Iraq is becoming a major drain on Iranian resources but unlike Syria, Yemeni rebels and Lebanese Hezbollah the Iraqis can pay for the Iranian help. It is believed that Iraq has quietly (and illegally) paid Iran over $10 billion so far for Iranian help in fighting ISIL. This has had some unpleasant side effects. For example American advisors in Iraq recently admitted that their effort to recruit and train 24,000 Iraqi soldiers and police for the Mosul operation has not been successful. Only about 37 percent of the required recruits were obtained. This is in large part because Sunni leaders urged Sunni Arabs to stay away from the American training effort while pro-Iran Iraqi Shia leaders urged their followers to do likewise. More Kurds were willing to join but many of them were already committed to defending the Kurish controlled north. While it not considered politically correct for Iraqi Arabs to join the security forces, militias are another matter. Sunni Arab militias tend to be based on tribal affiliation or the need to defend your town or neighborhood. Same with the Shia Arabs, who also have the option to join pro-Iran militias organized by Iraqi Shia clerics and Iranian Quds Force operatives. Another element in all this is the dismal performance of the Iraqi security forces. Who wants to join an outfit that is regularly and easily defeated. To make matters worse Western trainers and advisors find themselves more welcome with Sunni tribal militias than with Shia ones, who are heavily influenced by Iran which does nothing to hide its anti-American attitudes.
Meanwhile American aerial reconnaissance over Iraq regularly notes more Iranian military vehicles entering Iraq. The Americans believe that there have been several hundred Iranian M-60s and T-72 tanks and other armored vehicles operating with the Shia militias inside Iraq. There have also been a lot of Iranian truck mounted rocket launchers. The tanks and rocket launchers are supposed to have Iraqi crews but in fact most of the Iranian rocket launchers and armored vehicles are operated by Iranians as part of their efforts to support pro-Iranian Iraqi Shia militias. The Americans tolerate this as long as the Iraqi government does, especially since the Americans don’t want to send in troops to help the Iraqi army. While the Iraqis appreciate the Iranian help, they make it clear that the majority of Iraqi Shia do not want to become part of Iran and that Western and Arab allies of Iraq will join the fight against any Iranian moves to take control of Iraq. Not everyone believes this will dissuade the Iranians from making an attempt to annex Iraq. At the moment ISIL is seen as a serious problem for all Moslems and because of that there is an unusual degree of cooperation between Iran and nations (the West and Sunni Arab states) that are usually considered enemies. Iran is also sending armored vehicles and rocket artillery to Anbar province to help push ISIL out of Ramadi (the provincial capital of Anbar.) This apparently will involve cooperation between American airpower and Iranian ground units. Until quite recently Iran was opposed to this and many Quds commanders still are.
Sunni Arab states and most Western nations are suspicious of Iranian efforts to units the various Iranian supported Shia militias they support into a unified force. In Iran officials openly boast of “controlling” Iraq, Lebanon and Syria because of the pro-Iran armed forces there. Officially Iran only takes credit for rendering assistance to fellow Shia, but all Iranians learn about the history of Iranian empires and the Iranian responsibility to run things in the region. This is becoming more obvious in Syria. Since late May a lot more (as in several thousand) Iranian supported Shia mercenaries (recruited in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere) have entered Syria. This increases the Iranian mercenary force to over 10,000 fighters, all recruited and trained by the Iranian Quds Force. The Quds Force specializes in this sort of thing. In 2012 the Revolutionary Guards commander openly bragged that members of the Quds Force were operating in Syria. Quds has long been Iran's international terrorism support organization. The Quds Force supplies weapons to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban as well as Islamic radicals in Somalia, Iraq and elsewhere. Quds has been advising Syrian forces and occasionally helping with raids and interrogations. Iran is also bringing in some badly needed special weapons and equipment. Much of this is coming in by air via Iraq. Another 5,000 or so Hezbollah gunmen (not exactly mercenaries given their role in defending Lebanon) are also in Syria and also supported by Quds. These Iranian supplied fighters are often used when the rebels are threatening a vital area. The recent increase in the number of mercenaries is partly a result of Hezbollah being more involved in defending the Lebanese borders but also because the Syrian Army is becoming less enthusiastic and reliable after the many defeats it has suffered this year. Unlike Russia, Iran has more immediate concerns in Syria, mainly a key support base for the Iranian backed (and created) Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. Syrian government forces are still a formidable foe for the rebels and continues to attack ISIL controlled areas. But there are fewer of those attacks and increasingly the Syrian forces are on the defensive. ISIL is still fighting the Kurds, this time in the northeast where another ISIL offensive has sent nearly 10,000 Kurds across the border into Turkey.
