The nuclear disarmament talks reach another deadline in November, after which there will be still more economic sanctions if Iran does not cooperate. Iran shows every indication of continuing to insist that it has no nuclear weapons program while at the same time refusing to let the UN verify that. The UN is particularly upset at Iran refusing to let some UN technical experts into Iran and the refusal to let any UN personnel near certain military or scientific facilities. Meanwhile it’s something of an open secret in Iran that the nuclear program exists and most Iranians are quite proud of that. There is also a growing pile of evidence, especially from intercepted Iranian smuggling operations, showing that someone in Iran seems to be working on nuclear weapons. Since Iran is a religious dictatorship it’s likely that the senior leaders believe that with God on their side the nuclear program will somehow be able to continue without triggering a popular revolution because of the sanctions and the economic problems the sanctions cause. Iran is also trying to link its cooperation against ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria) and the sanctions. In short the Iranians are saying that if the UN wants help against ISIL they need to back off on the sanctions and nuclear inspections. So far the UN is not reacting well to these “unofficial” proposals. Iran openly proclaims that ISIL will be attacked by the Iranian armed forces if they make, or attempt to make, any attacks inside Iran. This appears to have worked. Iran is largely intent on hurting ISIL in order to help the pro-Iran governments of Iraq and Syria. Iran prefers to do that sort of thing quietly.
Iran continues to be an unofficial member of the anti-ISIL coalition. The Iranians appear to believe that the U.S. air strikes and all the military aid (from Iran, the U.S. and other NATO nations) going to the Iraqi Kurds, plus a new government in Iraq, will be able to deal with ISIL in Iraq. Iran has been very active in supporting the Shia Arab government in Iraq against ISIL, but not very public about it. This is because many of the things that ISIL is hated for (restrictions on women and on what people drink and do for entertainment) are the same things that have long been enforced in Iran (and Saudi Arabia). It is possible for Iran to condemn the ISIL tendency to slaughter lots of people just for being different (not Islamic or not Islamic enough) but they are reluctant to go into much detail, as least in the media. Iran would like ISIL to just go away, permanently and with great violence if necessary. Iranian aid can make a big difference, even if the Iranians don’t send in troops to fight. Iranian trainers, military advice and cash are another matter. This sort of thing worked wonders in Syria. Performing similar magic in Iraq means shoving corrupt Iraqi officials and officers out of the way and taking care of Iraqi troops with Iranian cash and training these troops using experienced (in that sort of thing) Iranians. This is insulting to many Iraqis, especially senior politicians. But at the moment it may be preferable to being murdered by ISIL gunmen.
Despite Iranian cooperation in the fight against ISIL, Iranian leaders continue to accuse the United States, Britain and Israel for creating ISIL. This was done (the details of how vary depending on which senior cleric is making the accusations) to weaken Islam and give the West an excuse to kill Moslems. Conspiracy theories that absolve Moslems of responsibility for problems they created have long been common and popular in the Islamic world.
Iran has always considered Sunni religious radical groups (like al Qaeda and the Moslem Brotherhood) as their main religious enemies. Now ISIL has replaced these traditional foes and groups. In fact even al Qaeda and the Moslem Brotherhood have openly turned against ISIL. While Iran does not fear ISIL succeeding in attacking Iran itself, ISIL has become a major threat to Iranian influence in Iraq (via the elected government in a country that is 60 percent Shia), Syria (where the Assad dictatorship is dominated by the Shia minority), Lebanon (where the Shia minority and the Hezbollah militia it supports are pro-Iran) and Yemen (where the Shia minority and its powerful tribal militias support are pro-Iran). The largely Sunni leadership of the Middle Eastern countries have resisted this increasing Iranian influence but despite the fact that ISIL proved to be the most effective militant force fighting the pro-Iran groups these Sunni governments side with Iran against ISIL.
