The parliamentary elections are three days away and, while the senior clerics (the twelve man Guardian’s Council) veto candidates deemed hostile to religious rule, that does not make much difference. The protest leaders asked Iranians to not vote but some will anyway. A recent opinion poll indicated less than 20 percent of eligible voters will actually bother to vote. When asked why, the non-voters pointed out that for decades now their elected officials had been unable to improve the standard of living, keep campaign promises and seemed obsessed with the unpopular, and so far expensive and futile, effort to destroy Israel and the United States. Since voting seemed to have no impact on their rulers, more and more Iranians have chosen to express their political preference by not voting at all. After all, it doesn’t make any difference if you vote or not and by not voting you at least get the attention of the unelected senior clerics who really control the government.
While the parliament is largely symbolic, the clerics expect all members to be loyal to the clerical dictatorship. Despite the screening a growing number of members of parliament are turning against the government, or suspected of doing so, once elected. For the upcoming elections, the Guardian’s Council vetoed 56 percent of candidates and this included 31 percent of existing members seeking reelection. In the past, the Guardian’s Council allowed some reform-minded candidates to run for parliament, but never enough to threaten the pro-Guardian’s Council majority. The rejection rate this year is the highest ever. These tolerated critics were supposed to keep the opposition distracted and divided. That isn’t working anymore so such critics are no longer wanted or welcome. A higher rejection rate means only the candidates allowed to run are those who show no sign of supporting reform or eliminating the religious dictatorship. What worries the senior clerics is that in the past many seemingly conservative candidates, with a long history of loyalty to the Guardian’s Council, changed their minds once they had to listen to the anger and complaints of constituents. Since 2018 this has been happening even in areas that were long-time solid supporters of the clerics. No more and that scares the senior clerics a lot.
Also scary was the recent death of their chief enforcer, Quds commander Qassem Soleimani. That he was killed by the Americans using their seemingly omnipresent armed UAVs made the senior clerics even more paranoids about assassination. For decades they have feared death at the hands of Israeli agents. That is still a threat but now the Americans are playing by Israeli rules. Members of the Guardian’s Council are even more careful about how they travel and the new Quds force commander (Ismail Qaani) seems to have gone into hiding because he isn’t showing up much at all. Qaani was publically ordered to continue operations Soleimani had created and do it as effectively as Soleimani. While Qaani had long worked closely with Soleimani, he is no Soleimani and it won’t be long before how effective, or not, Qaani is becomes apparent.
Like most Iranians, the clerical rulers are frustrated. While major public protests have again subsided, mainly because IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) troops were ordered to use deadly force against the protestors and killed over a thousand and wounded many more. But instead of causing disillusionment and despair among the protestors, this IRGC violence just drove protestors underground. The protestors were encouraged by the death of Soleimani on January 3rd when his convoy was hit by several American Hellfire missiles. The government declared a period of national mourning but most Iranians seemed elated. To make matters worse the Iranian retaliation, a 15 ballistic missile barrage against U.S. bases in Iraq didn’t kill anyone and did not, as Iran expected, cause the U.S. to withdraw all their troops from Iraq. Pro (out of conviction, fear or bribes) Iran politicians in Iraq were unable to muster enough support to force the Americans out. The anti-Iran protestors were more numerous and convincing than the anti-American ones were.
Hassan Rouhani, the current (since 2013) Iranian president was allowed, by the Guardian’s Council, to run for president and won by presenting himself as a reformer. He briefly kept his campaign promise to improve the economy by scamming the West into signing the 2015 treaty that lifted sanctions while Iran essentially changed nothing. But in 2016 a new American president was elected, in part because so many American voters saw the 2015 treaty as a scam and Rouhani as just another lethal tool of the ruling clerics. Since Rouhani became president over 4,000 Iranian civilians have been murdered by the IRGC for the crime of protesting the religious dictatorship that has made their lives so miserable.
Rouhani was not as bloody-minded as some other members of the clerical elite but this record of failure and growing popular protest and the threat of civil war has caused problems within the senior leadership. There have always been feuding factions in the Guardian’s Council and among the hundred or so senior clerics who are eligible to seek a seat on the council. A major problem has always been the radical faction, which is a major supporter of the IRGC and a believer in the “it is better to be feared than loved” approach, which is especially useful if most Iranians hate you. If the IRGC dominated the council, Iran would escalate the use of Islamic terrorism against their enemies and essentially drop any pretense of peacefully pursuing the basic Guardian Council goal of world domination by Shia Islam. For thousands of years, Iran has been preeminent in the region by favoring shrewd diplomacy, espionage and intimidation rather than outright warfare. That’s why the IRGC fans are the minority among the senior clerics. But the IRGC has the guns and willingness to use them against anyone, including Iranians, who oppose the will of the Guardian Council. A growing number of senior clerics see the IRGC as part of the problem, not the solution to anything. This attitude has been around since the 1980s when senior clerics with long memories counseled restraint in what the IRGC was allowed to do. That advice was not followed, at least not often enough, and now the solution is the problem.
