Despite being a police state the Islamic clerics that make all the final decisions have to pay attention to public opinion. At the moment that opinion is increasingly hostile towards the government. This is mainly about corruption and how it is preventing most Iranians from seeing any economic benefits from all the victories the government keeps boasting about. The corruption is obvious in that the state owned enterprises (all controlled by senior Islamic clerics and their key supporters) are doing well while the majority of the economy gets little help. Add to this the expense of supporting military operations in Syria, Iraq and Yemen and you have a lot of broke and unhappy Iranians. The clerics have held onto power since the 1980s by doing whatever was needed to avoid the sort of mass discontent that enabled the clerics to lead a popular rebellion against the monarchy in 1979. This is how seemingly entrenched rulers get overthrown in Iran and more senior clerics are noticing the trends. But the radical clerics and the leaders of the radical factions are ignoring the signs. Key supporters of the religious dictatorship, especially the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps), openly boast that most of the recent defense budget increase came from billions of dollars the U.S. had frozen for decades. IRGC commanders also like to get on the TV shows and openly proclaim that the United States is beaten and easily pushed around. After all, look at what happed in Iraq, Syria and the Persian Gulf (where the IRGC continues to harass American naval forces without any fear of retaliation.) The clerical leadership blames all the economic problems on the usual suspects (America, Israel and Saudi Arabia) who are obviously conspiring to keep the oil price low. This disquiet among the leadership, dependence on conspiracy theories and arrogance displayed by the radicals is no secret and does not inspire confidence among most Iranians.
Not to be outdone ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) recently released a Farsi (Iranian) language video in which the ISIL spokesman threatened to destroy Iran for tolerating a handful of Jews still living in Iran and allowing non-Moslems to openly worship (something Saudi Arabia does not allow). Meanwhile Israel openly declares Iran its primary security concern, accounting for about 80 percent of Israeli planning and preparation for future conflict. It’s not just Iran itself but also the foreign operations Iran undertakes against Israel, especially Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, the Assad government in Syria and a network of smaller terrorist operations worldwide. An example of this is the Iranian efforts to get Hezbollah large quantities of more effective rockets and ballistic missiles as well as building a Syrian branch of Hezbollah. Israel has bombed most of these shipments as trucks sought to get the weapons from Syria into Lebanon. Seeking a safer alternative Iran has instead provided Hezbollah with the cash and technical assistance to build factories in Lebanon. The tech can be emailed and nearly all the components are dual use (have military and non-military uses). But the location of these factories has to be concealed, either as a factory that effectively pretends to be non-military (like one that produces civilian goods some of the time and high-tech rockets or missiles some of the time.) Such dual use factories could be used as a media deception if they were bombed and Hezbollah denied that weapons were being made there. Hezbollah controls most of the media in Lebanon (via threats or bribes) and that includes foreign news organizations. The same technique is used in Gaza. That makes it easier to carry out a deception like this.
While Russia is officially in Syria to defeat ISIL and keep the Assads in power (semi-officially) they also want to maintain good relations with Israel while doing it. This annoys Iran. Israel has made it clear that there can never be peace in Syria if Iran tries to establish a permanent presence there. The Iranians say they are in Syria to stay and the Russians (so far) have said they oppose that. Iran wants to stay in Syria as part of its decades old effort to destroy Israel and a centuries old effort to make the Shia form of Islam dominant in the Islamic world (that is over 80 percent non-Shia). Meanwhile Israel says it can live with the Assads as long as Iran is not maintaining a military presence in Syria. Many Turks agree with Israel on that point and newly elected U.S. government has come out strongly against any permanent Iranian presence in Syria. The Americans still want the Assads gone but despite that the U.S., Israel and Turkey agree on some key goals.
Turkey is also having problems with Iran because senior Turkish leaders openly accuse Iran of attempting to destabilize Syria and Iraq in order to increase Iranian influence in those countries. While many people in those countries, both pro and anti-Iran, would agree, the official Iranian line is that their military efforts in Syria and Iraq are simply to help fight ISIL. Turkey is largely Sunni and has been trying to improve its relations with all Moslem majority nations in the region since 2000. That is proving difficult with the growing struggle between Shia (led by Iran) and Sunni (led by Saudi Arabia). Turkey has tried to stay out of this conflict but that is proving impossible.
