The Iran backed Shia rebels in Yemen are losing more local allies. Over the last week fighting in the rebel controlled capital has caused at least 400 casualties. The tensions and growing violence became more visible since August when Shia rebels in the Yemeni capital placed former president Ali Abdullah Saleh under house arrest. Forces loyal to Saleh had clashed in the capital the day before the arrest and continued sporadically ever since. Tensions between Saleh, a long-time ally of the Shia rebels, had been developing since late 2016. The Shia rebels are losing territory and popularity and Saleh was apparently seeking to make a deal with the Saudi-backed Yemen government. Saleh was always willing to make deals but apparently decided to seek refuge outside of Iran-controlled territory and was killed yesterday while trying to flee the rebel held capital. His followers insist he is alive while the Shia rebels say they will parade his body though the capital. It appears Saleh is dead. Over the last few days more Saudi airstrikes in the capital appeared to be in direct support of pro-Saleh forces. While the Shia rebels still control the capital the loss of Saleh will cost them at least a third of their current supporters, especially the non-Shia ones and veterans of the pre-2011 Yemeni military.
Saleh had been a vital Iranian ally. The Shia rebels got their ballistic missiles because most of the Yemeni armed forces remained loyal to former president Saleh, who took good care of the military and that was one reason Saleh rule lasted for three decades. Meanwhile the Iran backed Shia rebels and some Sunni groups still control most of the northwest (to the Saudi border), the capital and key towns and cities that must be fought over and garrisoned before the government can claim more territory. The government and coalition forces have taken most of the Red Sea coast but have not got enough troops to stop the rebels from moving about and continuing to receive weapons and other equipment smuggled in by Iran. The Arab coalition has internal disagreements which limit what the group can do. But with Saleh gone and the rebel coalition falling apart there are now former rebels willing to switch sides and provide local security (especially where they live) in return for more foreign aid and a monthly salary. Suddenly Yemen is not a lost cause for the Arabs and Iran is seen as less clever and effective than they claim to be.
What all the Arab coalition members share (aside from oil wealth) is fear of Iran. What has been going on in Yemen reinforces that fear. Iran has created a serious threat to the Gulf Arabs while spending far less than the half billion dollars a month the Yemen effort is costing the Arab coalition. Iran has only a handful of Iranians in Yemen. Most of what are described as “Iranians” in Yemen are Lebanese (Shia Arabs belonging to Hezbollah). The Iranians have always been able to do a lot more with a lot less and this worries the Arabs more than anything else. But it does not always work and Yemen is turning to be another reminder of that vulnerability.
The Second Silk Road
Yemen may be a loss but both China and Iran are having more success restoring the ancient overland “Silk Road” trade route from China throughout Eurasia (including India and Europe). The Chinese version is called Obor (One Belt, One Road) and it has actually been under construction since the late 1990s. Earlier in 2017 China went public with Obor via a PR campaign that described it as a revival of the ancient Silk Road. That’s not accurate as the ancient Silk Road was only partially run by the Chinese. Most of it was operated by other major powers (Iranian, Indian, Turks and Arabs) and was largely put out of business after the 16th century by European innovations in ship building and management of sea routes that provided a safer and cheaper way to move goods worldwide. Obor is more ambitious and is a grand strategic economic plan but in some areas (like Pakistan, Nepal, Thailand and Burma) it’s unravelling a bit. All of these countries are pulling out of economic deals with China because the terms, as interpreted by China, are unacceptable.
Iran, unlike most areas Obor money is going into, already has a lot of infrastructure and is not the target of heavy Obor spending. At the same time China has become the largest foreign investor in Iran (since sanctions were lifted in 2015) and most of these investments support Obor directly or indirectly. Thus in most cases Obor investments are seen as a positive (or potentially so) thing by Iranians.
For over a thousand years Iranians were involved with running a large section of the original Silk Road and developed a reputation of being formidable negotiators. The Iranians don’t trust the Chinese and have made deals with India and Afghanistan to resurrect the ancient Iranian portion of the Silk Road and expand it a bit. This involves the new Iranian port of Chabahar in southeastern Iran on the Indian Ocean. There is a new railroad and highway connection from Chabahar to Afghanistan and Central Asian railroads. Projects like this help keep the peace because they provide competition for projects like Obor, which are seen as an attempt to establish a cartel and then control trade and prices mainly to favor China. The Iranians deal with the Chinese as equals but many other Obor countries are deemed more exploitable by the Chinese and often, but not always, are.
