Iran: The Enemies Within Get Louder

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April 10, 2018: The government threatens the United States with retaliation for speaking of ending the 2015 agreement to lift sanctions. Iran threatens to build nuclear weapons if the Americans pull out of the 2015 deal. The United States, France, Germany and Britain have all openly accused Iran of violating the 2015 treaty with continued Iranian covert support of Shia rebels in Yemen. Iran responds to this criticism of Iranian actions in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon by insisting that it has an obligation to aid these nations in their fight against American and Israeli aggression. This justification is unpopular with most Iranians who want their government to pay more attention to real problems inside Iran rather than imaginary ones overseas. Leaders of Iran backed groups in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hamas in Gaza and Shia rebels in Yemen openly boast of their financial and other support from Iran and continue to receive it. Iran sees the United States as serious about its threat to renounce the 2015 treaty and impose more sanctions while also persuading other Western signatories to do the same.

Iranians in general are reacting to all this by seeking to convert their currency into dollars. As a result The Iranian currency (the rial) hit an all-time low against the dollar. it now costs about 62,000 rials to buy one dollar In early 2013 it costs about 40,000 rials and in late 2011 12,000 (long the official rate). The value of the rial (in buying dollars) has dropped sharply before, but never as bad as this. The rising costs of imports (because you need more Iranian rials to buy dollars) means a lot of poor families cannot afford essentials, like medicines. The middle class can’t buy a lot of consumer goods because of this and even the wealthy have to pay more for their goodies. Because of continued hostility by the outside world most Iranians find that economic conditions have not really improved since 2015 and that is not just a concern of the average Iranian but many of the rich and powerful as well.

For example in late February former (2005-13) president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went public with his criticisms of the election process in Iran and demanded that the presidential and parliamentary elections be free of interference by the senior clerics. This complaint, and similar ones about government misbehavior, has since prompted more prominent Iranians to go public with criticism of the Iranian leadership, their corrupt ways and wasteful policies. While in power Ahmadinejad proclaimed that he would crack down on corruption and all the damage corruption was doing to the economy. He largely failed, mainly because some senior clerics and especially the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps), quietly but decisively opposed him on this. Faced with continuing corruption related problems Ahmadinejad simply repeated his belief that these misfortunes were all the work of Israel. That did not work in 2009 when Ahmadinejad was up for election to his second, and last, term as president. The widespread and blatant rigging of the vote caused nationwide protests. Since he left his job as president the IRGC and senior clerics have continued to harass Ahmadinejad for going public with corruption allegations (that were mostly true). Ahmadinejad also believes that the only way forward is to have a government that is supported by most Iranians and the current election process is moving farther and farther away from that. This, Ahmadinejad and many other Iranians believe, will do great damage to Iran. Free elections, even if it hurts many current Iranian leaders, is the only way to prevent even greater damage to the Shia clergy and Iranians in general. Ahmadinejad called for basic reforms in the Iranian government but did not provide specifics. He doesn’t have to. The December protests had many Iranians calling for a return of the constitutional monarchy the religious leaders replaced in the 1980s (after first promising true democracy). Even more disturbing was that some of the protestors were calling for Islam to be replaced with something else, like Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion that Islam replaced violently and somewhat 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. The government says it has things under control while admitting that the protestors do voice some (unspecified) legitimate grievances that must be attended to. Young Iranians have, like their Arab neighbors, noted the success of Israel (a former Iranian ally, before the current religious dictatorship took over in the 1980s) and are now demanding changes that involve less foreign troublemaking. 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. Iranian history is one of frequent rebellions and civil wars. The current Iranian rulers were young men in the 1970s and 80s and 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. Even the IRGC is being openly criticized, especially in response to IRGC threats to use violence to put down anymore nationwide protests as occurred at the end of 2017. The response, from all levels of Iranian society, is that IRGC threats are no longer as effective as they once were.

