Iranian clerics occupying high government posts (like the president, parliament leaders and members of the Supreme Guardians Council) are increasingly going public with their disagreements over the future of Iran. President Hassan Rouhani (a cleric himself) is not afraid of accusing the more senior clergy of not dealing with the very real problems most Iranians live with. The senior clergy and their IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) protectors repeated their ultimate defense against criticism; that the senior Shia clergy are infallible in religious matters and Islam is all about religion controlling all aspects of life. Most Iranians care more about practical matters, like having a job or a least enough money to live. Most Iranians can do the basic math required to see why 80 percent of Iranians are, technically, living in poverty. The 20 percent who are not include a lot of clerics and their families. IRGC officers and their children tend to do quite well and are increasingly visible living well and unconcerned about how most Iranians are doing.
The most flagrant and hated corruption is found among the families of the senior clergy who run the country and the IRGC which protects the ruling clerics from the wrath of the Iranian people. A growing number of senior government officials realize what the people are mad about and secretly agree with the math. But the hardliners and most senior clergy refuse to change because they are on a Mission From God and facts don’t matter.
Rouhani and the members of parliament are elected, but only candidates approved by the senior clergy can run for office. These same senior clerics (or “Guardians”) can veto any decision Rouhani makes or law that the parliament passes. Despite that, a lot of critics (of the Guardians) get elected and are more frequently calling out the Guardians for failing the Iranian people.
IRGC leaders were particularly harsh in criticizing Rouhani and other senior clerics who describe the IRGC as a corrupt organization. There is an element of self-interest here because Rouhani had agreed with most Iranians that the IRGC controls too much of the economy. Iranians also accuse the IRGC of backing the expensive effort to support the Assad government in Syria and create another threat to Israel. Most Iranians don’t want to fight Israel and believe all the recent troubles (Mossad stealing secret documents from a government warehouse, Israel bombing numerous, and expensive, Iranian weapons shipments to Iran and killing some IRGC troops in the process) puts all of Iran in danger, not just the IRGC. Moreover, the IRGC is a wealthy organization and less likely to suffer as the Iranian economy stalls because of the possibility of war with Israel and the return of heavy sanctions.
The IRGC is currently in big trouble not because another corruption scandal but because IRGC efforts to attack Israel from bases in Syria continue to fail. At the same time, the Israelis are increasingly open about their air war against IRGC operations in Syria and it is obvious to Iranians that the IRGC is unable to defend itself or strike back with any effect. This is more than just an embarrassment for the IRGC, many Iranians fear the IRGC will continue to escalate the conflict until it demands a major attack against Israel using long-range missiles based in Iran. The Guardians Council is unlikely to approve that and most senior clerics would see this as an opportunity to cut the IRGC down to a more manageable size. Whatever happens, it will be violent and it will not make Iran look good. It might also encourage reformers inside Iran to push for more reforms. Israel and the Arab countries in the region would like to see Iran pay more attention to their internal problems than aggression against neighbors, especially Israel.
Israel is increasingly active and candid about how they are preventing Iran from establishing a permanent presence in Syria, even with American troops leaving northeast Syria. This Israeli goal has been achieved via a combination of force (air and artillery strikes on Iranian bases and personnel in Syria) and diplomacy (convincing Russia to persuade Iran to keep their forces away from the Israel border or suffer Israeli attacks the Russians will not interfere with). Other diplomatic activities involved the Americans and Arab nations. Israel sees the Syrian government leaning towards rejoining the Arab League, which is an anti-Iran/pro-Israel organization at the moment. The Arab League also opposes Turkish ambitions in the Arab world, specifically Syria.
The war in Syria is not yet won and whether it is depends more on what happens in Iran. The Americans are preparing to pull their 2,000 troops out of Syria but not their support for the large force of Syrian Kurds who did most of the fighting to destroy the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) presence in eastern Syria. The American withdrawal was dependent on Turkish willingness to continue the fight against ISIL in Syria. The Turks backed off from doing that and were unwilling to negotiate with the Syrian Kurds.
Israel still appears to be able to carry out air strikes on targets in Syria despite the presence of the most modern Russian air defense systems. Israel does not discuss this openly. In part that is to keep secret details of how it is done. This silence is also a favor to the Russians, who don’t want the bad publicity that confirmation of Israeli ability to neutralize the latest Russian air defense systems. That way Russia can continue to sell its S-300 and S-400 systems.
