Iran: A Mess Of Messes


October 9, 2015: Four government ministers (Economic Affairs, Labor, Industries and Defense) recently (October 4 th ) published an open letter calling for reforms, especially ones that curb corruption and irresponsible and destructive government interference with commerce. This, the ministers insist, is needed to make the most of the additional cash available one the July sanctions treaty is implemented. The four ministers also detailed the damage the sanctions and low oil prices had done to the economy and pointed out that without some changes the removal of sanctions will simply do more damage to Iranian businesses and the Iranian people in general. Meanwhile Iranian and foreign economists are also urging the government to take advantage of the additional income (once sanctions are lifted) to make some fundamental changes. Dropping costly subsidies and curbing some of the more wasteful instances of corruption (using management jobs in state controlled firms as a way to reward political allies) are both long overdue. But before any of that happens the July treaty has to go into effect and there is still a lot of popular opposition to that in the West (and the Arab world in general).

Meanwhile Iran remains heavily involved in several foreign wars, mainly in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. This has proved costly for cash-poor Iran but because of aid from Russia and generally timid leadership among Western and Arab countries Iran has found opportunities and exploited them.

The Syrian Mess

In Syria additional Hezbollah, other Shia militia and Syrian Army forces are on the move in the northwest around Homs, Palmyra and Aleppo as well as in the south near the Israeli border. Rebel groups had recently gained territory in all these areas. This sudden counteroffensive is a direct result of the recent Russian intervention in Syria. This was very good news for Hezbollah and the Assad government. The Iran backed Hezbollah militia has been providing thousands of fighters inside Syria for the Iran backed Assad government but this has been increasingly unpopular among Hezbollah members and even more unpopular with Lebanese in general. That’s because Syria considers Lebanon a “lost province” and has always treated Lebanon badly. Hezbollah had to fight in Syria for the hated (by most Lebanese) Assad government because Iran has long been the main financial and military support for Hezbollah and demanded that Hezbollah send fighters to Syria. But Hezbollah leaders eventually told Iran that the Hezbollah operations (and casualties) in Syria were causing serious damage to the unity and effectiveness of Hezbollah in general. In fact, once it became clear that Russia was putting substantial combat forces in Syria, Hezbollah quietly informed Iran and the Assads that by the end of September Hezbollah would cease offensive operations in Syria and confine their participation to fighting Syrian rebel (especially Islamic terrorist groups) attempts to get into Lebanon. Decisions like this are very popular with most Lebanese and especially welcome by Hezbollah fighters, who always thought they had signed up mainly to defend Lebanon in general and the Shia minority of Lebanon in particular. Guarding the border is doing just that and will repair the damage to morale done because of combat operations inside Syria (and several thousand casualties suffered as a result). Now it is clear that Hezbollah, after receiving some additional weapons (including tanks) has been encouraged to do a little more. This appears to be something like pushing Syrian rebels much farther away from the Lebanese border as that would be tolerable to most Lebanese and help the Assad government as well. Putting Hezbollah forces on the Syrian border with Israel is also popular with many Lebanese, as long as the effort does not get a lot of Lebanese killed. Up north Iran is using thousands of foreign Shia volunteers it has armed, trained and paid. With Russian air support, as well as more sorties from Syrian warplanes (because of increased Russian aid) the pro-government forces are advancing. Many of the rebels,  except for ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant), have not experienced many air strikes this year, mainly because the U.S. led coalition aircraft have concentrated on ISIL. The Russians don’t much care about ISIL unless ISIL forces are in the way of the pro-government ground troops. American warplanes have been ordered to stay at least 30 kilometers away from any Russian aircraft. This government offensive may not get far but it is off to an encouraging start and that is welcome news back in Iran. That’s largely because it is no secret in Iran that there are over a thousand Iranian trainers and advisors in Syria and these men have played a large role in keeping the Assad government from being destroyed by all the rebel Islamic terror groups constantly attacking since 2012. Officially Iran insists it has no military personnel in Syria, but there is a lot of evidence there, and in Iran, to contradict that claim. It is also widely believed (at least inside Iran) that Iran convinced Russia to intervene. This is in line with the ancient Iranian tradition of wisely using wartime diplomacy to create opportunities and turn defeats into victories. A senior Iranian general (Qassem Sulaimani, head of the Quds Force) is known to have made two semi-secret trips to the Russian capital recently.

