While the current unrest in Iraq is mainly about corruption, there is also an anti-Iran undertone. The Iranians have taken advantage of the many corrupt government officials in Iraq. In fact, Iranian “advisors” rely on corrupt Iraqi officials to survive and thrive. For this reason, one thing the rioters and the government could agree on was how important it was to retain American troops in Iraq. This would discourage Iran from trying to take over the government by force. Iran already has a lot of influence on the Iraqi government. For example, at the end of October the head of the Iranian Quds Force, general Soleimani flew to Baghdad and presided over a meeting of senior Iraqi officials on how to deal with the growing violence. Soleimani was there to show Iraqi officials how Iran had suppressed similar mass protests in Iran.
Soleimani did not reveal any details to the media. That would have been interesting because the situation in Iran is quite different. For example, Iraq is a democracy while Iran is a religious dictatorship pretending to be a democracy. Moreover, Iran has a “royal guard” force in the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps), which Quds is a part of. While Quds specializes in disrupting or controlling foreign governments, most of the IRGC personnel exist to prevent the Iranian armed forces or the Iranian people from overthrowing the religious dictatorship. Iraq is a democracy and there is nothing similar to the IRGC. If there were such a force would be very unpopular because it would remind many Iraqi Shia of the Saddam Hussein era Republican Guard. This was a carefully recruited and well paid force of Sunni Arab troops whose primary job was to keep the majority (80 percent who are not Sunni Arab) of Iraqis from taking control. Quds has been trying to create an Iraqi IRGC in the form of pro-Iran PMF militias. That has backfired as many Iraqis in the Iran-backed PMF brigades have changed their minds about supporting Iran. A growing number of Iraqis are convinced that most of the protestors killed were murdered by Iranians or pro-Iranian PMF members. Time and again the killings are carried out either by snipers (which Quds is a big fan of) or groups of uniformed masked gunmen firing on protestors. PMF members wear military uniforms, but the masks and killing demonstrators are a Quds thing.
Iraqi elections and opinion polls document how Iran is losing support in Iraq and the Iranians are desperate to turn that around and will do dangerous things as part of that effort. Iraqi government efforts to stop the verbal threats to American facilities and forces as well as the actual violence are hampered by the fact that while a shrinking minority of Iraqis support Iran, those supporters still occupy key political and security force jobs. This is why the army was accused of opening fire on protestors although most Iraqis believe the shooters were pro-Iran PMF, who also wear army uniforms. The entire PMF is seen as another form of corruption and that was confirmed when the 2019 military budget was announced it showed a quarter of the budget was going to the PMF, which is supposed to be part of the army but still answers to the Interior Minister rather than the Defense Ministry. Iran also “owns” many Iraqi politicians. This loyalty is obtained via bribes, threats and a shrinking element of belief in the value of Iran having a lot of control over Iraqi affairs.
Iran and the Quds Force faces a similar problem in Lebanon. There, Hezbollah enjoys the allegiance of fewer and fewer Lebanese. The core Hezbollah support is the Shia minority (normally about a third of the population) and some political allies in the form of Christian factions. Thanks to the influx of so many Syrian Sunni Arabs since 2011, the Sunnis in Iran are no longer dwarfed by the Lebanese Shia numbers. The violence Iran brought to Syria and support of the hated (by most Lebanese) Assad dictatorship created record levels of anti-Hezbollah and anti-Iran attitudes. That is demonstrated weekly by large and loud anti-Iran demonstrations. General Soleimani has been spending a lot of time in Lebanon as well. There he confers mainly with Hezbollah leaders because most Lebanese politicians want nothing to do with Quds or Iran.
Soleimani tends to offer the same advice in both Lebanon and Iraq; if persuasion or threats don’t work, anonymously open fire and keep shooting, especially at known or suspected leaders, until the unrest subsides. That often works in a police state, which Iran is, but not so much in democracies, which Iraq and Lebanon are. You can see why Iran opposes true democracy. Iran has a nominal democracy but there is a group of senior clerics who can veto anything the Iranian parliament tries to do and even block “unsuitable” Iranians seeking to run for office.