Chabahar will free India and Afghanistan from dependence on Pakistan for a trade route and will also open up Central Asian markets for everyone since the new rail and road network goes from the northern border of Afghanistan to an enlarged Iranian port on the Indian Ocean. Everyone involved, except Pakistan, is enthusiastic about this economic development project. The Chabahar route was originally set to be operational by 2020 but began limited operations (from Chabahar to Afghanistan) in 2017 and was officially declared operational in December. At the same time Iran has expressed interest in linking with the new Chinese funded rail link from China to the Pakistani coast. China likes this because their expensive Pakistani link to the Indian Ocean is more at risk from Islamic terrorist violence than the one in Iran. As with the ancient Silk Road, Iran and China are willing to do business.
While Iran has made a bold move with the new Silk Road they have been less wise in its empire building. Iran often takes whatever allies it can get (or create) and this has turned out to be a rather unsavory bunch. For all its inherent and historical advantages Iran is more corrupt, unstable and inefficient than many of its opponents. For example a recent international survey of Global Competitiveness ranked 137 countries on how well the local conditions (low corruption, economic freedom and opportunity and robust economy) facilitated the ability of that nation to compete in global markets. The top five were Switzerland, the United States, Singapore, Netherlands and Germany. The rest of the rankings say interesting things about the Iranian coalition and its opponents. Iran was number 69 in those rankings while Lebanon was 105, Turkey 53, Russia 38, Venezuela 127, Israel 16, UAE 17, Qatar 25, Egypt 100, Saudi Arabia 30, China 27, India 40 and so on to the bottom five; Mauritania, Liberia, Chad, Mozambique and Yemen. Being last in this survey is a dubious distinction but it explains much of what goes on in Yemen. Note also that Syria is one of the few countries (like Iraq, Libya, Cuba and North Korea) that is not rated at all because of insufficient access to reliable data.
Some problems are particularly difficult to deal with. The Iraqi Kurds still control the northern provinces they have held since the early 1990s and are threatening civil (and guerilla) war if the federal government does not control (preferably expel) the growing number of Iranians (mainly Quds Force personnel) and curb the power of the Iran backed Shia militias. It’s not just the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs who fear the Iranian influence. Most Iraqis do, including most Shia Arabs.
The Iraqi PMF (Popular Mobilization Force) militias were organized in 2014 after the Iraqi army fell apart in the face of the ISIL advance that took Mosul and about a third of Iraq in a few months. Iran offered to train and advise some of these PMF groups. By late 2016 the Iraq parliament passed (after much Iranian pressure) a law making the PMF a part of the armed forces. These militiamen were already on the government payroll (for about $500 a month). Now the militia leaders were demanding a share of the military budget and enough money (nearly half a billion dollars to start with) to build their own bases. That did not happen and it reminded all Iraqis what the Iranians were up to. The signs were already there. By 2015 there were about 100,000 of these largely Shia militia and they were already a contentious issue in Iraq.
The 2016 laws providing pay and other benefits for the PMF also included rules making it mandatory that non-Shia militia be included if they were of proven loyalty. There were plenty of those and by the end of 2016 about a quarter of the PMF were Sunnis. A smaller number were Turkmen, Christian and other minorities ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and Shia conservatives wanted to wipe out. More than half the militias were always Shia. Much publicity was given to instances where Shia militias massacred Sunni civilians and the use of many Iranian trainers and military advisors by some (at one point most) of the Shia militias and the Iran connection in general. But most of the PMF just concentrated on defeating ISIL.
Although the Shia Arabs feel an affinity with Shia Iran, the ancient (we're talking thousands of years here) Arab fear of the Iranians makes it possible for Shia and Sunni Arabs to make deals. And that's what Saudi Arabia, and the other Sunni Arab Gulf States, are doing with Iraq. Saudi Arabia sees Iran as the neighborhood bully, and Iraq as an Arab, not an Iranian, asset. Part of this came about because of the pro-Iran PMF militias in Iraq. By 2016 most Shia Arab politicians in Iraq tended to feel they are expendable to the Iranians, who are, quite naturally, more concerned with taking care of Iran, than Iraq, in all of this. Blood is thicker than religion.
