The government denied that the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) armed boats seen threatening a British tanker in the Straits of Hormuz four days ago were Iranian. That is a common Iranian response when caught doing something that went wrong. American surveillance aircraft were monitoring the incident and could see where the gunboats came from and went back to. This attempt to seize a British tanker is what Iran threatened to do after British commandos seized an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar eight days ago. That seizure was to prevent the tanker from delivering oil to Syria, which is a violation of sanctions. That seizure and the very public failure of the IRGC to retaliate yesterday was a major embarrassment for the IRGC, which has been responsible for the aggressive Iranian strategy in Syria and elsewhere.
Since the Americans revived their sanctions in 2017 Iran has threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz or, at the very least, assert control over the Straits. Iran has run into problems with both of these claims. Since early 2018 the United States had moved military forces into the Gulf region to deal with any Iranian efforts to close the Straits. This effort gained added impact because even China is opposed to Iranian threats to close the straits. The U.S. also noted that its current military posture in the Gulf had put an end to Iranian harassment of U.S. warships. There had been 22 of those incidents in 2015, 36 in 2016 but only 14 in 2017, none in 2018 and in 2019 there have been attacks (as with the limpet mines) against tankers but nothing Iran will take credit for but not threats to warships.
Iran is not as interested in closing the Straits of Hormuz as it used to be because that would hurt Iran far more than it would the Americans. In fact, given the rapidly growing American oil and natural gas production, the U.S. could survive closure of the straits better than anyone else getting their oil via that route. Currently only about five percent of oil passing through the straits is for American customers. Most of the oil leaving the Persian Gulf heads east where four customers (China, India, South Korea and Japan) account for 60 percent of it. The smaller Asian customers, combined, get more than the Americans do. China and India have long been key customers and generally willing to help Iran out. That goodwill is greatly diminished if Iran makes a serious effort to close the straits.
The threats against British shipping are not a major problem because only about three British commercial vessels pass through the straights each day. Although Britain only has four war warships in the Gulf (three of them lightly armed minesweepers), there are allies able to help. The U.S. is calling for the formation of an international force to protect ships passing through the Straits of Hormuz as well as the Bab al-Mandab, a narrow channel into the Red Sea (and Suez Canal at the north end). Iran-backed Shia Yemenis rebels are threatening the Red Sea choke point and Arab nations are eager to keep the Red Sea safe for shipping. Much of the Red Sea traffic is to or from Europe, including 4 million barrels of oil a day for European customers. Revenue from the Suez Canal is a major source of foreign exchange for Egypt and Saudi Red Sea ports are where most commercial cargo comes in.
European nations have long downplayed the threat Iran is to the world but this American proposal is getting serious consideration, especially from Asian nations that currently buy most of the Persian Gulf oil. India and China have long been major trading partners with Iran and could play down the current threat except for the fact that violence in the Straits of Hormuz could close the Straits for days or weeks if Iran resorted to naval mines or anti-ship missiles and sank or damaged a large tanker while in the Straits. The U.S. has threatened to sanction and halt all Iranian oil exports and if that were the case Iran would feel justified in threatening the straights. Iran prefers to be subtle but can be more obvious in its use of violence. This is shaping up as one of those situations where Iran goes for the Ultra Violence.
Irritating The IRGC
Over the last year, the IRGC has suffered multiple defeats, usually delivered by Israel or the Americans. Iranians do not see this as an Iranian defeat but just another reason why the IRGC is hated by most Iranians. Blame is most often directed at the IRGC and the Islamic dictatorship that has ruled (and mismanaged) Iran since the 1980s. Iranians see corrupt IRGC men and Shia clergy in general as responsible for the current economic and diplomatic woes. The IRGC is not seen as the protector of the Iranian people but rather the source of growing violence against Iranians who protest the proliferating poverty. The IRGC is accused, by Iranians and the rest of the world, of trying to taunt someone, preferably the United States or Israel, into attacking Iran. That would make the IRGC more popular inside Iran, but many Iranians are not so sure. Meanwhile, the Americans concentrate their sanctions on Iranian leaders, including senior IRGC commanders, which is a popular move for most Iranians.
