Iran: Know Who Your Friends Are

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May 1, 2015:   While Iran is not scoring big victories against its many enemies, it has had some important successes recently. In Yemen the Saudis were depending on Pakistani ground forces to make an invasion of Yemen more of a sure thing. The Pakistanis refused and instead got closer to Iran. Pakistan has been dealing with the Gulf Arabs for over half a century and has come to agree with the Iranians and Turks that the Arabs are not the most steadfast and reliable of allies. In part it’s cultural. Non-Arabs tend to agree that “Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Thus despite over a trillion dollars in oil income in the last half century the Arab states have not really accomplished much except create an atmosphere conducive to Islamic terrorism along with a welfare state that has to import workers and managers along with food and consumer goods. What also grates, especially to fellow Moslems, is the Arab attitude that since Arabs created Islam then Arabs must be slightly superior Moslems.

While Iran has also been seduced by the illusory benefits of Islamic radicalism, Pakistan tried that and now realizes it is a dead end and so is siding with the Arabs against Iran, at least when it comes to Islamic terrorism. All this is doubly bad news for the Arabs, who had hoped to buy nukes from Pakistan if Iran got them. There’s still North Korea, but that is a lot riskier and complicated than doing a deal with fellow Moslems in Pakistan. Iran also used the lure of economic benefit, especially once the sanctions finally get lifted. The Iranians have always had a larger and more varied economy than the Gulf Arabs and don’t have to import workers and technical experts. Pakistan not only sees a more useful economic and military partner in Iran, but also a useful “friend” in its continuing conflicts with India. While Iran is also on good terms with India, this can be useful for Pakistan as the Iranians can serve as intermediators for those times when Pakistan and India are on the brink of war.

Because of the shift in Pakistani loyalties the Gulf Arabs are now inclined to keep most of their troops out of Yemen because Iran is seen as more of a threat. While Pakistan refused to send troops they did promise to come in with troops if Saudi Arabia were invaded. The only likely invader is Iran, so Pakistan, still appreciative of some Saudi generosity, has not entirely backed away. But this leaves the Arabs stuck with using just air power (and a lot of U.S. technical and operational assistance) and a blockade (again backed by the Americans) to keep Iranian aid out of Yemen. The Sunni majority in Yemen is disorganized and not as effective in battle as the Shia Arab rebels. Thus this Yemen mess can drag on for a long time, which is costing the Gulf Arabs a lot of money. They again their pilots are getting a lot of useful combat experience. Iran can promote the Yemen mess as another example of the superiority of the Shia brand of Islam as well as proof that Saudi Arabia is not fit to lead the Islamic world or be the guardian of the most sacred shrines of Islam.

One minor victory for the Saudi led coalition (Qatar, UAE, Kuwait, Egypt, Sudan, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt) has been the humiliation of Iran because Sudan joined the coalition. Sudan has been a long time (and well paid) ally of Iran. But the UN has indicted the Sudanese president for war crimes (for his massive attacks on Sudanese Moslem civilians in Darfur) and it was only the willingness of the Sunni Arab nations to restrain the UN that kept the Sudanese leader out of prison. Now it was payback time and Sudan paid their debt. Saudi diplomats insist that Arabs are not at war with Iran, but with rebels in Yemen who happen to be Shia. At the same time Arab newspapers in the Gulf area are pointing out that non-Arab Moslem states need the oil-rich Arabs more than the other way around. That may be true, but few of those other Moslem states are willing to die for the Arabs.

