Iran: Enemies Within And Without

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May 2, 2017: The presidential election on May 19 th is mainly an opinion poll because the senior clerics decide who can run for any office. Actual opinion polling is allowed and the government already knows the voters are not happy. It’s mainly about the failure of the economy to improve, at least for the average Iranian, since the 2015 treaty to lift most economic sanctions. As it has been since at least 2013 the official unemployment rate is still 12 percent, and the actual one is still believed to be closer to 20 percent. Corruption and government interference make it difficult to start and run new businesses, even with sanctions lifted. The treaty did nothing to reduce government corruption and inefficiency. It is no secret that the government has long created a lot of civil service jobs that just add to the inflation rate and don't produce anything. These jobs are handed out to supporters of the dictatorship and not to those most qualified to make the government function effectively for the average Iranian. Iranians are uneasy about how the security forces, especially the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) grabs more and more economic power for themselves.

There are several obstacles to dealing with corruption, or even protesting it. The main defender of corruption has increasingly been the IRGC generals who, like the late shah, are inclined to ignore public opinion and put down with force any public displays of dissent. At the other extremes you have religious leaders to are willing to compromise with many popular demands, especially those related to economic freedom and curbing corruption. That goal collides with the IRGC, which is all about controlling all manner of personal freedoms and tolerating corruption when it benefits the IRGC and the clerical leadership. While leaders of the religious government and the IRGC are both getting rich off corruption the IRGC is able to shut down reform efforts and keep any real opposition on the defensive. This is classic Iranian politics and after thousands of years of this everyone knows how it ends (badly and often with great loss of life.).

The War With Israel

Israel and Iran are at war in Syria and Iran’s allies there, Russia and Turkey, are not helping. Taking advantage of this Israel has been more aggressive with its attacks on Iranian weapons shipments to Syria, many of them actually intended for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel keeps careful track of Iranian air freight flights to Syria and has noted these flights have become more frequent since 2015. This was because economic sanctions were eased and Iran could buy new air transports and spare parts for reviving the elderly air freight fleet it already has. Israel is seeing a lot of Iranian refurbished air transports showing up in Syria.

Iran is losing this war with Israel and seeking a way to do better. This is important inside Iran where the government has long publicized victories (usually invented) over Israel. Highly visible defeats by Israel, as are happening in Syria, does little to prop up the unpopular religious dictatorship that has been running the country since the 1980s. Another embarrassment is the success of Russian air power and ground forces (mainly special operations and artillery) to help the Assad forces win back territory. Until 2016 Iranian forces were seen as the key to Assad survival but now the Assads were not shy about praising their Iranian saviors. But that changed in 2017 as the alliance with Turkey and Russia began to come apart. Iran blames this on Israel which, in this case, is partially correct. Israel knows that Iran wants to establish a pro-Iranian militia in Syria similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Assads know this would mean they would have to share power in Syria with Iran. Most Syrians don’t care for this, just as most Lebanese don’t care for the Hezbollah presence. No one, including Russia, Turkey and Israel, want another Hezbollah established in Syria. Iran will not back down on this and that has damaged their relationships with their allies.

Turkey is still technically an Iranian ally in Syria but that has changed since late 2016. This is mainly because Turkey is trying to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing an autonomous region in northern Syria and that goal outweighs everything else. The Turks are the only member of the anti-ISIL coalition that wants to keep the Kurds out of the final offensive to crush ISIL in Syria. The Turks are also opposed to the growing Iranian presence in Syria and Iranian plans to make that presence (and control of the Syrian government) permanent. Turkey also favors the Sunni Arab states when it comes to disputes between Iran and the Arabs. This was clearly the case when Turkey demanded that the Assads be overthrown in the wake of the April 4th nerve gas attack. Israel also opposes the Iranian presence but is neutral about the Kurds and has the support of Russia and the United States for that. Russia and the United States are trying to prevent the offensive against ISIL from being disrupted because of growing hostility between the Turks and the SDF (Kurdish led secular rebel coalition) but are not having much success.

While Russia is officially in Syria to defeat ISIL and keep the Assads in power they (semi-officially) also want to maintain good relations with Israel and Sunni Arab countries 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.

