Iran: Who Guards the Guardians

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January 3, 2018: The widespread unrest in Iran has been underway for a week now. Protests have been reported (often with cell phone video) in nearly a hundred cities and large towns throughout the country. The demonstrations and the government response so far has paralyzed the economy. Officials have already leaked details of meetings of the senior leaders several days after the protests began and how there was no agreement on how to deal with it. The leaders would not authorize maximum force to suppress the protests because that is not supposed to be the Iranian way and because there is doubt that the security forces would follow those orders. At least two dozen have died so far, nearly all of them protestors. Over a thousand have been arrested, about half of them in the capital. The protests are largely about poverty, inflation and onerous lifestyle rules. The protestors are mostly under 30 and from all levels of society. This uprising, like the failed effort in 2009, was not a complete surprise. The government lost majority support in the 1990s and never got it back. Iran has become a theocracy, a police state propped up by fear and force. Iranians want a change.

What is happening now is yet another widespread popular protest against the religious dictatorship. It’s not an armed revolution. The protestors have been loud but not violent unless attacked. Nearly all the deaths have been protestors attacked by the security forces. The government has called out its supporters (or simply those with a government job) to stage pro-government rallies. These are well guarded and thoroughly covered by state controlled media. The goal of the protests is to, at the very least, get the clerical dictatorship to openly discuss the mess they have made of the economy and much else in Iran. The implication is that if the clerics do not make themselves useful they will eventually lose power and much else. It has happened before.

The last major outbreak of demonstrations was in 2009, when it was mostly about fair elections. It was put down, somewhat gradually, with force. Now the protestors are calling for the corrupt religious rulers to be removed. Some protestors call for a return of the constitutional monarchy the religious leaders replaced in the 1980s (after first promising true democracy). Even more disturbing is that some of the protestors are calling for Islam to be replaced with something else, like Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion that Islam replaced violently and sometimes incompletely in the 7th and 8th century. After decades of mandatory rallies where you had to shout “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” these same young Iranians were now shouting about who they believe is really the enemy rather than who they were ordered to pretend was the enemy.

Young Iranians have, like their Arab neighbors, noted the success of Israel (a former ally, before the current religious dictatorship took over in the 1980s) and are now demanding changes that involve less foreign trouble making. The cost, in terms of money (billions) and Iranian lives (thousands) of operations in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, South America, Africa and elsewhere does most Iranians no good at all and makes the people on the receiving end hostile to Iran. The operation in Syria was seen as particularly wasteful and expensive, especially with Israel threatening to use whatever it takes (including their nukes) to prevent Iran from creating a military presence there.

The 2015 treaty that lifted many economic sanctions on Iran was supposed to solve a lot of economic problems but it didn’t. Once more the religious dictatorship attempted to lie its way out of a mess of their own creation. This latest backlash should not be a surprise because in the years just before the mid-2015 sanctions treaty Iranians had become increasingly and openly hostile to their government as the growing list of new sanctions (in response to Iranian aggression and terrorism) hurt the economy and hit most Iranians directly. To the relief of the government there were no major uprisings in protest to increased prices, inflation and unemployment but opinion surveys showed falling morale and more Iranians believing that if it comes down to prosperity or nukes, they prefer higher living standards to being a nuclear power.

The government was, and still is up against the fact that Iran has been “at war” since the clerics took over in the 1980s (during the chaos and fear generated by the war with Iraq) and more and more Iranians are getting fed up with decades of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.” As a result the ruling clerics have to worry about is people getting angry enough to fight for their freedom. For the last few decades the truly unhappy voted with their feet and fled the country. The government allowed this, despite the loss of many highly educated, talented and frustrated citizens. Worse, those who stayed behind are having fewer children and becoming more apathetic. For the religious dictatorship, the trends are not favorable. But since the country is run by clerics, the future is considered secure because God Wills It. That may be comforting to the religious leaders at the top and the 20 percent of the population that agrees with them, but middle management and most Iranians were less optimistic and getting angrier as the years of lies and broken promises accumulate. In response the government cracked down more frequently and quickly on any sort of demonstration. Even crowds complaining about environmental or economic problems were quickly swarmed by police and Basj (Revolutionary Guard thugs often called out to provide semi-official muscle on the street.)