With the Americans leaving the SDF (Syrian Kurd rebels) is shifting its forces to face the Turks who are, and always have been, their most formidable threat. Ominously the Turks have also reinforced their forces facing the SDF. But figuring out who might attack, or support, the SDF now is not easy. The Turks do not want to fight the SDF for the very simple reason that there is not much popular support in Turkey for any operation that would get a lot of Turkish troops killed in Syria. For that reason, since the Turks crossed the border into Syrian in 2016 they have used local FSA (secular Free Syrian Army rebels) forces to do most of the fighting. What the Turks do want is to get the Kurds, especially YPG (Syrian Kurdish separatist) forces, away from the Turkish border. Going much further than 20 kilometers south of the border (at least on a permanent basis) is not part of the Turkish strategy. Turkey expects to use over 10,000 FSA fighters against the Kurds, along with Turkish tanks, artillery and air power.
Likewise, the Syrians use Iranian mercenaries (many of them Afghan Shias) for the heavy combat. The Syrian Army was never noted for its combat capabilities and after seven years of civil war, there are few Syrian combat units with much ability or willingness to carry out a successful offensive. Morale in the Syrian Army is understandably bad many current members have been in uniform since 2011 or before.
The Russians don’t have sufficient ground troops to carry out a large scale offensive and the most effective Russian ground troops are Russian mercenaries because Russian popular opinion is very hostile to Russian troops getting killed in foreign wars. Iraq is now sending Iraqi troops into Syria but the Iraqis have an even worse reputation for combat effectiveness than the Syrians. There was talk of the Saudis and UAE replacing the Americans in Syria. Possible in theory but not likely in practice. The Saudis are more concerned with the Iranian threat to Saudi Arabia itself.
That leaves Israel, which is focused on Iranian forces in Syria and Lebanon and continuing Iranian public backing for the destruction of Israel. Armed with the most formidable air force and special operations troops in the region Israel is currently allied with the Gulf Arab states being threatened by Iran.
Another factor in all this is that the Syrian economy is a mess and Iran is currently the only one helping out. Syrian GDP is about half what it was in 2011 and limping along largely with the help of economic aid from Iran. The enormous expense (billions of dollars a year) has caused growing unrest in Iran and that aid may have to be cut. Gulf Arab states have expressed an interest in providing huge amounts of aid and loans for reconstruction, but only if Iranian troops and mercenaries are removed from Syria. The Arab oil states are far more capable to investing in Syria but no one is willing to put a lot of money into rebuilding Syria as long as Iran has a large military force there whose main goal is to start a war with Israel.
This presents the ruling Assad clan with a dilemma or an opportunity. Do they try and betray their long time (since the 1980s) benefactor Iran for the good of Syria or stand by while Syria remains rubble, poverty and hunger while Iran tries to take on Israel. Even Iranian allies Russia and Turkey are unwilling to invest in a potential war zone and would prefer that Iranian military forces leave Syria. Worse, for the Iranian religious dictatorship, most Iranians back withdrawal from Syria and have been openly demonstrating for that since late 2017. Taking advantage of this Syria has been openly striving to rebuild diplomatic relations with other Arab nations. This presents Iran with a major problem, one that they could see coming,
President Bashar Assad gave an interview to a Kuwaiti newspaper back in October 2018. This was the first time since 2011 that Assad had talked to a Persian Gulf Arab newspaper. Assad confirmed that he had been speaking with other many Arab League members since late 2017 and had obtained offers of assistance in rebuilding Syria and assisting Syria in becoming an active member of the Arab League once more. In late 2011 Syria was suspended from the Arab League and many of the 21 other League members cut diplomatic relations or imposed sanctions. But the Arab League was unable to do much else until now. Iran would prefer Syria remain an Iranian protectorate and occupied by Iranian mercenaries. No one but Iran seems to prefer this development. Actually, most Iranians oppose the “Syrian Iranian Republic”. The Turks have opposed it for centuries (and prevented Iran from advancing west of its current borders.) Israel obviously opposes the Iranian presence and so do the Arab states (mainly Saudi Arabia and the UAE) who are at war with Iran. The Russians are traditional and historical enemies of the Iranians and Syria, not Iran, has been a customer for Russian weapons and useful ally for decades. You can see where this is going, and so does the religious dictatorship that currently runs Iran.
Another reason the war is still stalemated is Iran, which has persuaded the Shia rebels that continued resistance is possible with Iranian support and that this strategy will eventually result in lasting gains for the Shia minority in northwest Yemen. Iran might appear to be overconfident what with growing popular unrest in Iran and opposition to these foreign wars. Even though supporting Yemeni rebels is relatively cheap compared to similar operations in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq most Iranians want it all halted. At the same time, the Gulf Arabs (led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE) do not want a pro-Iran Shia Arab entity in southern Arabia and are willing to keep fighting to get what they want. There are no popular protests in the rest of Arabia about the fight against the Iran-backed rebels. There is general agreement that it is not a good idea having an Iranian ally sitting on the Red Sea coast where Iranian anti-ship missiles can mysteriously appear (along with less visible naval mines underwater) to block traffic in the Red Sea. This would be a major disaster for Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel who all depend of free access to the Red Sea.
