Despite being allies, Turkey and Iran are now feuding in the media over public accusations by senior Turkish leaders that Iran was attempting to destabilize Syria and Iraq in order to increase Iranian influence in those countries. While many people in those countries, both pro and anti-Iran, would agree, the official Iranian line is that their military efforts in Syria and Iraq are simply to help fight ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). Turkey is largely Sunni and has been trying to improve its relations with all Moslem majority nations in the region since 2000. That is proving difficult with the growing struggle between Shia (led by Iran) and Sunni (led by Saudi Arabia). Turkey has tried to stay out of this conflict but that is proving impossible.
While Iran has some internal problems with religious minorities and the Shia-Sunni dispute the worst domestic problems are ethnic. This is particularly true with the Kurd and Arab minorities. Both groups are largely Shia and the animosity is mainly resistance to domination by the Persian (ethnic Iranian) majority. The latest unrest has been in the southwestern province of Khuzestan. For over a week there have been mass protests in Ahvaz (the provincial capital) over worsening air pollution and power shortages. Arabs are the majority in Khuzestan province. While Arabs comprise only about two percent of the Iranian population most of the oil fields are in Khuzestan and that creates a lot of air pollution and resentment over not sharing in the wealth. All that oil should also produce plenty of fuel for generating electricity but government corruption and mismanagement have left Ahvaz without power more frequently. The Arabs there are generally hostile to the ethnic Iranians, who are accused of persecuting and not respecting Arab Iranians.
Arab protests are often more violent. Arab separatists like the ASMLA (Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz) bomb oil pipelines. ASMLA has been active since 2005 but not in a big way. The most recent ASMLA bombing was in early January. But there are other active Arab rebels. In July 2016 the al Farouq Brigade carried out two pipeline attacks. At the same time the Hawks of Ahwaz took credit for a fire in a local petrochemical plant. Hawks of Ahwaz took credit for two other similar fires that have occurred since 2015. Iran is acutely aware of how unruly its own Arab minority can be. There are a growing number of terrorist incidents inside Iran traced to Iranian Arabs. Most Iranian oil is pumped from the ancestral lands of these Arabs, who have become increasingly bitter about how they receive little benefit from all that oil wealth. The three million Arabs in Khuzestan province (formerly Arabistan) are Shia and have been ruled by non-Arab Iranians for centuries. Arab unrest here has grown since 2003, when the Sunni dictatorship of Saddam Hussein was overthrown in Iraq and the Shia majority won elections to take power. Since 2003 hundreds of Iranian Arabs have been arrested for separatist activities. Many are still in prison and nearly 30 have been executed.
Nearly all Iranians are most concerned about the economy and standard-of-living in general. The major obstacle to improving the situation is persistent, and growing, corruption. There are several obstacles to dealing with corruption, or even protesting it. The main defender of corruption is the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) generals who, like the late shah, are inclined to ignore public opinion and put down with force any public displays of dissent. At the other extremes you have religious leaders to are willing to compromise with many popular demands, especially those related to economic freedom and curbing corruption. That goal collides with the IRGC, which is all about controlling all manner of personal freedoms and tolerating corruption when it benefits the IRGC. While leaders of the religious government and the IRGC are both getting rich off corruption the IRGC is able to shut down reform.
Iran was always notoriously corrupt and it has been an enduring problem for thousands of years. Currently Iran is not rated as one of the most corrupt nations on the planet. But Iran is close to the bottom and is 131 out of 176 countries for 2016 and somewhat better off than the worst. Iran has been slowly improving its corruption score but not fast enough to make much difference to the average Iranian, who sees their economic situation worsening. Efforts to achieve noticeable improvement has stalled. Somalia was rated the most corrupt nation in the world and has held that dubious distinction for a decade. Corruption in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually North Korea, Somalia or, since 2011, South Sudan) have a rating of under fifteen while for the least corrupt (usually Denmark) it tends to be 90 or higher. The current Iran score is 29 compared to 17 for Iraq, 41 for Turkey, 46 for Saudi Arabia, 28 for Lebanon, 41 for Kuwait, 66 for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 64 for Israel, 25 for Afghanistan, 32 for Pakistan, 29 for Russia, 40 for China, 28 for Nigeria, 45 for South Africa, 40 for India, 72 for Japan, 37 for Indonesia, 53 for South Korea, 11 for South Sudan, 12 for North Korea, and 74 for the United States. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble. African nations are the most corrupt, followed by Middle Eastern ones. Fixing an existing culture of corruption has proved a most difficult challenge.