Young Iranians out protesting now have experience with the Basj and broken promises. The current protests actually have their origins in the optimism that accompanied the American response to Islamic terrorism after 2001 and especially the overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. At that time the ruling clerics allowed a reformer to run for president. Mohammad Khatami got elected but by 2004 admitted that his plans for reform had been blocked. The Guardians Council, composed of unelected religious leaders, can veto any legislation passed by the parliament, and have done so repeatedly. The Guardians Council increasingly would not even allow suspected reformist candidates run for parliamentary elections, so more Iranians did not vote, giving conservative members of parliament control. By 2005 the majority of the population viewed their government, controlled by the Islamic conservative minority, as illegitimate and corrupt. Since the 1979 revolution that overthrew the monarchy, religious organizations had seized the enormous wealth from the departed royal family and many wealthy royalist families. These businesses have been run (badly in most cases) for the benefit of Islamic conservative religious leaders, their families and followers. The economy has declined and most Iranians are not happy. There is more violence in the streets, as gangs of young men fight each other over reforms. The government has organized street gangs, composed of young men who are Islamic conservatives, paid to break up pro-reform demonstrations by force and attack any groups that openly oppose the rule of Islamic conservatives. It is feared that a series of street brawls will escalate and lead to another mass revolution like the one in 1979. Already, there are riots and attacks on local religious leaders in towns and cities that do not have a lot or religious conservatives, or a local Islamic conservative militia unit (the Basj, which provide the manpower for pro-government street gangs).

The security forces plus the Basj and pro-government thugs were able to crush the 2009 uprising. Since then it has been noted that many pro-government enforcers have become less loyal and reliable. The corruption among the senior families, and especially their families, has been noted by the less affluent enforcers as has their own lack of prosperity. Because of the Internet and cell phones, and despite government censorship efforts, everyone has a good idea of what is going on around the world. The government had promised not to censor the Internet in an emergency and has done so anyway. This is seen as another reason to keep the current protests going. The government has been unable to stop the protestors from getting video and phone calls to media (or anyone else) outside Iran. In this way the government propaganda that the uprising is being caused by “foreign agents” is revealed as another bunch of lies. For a government that has been losing credibility for decades, and especially since 2001, the latest round of lies and violence directed at the Iranian people is having more of an explosive than suppressive effect.

The Faction Factor

Iranian history is one of frequent rebellions and civil wars. The current Iranian rulers were young men in the 1970s and 80s many can sense a bit of déjà vu here. Since the senior leaders are nearly all clergy, some have always been critical of the corruption and more of them are speaking out. The monarchy ignored the signs in the 1970s and four decades later it is happening again with the new rulers. This has resulted in a divided leadership. In Iran if you promise change and don’t deliver there are consequences. Surviving this sort of unrest requires a strong, united and ruthless leadership. That is hard to achieve when most of the leaders are clergy, even if a lot of them are corrupt.

The government has other problems. In 2014 the media got hold of internal investigations that documented subversive activities against the government by the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps). This is nothing new and has been an open secret for over a decade. Now it is a documented secret, with details of the IRGC defying the religious leadership and planning to stage a coup and replace elected politicians they disagreed with. The IRGC never carried out these plans, but now it is known that the plans existed and the clerics made sure no more unacceptable candidates were allowed to run for election.

