Iran: The Unraveling

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March 1, 2022: The religious dictatorship that has ruled Iran since the 1980s justifies its rule by being very active in trying to be the protector of Shia Moslems everywhere. Iran is the largest Shia majority nation but had never, until the religious dictatorship came along in the 1980s, pushed the “protector of all Shia” angle. There was good reason for this because the Iranians were not Arab but Indo-European and thus automatically foreigners in the region dominated by Islam, a new religion founded by Arabs in what is now Saudi Arabia 1,600 years ago and propagated, often with great force, by Arab armies. For thousands of years the Iranians (as Persians and several other earlier names) had dominated the region. The Arab armies managed to convert Iranians to Islam but not maintain political control for long. Iran eventually adopted the Shia form of Islam, in part because it was only practiced by a minority of Moslems and despised by most Arabs. This suited Iran, which was soon dominating the region militarily once more. This played a part in the unraveling of the Arab Islamic empire, called the caliphate, after a few centuries. The caliphate has never been revived since despite occasional efforts to do so.

The non-Arab Iranians found that most Moslems did not want Iran in charge of Mecca and Medina, the most holy of religious shrines for Moslems and always controlled by Arabs. The Iranians are Shia Moslems and Shia comprise only about ten percent of all Moslems. The Saudis are largely Sunni, a version of Islam about 80 percent of Moslems belong to. Iranians are not Arabs. For many Moslems that is a big deal because Islam was founded by Arabs and the Moslem scriptures (the Koran) are written in Arabic. For the Iranian religious dictatorship, taking control of Mecca and Medina from the Saudis is a major goal. The main battlefield is Yemen, where Iran-backed Yemen Shia rebels began a civil war in 2014 and with Iranian support have defeated Saudi efforts to prevent the Shia provinces in northwest Yemen from becoming an Iranian military base area. Meanwhile the Iranians have convinced many of the Shia Yemenis that getting their autonomy back should be non-negotiable because without that autonomy the Yemeni Shia will be vulnerable to retaliation from all the other Yemeni groups the Shia rebels have harmed during the years of civil war. It’s an impossible situation for the Saudis because the Iranians want to use Shia controlled areas in northern Yemen as a perpetual base for attacks on Saudi control of Mecca and Medina.

The Saudis have been more successful in Iraq, where national elections in 2021 revealed much less support for Iran despite increased Iranian threats and financial promises Iran could not keep. The Yemeni Shia cost a lot less to support and their smaller budget has survived several reductions of cash available for foreign wars. Those IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) operations in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are much more expensive.

Iran has been seeking ways to regain its influence in Iraqi politics and so far, has been unsuccessful. Iran initially responded with a failed assassination attack on the Iraqi prime minister plus rocket and mortar attacks on the American embassy and the remaining U.S. troops. Most Iraqis want some Americans to stay, more economic activity with Arab neighbors and an end to Iranian meddling in Iraq. Iran has other problems that must be tended to, including growing economic problems and domestic unrest because of that. Iraq is now a lower priority, but one Iran will eventually return to once Saudi control of Mecca and Medina is replaced by Iranian management. This is seen as impossible by most Arabs and non-Moslem nations that depend on oil produced in Arabia and Iran.

Many Iranians want their religious dictatorship replaced but the senior clerics who make the decisions confronted that possibility early on with the creation of the IRGC, a force of Iranian true believers in the religious dictatorship willing to slaughter any Iranians who posed a threat. That has worked for decades but is now weakening. Decades of corruption and misrule have brought Iranians more and more poverty and privation. In the last few years even provinces that were once solidly pro-IRGC, and supplied most of the new IRGC recruits, have been the scene of anti-dictatorship protests. The religious government needs a win and needs it soon or face a civil war rather than just more protests.

February 28, 2022: Negotiations with Iran to revive the 2015 treaty that ended sanctions, if Iran halted work on nukes, are not going well. There have been multiple meetings since the new, hardline Iranian government took power in August 2021. This was the result of the 2020 national elections which were rigged, as they traditionally are, so the new president would be Ibrahim Raisi, an infamous mass-murderer and recognized war-criminal. Putting Raisi into such a public position is another example of how desperate Iran is to make clear to opponents in Iran, Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere what they are up against. Raisi insisted that Iran would not negotiate with the West until the 2018 sanctions were first lifted. That did not happen. Now Iran is demanding compliance to its demands within a week or Iran will abandon the negotiations. Nations seeking to negotiate a new peace deal with Iran discovered that Raisi had the support of the religious dictatorship in Iran as well as the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) for this desperate, “all or nothing” negotiating strategy. One demand that is apparently going to kill any deal is Iran insisting on a written guarantee that the United States will not withdraw from the agreement again. Iran needs cash to keep its wars in Syria, Yemen and Iraq going. Israel is preparing to carry out airstrikes on the Iranian nuclear program if they get too close to producing a bomb. Arab oil states will allow Israeli warplanes to unhindered passage to and from such a mission. Iranian threats against its Arab neighbors have caused more resolve to resist and the Arab peace deals with Israel are a nightmare scenario Iranians never expected to experience.

