The “peace talks” with Iran remain stalled, this time because Iran refuses to allow inspections of military facilities. The Iranian military leadership considers such inspections a legal excuse to spy on Iranian military operations. Iran also wants 24 days’ notice before any inspections to verify that a treaty (that would halt Iranian nuclear weapons development and lift sanctions) was being followed. Moreover the ruling clerics of Iran have come right out and said all sanctions must be lifted as soon as a deal is signed. In the West getting the currently negotiated proposed deal approved is more complicated because of democracy and divisions in the leadership between those who want to do any kind of deal (just to be done with the economic and political problems caused by the sanctions) versus those who demand proof (intrusive and unscheduled inspections) of Iranian compliance. Israel has made it clear that it will only accept true compliance and verifiable proof that the Iranian nuclear weapons program is shut down. The latest Iranian demands regarding inspection is in direct conflict with Israeli demands (which are backed by many Americans and Europeans). Iran (backed by Russia) also insists that sanctions not be automatically re-imposed if Iran is found in violation of the treaty. So after much diligent negotiating there is really no agreement. The sanctions remain in place. The Iranian negotiators believe that if they can get any sanctions lifted the West would have a more difficult time restoring them because of Iranian misbehavior. Some Western leaders underrate this vulnerability but at least this potential Iranian ploy is not totally ignored by everyone in the West. This makes this particular scam less likely to work especially if the Iranian negotiators continue trying to manipulate their Western counterparts. Currently there is a June 30th deadline to reach an agreement on the current proposal or else more sanctions would be imposed. Iranian negotiators (and, according to local gossip and Internet chatter, most Iranians) believe that the deadline can at least be extended and additional sanctions avoided. To Iranians that would be a victory. The U.S. now openly admits that the “military option” is still available if sanctions do not succeed in getting the Iranian nuclear program shut down. Israel keeps saying the same thing.
According to what is said in Iranian media and on the street most Iranians believe the West can be manipulated into signing a treaty that lifts the sanctions and does not really prevent Iran from getting nukes. Moreover the sanctions have cost a lot of Western countries needed business and there is growing domestic pressure in some European countries to make any kind of deal. At the same time most Western leaders know that the economic benefits of low oil prices come because of the efforts of the Arab Gulf oil states, who are using the most powerful weapon they have to hurt the Iranians economically and do more damage than the sanctions. The Arab Gulf states are demanding that any peace deal with Iran explicitly protect these oil rich countries (and long-time allies of the United States and other NATO countries) from Iranian aggression. Some NATO countries quickly agreed to this, others are debating how to do it. These Arab countries cannot be ignored and that annoys most Iranians a great deal.
The military option includes a lot of air strikes and to help dissuade anyone from trying that Iran now insists that it has developed its own clone (Bavar-373) of the Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missile system. Iran began work on the Bavar-373 in 2010, after Russia refused to deliver S-300 systems Iran had ordered. International sanctions, plus pressure from the United States and Israel led Russia to cancel the Iranian order. Iran has issued progress reports ever since and Bavar-373 is supposed to be ready for final testing in 2016. The actual Iranian missile for the Bavar-273 is called the Sayyad 3 and it appears to be the same size and shape as the S-300 missile and carried in similar canisters. Iran insists that Bavar-373 is superior to the S-300. Now that Russia has agreed to deliver S-300s Iran will have to reveal if it believes its own propaganda about which system is superior.
Despite efforts to unite, the Kurds in northern Iraq continue to squabble. Thus the two main Kurdish political parties in northern Iraq, the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) and PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) are moving in different directions again. The two parties agreed to unify in 2006 and that has largely worked. But with more foreign aid coming in the PUK accuses the KDP (which holds most top leadership positions) of taking more than their share. To make this worse Iran is offering direct aid to PUK and, according to the KDP and many in the PUK, trying to divide the Iraqi Kurds. There are other divisions, like the PKK (separatist Turkish Kurds) and similar groups in Syria and Iran. Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran have always sought to keep the Kurds divided and less capable of forming a Kurdish state out of the portions of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran the Kurds have lived in for centuries. Despite that since the early 1990s Iraqi Kurdistan has effectively been autonomous and far more stable and prosperous than the rest of the country. Attempting to establish a separate Kurdish state would bring problems not only with Iraq (which probably couldn't do much about the matter anyway), but also with Turkey and Iran, both of which have restive Kurdish minorities. Normally Syria would protest as well, but currently Syria is torn apart by civil war.
