Despite the financial crises, continuing anti-government protests and growing criticism from government and military leaders, the senior clerics who run Iran believe that there is a good chance the American presidential elections in November will put a more pro-Iran and anti-Israel government in power. While this is a possibility, many Iranians don’t believe the clerics can hang onto power until the end of the year. Poverty is growing in Iran and the government continues to spend lots of money on military operations in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Syria is the costliest foreign adventure. So far this year some 50,000 Iranian mercenaries have been transferred to the Syrian Army. These men still take orders (and monthly pay) from Iran but now wear Syrian uniforms and are based near the Israeli border. Most of them are in Daraa province and are not popular with the locals, many of whom have been evicted from their homes by foreigners and are treated like civilians in an occupied country.
Since 2018 Iranian allies Russia and Turkey have tried to persuade Iran to get out of Syria. Russia points out that it has a treaty with Syria to legitimize its forces in Syria. Iran does not have that and when Russia calls for
“all foreign troops” to leave Syria. That means the Americans, Turks and Iranians. The Americans have no interest in a permanent presence they just want to deal with some Islamic terrorists and then leave. The U.S. is also there to protect its Syrian Kurd allies until Syria makes peace with the Kurds. The Syrian government is interested in this but Iran is not. The Turks do not want any long-term presence in Syria, they just want to eliminate Islamic terrorists threatening their border and pacify enough of northern Syria to move over two million Syrian Sunni Arab refugees out of Turkey and back in Syria.
Turkey considers Israel an “enemy of Islam” but is not interested in going to war with Israel and prefers that Iran do the same and go home. Many Iranian openly agree with Russia and Turkey. The Iranian government points out that the Israel airstrikes are killing people in Syria. Iranians note that most of the dead are mercenaries on the Iranian payroll. The Iranian government deliberately keeps as few Iranians as possible in bases likely to be hit. Iranians getting killed in Syria, even if they are IRGC
(Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) Iranians, is very unpopular back in Iran.
The Assad government denies there is any cooperation between Israel and Russia, despite the very visible signs. The Assads depend on both Iran and Russia for their unexpected comeback from certain defeat. Iran has been backing Assad since the 1980s while the Russians largely stopped supplying Assads with much material aid after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. The Russians returned in 2015 and their air and tech support put the Assads on the road to victory. But now Russia is siding with Israel on the issue of Iranian efforts to take control of Syria. The Russians have also acted against bad behavior by Assad forces.
The Assads would like the Iranian forces, most of them Iranian paid and led mercenaries, to leave but the Iranians refuse. Israel has told the Assads that if they stick with Iran they will be destroyed. The Assads realize that the Iranians are fanatics about destroying Israel and that the Israelis have demonstrated an ability to counter any move the Iranians make. Moreover, all the other Arab states consider the Assads traitors for aligning themselves with the Iranians, who are quite openly at war with Arab control of Arabia and much else. Worse, no one has much sympathy for the Assads, who have very few good qualities. Despite this, the Assads apparently side with Russia and Israel rather than Iran. What this comes down to is the fact that Iran is a foreign (Indo-European, not Arab) power that wants to increase its direct control over Syria. Russia and Israel do not.
Since 2012 Israel has carried out a growing number of air raids on Iranian targets in Syria. This began when Iran decided to back the Assads with massive financial and military aid. The Assads were threatened by a massive uprising that began in 2011 and seemed unstoppable. Iran could not allow this, especially since without the Assads Iran could not establish a land route to move weapons and personnel from Iran, through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. This was in preparation for major attacks on Israel. In response, Israel began airstrikes on Iranian weapons storage sites, bases and now missile assembly operations. Since 2012 there have been about 38 airstrikes a year but there have already at least that many so far in 2020. It’s not unusual for there to be four or more airstrikes a week. These air attacks use various types of smart bombs and guided missiles and rarely miss or are aborted.
The Syrians frequently claim to have intercepted Israeli air-launched (often from inside Lebanon or Israel) missiles but the reality is that few of the Israeli missiles fail to hit their targets. Commercial satellite photos are available to determine damage and there is always a lot of it. Iran and Syria complain that the formidable Russian air defense system in Syria is not used to stop the Israelis. The Russians don’t want a fight with the Israelis, if only because the Israelis might publically demonstrate the ineffectiveness of Russian air defense systems. These systems are a major export item for Russia and the Israelis could reduce those export sales with demonstrations of how to get past the Russian air defenses.