Meanwhile Russia and Iran are both reconsidering their support for the Assad government mainly because it is so expensive and the sanctions and lower oil price has sharply cut income for both countries. Russia is apparently already backing away from Syrian support and Iran is not happy with that. Iran sees its involvement in Syria as a key part of effort to contain and destroy ISIL. For Russia ISIL is not an immediate threat. Russia also knows that Iran needs Russia more than the other way around. If Russia withdraws too much support from Syria Iran will be forced to make up for some of the shortages.
Nebulous Nuclear Negotiations
Officials insist that the nuclear weapons talks may be stalled but progress is being made and is optimistic about reaching a deal by the June 30 deadline. But many involved doubt that any agreement will be reached by the end of the month. One of the current obstacles is Iran refusing to allow inspections of military facilities. The Iranian military leadership considers such inspections a legal excuse to spy on Iranian military operations and the clerical leadership and many Iranians agree. Iran also wants 24 days’ notice before any inspections (of non-military facilities) to verify that a treaty (that would halt Iranian nuclear weapons development and lift sanctions) was being followed. There is also resistance to UN inspectors speaking with Iranian technical personnel, especially without Iranian government officials present. Moreover the ruling clerics of Iran have come right out and said all sanctions must be lifted as soon as a deal is signed. This is to include the Iranian listing on the “supporters of international terrorism” list.
In the West getting any deal acceptable to Iran approved is more complicated because of democracy and divisions in the leadership between countries that want to do any kind of deal (just to be done with the economic and political problems caused by the sanctions) versus those who demand proof (intrusive and unscheduled inspections) of Iranian compliance. Israel has made it clear that it will only accept true compliance and verifiable proof that the Iranian nuclear weapons program is shut down. Most Arab Gulf states agree with Israel on this point. The latest Iranian demands regarding inspection is in direct conflict with these demands (which are backed by many Americans and Europeans). Iran (backed by Russia) also insists that sanctions not be automatically re-imposed if Iran is found in violation of the treaty. So after much diligent negotiating there is really no agreement. The sanctions remain in place. The Iranian negotiators believe that if they can get any sanctions lifted the West would have a more difficult time restoring them because of Iranian misbehavior. Some Western leaders underrate this vulnerability but at least this potential Iranian ploy is not totally ignored by everyone in the West. This makes this particular scam less likely to work especially if the Iranian negotiators continue trying to manipulate their Western counterparts. Currently there is a June 30th deadline to reach an agreement on the current proposal or else more sanctions would be imposed. Iranian negotiators (and, according to local gossip and Internet chatter, most Iranians) believe that the deadline can at least be extended and additional sanctions avoided. To Iranians that would be a victory. The U.S. now openly admits that the “military option” is still available if sanctions do not succeed in getting the Iranian nuclear program shut down. Israel keeps saying the same thing.
According to what is said in Iranian media and on the street most Iranians believe the West can be manipulated into signing a treaty that lifts the sanctions and does not really prevent Iran from getting nukes. Moreover the sanctions have cost a lot of Western countries needed business and there is growing domestic pressure in some European countries to make any kind of deal. At the same time most Western leaders know that the economic benefits of low oil prices come because of the efforts of the Arab Gulf oil states, who are using the most powerful weapon they have to hurt the Iranians economically and do more damage than the sanctions. The Arab Gulf states are demanding that any peace deal with Iran explicitly protect these oil rich countries (and long-time allies of the United States and other NATO countries) from Iranian aggression. Some NATO countries quickly agreed to this, others are debating how to do it. These Arab countries cannot be ignored and that annoys most Iranians a great deal.
In addition to nukes, Iran already has plenty of ballistic missiles and is building more. Nations across the Gulf in Arabia are buying more anti-aircraft weapons that will stop ballistic missiles. There is one major flaw in all this. The Americans point out that all those Patriot (in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and Kuwait) and THAAD (on order for UAE with Saudi Arabia Qatar considering it) anti-missile systems could be a lot more effective if they were part of a joint system. At that point the United States could add its Patriot batteries and Aegis equipped ships stationed in the Gulf to the joint system. Adding Israel would be useful for all concerned but that is unlikely to happen, officially at least, any time soon. Meantime the Israelis are the only ones with long range missile warning and tracking radars. This Arab aversion to cooperation led to none of them seeing a reason to buy long range radars. The Americans point out that the Iranians are certain to exploit this lack of coordination and that gets the attention of the Arabs, who have a long history of Iranian aggression carried out using clever and diabolical methods. Cooperation is unlikely right away, but the current attempt has a better chance of succeeding than past ones. Iran being close to getting nukes and increasingly open about its plans to conquer the Arabian states has created an atmosphere of desperation in Arabia. From desperation comes willingness to try anything, even cooperating with your neighbor.