Despite the economic sanctions and seemingly successful efforts to block Iranian oil smuggling, the government is making progress towards stabilizing the economy. GDP will still decline nearly ten percent this year but things are already turning around and it’s possible that 2020 will see the GDP decline gone, or nearly so. Two factors made all this possible. First, the government succeeded in reducing the use of the American dollar and shifting to the euro or British pound. This was accomplished by increasing non-oil exports. For the first time in over fifty years, most exports were non-oil items. Iran has increased production and export of non-oil goods. Most of this is going to neighboring countries that Iran has long traded with. These nations are willing and able to use euros and pounds to handle foreign trade. These trade and currency reforms have also stabilized the value of the rial to buy foreign currency. In the last two months, the cost to buy a dollar has come down from 120,000 rials to 40,000. There are no such problems with the euro and pound.
Earlier in the year, the government decided to issue new currency that will deal with the enormous inflation and bad reputation the rial has acquired. In August it cost 120,000 rials to buy a dollar, while that has been reduced to 40,000, the currency change is still needed. The new currency, the toman, will make the current exchange rate four tomans to the dollar. It will be a year or two before the toman in introduced and completely replaces the rial.
The toman was what some Iranian currency was called for a long time, until 1925. Many Iranians still use the term. At the end of 2018, the government began to reverse the decline in the value of Iranian currency against foreign currencies. Using a combination of Central Bank spending more dollars to support the rial and the police driving a lot of black-market currency exchange operations out of business, or suspending activities until the crackdown subsides, the exchange rate has returned to what it was at the end of July (105,000 rials per dollar). Shifting to the use of euros and pounds for foreign trade helped, and these other currencies became acceptable substitutes for the dollar.
Iran is now trying to ban the use of dollars inside Iran. Changing the currency is expensive but most Iranians appreciate it because the low value of the rial meant that people were carrying around a lot of paper currency just to handles daily transactions. The toman will solve that problem but for the moment, economic conditions for the average Iranian are still bad. Inflation is down but unemployment is still rising and closing in on 20 percent. The increase in non-oil exports has been good for morale but that may come unhinged if the anti-Iran sentiment in Iraq continues to grow. Iraq is a major trading partner but Iran is once more becoming more of an enemy than a friend in Iraq. Afghanistan us a different story because the new road/rail route to the sea via Iran has allowed Afghanistan to free itself from dependence on Pakistan for that. Afghans still have their disputes with Iran over economic and political interference in Afghanistan, but right now the new export/import route makes the bad stuff palatable.
Currently, the Saudis are seeking some kind of long-term ceasefire in Yemen but are wary of how that effort is worded and implemented. This is because Iranian support has enabled the Shia rebels to survive four years of Arab coalition efforts to defeat them and end the Shia rebellion. UN pressure to make peace ignored the fact that restoring Shia autonomy (lost in the 1960s) in the north would make it possible for Iran to continue supplying the Shia tribes with weapons that can be used to attack Saudi Arabia or, according to Israeli leaders, Israel as well. To the Saudis that is unacceptable, given the fact that the Iranians are openly calling for the overthrow of the Saudi government, and Iran taking over as the “protector of the two Most Holy Islamic cities of Mecca and Medina”. The Saudis suddenly feel more sympathy for Israel and the years of Iran-financed violence on Israel’s southern border where Gaza-based Hamas exists mainly to try and destroy Israel.
Iran proposes putting Shia Moslems (led by Iran) in charge of the Moslem most holy shrines in Mecca and Medina. That would involve the elimination of Saudi rule in Arabia and many Arabs are fine with that. To many Arabs, the Saudi clan is seen as arrogant, inept and corrupt. There’s a lot of truth to that, but those flaws describe most Arab states and Iran exploits that. So did the Ottoman Turks, the British, the medieval European crusaders and the ancient Romans. The one part of Arabia that had long escaped foreign domination was the southern part, where there was a lot more rain, water and population than the rest of Arabia. The discovery of oil in the Persian Gulf, between 1900 and 1930, revealed that the largest known source of oil in the world was under and around the northern end of the gulf. First in Iran and then in Arabia, more oil was discovered and production expanded. This took about half a century but after World War II ended in 1945, there was so much oil that it was pretty cheap. It took another two decades for demand to catch up with supply and prices were so high by the 1970s that Iran and the Arab Gulf states were suddenly extremely wealthy. The only part of Arabia without any oil was Yemen. The Yemenis resented this and the oil-rich Arabs did not always hide their disdain for their poor but proud cousins in Yemen.