The Iraqi-Syrian Front
Iranian efforts to expand their control in Iraq and Syria are not producing the desired results. Iraq has slipped into an unofficial civil war between pro and anti-Iran factions. Iran has used force against anti-Iran protesters, responsible for most of the 550 protesters killed since the protests began in October 2019. These deaths have exceeded the casualties caused by Islamic terrorists. Half the deaths have been in Baghdad and Iraqis know Iran is a big fan of shooting protesters. In the same time period over a thousand protesters in Iran were killed.
The Iraqi government is in chaos because the parliament contains a mix of pro and anti-Iran members plus a lot of members who are pro-Iran only because they are being bribed or intimidated by Iran. The parliament has called for the departure of all American troops but only the prime minister can approve that and make it law and at the moment there is only an interim prime minister because parliament is deadlocked in selecting a new prime minister. The stalemate is influenced by Iranian pressure but the major disputes are about corruption and who gets to control the most lucrative (for thieves) ministries.
The January 3rd death of Quds Force commander Soleimani had a considerable and continuing effect on Iraqi politics. Soleimani was the Iranian most responsible for years of attacks on the Americans and the deaths of hundreds of American troops. He was also responsible for the deaths of even more Iraqis, including many Shia who opposed Iranian influence in Iraq. The missile attack that killed Soleimani also eliminated several key Iraqi militia leaders that supported Iran. Removing Soleimani encouraged anti-Iran protestors who were continuing their efforts to reduce corruption and get some more honest and effective politicians into leadership jobs.
Since Soleimani was killed Iran has been trying to exploit that and Iraqi nationalism against the American presence as a way to expand Iranian power in Iraq. So far it’s been more smoke than fire. Iraqi politicians are not eager to back anything Iran wants because months of anti-Iran protests made it clear that Iran did not have as much popular support as they thought. Much of the Iranian “support” was induced by fear of retribution by the notoriously ruthless Iran-backed PMF militias. Iran sees those militias as a key ally in Iraq but is having a growing problem with militiamen losing faith in the pro-Iran cause.
The Israeli-American Alliance
With some Israeli assistance, by way of carefully monitoring what goes in Lebanon and with Hezbollah for decades, the Americans are now concentrating on what Hezbollah is up to in Iraq. There has long been some Hezbollah activity and influence in Iraq. Despite that, few Iraqi Shia saw the need to follow the Hezbollah example and establish a private army to intimidate the government to favor the Shia. In Lebanon, the Shia were a minority while in Iraq they are the majority and have controlled the government since the last Sunni dictatorship was eliminated, along with Saddam Hussein, in 2003. General Soleimani was the Iranian responsible for looking after pro-Iran paramilitaries throughout the region and Hezbollah was considered the crown jewel of that collection. For the last decade, Soleimani spent most of his time in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq cultivating and expanding these Iran-backed militias.
One of Soleimani’s greatest achievements was the creation of a multi-national Shia mercenary force in Syria after 2012. This was needed to protect the Assad forces from the more numerous and motivated rebels. This largely Afghan force was much reduced in size during the last few years because the rebels were defeated and Iran was having cash flow problems because of renewed American sanctions. Iranian leaders saw their favorite general (Soleimani) as the best hope for figuring out how to strike back against Americans and Israelis who, for decades, have been used by Iranian leaders as the scapegoats for any and all problems that Iran might encounter. These accusations were never true and now the majority of Iranians realize that and are angry at their corrupt and inefficient government for the deception, as well as squandering Iranian wealth for so long. Soleimani was supposed to win some spectacular victories against Israel and America and thus justify all the band behavior by Iranian religious leaders/rulers. With the loss of Soleimani, the Iranian leadership is even more desperate and likely to do something spectacularly stupid and destructive.
