Iran: For All The Wrong Reasons

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January 5, 2021: The first anniversary of the January 3rd, 2020 American missile attack that killed IRGC general Qassem Soleimani passed without the promised Iranian retribution. That’s not unusual for the Iranians, who are not reckless but are determined and persistent. Iran is actually developing several less-explosive ways to retaliate. For example, Iran is accepting a Chinese offer of massive economic investment, some of it more profitable for China than Iran. Overall the Chinese connection is a major plus for Iran because China also helps protect Iran diplomatically and in the UN. For that, the Chinese expect to be compensated and the Iranians are willing to pay. As a result China will be more aggressive in helping Iran skirt the trade sanctions reimposed by the Americans in 2018.

Local Threats

Subversive activities against the government by the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) are again threatening to escalate into a coup and an even more radical Islamic military government. This is nothing new and the threat has been an open secret for nearly two decades. It became a documented secret back in 2014 when leaked documents detailed how the IRGC was defying the religious leadership and planning to stage a coup and replace elected politicians they disagreed with. The government continues to monitor the machinations of their “Guards” who have always been the most radical members of the religious dictatorship. The IRGC has never tried to carry out these plans, but since 2014 it is known that such plans existed and apparently still exist.

This has to be put in context. The Iranian government is basically a religious dictatorship that seized control in the 1980s and has just barely coped with declining popularity. There are many factions, some much more radical than the majority. Eventually the loss of oil income screwed things up enough to trigger an unprecedented number of anti-government protests and calls for rebellion. Massacring nearly 2,000 protestors since 2019 has reduced the number of people protesting openly but increased the number of Iranians who are discussing among themselves the need for another revolution. That could get very nasty as the government has an army of religious fanatics (the IRGC) to deal with such unrest.

IRGC is more than just the "royal guard" of the Iranian dictatorship. Originally founded to do the clerics' dirty work, and keep an eye on the Iranian armed forces and population in general, the IRGC has grown to become a state-within-a-state. The IRGC not only has 190,000 active-duty members, it also controls billions of dollars’ worth of businesses inside Iran, and runs numerous terrorist operations outside the country. The IRGC, or at least large parts of it, can be depended on to follow orders and slaughter rebellious civilians. The ruling clerics are determined to avoid losing power like the East European communist dictatorships did in 1989. The clerics have made sure most Iranians know this and what the price of rebellion would be. But the clerics must now deal with another ancient problem in Iran, disloyalty among the “guardians” of the rulers. Who guards the guards? In Iran, no one is sure and that is now a very real problem for the general public as well as the unelected senior clerics who rule in the name of God, but only with the support of the IRGC. Since 2014 the senior clerics believed only a small minority of the IRGC were a danger. But that has changed and the size of the IRGC “dangerous” faction has been growing in numbers and boldness. Attempts to purge the IRGC of these dangerous people have failed. The IRGC protects its own, so far.

One of the major criticisms of the IRGC is the large number of Shia rebels they supply, advise and encourage throughout the region. The U.S. and the Sunni Arab Gulf States (particularly Saudi Arabia) see recent Iranian actions in Yemen as an Iranian ploy to gain greater influence, if not control, there and keep it long-term. At the moment the Shia advance is stalled in Yemen. Actually, the Shia rebels are on the defensive. Iran has not actively intervened in Yemen but the Sunni Arab states that border Yemen did, in 2015 and are still there. It’s not just Iran and the Shia rebels who are the problem, but all the factions there. The Shia are only a third of the population but they are united while the Sunni majority is split into numerous factions.

The IRGC has been at it for so long that their tactics are known and somewhat predictable. For example, Iran continues to blame the West for “creating” ISIL, thus ignoring the fact that the growing Sunni/Shia conflict that Iran sponsors heavily has more to do with ISIL than anything the West does. What is most disturbing to Iraqi and American officials is the fact that most of the several thousand Iranian advisors and training specialists in Iraq, Syria and Yemen are from the Quds Force. That implies that Iran sees an opportunity to turn Syria into more than an ally and something of an Iranian colony. The Syrian violence is spilling over into Lebanon, which makes most Lebanese nervous about also becoming part of the Iranian empire. This is exactly what most Iraqi Shia have long feared would happen if Iran became too powerful inside Iraq.

Israel is open about its belief that Iran is preparing to attack Israel from Iraq and Yemen if the IRGC has its way. So far, the IRGC has been overruled by the clerics. That has caused more friction between the clerics and the IRGC leadership. The ruling clerics and general population agree on one thing, the IRGC is the greatest threat to Iran and not any of the external foes the IRGC has created and sustained.