Iraq

Iraqi leaders admit that the October 2017 attack that drove Kurdish forces from Kirkuk province and other areas of the north (except in the autonomous, since the early 1990s, Kurdish provinces) has created less security in areas taken over by Iraqi forces. This admission comes as Iraqi and Kurdish forces have increasingly worked together to find and eliminate ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) forces now trying to use the formerly Kurdish territory as a base area. This is seen as a defeat for Iran, which saw to it that pro-Iran PMF (Popular Mobilization Force) led the October 2017 offensive and now dominate the occupation force in the north. The PMF are not as effective as the Kurds and ISIL quickly took advantage of that.

Iraqi officials also point out that the Americans are justified increasing security around their bases to deal with Iranian threats. These come in the form of continued calls by Iran-backed PMF militia leaders to drive all American forces out of Iraq using force if necessary. The problem is that most Iraqis want the Americans to stay because of Iranian domination. Meanwhile the American government has implied that it will pull its U.S. troops out Syria and leave it to Arab states in the region to take over. No Arabs are willing to step up and do this and the Americans are making it clear that the United States cannot be taken for granted and most Americans back that attitude. Meanwhile Iraqi leaders, including the current prime minister, are admitting that the withdrawal of all U.S. troops in 2011 was a mistake they do not want to repeat. While pro-Iranian PMF leaders are still calling for violence against American forces they agreed to hold off until after the May 12th national elections (which will indicated how much popular support the pro-Iran groups have.) The results of those elections will send a message, but no one is sure what the message will be.

Lebanon

Iran has apparently ordered Hezbollah to make preparations for war with Israel. This can be seen by recent Hezbollah moves to take control of Lebanese Army forces on the Israeli border and to push the UN peacekeepers (who are supposed to prevent this sort of thing) out of the way. Hezbollah is building a new line of fortifications and anti-tank obstacles closer to the Israeli border.

Gaza

Despite all the noise the Palestinians make Israel is concentrating on what it perceives is its greatest threat; war instigated and backed by Iran on two fronts. In the north there are over 100,000 rockets in Lebanon and Syria aimed at Israel. In the south there are over 50,000 rockets in Gaza, where Iran is once again a major backer of Hamas. Iran does not have sufficient ground forces available in Gaza (Hamas) and the north (Hezbollah and Iranian mercenaries in Syria) to invade Israel. The coming war involves Israel invading Lebanon, Syria and Gaza to stop the massive rocket attacks. Thus thousands of Israel ground troops are constantly taking short (usually a week or so) courses at special facilities that provide them realistic replicas of what they will face on the ground and instruction on how best to deal with it. There's some urgency to this training effort because Israel knows from recent experience (several wars with Hamas or Hezbollah since 2006) that the best preparation is detailed training based on the latest techniques the enemy is using and the latest tech and tactical ideas Israel has available. While Hezbollah seems prepared for this war Hamas is not. Hamas has a lot more political competition in Gaza and the competition is growing while Hamas fails to win even a token victory. Iran cannot provide a lot of support for Hamas because Gaza is more physically isolated than Yemen.

Yemen

The Iran supported rebels are losing ground, key personnel and popular support. This means more rebels are surrendering and many of those captives speak freely of being trained and indoctrinated by Lebanese Hezbollah Shia who admit they are working for Iran. A growing number of Shia rebels are dissatisfied with the Iranian aid which has inflicted some losses on the government forces but not halted the continued retreat of rebel forces.

April 9, 2018: In central Syria several missiles hit the Iranian T-4 airbase near Palmyra. Four Iranian IRGC personnel were killed, including a colonel known for his work with Iranian UAVs. There were at least ten other dead, all believed to be Iranian mercenaries. This is where Iran moved its UAV operations after its original UAV base in Syria was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike on February 10th. The Americans said they had advance warning of today’s attack while Russia complained that it was not advised even though it has some personnel at the T-4 base. Israel did not take credit for the attack, which is how Israel handles most of its airstrikes in Syria.