February 26, 2022: In the capital (Tehran) several dozen Iranians protested the Russian invasion of Ukraine and did so outside the Russian embassy. This protest was technically illegal but more accurately represented the attitudes of most Iranians. Enthusiastic Iranian media support for the Russian invasion was criticized by many senior Iranian officials because the media sounded like it was just repeating the Russian justification for the invasion as self-defense against NATO expansion. Some Iranian government officials point out that Russia has claims on portions of Iran and Iran could be next on the Russian list of self-defense invasions. The Shia in neighboring Iraq also protested the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

There were mixed signals elsewhere in the region. Western nations criticized Israel for not condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Actually, Israel did announce that it supported Ukrainian territorial integrity. Israel has an important relationship with Russia in Syria and Israel does not want to endanger that because it makes it easier to carry out airstrikes against Iranian forces in Syria. Russia needs its relationship with Israel more that it needs an alliance with Iran. For that reason, Israel and Russia are often described as frenemies and have consistently behaved as such.

February 25, 2022: The government agreed to speed up the completion of a security fence along the 832-kilometer-long Pakistan border, especially the portion in the southeast opposite Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. In the last month Baluchi separatists, based on the Iran side of the border, carried out two attacks inside Pakistan. In Iran, the local Sunni Baluchi are opposed to how harshly Iranian Shia government treats them. Iranian and Pakistani Baluchis have family, tribal and ideological links and that makes it easier for an Iranian Baluchi Islamic terror group to establish and sustain bases in Pakistan. This is a constant source of friction between Iran and Pakistan because the Iranians could shut down groups like Jaish al Adl were it not for the Pakistani sanctuaries. Pakistan is unable to suppress its own Baluchi Islamic terrorist and separatist groups. Iran, which has long treated uncooperative minorities harshly. This includes Shia Arabs in the southwest, Sunni Kurds in the northwest and the Sunni Baluchis in the southeast. Iranian and Pakistani Baluchis want to create an independent Baluchistan that includes a chunk of southeast Iran where most of the Iranian Baluchis live. Iranian separatist group Jaish al Adl is particularly hated by Iran. In late 2018 Iran threatened to send troops across the Pakistani border to find and destroy Iranian Jaish al Adl camps in Pakistan if the Pakistani security forces did not take action and neither did the Iranians. Jaish al Adl is still active. Pakistan is the only Arab nation with nuclear weapons and does not take sides in the unofficial war between Iran and the wealthy Persian Gulf Arab states, who are now allied with Israel. Pakistan does not want war with Iran but also wants to maintain cordial relations with the Arab oil-states, which often help Pakistan financially. At the same time Pakistan has agreed to establish a barter trade system with Iran as a way around the financial and banking sanctions imposed on Iran. Pakistan is using the same barter method with Afghanistan, which is also sanctioned.

February 23, 2022: The United States sanctioned a Yemeni businessman living in Sweden and a Greek businessman operating out of the UAE for operating a smuggling and trading operation consisting of five front companies created by Iran to generate over ten million dollars for the Shia rebels in Yemen. This network concealed that it was created and controlled by Iran to get money to the Shia rebels that Iran has openly supported since 2015 and covertly for over a decade before that. This network was designated a terrorism support operation. Despite this the United States has still not reimposed the terrorist designation the Shia rebels had until a new American government lifted that in 2021. This was supposed to make the Shia rebels more willing to negotiate a peace deal. Instead. it revealed the extent to which the Shia rebels were controlled by Iran. This was something else that many Western governments have been slow in recognizing.

February 22, 2022: In Yemen, Iranian UAVs equipped with explosives have twice in the last two weeks been intercepted while trying to attack Saudi airports outside cities near the Yemen border. These airports are less than a hundred kilometers from missile and UAV launching sites in northern Yemen controlled by Shia rebels. For years the Shia rebels used long range rockets and short-range ballistic missiles against these targets with little success. The cheaper Iranian UAVs proved more effective because that are more difficult to detect and intercept. In the two recent cases the UAVs were intercepted so close to the target that their explosives blew in the large airport terminal glass windows and injured over two dozen passengers and staff. The attack today wounded sixteen, with three victims in critical condition.

February 16, 2022: For the first time Iran has openly admitted that a satisfactory peace in Yemen is only possible if Iran gets a new treaty listing economic sanctions and not imposing any restrictions on Iranian nuclear research or ballistic missile development.

