The February parliament elections were a big win for pro-reform politicians but a runoff in April in required to determine who actually wins control. This is because for 69 (of 290) parliamentary election contests there was not a clear winner and a runoff is required to settle that. That will also determine which faction (conservatives or moderates) will be a majority in the parliament. During the February 26 national elections the reformers did increased representation in parliament from about ten percent to 33 percent. The conservatives got 36 percent and are in danger of losing the majority they have long held. Unlike 2012 the ruling clerics did not try to rig the vote but may do so in April. There were two main reasons for that. First, many hardliners have become pro-reform. Second the ruling clerics know they are in trouble. The government has long used surveys and a large informer network to monitor actual public opinion and they know that an effort to manipulate the vote like was done in 2012 would likely trigger popular anger and disorder. The ruling clerics understand that the huge post-Iraq war (which ended in 1989) generation wants change and within that generation reformers far outnumber religious conservatives. Unless handled carefully this growing pro-reform majority could be a lot of trouble for the government. For example a major complaint of the reformers is the corruption and inefficiency resulting from the huge business empire the religious conservatives have built up since the 1980s. These companies were taken over by clergy (and their families) for a lot of largely bogus reasons in the wake of the 1979 revolution that overthrew the aristocracy. These huge holdings make the religious conservatives much wealthier, on average, than ordinary Iranians and that is a very unpopular situation. Too much reform could threaten that cozy, and quite corrupt, arrangement. All Iranians want a stronger economy but the reformers understand this will only happen if there is more foreign trade with the West, especially the United States.
The conservatives oppose increased ties with the West. The official government attitude towards the U.S. is still “Death to America.” The conservatives still believe in this while the reformers recognize that most Iranians like America and chant “Death to America” in public only when forced to by the secret police and IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) thugs that watch these demonstrations to ensure compliance. Another major complaint of reformers is the use of lifestyle police to enforce unpopular rules about how women should dress and behave as well as prohibitions on all sorts of traditional Iranian pastimes (like drinking alcohol and watching what they want in movie theaters, TV and the Internet). Religious hardliners do not want to give any ground in these areas but the senior clerics pay more attention to Iranian history and know that the hardliners could be crushed if it came to a fight and most Iranians do not want that sort of bloodshed, at least not yet. But most Iranians also want change and in the past they have shown a willingness to fight if pushed too far. Violent rebellion is still a possibility, especially with so many new “reformers” being former hardliners who now are all for less corruption, lifestyle police and more foreign trade but still want America and Israel destroyed one way or another. Yet these same anti-American reformers also want better relations with Turkey and the Arabs as well as less dependence on Russia. As usual, not all is what it seems in Iran.
There are other ongoing problems because of continuing efforts to expand Iranian power throughout the region. The U.S. and its Sunni Arab allies fear that Iraq is on its way to becoming subordinate to Iranian foreign policy. Because of effective Iranian aid in dealing with ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) the Iraqi government has become less dependent on American and NATO support. Meanwhile Iran supports the increasingly aggressive and autonomous behavior of the Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias that are assisting the Iraqi Army in the fight against ISIL. The Shia militias are also taking control of territory in urban and rural areas, displacing the police and local government. Because of that by late 2015 the Iraq government saw more American troops as saviors. At the end of 2015 there were several thousand American troops already in Iraq and more (most of them Special Forces) on the way. There are now nearly 5,000. The government has made it clear to Iran (which is very hostile to U.S. forces in Iraq) that some American troops are essential. The presence of American troops also makes it less likely that Iran will attempt anything too ambitious (like invading or backing a takeover by Shia militias) and everyone knows that. But Iraqi leaders also know that American troops come and go while Iranian forces are always next door. Most Iraqis are more concerned with Iranian meddling than anything the Americans might do. At the same time Iraqis are wary of the other Gulf Arabs, especially Saudi Arabia. For example the Saudi ambassador to Iraq suggested that the Iran backed Shia militias in Iraq should stand aside and let the Iraqi Army deal with ISIL. That comment was widely condemned by Iraqi Shia clerics and politicians. The Shia politicians running Iraq have to move carefully because Iran, Saudi Arabia and America are all making demands, often contrary ones.
