Indirect negotiations with the United States over lifting sanctions have gone through five negotiating sessions since April, without an agreement. Apparently, some progress has been made and it may only take one or two more sessions to get some sanctions relief for Iran. These talks are the result of a new (since early 2021) U.S. government, containing many people who worked with the 2015 U.S. government that joined JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) group and made the lifting of Iranian sanctions possible. JCPOA consists of six nations (China, France, Russia, Britain, the U.S. and Germany) that negotiated and signed the 2015 treaty with Iran. This deal lifted economic sanctions in return for Iran halting its nuclear weapons program, which Iran insisted it did not have. Currently Iran refuses to talk with the U.S. directly, so the current negotiations are being held in Austria where the U.S. representative has to be briefed by the other JCPOA members who can meet with the Iranians. This is cumbersome and Iran refuses to deal directly with the Americans while the renewed sanctions are in force. That sort of pre-condition, thanks to abuse by North Korea, is now unacceptable to most Americans and keeps the American negotiators from actively participating in the new talks. Another obstacle is the growing list of Iranian sponsored violence worldwide. In some cases, Iranians are directly involved, something Iran prefers to avoid by using proxies; Iran-backed groups that deny they are taking orders from Iran. This use of proxies is no longer very effective because so many Iran proxies have been exposed. Iran no longer gets the benefit of the doubt because if some group carries out a violent act that benefits Iran, that attack was probably ordered and supported by Iran. While more distant adversaries in Europe and the United States still contain a lot of people inclined to trust Iran, that is definitely not the case with Iran’s neighbors.
Another obstacle to lifting sanctions is the UN inspectors of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), who have been inspecting real or suspected Iranian nuclear facilities for years, believing that the Iranians have been concealing nuclear weapons work for years and are still at it. A major factor in shaping current IAEA assessments was the 2018 Israeli Mossad (foreign intel) operation in the Iranian capital where a heavily protected warehouse containing top-secret documents was located by Mossad, covertly entered and half a ton of documents on the Iranian nuclear program were removed and 24 hours later showed up in Israel. Iran denied that the Mossad operation took place and that the documents were real. Since 2018 Israel has allowed foreign intel and nuclear program experts to examine the documents and that led to international acceptance of the documents as authentic. IAEA used information from these documents to improve their inspection operations and Iran responded by blocking IAEA access to areas that the 2018 documents identified as involved in nuclear weapons research. The 2018 disclosures also persuaded Iran’s neighbors that they had to start planning how they were going to develop or buy nuclear weapons to prevent Iran from using nukes to bully its way to domination of the region and the removal of any government that opposed this.
The Angry Neighbors
The continued lack of hard currency and growing anti-Iran attitudes in Iraq have led Iran to reorganize its pro-Iran militias. Most of the Iraqi militiamen have been dismissed, or asked to work without pay. The small percentage of militia members who remained loyal were offered jobs in smaller, better equipped units. These are the ones keeping the assassination and intimidation program going. Iran has given these Iraqis a license t0 kill, which means if you get caught Iran will get you out and prevent prosecution. What Iran desperately needs in Iraq is more cash and Iran is trying to make a deal with the new American government to lift economic sanctions. Officially, Iraq backs the lifting of sanctions because Iran will work against government officials who say otherwise. Off the record, Iraqi leaders and most of the population want Iran sanctions to continue.
The Iranians are very much still in Syria, but in reduced numbers because of the cash crisis back home. The Iranian mercs and their IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) supervisors are mostly concerned with establishing a military presence near the Israeli border so they can carry out terror attacks using missiles or rockets. So far this has proved slow going and expensive. The Israeli airstrikes regularly hit weapons shipments from Iran and “secret” Iranian bases. Israel has more friends in Syria than Iran does in Israel, or Syria for that matter. Israel is not alone in wanting the Iranians to just go home. That sentiment is shared by many Syrians, Lebanese, Turks, Kurds, Iraqis, Russians and Americans.