Because the Americans and Israelis often do not announce airstrikes they have carried out and both nations use the same types of warplanes, it is often unclear whose aircraft hit a target. One thing you can be sure of is that if the target was ISIL, it was probably an American airstrike. ISIL targets tend to be in remote areas or in unexpected places because ISIL is hated by most everyone and must maintain a very low profile to avoid detection and attack. The Americans have a more extensive array of intelligence sources (electronic, agents in Syria and worldwide and satellites) that enable them to find well-hidden ISIL locations, and then carry out an airstrike. The Israelis are more concerned with Iranian activities and that is reflected in where the Israeli airstrikes occur.
Israel recently revealed that it has established a separate command to deal with operations against Iran in Syria. Israel is treating that as an active war with Iran and so far Israel is winning. As part of that Israel is reorganizing an existing infantry brigade to one trained and equipped to operate deep inside Syria, as needed, to deal with new Iranian threats.
The ISIL Front
ISIL is not the threat it was a few years ago but in Syria there are still a lot of ISIL zealots, either hiding or actively causing problems. ISIL would like to hit targets in Israel but that has proved virtually impossible. The continued Israeli military actions in Syria have been officially noted by ISIL, which recently declared war on Israel. In part, this was to boost morale among the Sinai (Egypt) branch of ISIL which has taken a considerable beating from Egyptian, Israeli and Iranian (Hamas) forces in the last few years. At least the Sinai faction still manages to carry out one or two attacks a month. ISIL is lucky to organize one or two a year inside Israel and these are often partial failures. While Israel doesn’t launch many airstrikes against ISIL in Syria, it has hit ISIL targets in Sinai more than a hundred times since 2018.
Recently, for the first time, Israel revealed actual numbers for airstrikes in Syria and Gaza. During 2019 there were 54 airstrikes against Syrian targets and 900 in Gaza. Israeli UAVs also spent 40,000 hours in the air during the year carrying out surveillance in Gaza and along the northern border. The airstrikes in Syria tended to be larger, involving more aircraft and weapons (missiles, smart bombs) used. In Gaza, an airstrike was usually one missile or smart bomb against a Hamas or Islamic Jihad facility in retaliation for a rocket, mortar and fire balloon attack against Israel.
February 17, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province), a Turkey backed Syrian militia (the FSA) attacked members of an Iran-backed Shia militia near Tanf base (close to where Syrian, Iraq and Jordan borders meet). Twelve Shia militiamen were killed and one captured. Turkey and Iran are supposed to be allies in Syria but battles like this have become more common and the Turks are not pleased with this development. The Turks aren’t getting along well with the Russians or Americans either. Iran currently has about 20,000 Shia mercenaries on the payroll in Syria, supervised by nearly a thousand Quds personnel.
February 16, 2020: In Iraq (Baghdad), three rockets were fired into the heavily guarded Green Zone and landed near an American military headquarters, which is not far from the U.S. embassy compound. These rockets, apparently fired by Iran-backed militiamen, caused no casualties. This was the 19th such attack since last October.
February 13, 2020: An apparent Israeli airstrike in Syria (Damascus) destroyed an Iranian facility, killing four Iranians and three Syrians. Israel would not confirm that this was their airstrike. Satellite photos released several days later showed five warehouses and a nearby Quds headquarters building had all been turned into rubble. A bomb shelter had suffered partial destruction.
February 12, 2020: In the Red Sea, an Egyptian fishing boat, while in international waters, was destroyed a Yemeni Shia rebel naval mine. Three of the crew died in the 2 Am explosion and three others were rescued by nearby ships. The Arab Coalition, which Egypt is part of, maintains a naval patrol along the Yemen Red Sea coast to block weapons smugglers and to keep the Red Sea clear of these mines, some of which are Iranian made while the rest are assembled in Yemen from components smuggled in from Iran. Since 2015 the Arab Coalition has found and disposed of 153 of these mines.
February 10, 2020: Egypt, which has been brokering peace talks between Hamas and Israel, today warned Hamas that if they cooperated with Iran in any operations against Israel, or anyone else, Egypt would further tighten its blockade of Gaza and would even consider attacking Hamas targets in Gaza. This surprised Hamas, which assured Egypt that they would not misbehave at the orders of Iran. The next day Hamas ordered its followers to halt the recently resumed use of balloons carrying explosives sent into Israel. The resumed balloon use is a violation of the current Israel-Hamas ceasefire that Egypt brokered. Egypt was angry that Hamas was violating that agreement. Despite the Hamas order to halt, another balloon bomb crossed the border later in the day. It was unclear if this was the work of Hamas dissidents or another Islamic terror group in Gaza.
