Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is again accusing Saudi Arabia of being incapable of administering the most holy Moslem shrines (Mecca and Medina in southwestern Saudi Arabia). Iran has become increasingly aggressive about this since a late 2015 disaster at Mecca that left over a thousand dead. Saudis accused Iran of causing this disaster 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
(Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant)
but also for not keeping pilgrims to the shrines safe. There are sometimes crowd control problems during the annual haj pilgrimage (which can only be carried out a few days a year). In September 2015 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. In the aftermath of that Iran has refused to allow Iranians to go on the pilgrimage and the Saudis accuse Iran of politicizing the annual pilgrimage. The haj has traditionally accepted Shia as fellow Moslems even though many senior Sunni clerics believe Shia are heretics. The Saudis have kept these clerics under control mainly by reminding everyone that the haj has always been about uniting all Moslems. Iran dismisses this and insists that the Arabs cannot be trusted to care for the holy places and are not capable of administering the haj despite the fact that under Saudi administration the facilities in and around the shrines have been upgraded so that number of pilgrims that could attend increased over fifty times (or about three million). The Saudis in particular and Arabs in general are quite proud of that and point out that there are far fewer safety problems now that at any time in the past.
All these demands for new guardians of the shrines is Iranian rhetoric confirming Arab fears that Iran is serious about taking over (one way or another) all of the Arabian Peninsula. To make matters worse (for the Arabs) these fears are largely dismissed by the rest of the world even though Iran media constantly mentions it, especially the part about Iran replacing the Saudi monarchy as the guardians of Mecca and Medina. Perception is reality in the Persian Gulf and the Arab rulers (and Sunni Arab majority) are terrified. At the same time Iran is right about one thing; the Sunni Arabs, especially Saudi Arabia, continue to support many Sunni Islamic terrorist groups. This does not include ISIL or al Qaeda, two of the most outspoken foes of the Saudi monarchy. Many of the Islamic terror groups the Saudis support or encourage are currently murdering Shia Moslems for being heretics. Most of Iran is Shia so you see how this sort of thing adds to the animosities and gives it all a blood feud vibe.
Despite the usefulness of Turkish troops entering Syria to fight ISIL (and separatist Kurds) Iran wants Turkish troops out of Syria as soon as possible. The Iranians don’t officially admit this but inside Iran it is openly discussed that because the Turks are Sunni Moslems this “invasion” of Syria could easily be interpreted as Turks take the side of the Sunni Gulf Arabs in the ongoing struggle between these Arabs and Iran. Then there is the Kurdish angle. One thing that unites Iran, Syria, Turkey and Iraq is opposition to Kurdish efforts to form their own nation at the expense of the four existing countries where they live. The only support the Kurds have is from outside the region. Western nations have backed the Syrian Kurds since 2011 because in Iraq and Syria the Kurds are the most effective local fighters. Moreover in Syria the Kurds there have incorporated some Arab militias (some Moslems, others Christian) into an effective combined force and often work with American Special Forces advisors. The Turks, Syrians, Iraqis and Iranians don’t about that and regard armed Kurds (especially the PKK and PYD) as a threat to national unity. The Syrian Kurds thought they were safe for the moment because they were seen as essential to taking the ISIL capital Raqqa in eastern Syria. The Turks have announced that they are willing to help with taking Raqqa. Iran is quietly negotiating with the Turks to cooperate in destroying ISIL and suppressing the Kurdish separatists while still allowing Iran to keep the Assad government in power. The Turks, although now run by a religious (Islamic) not a secular government, are not so sure it is in their interests to have Iran controlled Shia militants like Hezbollah continuing to threaten another war with Israel.
Iran is quite open about its goal of becoming the dominant foreign influence in Iraq. It uses religion, aid, diplomacy, threats, bribes and whatever else it can to obtain, maintain and expand that influence. Despite all that the Saudis are keen on maintaining a dominating influence in Iraq because Iraq is a largely (80 percent) Arab country that is majority (60 percent) Shia. The religious angle puts Iraqi Arabs in an awkward position. The Iraqi Shia Arabs don’t want to be dominated by non-Arab Iran (where Arabs are openly despised) but also don’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. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia seek to create an Iraqi government that is all one (Shia) or the other (Arab). So far this struggle has been a draw, which many Iraqis are OK with as long as the death toll is reduced. But the Iranians in particular are willing to shed a lot of Iraqi blood to get their own way. The Saudis have already done that with their unofficial support of Sunni terrorism in Iraq. Most of the foreign Islamic terrorists in Iraq since 2003 have been from Saudi Arabia, even though the Saudis officially disapprove of their citizens from going elsewhere to kill people for religious reasons. In reality most Saudis are fine with this but the victims in Iraq tended to be Shia Arabs and that is not forgotten.