While Afghanistan has been hostile to the religious dictatorship in Iran, this is one Iranian neighbor that sees Iran as a source of help if the Taliban again seek to gain control of the entire country. Most Afghans oppose the Taliban and if there is another civil war it will not, as in the past, go well for the Pushtun minority. The Taliban are a Pushtun movement. During the late 1990s civil war, after Pakistan armed and recruited the Taliban to defeat the armed factions and take control, there was one insurmountable problem. The one part of Afghanistan the Taliban could never conquer was the north, especially the Tajik northeast. The Tajiks are undefeated, while the Pushtuns were beaten in late 2001. If there is another civil war the Tajiks will again be the main opponent. The Tajiks have allies that include the other minorities, especially Turkmen, Uzbeks and Mongols (Hazara). This anti-Taliban opposition is still known as the NA (Northern Alliance). The Hazara are a special case because they are largely Shia Moslems and look to Iran for protection from attacks by Afghan Sunnis. This was not a problem until the Taliban showed up, backed by Pakistan. The Taliban were particularly brutal towards the Hazara and Iran has been very active in protecting Afghan Shia ever since.
In the Arabian Peninsula Iran has a military presence in northern Yemen and one thing Saudi Arabia and most Yemenis can agree on is that they both want Iranians out of Yemen. There is potential for a deal here because Iran wants the economic sanctions lifted or at least modified and the Saudis want Iranian forces gone from their southern border. Making that happen is how deals are made in the Middle East. So far, the Iranians are unwilling to give up their ability to launch missile attacks on Saudi Arabia from northern Yemen. The Iranian government believes that getting economic sanctions lifted can be accomplished without leaving Yemen. This has led to a disagreement between the IRGC and the Iranian government, which has had growing problems with the independent minded IRGC. This has come up in negotiations Iran is conducting with the Americans and Europeans to lift the sanctions. With a new government in the United States since January the Iranians believed they could get the sanctions lifted. This has proved difficult because it is no longer secret that IRGC-run operations in Syria, Iraq and Yemen were seriously weakened after the sanctions were reinstated by the Americans in 2017. At the time it was also becoming clear that widespread anti-government protests inside Iran were largely about IRGC grabbing most of the money provided by the 2015 treaty that lifted sanctions. Iranians were told that this additional cash and export sales would be used to raise the standard of living in Iran. That did not happen and Iranians began calling for the end of the religious dictatorship. The IRGC exists mainly to keep that government in power and cracked down against the protests, killing over a thousand Iranians and wounding and arresting tens of thousands. The increasingly independent IRGC faction became an issue in Europe as the Iranian negotiations have not been able to assure the Americans and Europeans that the IRGC will tolerate any sanctions deal that involves a reduction in IRGC activity in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
All this leads the Saudis to believe that there will be another revolution inside Iran and the misbehavior of the IRGC will be a major reason. For both sides, it’s a gamble but because both sides are run by Islamic governments that believe God is on their side, logic and history have less impact on decision making. To an outsider Iran seems to be in a weaker position. Yet the Iranians have been more successful at gaining and holding onto power for thousands of years and even the wealthy Gulf Arab states recognize that.
The word from rebel held territory in Yemen is that Iran has been visibly in charge since late 2020, after Iran sent a Quds Force general to be the Iranian ambassador to Yemen. Few nations, including Iran, have had ambassadors in the Yemeni capital after 2015. The rebels insist that because they occupy the capital and control over a third of the population, they are the real government and their opponents are southern separatists or foreigners. This ignores the fact that many of the people in rebel territory are kept in line via threats to cut off access to food, medical supplies and imported items. Tribes that try to break away risk starvation and a blockade of roadblocks and attacks on smugglers trying to get in. More and more tribes have been able to break away but the rebels have maintained a presence around many towns and cities.
The new Iranian “ambassador” came to Yemen mainly to supervise Iranian support for combat operations and take a more direct role in running the war. That meant keeping the rebels under Iranian control no matter what. Quds felt so confident that they bluntly rejected UN and American offers for ceasefire talks and instead increased the number of offensive operations. For more than a month after the Quds general took over in Yemen, Quds force officers outside Yemen boasted to foreign journalists about what the Quds Force was up to in Yemen. The Iranian senior clerics, who have the final say in what Iranian policy is, realized that openly discussing the direct Iranian control of rebel operations was a mistake. Quds was ordered to leave media interviews and Internet announcements to the government. What the Iranian leaders could not do was order the IRGC to shut down their operation in Yemen, or Syria or Iraq.