The Russian intervention appears to be permanent (as far as the Russians are concerned) and the Assads are OK with that. 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.

Yemen

Iran is also accused, by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States as well as most Yemenis, of trying to establish another Hezbollah in Yemen. That was always a long shot and this attempt seems to have failed. Iran seemed to anticipate that and their support of the Shia rebels was always a low cost and largely covert operation. Iran tried to persuade 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 more lavishly. 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. If nothing else it annoyed the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs. By early 2017 the outnumbered and outgunned Shia rebels continue to hold out against the Sunni majority and their Arab (led by the Saudis) allies. This is mainly a media victory for Iran because the Sunni Arab Gulf states are 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 quickly 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. 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. Moreover, the Shia form of Islam makes a big deal out of losing battles but ultimately winning it all.

April 29, 2017: In Turkey an Iranian businessman who ran a Farsi language GEM TV satellite network was murdered, along with another Iranian. The businessman was apparently the primary target because Iran made no secret about its desire to kill the man. The satellite network he ran provided Iranians with a lot of shows hostile to (or banned by) the Iranian government and in 2016 an Iranian court had sentenced the dead man to six years in prison but the accused had already fled the country.

IRGC (usually Quds Force) operatives have been found carrying out assassinations in the West and organizing terror attacks all over the world (especially if it kills Jews). Until 2011 there were frequent Iranian backed assassinations of moderate Shia religious leaders, and their aides, in Iraq. This was a tactic reminiscent of Saddam Hussein, and in character for Iranian religious fanatics. Iran denied such support for this dirty business, but there it is. The Iranian government can make these denials with a straight face because of the way factions control different parts of the government. The Islamic radicals, in particular the IRGC, are left alone as they pursue all manner of special projects. Fomenting terrorism and rebellion in foreign countries is one Islamic radical activity the Iranian government would rather not officially know about. Another is the murder of critical Iranians who have fled the country.

Iran has to be careful with overseas "wet work" (assassinations), as without permission from the local government, this sort of thing invites diplomatic, or other, retaliation. For example i n 2011 a U.S. court indicted two Iranian men for attempting to hire a Mexican drug gang to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, and bomb the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington, DC. One of the accused was an Iranian-American businessman, while the other is a known Quds Force operative. The American was arrested while the Quds Force man managed to flee. Iran denied everything, and derided the charges. But American politicians, from both parties, and close allies, who have seen the evidence, were convinced this plot was real. The U.S. has refused to show Iran the evidence, apparently because it would identify the methods or sources used to get access to Iranian secret communications. After that Iran believes the Americans because more supportive to clandestine attacks on Iran. If nothing else this persuades the Iranians to be more discreet.

April 27, 2017: In Syria Israeli missiles, apparently fired from inside Israel, hit Iranian warehouses near the Mazzeh Air Base outside Damascus. This was a night attack and cell phone videos showed that these buildings apparently contained weapons because there were numerous secondary explosions as in a missile setting off ammunition or missiles stored there. The Israeli missiles also hit a fuel storage site, causing large secondary explosions and fires. This attack went after munitions and fuel used by Iran mercenaries in Syria in addition to missiles and other weapons meant to be smuggled into Lebanon. Some Iranian and Hezbollah personnel were killed. Later in the day Russia condemned the attack as a violation of Syrian sovereignty. Despite this public demonstration of anger Russia understands that Israel has a legitimate need to protect itself from Iranian attack via Hezbollah or similar Assad forces. This angers Iran but so far the Iranians have kept their criticisms quiet. Before the end of the day Israel confirmed that it had fired one of its Patriot missiles at an aircraft (apparently an Iranian made UAV) flying from Syrian into Israel. Iran is desperate to obtain some kind of “victory” over Israel and the Gulf Arabs are content to stand aside and watch these two unpredictable adversaries have at each other.

