government. That is something most Yemenis can agree on. Yet if the Shia end up dominating this new government, the neighbors are nervous about increased Iranian influence and that might get ugly.

Given Iranian problems with all their other neighbors (plus Yemen, Syria and Lebanon) they have backed off on their meddling in Afghanistan. One Iranian effort does continue there is economic. Trade between Iran and Afghanistan is currently $4 billion a year, while trade with Pakistan is only $2.5 billion. Illegal trade, mainly opium and heroin, nearly matches legal trade in Pakistan because the major conduit for Afghan drug exports if the Pakistani port of Karachi. The lower level of drug exports through Iran mainly serves the Iranian and Middle Eastern markets. Total drug exports are valued at about $4 billion for 2014. Despite all the economic sanctions, Iran has more trade potential for Afghanistan than Pakistan. A lot of that has to do with the constant attempts by Pakistan to control Afghan politics. This is much resented in Afghanistan and has led to decades of border violence. On the Iranian border the violence is largely on the Iranian side as the government there tries or halt, or at least reduce, the drug smuggling. This violence does not interfere with legal trade as much as it does on the Pakistani border. Iran does support the Shia in Afghanistan. Only 15 percent of Afghans are Shia and these Shia are a particular target for Sunni Islamic terrorists (like the Taliban). Most of these Shia are the Hazara, who are ten percent of the population and the descendants of the hated Mongols who conducted several invasions during the 13th and 14th centuries and destroyed more of the country and its population than any other conquerors. Iran will still support some Sunni Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan if it suits their interests. But the Iranians are minor supporters of Sunni terrorism. Pakistan is a major supporter of groups like the Taliban, which Pakistan created in the early 1990s. Iran still has some problems with Sunni Islamic terrorists based in Pakistan.

In central Iran (Isfahan) there have been multiple incidents (in the last few weeks) of vigilantes throwing acid into the faces of eight women accused of not dressing modestly enough. Acid attacks are rare in Iran but are more common in other Moslem countries. The government allows Islamic conservative groups to carry out “modesty patrols” but these volunteers are only supposed to warn women (often loudly) to cover up more. These vigilantes are not supposed to use any violence. For the worst violations the morality patrols can call in the police. The majority of Iranians oppose the morality patrols and the inability of the police to catch the acid attackers led to demonstrations in Isfahan and the capital. While the police apparently made at least ten arrests in October, no one has yet been charged. The government blames “foreigners” for the acid attacks. This ploy is getting old for many Iranians, with Israel and the West (usually the U.S. and Britain) usually accused of being responsible for so many Iranian internal problems. Meanwhile the government is also taking heat for executing a women who killed a man who was trying to rape her and the jailing of a British woman (born in Iran) who had attended a volleyball game. It is forbidden for women to attend sporting events, something else that is not very popular in Iran. The government is also punishing women who lead groups calling for reforms or protesting against the treatment of women. At the same time the government wants women to have more children and refuses to recognize any connection between the complaints of so many women and the low birth rate and the rapidly increasing divorce rate (now at 20 percent).  

The government admits that sanctions and the falling world price for oil have cut government income by 30 percent. The government insists this will have no impact on government plans because the new government is eliminating waste in government operations. At the same time the government admits that its income from taxes on economic activity have fallen sharply. On the street, unemployment and inflation continue to rise.

November 7, 2014: The UN announced that its IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) was receiving no cooperation from Iran regarding the investigation of possible Iranian nuclear weapons research. Iran denies everything but won’t let the IAEA investigate suspicious activities inside Iran.

October 27, 2014: Iran and Pakistan agreed to peacefully settle a recent border incident that left one Pakistani soldier dead. At the same time Iran still wants Pakistan to do something about Baluchi tribes on both sides of the border who carry out terror attacks in Iran from bases in Pakistan. This is all the result of the religious dictatorship in Iran being hostile to Sunnis and the Iranian Baluchis (who are Sunni) do not like this at all. During the last few years 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 demanded that the Pakistani government act on future incidents of Baluchi violence in Iran or Iran would send its own troops into Pakistan to find and punish the culprits. These threats have been intensifying since earlier in 2104 when five Iranian border guards were captured by Islamic terrorists and taken to Pakistan. Eventually one was killed and the other four released. Iranian border patrols have become more aggressive and that was apparently the main cause of the latest incident.

October 21, 2014: The government reported several arrests of “foreign spies” near the first Iran nuclear power plant in the southern province of Bushehr. The “spies” were accused of observing the plant and gathering information on the area and the plant itself. In September another “foreign spy” was arrested, who turned out to be a Ukrainian engineer who works for the Russian contractor who built the plant. It’s unclear where this case is going. The Bushehr plant finally went to full power (1,000 megawatts) at the end of August 2013. Bushehr only went online for the first time in 2012. There were many delays in getting this plant operational. The Iranians said the some of the delays were made for safety reasons, because of poor construction. The Russian designed plant was supposed to be operational in 2010. Government officials kept complaining to the Russians about delays, with no apparent effect. Russians who worked at Bushehr complained of sloppy work by Iranians and a nuclear power facility that was fundamentally unsafe. Perhaps because of this, the government had 4,000 civilians living near the Bushehr plant relocated at a cost of $10 million. Work on Bushehr began in 1974, but was interrupted by the 1979 revolution and did not resume until 1992, when the Russians took over from a German firm. Russia continues to support the Iranian nuclear power program. This support is largely driven by the need for at least one export customer for Russian nuclear power systems. No one else will buy this stuff because during the Soviet period Russian nuclear reactors were seen as shoddy and accident prone. That is not the case anymore, but the bad reputation persists. So Russia needs to get some safe, reliable Russian nuclear power plants running in Iran to prove that Russian nuclear energy technology is competitive with what is offered by Western firms. Iran is the largest producer of electrical power (70 megawatts) in the Middle East and needs more power to keep economic growth going. Thus Iran wants to build twenty nuclear power plants and right now the only supplier they have is Russia.

October 19, 2014: Iran has offered to provide security advice to the new Shia dominated government in Yemen. The offer was declined.

October 18, 2014: The government offered the Lebanese Army assistance, including free weapons, to deal with the growing Islamic terrorism problem Lebanon is suffering. This was seen as a counter to a late-2013 Saudi offer to buy $3 billion worth of French weapons and equipment for Lebanon. This has been delayed, but the Lebanese were not so upset that they went with the Iranian offer. By early November the Saudi deal was signed and it was pointed out that this deal is meant to work with the billion dollar American military aid program, which includes weapons, equipment, training and advisors. This deal has been popular with the non-Shia majority in Lebanon.

October 17, 2014: In the southeast a Pakistani border policeman was killed and three others wounded when the Pakistanis encountered a group of 30 Iranian troops two kilometers inside Pakistan. The Iranians opened fire and then retreated back into Iran. Pakistanis were angry over this and threatened Iran. It took diplomats on both sides over a week to calm things down.





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