The Arabian Mess

Then there is religious war Iran and the Arabs are involved in, as well as religious fanatics (ISIL) at war with everyone. Westerners, and non-Moslems in general, are generally unfamiliar with this growing religious showdown between Arab led Sunni Moslems and Iran led Shia Moslems. These two factions have been arguing, and often fighting over their theological differences for over a thousand years. During that time most Moslem rulers felt it was best to play down these religious differences. But in the last half century the struggle, fueled by all that unexpected oil wealth in Moslem nations, has allowed the Sunni-Shia conflict to heat up. On the Sunni side we have oil money funding Islamic conservatives (the predominant kind of Moslem in Arabia) and giving rise to Islamic terrorist groups like al Qaeda and ISIL. None of the Sunni Arab governments wants these groups, although some have used them, as much as they could, against their enemies. But with ISIL this movement has spiraled completely out of control. ISIL espouses an “end of days” doctrine (every religion has one) in which the faithful must mobilize and convert the entire world to Islam so that ultimate purpose of Islam (world domination) can be achieved. The Shia have their own (less devastating) version with Shia in charge. The Sunni have the edge in numbers, as over 80 percent of Moslems are Sunni. But in the Middle East the Shia have an advantage as this is where most Shia live and the Shia are led by Iran. That’s important because for thousands of years the more enterprising and inventive Iranians have been the regional superpower. The Arabs know that, the Iranians know that and some other former superpowers in the area (like Russia and Turkey) know that as well. Everyone should not forget that.

While Shia and Sunni leaders agree on the need to destroy ISIL the Shia also want to displace the Arab Sunni al Saud family as the guardians of the most holy Moslem shrines (Mecca and Medina in southwestern Saudi Arabia). This has become a major news item because of a recent disaster at Mecca that left over a thousand dead. Saudis are now accusing Iran of causing this to support the Iranian effort to take charge of the shrines. This isn’t just about religion and nationalism, it’s also about money. Moslems have always been obliged to try and make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in their lives and this has made these two towns a gold mine for whoever controls them (as the “guardians of the shrines” of course, not as collector of taxes). At the moment the Saud family is vulnerable, not just for tolerating the Islamic conservatives who gave birth to al Qaeda and ISIL but also for not keeping pilgrims to the shrines safe. There was another accident during the annual pilgrimage (which can only be carried out a few days a year). On September 24th poor crowd control (or Iranian instigators) led to a panic and over 1,100 people died in the crush. Some estimates put the deaths at nearly 1,400 and Iran claims that over 4,000 died. Saudi Arabia was at first reluctant to return the bodies to their country of origin, but Iranian anger and threats led to the 465 Iranian dead being returned.  

One reason for catastrophes like this is that all that oil wealth made it possible for a lot more people to go to Mecca and for the Saudis to expand the facilities to accommodate them. But the Saudis made mistakes and over 5,000 of pilgrims have died since the 1970s as a result. The Shia religious dictatorship in Iran insists that “Persians” (an old name that is still used) can do better and a growing number of Sunni Moslems are agreeing with them. As with the Saudis, the Iranians would tolerate all (well nearly all) the many Moslem sects (of which Sunni and Shia are the largest) at the holy shrines. The largely Sunni Arabs of Arabia fear Iran wants to control their oil as well as the shrines and thus the very expensive Sunni Arab preparations for a war with Iran. This is going on at the same time as the struggle against ISIL and even if ISIL is crushed soon, there will still be the growing threat of war between Sunni and Shia.

Saudi Arabia and the other Arab monarchies in Arabia also believe that Iran fundamentally misunderstands how Sunni Islam works, especially in Arabia. While Iranian religious leaders were able to take control of the Iranian government in the 1980s and establish a functioning religious dictatorship Arabs do not believe this would work in Sunni Arabia. For one thing there is no precedent for this in Arab or Sunni tradition while Shia clerics have long been active in politics. Arabs believe it is more effective that rule by a secular (but devout) civilian (king, prince, sheikh, whatever) is used rather than the quasi-democracy religious dictatorship the Iranians use. Even scarier to most Arabs is the fear that Iran intends to make it work by changing Arab attitudes and killing all those who refuse to adjust. Mass murder is another old tradition in the region, shared by Iranians and Arabs alike. The Arabian monarchs see Iranian cooperation with Russia (still much hated by Moslems for its 1980s aggression in Afghanistan) as further evidence that Iran is a traitor to Islam. In the last week both the Arabs and Iran have backed off from the angry diplomacy and veiled threats. Iran is distracted by its Russian backed offensive in Syria and the Arabs feel close to victory in Yemen.