This has to be put in context. The Iranian government is basically a religious dictatorship that seized control in the 1980s and has just barely coped with declining popularity. There are many factions, some much more radical than the majority. Eventually the loss of oil income (after the 2013 price drop) could screw things up enough to trigger a popular rebellion. That could get very nasty as the government has an army of religious fanatics (the IRGC) to deal with such unrest. IRGC is more than just the "royal guard" of the Iranian dictatorship. Originally founded to do the clerics dirty work, and keep an eye on the Iranian armed forces, and population in general, the IRGC has grown to become a state-within-a-state. The IRGC not only has 150,000 armed members, it also controls billions of dollars’ worth of businesses inside Iran, and runs numerous terrorist operations outside the country. The IRGC, or at least large parts of it, can be depended on to follow orders and slaughter rebellious civilians. The ruling clerics are determined to avoid losing power like the East European communist dictatorships did in 1989. The clerics have made sure most Iranians know this and what the price of rebellion would be. But the clerics must now deal with another ancient problem in Iran, disloyalty among the “guardians” of the rulers. Who guards the guards? In Iran, no one and that is now a very real problem for the general public as well as the unelected senior clerics who rule in the name of God but only with the support of the IRGC. At the moment the senior clerics believe only a small minority of the IRGC are a danger. But that could change, because the “dangerous” faction has been growing in numbers and boldness. Attempts to purge the IRGC of these dangerous people have failed. The IRGC protects its own, so far.

Arab and Israeli intelligence officials appear to agree that the unrest is entirely an internal affair (despite Iranian accusations of “foreign involvement”). The activity of Iranian forces (most of the IRGC and Quds) in Syria, Iraq and Yemen are being carefully monitored. A lot of the most capable IRGC and Quds men are outside the country and if a lot of them suddenly head back to Iran it means something major is going to happen inside Iran. Quds personnel are pretty busy in Yemen and Syria right now and the departure of key personnel would be noticed.

Arab nations seem pleased with the unrest in Iran, because the demonstrators have expressed anger at the government efforts to exercise more control in Arab countries. It has also been noted that Turkey supports the Iranian government while a lot of Turks support the protestors. This is also seen as a positive development in the Arab world who have felt the impact of what they call “Iranian and Turkish imperialism.” This is seen as Iran and Turkey both trying to increase their political, economic and military power at the expense of Arab countries.

Iraq

Iranians and Iraqis are quietly fighting for control of the PMF (Popular Mobilization Force) militias that were organized because the Iraqi army fell apart in the face of the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) advance that took Mosul and about a third of Iraq in a in mid-2014. Three years later, with ISIL defeated and there are over 120,000 PMF militiamen on the government payroll. Most of the PMF were organized by Shia leaders and most of them accepting assistance (and direction) from Iran. The PMF accounts for nearly half the strength of the military and even if you include the Interior Ministry force (National Police and several thousand SWAT and special operations personnel) the PMF accounts for a quarter of the armed personnel the government pays for and, in theory, controls.

This development bothers a lot of Iraqis and has done so since 2015 when it was noted that there were already about 100,000 of these largely Shia militia. In late 2016 parliament passed (after much Iranian pressure) a law making the PMF a part of the armed forces. At that point the PMF militiamen were already on the government payroll (for about $500 a month). In late 2016 some (usually pro-Iran) militia leaders were demanding a share of the military budget and enough money (nearly half a billion dollars to start with) to build their own bases. That did not happen and it reminded all Iraqis what the Iranians were up to. The signs were already there.

The 2016 laws providing pay and other benefits for the PMF also included rules making it mandatory that non-Shia militia be included if they were of proven loyalty. There were plenty of those and by the end of 2016 about a quarter of the PMF were Sunnis. A smaller number were Turkmen, Christian and other minorities ISIL wanted to wipe out. More than half the militias were always Shia. Much publicity was given to instances where Shia militias massacred Sunni civilians and the use of many Iranian trainers and military advisors by some (at one point most) of the Shia militias and the Iran connection in general.