A senior Iranian general recently gave a speech in Iran in which he described Iranian military operations in Iraq and Lebanon as going well and that soon Iran would have a presence in Jordan as well. Apparently the general revealed more than he was supposed to because Iranian diplomats began getting angry messages from Jordan about this. In response Iran said the speech never took place. It was too late for that as many details had gotten out (some via pro-government media in Iran) and all Iranian diplomats could do was attempt some damage control. What this was all about was optimism among Quds Force leaders and their eagerness to share it. To Jordan this Iranian slip makes sense because pro-Iran Syrian rebels recently took control of some of the border with Jordan and Quds personnel were seen to be active along this border area. In response to this kind of boasting more and more Arab media are featuring stories or hosts pushing the idea of openly allying with Israel and supporting an Israeli air strike against Iranian nuclear weapons program. Actually, many Arab leaders have been quietly working with Israel for years. This is an open secret in the Arab world that is getting closer to becoming public policy.

And then there are the “peace talks” with Iran. The ruling clerics of Iran have come right out and said all sanctions must be lifted as soon as a deal is signed. In the West getting the currently negotiated proposed deal approved is more complicated because of democracy and divisions in the leadership between those who want to do any kind of deal (just to be done with the economic and political problems caused by the sanctions) versus those who demand proof (intrusive and unscheduled inspections) of Iranian compliance. Israel has made it clear that it will only accept true compliance and verifiable proof that the Iranian nuclear weapons program is shut down. So after much diligent negotiating there is really no agreement. The sanctions remain in place. The Iranian negotiators also believe that if they can get any sanctions lifted the West would have a more difficult time restoring them because of Iranian misbehavior. Some Western leaders underrate this vulnerability but at least this potential Iranian ploy is not totally ignored by everyone in the West. This makes this particular scam less likely to work especially if the Iranian negotiators continue trying to manipulate their Western counterparts. Currently there is a June 30th deadline to reach an agreement on the current proposal or else more sanctions would be imposed. Iranian negotiators (and, according to local gossip and Internet chatter, most Iranians) believe that the deadline can at least be extended and additional sanctions avoided. To Iranians that would be a victory. Meanwhile the U.S. admitted that the “military option” was still available to the United States if sanctions did not succeed in getting the Iranian nuclear program shut down. Israel keeps saying the same thing.

Despite all these victories (real or created by clever spin) more of the clerical ruling class in Iran are admitting (mainly to each other) that most Iranians hate the religious dictatorship the Shia clergy have imposed since the 1980s. It was long believed that the religious rule would become tolerable for most Iranians if there were economic prosperity. But the effort to build nukes (which is quite popular with most Iranians) brought on international sanctions that have hurt the economy. Doing even more economic damage is the Gulf Arab effort to keep the world price of oil low. Of course, even prosperity will not make the clerics loved by all Iranians, just hated less vehemently. The fact of the matter is that Iranians are tired of all the censorship and lifestyle rules imposed by the ruling clerics. The clerics know that if they cannot win support at home all the foreign triumphs are meaningless. For the moment the majority of clerics are behind the strategy of “prosperity and nukes” to win the loyalty of their Iranian subjects. Even that is a long shot and more and more of the ruling clerics are pointing this out to their peers. Meanwhile the refusal of so many hardline Iranian clerics to even consider giving up, or just delaying, the nuclear program (to the satisfaction of the intrusive UN inspectors) is blocking efforts by more flexible clerics to reach a peace deal with the UN and get sanctions lifted.

The U.S. will now escort American owned merchant ships through the Strait of Hormuz (which takes all ships in the Strait close to Iran).

April 30, 2015:  News media leaded that Britain recently reported to the UN that it had prevented Iran from obtaining uranium enrichment technology on the black market in 2014. Another leaked report showed that UN investigators had been tracking Iranian arms shipments to rebellious Yemeni Shia tribes since at least 2009. That was no secret, as some of these shipments were seized by the Yemeni Coast Guard. But UN investigators relied on a large network of informants to gather more details of this Iranian aid effort. Israel has been less secretive about Iranian arms smuggling and recently complained that Iran is still trying to smuggle weapons to Hezbollah (in Lebanon) and Hamas (in Gaza). The Gaza effort is having more problems as these shipments are being detected and seized (or turned back) by both Israel and Egypt. Israel has also been bombing Iranian arms shipment moving through Syria to Lebanon and did so again this week. Egypt is mad at Iran over lots of things, including recent revelations that Iran had established a large spy network in Egypt, which had recently suffered heavy losses (and provided Egyptian counter-intelligence with a lot of embarrassing, to Iran, details.)                                