The Caucasus Crisis

Iranian leaders are upset at how Turkey and Russia blocked Iran from playing a major role in ending the recent battles between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Both were formerly part of the Soviet Union and quite different even though they were neighbors. Azerbaijan is majority Moslem while Armenia is Christian. Along with the smaller Georgia, these two are the only two nations in the Caucasus that are majority Christian. For over a thousand years Armenians and Georgians resisted efforts by Moslem neighbors to make them Moslem. Russia played a key role in that and considers itself the “protector” of Armenia. Despite that Russia has managed to maintain good relations with Azerbaijan as well. In doing so Russia established one of the more successful peacekeeping operations since the Cold War ended in 1991 by getting Armenia and Azerbaijan to agree to a ceasefire in 1994 after another round of heavy fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia became a military ally of Armenia as part of that arrangement. Iran has tried, and not always succeeded, to be on good terms with Azerbaijan, if only because about a quarter of the Iranian population are Azeris. At the same time Iran and Russia, traditional enemies, have become allies and those links are being used to deal with latest round of violence.

Iran has long harbored an intense interest in Azerbaijan. This is because most of the Turkic and Moslem Azeris live in Iran. Up until 1813, modern Azerbaijan was part of Iran. Then the Russians showed up. Armenia and Azerbaijan were the last Russian conquests as the tsar’s soldiers and Cossacks advanced through the Caucasus in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Russians stopped when they ran into the Turkish and Iranian empires, but not before taking a chunk of Azerbaijan from Iran. The Iranians have not forgotten. In effect, most of "Azerbaijan" is in Iran and Iran has long hoped to reunite all Azeris under their rule. Many Iranian Azeris have risen to senior positions in the government. Despite that, most Azeris would like all Azeris united in a single Azerbaijan. This is not a popular idea within Iran. The Russians, on the other hand, have come to accept the 1991 loss of Azerbaijan and Armenia. Iran is less accepting of such losses.

Iraq

There are several trends in Iraq that are annoying Iran and perhaps the worst of these are the growing commercial relationships between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Such economic links are not unknown but in the past they existed only because Iraq was ruled by its Sunni minority. Then the era of Sunni minority rule ended in 2003. The new Shia government of Iraq initially saw the Saudis as an enemy and the Saudis considered this new Iraqi government a tool of the Iranians. Over the last decade attitudes have changed. The Saudis have come to understand the Shai Arab majority in Iraq is more Arab than Shia and the Saudis were willing to live with that. Iran has never been able to win over the Arab Shia, in large part because inside Iran their own Arab minority is despised and mistreated. Always has been and as far as most Arabs are concerned, that centuries old attitude is not going to change. Despite that Iran and Iraq have a lot of commercial relationships, but even these are being threatened as Iraq does more business with the Gulf Arab states. Even the religious connection has been lost as the most senior Iraqi Shia clerics renounce any loyalty to Iran.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are competing to win the most popular support possible in Iraq. The Saudis are offering billions of dollars’ worth of economic investments, much of it aimed at improving the Shia south and the Shia majority city of Basra. This is the heartland of the Iraqi Shia. While Shia Arabs live throughout Iraq, most are down south where they are very much the majority. Most Iraqi Shia are dissatisfied with Iraq’s Shia dominated parliament and government. Lots of government investment has gone to the south and much of it got stolen or pays for sub-standard work. Corrupt Shia politicians were responsible for this and since 2018 there have been anti-corruption demonstrations in the Shia south and Shia neighborhoods in Baghdad.

The Saudis point out that they also have a corruption problem but have learned how to control it and have been reducing the corrosive impact of corruption on their economy. They are obviously successful and so are other Arab states in the area. In the latest global corruption survey, those at the top of the list are all more successful because they have the least corruption. Down at the bottom are the more and most corrupt. The Saudis are at 52 out of 180 nations while Iraq is 162. The UAE is at 21, ahead of the U.S. at 23 and Israel at 35. Iran is at 146. The Iraqis have been getting more advice and economic assistance (trade and investment) from the Sunni Arab oil states while all they get from Iran is offers of alliance, more Iranian military advisors and threats of violent retaliation if Iraqi politicians do not comply.

Economically, Iran has not got much to offer. Their latest proposal is a military/defense treaty with no Iranian cash attached. These Iranian treaties and aid packages once included generous bribes for key politicians. Since the Americans revived their economic sanctions in 2018 and became the global leader in oil production, Iran had a lot less cash for their foreign subversion efforts. With oil prices down and their exports subject to seizure, there is a lot less cash for terrorism.