The Price Of Progress
Iran thought victories in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, alliances with Turkey, China and Russia to oppose the West plus the end of sanctions would lead to more domestic support for the religious dictatorship that has run the country since the 1980s. That has not worked, at least not as well as the government expected. Opinion surveys showed that 90 percent of Iranians backed the Syrian operations in 2015 but that support dropped to 73 percent in 2016 and is now less than 30 percent. There were similar declines regarding Iranian popular support for Hezbollah and Shia militias in Lebanon, Syria. Yemen and Iraq. Most Iranians are more concerned with own circumstances, which have not improved much despite all the government boasting of victories elsewhere. Many Iranians are unhappy with the alliance with Russia, which has been seen as a threat for centuries. The religious dictatorship overcame that out of desperation as Russia was one of the few nations they could trade with during the height of the sanctions (that largely ended in 2016). But most Iranians have long memories and when they think about Russia that triggers of someone close, hostile, untrustworthy and aggressive. The Turks are regarded in a similar fashion but at least they are Moslem (although not the right flavor) and willing to be accommodating in the long term. Iran has been willing to cooperate with the Turks on the Kurdish issue and even the Israelis and Sunni Arabs are cooperative. But at the same time most of the nations unconcerned about Kurdish aspirations are very much concerned about Iran obtaining even more control over Syria. That’s what will happen if the rebels are defeated and none of the nations bordering Syria are happy with Iranian control of Syria, with or without the Assads still around.
Iranian military advisors in Iraq have a problem with the locals. Iraqis prefer time consuming tactics in the fight against ISIL because this keeps civilian and security forces casualties low and keeps the Iran backed Shia militias out of the fighting. That prevents more atrocities against non-Shia civilians in general and Iraqi Sunnis in particular. More importantly it shows Iran that Iraq can take care of this without a lot of Iranian help. While over half of Iraqis are Shia they do not want the country dominated by Shia (but non-Arab) Iran. As a result many of the Iran backed Shia militias have proved reliable (in their treatment of non-Shia civilians) when assigned to police and protect areas ISIL had recently been driven from. Sunni civilians are often warned by ISIL that Shia militias will kill them, rape the women and generally misbehave. But most of the Shia militiamen bring with them needed food and medical aid and generally behave well. Yet the government knows there are violently pro-Iran Shia Iraqis in some of these militias so the risk of bad behavior is always there and Iranian military trainers and advisors do little to discourage it. Perhaps to avoid that the government announced that some Iraqi Shia militias would be allowed to cross into Syria to aid in the effort to drive ISIL out of eastern Syria.
Iranians are present among the several thousand foreign troops, all of them advisors or specialists (like American air control, intelligence or communications specialists) working with the 30,000 Iraqis fighting to drive ISIL out of Mosul. There are over a thousand Iranians providing training, advisory and support assistance to the pro-Iran Shia militias. The Iraqi government fears that these IRGC advisors and trainers are secretly building pro-Iran armed militias in Iraq. That’s simply not true because the IRGC is quite open about what they are doing to encourage Iraqi Shia to organize armed groups so they can work with Iran someday to impose the same kind of religious dictatorship in Iraq that has existed in Iran since the 1980s.
This is where Iran is having the most problems, especially with Turkey because the Turks are involved mainly because of the Kurds. That’s why Turkey is so opposed to any peace deal that keeps the Shia Assad clan in power. Turkey is even pressuring the new American government to drop its military support for the Kurds in general and those in Syria in particular. The United States is still very popular in Turkey but the current Turkish government is very (more than usual) hostile to Kurds. The Arab states that are working with NATO to destroy ISIL back continued support for Kurds in Syria. This annoys the Turkish government, who don’t care if a pro-Iran Shia minority rules Syria as long as that group respects Turkish attitudes about Kurdish nationalism (violently opposed because those Kurds claim most of eastern Turkey). The Assads have a long history of making deals with the Kurds, even if those deals hurt Turkey. So the Assads have to go. Many Turks have demonstrated against and criticized Turkish cooperation with Iran, Russia and the Assad government of Syria. All three of these groups have long been seen as enemies of Turkey.