April 28, 2015: Small armed boats belonging to the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) intercepted and seized (by threatening to sink it) a container ship operated by a German firm and carrying cargo for a Danish company (Maersk). It turned out that this was not a political move but someone using the IRGC to settle a ten year old lawsuit and, yes, win some good PR for the ruling Iranian clerics (by “striking back”, or at least embarrassing, the West). The commercial dispute was between an Iranian company and Maersk, which had shipped ten containers of Iranian goods to Dubai in 2005. That cargo was not accepted by the Arab buyer and eventually auctioned off by the local government. The Iranian firm blamed Maersk and the case went round and round in Iranian courts for a decade with the Iranian courts generally siding with Maersk. Recently an appeals court tried to achieve an acceptable compromise in which Maersk would pay $163,000 instead of the $4 million the Iranian firm was asking for. Maersk refused and the Iranian firm apparently found friends in the IRGC that had an idea. Maersk is a major international shipping company and sends many ships (in runs) or cargoes through the Strait of Hormuz every day. That the IRGC would freelance like this is nothing new and has been an open secret for over a decade. The IRGC gets away with this because the Iranian government is basically a religious dictatorship that created an army of religious fanatics (the IRGC) to deal with any popular unrest. IRGC is more than just the "royal guard" of the Iranian dictatorship and has grown to become a state-within-a-state.

April 24, 2015: The Saudi ambassador was called on to justify the recent interception (by Saudi fighters) of two Iranian cargo aircraft trying to deliver aid supplies to Yemen. The Saudi led coalition has established a land, sea and air blockade of Yemen to prevent any resupply for the Shia rebels. The Saudis are trying to arrange food supplies for Yemeni civilians but the Shia rebels are not cooperating with this effort. The UN is trying to convince both sides, but especially the Shia rebels, to allow “humanitarian access”. The Shia rebels are willing to negotiate on that, but the Saudis are not allowing any Iranian ships or aircraft in because they fear the Iranians will try to sneak in weapons, as they have done so often elsewhere over the last three decades. Iran has, so far, not threatened to escalate with their armed forces. More recently Iran complained to the Saudis that some bombs fell too close to the Iranian embassy in Yemen.

April 23, 2015: An Iranian convoy of nine ships (seven small cargo vessels plus two small warships) that was headed for Yemen has turned around while still off Oman. The presence of an American naval task force may have had something to do with this. As a result of the Iranian retreat on the 25th an American carrier and a cruiser moved back into the Persian Gulf to support operations against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Seven other U.S. warships remained close to the Yemeni coast. The U.S. said its warships were there to ensure free passage of all vessels, not to help enforce the recent UN arms embargo against the Shia rebels.

April 22, 2015: Pakistan agreed to cooperate in improving border security and exchange captured terrorists with Iran. This will reduce the incentive for rebels from each country crossing the border to set up bases. For both countries the main problem is Baluchi separatists who are active on both sides of the border. There was also agreement on increasing trade between the two nations, which is now just under a billion dollars a year. The goal of this deal is to increase that by at least 20 percent a year for the next five years or until it reached at least $5 billion (what economists believe it should be). This means getting around the sanctions Iran is already under, but that is easier to do if a neighbor is willing to enter into barter deals. This is working with Russia and China as well.

April 20, 2015: Iraqi leaders have paid back Iran a bit by openly criticizing the Arab coalition waging an air campaign against Shia rebels in Yemen. Iran is getting little support in the region for backing the Yemeni Shia rebels and the Arab states supplying aid for Iraq were not pleased with this Iraqi criticism. The Americans were not amused either.