But most of the PMF just concentrated on defeating ISIL. Now that ISIL is defeated many PMF members and leaders believe some, or all, of the PMF units should be retained because the PMF is less corrupt and more experienced at fighting Islamic terrorism. But some Iraqi, and many foreign, observers note that the longer the PMF exists as a government supported militia the more likely corruption is to become a major problem and the experience dealing with Islamic terrorism will fade. What is needed is less corruption in the government and more professionalism in the military. The big appeal of the PMF to its current members is not religion or ideology but the payroll. Most of the PMF men were poor Shia from urban areas (Baghdad and down to Basra). The PMF was a job and commanders found that the threat of dismissal was an additional incentive for the PMF gunmen to do well.

Although the Shia Arabs feel an affinity with Shia Iran, the ancient (we're talking thousands of years here) Arab fear of the Iranians makes it possible for Shia and Sunni Arabs to make deals. And that's what Saudi Arabia, and the other Sunni Arab Gulf States, are doing with Iraq. Saudi Arabia sees Iran as the neighborhood bully, and Iraq as an Arab, not an Iranian, asset. Part of this came about because of the pro-Iran PMF militias in Iraq. By 2016 most Shia Arab politicians in Iraq tended to feel they are expendable to the Iranians, who are, quite naturally, more concerned with taking care of Iran, than Iraq, in all of this. Blood is thicker than religion.

The Iraqi Shia Arabs don’t want to be dominated by non-Arab Iran (where Arabs are openly despised, especially the few percent of Iranians who are Arab) 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).

There are constant reminders of the Iranian threat, which is considered equal, or even worse than the Sunni Arab Islamic terrorism attacks on Shia. For example in September 2017 a leader of one of the PMF Shia militias went public with his belief that his men would start killing American troops once ISIL was no longer a threat in Iraq. That was not a surprise to many Iraqi Shia. In August 2017 senior Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr called on the Iraqi government to dismantle the Iran backed Shia militias and incorporate loyal (to Iraq) members into the armed forces. The Iraqi prime minister (a Shia), wants to dismantle these Iran backed Shia Arab militias with more care and take more time doing it.

The cause of all this fear is largely because Iran has sent hundreds of IRGC officers, most of them from the Quds Force (similar to the U.S. Special Forces, but which specializes in supporting Islamic terrorists not fighting them) and even more enlisted IRGC personnel to Iraq to train and advise these militias. Dozens of senior IRGC officers have been killed in Syria and Iraq since 2012. These IRGC personnel are seen by most Iraqis as hostile foreign agents but they did play a major role in turning these Shia militias into militarily useful organizations.

That effectiveness is now part of the problem and since ISIL was defeated (even before Mosul fell) the number of Shia religious and militia leaders who openly supported Iran was declining. More Iraqi Shia are doubting Iranian intentions towards Iraq and believe Iran ultimately wants to control the Iraq government or even partition Iraq and annex the largely Shia (and oil rich) south. At the same time Iranian efforts to discourage Iraqi Kurds from obtaining more autonomy are unwelcome with many Arab Iraqis who see this as another example of Iran treating Iraq like a subordinate, not an ally.

There are still over a thousand Iranians providing training, advisory and support assistance to the PMF Shia militias. The Iraqi government fears that these IRGC advisors and trainers are secretly building pro-Iran armed militias in Iraq. That’s simply not true because the IRGC is quite open about what they are doing to encourage Iraqi Shia to organize armed groups so they can work with Iran someday to impose the same kind of religious dictatorship in Iraq that has existed in Iran since the 1980s. That is equally unlikely (because of popular opposition inside Iraq) but the Iranians tend to think long-term.

Syria And Israel

Israel has made it clear that they will fight if Iran tries to establish a military presence in Syria. That is complicated by the fact that Iran has allies in Syria; Russia and Turkey. What makes this interesting is that Turkey and Iran are traditional enemies of Russia, while Israel and the Gulf Arabs are not. What to do? Israel and Russia are trying to negotiate a deal to prevent a war between Iran and Israel over Iranian plans (already announced and underway) to establish bases in Syria and organize anti-Israeli forces for a final battle. Thus for Israel any long term Iranian presence in Syria is intolerable. Russia says it can work out such a deal but many Israelis are skeptical and Iran says such a deal is not possible. When it comes to opposing Iran Israel has some very public backing from Russia despite the fact that this puts Russia at odds with their two other allies in Syria. The Russians see the Israelis as a more powerful and reliable ally than the Turks or Iranians. Russia is also backing the Kurds in Syria and that is causing problems with Turkey.