Iran still has many thousands of loyal and fanatic Iraqi Shia on their side but four years ago they had a lot more. Iran has not been able to improve the lives of Iraqi Shia and those Iraqis have noticed. It has also been noticed that Iran has been trying to enrich Iranian manufacturers by driving Iraqi competitors out of business. No such threat from the Sunni oil states.

With the pro-Saddam terrorist threat much diminished, the Iranians feel they have lost a valuable asset in Iraq. Trying to demonize the Americans never worked very well because U.S. troops took the lead in fighting the Sunni Arab terrorists and still do. Since 2014 most of the American military aid has been from the air, with over 13,000 airstrikes and many more surveillance missions. There are only 3,000 U.S. troops in Iraq right now and the American goal is to get them all out. Despite that Iran continues to insist that the Americans are the Great Satan and a dangerous enemy of Islam. Four decades of preaching that has not reflected well on Iran. This assessment is shared by most Iranians as well.

The U.S. and Iraq are deadlocked over how to move against Iran-backed Iraqi militias. In late September the U.S. threatened to bomb pro-Iran Iraqi militias unless Iraq eliminated the threat first. The American position was that Iran was at war with Americans in Iraq and said so frequently and publicly. All the major Iraqi Shia religious leaders have called for the disbanding of all PMF (Popular Mobilization Forces) militias, in part because Iran was rapidly turning the entire PMF into an Iraqi version of the Lebanese Hezbollah organization called Kataib Hezbollah. Founded in the 1980s with Iranian help, the original Hezbollah still takes orders from Iran and has dominated Lebanese politics for over three decades. Most Lebanese want Hezbollah gone but a heavily armed militia with enormous economic power in Lebanon is difficult to disband. Iraqis want Kataib Hezbollah gone now and cannot understand why their prime minister does not act. Fear probably has a lot to do with the delay. In Lebanon Iran had several senior Lebanese politicians assassinated for being too openly hostile to Hezbollah. The personal danger for the Iraqi prime minister is based on fact, not just speculation.

In response to the American threat against them, the Iran-backed militias, especially Kataib Hezbollah, agreed to a temporary halt to attacks against Americans. Not all the pro-Iran factions agreed, but most did and there have been far fewer attacks lately.

The new Iraqi prime minister (Mustafa al Kadhimi) is decidedly hostile to Iran and calls for easing the Iranians out and not giving them any justification to get more violent. Kadhimi had already ordered the removal of many pro-Iran commanders in the security services and disbanded some units that were dangerously pro-Iran. Kadhimi went to the U.S. in late August to meet with the American leader and discuss improving U.S.-Iraq relations. Such a meeting was important because Kadhimi is the first post-Saddam (2003) prime minister that is not heavily influenced/controlled by Iran.

Iran still has enough loyal (to Iran) Iraqi militias to be a threat to the Iraqi government. Most Iraqi politicians and voters want less Iranian influence. Iran wants fewer foreign troops in Iraq. That is a point of contention because Iraqis realize the foreign troops offer some assurance that Western and Arab states would actively assist Iraq if Iran sought to take control via a civil war or invasion. Civil war is the more likely option, but only in an emergency, such as Iraq appearing to succeed in disbanding all the pro-Iran militias. At the moment Iran is willing to halt all violence by Kataib Hezbollah if the government agrees to have all foreign troops leave Iraq, except for Iranian advisors. This sort of thing is seen by Iraqis as an expression of Iranian contempt for Iraq and confidence that Iran will turn Iraq into another Lebanon.

Afghanistan

As American forces continue to withdraw down to 2,500 troops by mid-January, Afghans are seeking replacement allies. Iran is a popular choice, and many Afghans are openly developing relationships with Iran with the Afghan government doing the same. While Iran has a hostile relationship with the United States, such is not the case with Afghanistan. This is nothing new and the two nations have been developing better economic relations for over a decade. Afghanistan backed this to get free from economic dependence on Pakistan, where two border crossings have long carried out most exports and imports for Afghanistan. Since 2001 and the arrival of the Americans, Pakistan often used access to these two crossings as an economic weapon against any hostile moves by the Afghan or American governments. Back in 2015, Afghanistan began discussions with India and Iran over a solution. That led to the recent completion of a railway to Iran giving Afghanistan access to world markets . This is the direct result of a 2017 agreement that had Iran and India finance and build a 1,300-kilometer-long rail line from the Chabahar port near the Pakistan border, to the Afghan border in the north and then inland to Heart city. The last link is actually an earlier (2007) project to build a rail line from the Iranian city of Khaf to the Afghan city of Herat. Most (77 kilometers) of the railroad is in Iran with the other 62 kilometers in Afghanistan. This is all part of a larger Afghan project to build their first national railroad system. The Iran link will eventually be 220 kilometers long with over 90 percent of that in Afghanistan. In 2016 the first direct rail link to northern neighbor Turkmenistan was completed and that connection will eventually become part of a national rail network.