The Iraqi Shia Arabs don’t want to be dominated by non-Arab Iran (where Arabs are openly despised, especially the few percent of Iranians who are Arab) but also don’t want to be dominated by their Sunni Arab neighbors and especially not by their own Sunni Arab minority (which created ISIL and has been a major supporter of Islamic terrorism since 2003).
There are constant reminders of the Iranian threat, which is considered equal, or even worse than the Sunni Arab Islamic terrorism attacks on Shia. For example in September 2017 a
leader of one of the PMF Shia militias went public with his belief that his men would start killing American troops once ISIL was no longer a threat in Iraq. That was no surprise to many Iraqi Shia, especially clergy who had studied in Iran.
In August 2017 s
enior Iraqi Shia cleric (and Iran educated) Moqtada al Sadr called on the Iraqi government to dismantle the Iran backed Shia militias and incorporate loyal (to Iraq) members into the armed forces. The Iraqi prime minister (a Shia), wants to dismantle these Iran backed Shia Arab militias with more care and take more time doing it.
In part that is because Iran has sent hundreds of IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) officers, most of them from the Quds Force (similar to the U.S. Special Forces, but which specializes in supporting Islamic terrorists not fighting them) and even more enlisted IRGC personnel to Iraq. Dozens of senior IRGC officers have been killed in Syria and Iraq since 2012. These IRGC personnel are seen by most Iraqis as hostile foreign agents.
This can be seen by the fact that since ISIL was defeated (even before Mosul fell) the number of Shia religious and militia leaders who openly supported Iran was declining. More Iraqi Shia are doubting Iranian intentions towards Iraq and believe Iran ultimately wants to control the Iraq government or even partition Iraq and annex the largely Shia (and oil rich) south. At the same time Iranian efforts to discourage Iraqi Kurds from obtaining more autonomy are unwelcome with many Arab Iraqis who see this as another example of Iran treating Iraq like a subordinate, not an ally.
Adding to the fears are reports that Iran backed (and sometimes led, officially or otherwise by Iranian officers) Shia militia are ignoring earlier promises and entering liberated areas of Mosul and seeking “disloyal” civilians who can be arrested and perhaps murdered.
There are still over a thousand Iranians providing training, advisory and support assistance to the PMF 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. That is equally unlikely (because of popular opposition inside Iraq) but the Iranians tend to think long-term.
Israel and Russia are trying to negotiate a deal with prevent a war between Iran and Israel over Iranian plans (already announced and underway) to establish bases in Syria and organize anti-Israeli forces. Thus for Israel any Iranian presence in Syria once the current war is over is intolerable. Russia says it can work out such a deal but many Israelis are skeptical and Iran says such a deal is not possible. When it comes to opposing Iran Israel has some very public backing from Russia despite the fact that this puts Russia at odds with their two other allies (Turkey and Iran) in Syria. The Russians see the Israelis as a more powerful and reliable ally than the Turks or Iranians. Russia is also backing the Kurds in Syria and that is causing problems with Turkey.
The Israelis keep pointing out that Iran and their dependency Syria have, since the 1980s, openly called for the destruction of Israel. Many Westerners saw this as absurd while Russia sees it as an opportunity and the Israelis point out that they have nukes, the most effective military (and economy) in the region and no tolerance for more Iranian forces moving into Syria or agreeing that the Assads are a legitimate government. For Russia this is a challenge since as outsiders they realize that Israel is right and long-term a more dependable and desirable ally. But the current Russian government is getting by on uncertainty, deception and hope that this approach will work. There are reasons why Russian roulette is accepted as a typically Russian form of whatever. That dangerous game has begun because Israel is already bombing the new Iranian bases in Syria and killing Iranians.
December 4, 2017: In Syria Israeli missiles struck three military facilities on the outskirts of Damascus. Two are believed to be rebuilt or under the control of Iran while the third target was an SA-5/S-200 SAM (Surface to Air Missile) base. The SA-5 is a 1960s Russian design that Russia has updated and Syria received the latest S-200 version of the missile in 2010. Each seven ton S-200 missile has a range of 300 kilometers but Israel has apparently developed effective countermeasures for the anti-aircraft capabilities. However the S-200 can apparently also be used as a ballistic missile (as can many modern SAM missiles) and given the fact that the SA-5 base is less than 60 kilometers from Israel, it has always been a potential target.