The Israelis keep pointing out that Iran and their dependency Syria have, since the 1980s, openly called for the destruction of Israel. Many Westerners saw this as absurd while Russia sees it as an opportunity and the Israelis point out that they have nukes, the most effective military (and economy) in the region and no tolerance for more Iranian forces moving into Syria or agreeing that the Assads are a legitimate government. For Russia this is a challenge since as outsiders they realize that Israel is right and long-term a more dependable and desirable ally. But the current Russian government is getting by on uncertainty, deception and hope that something will work.

While Russian and Turkish officials have privately disapproved of Iranian plans to establish more direct control in Syria and Lebanon the U.S. and most European nations openly object to this Iranian strategy. France has been particularly opposed to the Iranian plans, in part because France has itself been involved in what is now Syria and Lebanon (the “Levant”) for nearly a thousand years. Over the last century Islamic radicals in the region have been more energetically trying to drive all non-Moslems out.

Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have gone public in support of an Arab-Israeli alliance to oppose Iran. Many (Arabs, Israelis and Iranians) believe that such an alliance won’t last long but that is not crucial. The alliance only has to last long enough to halt the spread of Iranian power and influence. Israel has been through this before. The peace deals with Jordan and Egypt have largely held even though there are ups and downs. The Israelis know that the anti-Semitic attitudes in the Arab world go back to before the emergence of Islam in the 7th century and have waxed and waned ever since. Anti-Semitism is again widely tolerated in Europe. But the United States has a new president who grew up in and around New York City, built a fortune there, has a Jewish son-in-law, Jewish grandchildren and a pro-Israel attitude that is more decisive and imaginative than that of the last few American presidents.

Currently the Arabs of Arabia, or at least key leaders, have decided that decades of denouncing Israel, the one nation in the region with a functioning democracy, the most advanced and successful economy and the most powerful armed forces, ought to be rethought. So now Israel is seen as a potential ally not a battlefield opponent. As a result Arab journalists and leaders are speaking openly, and more frequently, about such an alliance. Some countries, like the UAE, can now speak openly of the discreet (and often not so secret) commercial, military and diplomatic links they developed with Israel over the years. To a lesser extent Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian connections are now admitted. The motivation here is survival against an increasingly aggressive Iran. Hang together or hang separately. Israel already has powerful allies for dealing with Iran and welcomes an Arab alliance, even if it won’t last, or at least will be under constant attack going forward, as was the case with the Jordanian and Egyptian peace deals.

Then there is a new generation of Saudi leaders. The young Saudi crown prince (and soon to be the king as his elderly father announced his abdication) pointed out that Iran is officially obsessed with destroying Israel while a growing number of Arabs see Israel as a potential ally. Everyone knows that before the current religious dictatorship took control of Iran in the 1980s Israel and Iran had many diplomatic and economic links, far more that Israel had with the Arab world. But Iranian religious leaders decided that Israel was at the top of the list of things that had to change. Next on the list was who should control the Islamic shrines in Saudi Arabia and so on. Iran has always been scary to its neighbors but was usually ruled by some aristocrat. Now that the Iranian Shia clergy (who were long known to be aggressive) are in charge it is time for neighbors to reconsider traditional alliances.

Israeli and Arab military officials are working out a joint strategy and procedures for how it will work. This includes many Arab nations quietly urging Hamas and Fatah to make a serious and public effort to negotiate a peace deal with Israel. The implication is that if the Palestinians refuse (which seems likely) or simply fail again then more Arab leaders will go public with their opinions on the hopelessness of the Palestinian leadership. That will lead to Palestinians becoming more isolated and dependent on charity from the West, Iran and Israel and that source of support is running out of patience as well. The Arab world still technically backs the Palestinians and the effort to destroy Israel but have lost confidence in the Palestinians to do anything in their own best interest. Iran is making the most of this situation and few Palestinians will do much to stop it.