In early January Turkey threatened to withdraw from the temporary alliance with Russia and Iran in Syria. Turkey was angry at Iran for tolerating repeated violations of the recent ceasefire deal by Iranian mercenaries (mainly Hezbollah) in Syria. The Turkish government justifies the alliance with Iran and Russia in Syria by referring to increased cooperation with Russia and Iran since the 1990s. But in Syria the Turks have to deal with the fact that Iran is run by a religious dictatorship and Turkey and Russia are not. Iran justifies breaking agreements by blaming it on the many religious fanatics in its government and military. Russia is willing to ignore that sort of thing, Turkey isn’t. At the same time a growing number of Iranians openly demonstrate against the alliance with Russia, especially highly visible things like the continued use of Iranian airspace by Russian military aircraft travelling to and from Syria. For decades Russia was depicted (by Iranian media, governments and personal experience) as a dangerous enemy of Iran. Russia and Iran also openly disagree over some key items. Russia openly supports Israel’s efforts to defend itself from Hezbollah or Iranian missile attacks. Russia is also willing to have the Americans join in the effort to craft a peace deal at the conference going on now in Kazakhstan. Iran insisted that the Americans not show and the new U.S. government was OK with that.
The unusual alliance of Iran, Turkey and Russia is seen by all three countries as historically unnatural and unsustainable. Iran has long been fighting the Russians and Turks over who had the most power, control and influence in the areas where they were neighbors. Each of the three still have fundamental differences with the other two and popular opinion in all three nations shows widespread distrust of these “unnatural” allies. But most Iranians also remember that many times in the past Iran has made such unstable alliances work, for a while at least. Beyond the shared desire to destroy ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) the various foreign powers now involved in Syria mostly disagree with each other on much else.
Iran has maintained its military presence in Syria even if it causes friction with new allies like Turkey. Iran is trying several solutions to this perception problem. It is encouraging (apparently with some cash) Hezbollah fighters operating in Syria to join Syrian Army units and wear Syrian uniforms. These Lebanese “soldiers” apparently operate together in small units (like a platoon of 20-30 men) under Hezbollah leaders (wearing NCO or officer uniforms). It is believed that Hezbollah is using a similar technique in Lebanon as part of its effort to take control of the Lebanese Army. It is also easier for Hezbollah men to get training in new weapons when doing so in Syrian uniforms. Russia is fine with this but the Turks are not.
Iranian support for Yemeni Shia rebels is a low cost operation because Iran always urged the Shia there to adopt a more cautious and gradual strategy. That advice was ignored and when the Yemeni Shia had an opportunity to seize the capital and declare a new government in 2015 they did so. It didn’t work but came close enough to encourage Iran to spend a lot of what little cash they had to support the Yemeni Shia. Iran knew that the Yemeni Shia, or at least some of them, would be grateful for this support and that would benefit Iran long-term. In the meantime the situation in Yemen, where the outnumbered and outgunned Shia are holding out against the Sunni majority and their Arab (led by the Saudis) allies. This has given the Iranians an excellent media opportunity and they are making the most of the fact that the Arabs, even with greater numbers and superior weapons, are unable to defeat fellow Arabs who just happen to be Shia. Iran, the largest Shia majority nation in the world, considers the Shia form of Islam superior to the Sunni variants (which over 80 percent of Moslems follow).
February 15, 2017: The Iranian president visited Oman and met with the local ruler (the sultan) to discuss improving relations with the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab oil states in the Persian Gulf), and especially with Saudi Arabia. While in Oman the Iranian president also met with the Kuwaiti ruler who was also visiting. It is unclear if this is a serious peace effort or just another Iranian move to make the GCC and Saudi Arabia look like the bad guys. It did not go unmentioned that the two members of the GCC that continue to have good relations with Iran are Oman and Kuwait. These two Arab states have worked well with Iran for generations.
February 9, 2017: In the southeast, near the Pakistan (Baluchistan) border four mortar shells fell on the Pakistani side and the Pakistanis accused the Iranian border guards of being responsible. Iran did not respond but this had happened before (several times) and usually involved the Iranians trying to deal with some Iranian rebels fleeing to sanctuary in Pakistan. Baluchi Sunni Islamic terrorists often carry out operations in Iran flee back across the border to Pakistan. These Iranian Baluchi separatists regularly operate against Iran from bases in Pakistan and have become a growing problem for both countries. Pakistan is under a lot of pressure to do something about it, so the Pakistani government at least goes through the motions of responding to each incident.