Sunnis throughout Arabia believe Iran backs and controls rebellious Shia living in the Arabian Peninsula, especially in Yemen. This turned out to be true as Iran immediately praised recent Shia victories in Yemen. A recent peace deal to halt the street battles in the Yemeni capital resulted in the freeing of several jailed Iranians, who, along with several Yemenis, were being prosecuted as agents of the Iranian government. Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni states in Arabia see this as an Iranian attempt to form another Hezbollah in Yemen and do what the Hezbollah did in Lebanon. In both Yemen and Lebanon the Shia are about a third of the population, but because of the Iranian supported (since the 1980s) Hezbollah militia in Lebanon the Lebanese Shia basically have veto power over anything the Lebanese government tries to do. The Saudis have made it clear that they will not tolerate this. This sort of Iran supported Shia takeover was always the biggest fear of the Saudis but it comes at a time when the Gulf Arabs and Iran are cooperating to fight a common enemy (ISIL). This is going to get messy and complicated. ISIL is an immediate threat while, for Iran, Shia domination in Yemen is a current opportunity and a long-term Iranian threat.
An irony in all this this haste to unite and battle ISIL is that in the past there was a lot of Iranian support for groups similar to ISIL (which is actually a radical branch of al Qaeda). Al Qaeda and Iran have never been close but have gotten along, in large part because they have a common enemy (the West). Al Qaeda is a radical Sunni organization that considers Shia Moslems heretics (nearly all Iranians are Shia). Iran has long provided sanctuary for al Qaeda personnel but kept all or most of them under house arrest and observation. Iran made no secret of their hatred towards this Sunni group because al Qaeda had slaughtered over 100,000 Shia since the 1990s. In that period most of al Qaeda's victims had been Moslems, most of them Shia.
Iran justified this support of a sworn (and lethal) foe of Shia Islam because of all the successful attacks al Qaeda made (or sponsored) in the West. This is something Iran wanted but was reluctant to do itself as it feared Western retaliation. Despite the sanctuary for al Qaeda leaders, Iranian official policy continued to be openly hostile to al Qaeda. For example, starting in 2008 Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad publically claimed that the September 11, 2001, attacks were a ploy by Israel or the CIA, to justify a war on Islam. Shortly after that assertion was first made public an al Qaeda leader, Ayman al Zawahri, rushed out an audio tape denouncing the Iranians for casting doubt about the fact that al Qaeda had planned and carried out those attacks. Normally the Shia avoid al Qaeda. But Iran has taken the position that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and provided sanctuary for al Qaeda leaders and encourages Shia to work, when possible, with Sunni terrorists like al Qaeda. The strategy is not popular with a lot of Iranians, although the Iranian government openly approved of the fact that senior al Qaeda leadership (including those outside Iran) had, since at least 2006, advised their subordinates to not kill Shia women and children. That advice has been frequently ignored but Iran has continued to work with al Qaeda when it suited Iranian interests.
One reason for this “support” of al Qaeda is that it aids in Iranian efforts to exploit and benefit from divisions within the Arab world. Currently Iraq, with its Shia majority, is willing to help Iran in many ways and this causes Sunni Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, to accuse Iraq of betraying its Arab heritage. The Saudis also have a problem with Qatar, which backs the pro-Iran Moslem Brotherhood of Egypt. The powerful Shia Hezbollah militia in Lebanon keeps Sunni-majority Lebanon from fully supporting the Sunni rebels of Syria and their battle to remove the Shia government there. Iran has long been a major backer of Hamas in Gaza. Hamas began as a branch of the Moslem Brotherhood and is a Sunni organization that shares many traits (like hatred of Shia) with al Qaeda. Note that al Qaeda leadership officially disapproves of many ISIL actions in Iraq and Syria and is, for all practical purposes, an ally of Iran in this respect.
October 15, 2014: For the first time the government made public details of its secret police and intelligence agencies. There are sixteen of them, many created mainly to keep an eye on the others. The government established a private army (the Revolutionary Guards) early on as an elite force that defends the religious dictatorship in Iran from the regular military and the people in general. The secret police serve the same function but with less publicity.
October 14, 2014: Saudi Arabia called on Iran to withdraw its forces, and support for the Shia Assad government, if they truly want peace in Syria. Saudi Arabia made a similar call regarding Yemen, where Shia tribesmen recently occupied the capital and are seeking to seize control of the government. In both cases Iran denied any involvement, despite considerable evidence otherwise. Inside Iran the mass media is quite happy with the way things are going in Syria and Yemen. There is less joy about the situation in Lebanon where the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia is suffering heavy losses in Syria as well as inside Lebanon along the Syrian border.