The situation in Lebanon, where Iran–backed Hezbollah has been armed and paid by Iran to bully the Lebanese government for decades, is turning very visibly anti-Iran. This Iranian influence began in the 1980s and for a while, it worked because after the 1975-90 civil war ended, reconstruction was financed with cash from Arab oil states as well as Iran. Hezbollah took control of southern Lebanon and launched terror attacks on Israel. These were annoying to Israel but popular with many Lebanese. The 2006 war, triggered by Hezbollah kidnapping some Israeli soldiers, left Lebanon with lots of damage that has still not been repaired. Arab Gulf states were wary of Iranian intentions in Lebanon and so were most Lebanese. Then came 2011 and civil war in Syria. Over a million Syrian refugees ended up in Lebanon, and thousands of Hezbollah militiamen “volunteers” were killed or wounded in Syria, where Iran needed them to rescue the overwhelmed Assad government. This made Hezbollah a lot less popular with its core supporters, the third of Lebanese who are Shia. Lebanon soon became where over a million Syrian refugees lived. Nearly all these Syrians are Sunni and that changed the demographics of Lebanon where, before 2011, about a quarter of the population was Sunni. Since all those Syrian refugees appeared the number of Sunnis has doubled and suddenly Sunnis are 40 percent of the population. The growing number of suicide bombing and other terrorist attacks in Lebanon were committed by Sunni Islamic terrorists, many of them from refugee camps in Lebanon. This is Iran’s problem because Iran created and supports Hezbollah, which exists to protect the Shia Lebanese and control Lebanon for Iran. With the arrival of all those Syrian refugees the Shia are now outnumbered by Sunni and Hezbollah is expected to do something about it. But expelling the Syrian refugees is not an easy option and if it is attempted Hezbollah would be involved, and so would Iran. The expense of supporting those refugees, plus mismanagement of the economy, often because Hezbollah or Iran wanted it that way, triggered an economic recession. That is getting worse and it came at the same time (late 2018) that the renewed American economic sanctions caused an economic crises in Iran. Suddenly Iran aid to Hezbollah was cut by half and there have been further, smaller cuts since then. This meant pay cuts for Hezbollah employees, half of them from the “Hezbollah Army.” In effect, Iran has gone from hero to zero in Lebanon. This change took place over the last few years and was denied by Hezbollah and Iran. Now it is obvious to all and Hezbollah leaders do not seem to have any solutions.
The Plague Front
So far Iran has over 179,000 confirmed cases of covid19 (coronavirus) and over 8,000 confirmed deaths. This comes out to 2,071 cases per million population and a hundred deaths per million. The deaths per million are double the global average of 52 and higher than 86 percent of the word’s nations. While most other nations are now experiencing a reduction in covid19 deaths, the opposite is true for Iran, which is considered the epicenter of covid19 infections in the region and the source of infection for most of its neighbors. For example, Afghanistan has 552 confirmed cases and ten deaths per million people, Turkey has 2,030 and 56, India has 194 and five. Iraq is 336 and nine. Pakistan is 491 and ten. Northern neighbor Tajikistan has 484 and five, while across the Gulf Saudi Arabia has 3,027 and 21 while the UAE is 3,984 and 28 per million.
The actual deaths in Iran are believed to be four times higher at about 400 per million and continuing to rise. This is not unlikely because some Western nations that report accurately have even higher death rates. Spain is 580 deaths per million while Italy is 562, Britain is 598 and France is 448. There are many Iranian expatriates in these European nations who maintain contacts with family and friends back in Iran and that helps in exposing
The virus is not as much of a crisis in other nations but for Iran, it is a nightmare that won’t go away. On a daily basis, most Iranians have to deal with the covid19 virus. Iran is hard hit in part because the government initially dismissed possibility of the virus posing a serious threat. Compounding that, the government deliberately released false data about nationwide covid19 infections. The virus mainly kills the elderly and anyone with existing serious medical problems. A covid19 death can easily be mistaken for pneumonia. Many prominent politicians, military commanders and religious leaders have died from the virus in Iran. Most Iranians see that as a good thing because for two years now there has been growing unrest against the government. At first Iranian leaders, especially the religious ones who control the government dismissed covid19 as something Allah was using to punish infidels (non-Moslems). That was incorrect and when prominent religious leaders began dying from covid19 many Iranians saw this as a sign that the heavenly powers did not approve of what the Iranian religious dictatorship was doing. To make matters worse, neighboring nations attribute their local covid19 outbreaks to visitors from Iran. Turkey, Iraq and Afghanistan have been most affected by this. Turkey and China have persuaded the Iranian government to be realistic about the covid19 problem. Despite that, the virus is still apparently out of control in Iran. China is apparently where Iran got covid19 because both China and Iran have tried to suppress discussion about how covid19 got into Iran via the regular passenger and cargo flights from Wuhan, the center of the covid19 outbreak in China and worldwide.