India provided over two billion dollars to upgrade the port of Chabahar and build new roads and railroads to Afghanistan and Central Asia. For Iran the Central Asia link is the most valuable one. But for Afghanistan having another way to move most of their imports and exports is a major achievement because Pakistan and Iran will have to complete and that will keep costs down for Afghans and reduce the use of closing the border, which Pakistan has done frequently, to coerce the Afghans.

Iran maintains good relations with Pakistan because they both see the Americans and Israel as archenemies. At the same time Pakistan is on good terms with the Gulf Arab oil states while Iran is at war with them. Pakistan is in a delicate situation here and has to tolerate Iran becoming close to Afghanistan economically and in many other ways. Iran does not want Afghanistan becoming a narcostate controlled by Pakistan. While the Pakistani military controls, supports and profits from the Afghan Taliban and drug gangs, Iran despises the drugs and the Taliban. While Pakistan responds to Iranian complaints of Sunni Islamic terrorists killing Pakistani Shia, there is no such cooperation when the Taliban kill Shia, especially before 2001. Since then, the situation has changed. While 15 percent of Afghans are Shia, most reside in central Afghanistan, they also dominate several neighborhoods in Kabul and these are where most of the IISL attacks on Shia occur. Since 2015 the Afghan Taliban have been denouncing attacks like this. Since ISIL showed up in 2015, the Taliban saw an opportunity to repair their relationship with Iran. Since then anti-Shia violence has been monopolized by ISIL, even though in the past the Taliban killed a lot of Shia. Now, however, the Afghan Taliban is receiving support from Iran, a Shia majority nation that is hostile to groups that kill Shia unless those groups make themselves useful to Iran. This puts the Taliban in a difficult situation because Pakistan tolerates the heron trade and Iran never would. The difference is that the military is running things in Pakistan while Iran has a religious dictatorship that keeps its own military in check. Heroin and opium from Afghanistan is unpopular in all three countries because of the millions of addicts that have been created. The Pakistan military and Taliban don’t care but everyone else does.

With all that in mind, it should be no surprise that Iran and Afghanistan are close to completing negotiations for a comprehensive strategic cooperation agreement that will officially give Afghanistan a new economic and military ally against the Taliban and the Pakistani military. The last item being negotiated is the security aspects. Apparently, this item is not a roadblock but is subject to a fair amount of haggling. One item to work out is the need for Afghanistan to continue working with the United States against international terrorist groups, like al Qaeda and ISIL, that still maintain a presence in Afghanistan. Iran has long provided some support to al Qaeda as long as that connection improved the chances of carrying out successful attacks on the Americans.

January 4, 2021: Near the entrance to the Persian Gulf, off the coast of Oman, Iranian gunboats seized a South Korean chemical tanker, accusing it of water pollution. The charge was false and the tanker seizure was part of an Iranian effort to force South Korea to release $7 billion in Iranian cash frozen by American sanctions against Iran. South Korea promptly demanded Iran release the tanker and ordered nearby South Korea warships with the Somali anti-piracy patrol to head to where the tanker was seized. South Korea also threatened to cancel a scheduled visit by a senior South Korean official to Iran on January 10th to discuss the $7 billion in Iranian cash. Other nations with an interest in free passage to the Persian Gulf backed the South Korean demands.

January 3, 2021: The government executed three Sunni Baluchis from southeastern Iran. The men were arrested in 2014 and charged with carrying out terror attacks against Iran. The arrest and trails became controversial because there was evidence the two of those arrested had nothing to do with the crimes all were accused of. This is not unusual for Iran, which has long treated uncooperative minorities harshly. This includes, Shia Arabs in the southwest, Sunni Kurds in the northwest and the Indo-European Sunni Baluchis in the southeast.