Iran is taking more direct control over the Yemen Shia rebels in order to use this control as part of the negotiations to end economic sanctions on Iran. If Iran pulled out of Yemen the Shia tribal forces would be defeated, as they have many times before. Quds force commanders are reluctant to give up gains made in Yemen and may have been told that they could revive support for the Yemeni Shia after the economic sanctions on Iran are lifted. Because of these sanctions Quds force saw its budget cut by half since 2017, forcing major reductions in Quds activities in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Yemen was always the least expensive Quds operation and did not suffer noticeable aid cuts. Yemen was the only IRGC operation that was able to attack arch-enemy Saudi Arabia directly and that counted for something.
June 6, 2021: In northern Yemen (Sanaa city) the leaders of Hamas and the Yemen rebels met in a very public event. Hamas, a Sunni Arab Islamic terror group in Gaza, is one of the few Sunni groups openly supported by Iran. This meeting was all about Iran showing off how well it controls and coordinates the overseas Islamic terror groups it often denies having any influence over. The Hamas visit was unpopular with Yemeni Sunnis because most Yemenis are hostile to Israel and inclined to support the Palestinian goal of destroying Israel. Yemenis saw Hamas praise of the Yemeni rebels as an insult to Yemenis Sunnis, who are at war with Shia rebels that are increasingly using Iranian guided missiles against Sunni civilians.
June 5, 2021: In central Iran (Kerman province) a steel plant suffered major damage due to a fire caused by mishandling of molten metal. The large number of fires breaking out in ships and industrial facilities in the last week is not believed to be the result of sabotage or foreign attack but something far worse. Lack of investment in infrastructure and the economy for decades is catching up with Iran. Since the 1980s the religious dictatorship has been obsessed with destroying the United States and Israel as well as achieving military domination throughout the region. These goals were pursued at great cost to the economy and the living standards of most Iranians.
June 4, 2021: In Yemen Saudi Arabia agreed to lift the air blockade of Sanaa airport so that a group of Omani officials and rebel leaders from pro-peace factions could meet with senior rebel officials and discuss ways in which peace negotiations could proceed despite Iranian resistance. Getting the Omanis involved was a clever move by the Saudis because Oman has always been on good terms with Iran. This was the reason why Iran continued to get weapons, ammo and missile and UAV components into the Shia rebel stronghold in northwest Yemen. Oman shares a 293-kilometer border with Yemen and the Saudis knew the Omanis were tolerating Iranian weapons smuggling. It took several years of negotiations before a deal was worked out and Iran lost regular use of the Oman land route to the Yemen rebels. There is still the water route through the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea. That route is guarded by the naval blockade and Iran has to spend a lot of money to hire experienced smugglers that can get past that.
While Oman maintains good relations with Iran, it also maintains even better relations with the United States and Britain. The Saudis are an ally, so Oman does not take orders from the Saudis but does get along with them. Now the Saudis have the support of Oman in getting the Iranians out of the Arabian Peninsula. Such is not the case with Qatar, which sides with Iran, in part because of family feuds with the other Arab monarchies. Arabia is ruled by monarchies and the royal families have numerous links via past marriages, with the other Gulf dynasties and the resulting family feuds as well. Ending the family feud between Qatar and the Saudis is still a work in progress.
June 3, 2021: In the southwest (Khuzestan province) two pilots in an F-5 jet fighter died when their ejection seats were activated while the aircraft was on the ground. These older ejection seats do not protect pilots from such mishaps and both pilots died. The elderly U.S. made F-5s are now used by Iran mainly for training.
In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) two IRGC officers were killed by an ISIL ambush.
June 2, 2021: Iran, and four African countries, have lost their voting rights in the UN General Assembly because they have not paid their annual dues for two years. Iran blames this on American sanctions. Most Iranians blame it on the continued heavy spending to support IRGC operations in Iraq, Syria. Lebanon, Yemen, Gaza and elsewhere. Iran has to pay $16 million to regain its voting rights.