April 26, 2017: In the southeast near the Pakistan (Baluchistan) border ten Iranian border guards were killed by Baluchi Sunni Islamic terrorists firing from the Pakistan side of the border. These Baluchi separatist and Islamic terrorist groups often carry out operations in Iran and flee back across the border to Pakistan or, as in this case, fire from the Pakistan side of the border. Jaish ul Adl, an Islamic terror group, took credit for this attack. Jaish ul Adl is 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). These Iranian Baluchi rebels regularly operate against Iran from bases in Pakistan and have become a growing problem for both countries. Pakistan is under a lot of pressure to do something about it, so the Pakistani government at least goes through the motions of responding to each incident. Iran made a big deal over this incident and put more diplomatic pressure on Pakistan to do something more than symbolic.

Iran condemned recent Turkish attacks on Kurds in Syria and Iraq. This all began on the 24th near where the borders of Turkey, Syria and Iraq meet. Turkish jets and two UAVs attacked Kurds and secular rebels. These attacks killed at least 30 of the rebels and many more were wounded. The Turks warned the U.S. and Russia an hour beforehand and there were no U.S. troops with the rebels attacked. The Americans and Russians tried to persuade the Turks to back off on attacking rebel forces that have not fought the Turks and concentrated on overthrowing the Assad government. Turkey believes the Kurds are a permanent threat. Yet the Turks were careful to make sure the United States did not have any troops with the targets bombed. It turned out that the closest American troops were about ten kilometers away. Since then there has been more fighting with Turks and Kurds firing at each other across the Syrian border and Turkish airstrikes continuing.

In Jordan an Arab League meeting there was a lot of criticism of Iran but the most ominous report was about Yemen where the Yemeni president detailed how he expected the Iran-backed Shia rebels to continue their retreat and be vanquished soon. This report detailed the growing amount of captured evidence proving Iranian activity in Yemen.

UAE (United Arab Emirates) sentenced an Iranian businessman to ten years in prison for violating the sanctions on providing Iran with items useful for developing nuclear weapons. The UAE and Iran have an ancient and complex relationship. For example since at least 2010 Iran has been trying to persuade the UAE to stop expelling more and more of the half million Iranians living there. That expatriate community has long been a source of trade, information and all manner of useful connections to the outside world. But the UAE is angry at Iranian support for the Assad dictatorship in Syria, Shia rebels in Yemen and its continuing nuclear weapons program and threats against the Arab states on the west side of the Gulf. Iran periodically tries being nice to the UAE lately, but that has not been able to undo decades of bad treatment. This ugly past is catching up with Iran.

April 24, 2017: In the Persian Gulf an IRGC patrol boat came within a kilometer of an American destroyer before turning away. This was in international waters and the Iranian boat appeared to be heading directly for the American ship. Efforts (mainly electronic) by the destroyer to communicate were ignored until the destroyer fired a flare at the IRGC boat. That usually precedes opening fire and the Iranian boat turned away.

April 23, 2017: In the southeast across the border in Pakistan (Baluchistan) there was a roadside bomb attack against Pakistani border guards, killing four soldiers and wounding three. Since this happened so close to the Iranian border and no one took credit it is unclear who planted the bomb (Islamic terrorists from either country or Pakistani separatists).

April 21, 2017: In Turkey police rescued an Iranian businessman who had been held for ransom 85 days. This kidnapping was an embarrassment to Turkey, which is seeking to increase business dealings with the post-sanctions Iran. The Turks quietly told Iran that rescuing this man was a high priority task but that it might take time to identify the kidnappers, locate their hideout and rescue the hostage safely.

April 19, 2017: Iran appointed a retired IRGC (Quds Force) general as its new ambassador to Iraq. This caused a lot of Iraqis to complain openly that this was part of an Iranian effort to turn Iraq into an Iranian controlled nation, like Syria has been since the 1980s. Some Kurdish officials who had dealt with the new ambassador when he was in the Quds Force reported that he was not as hard-core ideologically as most Quds Force officers. Meanwhile Turkish leaders called the Iran-backed Shia militias in Iraq terrorists and intended to expand Iranian power, not defend Iraq.

April 12, 2017: In the southeast near the Pakistan (Baluchistan) border two IRGC troops were killed in some kind of clash. IRGC troops are often assigned to go after smugglers and Baluchi rebels along the borders. There were reports of at least three other IRGC men dying in the same area earlier in the month.