American advisors in Iraq point out that the government got away with telling the Shia militias to back off and follow orders outside Ramadi and that the United States will back the Iraqi government in dealing with Iranian pressure over the role of Shia militias in driving ISIL out of Mosul. The Iraqi government does not want that kind of confrontation because the Iranians have made it clear that the Iraqi Shia militias are willing to overthrow the elected Iraqi government when this is all over and the Americans have lost interest. Iran portrays the U.S. as an unreliable ally and one that is far away. The Americans counter by pointing out that Iran will be a threat no matter what happens and that Americans will stay involved because of the oil and what Iran does in the future has more to do with internal Iranian politics that Iraq has little influence over. So far Iran has cooperated in Iraq, but has not backed off in demanding that the pro-Iran Shia militias maintain their dual loyalties.
In Syria a ceasefire began in late February but only took effect in some parts of the country and is mainly to allow emergency food and medical aid to get to civilians who have been cut off by the fighting. UN sponsored peace talks are still stalled because Iran insists that the Shia Assads be allowed to stay in power despite the demands by the Sunni majority that the Assads go. Saudi Arabia and Turkey (and much of the Sunni Moslem nations and they West) want the Assads out. The main reason fighting continues is the fact that ISIL and al Nusra (nearly as large as ISIL and affiliated with al Qaeda) have not agreed to stop fighting. Iran has over 2,500 troops in Syria, nearly all from the IRGC and most of them are officers and career NCOs from combat units who are being sent to Syria for a few months to get some combat experience by working with government, Hezbollah and militia units. All the Iranian deaths in Syria are mentioned in Iranian media and they have all been officers or NCOs who were obviously working in or very near to the combat. Iran has also been successful at encouraging Iranians to buy property in government held areas (mainly Damascus) and put up new buildings. That makes it appear Iran is very confident that Shia and Iranians will be welcome in Syria for the some time to come and that will only happen if the Assads (or some other Shia tyrant) stay in control. Meanwhile with many rebels observing the ceasefire the government forces (and some of the rebels) can concentrate on ISIL and al Nusra. Both of these groups are losing ground and have few friends or allies.
The UN and most of the West is eager for peace in Syria but for most Moslem nations Syria is a main battleground in the current Shia (led by Iran) and Sunni (led by Saudi Arabia) civil war as well as a joint effort to destroy ISIL, Sunni fanatics that threaten everyone. The West is not willing to use enough force to make a difference and the pro-government forces are better armed and more determined than the rebels. The UN is caught in the middle and goes along with whatever seems least offensive. The growing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran has made cooperation over brokering a Syria peace deal less likely. Russian efforts to mediate are seen as long term because Russia apparently plans to keep its new naval base on the Syrian coast and believes the Assads can survive with continued help from Russia and Iran plus the universally despised behavior of ISIL.
Iran has suffered a setback in Yemen where the Shia rebels are quietly seeking peace terms with Saudi Arabia and have expressed a willingness to distance themselves from Shia Iran as part of a peace deal. Iran understands that Yemen is far more important to the Gulf Arabs than to Iran. Moreover the Yemeni Shia have never been dependent on Iran like those in Lebanon (Hezbollah), Iraq or Syria. Control (or substantial influence) in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon give Iran a land route to their declared main foe; Israel. The Saudi royals and Arabs in general are secondary to the Iranian official hatred of Israel. The Iranian threat to the Arab states in the region, especially those with oil, is of more immediate concern for the Arabs and the main reason why Arabs have openly become allies with Israel against Iran. This complex web of opportunities and capabilities means Yemen is basically a sideshow where winning is not the highest priority for Iran or Arabs. Both the Arabs and Iran have an interest in shutting down the Sunni Islamic terrorists in Yemen because these cutthroats see both Arab rulers and Shia in general as prime candidates for elimination.