Iran also resented the wealthy Arab oil states and was dismayed at how the Arabs then, uncharacteristically, got themselves organized. First, there was the creation of Saudi Arabia in the 1920s and in 1981 the
GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) was formed. Its members (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) appeared to have the wealth and military power to deal with threatening local (Iran) or foreign (China, Russia, India, the West and so on) threats.
All the GCC states are monarchies and have so far managed to control pro-democracy movements. The GCC states have lots of oil and rulers who were wise enough to spread the wealth around. This has undercut efforts to establish democratic rule. Yemen, however, is perpetually broke. While technically a democracy, Yemen has actually been a dictatorship using manipulated elections to keep one party in power for decades. The GCC states are not enthusiastic about having a real democracy in Yemen, fearing that the country might end up controlled by Islamic radicals, or democrats who will support like-minded groups in other GCC states. But because Yemen is the most populous state in the Arabia peninsula, and half the population has a firearm of some sort, the GCC is not eager to send troops or police in to help the government. Iran forced the GCC to act in Yemen and the GCC was reminded why they had always been reluctant to get involved in Yemen. In Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, Iran seek to remind the Arabs who the local superpower is and why. The Iranians have long employed a wider range of military and diplomatic tools to dominate the Arabs.
For that reason, most Moslems do not want Iran in charge of Mecca and Medina. The Iranians are Shia Moslems and Shia comprise only about ten percent of all Moslems. The Saudis are largely Sunni, a version of Islam about 80 percent of Moslems belong to. Moreover the Iranians are not Arabs. Rather the Iranians are Indo-European and for many Moslems that is a big deal because Islam was founded by Arabs and the Moslem scriptures (the Koran) are written in Arabic. The Saudis will go to great lengths to prevent the Shia provinces in northwest Yemen from becoming an Iran base area. Meanwhile, the Iranians have convinced many of the Shia Yemenis that getting their autonomy back should be non-negotiable because without that autonomy the Yemeni Shia will be vulnerable to retaliation from all the other Yemeni groups the Shia rebels have harmed during the years of civil war.
Because of the violence between Iran and Saudi Arabia, China is no longer as pro-Iran as it used to be. This is all about oil imports. China is the largest importer of oil in the world and remained an ally of Iran despite American sanctions on Iran. Then Iran attacked Saudi oil facilities in September that interrupted shipments to Asian customers. This also sent oil prices up momentarily. China eventually retaliated by canceling a $5 billion natural gas development deal that Iran was depending on. Iran offended China and had to pay. Some American businesses got the same harsh retribution when they tolerated support for the Hong Kong protestors. Iran has put a priority on restoring good relations with China but the Chinese are not making it easy. Iran will have to do something novel to win back Chinese support.
Israel is closely monitoring what Iran is doing in Syria now that Iran and Russia are backing Syrian forces coming to the aid of the Kurds. Israel will continue to attack any Iranian moves towards Israel, especially the Israeli border. Iran was surprised by the Americans withdrawing their troops from Syria and leaving the Kurds without American air support and the presence of U.S. troops. This was seen to be enough to keep the Turks or Syrians from moving into Kurdish controlled northeast Syria and the Turkish border from the Euphrates River to Iraq. With the American troops gone the Turks did invade and the Kurds implemented Plan B and agreed to surrender most of their autonomy and allow Syrian troops in once more. The Russian-backed Syrian troops moved north and soon there was some skirmishing between Turkish and Syrian forces. Iranian forces remained where they were, especially those near the Lebanese and Israeli borders.
The Iranians have more than Turkey and Israel to worry about. The Syrian effort is costing Iran a lot of money, which they cannot afford. This has led to a major reduction in Iranian mercenary forces in Syria and the Quds and IRGC forces there are mainly concerned with carrying out an attack on Israel. The humiliation of constant defeats in the form of Israeli airstrikes and loss of Iranian lives has enraged the Iranians. But it has not empowered them to do any better. So far Iran has tolerated the losses and continues to pour resources into permanently establishing itself in Syria. Iran is determined to finally achieve a victory over Israel using the growing presence it has in Syria but is encountering resistance from Russia, Syria, Turkey, Iraq and most NATO nations. Now there is the Turkish invasion that has made the Iranians a potential battlefield opponent of the Turks. Iran made it clear it was not willing to do much about halting the invading Turks. Over the last four centuries, Iran has fought the Turks many times and usually lost. The same pattern exists with Israel, plus over the last two centuries Russia has also been a difficult foe. Back in Iran most Iranians are more willing to recognize what a bad place Syria is for Iran and since 2017 there have been more and more public protests about that, and other shortcomings of the Iranian government.