While Iraqi Shia appreciate Iranian support against ISIL, they are constantly reminded that this support comes with dangerous conditions. Case in point is the need for air support during the upcoming battle to push ISIL out of Mosul. Iraqi military leaders know that American air support is crucial to the success of Iraqi forces in talking Mosul. The Americans have offered substantial air support during the final assault on Mosul. The Americans have brought in more ground controller teams to operate with Iraqi forces and provide timely air strikes. Iran-backed Shia militia refuse to use American air support at the same time the Iran is pressuring Iraq to allow these Shia militias to play a major role in the Mosul battle. There are lot of non-Shia civilians in Mosul and the government fears that Shia militia will misbehave the way they have recently been accused of doing in Anbar. The Sunni tribes there, including the pro-government ones that have always fought ISIL, recently gave the government evidence of Shia militiamen killing or kidnapping Sunni or destroying their homes.
Many in the Iraqi government army leadership do not want any of the 80-100,000 or so Iran backed Shia militia fighters involved in retaking Mosul. The Iraqi Shia that control the Iraqi government and military do not trust Iran and believe the Iran controlled Shia militias are being prepared to support an armed takeover of the current Shia controlled government. Many of the Shia militia are from Baghdad and there are growing fears that Shia cleric Ayatollah Muqtada al Sadr, an open fan of the Shia religious dictatorship in Iran, is planning to use his anti-corruption campaign in Baghdad as justification for an armed takeover of the government. In response a lot of Shia pro-government militias are forming. This reinforces the point that most Iraqis, including most Iraqi Shia, do not want to be dominated by Iran.
September 14, 2016: The head of the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) navy demanded that the U.S. Navy leave the Persian Gulf. The IRGC fleet (mostly of small speedboats armed with machine-gun and sometimes small missiles) has been increasingly aggressive in challenging (but not attacking) U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf this year. It began in January when two U.S. Navy coastal patrol boats and ten sailors manning them were seized by armed Iranian patrol boats. The Americans were accused of being in Iranian territorial waters. The American boats and sailors were released a day later but the U.S. Navy has yet to explain how this improbable event actually took place. The IRGC insisted this incident simply proved their assertion that the IRGC could defeat the U.S. Navy if they wanted to. Many Iranians and, more importantly, many Arabs now believe this. With each new incident of IRGC armed speed boats getting close enough to American warships to open fire the IRGC claims gain more credence. Iran has a long history of successfully using this sort of bluff and bluster to get their way. When the victim is powerful enough to push back the Iranians blame someone else for their loss and vow eventual payback. Over the last few centuries Turks, the British and the Americans have occasionally pushed back. But most of the time the well-staged (and timed) bluffs work and, at the very least, make the Iranian leaders more admired by Iranians and more feared by the neighbors.
September 13, 2016: In southern Syria, along the Israeli border, Iran is accused of encouraging more “accidental” fire into Israel. Today, for example, three mortar shells fired from Syria landed in the Golan Heights. That makes five shells in the last four days and six such incidents in the last month. Israel fired back (with artillery or air strikes) at nearby Syrian army artillery or mortar positions. The Syrian Army and their Iranian allies (mainly Shia mercenaries recruited by Iran and controlled by Iranian trainers and advisors) control most of the Syria-Israel border but there is still fighting along the border with several rebel groups. When the fire from Syria is deliberate the Israelis always fire back, but if it appears to have been the result of fighting between government and rebels forces inside Syria, which is the cause of most bullets, rockets and shells crossing the border, there is a verbal protest but no artillery or air strikes in response. When it is unclear, the Israelis fire back. Except for these incidents situation continues to be quiet on the Israeli front. Israel expects this to change because Iran openly boasts (on Iranian media and to its Shia mercenaries in Syria and Lebanon) that Iran is winning in Syria and once the Syrian Sunni rebellion is crushed Israel will be the next target. For Syrians there is a special reason for this. In 2015 oil was discovered on the Golan Heights. There appears to be several billion barrels. Israel uses about 100 million barrels a year. Syria claims the Golan Heights but Israel holds the territory because it is high ground overlooking a lot of Israeli territory. Israel does not trust Syrian occupation of the heights, which Syria has used in the part to fire on Israelis below. UN troops have been there since 1974 to monitor a ceasefire between Israel and Syria. Israel defeated Syria in 1967 and took the Golan Heights. In 1973 Israel defeated a strong effort by Syria to regain the Golan Heights. Since then the UN has watched over an uneasy peace.