January 2, 2021: During the last week the UAE (United Arab Emirates) held secret talks with Iran to assure the Iranians that the UAE had nothing to do with the American missile attack that killed Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani a year ago. Iran and the UAE have an informal agreement to refrain from involvement with military operations within each other’s territory. Iran suspected that the UAE might have provided information to help the Americans find and kill Soleimani while the Quds Force commander was outside of Iran. Soleimani was killed outside the Baghdad, Iraq airport. Apparently, these discussions were successful. The UAE and Iran have an ancient and complex relationship. For example, since at least 2010 Iran has been trying to persuade the UAE to stop expelling more and more of the half million Iranians living in the UAE. That expatriate community has long been a source of trade, information and all manner of useful connections to the outside world. But the UAE is angry at Iranian support for the Assad dictatorship in Syria, Shia rebels in Yemen and its continuing nuclear weapons program and threats against the Arab states on the west side of the Gulf. Iran periodically tries being nice to the UAE, but that has not been able to undo decades of bad treatment. This ugly past is catching up with Iran and the UAE doesn’t want to be collateral damage.

Meanwhile in Turkey a demonstration arranged by Iran to commemorate the death of Quds Force commander Soleimani a year ago was cut short, along with the video (via Zoom) feed that was being sent out live on Iranian media. Iran had organized the event with what it believed were pro-Iran Turks. The demonstrators showed up with pro-Iran signs and were given pro-Iran slogans to shout when directed to. The virtual demo began as planned but then most of the demonstrators dropped their pro-Iran signs to reveal anti-Iran messages and began chanting anti-Iran slogans. Iran never had a lot of fans in Turkey but had convinced themselves that they could collect enough pro-Iran Turks for a pro-Iran demonstration. This Zoom demo became more popular than the Iranians expected, but for all the wrong reasons. This was especially the case with Turks, who fondly remember that they have been defeating the Iranians for centuries.

December 31, 2020: A Greek oil tanker at anchor off Iraq was found to have an Iranian limpet mine attached. The mine was attached to the hull by a diver dropped off at night from one of the armed Iranian speedboats that move through the area at all hours. Another Iranian speedboat then came along and picked up the diver. Iran has been using these tactics since 2019 when the Iranians were caught using limpet mines and other weapons against tankers entering the Persian Gulf. Iranians were caught on camera placing and removing the limpet mines on tanker hulls. These mines use magnets to remain on the hull and are detonated by timer or remote control. More armed guards are being hired to scan for such mines and to stand watch at night and fire on any small boats that approach a tanker at night. Iran denies they are using these mines but the video and past performance say otherwise.

December 29, 2020: In the capital (Tehran) people were openly complaining of problems with the GPS on their cellphones. The cause appeared to be the military working on GPS spoofing technology at a military school compound in Tehran. This has been going on for months but the GPS disruptions this time were more wide-spread and prolonged.

December 24, 2020: In northwestern Syria (Hama province) an Iranian missile assembly was hit by an Israeli airstrike. Several structures were destroyed and at least six Iranian mercenaries were killed. This took place near the main Syrian research center for advanced weapons.

December 23, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) thirteen members of an Iran-backed Syrian militia deserted and fled to Kurdish (SDF) territory with the assistance of smugglers. The deserters are not fans of Iran and only joined the militia because it paid better and Iran said it would protect them and their families from retaliation by Syria for not being available for conscription into the Syrian military. Iranian promises turned out to be false and the work more dangerous than implied. Russia and Syria backed militias have been ordered to confront Iran-backed militias and threaten to open fire if the Iranian mercenaries don’t back down. As a resulting Iran is having a harder time finding recruits in eastern Syria and more problems keeping them on the payroll.

December 22, 2020: In Gaza (between Egypt and Israel), the Israeli government seized $4 million Iran was trying to transfer to Hamas via local money changing firms in Gaza. That business is legal but some of the firms also smuggle in cash from Iran and other criminal operations. If Israel detects smuggling and can prove it in an Israeli court, the cash can be seized. Hamas needs this money to pay its security forces and other employees. Most donors, including Arab Gulf states, have stopped financing Hamas and in response Sunni Hamas turned to Shia Iran for support.

In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) an airstrike against an Iranian base killed or wounded over a dozen Afghan mercenaries.

The U.S. revealed that recent sanctions on Russian and Chinese companies was in response to their covert support for the Iranian missile programs.

December 21, 2020: A U.S. Navy SSGN (non-ballistic missile nuclear subs) was seen on the surface entering the Persian Gulf. This was meant to intimidate the Iranians because this nuclear sub was one of four Ohio class SSBN (ballistic missile nuclear subs submarines) that were converted to SSGNs. Their spacious missile tubes, which formerly carried ballistic missiles, were converted to carry with 154 smaller Tomahawk cruise missiles. In late 2007 the first these SSGNs entered service. The conversion included a scheduled mid-refueling of the nuclear reactors. The four SSGNs also include space (living, working and training) for 66 commandos (usually SEALs) and their equipment. Two of the 24 ballistic missile tubes were devoted to use by special operations via the SEALs or other special operations personnel, plus underwater equipment. This included gear that enabled the SEALs to leave the submerged SSGN and get to shore undetected.