April 9, 2017: Iranian officials made it clear they opposed the effort by the Kurds of northern Iraq to hold a vote to establish an independent Kurdish state in the north. The main obstacle to the Kurds moving forward with the independence effort is internal divisions. Despite the apparent unity the Iraqi Kurds have long been divided by clan loyalty. The Kurdish north is currently dominated by the Barzani family and its PDK (or KDP) party. The Iraqi Kurds have always been divided into warring clans with the two largest of them led by the Barzani and Talibani families. Since the 1990s, the Barzanis have emerged as the most powerful clan and they are behaving more like a dictatorship (corruption, suppression of dissent, and rigged elections). Popular anger against this among Kurds is increasing. Despite that, Kurds living outside the autonomous area continue to move back to the Kurdish region. Even the Iraqi Army, which was rebuilt after 2003, with a core of experienced, loyal, and reliable Kurdish troops lost many of its Kurds. For the Kurdish soldiers leaving was mainly a matter of not wanting to get caught up in the war between Shia and Sunni Arabs. The Iraqi Kurds have been diplomatic with Iran and Turkey. That approach has worked with Turkey but has been less successful with Iran. This is mainly due to the IRGC, which is extremely hostile to any separatist sentiments.

April 8, 2017: The Syrian government, Russia, Iran and Iraq condemned an American cruise missile attack on a Syrian airbase yesterday. These critics supported the Syrian Assad government insistence that they had nothing to do with the use of nerve gas during an airstrike on a rebel held village last week. But the rest of the world either openly supported the American retaliation or were undecided. Most Western nations openly supported the cruise missile barrage as did Middle Eastern nations Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE. This American action was a big deal in Israel which had hoped the newly elected American government would be more supportive of Israeli efforts to deal with Islamic terrorism (both Sunni and Shia) in the region. Israel and its new Sunni Arab allies are particularly concerned about the growing threat from Iran, which the previous U.S. government did not take as seriously as the Middle Eastern nations (particularly Israel) that Iran openly threatened. Even normally staunch Assad allies turned on the Syrian government for this. In Iraq prominent Shia clergy long known for their pro-Iran attitudes, condemned the Assads. Iran wishes this would all go away but it won’t. The United States retaliated for the recent Syrian use of nerve gas by launching 59 cruise missiles at the Syrian Shayrat air base. Most of the Syrian air strikes in northern Syria are flown out of Shayat.

April 5, 2017: Turkey has agreed to clear 222,000 Cold War era landmines (planted during the 1980s and 90s) from its border with Iran and what used to be the Soviet Union (now the borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan). This process will take two years and make the border areas involved safer to use.

April 4, 2017: Iran backed Syrian aircraft used nerve gas to attack a rebel held town in northern Syria. Foreign analysts later identified the gas used as the same type the Assads had promised to surrender and have destroyed in 2013. Iran was accused of supporting the Assad use of nerve gas in this case because Iranian mercenaries and IRGC troops have the largest foreign presence in the Syrian military and plans most operations and monitors everything. Iran is one of the few nations to use nerve gas in combat (during the 1980s war with Iraq) and has experts in that subject who may have been advising the Assads. After all, Iran has openly discussed using nerve gas against Israel. Nerve gas was first used in combat during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) and Syrian patron Iran was believed to have let the Syrians know details of how nerve gas worked in combat. In 2013 the Assads knew that once they defeated the rebels they could rebuild the plants that manufacture the nerve and mustard gas and rebuild their pre-rebellion stocks in a few years. It was believed that the Assads would not hold onto a secret stash of mustard and sarin as using it would get them in even more trouble. It is doubtful that the Assads would sell any secret stash because it could be traced back to them if used. In late 2013 there were suspicions that some of the Assad chemical weapons were not accounted for which is why Israeli intel continued to monitor the nerve gas situation after 2013 and recently concluded that the Assads had several tons of chemical weapons, mainly nerves and mustard gas.

April 3, 2017: Algeria and Tunisia both issued strong denials that they had supported Iranian foreign policy. Iran spread a false rumor to that effect, first inside Iran and then to nearby countries. Most Arab countries see Iran as a threat, not an ally.

 


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