In Yemen former president (and Iranian ally) Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed by Iran backed Shia rebels when he tried to defect to the Arab coalition forces outside the rebel held capital Sanaa.
In the north, where the borders of Armenia, Turkey and Iran meet a group of Iranian soldiers and engineers working near the Turkish border were fired on by unidentified gunmen leaving one soldier dead and three wounded. The attackers fled, largely unseen.
December 3, 2017: General Qassem Soleimani was proclaimed (via Iranian TV) the best commander of the Iranian armed forces over the last year. Soleimani commands the IRGC Quds Force and has been regularly praised as responsible for victories in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Soleimani is seen as some sort of master of mayhem and an ideal Iranian hero. The United States and many other nations consider Soleimani an international terrorist. To that end the head of the CIA recently warned Soleimani that he and his Quds Force associates would be held personally responsible if the Iran backed forces in Iraq or Syria attacked American troops. Soleimani had recently said that would happen if American troops did not leave Iraq and Syria. Most Iraqis want the Americans to stay until the Iranian threat is diminished. In Syria, the rebellion against the Iran-backed Assad government continues because most Syrians still do not want to be ruled by Iran or the Iranian backed Assads.
In Yemen the Iranian embassy compound in the capital Sanaa caught fire. The cause appeared to be nearby fighting between pro and anti-Iran factions. Some Iranian diplomatic staff are now trapped in the smoldering embassy.
December 2, 2017: In Syria several Israeli missiles struck a new Iranian base under construction south of Damascus. Later reports indicated that seven building were destroyed, seven heavily damaged and twelve Iranian personnel killed (plus a larger number of non-Iranian personnel).
In Yemen a prominent Shia politician (Ali Abdullah Saleh) announced he was seeking a negotiated peace with the elected government that replaced him and the Arab coalition that halted the Shia rebel attempt to take over the entire country. Even before the Saleh announcement there had been more fighting in the rebel held capital as the Iran backed rebel coalition visibly split.
November 29, 2017: In Yemen Saudi Arabia reported that it had intercepted another ballistic missile fired from Yemen (by Iran backed Shia rebels) at a target in southwest Saudi Arabia. The Saudis used one of their Patriot anti-missile missiles to intercept.
November 28, 2017: Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have gone public in support of an Arab-Israeli alliance to oppose Iran. Many (Arabs, Israelis and Iranians) believe that such an alliance won’t last long but that is not crucial. The alliance only has to last long enough to halt the spread of Iranian power and influence. Israel has been through this before. The peace deals with Jordan and Israel have largely held even though there are ups and downs. The Israelis know that the anti-Semitic attitudes in the Arab world go back to before the emergence of Islam in the 7th century and have waxed and waned ever since.
Currently the Arabs of Arabia, or at least key leaders, have decided that decades of denouncing the one nation in the region with a functioning democracy, the most advanced and successful economy and the most powerful armed forces, ought to be seen as a potential ally, not a battlefield opponent. As a result Arab journalists and leaders are speaking openly, and more frequently, about such an alliance. Some countries, like the UAE, can now speak openly of the discreet (and often not so secret) commercial, military and diplomatic links they developed with Israel over the years. To a lesser extent Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian connections are now admitted. The motivation here is survival against an increasingly aggressive Iran. Hang together or hang separately. Israel already has powerful allies for dealing with Iran and welcomes an Arab alliance, even if it won’t last, or at least will be under constant attack going forward, as was the case with the Jordanian and Egyptian peace deals.
The young Saudi crown prince (and soon to be the king as his elderly father announced his abdication) pointed out that Iran is officially obsessed with destroying Israel while a growing number of Arabs see Israel as a potential ally. Everyone knows that before the current religious dictatorship took control of Iran in the 1980s Israel and Iran had many diplomatic and economic links, far more that Israel had with the Arab world. But Iranian religious leaders decided that Israel was at the top of the list of things that had to change. Next on the list was who should control the Islamic shrines in Saudi Arabia and so on. Iran has always been scary to its neighbors but was usually ruled by some aristocrat. Now that the Iranian Shia clergy (who were long known to be aggressive) are in charge it is time for neighbors to reconsider traditional alliances.