The Russian intervention appears to be permanent (as far as the Russians are concerned) and the Assads agree. Turkey and Iran are not so sure and Iran is openly opposed to Turkish troops being in Syria at all. At the same time Iran is demanding the right to establish a naval base in Syria. This is not a new idea. In 2011 Iran pledged to pay for the construction of a naval base on the Syrian Mediterranean coast. That proposal was put aside as the rebellion against the Assads grew but now Iran wants some payback for playing a key role in maintaining the Assads in power. All these overlapping and often contradictory goals and alliances may seem odd to an outsider but this is the Middle East, where such complex arrangements are the old normal.
Iran has a pretty realistic attitude towards the situation in Yemen. That explains why Iranian support is a low cost operation. Iran always urged the Yemeni Shia to adopt a more cautious and gradual strategy. That advice was ignored and when the Yemeni Shia had an opportunity to seize the capital and declare a new government in 2015 they did so. It didn’t work but came close enough to encourage Iran to spend a lot of what little cash they had to support the Yemeni Shia. Iran knew that the Yemeni Shia, or at least some of them, would be grateful for this support and that would benefit Iran long-term. In the meantime the situation in Yemen, where the outnumbered and outgunned Shia are holding out against the Sunni majority and their Arab (led by the Saudis) allies hurts Iranian enemies (the Sunni Arab Gulf states and the West) while providing the Iranians with excellent media opportunities to criticize the Arabs and the West. Iran is making the most of the fact that the Arabs, even with greater numbers and superior weapons, are unable to defeat fellow Arabs who just happen to be Shia. Iran, the largest Shia majority nation in the world, considers the Shia form of Islam superior to the Sunni variants (which over 80 percent of Moslems follow). Iranian media plays up the suffering of Yemenis in general and manages to keep itself too low profile for the media to pay attention to.
The UN continues to push for peace talks but the Iran backed Shia rebels and their Iranian backers are waiting for the most opportune time to make a deal. The rebels and Iranian media keep calling for the UN to first investigate all the civilian casualties from Arab (mainly Saudi) air strikes. Iran, sensing better opportunities elsewhere, is ignoring UN calls to participate in peace talks. The Arab coalition is not interested either because, Iranian sponsored propaganda to the contrary, the government and their Arab allies feel they are winning. The march to victory is more a shuffle forward than a sprint to the finish line but a win is a win, especially when you are dealing with chronically troublesome neighbors.
March 24, 2017: The United States imposed sanctions on 30 companies and individuals for illegally transferring weapons technology or weapons to Iran, North Korea or Syria. Those sanctioned were from China, North Korea or the UAE (United Arab Emirates). Iran responded by imposing sanctions on fifteen American companies.
March 22, 2017: Four UAVs that Yemen Shia rebels used to attack Saudi and UAE air defense radars were not locally made as the rebels claimed but were smuggled in (disassembled) from Iran via Oman hidden in truckloads of non-military goods. The four UAVs were identified as Ababils which are made in Iran and smuggled to several Islamic terror groups so far. If you know where the air defense radars are you can use the GPS guidance of the Ababil to send the UAV, armed with an explosive warhead, to destroy or damage the radar. Ababil is an 83 kg (183 pound) UAV with a three meter (ten foot) wing span, a payload of about 36 kg (80 pounds), a cruising speed of 290 kilometers an hour and an endurance of 90 minutes. The Ababil under radio control can operate as far as 120 kilometers from its ground controller. But it also has a guidance system that allows it to fly a pre-programmed route and then return to the control of its controllers for a landing (which is by parachute). The Ababil can carry a variety of day and night still and video cameras. There are many inexpensive and very capable cameras available on the open market, as is the equipment needed to transmit video and pictures back to the ground. Ababil has been improved since 2010 and new or upgraded ones have a range (from the operator) of 240 kilometers and carry a 45 kg (99 pound) payload. Iran developed the Ababil in the late 1990s and it first appeared in 2004. The United States and Israel have encountered Ababil. In February 2009 an American fighter shot down an Iranian Ababil UAV over Iraq. The Iranian UAV was believed to be scouting smuggling routes, to be used to get weapons and agents into Iraq. In July 2014 Israeli Patriot missiles were twice fired to shoot down Ababil UAVs used by Hamas to seek out or attack Israeli military targets. This was the first time Israeli Patriots had something to shoot down since the 1990s. Hamas said it used its Ababil UAVs both for reconnaissance and, with the cameras replaced with explosives, as cruise missiles. Hamas also released pictures of an Ababil carrying four unguided rockets. This may have just been a propaganda photo because firing small, unguided rockets from an Ababil would not be very effective. Iran has supplied both Hezbollah and Hamas with UAVs. Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies in Yemen say they have considerable evidence of Iran increasing, since late 2016, its weapons smuggling activities to the Yemen rebels.