Yemen

In the capital (Sanaa) the Shia rebels moved quickly after killing former president (and major ally) Ali Abdullah Saleh on December 4th and sought to arrest as many Saleh supporters as they could and some 3,000 were caught but nearly as many escaped the city or went into hiding. The network of Saleh supporters in rebel territory, despite the pressure from the Shia rebels, managed to get most members of the Saleh clan out of the capital. Many rebels were more loyal to Saleh than to the Shia cause and the Shia tribal leaders from the far north who provide most of the rebel field commanders. By the end of the year rebel defenses in several areas (around the capital and in Baida province) were suddenly less substantial because of desertions and fighters ordered to the capital or other locations that seemed more valuable and vulnerable. The rebels issued press releases (that pro-Iran media amplified) insisting that all was well. But it wasn’t because the front lines were shifting and more rebel (or rebel leaning) factions were seeking to discuss peace with the government and the Arab coalition.

December 31, 2017: The government halted train service between cities and ordered schools shut until further notice. Anti-government street demonstrations have spread to all parts of the country, including Kurdish areas in the northwest and Arab areas in the southwest (where most of the oil fields are). For the first time since 2009, there were also major demonstrations in the city of Qom (considered the capital of the religious establishment, because so many seminaries are located there.) In mid-2009 Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri criticized the clerics running the country, the first time such a high ranking cleric had done so. This was mainly about the rigged elections and general lack of personal freedom. Statements like this give reform minded clerics the opportunity to preach against the government. This is where the government is vulnerable. In December 2009 Montazeri died of old age at 87. Two days later the anti-government street demonstrations began and rapidly spread to other cities. Then as now the clerics who control the government are hated mainly because they are corrupt and have trashed the economy. For example, even with most of the economic sanctions lifted because of the 2015 treaty, the Iranian economy has not improved much. Since 2011 the government has spent more and more (often billions of dollars a year) on foreign wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Then there are the strictly and often violently enforced lifestyle rules. Since 2009 there was fear that enormous popular unrest would break out again. The high unemployment, and obvious wealth of the senior clergy, and their families, fuels the growing opposition. The clerics still have some support and have recruited IRGC troops. As long as the IRGC remain willing to kill Iranians, another revolution won't succeed. The IRGC, however, has also become greedy and corrupt, and the clerics increasingly doubt the loyalty of these guardians of the revolution.

In 2009 the government brought more supporters into the capital, and speeches to these throngs called for anti-government demonstrators, and their leaders, to be killed, if the demonstrations don't stop. Police began arresting opposition leaders, "for their own protection" (from pro-government mobs). With these tactics the government put down the unrest within two months. This involved arresting thousands and killing dozens of demonstrators, some of them by hanging after trials. But now, almost exactly eight years later, the nationwide demonstrations are back, more numerous than before and representing a wider spectrum of the population. In 2009 the demonstrators tended to be more educated and affluent. That groups is still there this time but has been joined by Iranians who complain that they cannot get jobs or afford to get their kids more than a basic education. The Iranian population has a growing majority of young (born after the decade of revolution and war in the 1980s). These younger Iranians know that before the revolution people had more freedom and more jobs. Another difference is that in 2009 the Western, and especially American, governments did not openly support the demonstrators. Not so in 2017 with the American government openly backing the protestors and many other Western governments following that lead.

December 30, 2017: Anti-government street demonstrations broke out in the capital. In central Iran (Lorestan province) IRGC troops shot dead three anti-government demonstrators, some of whom had been tearing down posters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The government tried to shut down Internet apps, like Telegram, that is says is being used to organize the growing number of street demonstrations against the government. In Qom, one senior Islamic cleric, Ossein Noori Hamedani, openly supported the demonstrators like Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri did in 2009.

