Iran: The Pushback Paradox

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August 12, 2021: The new hardline government of Iran, imposed by the religious dictatorship despite increased public hostility against such moves, is running into multiple problems. The most serious issue is that foreign nations the new government hoped to intimidate were enraged instead and are pushing, and fighting back. This is popular with most Iranians who agree with the foreigners that the religious dictatorship should be gone.

The new government is concentrating on getting sanctions lifted while areas where Iranian military operations are present are providing more resistance to the Iranian aggression.

Arab states, including Iraq, are seeking help from Israel and the United States to improve air defenses against Iranian ballistic missiles and UAVs used as cruise missiles. The Americans point out that the most successful weapons against the Iranian missiles and UAVs have been developed by Israel, which now has diplomatic relations with the UAE, and other Arab states are considering doing the same because Israel is the most technically advanced country in the region and a primary target for Iranian aggression. Israel has also been the most successful at fighting back against Iran. This is popular in Arab countries, as is the Iranian inability to retaliate against Israel.

In Syria, Russia and Turkey are supposed to be Iranian allies but are less frequently acting the part. Russia sent forces to Syria in 2015 to help preserve its old Cold War era ally the Assads. This was done for the benefit of Russia, not Syria or Iran. Russia was the second foreign power to come to the aid of the Assads, Iran had already been helping keep their old Shia ally, the Assads, in power. Iran had more ambitious goals, as in increasing its threat against Israel. A year after the Russians showed up, the Turks sent in troops, but actually depended on Syrian mercenaries.

The Russians hoped to rebuild the Syria military. That proved impossible and the only alternative was hiring local or foreign mercenaries, which the Iranians, Turks, Americans and Syrians all relied on. By 2015 the pre-2011 Syrian military was gone for good and improving the equipment and air support for the Syrian forces merely made it easier for the Assad troops to play defense, which is all they really wanted to do after several years of civil war. Eventually Russia began hiring some Syrian mercenaries as well, if only to help eliminate the last remnant of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in eastern Syria. Russia was content to let the Israelis keep the Iranian forces busy and taking heavy damage trying to destroy Israel.

For centuries Turkey, Iran and Russia were all antagonists, not allies, and their seeming “alliance” in Syria was all a mirage. All three of these allies are scheming against each other. Russia notes that Turkey is selling weapons to Ukraine, where Russian forces are still at war with Ukraine. Turkey is also trying to repair its damaged relationship with NATO, and that means reneging on weapons purchases from Russia and other forms of anti-Russian behavior. Russia is sticking it to Iran by backing Israel and the efforts of Arab states to replace Iran as the protector of the Assad government.

The Turks play defense, adding layers of protection to their border to prevent any of the Idlib residents from getting into Turkey. Iran doesn’t care and is content to let the Turks deal with Idlib while Iranian resources concentrate on Israel.

As long as the Islamic terrorists remain in Idlib, ISIL in the east and Iranians near the Israeli border, the Syria civil war will not be over. The only ones who cannot walk away from this are the Assads, Turkey and Israel. Russia depicts itself as the good guy interested only in peace and prosperity. That leaves Iran as the real interloper and troublemaker. Dealing with Iran has been a headache for Turkey and Russia for centuries while the Arabs have several thousand years of bad experiences with the Iranian threat. In other words, Iran is difficult to deal with, something everyone can agree on.

Iran wants to repeat in Syria what it has been doing in Yemen for several years. In Yemen Iran perfected an effective way to attack Saudi Arabia by arming Shia rebels in Yemen with over a thousand ballistic missiles and UAVs during the last seven years. Most of these were aimed at southwestern Saudi Arabia. Less than one percent of those UAVs and missiles hit anything of consequence in Saudi Arabia. Iran is seeking to carry out a similar campaign against Israel using Iran backed militias in Syria. That has not been working out so far because Israeli intelligence capabilities and airstrikes have been much more effective in Syria than Saudi efforts in Yemen. This despite the fact that Israel and Saudi Arabia have similar aircraft, smart bombs and air defense systems.