March 21, 2017: Iranian military officials accuse Russia of providing Israel with technical information about Russian made air defense radars and air defense control systems used by Syria and Iran. Iranian experts say that this explains how Israeli aircraft always manage to avoid being spotted or effectively fired on by Russian made Syrian air defense systems. Specifically Iran accuses the Russians of providing IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe) codes to the Israelis. The IFF beacon every combat aircraft carries broadcasts a coded message to friendly aircraft and anti-aircraft systems. The Iranians say they can prove this because they secretly helped the Syrians change some of their IFF codes without the Russians knowing and suddenly the Israeli aircraft were being spotted. Russia denies the accusation and Israel has no comment.
March 19, 2017: In the northwest (Kurdistan province) Kurdish Zagros Eagles separatist rebels claim to have killed two IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps) troops and wounded another.
March 17, 2017: Israel believes Iran was responsible for persuading the Assad government to fire its SA-5 SAMs (surface to air) missiles at Israeli aircraft today. That led to the use of an Arrow 3 anti-missile missile to shoot down one of the SA-5 missile that had been fired at four Israeli jets bombing a target (new weapons for Hezbollah) in eastern Syria near Palmyra. Apparently several SA-5s missed the Israeli jets and instead of detonating anyway (as these missiles are built to do) were headed into Israeli air space and Arrow 3 was fired just in case it was a ballistic missile. This was the first time the Arrow 3 has been used in a combat situation. The SA-5 is a 1960s design that Russia has updated and Syria received the latest S-200 version of the missile in 2010. This seven ton missile has a range of 300 kilometers but Israel has apparently developed effective countermeasures. In 2016 Russia sent in an SA-10 (S-300) anti-aircraft system to protect their troops in Syria. Larger SAMs are often modified to attack ground targets and Israel may have believed that Syria had done this. So the Arrow fire control system was programmed to look for that and if something like the SA-5 kept coming towards Israel it could be deliberately operating as a ballistic missile. That would mean the SAM was aiming for a specific ground target and might even be carrying a more dangerous (poison gas) warhead.
March 15, 2017: The pro-Assad coalition of Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government ended two days of peace talks with each other about how to settle the Syrian mess. This took place in the Central Asian city of Astana (the capital of Kazakhstan). Nothing was achieved, in large part because all the rebels refused to attend. In January there was another two days of peace talks in Astana with some rebels present and nothing could be agreed to. The major powers involved congratulated each other for getting this far. Another two days of peace talks in Astana are to begin on May 3rd with or without any rebel participation. The ceasefire each of these meetings proclaim has had no impact on the fighting because few rebels will even participate in the talks and the pro-government groups that will do not observe the terms of the ceasefire agreements they sponsor.
March 12, 2017: Saudi Arabia and Egypt appear to have settled their disagreement over Iran. The Saudis agreed to resume oil shipments to Egypt and the first one arrived a week later. This ends a feud between Saudi Arabia and Egypt that halted shipments of oil since October 2016. This was all because Egypt refused to vote against a Russian peace proposal in the UN that was favored by Iran and the Iran backed Syrian government. All other Arab states opposed backed the Saudis, in large part because the Gulf Arabs and Iran are at war with each other. The Saudis expect Moslem states they support financially (Egypt has received about $5 billion a year since 2011) to reciprocate by backing Saudi diplomacy and, in effect, recognize Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Arab world. Egypt traditionally held that position because of its long history of regional leadership, even before Islam appeared in the 7th century. But Egypt is now broke and still dealing with Islamic terrorist violence. The Saudis are rich and have far fewer problems internally with Islamic terrorism. But for many Egyptians it is humiliating to follow the lead of Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile one thing that the Egyptians and Saudis do agree on is better relationships with Israel. Along those lines a growing number of Egyptians openly support more economic cooperation with Israel. Apparently a deal, or at least a truce, was worked out with the Saudis over the latest dispute. The Egyptians won’t be getting free oil this time, but will have five years to pay for each shipment and those payments may be forgiven for good behavior.
March 11, 2017: Pakistan complained to Iran about nine mortar shells fired from Iran and into Pakistan earlier in the day. The shells did not cause any casualties or damage and Iran responded that none of its security forces fired those shells and that it was probably some rebel group. Such things have happened on this border before.