Pro-IRGC Iranian politicians are talking about Iran imposing tolls on foreign ships passing through the Straits of Hormuz. The justification for this is to compensate Iran for the expense of guarding the straits. The other reason, made to Iranian audiences, is to compensate Iran for the losses suffered because of the revived American sanctions. This proposal is more political theater than a serious threat but it does demonstrate the desperation and frustration inside Iran, especially by those running things. The government needs a distraction because most Iranians now hold their own leaders responsible for the growing problems Iran is suffering. For over a year there have been more and more public demonstrations calling for change and accusing the government and the IRGC of being corrupt and openly hostile to the average Iranian.
What Mess Have We Here
Syria has become more of a political and military mess than Iran ever anticipated. Despite having several powerful allies (Russia and Turkey) in Syria, these “allies” have turned out to be, at best, “frenemies”. While Iran has been an ally and financial supporter of the Syrian Assad government since the 1980s and played a crucial (and the initial) role in keeping the Assads going after 2011, Russia is currently the best friend the Assad government has. But that is not enough for the Assads. As much as the Assads want Iranian forces out of Syria that is not going to happen unless the Iranians decide to leave. At the moment the Iranians are reinforcing their presence, despite growing problems back home. Turkey is seen as a foreign invader by the Syrians while Iran is appreciated for all its help in defeating the rebels, but resented for trying to turn Syria into an extension of Iran rather than treating Syria as a sovereign nation. Syria cannot ignore Iran because the Iranians still have a large force of mercenaries in the country. Asking the Iranians or Turks to leave is not really an option. Meanwhile, Russia has signed agreements with Syria legalizing Russian use of the airbase and port facilities.
Iran is encountering more resistance in Iraq than expected. The Iraqis are openly hostile to Iranian influence and the Iranian attitude that they can do whatever they want in Iraq. What Iran wants right now it an Iraq too feeble to cause Iran any problems ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has a similar attitude and that, oddly enough, has Iran and ISIL often, unofficially and inadvertently, working together to keep Iraq chaotic and mired in violence and corruption. This produces an Iraqi government less able to resist. While Iran and ISIL seem like separate problems, they are, in practice, intertwined. The Iraqis are growing more aggressive in curbing
the Iranian backed PMF (Popular Mobilization Force) militias and are now starting to shut down the pro-Iran ones. The PMF was created 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. The creation of the PMF was an admission by the Iraqi Shia government that they had failed to curb corruption, especially as it weakened the military. Iran rushed in with trainers and advisors for the new PMF groups and that did indeed help. But at the same time, Iran took control of many of these militias. By 2018 Iraqis realized that the pro-Iran PMF units were a threat to the Iraqi government and independence from Iranian control. Iraqis also remembered that in 2011 there was a crackdown on Iranian backed militias and although the Iranians are better prepared for that in 2019, popular hostility towards Iran is greater now than in 2011. Iran pretends to be popular in Iraq but in fact, Iran is more feared than admired.
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. 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. At the same time, Iraq doesn’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.
The pro-Iran PMF units maintain popular support by aggressively enforcing Shia efforts to reclaim property that had been taken from Shia during the decades that Saddam Hussein ran the country, and did so very much for the benefit of the Sunni Arab minority. Once Saddam was overthrown in 2003 Kurds and Shia Arabs began seeking the return of their stolen property. Most of the claims were for urban and rural property Shia and Kurds had been displaced from and replaced by Sunni Arabs from other parts of the country. For the Shia Saddam went further and seized Shia shrines (which Iraq is full of) and gave them to Sunni Arabs, who often tore down Shia religious structures and converted the land to secular uses. This angered Shia Arabs but there were so many of these former Shia properties in now Sunni majority areas that it was difficult to get them all returned. That situation was made worse when ISIL grabbed control of a third of the country in 2014. In areas where there were a lot of Shia, like Mosul, ISIL quickly and violently reversed the recent (since 2003) transfers of property from Sunni to Shia. This won ISIL a lot of Sunni support in Mosul, and smoldering anger from the displaced Shia. This was made worse by the fact that many of the properties in question were originally the sites of Shia shrines. Pro-Iran PMF militias deliberately back claims to get these “sacred sites” back under Shia control and often use intimidation or force to get it done. This puts the government in an awkward position because the government exists to see that such transfers are done legally, using the courts. The pro-Iran PMF leaders invoke a higher power (their version of Islam) to get it done quickly, without the risk of a judge or other official being bribed to let the Sunni Arab owner keep the property. In this way, Iran maintains popular support (from Shia Arabs) for the often lawless pro-Iran PMF units.