Iraq’s Shia controlled government faces different threats; internal corruption and Iranian efforts to turn Iraq into a client state or unofficial part of the Iranian Shia Islamic empire. This time you have about 90 percent of Iraqi very much opposed to corruption. There were regular gatherings for large anti-corruption demonstrations that continued. Many of these demonstrations are anti-Iran as well. While corrupt Iraqi officials and pro-Iran Shias are on the defensive, they are still a major factor in Iraq and Iraqis in general don’t want this to degenerate into another war. They just want less corruption and a major reduction in Iranian efforts to control Iraq.

Yemen

Iran is running the Shia rebel operations. Iran is their main source of outside support and the Iranian ambassador, one of the few in the rebel-occupied capital, is a former Quds Force general who is in Yemen more as a Quds Force commander than a diplomat. This ambassador doesn’t make many requests, but he does issue a lot of orders. The IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) is the separate military force formed in the 1980s to protect the religious dictatorship that has ruled Iran since the 1980s. The Quds Force is a component of the IRGC that starts, supervises and sustains foreign rebellions and terror campaigns to expand Iranian power and keep potential enemies on the defensive. The IRGC is also the main component of the radical faction in the Iranian government. The radicals, who put the expansion of Iranian power above everything else, are at war with the “nationalists” in the Iranian leadership that want to emphasize improving the economy and living standards for Iranians. The religious rulers of Iran see the nationalists as a threat and have given radicals, including the Quds Force, more power and resources in 2021. Yemen is seen as the cheapest and most successful of Iran’s overseas wars. Those in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq are all suffering setbacks and embarrassing Iranian defeats. In Yemen Iran is regularly and inexpensively attacking archenemy Saudi Arabia directly. It’s not just the Shia rebels of northern Yemen who are the problem, but the Iranian ballistic missile and cruise missile attacks on Saudi Arabia as well as the growing use of naval mines in the Red Sea and land mines wherever the Shia rebels are operating. This is why the Shia rebels refuse to discuss any peace deal that includes the removal of Iranian operations from Yemen. In typical Iranian fashion, the Iranian government denies that it is behind the continuing violence in Yemen. That sort of worked for a while after the current civil war broke out in 2014. After a few years Iran admitted, or, rather, an IRGC general boasted that Iran had been covertly supporting an uprising among the Shia Arab tribes of Yemen for years before 2014. Many Yemenis knew this but were ignored for a long time because Yemen was famous for its many conspiracy theories and scammers. Yemen has long been rated as one the most corrupt nations on the planet and that plays a large part in Iranian success at continuing to smuggle weapons and Iranian personnel into Yemen. If you know who to bribe and can afford it, anything is possible.

The Iranian problem is that Shia Arabs are a minority in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. There are lots of Shia Arab tribes just across the border in southwest Saudi Arabia but those tribes have been well treated by the Saudis and see no point in supporting their violent cousins across the border. The Saudis continue taking care of their Shia subjects by preventing the hundreds of Iranian missiles (mostly ballistic or cruise types) from hitting anything valuable (property or people) in the southwest. Iran continues to deny any involvement in all those attacks, and insists it’s just resourceful Shia tribesmen building ballistic missiles and explosives laden UAVs used on one-way trips as cruise missiles using their own resources. No one, including Iran or Shia Arab rebels believe that but that remains the official position of the rebels and Iran.

The most powerful weapon Iran and Yemen’s Shia rebels have is the disunity of the rest of Yemen. The Sunni tribes in the south want autonomy or a separate state, a situation that was the norm for centuries. A united Yemen is a relatively new concept, only achieved in the 1990s. In the north, where the Shia tribes predominate, there are Sunni tribes that oppose the civil war, as well as a growing number of Shia Arabs. There are also disagreements among the Arab oil states, mainly the Saudis and the UAE, on how to deal with the Iranian threat in Yemen.