September 11, 2016: In the southeast (near the Pakistan border) the IRGC clashed with a group of Jaish ul Adl Islamic terrorists, killing four of them, wounding three and arresting several others. Jaish ul Adl are one of several Iranian Baluchi groups in the southeast. The Baluchi are Sunni, and resent the way they are persecuted by the Shia majority in Iran. About two percent (1.4 million) of Iranians are Baluchi. Most Baluchi tribes live across the border in Pakistan (all of southwest Pakistan is called Baluchistan, or "Land Of the Baluchi", a tribe ethnically related to the Pushtun in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the Iranians themselves).
September 10, 2016: In the southwest (Bushehr Province) construction began on the first of two additional reactors for the nuclear power plant that went online in 2012. Russia is supplying supervision and equipment for the two additional reactors as it did for the original plant. The additional work will take ten years and cost about $9 billion. Much of that money goes to Russia. Since late 2015 Russia has regularly announced sales, and now deliveries of new military and non-military equipment to Iran. The 2015 treaty that lifted most sanctions on Iran was, as expected, a big deal for Russian manufacturers of everything from consumer good to industrial products. The latest Russian exports consist of railroad cars and equipment needed to carry out much delayed (by sanctions) repairs and upgrades to the Iranian railroad system. Iran eventually wants to have twenty nuclear power plant reactors and a lot more new industrial equipment and upgrades besides. Currently Russia and China have the inside track for most of that business.
September 8, 2016: In the northwest (West Azerbaijan province) border guards clashed with Kurdish separatists trying to cross from Iraq into Iran at night. Several hours of fighting left eight Kurds dead while others apparently escaped back into Iraq. Since mid-June the IRGC has been particularly active in this area as part of yet another attempt to eliminate any armed Kurdish separatists. This is proving difficult because the local population is largely Kurdish. The Iranian Kurdish separatists maintain bases in Iraq and IRGC artillery has fired shells and rockets at these Iraqi bases several times since June. The Iraqi Kurds don’t officially approve of these Iranian Kurds hiding out in remote border areas but they won’t send their own troops in to oust them. The Iraqi government (run by the Shia Arab majority) apologizes to Iran but will not go to war with its own Kurds over this. Thus it is no surprise that Iran is currently blaming Saudi Arabia for the Iranian Kurds finding sanctuary in northern Iraq.
September 6, 2016: In the northwest (West Azerbaijan province) IRGC troops again clashed with Kurdish separatists near the Iraq border leaving two Kurds and six soldiers dead.
August 30, 2016: In northern Syria (Hama province) an Iranian IRGC general (Dariush Dorosti) was killed during a battle with Sunni rebels. Iran described Dorosti as a retired IRGC general who had volunteered to fight in Syria to protect fellow Shia there. Iran admits it has troops (over 3,000) in Syria. Iran insists they are all volunteers, which explains the presence of army troops, who are rarely sent overseas. Until recently nearly all were from the IRGC and most of them officers and career NCOs from combat units who were sent to Syria for a few months to get some combat experience by working with government, Hezbollah and militia units. But during 2016 many of the IRGC men were replaced or augmented with regular army soldiers and commandos. Most of the Iranian deaths (over 300 so far) in Syria are mentioned in Iranian media and those losses have been increasing in 2016, running at 30-40 a month. There are even more monthly losses among the thousands of foreign mercenaries Iran has recruited. All of these are Shia, most from Lebanon but nearly as many from other countries (especially Iraq and Afghanistan). Iran has funded, armed and trained even more local militiamen in Syria, whose main duty is to defend government held territory.