Iran may be a religious dictatorship but many senior officials openly argue with each other about things like corruption and how to deal with other nations. As long as none of these high ranking secular and religious leaders don’t debate religious matters, just about everything else is open for discussion, and change. This is a key reason why the senior clerics have managed to remain in control since the 1980s. Currently there is an interesting debate over whether the growing economic problems are more the fault of sanctions and low oil prices or corruption. The latter is a topic the senior clerics would prefer to avoid. That’s because there is a growing alliance of religious conservatives who seek clean government (free of the corrupt clerics, and their cronies, who now dominate). There has long been a secular coalition seeking this. The primary opponents to such reform is supreme (religious) leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who, technically, has the final word on all political decisions and has run the country since 1989. Khamenei commands a force of followers largely composed of thieves (corrupt clerics and officials) and religious fanatics. These are the people reformers want to purge from public life, but the thieves are too powerful, and too determined to hold onto their loot, to be dislodged. Because of the way the government works (Khamenei decides who can run for office) there is a growing list of politicians banned from holding office by not being allowed to run for office or who lost because of fraud by the hardliners. These reformers represent by most counts a majority of the population. But among the reformers there is no agreement on exactly what changes should be made. The clerical mafia that, for so long, ran the country, is now split. Since 2000 it has been increasingly common to see senior clerics are openly arguing about reform. Meanwhile leaders of the military and the Revolutionary Guard (the religious army formed to watch the regular army and police) are split as well over how to handle dissidents and support the ultimate goal of expanding Iranian control over the region and the world.
Meanwhile the sanctions have forced the government to run the economy with more efficiency and less corruption. It was either that or risk open rebellion over growing shortages, inflation and unemployment. Many Iranians see curbing corruption more essential for economic growth than lifting sanctions and a higher oil price. Iranians have always been resourceful and innovative when it comes to economic matters and Iran has the most dynamic economy in the region, rivaled only by Turkey and Israel. Because of this Iran still manages to produce 2.8 barrels of oil a day (nine percent of the OPEC total) and find ways to sell or barter it despite the sanctions.
The government has been forced to respond to the growing social ills that are supposed to be impossible in a religious state like Iran. The government has long acknowledged that there is a drug problem and must try to cope with more than two million addicts. Recently the government did the same with alcohol. While banned since 1979, the government is now opening 150 treatment centers for the 200,000 alcoholics believed to exist in the country. Then there are the continuing problem with so many Iranian women refusing to abide by all the rules imposed by religious fundamentalists. Year by year the government has been forced to back off. The most recent example was the announcement that portions of stadiums will now be available for women to legally attend sporting events. But not all sporting events as the Islamic hardliners in the government continue to oppose Iranian women attending sporting events.
June 20, 2015: Peace talks with the Iran backed Shia rebels in Yemen collapsed. The main goal here was to arrange a five day humanitarian truce. Nearly 1,500 have died in Yemen since March 26th when the Saudi led coalition began providing air support for Yemeni government forces. Iran is sending more Quds Force personnel to Yemen, although getting them into the country is more difficult because of the blockade. It now appears that Iran did have a few Quds Force operatives with the Shia rebels for a few years and moved in hundreds more in the months before the blockade was imposed on March 25th. This war in Yemen marks a major change in how the Gulf Arab states operate. The Gulf Arabs have a long history with Iran and other hostile outsiders. The solution has always been to seek unity and outside allies. In the 19th century, the coastal emirates (city states that depended on trade, pearls, and fishing) allied themselves with Britain, for protection against the Turks (who controlled what is now Iraq), Iran (always a threat to the Arabs), and the interior tribes of Arabia. Britain was interested in suppressing pirates (which often operated out of the emirates) and halting Turkish expansion. In 1971, seven of the emirates formed a federation: the UAE. There were immediate disputes with Saudi Arabia about where the land and water borders should be. Some of those disputes are still unresolved. The Saudis consider themselves the leader of Arabia, but many in Yemen, Kuwait, Oman, and the UAE often disagree. There is lots of friction. Nevertheless, in 1981, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was formed by Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The UAE was the chief organizer of the council and has constantly quarreled with Saudi Arabia over leadership issues. But when it comes to outside threats, especially the Iranians, there is less quarrelling and a lot more cooperation. It's uncertain if this will be enough to thwart the Iranians. Only an actual war will reveal the reality of the situation. The GCC went to war for the first time in 1990, to help get Iraq out of Kuwait. In that conflict the GCC was a minor partner, at least as far as the fighting went. But in Yemen the GCC forces are carrying most of the weight and determined not to fail. For the GCC sates this is seen, ultimately, as a matter of life or death.