In the north, outside the capital (Tehran) an accident at an oil refinery, caused by a leak in a liquified natural gas pipeline set fire to over a dozen large storage tanks. The fire was raging throughout the night and could be seen throughout the sprawling city, the largest in the country with a population of nearly none million.
June 1, 2021: In the south, off the coast, the largest “warship” in the IRGC Navy, the Khrag, caught fire and sank off Jask , an Iranian port on the Gulf of Oman. There were 400 crew and trainees on board and while 33 were injured, everyone got off the ship. The fire burned out after a day and the ship sank.
Khrag was built as a fleet oiler (tanker) in the 1970s and became part of the post-1979 revolution. Kharg went through several refurbishments since the 1990s that ultimately converted it to what Iran called a warship and aircraft carrier. Kharg was armed like a corvette, with a 76mm gun and lots of smaller caliber autocannon. There was a helicopter landing pad and hangers for two helicopters. With that Kharg could carry three helicopters but has never been seen doing so. Kharg retained some replenishment ship capabilities as it still had some of its hold space devoted to fuel and other supplies for transfer to other ships at sea. Israel was suspected as responsible for the loss of Kharg, but given the Iranian use of so many elderly ships and aircraft, which naturally are more prone to accidents, it is more likely Kharg self-destructed. That has been the case with several other Iranian warships, including new ones. Officer and crew inexperience as well as shoddy construction standards leads to more accidents.
May 29, 2021: In the northwest (West Azerbaijan Province) IRGC troops clashed with some separatist Kurds crossing the border from a camp in northern Iraq. The IRGC killed two of the intruders and forced the others to flee back into Iraq. In doing this the Kurdish separatists left some weapons and equipment behind.
May 27, 2021: In neighboring Iraq a new voting fraud scandal was exposed when it was discovered that some political parties had managed to buy thousands of non-biometric voting IDs. These are used to sway close elections. The only solution to this sort of fraud is to change the law and require all voters to have a biometric ID, which includes an electronically recorded fingerprint as well as a photo. With enough money, especially from Iran, a lot more of these non-biometric voter ID cards can be obtained. Biometric cards are nearly impossible to fake and the most serious impediment to voting fraud in a country notorious for such illegal activity. Iran-backed groups in Iraq have, next to ISIL, been the biggest threat to voter registration, especially when it involves biometric IDs. For that reason, the 2021 elections allowed some areas to accept non-biometric IDs.
May 26, 2021: In neighboring Iraq, Baghdad security forces arrested Qassim Musleh, the commander of the 13th PMF (Popular Mobilization Forces) brigade. The dawn arrest was ordered by the prime minister, who had compiled well-documented charges of Musleh supporting Islamic terrorism and Iran. Musleh was also responsible for attacks on American forces in Anbar, often while the U.S. troops were housed in Iraqi military bases. The 13th Brigade has long been accused of causing more problems in western Iraq (Anbar Province) where the PMF is supposed to be fighting ISIL and any other Islamic terrorists in the area. There aren’t many ISIL men left in Anbar but there are a lot of Sunni Arabs who oppose Iran and the 13th brigade is composed of and led by Iraqi Shia Arabs who believe Iraq should be more like Iran, which is currently a corrupt religious dictatorship. Most Iraqis want no Iranian influence at all but appreciate Iran helping to create the PMF in 2014, to deal with the IISL threat after the Iraqi security forces collapsed under ISIL pressure. The PMF, along with Iraqi Kurdish militias and a growing force of Iraqi special operations trained by the Americans, plus an American led air support coalition defeated ISIL in Iraq and liberated all ISIL controlled territory in Iraq by 2017. The Kurds and PMF both contributed about 100,000 armed men. The Kurds were more effective and not seeking to take control of the government. The 25,000 Iraqi special operations troops were part of the NATO effort to select and train select Iraqi volunteers for intensive training to be effective troops loyal to the Iraqi government. Retraining the rest of the security forces meant ten times as many personnel and were in the elite special operations units. There were not enough reliable recruits available for that and the biggest problem was tribal and religious leaders who pressured recruits to remain loyal to tribe and religious faction, not Iraq, The Iraqi government