October 30, 2019: The U.S., Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE imposed Sanctions on 25 companies, banks and individuals accused of working with Iran to provide cash for Hezbollah. Iran has long used networks of people, shell companies and banks in the Persian Gulf to get cash to Hezbollah, which is recognized as an international terror organization.
October 29, 2019: In Iraq (the Shia holy city Karbala), groups of masked men in civilian clothes opened fire on demonstrators and killed or wounded over a hundred. Nearby soldiers and police did not interfere thus most Iraqis believed the gunmen were Iranian. In Lebanon, the prime minister (Saad Hariri) resigned a job he was forced to take by Hezbollah. The 12 days of anti-Iran demonstrations have reduced the impact of Hezbollah intimidation.
Iran responded to the death of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi by declaring, as Iran has long done, that ISIL was created by the United States and it was fitting that the ISIL leader should be killed by American commandos. Describing ISIL (and other Sunni Islamic terror groups) as American created and supported not only makes the U.S. look bad to many people (especially conspiracy fans) but also insults Sunni Arabs, who are being described as easily fooled by the infidel (non-Moslem) Americans.
October 27, 2019: In Iraq (Hilla city), the pro-Iran militia fired on demonstrators killing seven and wounding 38.
The U.S. announced the death of the ISIL leader and announced that it would return some troops to eastern Syria to help the Kurds protect, and operate, the Syrian oil fields. These oil facilities do not produce a lot of oil but they are all Syria has got and the Americans are mainly concerned that ISIL does not disrupt or regain control of the oil fields. Selling this oil to Turkish smugglers was a major source of income for ISIL after 2014. By 2017 the Kurds had taken control of the oil fields and spent over a year repairing the damage ISIL did before departing. For the last year that oil has been an important source of income for the Syrian Kurdish forces (the SDF).
October 25, 2019: In Iraq, the mass anti-corruption protests resumed nationwide. The anti-Iran element was more prominent than ever. Anti-Iran chants were heard often. Security forces and Iran-backed militiamen opened fire on many demonstrators, killing at least 25 and wounding nearly 2,000. This increased violence is partly because senior Shia clerics in Iran and Iraq are feuding now, which is rare as the Shia clergy usually stick together.
October 22, 2019: Russian and Turkish leaders met and agreed that Turkish forces would halt their advance in northeast Syria and allow Russian to supervise the retreat of Kurdish and Syrian forces from the 30 kilometer security zone the Turks want to establish south of the Turkish border. The next day Iran agreed that this was a good solution. Iran does oppose Turkey establishing a permanent military presence in northern Syria. That is subject to future negotiations.
October 21, 2019: In Iraq, the results of a government ordered investigation of recent protests were leaked. This revealed unpleasant details of what happened during the violent protests during the first week of October. Most embarrassing was the number of civilians killed (149) and the fact that 70 percent died from rifle bullet wounds in the head or chest. This indicates the use of snipers and the government never ordered the use of lethal force, nor did any senior police or army commanders. Most (65 percent) of the sniper deaths were in Baghdad, where the violent protests broke out shortly after the first took place in the southern city of Basra. Over 75 percent of the protestor wounded were in Baghdad. The snipers were believed from Iran-backed militias because Iran had demanded that the protests, which were anti-corruption and anti-Iran, be suppressed as quickly as possible. There were rumors that some of the snipers were Iranian.
The report also cited the security forces for poor leadership and dozens of guilty commanders were identified by name and will probably be dismissed. Corruption and incompetence in the security forces, which are dominated by pro-Iran politicians and commanders, is now widely known to be a major reason for the rapid advances of ISIL in Iraq during 2014. Iraqis were told that this would not happen again but their elected leaders appear to have lied, in addition to remaining corrupt and incompetent. Iran is known to encourage and exploit this corruption and that’s why the riots were also anti-Iran. Eight soldiers or police died as well, none from rifle fire and usually because their commander lost control of them and individual policemen found themselves isolated and at greater risk. In addition to the deaths during the first week of violence, there were also over 4,200 wounded, including 300 police and soldiers. The protests tend to peak each week on Friday and Saturday, the weekend in Moslem countries.
October 20, 2019: In the southwest (Khuzestan province), a major fire broke out at the Abadan oil refinery. The government said it was an accident but the extent of the damage led to rumors that it was Saudi retaliation for the September attack on a Saudi oil facility.