In the northwest (West Azerbaijan Province), on the Turkish side of the border six months of construction effort has completed half the border wall that will extend along most (144 kilometers) of the Turkish-Iranian border. The wall, and its fifteen official crossings, is to be completed by mid-2018.

December 29, 2017: The government announced that police would no longer arrest women for violating the strict dress code. Anti-government street demonstrations have featured many women openly defying the dress restrictions (usually by not covering their hair).

December 28, 2017: In northeast and central Iran anti-government street demonstrations took place in several cities. The first one was apparently in the northeast (Razavi Khorasan Province) city of Mashhad, with 3.3 million people, is the second largest city in the country. It is near the borders with Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. Such public gatherings are illegal but video of the ones that took place today spread via the Internet and new demonstrations took place in more cities. The demonstrators were criticizing the government involvement in foreign wars and Islamic terror groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Other complaints were mainly economic, including the corruption in the government and lack of opportunity for young Iranians.

December 27, 2017: China agreed with an Iranian proposal to build a more direct land-link between Gwadar and Chabahar. While the two ports are only 72 kilometers apart the only land link currently is a 362 kilometer long highway that requires a six hour trip. China is willing to finance the new Gwadar-Chabahar link alone if India does not want to participate. Iran earlier expressed interest in linking with the new Chinese Obor link from China to the Pakistani coast. China likes this because their expensive Pakistani link to the Indian Ocean is more at risk from Islamic terrorist violence than the one in Iran. As with the ancient Silk Road, Iran and China are willing to do business. At the end of the year t he new port of Chabahar in southeastern Iran on the Indian Ocean and its road link to Afghanistan was officially open. This project also includes new railroad and highway connections from Chabahar to Afghanistan and Central Asian railroads. Projects like this help keep the peace because they provide Afghanistan with an alternative to the existing Pakistani road links to Pakistan ports. This usually meant Karachi but now also includes the Chinese Obor (One Belt, One Road) project which has a similar (to Chabahar) link to the Pakistani port of Gwadar (72 kilometers down the coast from Chabahar) that links up with Chinese roads and railroads. Iran saw Obor as an attempt to establish a cartel and then control trade and prices mainly to favor China. The Iranians deal with the Chinese as equals but many other Obor countries are deemed more exploitable by the Chinese and often, but not always, are. Chabahar will free India and Afghanistan from dependence on Pakistan for a trade route and will also open up Central Asian markets for everyone since the new rail and road network goes from the northern border of Afghanistan to an enlarged Chabahar port on the Indian Ocean. Everyone involved, except Pakistan, is enthusiastic about Chabahar and Afghan/Central Asian links. Iran may be at war with the United States but the Americans tolerate Chabahar because it provides benefits for India and Afghanistan while also reducing Chinese economic power in the region. The Chabahar route was originally set to be operational by 2020 but began limited operations (from Chabahar to Afghanistan) in 2017 and that portion is now officially declared operational. There are still problems with visa and cargo transit paperwork for Afghan businesses. Some of this is due to the corruption in both countries but also because Iran wants to limit Afghan drug smuggling activity via the Chabahar route (about a quarter of the Afghan heroin and opium is smuggled out via Iran).

December 26, 2017: In southern Syria (Golan Heights) Syrian officials, with the backing of Iranian mercenaries, are negotiating with the rebels who control the area where the borders of Syria, Lebanon and Israel meet. Israel has said it will attack any efforts to put Iranian forces on the border and Iran is probably testing that threat. Iranian sponsored forces in Syria have already been hit with over a hundred airstrikes in the last few years, usually while trying to move weapons to Lebanon. But now Israel is targeting Iranian mercenaries (often led by Iranian officers from the Quds).

December 23, 2017: The government agreed to joint air patrols with Pakistan of their mutual border in the southeast. This is to assist in halting illegal border crossings by Baluchi rebels (fr0m Iran and Pakistan) as well as smugglers.