April 7, 2018: In Syria an airstrike against Douma, a rebel held town east of Damascus, apparently involved some type of chemical weapon. Medical aid workers report at least 70 dead, including many civilians. The airstrike, like many Syria carries out against pro-rebel civilians, involved a barrel bomb (an empty oil barrel filled with explosives and whatever else was available). These are pushed out of helicopters and are equipped with a contact fuze so they explode on impact. Russian and Iranian military personnel work closely with the Syrian air force and know what goes on (and into barrel bombs). Iran has military advisors assigned to all the senior Syrian military commands and many of the lower level ones. Syria has been accused of using primitive (World War I type) chemical weapons that attack the respiratory system. These older chemical weapons are often nothing more than industrial chemicals (like chlorine) in large (and dangerous) doses. Russia believes these don’t count as chemical weapons (according the 2013 Russian brokered deal to rid Syria of chemical weapons) and the Iranians apparently don’t care. When pressed Iran will blame Israel or the Americans. In response the United States said it would retaliate if the Douma attack did involve any kind of chemical weapon. Israel fears Iran is permitting Syria to use these chemical weapons to test their effectiveness and the degree of international outrage. Israel has always believed Iran planned to provide Syria and Hezbollah with chemical weapons for use in a major attack on Israel.

April 6, 2018: Hackers disrupted Internet service in Iran and Russia by exploiting a known vulnerability in Cisco network control hardware. The hackers left the image of an American flag behind and a warning not to interfere with U.S. elections. The damage was usually fixed within 12 hours.

An investigation into Iranian financial activities in Venezuela before 2015 found evidence that Venezuelan officials aided Iran in getting cash past sanctions and some of it even ended up illegally invested into U.S. real estate. This investment centered on a Bahrain bank corruption investigation that documented a long-term (2004-15) scam that managed to move $7 billion from Iran to areas around the world where sanctions prohibited this.

April 5, 2018: Iranian Kurds in the northwest accuse the government of continuing to use landmines on the border between Iranian Kurdish areas and Iraq. The Iranian Kurds cited the twelve people killed and fifty wounded by these mines over the last year.

April 4, 2018: In Syria Turkey, Russia and Iran again agreed to put aside their differences and help each other in order to defeat the remaining rebels while also preventing Syrian Kurds from controlling any part of the country. The three agreed to tolerate Turkish operations (to build a Turkish controlled buffer zone on the Syrian side of the border) and cooperate to force American forces out of Syria. While this session was held in Turkey this is an extension of the talks that began in late 2017. In the Central Asian city of Astana (the capital of Kazakhstan) the pro-Assad coalition of Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government began their negotiations (also called “peace talks”) with each other about how to achieve everyone’s goals. From the beginning Iran wants access to the Israeli border and suppression of the Syrian Kurds. Turkey wanted an end to Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria. Russia wants to get whatever it can at the least cost. The public sessions were propaganda and details of the private meetings, the ones that mattered, were largely kept secret but it has always been clear that the Astana talks are about how to restore Assad rule to Syria, or at least most of it.

April 3, 2018: In Yemen Shia rebels used an Iranian missile to hit a Saudi tanker in the Red Sea as it passed near the port of Hodeidah. Damage was slight. Over the last week at least eight Iranian ballistic missiles were used in Yemen to attack Saudi Arabia. These continued to be unsuccessful, but one missile, fired at a Saudi base in Yemen did hit the target and there were casualties. The mass missile attack on Saudi Arabia did do some damage when debris from one shot down missile hit and damaged two residential buildings. One Egyptian foreign worker was killed and two wounded. The U.S. warned a month ago that Iran is succeeding in building up a stock of anti-ship missiles, naval mines and remotely controlled bomb boats on rebel held areas of the Red Sea coast. These would threaten, as they already have, military ships maintaining the blockade as well as commercial shipping in the Red Sea (a vital sea lane for Saudi Arabia and, because of the Suez Canal, Egypt.)

March 30, 2018: Ukrainian officials revealed that they had earlier arrested several Iranians, including at least one diplomat, after catching them trying to smuggle Kh-31 components and technical documents back to Iran. The Kh-31 was originally developed in the 1980s as an anti-ship missile. The Russians quickly realized that, with a different seeker, the missile would also work well as an ARM (anti-radiation) weapon. The anti-ship version has a range of 50 kilometers, while the ARM version is good for 110 kilometers. The .6 ton missile has an 87 kilogram (191 pound) warhead and is used by Russia, China, Serbia and India. Ukraine inherited some Kh-31s when the Cold War ended but never put them into service. In the Persian Gulf Kh-31s would make Iran even more of a threat to commercial and military shipping.