planned to eventually integrate most of the PMF fighters into the military. Soon after 2014 the PMF were being paid regularly and wore army uniforms with shoulder patches identifying which of the 67 PMF brigades they belonged to. In 2014 most PMF brigades were loyal to or at least on good terms with Iranian influence. By 2019 the PMF was no longer dominated by pro-Iran brigade officers. At that point Iran realized they were in trouble. At the same time the government was being pressured by the United States to crack down on Iranian weapons shipments being allowed to cross the border into Syria at guarded border crossings. The weapons shipments are often hidden from view by legitimate cargo, but it does not take much effort to reveal that deception. These weapons shipments are guarded by Iran-backed PMF members. The 13th brigade was often involved with this and now the long-feared armed confrontation between Iraqi forces and Iran backed PMF occurred in the heavily guarded Baghdad Green Zone. After the arrest of Musleh earlier in the day, some of the thousands of pro-Iran PMF men in the Green Zone providing security, mainly for the PMF headquarters, promptly went rogue and surrounded the prime minister’s headquarters. That was followed by the arrival of loyal army units who surrounded the PMF men blocking access to the prime minister's headquarters. Apparently, the goal was to have this settled by negotiation rather than a firefight. Musleh was transferred to the custody of the PMF and avoided prosecution. Yet this was a major defeat for Iran because it made clear that senior Iraqi PMF officials who backed Iran were vulnerable and becoming more vulnerable. This was not the first such defeat Iran has suffered. In 2020 the government arrested about twenty members of Kataib Hezbollah, a coalition of pro-Iran PMF militias that Iran is trying to turn into an Iraqi version of the Iran-controlled (since the 1980s) Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran was able to force the government to back off in 2020, but that left the government more determined to suppress the Iran-backed militias that the Iraq government was forced to support.
May 23, 2021: In west Iraq (Anbar province) and northwest Iraq (Muthanna province) Iran-backed militia attacked American supply convoys with roadside bombs, wounding several Iraqi soldiers guarding the convoys and damaging two trucks.
May 22, 2021: In west Iraq (Anbar province) there was another Israeli airstrike against Iranian weapons being stored near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. There were apparently some casualties as well among the Syrian and Iraqi pro-Iran militiamen who guard such Iranian facilities in Syria.
May 21, 2021: Iraq officially backed Hamas in its recently ended war with Israel, the second one since 2014. The 15-day 2021 war was even more costly to Hamas, and less damaging for Israel than the 51-day war in 2014. Hamas called it a victory because they were still alive and in control of Gaza when it was over. Most Arab and Western donors to the Palestinians have reduced or cut aid to Gaza because of continued Palestinian corruption, violence against Israel and refusal to make a peace deal. Hamas has been the worst offender in this area and started both wars with a massive use of rockets against Israeli civilians. Iraq’s support for the Palestinians is all theater and little in the way of substance. Many opportunistic Moslem politicians worldwide still blame all bad things on Israel while many of them trade with Israel on the side because that is economically (or militarily) advantageous. A growing number of Arab Gulf oil states are establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, which has given the Arab alliance against Iran a member with a track record of producing weapons that can defeat anything the Iranians have and is determined to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Israel is currently the only Middle Eastern nation with nuclear weapons and the only one that designs and builds space satellites and launches them on Israeli designed rockets. In part because of the increased Iranian threat, Arab states found they have more in common with Israel than fellow Moslem majority state Iran.
May 14, 2021: In southern Syria (Golan Heights) someone, probably an Iran-backed group, fired three rockets into Israel. One rocket was faulty and landed on the Syrian side of the border while the other two landed in uninhabited areas of the Israeli Golan Heights. Someone was seeking to trigger another front in which Iran organized mass rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel.
May 13, 2021: In northwest Syria (near the Lebanese border) an Israeli airstrike destroyed a smuggler truck headed for Lebanon, apparently carrying Iranian weapons for Hezbollah.