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 this; encouraging 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 unlikely because of popular opposition inside Iraq, but the Iranians tend to think long-term. The Iranians like to pretend that they have lots of support in Iraq. They do have some, but it is declining, as it usually does after it is no longer useful for Iraq.
The violent and lawless behavior of the pro-Iran PMF units generates most support for ISIL in Iraq, mainly in areas where the pro-Iran PMF are active. Iran is fine with this because once Iran gains control of Iraq they have ancient and rather brutal ways to deal with unrepentant heretics (in this case Sunni Arab diehards). That is why the current religious dictatorship is so unpopular in Iran but the overthrow of religious rule in Iran is, at the moment, only a potential cure for the rogue PMF militia problems in Iraq. For the moment the Iraq government has a growing problem with the ethnic and religious violence the pro-Iran PMF units are creating. The government has been reluctant to crack down on the pro-Iran PMF units while the ISIL threat is still active. Iraqi leaders, like those in Iran, are also having problems with popular unrest over the pervasive corruption which plagues both countries.
Another problem for Iran is the persistent Iraqi support for keeping American troops in Iraq. This is basically a ploy to discourage Iran from attempting anything too drastic because harming the American personnel brings in a lot more U.S. military muscle. Iran is aware that its extensive involvement in attacks on American troops before 2011 is well documented and that Iraqi and American leaders are ready to go after Iran if there is any more violence against Iraqi or American forces that can be directly linked to Iran. So Iran is making attacks that are not obvious, not for a while anyway. The recent anonymous rocket attacks on American bases are not a mystery because the rockets are usually launched from areas controlled by pro-Iran PMF militias. The defenses of American bases includes sensors that can locate where hostile gun, mortar or rocket fire is coming from.
Since the 1980s Iran has been trying to play the victim as it calls for the destruction of the United States and Israel (and now the Saudi rule over most of Arabia). This indirect aggression is an ancient tactic long practiced in the Middle East and particularly by Iran. In the age of persistent surveillance and crime scene analysis, remaining anonymous is virtually impossible. The American military has been using analysis of combat incidents since the 1960s and has a compelling collection of well documented fatal Iranian attacks against Americans. These date back to the 1980s (in Lebanon), yet Iran officially denies responsibility. As a result, the recent Iranian efforts to carry out anonymous attacks against tankers in the Persian Gulf or American troops in Iraq are quickly exposed. This puts pro-Iran Iraqis in an awkward position. Before the Americans showed up the local Arabs (even Shia Arabs) were the primary victims of direct and indirect Iranian violence. Iraq suppressed pro-Iran Iraqi groups even before American troops left in 2011 and is willing to do so again. For the moment Iran is pretending to back the Iraqi government even though this government works with the American troops and helps protect them against Iranian attacks. Iranian leaders want everyone to ignore that even most Iranians are fed up with all the deceptions of their own government since the 1980s. As has often happened in the past, an Iranian dynasty collapsed because of growing corruption and misjudging the power and resolve of external enemies. Thus it is much more difficult for Iran to terrorize its neighbors and other foes when the primary threat to the Iranian government is the Iranian people. The Americans realize this and will not give the Iranian rulers the “American aggression” the Iranian leaders believe will save them from their internal rebellion. The American strategy is just the opposite with the increased use of sanctions on specific (and notoriously corrupt) Iranian leaders as well as Cyber War attacks on Iranian government military command and control systems. The Americans are going after the people and tools (computer networks) Iran uses to attack dissident Iranians as well as those designated as external enemies of Iran.