The Shia rebels and their Iranian backers are both obsessed with self-destructive, and dangerous for bystanders, goals. The Shia rebels want their autonomy back. The Sunni majority in Yemen opposes autonomy or weapons for the Shia up north because those two things have made the Shia tribes a constant source of trouble for centuries. Iran wants world domination, starting with control of Saudi Arabia and most of the Middle East. Iran also seeks to destroy Israel and the United States. Neither Iran nor the Yemeni Shia have a reputation for honoring promises, treaties or anything that limits their activities. In short, negotiations may seem smooth but compliance will be in short supply. Expect both sides to resist implementing an actual, working, ceasefire or truce.
The Shia tribes never had the degree of Iranian support they have now. That support has included large shipments of Iranian ballistic missiles and rockets. These are primarily for use against Saudi Arabia. Because of that Saudi Arabia can both identify with what Israel is going through with Hamas and Hezbollah rocket attacks because Iranian sponsored Shia rebels in Yemen have been firing rockets, ballistic missiles and, mortar shells and machine-gun bullets into Saudi Arabia since 2015 killing over a hundred civilians and soldiers on the border. The Saudis have found the American made Patriot anti-missile missiles very effective in stopping nearly all the ballistic missiles. The shorter range rockets are another matter and there have been discussions about obtaining the Israeli Iron Dome anti-rocket system.
This rocket and missile threat to Saudi Arabia will make negotiating a Yemeni peace deal difficult. The Yemeni Shia have always been hostile to the Saudis but now it has moved beyond that. The Saudis will not accept any peace deal that does not guarantee a halt to the rocket and missile attacks. That means more government control of the Shia tribal areas of Yemen than before the rebellion began. That will be difficult for the Yemeni Shia to accept but for the Saudis nothing less is acceptable. Continued rocket and missile attacks would be evidence of Saudi inability to defend its own borders and the Saudi citizens that live there. Iran knows this too but the UN is less concerned about that sort of thing.
January 21, 2019: In Syria, Israel carried out air and missile strikes against several Iranian military targets. This included an IRGC munitions warehouse near the Damascus airport. This warehouse complex is apparently the main IRGC supply center in Syria and the Israelis have been bombing it regularly. Also, hit were a nearby IRGC training center as well as an IRGC intelligence facility. In addition, Israel bombed Syrian air defense locations, after warning Syria that these weapons would be destroyed if Syria kept using them to interfere with Israel airstrikes. Israel hit mobile as well as fixed air defense weapons. The Syrians regularly claim that their S-200 and S-300 SAM (surface to air missiles) are intercepting Israeli aircraft and missiles but there is no evidence (wreckage) to prove it. However, firing these missiles does require Israeli aircraft to change their tactics and there is some risk that an aircraft might be damaged or destroyed. Most of these air attacks were at night and apparently, 11 military personnel, two of them Syrian, were killed. It was later reported that an IRGC freighter aircraft that was in the air and headed for Damascus when these attacks took place soon turned around and returned to Iran. The daylight attack on targets around Damascus that took place during daytime yesterday came a few hours after another IRGC freight aircraft had landed at the Damascus airport.
Germany banned Iran’s second largest airline, Mahan Air, from landing in Germany. The IRGC was shown to be operating Mahan Air to move equipment and personnel for terror operations in and out of Germany. The IRGC o perate s several freighter aircraft, most of them B747s . The IRGC owns several Iranian airlines , including Mahan Air . The IRGC has been noticed using two B-747 freighter air aircraft they acquired in early 2017 when the IRGC revived a bankrupt Iranian air freight company. At first it was thought this was simply another example of the IRGC taking over more of the Iranian economy. But by studying how the two 747s were used Israel concluded that these air transports were being used to move military equipment. One clue was the fact that so many flights tried to stay as far away from Israeli air space as possible even if it meant greatly increasing the cost of the flights.
January 20, 2019: In southern Syria, an Iranian long-range rocket was fired at Israel and was intercepted by Iron Dome before it could hit the Israeli Golan Heights.
January 18, 2019: The UN released the results of an investigation into how Iran was supplying cash and other aid to the Shia rebels in Yemen. Iran was providing cargoes of oil, accompanied by false documents that make it possible to sell the oil as a non-Iranian product and they use that cash to provide military equipment for the Shia rebels. Many of these deceptions are directed at UN officials who monitor Iranian oil exports and the movement of aid to Yemenis lacking adequate food and other supplies.