April 16, 2015: Iraq asked Iran to stop publicizing the presence of a senior IRGC general (the commander of the Quds Force) in Iraq. This makes Iraqi leaders look like they are more beholden to Iran than they actually are and the Iraqis don’t like it.

April 15, 2015: In mid-April French military aid began arriving in Lebanon. Actually the $3 billion in weapons and equipment is being paid for by Saudi Arabia and the deal was arranged back in 2013. The deal provides different benefits for the three countries involved. For France it boosts their defense industries and the centuries old French desire to preserve the power of Arab Christians in that region. For the Saudis it is another chance to hurt Iranian military and political power by making Hezbollah (a local Shia militia created and sustained by Iran) less of a threat to the Lebanese armed forces (which is dominated by Christians).

April 14, 2015: The government halted all travel to Saudi Arabia because of a recent incident where two Iranian teenage boys were sexually molested by Saudi police at the airport. The Saudis quickly looked into this and announced that the guilty security officials had been found and would be punished. That was the end of the incident, but it was not the end of these incidents in general. For over a decade Iran has been complaining of similar abuse. This included Saudi religious police harassing Iranian pilgrims going on the Hajj to Mecca (where Shia worshipers use different rituals than mainstream Sunnis.) Iran has halted Iranians from making the pilgrimage in the past to get the Saudis call off their religious police or prosecute those who harm Iranians.

April 13, 2015: Russia agreed to lift its ban on shipping S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran. These missiles would make it much more difficult for Israel to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities and could mean higher Israeli losses (although the Israelis admitted they have countermeasures for the S-300). There was a similar problem recently in Syria. In 2013 Russia and Syria insisted that shipments of Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems (similar to the U.S. Patriot) had arrived in Syria. The Russians could have delivered the S-300s in 2010, when they were ordered, but did not. The delay was all about the Russians understanding the Israeli situation and not wanting to trigger a response that would hurt Russia. This agreement to delay delivery also covered orders for Iran, which Russia has now decided to proceed with in order to punish the West for sanctions on Russia because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Earlier Iran had announced the deployment of a locally made clone of the S-300. This is generally believed to be another PR stunt and that it will not stop the Iranians from accepting and using the S-300.

April 12, 2015: In Iraq Prime minister Abadi made it very clear that he had requested American air power to be used at Tikrit to support Iraqi Army units attacking the city. Abadi said he did this even though Iran told him that the Iranian supported Shia militias, which comprised most of the manpower attacking Tikrit, would withdraw. Abadi was not happy with how the Shia militias were taking all the credit for the advance on Tikrit but were unable to advance into the city center. The Shia militias refused American air support and Iran was not able to supply it either. Abadi saw this as part of an effort by Iran to eventually make Iraq a puppet state and Abadi knew that most Iraqis, including most Shia Iraqis, did not want that. Abadi was told by his Iraqi and American military advisors that with U.S. air support the few ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) defenders and their defenses (mainly a lot of roadside bombs and booby traps) could be overcome using just the Iraqi army forces available. The Iraqis have lots of American trained bomb disposal experts and commanders familiar with how to work with American air support. Thus Abadi won a double victory (over Iran and ISIL) at Tikrit. Neither of the losers took it well. Abadi also won support from Iraqi Sunnis for standing up to Iran and for ordering the army to halt the looting (by criminal gangs and some Shia militias) and revenge murders that followed the army occupation of the city.

April 11, 2015: A growing number of Iraqi and Kurdish officials are accusing Iran of sending thousands (some claim 30,000) of their citizens (military age males) into Iraq as “tourists” who then join a Shia militia. Some of these militias are believed to have entire units (of a hundred or so men) composed of Iranians who don’t even speak Arabic. The Iraqi government is reluctant to officially investigate this because Iranian aid in the fight against ISIL has been substantial and quite useful.

 

 

 

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