March 8, 2017: In Iraq one of the many Iran backed (recruited, equipped, trained and sometimes led) Shia militias has declared itself “Golan Liberation Brigade” and announced plans to go fight Israel to regain the Golan Heights for Syria. The Iraqi government has forbidden Iraqi Shia militia from entering Syria and so far that order has been followed. But in the recent past Iraq has announced similar prohibitions for Iranian activities in Iraq and those prohibitions were ignored. This includes American requested bans on Iranian use of Iraqi air space or roads to move weapons or military personnel into Syria.
March 6, 2017: Iran admitted that it had lost 2,100 dead since 2014 in Syria and Iraq. This is believed to be (according to independent analysis of media reports of such losses) too low and the actual losses are more like 2,600. Only 20 percent of those dead are Iranians while 40 percent are Lebanese (Hezbollah) and 40 percent are Shia mercenaries (mostly Afghan, Pakistani and Iraqi) recruited by Iran. About a quarter of the Iranian dead were officers, including at least ten generals. The last time Iran admitted losses was in late 2016 when they insisted only a thousand had died in Syria and Iraq. But that was obviously too low and Shia communities in Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere went public with their complaints. So Iran more or less came clean now, in part because the number of Iranian military personnel in Syria and Iraq is declining with Iran sensing these wars coming to an end. Iran wants to get its troops out of Syria and Iraq because the cost (financial and human) is unpopular among most Iranians. Iran also went public with this data to make a point to Russia, its ally in Syria.
So far (since August 2016) 27 Russians have died in combat in Syria. That is an official figure which is believed to be accurate. Iran points out that Russian aid to the Syrian government (air support, technical assistance and supplies) is appreciated but Iran has put a lot more people into combat and has the casualties to show for it. This does not seem to impress the Russians and many Iranian officials believe that Russia is willing to betray Iran in order to improve relations with Israel, Turkey and the Gulf Arabs.
March 2, 2017:
In part because of the recent Pakistani closing of road access to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan are speeding up the completion of the rail link from Afghanistan to Iran. Work will now be completed by late 2018 (in about a year). This is part of the Indo-Iranian project (largely financed by India) that enables foreign cargo delivered to the port of Chabahar (in southeastern Iran) to enter Afghanistan by rail or road without any additional tax problems or other restrictions. Iran and India are building the 1,300 kilometer long rail line from the port to the Afghan border (near Herat) in the north. Indians are providing over two billions dollars to upgrade the port and build new roads and railroads to Afghanistan and Central Asia.
February 28, 2017: Iran has agreed to open two additional border crossings with Pakistan. Both will be near the coast and the newly expanded (by the Chinese) port of Gwadar. The two new border crossings will handle expected increases in trade with Iran.
February 27, 2017: The U.S. is not happy with how Iraq has quietly disbanded the “Iran Section” in the Iraqi equivalent of the CIA. This organization was set up after 2004 with $3 billion in American cash and CIA trainers and advisors. Since the American troops left in 2011 Iran has pressured Iraqi officials to shut down the Iran Section and in early 2017 that was quietly done as the last few hundred personnel assigned to the Iran Section were fired or transferred. This has many Iraqis worried. While about 60 percent of Iraqis are Shia most of them do not want Iraq dominated by Iran. The security forces are now dominated by Shia but many of those generals 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. All this has led to more controls being placed on what the pro-Iran Shia militias are allowed to do. Currently that means staying out of Mosul and behaving in Anbar (where pockets of ISIL resistance still exist).
February 26, 2017: Iranian media featured stories about how dozens of newly built apartments were being given to the families of Afghan refugees who had died in Syria while fighting for an Iranian mercenary militia. Iran has apparently also offered these refugees Iranian citizenship, which is highly prized by these refugees because in this part of the world it is difficult to obtain.
February 22, 2017: In Kurdish northern Iraq local and American intelligence analysts both noted increased Iran intel activity in autonomous Kurdish northern Iraq. Iran will only admit that it is interested in keeping track of Iranian Kurds in Iraq, especially members of PJAK (the Iranian Kurdish separatist group long based in Iraq). In 2016 the Iranian artillery fired on suspected PJAK camps in Kurdish controlled northern Iraq. In mid-2016 Iran launched another offensive against PJAK operating on both sides of the border. Dozens of civilians fled the area where the shells were landing but there were apparently no casualties.