The idea of a sub, armed with 154 highly accurate cruise missiles, and capable of rapidly traveling under water, ignoring weather, or observation, at a speed of over 1,200 kilometers a day, to a far-off hot spot, had great appeal in the post-Cold War world. The ability to carry a large force of commandos as well was also appealing. The Ohio SSGNs already carried a wide variety of electronic sensors and other data collecting gear. In one SSGN you have your choice of hammer or scalpel. Tomahawks continued to undergo upgrades. The four SSGNs are due for retirement before the end of the 2020s and no replacement is planned. Instead, the new Virginia class SSNs have more cruise missile tubes added. So far, the Ohio class boats were only used once for a mass launch of missiles. This was off Libya in 2011 when an Ohio launched 93 cruise missiles to suppress the Libyan air defense system so a multi-national air campaign could begin to prevent the Libyan military carrying out to massacre rebels and civilian supporters seeking to over the Kaddafi dictatorship.

While the American SSGN was entering the Persian Gulf an Israeli Dolphin class diesel-electric was known to be headed towards the Persian Gulf, but not on the surface. An Israeli Dolphin class submarine was seen passing through the Suez Canal in early December, into the Red Sea and then towards the Persian Gulf. Since 2014 Israel has been obtaining German built Dolphin class submarines that are equipped with fuel cell-based AIP (Air Independent Propulsion) system which enables them to stay under water for over a week at a time. The Dolphins in general are also very quiet, and very difficult to hunt down and destroy. Larger torpedo tubes allow the subs to carry longer range missiles, which include cruise missiles with nuclear warheads. Egypt, until 2012, did not allow Israeli subs to use the Suez Canal. The Dolphins were modified to go around Africa, if they had to. Improved relations with Egypt, which is also threatened by Iran, changed that Suez Canal policy. The Dolphin that recently transited the Suez Canal did it with permission and picked up an Egyptian canal pilot to guide the sub safely through the canal.

December 20, 2020: In Iraq (Baghdad) eight rockets were fired into the Green Zone and apparently aimed at the American embassy complex. There was some damage to the embassy and one civilian near the embassy was wounded. One of the rockets was intercepted by the C-RAM anti-missile system and most of the unguided rockets missed the large embassy complex. Iran and pro-Iran Iraqi militias denied responsibility and blamed a rogue faction. It is suspected that this attack was not a rogue faction but an effort by Iran to deceive the Americans. That sort of thing is standard procedure for the Iranians.

At the same time anti-corruption efforts led to arrest of dozens of senior officials belonging to Iran-backed PMF militias. These militias had become and more involved in illegal activities and assumed they were immune from prosecution. It was that way for a while but apparently no longer. Iran is not pleased with this development.

December 14, 2020: In Saudi Arabia a tanker off the coast near Saudi oil export facility in Jeddah an explosion occurred on a Singaporean tanker. The crew of 22 got off safely and there was some oil leakage. While fighting the fire it was obvious that the cause of the explosion was external, not internal. This is the latest of several successful Shia rebel attacks on Red Sea shipping. These attacks are the result of Iran changing its tactics in Yemen. The Shia rebels are slowly losing territory to more numerous government forces. Saudi air defenses continue neutralizing ballistic and cruise missile attacks. In response Iran has switched to attempting to disrupt Red Sea commercial traffic by damaging tankers and cargo ships using mines and remotely controlled bomb boats. The Iranians shifted to this naval strategy in early 2020 and it is starting to pay off as more and more commercial ships are suffering damage, What the Iranians need is more successful attacks on Red Sea shipping, including a few large ships being sunk. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are very vulnerable to this Iranian strategy. D isrupting Red Sea traffic interferes with the growing percentage of Saudi Arabian imports and exports that move though Red Sea ports. The Saudis want to reduce reliance on Persian Gulf ports. Red Sea security is even more critical for Egypt. Nearly 20,000 ships a year pass through the Red sea headed for the Suez Canal, which earns Egypt nearly $6 billion a year in transit fees. The new Iranian offensive is made possible because Iran successfully shifted its smuggling operations to northern Somalia where the experienced Somali smugglers were looking for work and Iran paid well and on time. The Arab naval blockade has not yet found out how to foil the smuggling boats, which hide among the many fishing boats and coastal cargo ships operating between Somalia and Yemen and north into the Red Sea.