The U.S. is trying to prevent Iran from using its close economic ties with Iraq to buy airliners that decades of sanctions have denied it. Iran has been able to buy twenty second-hand airliners this year because that is a larger and less tightly regulated market than the one for new aircraft.
May 22, 2015: The U.S. admitted that Iran has sent some of its artillery (truck mounted rocket launchers) deeper into Iraq to assist Iraqi troops fighting ISIL forces near the oil refinery at Beiji (200 kilometers north of Baghdad). Thus battle has been going on for nearly a year. The Iranian artillery units bring along their own UAVs to spot targets. ISIL captured parts of Beiji in April after two weeks of fighting. This effort eventually failed, with heavy losses but not before occupying parts of the refinery compound. By late April more ISIL forces arrived and tried again. This battle continues. In late November 2014 ISIL forces were driven away from the refinery which they had besieged for over a month. Since then ISIL has continued to stage attacks, all of which have been repulsed. The Beiji refinery can process 320,000 barrels of oil a day and that represents more than a quarter of Iraq’s refining capacity. Clearing ISIL out of this area also isolated the ISIL held town of Tikrit, which is due north of Baghdad and is full of Sunni Arabs and Saddam admirers who have had enough of ISIL. The Iraqi Army recently recaptured Tikrit and continues moving north. But until ISIL is cleared out of Beiji a major advance on Mosul will not be practical.
Iranian artillery was first used against ISIL in late 2014 firing from inside Iran near the Iraqi border. That soon changed. While Iran insists that it has no combat units in Iraq, just trainers and advisors, mainly for pro-Iranian Shia militias, there are a lot of Iranian weapons showing up there, at first not far from the Iranian border but definitely inside Iraq. American UAVs regularly patrol the border area and the Americans and Iranians have an unofficial agreement not to shoot down each other’s UAVs. The UAVs regularly note Iranian military vehicles entering Iraq. The Americans also have photo satellites regularly passing overhead that see this as well. Thus the Americans know that there have been several hundred Iranian M-60s and T-72 tanks and other armored vehicles operating with the Shia militias inside Iraq. There have also been a lot of Iranian truck mounted rocket launchers. The tanks and rocket launchers are supposed to have Iraqi crews but in fact most of the Iranian rocket launchers and armored vehicles were operated by Iranians although their mission was to support pro-Iranian Iraqi Shia militias. The Americans tolerate this as long as the Iraqi government does, especially since the Americans don’t want to send in troops to help the Iraqi army. While the Iraqis appreciate the Iranian help, they make it clear that the majority of Iraqi Shia do not want to become part of Iran and that Western and Arab allies of Iraq will join the fight against any Iranian moves to take control of Iraq. Not everyone believes this will dissuade the Iranians from making an attempt on annexing Iraq. But at the moment ISIL is seen as a serious problem for all Moslems and because of that there is an unusual degree of cooperation between Iran and nations (the West and Sunni Arab states) that are usually considered enemies. Iran is also sending armored vehicles and rocket artillery to Anbar province to help push ISIL out of Ramadi (the provincial capital of Anbar.) This apparently will involve, as will the Beiji operation, cooperation between American airpower and Iranian ground units. Until quite recently Iran was opposed to this.
An Iranian ship carrying 2,800 tons of aid for Yemenis has docked at Djibouti, which is across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen. This is a compromise solution to Iranian efforts to dock at a Yemeni port despite threats by Arab countries and the United States to sink the ship if it tried to unload in Yemen. There was fear that the ship also contained weapons and other military equipment for Iran supported Shia rebels in Yemen. The UN will inspect the Iranian ship in Djibouti and if no illegal cargo is found, supervise the movement of the Iranian ship to Yemen and unloading there. One reason Iran went along with this is that the UN now has evidence (mostly from the Americans) that in the recent past four Iranian cargo ships docked at Shia rebel held ports in Yemen after using deceptive measures (turning off their transponders, which is illegal for maritime safety reasons, and frequently changing course) until they managed to reach a Shia held port in Yemen to unload. The naval patrols are much tighter now that the Arab coalition went to war with the Shia rebels in Yemen in late March. Since then Iranian aircraft and ships have been barred, by threats of force, from entering Yemen.