The Iraq Mess

The Russian intervention in Syria has caused Iraq to openly accuse the United States of being ineffective and unwilling to do what it takes to defeat ISIL. Iraqi leaders pointed out that over a year ago the U.S. and its Arab allies promised sufficient air support and other military assistance to defeat ISIL. That has not worked. Iraq believes the United States lacks the will to get the job done while Iran and Russia do have what it takes. Iraq also announced that it had established an intelligence sharing arrangement with Iran, Syria and Russia and invited the United States to join. So far the U.S. has declined. Finally Iraq is considering asking Russia to extend its bombing campaign to attacks on ISIL in western Iraq and Mosul. This would involve allowing Russia to operate from Iraqi air bases. What is meant here but not being said is that Iraq disagrees with the American ROE (Rules of Engagement) which puts more emphasis on protecting civilians than in destroying the enemy. ISIL uses lots of human shields to protect its men and facilities from air attack. Russia and Arab air forces will bomb a target even if there are human shields present. Another unspoken issue here is the high level of corruption in Iraq. The Russians, Iranians and other Arab states tolerate that while the West, and especially the Americans, do not. The Western experience is that, in the long term killing your own people and tolerating corruption does a nation more harm than good. Thus it is a cultural thing, with the leaders of Iraq, Iran, Russia and most other Arab states more concerned with the short term and thus more tolerant of what the West sees as self-destructive behavior.

Because of the corruption the Iraqi security forces, despite energetic efforts by American and NATO trainers and advisors, is still crippled when it comes to defeating ISIL. The offensives to push ISIL out of Mosul and Anbar (western Iraq) are stalled because of this and Iraqi leaders now hope that more ruthless (and effective) Russian air attacks might help. Even the Iran backed Shia militias are unable to make up for the ineffectiveness of the better armed and trained soldiers. Russia air attacks may not be the solution wither because the major problem is on the ground and the Russians have made it very clear that they will not be sending in ground forces. Nor will the Americans or even the Sunni Arab neighbors. The Sunni (but non-Arab) Turks are also not interested. Iran, on the other hand is. But the Shia government is, after all, Arab and does not trust the Iranians. That’s because Iran covets the Shia religious shrines in southern Iraq, as well as the nearby oil fields.

In Iraq the Shia militias, many of them with Iranian advisors, are increasingly being seen as a problem by Iraqis in general. The previous Maliki government had long worked closely with Iran but lost power because Maliki and his allies would not do anything about the corruption that is largely seen as the main reason ISIL made such rapid advances in 2014. Iraqis are discovering, as the anti-corruption efforts now accelerate, that a lot of that corruption, especially in the military, was encouraged, and sometimes paid for, by Iran. This has caused public opinion among the majority Shia Arabs in Iraq to turn against Iran. Another reason for that is the Iran supported (and often armed and paid) Shia militiamen are seen as fanatics and undisciplined who are mainly loyal to Iran.  These Shia militiamen are largely motivated by revenge (for years of Islamic terrorist attacks on Shia civilians) and their Iranian advisors encourage that. The Iran backed Shia militias are now seen as a potential threat to the Iraqi government. While the Shia militiamen have less training they are more fanatics and undisciplined. To the Americans the biggest risk is the Shia militiamen terrorizing (kidnapping, murdering, looting and so on) Sunni civilians in areas ISIL is driven out of.  The Americans realize that the key to regaining control of Anbar is gaining the support of the Sunnis (who comprise nearly all the Anbar population).