December 19, 2017: In northwest Yemen another rebel ballistic missile was shot down by Saudi Patriot anti-missile missiles after it crossed the border headed for the Saudi capital (Riyadh in central Saudi Arabia). It is believed that the Yemeni rebels have, with a lot of help from Iran, launched dozens of ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia since early 2015. The Saudis point to these Iranian ballistic missiles and Iranian UAVs as pretty clear evidence that Iran was still smuggling weapons in. Iran denies everything and when confronted with physical evidence insists that the Yemeni Shia made they stuff locally, obtaining technical help via the Internet.

December 16, 2017: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) a convoy of twenty Iranian trucks made what Iran called the first use of the new land route from Iran to Lebanon. This convoy transported Iranian Quds personnel and Shia mercenaries from Iran, through Iraq to a border crossing (from Iraq to Syria) that is controlled on both sides Iraqi Shia militias. From there the convoy continues through Deir Ezzor province to parts of central Syria the Assads never lost control of. The convoy could then go to Damascus or continue on to Lebanon and the Mediterranean ports.

December 15, 2017: The top Iranian religious leader declared that the Iran backed PMF militias must follow the orders of the Iraqi government. At the same time the Iranian cleric declared that the PMF militias should not be disbanded. Many Iraqis, including most Shia, apparently want the PMF disbanded and the PMF militias not controlled by Iranian “advisors” (Quds Force officers) are disbanding.

December 14, 2017: In southwest Pakistan (Baluchistan) an Iranian engineer was kidnapped and taken to Afghanistan where his kidnappers contacted the Iranian government demanding a ransom. Two weeks later Iranian commandos (from the Quds Force) reported they had gone into Afghanistan (apparently without permission) on the 24th and rescued the hostage and captured five of the kidnappers.

December 13, 2017: In eastern Syria another IRGC officer, major general Mahdi Qarah Mohammadi of the Quds Force, was killed while advising (or leading) Afghan and Pakistani Shia mercenaries. Seven of those mercenaries were reported to have been killed along with Mohammadi. Iran has sent hundreds of IRGC officers, most of them from the Quds Force to Syria. Dozens of senior IRGC officers have been killed in Syria and Iraq since 2012. The fighting in eastern Syria has been particularly intense lately as Iranian forces seek to take control of the Euphrates River Valley from various rebel groups. Over 3,000 Shia mercenaries have been killed in Syria since 2012. These mercenaries were recruited from Pakistani, Afghan and Iraqi Shia.

December 12, 2017: The United States repeated its determination to keep troops in Syria until there was a satisfactory peace deal. The Americans agreed with Israel that such a deal had to involve Iran getting its forces out of Syria and keeping them out. Several days later Iranian officials responded that Iranian forces would stay in Syria until “terrorists”, especially those sponsored by foreign countries, had been eliminated. In November Iran declared ISIL destroyed in Syria but Iran also considers groups like ISIL and al Qaeda the creations of Israel and the United States. This sort of thing is widely supported by Moslems throughout the Middle East.

December 11, 2017: Iraq officially celebrated the defeat of ISIL in Iraq. The U.S. believes there are still 500-1,000 ISIL members active in Iraq and because of that threat plus a growing Iranian presence, the Iraqis are fine with most of the 5,300 American troops now in Iraq remaining.

December 10, 2017: In Saudi Arabia 68 Pakistani special operations troops completed a two week joint training exercise with their Saudi counterparts. Pakistan is maintaining its support for the Saudi led (and financed) IMCTC (Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition) while also maintaining good relations with its neighbor Iran. IMCTC was formed mainly to oppose Iran, which was not invited to join the IMCTC while a retired Pakistani general was invited to lead the IMCTC (and accepted the job).

 


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Each month we need your subscriptions or contributions plus what meager ad revenue we do receive to stay in business. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage. A contribution is not a donation that you can deduct at tax time, but a form of crowdfunding. We store none of your information when you contribute..
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