Meanwhile Israeli and Arab military officials are working out a joint strategy and procedures for how it will work. This includes many Arab nations quietly urging Hamas and Fatah to make a serious and public effort to negotiate a peace deal with Israel. The implication is that if the Palestinians refuse (which seems likely) or simply fail again more Arab leaders will go public with their opinions on the hopelessness of the Palestinian leadership. That will lead to Palestinians becoming more isolated and dependent on charity from the West, Iran and Israel and that source of support is running out of patience as well. The Arab world still technically backs the Palestinians and the effort to destroy Israel but have lost confidence in the Palestinians to do anything in their own best interest. Iran is making the most of this situation and few Palestinians will do much to stop it.
November 25, 2017: Iranian, Russian and Turkish leaders met in southern Russia (Sochi) to work out how the three nations will continue to cooperate in Syria. More of these meetings will be held and will become more contentious as Iran carries out its plan to take complete control of Syria.
November 24, 2017: Saudi Arabia said it had proof that the ballistic missile components used for the missile that had been fired at the Saudi capital on the 5th was smuggled in through the Yemeni port of Hodeida. This evidence apparently came from a UN report that identified four missile fragments found in Saudi Arabia (after it had been shot down by a Patriot anti-missile missile) as apparently coming from the Iranian Qiam-1 ballistic missile. The 6.1 ton single stage liquid fueled missile was used against targets in Syria in June 2017. Iran had publicized the development of Qiam-1 and released pictures and video showing many of its unique design elements and distinctive components. The UN report stated that it was unclear how the components got to Yemen. The Saudis point to the Red Sea port of Hodeida which currently is the only way for the rebels to accept legitimate imports. Those aid shipments contain a lot of smuggled items. The smuggling is no secret and UN officials are unable to do much to stop it because of the armed Shia personnel (mostly Yemeni, but also a growing number of Iranians and Lebanese) are there to prevent inspection. Russia will also use its veto to block any serious UN moves to investigate or punish Iran for this sort of thing. Hodeida has been the main port for the delivery of foreign aid for civilians in rebel held areas and, in theory, government controlled areas as well. The UN has been, without much success, trying to get the rebels to allow the UN to police the port and basically control the smuggling and diversion of foreign aid the rebels have been engaged in. Evidence of rebel theft of foreign aid and depriving civilians of essential supplies is piling up and has become difficult to ignore. But Iran has organized an effective media and diplomatic campaign to divert pressure from Hodeida to the impact of the Arab coalition airstrikes on Yemeni civilians. These casualties are largely the result of the rebels deliberately moving and hiding in the midst of civilians. This does offer a lot of protection but does not make the rebels immune to air attack. Iran would use air power the same way the Arabs do and have when they had the opportunity during the 1980s war The Iranians employ their standard response to the Saudi evidence. In short the Iranians deny everything and insist that the Shia rebels built these ballistic missiles themselves using components from black market smugglers. If pressed the Iranians will blame Israel. After all many Moslems in the region believe that ISIL and al Qaeda are creations of the United States and Israel as were the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. Never underestimate the effectiveness of the big lie frequently repeated. For many folks that sort of thing is comfort food for the mind and highly addictive. Help with handling this “Information War” edge Iran has is one reason for the increasingly active and public Arab alliance with Israel. It is no secret in the Arab world that the Israelis have been most effective is dealing with these propaganda and Information War tactics, usually when used by Iran, the Palestinians or increasingly numerous anti-Israel groups in the West.
November 20, 2017: Two Pakistani Navy vessels (a frigate and a training ship) arrived at the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas for five days of joint training. Pakistan and Iran have been conducting these visits to each other’s’ naval bases with increasing frequency to demonstrate peaceful intentions and willingness to cooperate between traditional enemies.