The al Qaeda Mess

Iran recently released several al Qaeda leaders from captivity. This was done to obtain the release of an Iranian diplomat who had been kidnapped by al Qaeda in Yemen back in 2013. This sort of trade is nothing new and in the last few years Iran has released over twenty senior al Qaeda leaders or technical experts. Since 2012 Western intelligence services have detected several of the 13 high-ranking al Qaeda officials thought imprisoned by Iran suddenly leaving. Many al Qaeda leaders fled to Iran after the Taliban lost control of Afghanistan in late 2001. One of these recently freed al Qaeda men moved back to what he thought was sanctuary in his native Libya. That did not last long as he was seized by American commandoes in a 2013 raid. The others are showing up, briefly, in places where al Qaeda is operating but otherwise act like they are on the run. That is prudent, because the United States would very much like to capture or kill these guys. While not all of them were imprisoned while in Iran they were not allowed to move freely and most appear to have been under what amounted to house arrest.  Normally the Shia avoid al Qaeda but Iran has taken the position that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and encourages its allies 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. Now Iran is allowing more al Qaeda leaders to leave in order to make al Qaeda, when has openly declared war on ISIL, a more effective organization. That al Qaeda is also more active than ISIL in carrying out attacks in the West is simply a bonus.

The Russian Opportunities

Getting active Russian involvement in Syria included some economic incentives. Iranian procurement officials have approached Russian firms about purchasing (after the sanctions are lifted) over $20 billion worth of Russian aircraft (commercial and military), satellites, industrial equipment and weapons. That is just the initial purchases and Iran indicates they want to establish deeper and longer range economic links with Russia.

Iran and Russia are also expected to cooperate on persuading the Arab states to cut oil production so the price can go back up. The old (since 1961) OPEC oil cartel has long regulated the world oil price by having the major producers (in the Persian Gulf) increase or cut production. Three times this power has been used as a weapon. In 1973 against the West for supporting Israel in the 1973 War, then in the 1980s to help weaken the Soviet Union and end the Cold War and now to curb the growing power of Iran. But this current campaign of lower oil prices is again hurting Russia, which is still too dependent on oil exports. Again the Americans back the Arabs but Iran and Russia sense that the current American leadership can be intimidated into backing away from their support for the Arabs and allow Iran to have its way in the Middle East and especially the Persian Gulf. Russia also senses weak American resolve and is working with Iran to exploit this opportunity.

October 8, 2015: American intelligence analysts believe that at least four of the 26 cruise missiles fired by Russian warships in the landlocked Caspian Sea at targets in Syria crashed in Iran. Both Russia and Iran deny this and insisted that all 26 missiles fired on the 7th hit their targets in Syria and that there were no civilian casualties.

In the northwest an Iranian UAV crashed while searching an area where Kurdish separatist rebels often operate. There were at least two other military in the air nearby and it is believed that this was all part of a military operation against Kurdish rebels.

October 7, 2015: In Yemen the Shia rebels and Arab backed government agreed to accept a peace deal proposed by the UN. Since March the Yemen government has benefitted air support provided by a Saudi led Arab coalition. In the last two months the Arabs sent in ground troops as well and now the Iran backed rebels are rapidly losing ground. Iran cannot do much to help the rebels and is not happy with the situation there.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei ordered that there be no more negotiations with the United States. He justified this by claiming that during the negotiations the Americans used their access to Iranian officials to commit espionage and persuade these officials to become spies.

October 5, 2015: In Iraq leaders of a major Iran backed Shia militia welcomed the use of Russian warplanes in Iraq. This is something the Iraqi government has not agreed to yet.

Several prominent Sunni clerics in Saudi Arabia have called for a jihad (holy war) against the Assad government of Syria as well as Russia and Iran. These conservative clerics have been known to praise Islamic terrorists in the past.

October 2, 2015: The Saudi supported Yemen government has cut diplomatic relations with Iran. The Yemen capital (Saana) is controlled by Iran backed Shia rebels and the government (now in Aden) says that Iran diplomats have 48 hours to get out of the country and their Saana embassy. After 48 hours the Iranian embassy in Saana will be a legitimate target for Arab warplanes. What triggered all this was the recent seizure of an Iranian ship loaded with weapons that were headed for Yemen.

September 30, 2015: Off the coast of Oman ships of the Yemeni blockade seized an Iranian fishing boat and found Iranian weapons apparently destined for the Iran backed Shia rebels in Yemen. This sort of smuggling has been going on for years but this time the Yemen government threatened Iran with retaliation. The crew of the smuggling boat said they were headed for Somalia, which has been another regular destination for Iranian weapons. Similar supplies of Iranian weapons were recently seized inside Bahrain, an Arab ruled country bordering Saudi Arabia. Iran claims that Bahrain actually belongs to Iran.





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