October 19, 2019: In eastern Syria, Iranian mercenaries have, for the first time entered Raqqa province to support Syrian army troops stationed there. This is in anticipation of the Syrian government troops returning to areas in Raqqa and neighboring Hasaka province. When the Turks advanced into Hasaka province recently the Kurds made a deal with the Syrian government to surrender their autonomy in return for protection from any further Turk advances. The Turks say they will only advance 30 kilometers into Syria.
October 17, 2019: The United States negotiated an end to the Turkish offensive in Syria by persuading the Kurds to pull their forces out of the 30 kilometer security zone voluntarily. The Turks agreed to halt their operations for 120 hours so the Kurds can complete their withdrawal in peace. This also led to a massive movement of nearly 300,000 Kurdish civilians from the zone. About ten percent of them entered Iraq. Iran does not back this agreement but is in no position to block it. Meanwhile, there is ISIL and the Syrian Kurd run prison camps for captured ISIL members as well as their wives and children. These camps have largely remained intact. There were some escapes but many of those escapees were quickly killed or captured. ISIL is hated by almost everyone in the region and has been reduced to a scattered Islamic terrorist group in parts of Iraq and Syria.
In Lebanon, anti-Iran protests broke out and continued for the rest of October.
In eastern Turkey (Van province), on the Iranian border, one Turk soldier was killed and two wounded by gunfire from the Iranian side of the border. Turkey demanded that Iran find out who did it but the Turks already knew it was probably Iranian Kurdish separatists. Both sides of the border have large Kurdish populations.
October 16, 2019: In Yemen Saudi and Yemeni government negotiators met with STC (South Transitional Council) leaders to try and work out a compromise deal to address STC grievances and return control of Aden to the Yemen government. The STC has held Aden since mid-August and that has been a distraction for the Saudis who are trying to deal with the Shia rebels in the north. The STC was able to grab Aden because the main Saudi ally in Yemen, the UAE, began withdrawing its forces earlier this year. The Saudis and UAE disagreed over strategy and how to handle the STC. That dispute was a major win for Iran and the Shia rebels, who are making the most of it as the Shia rebels and Saudis also try and negotiate a peace deal or long term ceasefire. A major issue is the rebel demand that they have free access to one or more Red Sea ports. That would mean no Saudi or UN inspection of what is coming in. The Saudis see this as unacceptable as it would allow Iran to bring in all sorts of weapons to use against Saudi Arabia and the heavy maritime traffic in the Red Sea.
October 13, 2019: The Pakistani prime minister visited Iran to propose Pakistan mediate a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Since Pakistan has nukes and has always sought to maintain good relations with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia the Iranians expressed interest. The Saudis were similarly polite. It will take more than politeness for anything to come out of this Pakistani proposal.
October 12, 2019: Iran offered to mediate the dispute between Turkey, the Syrian Kurds and the Syrian government. The offer was ignored and became less relevant when the Kurds agreed to subordinate themselves to the Assads and Russian backed that decision.
October 11, 2019: Iran claimed, without any proof, that one of its tankers had been hit by missiles as it passed close to Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf.
October 10, 2019: In light of the continuing Iranian threat the U.S. has sent to Saudi Arabia two fighter squadrons, a few B-1B bombers, F-22 stealth fighters plus some air defense units that specialize in anti-missile defense. The Americans had earlier helped the Saudis reorganize their air defense radars and other sensors to plug the blind sports and enabled the Iranians to send in UAVs and cruise missiles to attack a major Saudi oil facility in September. Iran denied it was them and blamed it on Yemeni rebels. All the available evidence points to the attack coming from Iran but Iran clings to the Yemen story because the Saudis and Yemen rebels are officially at war with each other while Iran and Saudi Arabia are not.
October 9, 2019: In Iran, there was an unscheduled Iranian military training exercise on the Turkish border. This was intended to send a message but exactly what the message said was unclear. Iran has also called for the Turks to call off their invasion of northeast Syria.
October 3, 2019: Russia confirmed earlier reports that Russian commanders in Syria were operating as part of a clean-up operation because major military operations were no longer taking place. Russia believes it has reached agreements with its allies (Assad government, Iran and Turkey) over how to deal with the remaining problem areas (remaining rebels in Idlib province and Kurds in Hasaka province).