The government claims that disruption by covid19 has cut GDP by 15 percent for 2020. Iran was hurt more by covid19 than anyone else in the region because the country was already suffering economically from American sanctions, especially those that cut oil sales about 80 percent. The price of oil has also plummeted. In 2013 the price fell more than 50 percent because American fracking tech had turned the U.S. into a major oil and gas exporter once more. The economic recession brought on the covid19 pandemic and overproduction of oil led to the price per barrel falling below $20 for a while. Even though oil prices are now closer to $40, Iranian oil income is still less than ten percent of what it could be. Corruption and mismanagement by the religious dictatorship, long a problem, has become worse in the last decade and contributes to the severe cash shortage Iran is experiencing. The final blow was the quarantines and trade restrictions inside Iran as a result of covid19. At the same time, there are increased nationwide public health costs to deal with the virus. The government has no cash surplus to use for helping out the increasingly impoverished population. This has made spending on foreign wars even more unpopular.
June 7, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) another Israeli airstrike damaged an Iran base and killed at least twelve Iranian mercenaries while also destroying a lot of explosive material (rockets and ammo).
June 4, 2020: In western Syria (Hama province) Israel launched another airstrike against a Syrian military base and destroyed several buildings, killing 18 people, nine of them Iranian mercenaries that were also operating from the base. Syria claimed the air defense systems at the base shot something down but there was no evidence of that. Earlier attacks at this base had killed Iranian and other “foreign technical experts” from North Koreans and Russia. The base currently contains a workshop for assembling long-range rockets and installing satellite guidance systems.
June 3, 2020: In Iran, an American citizen, jailed for 13 years on accusations that he insulted Iranian leaders, was released after negotiations between the Iranian and American governments. The U.S. released an Iranian jailed in 2018 for smuggling. In late 2019 a similar deal got another American citizen released.
June 1, 2020: A pro-government member of parliament released some “official” data casualties during the height of the November 2019 protests against the government. He claimed only 230 people were killed and that a fifth of them were members of the security forces and a quarter of the dead were bystanders or people passing by the scene of a protest. Most of the casualties, which included nearly 2,000 wounded, took place over four days in a hundred towns in cities. Unofficial estimates put the death toll at nearly a thousand.
May 31, 2020: IRNA, the state-run news agency posted a long interview with a senior officer of the military in which the IRGC was blamed for many current problems. The military is actually larger than the IRGC and the main job of the IRGC is to make sure the military does not overthrow the religious dictatorship. The interview did not express disloyalty towards government but rather dismay at how IRGC decisions were hurting Iranian ability to defend itself. The interview was removed several hours later, apparently after some senior IRGC commanders became aware of it. By that time at least 14 minutes of the interview had been saved by one viewer and that portion quickly showed up on other web sites inside and outside of Iran.
May 20, 2020: UN inspectors of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) report that Iran has stockpiled eight times more enriched uranium than allowed by the 2015 treaty to lift sanctions. The IAEA also reports another violation of the 2015 deal is Iran blocking IAEA inspectors from two sites where nuclear weapons research may be taking place. In 2017 the U.S. accused Iran of violating the 2015 treaty and renewed its sanctions. Russia and other European nations that signed the treaty disagreed with the American assessment and did not renew sanctions. Germany, France, Russia, China and the European Union are still observing the 2015 treaty. Now Iran is obviously in violation and the U.S. is urging the UN to impose stricter sanctions and enforce them. Germany and France, the main European participants in the 2015 deal, are angry at Iran for continuing to sponsor terrorist activities in Europe, including assassinations of exiled Iranians who criticize the Iranian government.
May 16, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) another Israeli airstrike hit the Iranian weapons storage near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. There were several large explosions, not all of them missile warheads. At least seven Iranians (or Iranian mercenaries) were killed.