January 15, 2019: Iran launched a three-stage missile that they said was intended to put a satellite into orbit. The mission failed when the third stage of the missile had a problem and was unable to release the satellite into orbit. It was possible this launch was a test for a long-range ballistic missile as the same rocket design is often used for satellite launchers as well as a long-range ballistic missile. The only difference is that the satellite launcher is carrying satellites high enough to put them into orbit while the same missile with a warhead would be programmed to move in the direction of its target and at a lower altitude (and for a longer distance from the launch site) than when putting a satellite into orbit.
In Iraq the government confirmed that there had been a reduction in foreign troop strength in Iraq. At the start of 2018 there were 11,000 foreign troops in Iraq, many of them involved with fighting ISIL forces along the Syrian border. A year later there were about 24 percent fewer foreign troops in Iraq and that number is expected to decline. That number does not include Iranian troops, mainly with the IRGC who provide training and tactical advice to the many pro-Iran Shia militias. There are not many (a few hundred) of these IRGC personnel and they are not considered combat troops.
Germany revealed it had recently arrested an Afghan immigrant, who was now a German citizen, and charged him with spying on the German military for Iran. The arrested Afghan had long worked as an interpreter and cultural advisor for the German military and had considerable access to German military operations and plans, especially regarding Afghanistan and Iran. Germany has been on the alert for much of 2018 to the increased Iranian espionage, smuggling and assassination activity in Europe and especially Germany. Iran often recruits Afghans to work for them in Europe because many Afghans speak Farsi (Iranian) or are Shia and thus easier to recruit.
January 13, 2019: In northern Yemen, Shia rebels used an Iranian Ababil UAV carrying explosives to attack a military base near Jizan (in Saudi Arabia). The Saudis did not report such an attack. The Yemeni rebels said they would halt their UAV and ballistic missile attacks if the Arab coalition halted all its air attacks.
Israel confirmed what was widely known, that Israel has been regularly carrying out airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria. It was also revealed that these air strikes involved some 2,000 smart bombs and guided missiles as well as some short-range ballistic missiles in 2018 alone. There were thousands of air, missile and artillery strikes at Syrian targets in 2017 and 2018 when the decision was made to make an all-out effort against the Iranian military buildup in Syria. This effort has been considered a success because it has cost the Iranians a lot of money as the destroyed weapons often included large rockets and guided missiles which are not cheap, even in Iran. In addition, hundreds of Iranian or Iranian allied military personnel were killed or wounded.
January 11, 2019: In Syria, another Israeli airstrike destroyed a warehouse at the Damascus airport. Also attacked was the site of a meeting between Iranian and Hezbollah military commanders. Some of them were at least wounded.
January 10, 2019: In southern Yemen, (Lahj province, just north of the port of Aden) Shia rebels used an Iranian Ababil UAV carrying explosives to attack a scheduled parade and ceremony at an airbase. The UAV was caught on video diving down and exploding over the area where senior officials were standing. The explosion killed seven and wounded at least a dozen. One of those killed was the chief intelligence officer of the Yemen Army. This attack could have been made with the UAV navigating on its own and following pre-programmed instructions to dive on a particular location and explode. The ceremony attacked was scheduled and the location of where the senior people would be was known. The Iranians have used this tactic before. In 2017 four UAVs that 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 provided to several Islamic terror groups so far. In Yemen, the Ababils are used to try and incapacitate Saudi Patriot air defense systems. 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) wingspan, 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 use its GPS guidance to fly over 300 kilometers in “cruise missile” mode. The Shia rebels took credit for the UAV attack and said there would be more. The day after the attack the Arab air coalition attacked what they believed was the base the UAVs were operating from.