Unable to do much about Saudi air power, Iran has increased its efforts to disrupt traffic in the Red Sea, where several major Saudi ports handle most of the imports for western Saudi and a network of pipelines and ship loading facilities that soon will be able to handle all of Saudi oil exports. Suez Canal traffic passes through the Red Sea and the second largest Yemeni port is on the Red Sea. All this justifies the increased Iranian efforts to covertly use naval mines in the Red Sea. While these are Iranian mines, its proxy Yemen Shia rebels take credit for placing the mines in the water. Hundreds of these mines have been placed off the Yemen Red Sea coast in the last few years but the damage so far has been minor. No ships have been sunk, despite the fact that a small percentage of the mines were more modern and deadly bottom mines that rest on the ocean floor in shallow water (no more than 60 meters/190 feet deep) and use pressure sensors to detect a target and detonate. The Iranian bottom mines seen off Yemen so far are not the most modern design and suitable only for shallower (20 meters) coastal waters. Perhaps the less-effective mines were used on purpose, to disrupt shipping, but not sink a lot of it because that might create a major international uproar and calls for international military action against Iran.

With all this in mind, Iranian efforts in Yemen are not crazy, risky or expensive. But they are causing more pushback by the many foreign enemies Iran has made. Many of those foes in the West have imposed crippling sanctions on Iran and the increasingly aggressive Iranian efforts to disrupt Red Sea traffic is not having the desired effect.

August 11, 2021: President Raisi nominated a wanted (by Interpol) terrorist, Ahmad Vahidi, to be Interior Minister. Vahidi is wanted in Argentina for involvement in a 1994 attack on a Jewish community center. Vahidi is believed to have helped carry out other terror attacks as well. This brought him recognition and rewards in Iran, as a Quds Force officer and cabinet minister. In 2009 he was appointed Defense Minister and served until 2013. He joined the Quds Force from 1983, reached the rank of general and remained a Quds Force officer while serving as a cabinet minister. Raisi has nominated several other cabinet ministers with an IRGC background, causing Iranians to refer to his ministers as the “IRGC Cabinet.” The hardliners are definitely in charge.

August 10, 2021: In Syria (port of Latakia) Iranian tanker docked there experienced an onboard explosion that led to a fire and some casualties. The tanker was smuggling oil to Syria. Israel has interfered with these tankers in the past.

In Ethiopia, satellite photos have shown several Iranian Mohajer-6 UAVs at an airbase, along with a truck mounted ground station. The Mohajer-6, which entered service in 2017, seems to be a copy of the original Israeli Heron UAV, which entered service in the 1990s and was one of the Israeli UAVs that led to the larger American Predator. The Heron has undergone several major upgrades since the 1990s but the Mohajer-6 appears to be the same weight as the 1990s Heron but equipped to carry two laser guided missiles. Ethiopia usually buys its UAVs from Israel, but few Israeli UAVs are equipped to carry weapons. Israeli UAVs specialize in reconnaissance and surveillance, passing on target information to ground and air force. That works inside Israel but some UAV customers requested armed models. Ethiopia apparently needed some armed UAVs fast and the Iranians had some Mohajer-6s available. Ethiopia is currently dealing with another rebellion, this time in the north, adjacent to Eritrea.

August 9, 2021: The U.S. announced new sanctions on individuals and companies associated with Iran-backed armed groups in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. This makes it more difficult for these individuals and companies to do business, especially when it is traced to those militias. Ibrahim Raisi, the new president of Iran, has been appointing officials to senior posts who are already sanctioned by the United States. Raisi was an infamous judge and prosecutors during the 1980s and responsible for the execution of thousands of Iranian accused or suspected of disloyalty towards the then new religious dictatorship that had replaced the monarchy in 1979. Ever since then many Iranians refer to Raisi with uncomplimentary nicknames referring to his early career as a mass murder.

August 8, 2021: In the northwest (West Azerbaijan Province), several days of protests, over the death of a prominent local Kurd, ended with the arrival of riot police. At least 40 protestors were injured and over fifty were arrested. The local population is predominantly Kurd and Turkic. This is where the borders of Iraq, Turkey and Iran meet and Kurdish separatist groups from Iraq and Iran are active.