May 15, 2020: In northern Yemen (near the
Red Sea port of Hodeida) government forces seized a shipment of ammunition intended for the rebels. Smuggling has become more difficult for the rebels because Iran is short of cash and there are more factions seeking to find and seize smuggler goods headed for rebel territory.
May 10, 2020: Officials at the Iranian Shahid Rajaee container port near the Strait of Hormuz admitted that local government networks had been hit with an Internet based attack. The official insisted the attack did no lasting damage to port operations. But commercial satellite photos later showed trucks (delivering or going to pick up containers) backed up on roads to the port. An unusually large number of container ships were stuck waiting to get a berth. In a rare move, Israel took credit for the hack, which was meant to disrupt port operations. Israel rarely takes credit for these attacks but did so, in this case, to warn Iran there would be a lot more of this if Iran did not halt its efforts to hack Israeli water supply systems. The latest of these was in late April.
In the Gulf of Oman a training exercise turned tragic when an Iranian corvette fired an anti-ship missile at a floating targets recently placed in the water by the naval support vessel Konarak. The missile hit the Konarak instead of the unmanned target apparently because the Karnarak was not far enough away from the target and the missile terminal guidance system radar detected both the Konarak and the target and went for the larger object, the Konarak. This left the Konarak largely destroyed but still afloat with 19 sailors dead.
May 8, 2020: Iran accused Germany of being mean. Germany is losing patience with Iranian espionage and terror operations inside Germany. On May 1st Germany finally banned Hezbollah, the Iran-backed organization that, with considerable Iranian support, has created a private army in Lebanon and an international network of spies, assassins, recruiters and fund-raisers that do the bidding of Iran. This has been going on since the 1980s when Hezbollah was killing hundreds of Americans at the behest of Iran. Hezbollah is but one of many Islamic terrorist groups operating in Germany. Hezbollah has always been loud and proud about its goal of destroying Israel and other nations Iran deemed in need of elimination. The U.S., Israel and most European nations recognize Hezbollah for what it is; a terrorist organization. Many German politicians opposed such bans feeling that it made Germany more vulnerable to terrorist violence and other illegal activities. German intelligence and security agencies disagreed, and have done so for decades. As soon as the Hezbollah ban was declared police were able to crack down on Islamic groups in Germany suspected of carrying out acts of violence and planning more of it. The Hezbollah ban was accompanied by several raids on four Hezbollah “religious organizations” long suspected of illegal activities.
German security officials pointed out that Iran had been the most active sponsor of espionage and terrorism inside Germany for over a decade. The Hezbollah ban only applies to the military wing of Hezbollah. The political wing is still legal in Germany. The fiction of Islamic terror groups having separate “political” and “militant” components has long been used to protect Islamic terror groups from being completely banned from a foreign sanctuary. It is a particularly popular fiction in Europe, which is why so many Islamic terror groups use it. European security and intelligence agencies acknowledge that this scam is just that and makes it more difficult to monitor and limit the damage these groups do in Europe.
May 7, 2020: In Gaza, Iran managed to find enough cash for one of its Gaza charitable groups, Harakat al Nujaba, made a big deal out of distributing aid to the families of local Islamic terrorists who had been killed, wounded or imprisoned because of their attacks on Israelis.
May 6, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) Russian troops are replacing Iranian mercenaries in key areas. Iran appears to have withdrawn some forces from Deir Ezzor province, either to move them closer to the Israeli border or disband mercenary units it can no longer afford to pay and support. Many of these mercenaries are local civilians who go back to lower-paying jobs for local warlords. The Russian presence consists of a few checkpoints and some patrols backed by Russian air power. The Syrian government is technically in control of Deir Ezzor province but the lack of security forces has enabled some of the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) groups hiding out there to assert themselves and terrorize civilians with kidnappings and murder. ISIL wants civilians to provide support and not cooperate with police or soldiers who come after the Islamic terrorists. In the last week at least nine civilians have been murdered and in over a dozen rural towns and villages ISIL is a constant presence and menace.
May 5, 2020: In northern Yemen, outside the rebels held capital Saana, the Shia rebels fired two ballistic missiles towards Saudi Arabia but both missiles failed and landed inside Yemen, far short of their targets. There has been a notable decline in quality control for Iran supplied ballistic missiles the rebels continue to use. Iranian arms smuggling efforts have also been less energetic, and effective, in 2020.