January 9, 2019: In northwest Syria, most (about 70 percent) of Idlib province has been taken over by the HTS (Hayat Tahrir al Sham) coalition of Islamic terrorist groups. This takeover was completed recently despite Turkey, Russia and Iran-backed Syria having a plan to prevent it. That plan was never implemented because no one wanted a major battle in Idlib, except Iran. Back in August 2018 Russia, Turkey and Syria agreed on a plan to attack and destroy the Islamic terrorist groups in Idlib province, particularly HTS. Idlib was and is the last Islamic terrorist stronghold and is on the Turkish border. Six months ago Idlib was controlled by various rebel groups. Back then over half of Idlib was controlled by the HTS coalition. This is the main al Qaeda organization which evolved from al Nusra by absorbing (willingly or otherwise) many other like-minded groups over the years. About a third of the province was controlled by several other Islamic terrorist groups. In late August 2018, the largest six of these factions merged to form the NLF (National Liberation Front). This merger was arranged by Ahrar al Sham, a longtime rival of HTS, and backed by Turkey. About ten percent of the province is controlled by Turkey (in the north along the hundred-kilometer long border with Turkey) and Assad forces (several towns and villages in the southeast). HTS recently convinced NLF to join a larger coalition, under the leadership of HTS that would be better able to defend Idlib. Despite its Turkish ties, NLF was persuaded (after HTS attacked and eliminated NLF factions who opposed the deal). Iran still has Syrian forces, controlled by the Assads, willing to attack but such an effort would be very costly without Russian airpower and unthinkable if Turkey opposed it (because of the risk of many Idlib civilians trying to flee into Turkey.) The Russian and Turkish leaders are to meet on the 23rd to try and work out a new agreement about Idlib, one that can be carried out.
January 8, 2019: Two Pakistani warships paid a visit to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.
January 5, 2019: The United States refused to provide Russia with an export certificate for the 40 Superjet 100 airliners Russia was selling to Iran. Because more than ten percent of the components in the Superjet 100 are from the United States the Russians need an export certificate to sell these airliners. To foreign customers, Iran is subject to sanctions that block American aircraft exports. Russia can replace the American made components in the Superjet 100 with Russian ones but that will take years so it appears that the Iranian sales are lost.
January 2, 2019: In northwest Afghanistan (Faryab province) an airstrike against a group of Taliban killed 27 Taliban including two Iranian members. Afghan ground forces reached the site of the airstrike to identify bodies and seek documents and other useful material. The two Iranians were Shia clerics who worked with Afghan Shia in Iran and Afghanistan. The Iranian members of the Taliban assist in arranging Iranian weapons and other supplies for the Afghan Taliban. There are some Iran backed training camps in eastern Iran where Afghan Taliban can learn new military skills.
December 30, 2018: Syria has given Iraq permission to make attacks against Islamic terrorists in Syria at any time without prior permission. Iraq has already been doing this, especially when they had intel about where ISIL forces were gathering and needed to carry out an air strike quickly. Iraqi ground forces (pro-Iran Iraqi militias) sometimes moved across the border in response to Syria based ISIL forces attacking or regularly crossing into Iraq.
December 28, 2018: At the end of 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense revealed that it had found (via its many contacts with the Afghan government) that it had become common for Afghan officials to be bribed by Iran to support Iranian interests. Most of the bribes are in support of Iranian economic activities. But there are also bribes regarding support for the Taliban, not to overthrow the Afghan government, but to help in the fight against ISIL and protection of the Afghan minority. This last point is important because most of the Afghan refugees still in Iran are Shia and over 20,000 have volunteered to serve as Iranian mercenaries in Syria. Iran does not support the Afghan drug gangs that provide the main financial support for the Taliban and the Iranian border with Afghanistan has been a battle zone for years as Iranian border forces shoot to kill when they encounter Afghan drug smugglers (who often shoot back and fight their way through.)
These bribes have also allowed Iran to maintain official contacts with the Taliban and participate in peace talks with the Afghan Taliban. Iranian ally Qatar hosts a Taliban headquarters where the Taliban can, in effect, meet with anyone to discuss anything. Recent Russian sponsored Afghan peace talks attracted delegations from Russia, India, Iran, China, Pakistan and five former Soviet republics in Central Asia as well as non-government groups from Afghanistan and some Americans as observers. Technically the Taliban cannot be in Russia because Russia recognizes the international designation of the Taliban as a terrorist organization. Nevertheless, the Taliban insisted they would make peace only if all foreign troops left and there were international guarantees to keep the Americans from returning or aiding Afghans fighting the Taliban. Iran is seen as an ally (at least against Pakistan) by most Afghans and Iran is mostly Shia and sees itself as the defender of all Shia.
Despite all that good will, the worsening economy in Iran (made worse by the American revival of sanctions in March) caused over a quarter of the three million Afghan refugees still in eastern Iran to return to Afghanistan in 2018. Most of these Afghans are Shia who feared to return as long as the Afghan Taliban (and ISIL) were active in Afghanistan. These two groups, and Sunni Islamic terror groups, in general, consider Shia heretics and targets them for death on a regular basis. But Iran has made returning to Afghanistan easier by increasing its support for the Afghan Taliban. This gesture is also a favor to Pakistan, which Iran is trying to maintain good relations with (as Pakistan is also an ally of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is the only Moslem nation with nukes).