August 7, 2021: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province), numerous Israeli air strikes against Iranian bases outside Mayadeen city have led Iran to bring in air-defense radars and mobile SAM (Surface-to Air Missile) units to the area. This is an effort to discourage Israel from continuing their airstrikes. The Iranians have also installed a radar for detecting low flying UAVs Syrian and Russian air defense systems have been unable to stop the Israeli attacks and now the Iranians are seeking to show the Syrians and Russians what effective air defense is. The Israeli response has been more airstrikes. Iran is trying to turn this area, just west of the Euphrates River, as major logistics and training center for its Syrian operations against Israel. So far that effort has provided more targets for Israel to attack and those airstrikes are increasing.

August 6, 2021: In northern Israel Hezbollah took credit for firing ten rockets into Israel over the last two days. All were either intercepted by Iron Dome or fell in unoccupied areas. There were no casualties or property damage in Israel. Israel launched retaliatory attacks against Hezbollah targets today and yesterday that did no damage and caused casualties. Hezbollah was apparently encouraged to make the attacks by Iran, where a new hardline president was in power and threatening attacks on all enemies of Iran.

August 5, 2021: The new Iranian president Ibrahim Raisi was officially sworn into office in a ceremony featuring guests from 70 countries plus the Lebanese Hezbollah (in the first row) and right behind them representatives of the EU (European Union) which has been trying to negotiate and end to the economic sanctions that the Americans revived in 2018 after finding evidence that Iran had violated the terms of the 2015 treaty with the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany. Also attending the ceremony were representatives from most Arab states as well as countries that bought Iranian oil or sold Iran goods. With all those foreign representatives in attendance, Iranian diplomats and trade officials sought to organize an international coalition to back the lifting of sanctions on Iran. That proved difficult because during the previous week Iran had been identified as the perpetrator of several attacks on Persian Gulf shipping that Iran denied responsibility for. Israel, Britain and the United States are threatening armed retaliation if Iran does not halt its attacks. Raisi had promised more aggressive policies towards the sanctions and was now learning what the cost of that policy would be.

August 4, 2021: In northern Yemen, Saudi air defenses shot down a rebel UAV armed as a cruise missile, apparently headed for the southwestern Saudi city of Khamis Mushait in Asir province. In the past, when most of these attacks were with Iranian ballistic missiles, the target was often the nearby King Khalid Air Base. The air base has stronger defenses against aircraft, especially low flying cruise missiles and UAVs. So now the target is the nearby city. For the Iranians, any dead Saudi is a win.

August 3, 2021: At least eight Iranian gunmen sought to emulate Somali pirates by boarding the tanker Asphalt Princess off the UAE coast but failed to take control of the ship. The crew locked themselves in a safe room and disabled the engines. The Iranians were unable to gain control of the engines and were adrift. They left the ship early the next morning as warships closed in to free the ship and capture the pirates. The Iranians apparently planned to take the tanker to an Iranian port and demand large fines for non-existent violations. This is another version of the tactics the Somali pirates used from 2007 to 2012. An international anti-piracy patrol off Somalia was soon formed and quickly ended the ship hijackings during the last nine years. The pirates are still operating off Somalia and Yemen but now concentrate on robbing smaller ships rather than trying to hold them for ransom. Owners of the smaller ships usually will not or cannot pay ransom. A smaller international anti-piracy force has been formed for the Iranian threat and commercial ships are warned that the security methods they used off Somalia should be used when they pass near Iran. That’s why the Asphalt Princess crew knew what to do if pirates got aboard.