June 19, 2015: Bahrain revealed that it had recently arrested several Islamic terrorists and seized supplies of explosives meant for terrorist bombings in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Iran was blamed for this and Bahrain said Quds Force was responsible for the explosives getting in. This sort of thing has been going on for some time. Over the last few years Iranian politicians have increasingly mentioned in public statements that Iran considers Bahrain the 14th province of Iran. That's because, well, it isn't called the "Persian" Gulf for nothing (although since all the oil money showed up the Arabs have been trying to popularize the term "Arabian Gulf," with mixed success). There have been ethnic Iranian communities in Bahrain for centuries, along with a Shia Arab majority, and Iran had a formal claim on the island until 1969 when the claim was dropped, in order to improve relations with Arab neighbors. Iran has always been an empire and still is (only half the population is ethnic Iranian). The way this works you always have a sense of "Greater Iran" which includes, at the least, claims on any nearby areas containing ethnic Iranians or people of similar religion. Hitler used this concept to guide his strategy during World War II. Bahrainis (both Sunni and Shia) get very upset when these claims are periodically revived. The local Shia want an independent Bahrain run by the Shia majority. The Iranian government officially denounces such claims on Bahrain but apparently many Iranians have not forgotten. Arabs are not very happy about that and have responded by pointing out that Iran was Sunni until 500 years ago and were forced to convert, on pain of death, by a Shia emperor (who killed about a million of his subjects in the process). Saudi Arabia is trying, with some success, to organize Arab resistance to Iranian expansionist moves. Iran has responded by encouraging the Shia minorities on the west side of the Gulf to demonstrate their unhappiness with their minority status. Thus appearance of Saudi and UAE troops in Bahrain. The Iranian claim is based on Iranian control of Bahrain for a few years during the 18th century. Iran resents Western interference in the area believing themselves to be the regional superpower and the final arbiter of who is sovereign and who is not. Arabs see Iran continuing to throw its traditional weight around, despite the decades of sanctions and the current low oil prices. Traditional thinking among Sunnis is that Shia are scum and a bunch of unreliable losers, although the Iranians have always visibly contradicted that.
June 17, 2015: Sources in Iran revealed that a North Korea technical delegation had recently visited and met with Iranian ballistic missile and nuclear experts.
June 9, 2015: Iranian artillery (truck mounted rocket launchers) has been seen in firing in support of Iraqi troops fighting ISIL forces near the oil refinery at Beiji (200 kilometers north of Baghdad). This battle has been going on for a year. ISIL captured parts of Beiji in April after two weeks of fighting. This effort eventually failed, with heavy losses but not before occupying parts of the refinery compound. By late April more ISIL forces arrived and tried again. This battle continues. In late November 2014 ISIL forces were driven away from the refinery which they had besieged for over a month. Since then ISIL has continued to stage attacks, often with suicide bombers, all of which have been repulsed. The Beiji refinery can process 320,000 barrels of oil a day and that represents more than a quarter of Iraq’s refining capacity. Clearing ISIL out of this area also isolated the ISIL held town of Tikrit, which is due north of Baghdad and is full of Sunni Arabs and Saddam admirers who have had enough of ISIL.
June 6, 2015: In Yemen Shia rebels launched one of their SCUD ballistic missiles against a major Saudi Arabian air base. But the Saudis had quietly moved at least one of their Patriot missile batteries south and two Patriot missiles were launched and the SCUD missile was destroyed before it could hit anything. The Saudis had implied that their air campaign had destroyed all of the SCUDs Yemen was believed to have. SCUDs (almost all bought from North Korea) have been in Yemen since the late 1980s. But as recently as 2002 there were only about twenty of them. Since then Yemen has obtained more and was believed to have (in 2014) six mobile launchers and about 30 missiles. At least one missile and one launcher survived the bombing campaign. The Yemeni SCUDs are believed to be older models with a max range of 300 kilometers. This means these missiles cannot reach the Saudi capital or the major oil fields. Most of the 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. So now the Shia rebels can deploy artillery on the Saudi border, although they have to be careful of Saudi airpower and artillery shooting back. If pro-Saleh forces didn’t provide crews to launch a SCUD, Iran could have. For Iran this SCUD intercept is disappointing because it means the Arab anti-missile forces are competent and Iranian ballistic missile forces are not as scary for the Arabs as they once were. Moreover the Arabs have some missiles and Iran does not have any anti-missile defenses. Older Iranians remember the terrible times during the 1980s when Iraqi SCUDs regularly hit Tehran.
