Iran: Who Guards The Guards

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December 1, 2014: The government has declared the extension of the nuclear disarmament negotiations for another seven months (to July 1, 2015) as a great victory. This is in large part because the extension includes the lifting of many economic sanctions. Iran threatened to pull out of the talks if it did not get some relief and the Western led coalition (the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) backed off. But many outside Iran, including a majority of legislators in the United States, see this as an Iranian victory and are threatening to maintain sanctions and impose more. This is most likely to happen in the United States, where recent national elections changed the composition of Congress and made it possible to overcome presidential vetoes of new laws imposing more sanctions.  Iran threatens to pull out of negotiations if anyone does this but the mood in many Western nations, especially the United States, is willing to call Iran’s bluff. If Iran did withdraw from the talks more nations would restore recently lifted sanctions. There is a lot of international support for putting more pressure on Iran.

Meanwhile many inside Iran point out that the sorry state of the economy is not all the fault of the sanctions. The corruption, government mismanagement and falling price of oil are serious economic problems that have nothing to do with sanctions. Many economists, inside and outside Iran, point out that even if all sanctions were lifted Iran would still be suffering from serious economic problems (inflation, unemployment and persistent recession). The Iranian government ignores this sort of view and tries to limit its spread inside Iran. Meanwhile the seven month extension of the negotiations gives Iran more time to create a working (and tested) nuclear weapon. Israel threatens to attack if that happens, because Iranian leaders have, since the 1980s, openly and loudly called for the destruction of Israel.

The government has other problems. Recently the media got hold of internal investigations that documented subversive activities against the government by the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps). This is nothing new and has been an open secret for over a decade. Now it is a documented secret, with details of the IRGC defying the religious leadership and planning to stage a coup and replace elected politicians they disagreed with. The IRGC never carried out these plans, but now it is known that the plans existed. This has to be put in context. The Iranian government is basically a religious dictatorship that seized control in the 1980s and has just barely coped with declining popularity. There are many factions, some much more radical than the majority. Eventually the loss of oil income could screw things up enough to trigger a popular rebellion. That could get very nasty as the government has an army of religious fanatics (the IRGC) to deal with such unrest. IRGC is more than just the "royal guard" of the Iranian dictatorship. Originally founded to do the clerics dirty work, and keep an eye on the Iranian armed forces, and population in general, the IRGC has grown to become a state-within-a-state. The IRGC not only has 150,000 armed members, it also controls billions of dollars’ worth of businesses inside Iran, and runs numerous terrorist operations outside the country. The IRGC, or at least large parts of it, can be depended on to follow orders and slaughter rebellious civilians. The ruling clerics are determined to avoid losing power like the East European communist dictatorships did in 1989. The clerics have made sure most Iranians know this and what the price of rebellion would be. But the clerics must now deal with another ancient problem in Iran, disloyalty among the “guardians” of the rulers. Who guards the guards? In Iran, no one and that is now a very real problem for the general public as well as the unelected senior clerics who rule in the name of God but only with the support of the IRGC. At the moment the senior clerics believe only a small minority of the IRGC are a danger. But that could change, because the “dangerous” faction has been growing in numbers and boldness. Attempts to purge the IRGC of these dangerous people have failed. The IRGC protects its own, so far.

Meanwhile the IRGC is believed to be secretly supporting Shia rebels throughout the region. 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, there. This is being done with the help of deposed (in 2012) president Saleh (a Shia) 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. At the moment the Shia advance is stalled in central Yemen, but the Shia are still advancing, just a lot slower against increased resistance. 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.

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 in Iraq and Syria are from the Quds Force. That implies that Iran sees an opportunity to turn Syria into more than an ally and something of an Iranian colony. The Syrian violence is spilling over into Lebanon, which makes most Lebanese nervous about also becoming part of the Iranian empire. This is exactly what most Iraqi Shia have long feared would happen if Iran became too powerful inside Iraq.

November 30, 2014: Iran declared that its missile program was not a part of the disarmament talks. The other side disagrees and thus there is another potential obstacle to a final agreement. Iran says it will not, under any conditions, allow foreigners to closely monitor their ballistic missile program. Some observers (including a few inside Iran) note that this insistence on secrecy is mainly to prevent the world from seeing proof that the Iranian missile program is not nearly as effective as the government insists it is.