July 29, 2021: Off the Oman coast an Israeli owned tanker was hit by an airstrike which killed two crew members, one British and other Romanian. Iran has been trying to retaliate for more than ten Israeli attacks on Iranian ships since 2019. In the current attack two or more armed UAVs were aimed at the crew quarters indicating the UAVs were under remote control and deliberately seeking to cause casualties. An examination of the fragments of the two UAVs that hit the tanker revealed that they were Iranian. Israel, Britain and the United States openly demanded that Iran admit its guilt and cease such illegal behavior. Iran denied responsibility but as more and more nations viewed the evidence, Iran found it had few nations that believed their denial of responsibility. The U.S. led calls for Iran to be punished for this blatant attack on Persian Gulf shipping. Iran has long attacked foreign merchant ships operating near their coast, sometimes openly, to persuade foreign countries to comply with Iranian demands. Apparently, the age of compliance is coming to an end and such Iranian attacks will be treated as acts of war and responded to as such. Despite this, Iranian leaders continue to believe their intimidation tactics are still working.

July 26, 2021: The July 26 agreement with the U.S. for American forces to end combat operations in Iraq left many confused about what it actually meant. The agreement does not mean a reduction of the 2,500 American forces still in Iraq. These personnel will remain to provide training and advisory services. It is unclear exactly what this agreement is to accomplish. Hours after the agreement was signed and announced, the Iranian Quds commander made a well-publicized “secret” visit to Baghdad to confer with Iran-backed militia leaders, who refused to comment on the new agreement right away. These militia leaders take their orders from Iran and the commander of the Quds force. It’s been hard times for Quds since January 2020, when an American airstrike killed the most successful Quds force commander, Qassem Soleimani along with the commander of the Iraqi Katab Hezbollah and several other key Iran-backed Iraqi militia leaders. Iran has not been able to find anyone as capable as Soleimani to keep Quds, and the foreign military operations it controls, operating effectively. This was immediately evident when Soleimani’s successor found that he was not feared and respected as much as his predecessor and could not make truly secret visits to Iraq by being waved through border crossings. The new Quds commander had to ask for permission before visiting Iraq or cross at one of the unofficial crossing sites where bribes and threats of attacks by local Iran-backed militias made it possible for the Quds force commander to enter whenever he wanted. Despite that clandestine access, the Iraqi government was soon informed by one of a growing number of anti-Iran Iraqis who are now too numerous for the Iranians to monitor and intimidate.

Between 2011 and 2014 Iraqi attitudes towards the United States underwent a painful reality check. By the end of 2014 Iraqi leaders, including many still in office, admitted that the withdrawal of all U.S. troops in 2011 was a mistake they would never again repeat. The pro-Iranian PMF (Popular Mobilization Forces) militia leaders calling for violence against American forces after 2014 grew less effective because of declining popular support for Iran and pro-Iran militias. That slide continues and Iran is still searching for a solution that won’t make their position in Iraq even more precarious.

July 25, 2021: In southern Iraq (the Shia shrine city Najaf) two Iran-backed PMF militias reported that their ammo depots had been attacked by missiles fired by unidentified UAVs. The missiles set off numerous secondary explosions caused by stored munitions. Finding enough missile fragments to identify who made the missile has been difficult. American, Israeli and Chinese armed UAVs are all used in the region. China supplies Iraqi forces with UAVs armed with Chinese versions of the American Hellfire missile. Israel doesn’t use armed UAVs that much and that far from Israel. The Americans denied responsibility.

July 22, 2021: In eastern Syria (Homs province) Israeli warplanes carried out airstrikes against Iranian military targets again, as it had done yesterday. A Russian source claimed that four of the Israeli air-to-ground missiles, launched from Lebanese air space, did not reach their targets. If true this meant that Russia had, for the first time, used the S-400 air defense system to spot and track Israeli missiles and intercept them. Syria had long been asking for Russia to use its more advanced air defense systems to counter the hundreds of Israeli air strikes. The Russians refused to confirm the media report and Israel ignored it. Both “intercepted” air strikes destroyed their intended targets and it is unclear what the purpose of the false report that Russia would neither confirm or deny. If true it would have meant Israel finally had their long-sought opportunity to scrutinize the S-400 in action and upgrade their countermeasures. Israel has been using standoff weapons, fired from Lebanese, Israeli or Jordanian airspace, to avoid exposing its manned aircraft to the S-400 if the Russians should finally decide to actually use them. Tracking missiles is a start because Israel has a wide variety of air launched missiles, some better equipped to deal with the S-400 than others. This unusual rumor appeared to be a Russian effort to improve the reputation of their new systems without actually using them against the Israelis.