June 4, 2015: Pakistani officials denied any possibility of Pakistan sharing nuclear weapons with any other country, like Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia publicly admitted, for the first time, that it had been talking with Israel, the other regional nuclear power. The Saudis confirmed that they had been secretly meeting with Israel for years. The Saudis explained that this was because both Israel and Saudi Arabia had mutual concerns about Iran and nothing more than that. Most Arabs know better and these meetings have been no secret even if their existence was denied officially. For a long time Arabs could not speak out in support of Israel (or even cooperation with Israel against common enemies). That has been changing since the 1990s. Cooperation against common foes (mainly Islamic terrorism and Iran) has grown since its modest beginnings in the 1980s. Saudi Arabia has always been the major supporter of greater, and open, cooperation with Israel, but never on an official level. It has long been an open secret that this relationship existed, has existed for decades and continues to be useful for both Arabs and Israelis. Although many (Arab and Israeli) long urged their secret Arab allies to go public about these relationships this was not seen as prudent because of decades of anti-Israel propaganda. Most Arab leaders believed their people would violently protest against any Arab government that admitted the truth of the Arab-Israel relationship. Then again Arab leaders may simply be paying attention to recent opinion polls. A recent one showed that 54 percent of Saudis saw Iran as their principal foe, followed by 22 percent for ISIL and only 18 percent for Israel (long in first place). Some Arab leaders have spoken out in favor of Israel over the years but this usually generated more death threats than approval from other Arab leaders. Yet there was always progress, however slow, towards openness about the Arab-Israeli cooperation. This could be seen with the Arab battles with ISIL and Iran. Israel made itself useful in both areas, including the recent Saudi intervention in the Yemeni civil war. Despite all this cooperation no Arab government has yet dared to contradict the popular myth that ISIL was the creation of the U.S. and Israel. What has been denied is that that somehow Israel is secretly allied with Iran against the Arabs. Israeli cooperation with the Iranian monarchy (before the Islamic revolution of 1979) was long offered as proof. For these Arab fantasies there is always some kind of proof. But eventually the fantasies crumble and today another one was reduced to dust.
May 24, 2015: Egypt announced that it would contribute ground troops to deal with the Yemeni rebels if necessary. This is a change in policy as before Egypt said it would only send in ground troops if Iran attacked Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are not confident in the ability of their ground forces to win a quick and decisive ground battle in Yemen. Anything less would reflect badly on the Saud family which created the kingdom in the 1920s after years of victories by the pro-Saud tribal warriors. It has always been assumed by most Saudis that Saudi troops were still capable of kicking ass. To discover otherwise would stir up internal opposition to Saud family rule of the kingdom. It has been known (in Saudi Arabia and throughout the region) for decades that the Saudis had lost their military edge. But because of all that oil wealth the Arab language media has not dwelled on the situation.
May 23, 2015: North of Baghdad Iran backed Shia militias arrived to help push ISIL away from the oil refinery at Beiji. A few days later Iran insisted that it had no combat troops near Beiji but said nothing of their backing for the Shia militiamen there.
An Iranian ship carrying 2,800 tons of aid for Yemenis docked at Djibouti, which is across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen. This is a compromise solution to Iranian efforts to dock at a Yemeni port despite threats by Arab countries and the United States to sink the ship if it tried to unload in Yemen. There was fear that the ship also contained weapons and other military equipment for Iran supported Shia rebels in Yemen. The UN will inspect the Iranian ship in Djibouti and if no illegal cargo is found, supervise the movement of the supplies to Yemen. One reason Iran went along with this is that the UN now has evidence (mostly from the Americans) that in the recent past four Iranian cargo ships docked at Shia rebel held ports in Yemen after using deceptive measures (turning off their transponders, which is illegal for maritime safety reasons, and frequently changing course) until they managed to reach a Shia held port in Yemen to unload. The naval patrols are much tighter now that the Arab coalition went to war with the Shia rebels in Yemen in late March. Since then Iranian aircraft and ships have been barred, by threats of force, from entering Yemen. An Iranian aircraft with 20 tons of relief supplies tried to land at Djibouti but was turned away. The air freighter had tried to land in Yemen but damaged airfields and threats from coalition fighters turned the Iranians away towards Djibouti. After failing to get permission to land in Djibouti the aircraft flew back to southeastern Iran.