November 28, 2014: Major General Qassem Suleimani was named as the Iranian architect and commander of the Iraqi counterattack against ISIL in Iraq. This was described in detail today by an article on a Hezbollah website.  Suleimani was described as arriving in Iraq on June 10th and bringing in thousands of Iranian and Lebanese (Hezbollah) advisers, experts and combat commanders to organize an effective response to the ISIL offensive. He has done this by weeding out the most incompetent Iraqi officers, training some replacements and quickly creating reliable Iraqi army units. In addition he organized, armed and trained effective Shia volunteer militias. Suleimani then decided where these new forces should fight and in loose cooperation with the Kurds and (since August 8th) foreign (largely U.S.) air power stopped the ISIL advance and is now pushing the Sunni Islamic terrorists back. Suleimani belongs to IRGC and commands 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 now 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 and Syria. The Lebanese revelations about Suleimani were not welcome in Iran and were apparently made to boost Hezbollah morale. Hezbollah is seen by most Lebanese (including many Shia) as a tool of Iranian foreign policy and not looking after Lebanese interests. Hezbollah involvement in Syria, on the side of the hated (by most Lebanese) Assad government has hurt morale in Hezbollah, as has the thousands of Lebanese killed or wounded since 2011 in Syria trying to keep Assad in power. Publicizing the achievements of Suleimani is apparently intended to reassure Lebanese in general that Iran will, and certainly can, protect Moslems from ISIL.

November 27, 2014: OPEC (the Arab led oil cartel) decided not to cut production to get the oil price up. This decision was in part a realization that the rapid and unexpected growth of oil and gas production in North America is not going to stop. This is all about the heavy use of recently perfected fracking and oil sands extraction technology that has now made North America a major producer of oil and gas. Not only is the U.S. importing less oil but is becoming an exporter again. Then there is the lackluster global economy (especially in China) which has reduced demand. The OPEC decision means that Iran has to cut it oil income forecasts (for government budgets and much else) by over a third. Before the 2012 sanctions and the plunging oil price oil accounted for 80 percent of Iranian exports (the source of foreign currency to buy foreign goods) and half the government budget. Before the 2012 sanctions Iran allowed imports to climb from $39.1 billion to over $60 billion in the previous seven years in order to keep unrest (against the corrupt religious dictatorship) down. Now the government budget has half the cash it was accustomed to getting and no prospects of the situation improving. Iran has been exporting about a million barrels a day (mainly to China, India, Japan, South Korea and Turkey) during the sanctions and that won’t improve much with loosening of the sanctions.

November 24, 2014: In a last minute compromise the nuclear disarmament negotiations with Iran were extended until July 1, 2015 and some of the sanctions loosened. Iran still refuses to allow restrictions on its production of nuclear fuel (technically for power reactors but some of it is being refined to higher purity only needed for nuclear weapons) or inspections of the secret facilities the West insists are developing and building nuclear weapons. Inside Iran this was seen as a great victory. On the streets people talk of the nuclear weapons program as real and a good thing. Foreigners do not believe this is a mass delusion but the local recognition of what is really going on.

November 22, 2014: At least 26 cafes have been shut by the police in Tehran. The reason given is “un-Islamic” behavior like women not dressing properly and people having a good time in unacceptable (to the religious dictatorship) ways.

November 19, 2014: The government issued a rare pardon for a Canadian (born in Iran) who had been sentenced to 19 years in prison for saying things the government did not like in his blog. The blogger had already served six years and his release was believed part of an Iranian effort to enhance its image as the deadline for nuclear disarmament talks approaches. It also eliminated a major source of tension with Canada.

November 17, 2014: Russia and Iran have agreed to cooperate more closely in the fight against ISIL. The two countries have long been in touch on dealing with Sunni Islamic terrorists but now that cooperation is increased and more formal because of the ISIL threat.

November 16, 2014: The government revealed that it is drawing on its $62 billion sovereign wealth fund (an emergency reserve of investments made with oil income) to make up for the shortfall in oil income. This fund, even if drained completely, would not last more than three or four years if oil prices remain as low as they are now.

November 15, 2014: China will double its planned economic investments in Iran from $25 billion to $52 billion.

November 12, 2014: Iran often broadcasts, via satellite, Friday (the Moslem “Sunday”) sermons by senior clerics. One broadcast today featured a senior cleric calling for Iran to use its ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons to destroy Israel, in particular the cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa. The government later said that the sermon had been mistranslated outside Iran and the cleric was talking about peaceful use of nuclear energy, not bombs. Few Iranian (Farsi) speakers understood it that way.

November 11, 2014: Russia has agreed to build two more power reactors in Iran, with the option to build up to nine more. 
 

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