December 13, 2020: In Iraq (Baghdad) there were five explosions during the night. Four of them were outside closed liquor store and another was at a civilian residence. Another liquor store bomb was discovered and disabled by police before it could go off. In response pro-Iran policemen closed many other liquor stores for bogus “violations. Turkey protested because Turkish manufacturers and wholesalers provided most of the alcoholic beverages for the Iraqi market. Since the campaign against liquor stores began liquor imports from Turkey have fallen 50 percent. This comes at a time when there is peak demand because of New Year and Christmas, which is celebrated by many non-Christians in Iraq.

All this was seen as an effort to increase demand for Iranian made methamphetamine pills. Also known as crystal meth or speed this synthetic narcotic is manufactured in Iran and smuggled into Iraq with the help of bribes to Iranian and Iraqi border police and coast guards. Unlike opium and heroin from Afghanistan, meth can be made locally and since 2014 it has become a popular business opportunity for many unemployed but technically adept Iranians. The government initially cracked down, destroying dozens of meth labs each month and executing a growing number of those caught making or distributing the drug. That has not slowed down meth production because meth is cheaper and faster acting than opium and as a stimulant has legitimate uses for people who have to stay alert for long periods at work. The Iranian attitude towards meth changed dramatically in 2018 when the Americans revived economic sanctions because Iran was caught working on nuclear weapons. Soon Iran had a major economic recession and the government has less cash for paying its thousands of pro-Iran Iraqi militiamen. Up to that point not a lot of Iraqis were setting up meth labs and now Iran wanted to keep it that way. Distributing Iranian meth pills in Iraq became a major source of income for Iran-backed militias. Currently about three percent of Iranians are addicted to meth, opium or heroin and Iraq is catching up with that despite, or because of, the growing poverty.

December 12, 2020: Israel confirmed what journalists and intel agencies in other countries have been reporting about Iranian forces in Syria. Israel revealed that it had carried out over 500 attacks on Iranian forces and bases in Syria during 2020. Most attacks were from the air but artillery (cannon and missiles) were also used as well as a few ground operations. As a result, Iran has reduced the number of locations where it bases troops or stores equipment. There are fewer Iranian troops, most of them foreign mercenaries. The mercs are expensive and Iran is obliged to pay for medical care or death benefits as part of the compensation offered its mercenaries. Over a thousand mercenaries and at least a hundred Iranians have been killed or wounded by these attacks. Iran has not yet found a way to retaliate but so far has remained in Syria and moved most remaining forces to bases in northern and eastern Syria. These are also attacked but it costs the Israelis more to do so. Israel also revealed that it had also been conducting Cyber War attacks against Iran, both in Syria and in Iran itself. The Iranians have responded with its own Cyber War attacks, but these have done little damage until recently Israel suffered major damage when someone hacked most of the firms that keep the Israeli economy going all the time and the military in wartime.

Iran held a public hanging to eliminate Ruhollah Zam, an exiled Iranian who had become a prominent and popular critic of the religious dictatorship. Zam was especially irritating because his father was one of the original clerics that created the religious dictatorship in the 1980s. Zam was born in the late 1970s and his father became the head of propaganda for the new religious government. The younger Zam, like many of the children of senior clerics, lost faith in the religious dictatorship and some have gone public with their opposition. Their fathers cannot always protect them, especially is the children don’t agree to shut up. The younger Zam was a more effective critic than most and realized he was subject to arrest because of that and fled the country for France. The government threatened to try him for treason and worse if they caught him. That would mean the death penalty. The elder Zam told his son that the more conservative ruling clerics, backed by the IRGC, made it impossible to get a pardon or call off the Quds Force operatives tasked with bringing Zam back to Iran any way they could. That resulted in Zam being lured to Iraq during 2019 by the promise of some devastating insider information. Zam was led to believe he would be safe. It was all a setup and Zam ignored advice from friends and warnings from his father and made the trip. Quds kidnapped Zam in Iraq, brought him back to Iran, tried, condemned and executed him. His father was allowed to see his son one last time the day before the execution.

December 10, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) Russian troops and their local 5th Corps Syrian militia set up a headquarters on the Syrian side near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. This is part of an agreement with Iran to reduce the Iranian presence here and give Israel reason to halt its air attacks. The 5th Corps Syrian mercenaries began replacing Iraqi, Lebanese, Syrian and Afghan mercenaries working for Iran.

Egyptian negotiators visited Gaza to discuss a long-term peace deal between Hamas and Israel. These negotiations have been underway sporadically for years. Egypt wants peace in Gaza, Hamas is not so sure. Current Hamas patron Iran definitely does not want peace in Gaza.