In the past, dealing with one foe at a time what how those clever Iranians were often favored to prevail. But this time the Iranians have taken on too many opponents and are demonstrating how that can be overwhelming to even the most expert local superpower.
July 11, 2019: In the northwest Iranian artillery fired at least a dozen shells into rural areas on the Iraqi side of the border (Erbil/Arbil province) over the last two days. The shells landed several kilometers inside Iraq and the shelling today wounded two members of Komala, an Iranian Kurdish separatists group. The shelling yesterday killed a civilian and wounded two others. Iranians regularly fire on suspected Iranian Kurdish separatist groups based in Kurdish controlled northern Iraq.
Israeli media revealed that Mossad (the Israeli CIA) has been using its extensive informant network in Iran to discover where Iran is storing illegal nuclear materials and components of its nuclear weapons program. Some of this information is being passed on the UN IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) staff to make their inspections more productive this year. This sort of thing is embarrassing for Iran, which still insists it never had a nuclear weapons program. Israeli revelations demonstrating otherwise are embarrassing and causing the IRGC to increase their efforts to find “Israeli spies.” That results in more harassment (and w0rse) for the growing number of Iranians who are converting to other religions (like Christianity). Abandoning Islam has been a popular slogan during recent anti-government protests. Technically converting to another religion is illegal doe Moslems in Iran and the maximum penalty is death. The government is not considering executions for apostates but spies are another matter. Not many spies are being found but there are a lot of recently converts to other religions available.
July 10, 2019: In the northwest (Kermanshah province), IRGC troops intercepted five gunmen crossing the border from Kurdish controlled northern Iraq. After a brief firefight, the five intruders were dead and they were found to be carrying explosives and communications gear in addition to loaded weapons.
July 9, 2019: Britain raised the threat level for British shipping in the Persian Gulf to “critical.” That is the highest threat level and comes as a result of an Iranian attempt to seize a British tanker yester in the Straits of Hormuz yesterday. The attempt, made by three armed IRGC small boats that ordered the tanker to turn and enter Iranian territorial waters, was thwarted by a British frigate that was about eight kilometers behind the tanker and quickly closed in when the IRGC boats got close to the tanker. The frigate aimed its 30mm autocannon at the IRGC boats and ordered the Iranians to leave. The Iranians promptly did just that. The frigate also had a 114mm cannon, which was clearly visible to the Iranians although not aimed at them.
July 4, 2019: At the British port of Gibraltar, 30 Royal Marine Commandos, secretly flown in for the occasion, boarded and seized an Iranian supertanker at 4 AM. The tanker was there to resupply after a long voyage around Africa. Britain claimed the tanker was breaking sanctions by transporting two million barrels of Iraqi oil to Syria for Iran. Syria is under sanctions. The tanker was acting suspiciously as it avoided traveling via the Suez Canal and instead took the longer and much more expensive route around Africa. The Egyptians would have carefully scrutinized the tanker if it had used the canal. After the British seized the tanker Iran threatened to retaliate by seizing a British tanker.
Iranian tankers can legally transport Iraqi oil to legitimate (unsanctioned) customers. But Iraqis are willing to do more lucrative, if illegal, business with Iran. Iraq and Iran already have barter agreements to cover situations like paying for imports of Iranian electricity. Iran legally, or illegally, exports a lot of stuff (including electricity) to Iraq and expects some cooperation from Iraq when it comes to evading sanctions.
July 2, 2019: In the northwest (Western Azarbaijan province), three soldiers died during a clash with Kurdish separatists.