March 27, 2018: Iraq and Saudi Arabia agreed to resume commercial flights between the two countries. These flights had been halted since Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. This is one many agreements to resume economic and other relationships between Iraq and the other Arab oil states in the region. Iran sees this sort of thing as a hostile act because Iran wants to turn Shia (and Arab) majority Iraq into an Iranian ally and foe of the Sunni Gulf Arabs. That isn’t working out too well and never has in the past.

March 26, 2018: In northeastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) the American commander for Syria spoke with his Russian counterpart and that led to the withdrawal of Russian, Syrian and Iranian forces that had gathered near the new American base that had been attacked unsuccessfully on February 7tth. Further south, outside Damascus, Russia reports that their aerial bombing effort against a rebel controlled (for over five years) area east of the city was largely back under government control. Russia was criticized for its ruthless bombing of residential areas but the Russians agreed with the Assad strategy of going after pro-rebel civilians to weaken the resolve of the rebels there to keep fighting. It worked again in Ghouta, where many of the civilians and most of the surviving rebels have agreed to leave for northwest Syria where Idlib province, on the Turkish border. Idlib is the last major stronghold for rebels. About ten percent of the Ghouta suburb is still held by rebels who refuse to leave but are still negotiating. These areas are still being hit with artillery and airstrikes.

March 25, 2018: Saudi Arabia again demanded that the UN act against Iran supplying Yemeni rebels with ballistic missiles. The UN would like to act but the Russians keep vetoing any action.

March 18, 2018: In the northwest Turkey threatened to send troops into Iraq in an area where the borders of Iraq, Iran and Turkey form a triangle. This area, especially the Quandil Mountains, has long been the site of PKK camps. The Turks want the Kurdish forces to deal with this or else. Iran has not had any problems with this area but would do what the Turks are doing if they did.

March 17, 2018: In the southeast someone fired four mortar shells from Iran into Pakistan (Baluchistan). There were no injuries or damage.

March 15, 2018: The U.S. accused Iran of sending lots of cash to Iraq for use in efforts to influence upcoming (May) national elections. It’s rather more dangerous for Iraqi politicians to point that out but a recent visit by the American Secretary of Defense made the accusations newsworthy in Iraq and a number of Iraqi politicians agreed (but often not openly).

March 14, 2018: A Russian firm got a contract to develop two Iranian oil fields. The ten year deal is meant to increase production of two existing oil fields by a third so that over ten years production will total about 67 million barrels.

March 13, 2018: In northern Iraq (between Samarra and Tikrit) a unit of the Iraqi Presidential Guard clashed with a pro-Iran PMF unit, leaving a Presidential Guard commander dead and two of his troops wounded. Iraq complained to Iran about this and Iran did not offer much of a response.

March 12, 2018: The U.S. is using its considerable influence in Oman and Qatar to persuade these states to crack down on the Iranian arms smuggling in Yemen. There two Arabian states depend on American support to protect them from Saudi hostility because Oman and Qatar continue (as they have for centuries) trading with Iran. The direct American pressure will produce some action but the question is how much.

March 11, 2018: In the southeast four Iranian Baluchis based in Pakistan attacked a checkpoint fifty kilometers inside Iran. The four Baluchis were killed. One of the attackers was wearing an explosive vest which he detonated during the encounter. Two Iranian militiamen were wounded. The four were in a truck rigged with explosives but these did not go off.

March 7, 2018: Iran revealed that 2,100 Iranians had died since 2011 fighting in Syria and Iraq. The occasion for this admission that the 2,100 trees planted near a Shia religious shrine represented those deaths. This number was not a surprise as it was close to previous estimates based on reported funerals for Iranians who had become “martyrs” in that period while in Iraq or Syria.

 


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