May 21, 2015: The government openly threatened to attack Israel, using the pro-Iranian Hezbollah militia in southern Lebanon. Iran says that Hezbollah now has 80,000 Iranian rockets (mostly small 107mm and 122mm ones) aimed at Israel. This announcement was in response the recent Israeli release of aerial and space satellite photos showing Hezbollah moving fighters, headquarters and equipment into residential areas in order to provide more protection from Israeli air attack. Hezbollah has made such moves in the past before carrying out major attacks on Israel.
May 18, 2015: Two Iranian warships caught up with the Iranian cargo ship trying to force its way past the blockade around Yemen. This bluff did not work and Iran agreed to dock elsewhere.
A Taliban delegation (from the Taliban peace negotiators in Qatar to try and make a deal with the Afghan government) visited Iran. The main topic was a mutual foe; ISIL. Iran officially (at least to the outside world) denies cooperation with Sunni Islamic terror groups (like the Taliban) but visits like this are covered in local media and are not really all that secret. Iran has a long history cooperating with the Taliban. In 2012 Iran allowed the Taliban to open an office in eastern Iran, and threatened to provide the Sunni Islamic terrorist group with portable anti-aircraft missiles for use in Afghanistan. The Iranians are not so much supporting the Taliban (who believe Shia Moslems, which most Iranians, and many Afghans are, to be heretics and must be killed), as they are simply assisting Afghans (usually guys in their teens and 20s) who are willing to fight against the foreign (American and Western) troops. The Iranians don't want to make the Afghan drug gangs stronger either, but training and arming gunmen for them (the drug gangs pay well) does just that. In fact, there is a disagreement in the Iranian leadership about how to deal with this problem, and the solution seems to be let everyone do what they feel is best. So while Iranian border guards will shoot on sight if they see Taliban or drug smugglers, Iran also hosts training camps for Afghan tribesmen, and smuggles weapons into Afghanistan to arm these young fellows once their training is complete. All this despite the fact that when the Taliban ran most of Afghanistan in the 1990s, they killed thousands of Afghan Shia.
May 17, 2015: In Iraq Iran-backed Shia militias were seen heading for Anbar province and the capital Ramadi, which was recently overrun by ISIL forces. Iraqi troops apparently withdrew from the city because sandstorms had limited coalition air strikes on ISIL fighters trying to get into the city. The Iraqi Army apparently felt it could better defeat ISIL from positions east of the city. Ramadi is 120 kilometers west of Baghdad.
May 14, 2015: In the Persian Gulf, between Iran and the UAE, Iranian patrol boats attacked five UAE fishing boats in international waters. Some of the fishermen were injured before one boat was captured. The Iranians accused the UAE boats of fishing in Iranian waters but all this was happening in international waters. The Iranians sought to take the UAE boat back to Iran but the UAE boat broke down and the Iranians decided to abandon it and head for Iranian waters before UAE or other armed boats or aircraft showed up.
Elsewhere in the Persian Gulf Iranian patrol boats fired warning shots at a Norwegian tanker and tried to force the tanker to surrender. The tanker got away. This was all about a March incident where the tanker did some damage to an Iranian offshore oil platform. The Iranians are demanding $300 million but the Norwegians insist the damage was much less than that.
May 13, 2015: In central Somalia (Galguduud) an Iranian seagoing fishing boat put in to the fishing town of el Dheer to make emergency repairs. A local group of al Shabaab men saw an opportunity and came to town and seized the ship and the crew (14 Iranians) to hold for ransom. That may be difficult as on March 25th for the first time since 2012 Somali pirates captured another Iranian ship. In this case it was a slow moving ocean-going fishing trawler. This Iranians can be unpredictable in situations like this and there is a real possibility the Iranians will respond with military force rather than a ransom payment. So far nothing has been heard about ransom negotiations. The captured Iranian ship was fishing illegally in Somali waters as were several other foreign trawlers at the time.
May 12, 2015: In Iraq a government effort to arm and train Sunni tribesmen in Anbar was not well received by the wary Sunnis. This was evident when the government offered to train 6,000 tribesmen but only about a thousand signed up. The tribesmen are willing to take weapons and equipment but Shia militia leaders and their political allies are often able to block this. The Sunni tribes are wary of the Shia militias as many are backed by Iran and are again (as they did in 2006-8) executing unarmed Sunni civilians. The government recognizes this but needs more armed men in Western Iraq (Anbar) and has sent some Shia militiamen there. The government tried to soften the impact of that on pro-government Sunni militias by including some Lebanese Shia from Hezbollah. These are known to be more disciplined and less of a threat than Iraqi Shia militiamen, but the pro-government Sunni tribesmen are still unwilling to work too closely with armed Shia. The Sunni tribesmen are particularly concerned about the growing Iranian influence in the Iraqi government and security forces. Sunni politicians continue to point out that the Iraqi government says one thing to the United States about doing things for the Sunni Arabs but in reality nothing changes. At the same time the Shia majority want stronger security measures to prevent Sunni Islamic terrorists from attacking Shia civilians. The number of these attacks (usually with suicide bombers on foot or in vehicles) has declined but still occur. And then there’s stuff like Hezbollah troops in Anbar accusing American warplanes of providing support for ISIL forces. No proof is provided and accusations like this are blamed on growing Iranian influence in Iraq. Many Iranian officials continue to openly (on the media) insist that the CIA and Israel were responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks and for the creation of ISIL.