December 8, 2020: The U.S. placed sanctions on Iranian IRGC general Hassan Irloo, the new ambassador to Yemen, or at least the Shia rebels. Irloo replaces the last Iranian ambassador, who left Yemen in 2015 when the civil war escalated. The old ambassador was for the pre-civil war Yemen government. Irloo long served in the IRGC Quds Force and is an ambassador to the rebel government one, not the one recognized by the UN and most of the world. Like another Quds commander who serves as the ambassador to Iraq, Irloo does not report to the Iranian Foreign Ministry but to the IRGC headquarters. Before he got the Yemen assignment little was known about Irloo except that he was a Quds officer who was rising in the ranks for accomplishments that were kept secret. This is common with Quds commanders, mainly because Quds is seen as a terrorist organization and successful Quds commanders tend to be responsible for a lot of death and destruction carried out in the name of Shia Islamic domination of the world. In reaction to that Israel and the United States have been tracking down and killing the more notorious Quds commanders. Irloo had to be smuggled into Yemen and that was accomplished by the end of October. The arrival of Irloo was reassuring for the rebels, who have been on the defensive for more than a year. Despite that the legitimate Yemeni government has internal problems that the rebels may be able to take advantage of.

December 7, 2020: Another little publicized but important defeat for Iran is the defection of four PMF militias from the pro-Iran coalition to a new coalition that will concentrate on guarding Shia shrines in Iraq. They do this under the guidance of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most senior Iraqi Shia cleric. Back in 2019 Sistani announced his support of the demonstrators and their goals of eliminating corruption, especially in the government. In effect Sistani was also supporting the very anti-Iran attitudes of the protestors.

There is another senior Shia cleric, Muqtada al Sadr who is almost as influential as Sistani but it more actively a politician. This puts him at odds with Sistani followers but not with Sistani himself. At least not in public. The two clerics realize that they have tremendous influence in what happens in Iraq and that influence would be greatly diminished if they feuded openly.

December 6, 2020: In Iran an unidentified group of Iranians added an Israeli flag and a “Thank You Mossad” sign below it. This was draped from a bridge over larger banners condemning Israel for the recent killing of an Iranian IRGC officer and scientist who played a key role in the Iranian nuclear weapons development program. Owning an Israeli flag is a major crime in Iran. Displaying it and then posting photos on the Internet can get you executed.

November 29, 2020: On the Syria/Iraq border an unidentified UAV used a missile to kill an unnamed senior IRGC officer whose car was crossing the border after midnight. Three other IRGC men in the vehicle also died. Iran believed Israel was responsible. This “assassination” comes a day after a key Iranian nuclear weapons scientist was ambushed and killed outside the Iranian capital. Iranian officials are openly calling for retaliation but so far have not been able to deliver. This makes the Iranian leadership look weak and that just makes those leaders more determined to make the Israelis and Americans pay for the growing list of successful operations to thwart Iranian efforts in Syria and back in Iran where efforts to build a nuclear weapon plod on.

December 1, 2020: In Syria (Damascus) an Israeli air strike killed eight Iranian mercenaries guarding an Iranian arms storage site south of the city.

November 27, 2020: The army began receiving the first of 800 new Karrar tanks. The first Karrar was built in 2017, followed by several more pre-production prototypes. Karrar is another upgraded T-72, something which Iran admits. The 51-ton Karrar has all the features of other late-model T-72 tanks including a three-man crew, autoloaded 125mm gun modern electronics and composite/ERA armor. Karrar is also the continuation of T-72 upgrades that began in the early 1990s.

In Yemen Saudi air strikes took place throughout rebel territory. This was retaliation for a successful cruise missile attack on a Saudi oil facility on the Red Sea coast, about 860 kilometers north of Yemen. The damage to the oil facility was minor but the implications were not. Years of defeating all Iran-supported attacks by Shia rebels in Yemen have been more successful of late.

November 26, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) there was another airstrike against Iranian mercenaries guarding weapons stored near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. This time there were about twenty Iranians and Iranian mercenaries killed. There were also secondary explosions as missiles of ammunition stored there was hit.

November 25, 2020: In the south (Golan Heights) Israeli aircraft dropped thousands of leaflets on Syrian villages near the border warning residents to stay away from Iranian or Hezbollah bases near the border. The civilians know where these bases are and some will do business with those in the bases. These leaflets made it clear that Israeli airstrikes on these Iranian bases and camps would be a regular occurrence.

 

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