Across the Persian Gulf in Bahrain ten Shia Islamic terrorists sought to reach sanctuary in Iran but their boat was sighted and fired on by a police vessel. That left three of the escaped (on January 1st) prisoners dead and their boat unable to move. The other seven were arrested. All ten Bahraini Shia had been convicted of crimes associated which their efforts to secure more political power for the Shia Arabs. Bahrain believes the Iranian Quds Force (which specializes in supporting Islamic terrorists) is providing terrorist training to Bahraini Shia in Iraq and Iran and assisting in obtaining explosives and weapons for Bahraini Shia rebels. Relations between Bahrain and Iran have been getting worse since the 1980s, when a religious dictatorship took power in Iran. It got so bad in July 2015 that Bahrain recalled its ambassador in Iran because of a recent incident where a small boat was stopped off Bahrain and two men with known terrorist connections were arrested after the boat was found to be carrying 44 kg (96 pounds) of C4 explosive, other components (detonators) for making bombs, six assault rifles and several hundred rounds of ammo. The men admitted they had received the weapons from a nearby Iranian ship in international waters. One of the men was known to have received terrorist training in Iran in 2013.
Iran dismisses all these accusations as lies. But these are not isolated incidents. There are many of them and they occur regularly. They often involve arresting Islamic terrorists and seizing supplies of explosives meant for terrorist bombings in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. This sort of thing has been going on for some time. Iranian politicians have increasingly mentioned in public that Bahrain is really the 14th province of Iran. That's because, well, it isn't called the "Persian" Gulf for nothing (although since all the oil money showed up the Arabs have been trying to popularize the term "Arabian Gulf," with mixed success). There have been ethnic Iranian communities in Bahrain for centuries, along with a Shia Arab majority, and Iran had a formal claim on the island until 1969 when the claim was dropped, in order to improve relations with Arab neighbors. Iran has always been an empire and still is (only half the population is ethnic Iranian). The way this works you always have a sense of "Greater Iran" which includes, at the least, claims on any nearby areas containing ethnic Iranians or people of similar religion. Hitler used this concept to guide his strategy during World War II. Bahrainis (both Sunni and Shia) get very upset when these claims are periodically revived. The local Shia want an independent Bahrain run by the Shia majority. The Iranian government officially denounces such claims on Bahrain but apparently many Iranians have not forgotten. Arabs are not very happy about that and have responded by pointing out that Iran was Sunni until 500 years ago and were forced to convert, on pain of death, by a Shia emperor who killed about a million of his subjects in the process. Saudi Arabia is trying, with some success, to organize Arab resistance to Iranian expansionist moves. Iran has responded by encouraging the Shia minorities on the west side of the Gulf to demonstrate their unhappiness with their minority status. The Iranian claim is based on Iranian control of Bahrain for a few years during the 18th century. Iran resents Western interference in the area believing themselves to be the regional superpower and the final arbiter of who is sovereign and who is not. Arabs see Iran continuing to throw its traditional weight around, despite the decades of sanctions and the current low oil prices. Traditional thinking among Sunnis is that Shia are scum and a bunch of unreliable losers, although the Iranians have always visibly contradicted that. The average Iranian holds similar views towards Arabs, especially Sunni Arabs.
February 5, 2017: Saudi Arabian air defense forces used a Patriot missile to shoot down a ballistic missile fired by Shia rebels towards a base in central Saudi Arabia (outside the capital, Riyadh). Iranian media insisted the missile landed but there was no evidence of that on the ground or posted to the Internet (from people living in the area, none of whom reported any visual or audio indications of a missile landing).
February 4, 2017: In northern Iraq (Tal Afar, between Mosul and Syria) another to IRGC officer was killed while advising (or leading) Iraqi Shia militiamen. Iran has sent hundreds of IRGC officers, most of them from the Quds Force. Dozens of senior IRGC officers have been killed in Syria and Iraq since 2012.
January 30, 2017: In Yemen the Shia rebels (or at least the Iranian media that first reported it) claim to have used a ballistic missile to attack a Saudi base on Zuqar Island in the Red Sea. The Iranian media claimed that there were over a hundred casualties but there was no evidence of such an attack. Similar claims have been made before.