A ceasefire between Shia rebels and pro-government forces began in Yemen. The ceasefire was to allow relief supplies to reach civilians. The ceasefire ended on the 17th and the fighting air strikes resumed.
May 8, 2015: In the northwest (town of Mahabad) 25 Kurds were wounded during violent demonstrations overnight. This was in response to the death of a hotel maid who was said to have jumped to her death trying to escape rape by a government security official. It’s unclear what really happened but this is another example of how tense relations are between the local Kurds and the Iranian government. Over the next several days police arrested several local Kurds suspected of organizing the riots.
The government freed a container ship seized on April 28th after the owner agreed to pay $3.6 million. The ship was operated by a German firm and carrying cargo for a Danish company (Maersk). It turned out that this was not a political move but someone using the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) to settle a ten year old lawsuit and, yes, win some good PR for the ruling Iranian clerics by “striking back”, or at least embarrassing, the West. The commercial dispute was between an Iranian company and Maersk, which had shipped ten containers of Iranian goods to Dubai in 2005. That cargo was not accepted by the Arab buyer and eventually auctioned off by the local government. The Iranian firm blamed Maersk and the case went round and round in Iranian courts for a decade with the Iranian courts generally siding with Maersk. Recently an appeals court tried to achieve an acceptable compromise in which Maersk would pay $163,000 instead of the $4 million the Iranian firm was asking for. Maersk refused and the Iranian firm apparently found friends in the IRGC that had an idea. Maersk is a major international shipping company and sends many ships (it runs) or cargoes through the Strait of Hormuz every day. That the IRGC would freelance like this is nothing new and has been an open secret for over a decade. The IRGC gets away with this because the Iranian government is basically a religious dictatorship that created an army of religious fanatics (the IRGC) to deal with any popular unrest. IRGC is more than just the "royal guard" of the Iranian dictatorship and has grown to become a state-within-a-state.
May 7, 2015: After several years of negotiations India signed a deal with Iran to invest $100 million to upgrade the Iranian port of Chabahar. Iran would then allow Indian ships to move cargo in and out of Afghanistan via Iranian roads, railroads, and the port of Chabahar. The Pakistani port of Gwadar is 72 kilometers east of Chabahar but Indian relations with Pakistan are too unreliable to allow use of Gwadar (which is now controlled by Chinese firms). During 2004-9 India spent over $70 million to build a 218 kilometer highway from Kandahar (the major city in southwest Afghanistan) to the Iranian border. That connects to Iranian roads and railroads that go the thousand kilometers to Chabahar. This gives Afghanistan easy access to the ocean without going through Pakistan (and its bandits, corrupt officials, and unreliable politics). Afghanistan likes having close relations with Iran because both India and Afghanistan have had problems with Pakistani hostility and support of Islamic terrorists. The U.S. openly opposed the Chabahar deal but India felt it was essential in its efforts to thwart Chinese and Pakistani aggression.
May 6, 2015: American and British warships have stopped escorting American and British merchant ships going through the Strait of Hormuz. This came after several Iranian attacks and attempts to seize control of merchant ships moving through the narrow strait. It has been over a week since the last attempt and apparently Iran has convinced the U.S. and Britain that there will be no more attacks, for a while at least.
May 4, 2015: Senegal has joined the Saudi led coalition (currently Qatar, UAE, Kuwait, Egypt, Sudan, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt) and will send 2,100 troops to Saudi Arabia. Pakistan is sort of an associate member, saying it will send troops if Saudi Arabia is invaded by Iran. Egypt is mad at Iran over lots of things, including recent revelations that Iran had established a large spy network in Egypt, which had recently suffered heavy losses (and provided Egyptian counter-intelligence with a lot of embarrassing, to Iran, details.)