July 1, 2019: In Syria, Israel carried out more airstrikes on Iranian targets there. These most recent attacks left 16 dead and 21 wounded. Earlier
Russia criticized the recent Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria. Russia did not interfere and Iran sees that as tacit support of the Israeli operations. Iran is constantly pressuring Russia to be more forceful in dealing with these attacks on Iranians in Syria. The Russians are reluctant to admit that do not want to take on the Israelis and suffer the same embarrassing defeats Iran does on a regular basis. Russia wants to support the Syrian civil war with its military reputation largely intact. That requires not angering the Israelis. Angry Iranians are much less of a problem. Actually, given the long and generally hostile history Iran and Russia, have the current pain Iran is suffering in so many areas is seen as good for Russia.
In Iran, one of the few flyable F-14A fighters crashed while landing. This took place at a major airport that is shared with the Iranian Air Force so Iran was unable to keep this latest warplane accident secret. The F-14A was destroyed but the two man crew were able to eject and landed safely. Iran received 79 F-14As in the late 1970s before the revolution put the current government in power. The United States stopped using the F-14 in 2006 because more effective and cheaper to operate aircraft were available. Iran has been under arms import sanctions since the 1980s and had to improvise to keep its F-14s operational. Age and accidents have reduced the number of Iranian F-14s that were still in flying condition. At this point only has about a dozen F-14s are able to fly regularly and these are used mainly for training. The Iranian air force is considered something of an antique show. Despite all the smuggling and improvisation, Iran is stuck with the oldest, least capable fleet of warplanes in the Middle East. Iran currently has about two hundred fighters and fighter-bombers that are flyable but most of these are good for only about one sortie a day, on a good day. All of these ancient aircraft are subject to breakdowns that can keep them on the ground for days or weeks. The chronic shortage of spare parts limits the number of hours the aircraft can be flown. This means pilots lack good flying skills. Poor maintenance and untrained pilots lead to more accidents. Iran has about fifty modern fighters capable of flying and fighting. Half of these are American F-14s from the 1970s. Although frequently refurbished none have been upgraded much although Iran claims two F-14s have received some modern equipment. Iran has about 30 flyable MiG-29s, all built in the late 1980s and none have received the upgrades most other MiG-29s of that period have received.
June 25, 2019:
In Israel (Jerusalem) security officials from Russia, Israel and America met to discuss who should do what in Syria. The Russian position was pro-Iran, yet in practice, Russia will not confront Israel or the Americans in Syria. Russia criticizes Israel for airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria but will not open fire against Israeli missiles or aircraft. So Russia gets criticized by Iran, Israel and the United States. Iran suspects that Russia has a secret deal with Israel and the Americans but cannot afford to antagonize Russia because Russia does supply considerable support to the Syrian military. Even that can be interpreted as anti-Iran because Russia agrees with the Assads that Syria should not be dominated by Iran and permanently occupied by Iranian special operations troops (IRGC) and Iranian mercenaries.
June 24, 2019: The recent Iranian use of limpet mines and other weapons against tankers entering the Persian Gulf has led to a sharp increase in demand for the armed guards normally employed by large ships passing close to pirate-infested Somali waters. Iranians were caught on camera placing and removing the limpet mines to the sides of tankers. These mines use magnets to remain on the hull and are detonated by a timer or remote control. The armed guards are being hired to scan for such mines and to stand watch at night and fire on any small boats that approach a tanker at night. Iran denies they are using these mines but the video and past performance say otherwise.
June 20, 2019: An Iranian SAM shot down an American Triton maritime surveillance UAV (based on the 14 ton RQ-4 Global Hawk). There was also a manned U.S. Navy four-engine ELINT (Electronic intelligence aircraft) nearby. Iran later admitted they deliberately had not fired on that aircraft because of the 35 people on board. Both aircraft were over international waters, as is normal and at high altitude, so they could scan deep into Iran for whatever visual, radar and electronic data they could obtain. Iran insisted, without any evidence, that the two aircraft were over Iranian territory. This downing of an expensive (over $120 million) American UAV was meant to be provocative and, for the domestic Iranian audience, evidence that all the Iranian air defenses can get the job done
June 19, 2019: In Yemen, Iran backed Shia rebels used an Iranian made small UAV, flying autonomously using GPS, which set off its small cargo of explosives near a water desalination plant in southwest Saudi Arabia. There was no damage to the facility.