As the current religious war between Iran and Saudi Arabia became more intense Iran tried to persuade Pakistan to abandon Saudi Arabia as an ally and work closely with Iran instead. The Pakistani military did not want to say no but at the same time they could not even indicate any possible disloyalty towards the Saudis. Both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are Sunni majority states with significant Shia minorities. While some Pakistani officials favor more cooperation with Iran most Pakistanis do not. But Pakistan does not consider itself “owned” by the Saudis. For example in June 2017 Saudi Arabia told Pakistan it had to choose a side in the current Saudi feud with Qatar. Pakistan said it was remaining neutral and the Saudis didn’t press the issue, at least not in public.
November 19, 2017: The Arab League held an emergency meeting in Egypt to condemn Iran backed Hezbollah for gradually taking control of Lebanon. Arabs also noted that most (about 80 percent) of the Assad forces in Syria are Iranian mercenaries. They are mostly Arab and Afghan Shia recruited, led, armed, trained and sustained by Iran.
For the first time since the 1990s the head of the Pakistani military visited Iran and tried to project willingness to be friendly and cooperative. This is a hard sell because for thousands of years the people of what is now Pakistan (mainly Punjab and Sind) have been rivals of “the Persians” (what is now Iran). A common source of friction was control of trade routes and for a long time that disputes were over who controlled what in Afghanistan. While both Pakistan and Iran supported Afghan tribes opposing the Russian occupation during the 1980s once the Russians were gone in the late 1980s and Russian support for Afghan government they left behind ended in 1991 that changed. The Afghan civil war of the early 1990s had Pakistan supporting the Pushtun tribes (40 percent of Afghans) while Iran supported the non-Pushtuns (the “Northern Alliance”) which the Taliban (another Pakistani invention) were still trying to defeat when September 11, 2001 happened. At that point the Americans entered the conflict. One reason (aside from threat of war with the U.S.) the Pakistanis cooperated with the Americans in Afghanistan was the opportunity to reduce Iranian influence. Now Pakistan is trying to avoid getting caught in the religious war between Iran and the Gulf Arabs. Despite the fact that Pakistan has long supported Saudi Arabia (and been well paid for that support) they have also tried to maintain peace on their Iranian border and not antagonize what has been an ancient foe. Although Pakistan currently has an advantage (nukes and the support of China) Iran is run by a religious dictatorship that regards largely Sunni Moslem Pakistan as due for eventual retribution (for being Sunni and for not doing enough to halt attacks on Pakistani Shia by Pakistani Sunni Islamic terrorists). At this point the Pakistan military wants Iran to know that the Pakistani military is the power to deal with in Pakistan and would prefer peace with Iran and an opportunity discuss how much that will cost both countries.
In eastern Syria five IRGC personnel were killed over the last few days. One of them, Kheirollah Samadi, was a general and another was a retired colonel. The five all appear to be involved with a fierce battle with a group of ISIL fighters holding Bukamal a small town on the Euphrates River near the Iraq border. Earlier Iran had declared the area free of ISIL presence.
November 15, 2017: Six Russian Tu-22M3 bombers hit ISIL targets in eastern Syria, flying from Russian bases and then over Iran and Iraq on their way to and from the target. Tu-22s have been doing this since mid-2016. The Iraqis believe it best not to complain. Earlier Iranian officials elaborated that they also had no problems with Russian bombers flying into Iran, launching their cruise missiles against Syrian targets and returning to Russia without ever flying over Iraq or Syria.
In the southeast (near the Pakistan Baluchistan border) fifteen men from Punjab province (east of Baluchistan) were killed as they sought to sneak into Iran as part of a people smuggling (to Europe) operation. The killers were local Baluchi tribal separatists who declared that the dead men were actually working on the Chinese Obor projects. China is spending $18 billion to build a road from Gwadar to the Chinese border in northwest Pakistan. Much of the construction takes place in Baluchistan and local Baluchi separatists saw this as another effort to make Baluchistan less Baluchi. While this attack actually had nothing to do with Obor Pakistan does have more security forces in Baluchistan to protect Obor projects and they quickly hunted down and killed Younas Taukali a known leader in the separatist BLF (Baluchistan Liberation Front).
November 14, 2017: Iranian media featured a photo of Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani in eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) at a recently captured border crossing (Bukamal) into Iraq. Suleimani proclaimed that Iran now had a clear land route from Iran to the Mediterranean coasts in Syria and Lebanon. Suleimani has been appearing in Iranian media since late 2014 visiting Iraq and Syria.