February 9, 2020: Iran tried, for the third time since 2010, to get their Simorgh SLV (satellite launch vehicle) into space but it failed. Simorgh is a multi-stage rocket that can carry a satellite into orbit or a warhead to a distant target. The U.S. and Israel describe the Iranian SLV test as a cover for what is actually an effort to develop an ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile).
In the Arabian Sea (the northwestern Indian Ocean between India and Arabia), an American destroyer halted and searched a dhow because of information indicating smuggling. A search of the cargo revealed a large number of Iranian weapons (anti-tank missiles) and key components for larger Iranian missiles and UAVs as well as remotely controlled bomb boats. The cargo was apparently headed for Yemen, where final delivery would probably be made by fishing boats carrying cargoes of weapons rather than recently caught fish. There are so many of these fishing boats off the Red Sea coast of Yemen that not all can be searched and the smuggler boats seek to appear less suspicious than the actual fishing boats. Iran pays what it takes to get this smuggling done and there are plenty of skilled smugglers in Yemen looking for work, no questions asked. Such cargoes used to be sent to Gaza on a regular basis but the Israeli-Egyptian blockade is tighter than ever and it is difficult to even get individuals or suitcases of cash into Gaza.
February 8, 2020: Iranian Internet networks suffered a major DDos attack which interrupted Internet and cell phone service for several areas. It was unclear who launched the attack.
The United States confirmed rumors that the U.S. and Israel had formally agreed to coordinate anti-Iran efforts. Israel is concentrating on Lebanon and Syria while the Americans concentrate on Iraq in addition to maintaining a presence in Kurdish controlled northeast Syria. It had always been pretty obvious that the U.S. and Israel were cooperating is blocking Iranian efforts to build a “land-bridge” from Iran to Lebanon. That required Iran to get past American efforts in Iraq and eastern Syria to block Iranian road access to Syria and Lebanon.
February 7, 2020: The Middle East has long been recognized as one of the most corrupt regions on the planet. The extent of this corruption c
an be seen in the international surveys of nations to determine who is clean and who is corrupt. For 2019 Iran ranked 146th out of 180 nations compared to 138th in 2018. The least corrupt nation in region was UAE (United Arab Emirates), which ranked 21st in the international rankings compared with 23rd in 2018. The most corrupt was Syria and many other Arab states were on the “most corrupt” end of the list. Corruption is measured annually in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. Corruption is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually Yemen/15, Syria/13, South Sudan/12 and Somalia/9) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (Finland, New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85.
The current Iran score is 23 (versus 30 in 2018) compared to 60 (61) for Israel, 15 (14) for Yemen, 69 (71) for the United States, 35 (35) for Egypt, 26 (27) for Nigeria, 44 (43) for South Africa, 20 (18) for Iraq, 39 (40) for Turkey, 53 (49) for Saudi Arabia, 30 (30) for Ukraine, 45 (44) for Belarus, 58 (60) for Poland, 80 (81) Germany, 65 (61) for Taiwan, 39 (40) for Turkey, 41 (40) for India, 28 (28) for Russia, 57 (54) for South Korea, 41 (39) for China, 14 (17) for North Korea, 37 (35) for Vietnam, 85 (84) for Singapore, 73 (73) for Japan, 40 (37) for Indonesia, 38 (38) for Sri Lanka, 29 (33) for the Maldives, 34 (34) for the Philippines, 32 (32) for Pakistan, 26 (28) for Bangladesh, 71 (70) for Iran, 16 (15) for Afghanistan, 29 (30) for Burma, and 28 (28) for Lebanon.
Iran’s corruption score has not changed much since the 2011 Arab Spring revolution when it was 28. The UAE achieved the most favorable corruption score in the region because it has long depended on foreign trade to survive and to make money in that business you must be known as an honest trading partner. Israeli corruption is largely internal and less present when making trade deals. The UAE is also different in that it is a federation of formerly independent “emirates” that realized the wisdom of joining forces. Laws and customs vary somewhat among the emirates and some are more gangsters than others. But overall the UAE is a place where foreigners feel comfortable doing business.
February 6, 2020: In Syria (outside Damascus), three Israeli airstrikes hit Iranian bases, some of them shared with the Syrian forces. There was considerable property damage and at least 23 Iranian and Syrian personnel were killed and many more wounded.
Iraq has so far refused American requests to bring in Patriot air defense batteries to protect American bases from additional Iranian ballistic missile attacks. Iraqi officials believe the delays are not at the request of Iran but an effort to obtain a bribe to “expedite” the paperwork. This is a lucrative source of corrupt money for government officials, even if delaying approval causes serious harm to Iraqis or the economy. This has actually happened regularly in the past. The Americans want the Patriot battery to protect key installations from Iranian ballistic missile attack.