The disputes between the Gulf Arabs and Iran is about more than religious differences. Iran is especially feared by the Sauds because the Iranians are not Arabs but rather Indo-European, like most Europeans and Indians. Iranians are openly hostile to the majority (80 percent) form of Islam (Sunni) espoused by the Saudis. The Iranians are Shia, a smaller (about 10 percent of Moslems) sect that conservative Sunnis consider heretics. Centuries ago, after several major wars over the issue Moslem leaders began a tradition of playing down this antagonism. But the mutual hatred remains among the more conservative Sunni and Shia clergy as well as their followers. In the last few decades Iranian Shia leaders have become increasingly aggressive in claiming that Shia should control the Moslem holy cities of Mecca and Medina, as well as all that oil the Arabs now possess. The two holy cities are in Saudi Arabia and have been administered by the Saud family for nearly a century. Saudi Arabia also contains the largest oil reserves in the world. The Sauds want to keep things the way they are and have been increasingly aggressive in blocking Iranian moves. That’s why the Sauds support Islamic radicals in Syria, even though many of these Islamic terrorists want more radical Moslems running Saudi Arabia (and removing “Saudi” from the name of Arabia). Despite all this opposition the Sauds continue to hold firmly onto power. This is mainly because of one man.
Then there are the problems with Russia. Iran has still not received all the components of the S-300 anti-aircraft systems it purchased from Russia. It is believed that Israel made a deal (involving Syria and other matters of mutual interest) to delay the Iranian effort to get the S-300 operational. Whatever the case the S-300 is not operational and the Iranians are angry about it.
March 24, 2016: The United States indicted seven Iranian employees of an Iranian software firm that frequently works of the Iranian government. The charges had to do with numerous hacking attacks starting in 2013. The targets were mostly financial institutions although there were also some attempts to get into infrastructure systems (like a dam). Iran denies any involvement and none of the indicted are under arrest by the Americans.
March 21, 2016: The last Yemeni Jews in Yemen were flown out and landed in Israel. This was apparently done with the cooperation of the Shia rebels. Details of that cooperation were not made public. The arrival of these 19 Yemeni Jews in Israel ends an effort that began in 1949 and eventually got over 50,000 Yemeni Jews out and safe from growing anti-Jewish violence there.
March 15, 2016: Russian warplanes began leaving Syria several days after Russia announced a partial withdrawal of its military forces. Russia always said that its military participation in Syria would be brief and this announcement confirms that. There is all sorts of speculation about what is “really going on” and there are some pretty obvious reasons for Russia pulling back in Syria. There is a well-known shortage of smart bombs and pilots who can use them. There is also a shortage of replacement parts for combat aircraft. Then there is the expense of air operations. Russia is broke because of low oil prices and international sanctions. An extended presence in Syria would be unpopular back in Russia. Meanwhile Russian advisors and technical personnel are staying, along with some warplanes and helicopters. This will continue to aid and encourage Assad forces. Meanwhile Russia has gained much, like combat experience for many of its new weapons (which makes it easier to get export sales) and combat experience for Russian officers, NCOs and special operations forces. Russia also demonstrated to friends and enemies alike in the Middle East that Russia was a more dependable ally than the United States.
March 14, 2016: The government announced that the second round of parliamentary elections would be held on April 29.
March 9, 2016: Two Ghadr (Qadr) ballistic missiles were test fired from underground silos. This type of missile has been around since 2008 and is a 17 ton, liquid fueled missile with a range of up to 2,000 kilometers. The ones launched today were to test a multiple warhead final stage and countermeasures to anti-missile systems. Launching these missiles was a violation of a UN resolution but Iran insisted that it did not apply in this case because these missiles were defensive weapons and did not have nuclear warheads. Iran accused the UN and the West of seeking to overturn the deal that lifted economic sanctions and demanded that those sanctions be lifted more quickly.
March 7, 2016: An Australian warship on anti-piracy patrol stopped and searched a fishing boat 300 kilometers off the coast of Oman and found over 2,000 weapons, most of them AK-47s. It was unclear if the weapons (which seemed to be from Iran) were headed for Somalia or to Shia rebels in Yemen.
March 3, 2016: The GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab oil states in the Persian Gulf) declared Hezbollah, the Iran backed Lebanese Shia militia, to be a terrorist group. The rest of the world has long identified Hezbollah as an Islamic terrorist organization but the GCC did not because it was (and still is) popular in Arabia to try and support any group that is fighting Israel. Hezbollah and Palestinian groups like Hamas are the only ones doing that actively. In 2013 the GCC criticized Hezbollah for supporting the Assad dictatorship in Syria and Iran accused the Arabs of taking orders from the United States and Israel. Iran denounced the GCC as pawns of Israel and so on.