November 13, 2017: Without admitting it, Iran has been spotted building a military base in Syria, about 15 kilometers south of Damascus and too close (50 kilometers) to the Israeli border as far as the Israelis are concerned. The base is not large and appears to have facilities for about 500 troops. Israel believes this will be a headquarters for Iranian operations against Israel. Normally Israel waits for construction to finish before launching an attack (usually an air strike).
Further south the head of the Russian intelligence agency (the FIS) visited Israel to discuss how to handle the dispute between Israel and Iran over the continued presence of Iran controlled (and often led) irregular forces. There are still as many as 3,000 armed ISIL fighters in Syria and they are scattered in over a dozen locations, none of them close to Israel. Turkey wants Russia to pressure the United States to stop providing weapons and other assistance to Syrian Kurds, something the U.S. has been doing more of since mid-2016 when it became obvious that the Kurdish led SDF rebel coalition had the best chance of driving ISIL out of Raqqa, which the SDF proceeded to do by late 2017. The SDF is still the most effective armed group fighting ISIL in Syria and the U.S. will continue supporting the SDF until ISIL no longer has a presence in Syria. That is fine with Israel but not with Turkey or Iran. Russia is trying to negotiate a peace deal between all the major antagonists and is having some success. But ultimately Israel sees this as a fool’s errand.
November 12, 2017: In the northwest a major earthquake hit a largely Kurdish area near the Iraqi border. Over 500 died and about 8,000 were injured in Iran. Another form of damage, that over 80 percent buildings in the worst hit areas were destroyed or badly damaged. Many of these structures had been built after 2005 when the new president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad created a reconstruction program for buildings destroyed in earthquakes because corruption in the government and construction industry tolerated sub-standard building practices. In 2017 most of the newly built structures proved less resistant to collapse than older buildings. While in power (2005-13) Ahmadinejad proclaimed that he would change that and repeated his belief that these misfortunes were all the work of Israel. Apparently not. This is an old story in Iran. During 2012 two earthquakes in the northwest (near the Azerbaijan and Armenian borders) left over 300 dead and 0ver 30,000 injured. The government relief effort was not what people expected and blaming it all on Israel only increased the popular anger. This was not a new problem.
A large earthquake in the southeast, around the city of Bam, killed over 30,000 people and embarrassed the government. Most of the dead were the result of government corruption that allowed for shoddy building practices. Relief aid was slow in arriving, which was also blamed on corruption. The Islamic conservatives that have controlled Iran since 1979 get blamed for just about everything. However, corruption and shoddy building practices were around in Iran long before 1979. The current Iranian government has a different view. Some clerics blame earthquakes (and other misfortunes) on Israelis using magic. Other clerics blame it all on Iranian women who wear short skirts, revealing tops and other immodest clothing. The Kurds in the earthquake area reported that rescue and relief efforts were slow in arriving and organized their own emergency efforts.
November 9, 2017: In Europe (Netherlands) Ahmad Mola Nissi, an Iranian separatist leader, was shot dead. Nissi was the leader of ASMLA (Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz) an organization that used violence (like bombing oil pipelines) to get attention. 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. Iran has been known to order murders of exiled opponents like Nissi but most of these cases are never proven one way or another. But enough of these foreign killing have been tracked back to Iran that they are always a usual suspect.
November 6, 2017: Saudi Arabia declared a total blockade on rebel held ports and air space. This was in response to another ballistic missile fired into Saudi Arabia. This was a longer range Iranian missile that was intercepted near the airport outside the Saudi capital. Saudi intel had already been collecting debris from earlier ballistic missiles believed to be Iranian and this one was later confirmed to be a Burkan. Saudi Arabia called this an act of war but did not announce a military response. The total blockade was lifted on the 25th when aid related flights were allowed to land and take off from the airport outside the capital for the first time since early November. The first flights arriving carried vaccines to protect over half a million children from things like whooping cough, diphtheria, tuberculosis, meningitis and so on. Over the next two days ships carrying food and other supplies docked and unloaded.
November 3, 2017: In the northwest (West Azerbaijan province) eight border guards were killed during a clash with unidentified hostiles. It was believed to be Kurdish rebels but no one has taken credit for the deaths.