June 16, 2019: One of the more openly pro-Iran Iraqi militias is the Hezbollah Nujaba, which recently sent letters to some Shia politicians warning them that any Iraqi politician who supported the Americans against Iran, especially if there was a war between the two countries, would be the target of attacks by Hezbollah Nujaba. Kin of such politicians would also be in danger. This is why Hezbollah Nujaba is considered the most pro-Iran group in Iraq. Hezbollah Nujaba currently consists of under 10,000 militiamen, most of them involved with neighborhood defense and not much else. But the group wants to become an Iraqi version of the Lebanese Hezbollah and that is encouraged by Iran and the original Hezbollah. This is of great concern for Israel because groups like Hezbollah Nujaba could control remote and thinly populated areas of western Iraq. From these desert areas, they could launch short-range Iranian ballistic missiles at Israel. This is similar to what the Iranian backed Shia rebels have been doing in Yemen against Saudi Arabia. Israel believes Iran has already installed ballistic missiles in southern Iraq, where they can reach Israel. Iraq is investigating the claim and willing to shut this down because it might involve Iraq in a war with Israel and that is not seen as a good thing. American intelligence claims that some recent explosive armed UAV attacks on Saudi targets were not launched from northern Yemen but from southern or western Iraq. Hezbollah Nujaba was in a position to provide a well-guarded remote launch site for these UAVs.
June 15, 2019: In southern Syria (outside Damascus), there were some large explosions after dark in an area controlled by Iran. This appears to have been another Israeli airstrike.
In western Syria, Iran has built a small airfield next to the Lebanese border. One feature of this new airfield are tunnels leading from the airport to the other side of the border. Iran is apparently trying to take advantage of the fact that Israel is reluctant to bomb Iranian facilities in Lebanon. Even Hezbollah tends to be immune to airstrikes in Lebanon unless Hezbollah has been caught attacking Israel.
June 14, 2019:
Israeli intelligence agreed with the Americans (who captured Iranians on video) that Iranian IRGC operatives have and used limpet mines to anonymously attack shipping near the Straits of Hormuz. Warships tend to be more alert to such threats but there are far more commercial ships (mainly tankers) moving through the Gulf of Oman and past Hormuz and into the Persian Gulf to pick up oil cargoes. Many of these tankers will sometimes anchor just off the shipping channel overnight, or longer, waiting for an available berth. Crews on these huge (often size of a large aircraft carrier) ships are small (fewer than 40 personnel) and except for someone on the bridge (to answer the phone and monitor the automated systems that run the engines and so on) there is no one watching out for small boats approaching in the darkness and quietly attaching or removing a limpet mine. On June 13th two tankers in the Gulf of Oman were apparently attacked with limpet mines that did explode and caused fires. Limpet mines are placed to the hull via magnets and detonated by a timer or remotely. The U.S. provided surveillance video of Iranians in a small boat at night removing a limpet mine that did not go off. The American UAV was patrolling the Gulf of Oman at night and spotted the small boar, apparently Iranian headed towards anchored tanker and eventually got the video of the Iranians removing a limpet mine. At one point an Iranian spotted, or suspected, the UAV overhead and fired a portable anti-aircraft missile at it, which missed. The Israelis have their own sources of what the IRGC has and how they plan to use it.
June 12, 2019: Israeli leaders again confirmed recent airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria. For a long time, Israel would not confirm they had carried out airstrikes in neighboring countries, at least not right away. Eventually, most of these airstrikes were admitted but with Iranian operations in Syria, Israel is quick to claim credit. This is seen as irritating to the Iranians and is another way to disrupt Iranian operations and hurt morale.
June 11, 2019: In Yemen, the Iran-backed rebels appear to have used an Iranian cruise missile to attack a Saudi airport (Abha) that is 200 kilometers from the Yemen border. The missile hit the terminal building, wounding 26 people inside.