February 14, 2022: In southern Syria (Daraa and Suwayda provinces plus Damascus) over a thousand Iranian mercenaries arrived to help deal with locals protesting the Assad government and Iranian presence. The mercenaries were nearly all foreigners from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. These reinforcements traveled from eastern Syria (Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces) and used multiple routes to avoid Israeli airstrikes. The local violence against Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces cause over fifty dead and wounded each month and has remained fairly constant for three years. This is part of the undeclared war between Iranian and Syrian forces going on there since 2018. Anonymous assassins use pistols and hidden bombs to kill those who work, or worked for, government forces or Russian and Syrian backed local militias. Russian and Assad forces openly drive Iran-backed groups and individuals out of the area. There is no open violence because Iran, Syria and Russia are still officially allies. Near the Israel border Russian and Syrian pressure has prevented Iranian attacks on Israel. Russia and Syria have also been checking locals to see if they are Lebanese Shia using stolen uniforms rather than Lebanese Shia wearing authorized Syrian army or police uniforms. This border security operation is a big deal for Syria and Israel and a major embarrassment for Iran, which is why Iran has not cranked up its usual media outrage to complain. Israel will sometimes fire on Iranian forces operating in Daraa, especially near the Israeli border. Israel also shares intel with Russia and Syria about Syrian officers who are secretly working for Iran. The Iranians pay well, and in dollars. Israel will sometimes release evidence of this to the media, so that Iranians back home have another reason to oppose Iran’s foreign wars. Negotiations have been underway between Iran and Russia/Syria for over a year but are not making much progress. The covert Iranian violence is just another incentive for Syria to get the Iranian agents out of the area.

February 9, 2022: In the south (the capital Damascus) Israel carried out attacks against air defense systems around the city. This was in retaliation for another Syrian SAM (surface to air missile) failing to self-destruct when it missed its target and instead continuing on into Israel. In this case the SAM detonated before it hit the ground in northern Israel. This has happened before but this incident appeared suspicious so Israel launched airstrikes against Syrian air defenses. This SAM was one of many Syria fired to try and stop Israeli surface-to-surface missiles fired from northern Israel against Iranian targets near Damascus earlier in the day, which set off more attacks.

February 2, 2022: In southern Iraq, an Iran supported Iraqi militia, the True Promise Brigade, took credit for launching three Iranian UAVs, equipped with explosives and programmed to crash and explode in the UAE. That failed because UAE air defenses have been upgraded to detect and destroy UAVs or cruise missiles coming from any direction. The True Promise Brigade is not very large or active and is now targeted by Iraqi counter-terrorism forces. Iraq is seeking to improve its economic relationships with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and reduce contact with Iran.

January 31, 2022: In the Syrian capital Damascus, Israel carried out several air strikes against Iranian weapons warehouses operated and guarded by Lebanese Hezbollah gunmen. This was the first Israeli airstrike since Russian announced, on the 24th, that Russian and Syrian warplanes, including early warning aircraft, would conduct joint patrols along Syrians southern borders to detect and prevent airstrikes from Israel. This was all largely symbolic because Israeli warplanes rarely enter Syrian air space to carry out attacks on targets in Syria. Instead, Israel uses air-to-surface missiles launched from Israeli fighters in Israeli, Lebanese or Jordanian air space.

January 20, 2022: Turkey and Israel have been working on improving their diplomatic, economic and military relationships for several years and that effort has been proceeding slowly. At the same time the Turks have been increasingly hostile to Iran and that includes ignoring Iranian requests during the 2020 war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Turkey sent advisors, armed UAVs and Syrian mercenaries to help the Azeris score their first victory over Armenia in a three-decade long territorial feud. Iran was also unhappy with the fact that the Azeris gave credit to the many Israeli weapons they had purchased over the last decade. This included the Israeli Barak 8 anti-aircraft system which intercepted a number of Russian ballistic missiles fired at Azerbaijan by the Armenians. One of those ballistic missiles was an Iskander, a recent Russian design that was supposed to be more difficult to detect and intercept. Iran is also angry about how its campaign in Syria is proceeding and how unhelpful, or even hostile, their allies Turkey and Russia have been. Russia has been a discreet intermediary between Turkey and Israel and has long urged the Turks to improve relations with Israel. There has been little official notice of this effort, which is what made the Turkish Foreign Minister’s phone call such a big deal.

A technical failure in the main pipeline between Iran and Turkey disrupted the flow of natural gas. Iranian officials did not specify the nature of the technical failure. Turkey’s state pipeline operator, BOTAS, cut gas supplies to industrial users and electricity generation by 40 percent. Private households were not affected – voters don’t like being cold. The energy disruption was the last thing Turkey’s stressed economy needed. A week later intermittent supplies of Iranian gas resumed getting through. Full supply will be restored in early February. In 2020 Turkey used 48 billion cubic meters of gas. Iran supplied 5.3 billion cubic meters, about ten percent. In 2021 Iran supplied around 15 percent of Turkey’s natural gas requirements.

January 18, 2022: In the Gulf of Oman a U.S. Navy warship seized a small freighter from Iran that was carrying 40 tons of fertilizer that is used for explosives in Yemen by the Shia rebels. The fertilizer was hidden but the boarding party did a thorough search because this boat had been caught carrying Iranian weapons to Yemen last year and was released because the owner said he would no longer smuggle.

Further south, Somalia officially backed the UAE after an Iranian sponsored bombing in the UAE capital. Iran says the attack was carried out by Shia rebels in Yemen. For nearly a decade Somalia has been in the middle of the Gulf Arab dispute with Iran and its allies Turkey and Qatar. The UAE has been the most active Arab state in Somalia and now appears to be overtaking Iran and its allies. The Arabs supply more aid than Iran and its allies.

 

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