Hezbollah tried to use the ISIL threat against Lebanon to justify Hezbollah grabbing more power in Lebanon, where Shia are a third of the population but far more powerful politically because Iranian cash, weapons and training have made Hezbollah too strong for the elected Lebanese government to suppress or even oppose effectively. This is not working because it’s not just ISIL that Hezbollah is fighting but other Syrian Sunni rebel groups like al Nusra and a growing number of Sunni Islamic terrorist groups within Lebanon. The thousands of Hezbollah casualties in the last three years from supporting the Assads in Syria and fighting increasingly bold Sunni Islamic terrorists in Lebanon has made Hezbollah less popular among Lebanese Shia and Lebanese in general. Hezbollah has to face the fact that when this Syrian rebellion and ISIL stuff is settled, Hezbollah will be a much weaker organization. This is fine with Israel and the majority of Lebanese, but not with Iran.
October 11, 2014: In the southeast Sunni rebels (Baluchi tribesmen) used a roadside bomb against a police patrol but caused no casualties.
October 9, 2014: In the southeast Sunni rebels (Baluchi tribesmen) planted a bomb in a vehicle that killed several policemen when it went off as the police were examining it.
October 7, 2014: Iran announced that it has seized a large quantity of explosives and arrested 130 Sunnis and disrupted plans to launch terror attacks in two provinces. About ten percent of Iranians are not Shia and there are active terrorist operations in the northwest (among Shia and Sunni Kurds), the west (among largely Shia Arabs) and the southeast (among Sunni Baluchis).
October 6, 2014: A government sponsored website showed a rare photo of Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani. The picture was of Suleimani in northern Iraq with some Kurdish militiamen. Iran has denied that it has forces in Iraq, but there is lots of evidence otherwise. At this point the Kurds have made it clear that they will accept help from whoever offers it. This approach seems to have worked since the Kurds are now pushing back ISIL forces.
October 5, 2014: There was a large explosion at a military compound that contains a munitions factory and, it is believed, a nuclear weapons research facility. Two people died in the explosion and at first it was thought to be a deliberate attack on the nuclear weapons program. It was later found to be an accident in an area where military explosives were handled and has been classified as an industrial mishap, not sabotage.
October 1, 2014: Years of lower birth rates have forced the military to lengthen the term of conscription service from 21 to 24 months. Shorter terms are available for married men, especially those with children. Since the 1990s the birth rate has declined from 3.2 to less than one percent. The government explained this as a successful government population control program, but young couples were not having kids because of poor economic conditions and political repression. The government has recently eliminated the birth control program and is urging women to have more children. The women are not cooperating.
September 30, 2014: The government has agreed to supply the Lebanese Army with weapons and equipment. The army there is trying to suppress outbreaks of Sunni Islamic terrorist activity. This is in support of the Syrian rebels but some of it is in support of ISIL. As its name implies, ISIL wants to control Lebanon (which is historically part of “greater Syria.”)
September 26, 2014: As some ISIL units moved closer to the Iranian border Iran issued a public statement that Iran would enter the war in Iraq against ISIL if ISIL forces attacked Iran or Iranians.
September 25, 2014: In Yemen three Iranians, accused of being members of the Iranian secret police, were released from prison. Also released were eight Yemenis who had been arrested, with the help of the U.S. Navy, in January and were charged smuggling Iranian weapons into Yemen. This release, and several others, were part of the peace deal negotiated with the Shia tribes on the 21st.
September 23, 2014: The US revealed that Iran was given advance warning of the air strikes on ISIL targets in Syria that began early today.
Iran declared that the Arab and American air strikes against ISIL were illegal. Iran also believes the UN sanctions against Iran are illegal. Iran tends to declare anything it does not like as illegal.
September 22, 2014: As ISIL forces came closer to the Iranian border Iran announced that it might be willing to formally join an anti-ISIL coalition. This sort of talk disappeared as ISIL avoided any contact with Iranians or the Iranian border and members of the anti-ISIL coalition indicated hostility towards working officially with Iran.
In eastern Afghanistan (Farah province) an air strike killed two Taliban leaders and three Pakistani Taliban that Afghan officials said were operating from bases just across the border in Iran.
September 21, 2014: A Chinese warship (a destroyer) arrived, the first time a Chinese warship had visited Iran.
Three days later the Chinese ship participated in joint training exercises with Iran.