August 26, 2016: Russia, Turkey, Iran, the Assad government and the Americans agreed that Turkish ground troops would enter northwestern Syria to destroy or drive ISIL forces away from the border area. The Americans would also drop support to Kurdish forces operating west of the Euphrates River. The Kurds reluctantly agreed with the U.S. decision and pulled back from Manbij, a town they recently captured from ISIL. The Kurds in the northwest corner of Syria were more difficult to persuade. Turkey, Russia, Iran, the Assad government and the Americans all had to agree because together they controlled most of the airpower and pro-government foreign ground forces in the area. The Turks had made areas west of the Euphrates too hostile for the Kurds to deal with, especially with the withdrawal of American air support and Kurds becoming targets for Turkish, Russian and Syrian warplanes. Turkey wants to prevent the Kurds in Syria from establishing an autonomous area similar to what exists in northern Iraq. The Assads, Iran and the Iraqi government (dominated by Shia Arabs) agree on this. Up until now the Syrian Kurds ignored Turkish demands that Kurdish forces not advance west of the Euphrates River. The Turks (and the Assads) object to this because it would enable the Kurds to complete their plan to control the entire Turkish-Syrian border. The Syrian Kurds had declared autonomy in late 2013 and published maps showing their claims stretching from their traditional Kurdish majority areas of northeast Syria east of the Euphrates as well as everything to the east. The claimed areas west of the river did not extend more than a hundred kilometers into Syria but claiming the entire Syrian border was not acceptable to Turkey or most Syrians. By late 2015 the Syrian Kurds were fighting ISIL west of the river and dealing with occasional air attacks by the Turks. Now that has all changed and by early September Turkish troops controlled most of the Syrian side of the border west of the Euphrates.
August 25, 2016: The government revealed that security forces in the southeast had recently killed Abu Hafs al Baloushi, the leader of a local Sunni Islamic terrorist group called Ansar al Furqan. This group has been around since 2013 and was involved with drug smuggling and working with Iranian Baluchi separatists. Iran declared that Abu Hafs al Baloushi was actually a mercenary working for an unnamed foreign government. Iran portrayed Ansar al Furqan as paid killers rather than religious fanatics. No proof was presented but in this part of the world no proof is needed because many, if not most Moslems in the Middle East believe that groups like al Qaeda and ISIL were created and are controlled by Israel and the West as a means to attack Islam. In southeast Iran the reality is that the local Baluchis are Sunni and never got along with the Shia Iranians. Iran has been fighting Baluchi separatists for centuries. Armed Baluchi groups often base themselves across the border in Pakistan, which has been unable to halt this sort of thing.
August 24, 2016: Israeli warplanes bombed three Hezbollah bases in Lebanon. These three targets, near the Syrian border, were known to be involved with supporting Hezbollah operations in Syria. This was the second such attack this month. The other one was on the 3rd when Arab media reported that Israeli warplanes destroyed four trucks (carrying Hezbollah weapons) north of Damascus. Israel rarely acknowledges air strikes like this but in April the Israeli government did reveal that it had carried out dozens of air raids in Syria and Lebanon to destroy Hezbollah weapons. In Lebanon Israeli aircraft also use smart bombs and missiles to attack Hezbollah weapons storage facilities that are found to contain new (usually Iranian or Russian) missiles. In addition to the air strikes since 2011 there have been a smaller number of ground (command0) operations. There have been several Israeli air strike in Syria since 2015 that were apparently part of an effort to destroy ballistic missiles being moved, or already moved from Syria to Lebanon. Israel also believes that Iran backed Hezbollah now has 150,000 other rockets, most of them short range (20 kilometers or less) installed along the Israel border, often in or close to homes and government buildings. Because of its commitments in Syria Hezbollah is not interested in another war with Israel just now but that attitude is expected to change depending on how the war in Syria ends. At the moment the Syrian government (backed by Iran and Russia) is winning but that war isn’t over yet.
August 22, 2016: Iran reported that Russian warplanes had stopped using its Hamadan air base for attacks on Islamic terrorists in Syria. It was unclear if this is temporary or permanent and if it had anything to do with Iran asking for more than Russian was willing to pay for the use of the base. On August 16th Russian Tu-22M3 bombers began operating from an Iranian airbase at Hamadan (in northwest Iran) and did so until the 19th. Since then Russia has apologized and Iran has said that the Russians might later return to Hamadan air base.