July 21, 2021: In northern Iraq (Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish north) another Iranian attack employed an Iranian UAV used by an Iran-backed Iraqi militia that dropped one or more bombs and missed the U.S. military compound that was apparently the target. This was the second time pro-Iran Iraqi militias used Iranian UAVs for this kind of attack. The first attack was in April. American bases have ani-rocket defenses but nothing very effective for armed UAVs. That is supposed to be fixed in 2021.

July 19, 2021: Local media report the creation of explicitly Iran-backed Shia militias in western Afghanistan. Iran wants to protect the Shia minority (about 20 percent of Afghans) from the expanding reach of the Taliban. In the late 1990s the Taliban went after Afghan Shia in a big way and the victims have not forgotten. The new militias are composed of combat experienced Afghan Shia who served as Iranian mercenaries and survived combat in Syria. Oddly enough the name of these militias, Hashd Al Shi’I, does not use one of the local languages (Pushtun or Dari), but a language the Syrian veterans learned a little of in Syria. Hashd Al Shi’I is Arabic for “Shia Mobilization”.

Over 50,000 Afghan Shia served in Syria and, as they returned to Afghanistan, often took the initiative in protecting fellow Shia from increasing violence by Islamic terror groups, including the Taliban. The former mercs asked Iran for help but until now all Iran was willing to do was back anti-Pakistan Taliban factions that, in return for weapons and other aid from Iran, promised to leave Afghan Shia alone. Moving on to explicitly Iran-backed Shia militias is not considered a big surprise.

In 2019 Iran sent most of the Afghan mercenaries in Syria home because the revived American economic sanctions had greatly reduced the amount of money that could be spent on the war in Syria. Iran began building a new mercenary force by hiring Syrians. The best of the Iranian foreign Shia were the Afghans but there was a limited supply of Afghan Shia willing to serve as Iranian mercs in faraway Syria. To entice the Afghans to volunteer they were paid more than the other foreign Shia in Syria. While the Afghans were the best fighters, a growing number would not renew their contracts and returned to Afghanistan or Iran, where mercenary service also earned an Iran residency permit. While the Syrian Arab mercs are cheaper, they are adequate. The low cost is largely because of the bad shape the Syrian economy is in and the dire poverty many Syrians live with.

July 13, 2021: The American social media company Facebook revealed that it had detected and was trying to shut down an Iranian Cyber War effort to obtain details of American military personnel via Facebook. The situation is different in a less visible war, waged by Iranian hackers, where there have been some recent victories. Iran keeps these victories quiet because continued success depends on the victim not being aware they have been damaged and by whom.

The latest Iran win via Facebook was due to the efforts of a hacker organization known as APT (Advanced Persistent Threat) 35. Internet security firms track these APT groups and use the APT label to identify those groups that have been around for a while, usually with the help of a national sponsor. APT35 is Iranian and often works for the Iranian IRGC. Security firms are constantly looking for new APT campaigns and a recent find was APR35 using Facebook to establish dozens of fake recruiters of military personnel leaving the service and seeking civilian employment. APT35 uses the social engineering approach to entice military personnel looking for a lucrative civilian job to supply useful information on their current jobs or download apps that appear to help them in their job search but actually contain hidden malware (hacker software) that gives the hacker secret access to the user’s computer and possibly military networks. This APT35 campaign was detected by security firms and Facebook was alerted and began finding and cancelling hundreds of APT35 accounts used to operate this scam. Facebook is still looking and, for the moment, the APT35 campaign is damaged if not destroyed. For APT35 it still counts as a win because much damage has been done and Facebook and the Department of Defense are trying to measure the extent of the damage.

 

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