February 5, 2020: The U.S. Air Force admitted that their missile launch early-warning system spotted the Iranian launch of 15 ballistic missiles on January 8th aimed at three U.S. bases in Iraq. The Air force uses space satellites as well as ground-based radars for this function and that is no secret. It was suspected that the satellite-based monitoring had spotted the missile lunch, which led to an immediate warning to U.S. troops in Iraq. Israel and Arab allies were probably warned as well but it was no secret that Iran was planning some kind of retaliation for the recent death of their Quds commander. The warning gave U.S. troops time to get into bomb shelters. This early warning capability has been available for decades and has become more reliable and precise over the years.
February 4, 2020: There are conflicting expert estimates about how much oil Iran is getting past the sanctions. Most estimates put the January exports at about half a million BPD (barrels per day) while the high-end estimates are a million BPD. The recent decline in Iranian oil sales has been spectacular. Oil shipments were, in early 2018, 2.4 million BPD but that fell to 1.5 million BPD in November 2019 and a million BPD or less in early 2019. This decline is not disputed. What is less clear is how successful Iranian smuggling efforts have been. In any event, the current situation is worse than it was before the sanctions were lifted in 2015. That is because the Americans have adapted to past oil embargo scams and Iran and its outlaw customers have not yet managed to adapt. The lifting of sanctions in early 2016 has been good for Iran. In 2016 oil exports increased to two million BPD, a level not seen since 2012. Overall oil production increased to 3.8 million BPD. Exports in general quickly doubled over 2015 levels. The government made plans to quickly achieve an annual GDP growth of eight percent. That was all canceled once the U.S. announced (in May 2017) the revival of sanctions. At that point, oil production was 4.5 million BPD but it rapidly declined because regular oil customers reduced or canceled orders. Most Iranian oil was exported and now that export income is rapidly disappearing. Even China and India, two major customers who said they would defy the sanctions, have cut orders because sanctions increase shipping costs and also increase the risk of Iran going to war. Sanctions mean the cost of insurance rises and fewer shipping companies are willing to provide tankers that move sanctioned oil. The latest problem is the January coronavirus outbreak in China the disrupted economic activity in many parts of China. The reduced the need for oil and China already has several large tankers stuck off their coast waiting for permission to unload. Until that is done, the oil producer does not get paid.
Something the religious dictatorship don’t like to dwell on is that before they took over after the 1979 revolution oil production was over 6 million BPD and closing in on seven million. The clerics have mismanaged the economy for over thirty years now and that is one reason they can no longer blame foreigners for all the problems.
February 1, 2020: The UN confirmed that the Yemeni Shia rebels appear to be using Iranian made assault rifles and other infantry weapons. In the past, Iran sent the Shia rebels weapons made elsewhere (Russia, China, Pakistan) that were widely available on the black market. That costs a little extra but given the financial problems Iran has been having since 2017, it is not surprising that they decided to save some foreign currency and send scrubbed (unmarked) Iranian made weapons, UAVs and other equipment. Another UN investigation confirmed that the September 2019 UAV/cruise missile attack on Saudi oil facilities in northeast Saudi Arabia had come from Iran, not Shia rebels in northwest Yemen. Like earlier investigations, the UN researchers examined the debris of the explosives carrying UAVs and cruise missiles and identified them as Iranian made and models that did not have the range or accuracy to carry out an attack so distant from northwest Yemen.
January 28, 2020: In northern Yemen, outside the rebel occupied capital Saana, an Iranian ballistic missile being prepared for firing exploded on its launcher. Several Iranian and Shia rebel missile experts were killed. The missile was apparently aimed at targets in southwestern Saudi Arabia.
January 26, 2020: In Baghdad Iran-backed Shia militiamen again fired rockets into the Green Zone in an effort to hit the American embassy.
January 25, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province), near the Mayadeen army base, unidentified (but apparently Israeli) aircraft attacked two targets. One contained Iranian troops and the other Iranian Afghan mercenaries. Iran did not disband all the Afghan mercenary brigades it formed after 2012 for service in Syria and apparently recruiting in eastern Iranian refugee camps continues. Iran says it wants revenge against the Americans for killing their Quds Force commander but so far there are no indications in Syria, Iraq or along the western Afghan border that the Iranians are spending big to organize some kind of retaliation.