The government is embarrassed but ignoring criticism from the UN about continued ballistic missile tests. Earlier in 2016 senior Iranian officials rejected American demands that they slow down development and construction of long-range ballistic missiles. Since the 2015 sanctions deal was signed Iran has conducted at least eight test launches of its long-range ballistic missiles. In the two years before that Iran had not tested any of its large ballistic missiles (the ones capable of carrying a nuclear warhead). A senior Iranian military commander boasted that with current capabilities Iranian ballistic missiles could destroy Israel in eight minutes. Israel feels betrayed because in mid-April the United States clarified its interpretation of the 2015 treaty that lifts sanctions on Iran by confirming that Iran only has to shut down its nuclear development program. There are no such restrictions on the ballistic missile program or the Iranian support for Islamic terrorism. This includes aggressive actions against Israel and Sunni Arabs. Many American allies, especially Israel and the Gulf Arab states, were disappointed with this U.S. “clarification” and demanded that Iran be pressured to halt its ballistic missile program. In March the U.S. imposed some sanctions on Iran over its continued missile development but soon backed away from that and admitted the 2015 treaty ignored the ballistic missile program. The UN criticism backs the American contention that the 2015 sanctions deal implied that Iran would back off on ballistic missile development as well. But Iran insists that if something was not written down in the agreement it does not apply. The UN, the United States, Israel and many other nations (including most of the Arab one) are critical of Iran’s continued support of violence in the region (Yemen, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Israel and so on). Iran dismisses this as an obvious attempt to stifle Iranian efforts to carry out their religious duty to impose the Iranian religious and political beliefs on the world. This is an issue many countries would rather ignore but the United States, Israel and Sunni Arabs cannot ignore it because Iran regularly holds massive public demonstrations making it very clear what Iranian official policy is (“death to America”, “Israel must be destroyed” and Shia Iran should be the guardians of Mecca and Medina, not the Saud family.)
The War Against Sunnis
Many Turks believe Russia, Iran and the United States have formed a secret alliance to defeat the Syrian rebellion and do a lot of other evil stuff. Many Arabs believe the same thing and are convinced this is all part of a Western effort to destroy Islam. This particular (and quite popular) idea comes from the fact that Saudi Arabia and other conservative Sunni Arabs in Arabia have long backed a very conservative and anti-Infidel (non-Moslem) version of Sunni Islam that groups like al Qaeda, ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and other Islamic terror groups use to justify their actions. Since 2011 Turkey and Gulf Arab states have quietly backed many Syrian rebel groups that are Sunni Islamic terrorists but not actively involved in attacking Saudi Arabia or Turkey. These were considered “good Islamic terrorists” but that was not publicized and Turks and Arabs refuse to discuss the subject with non-Moslems. Russia, Syria and Iran agree that all the Islamic terrorist groups (except the Shia Hezbollah) in Syria must be destroyed for the sake of peace in Syria and the region. This does not mean Russia, Iran and NATO are allies in the fight against ISIL. But a growing number of people in the Middle East think so. Even NATO allies accuse the Americans of becoming decidedly pro-Iranian since 2008. This is particularly disturbing to the Persian Gulf Arabs, who have long depended on the United States for protection from growing Iranian aggression. Even many American diplomats complain of a shift towards the Iranian and Russian view of the Syrian situation. Since 2015 Russia has been pushing the idea that the only realistic way to end the Syrian civil war and destroy ISIL is to include the Assads in the effort. Russia and Iran openly blame the Gulf Arabs, especially Saudi Arabia, for creating al Qaeda and ISIL. The Iranians don’t deny they support Islamic terrorism (Hezbollah being a prime example) but that they don’t create Islamic terrorists that mutate into uncontrollable monsters that attack everyone. They have a point there as Iran has been much more effective at controlling whatever monsters it has created.
While there are common goals in Syria and Russia is willing to work with the Americans Iran has made it very clear that it cannot cooperate with the Americans to the extent that Russia has. After all, the Iranian religious dictatorship justifies its power because of its vow to destroy America and Israel. Iran has its own plans. Iran has expanded its mercenary force of Afghan, Iraqi and other Shia volunteers it has recruited, trained, armed and paid for. The largest and most effective Shia paramilitary force is from Lebanon, where Iran has supported the Hezbollah militia since the 1980s. Thus Syrian government forces carrying out offensive operations are usually about half Syrian while the rest are largely controlled by Iran while air support and logistics is controlled by Russia. But in most of Assad controlled territory (about 20 percent of Syria) the forces are Syrian (military, police or local militia). But in anticipation of a more attacks against ISIL Iran has ordered hundreds of advisors and trainers to move from Iraq (where they were assisting Iranian supported militias in western Iraq) to Syria. Apparently Iran expects ISIL to be gone from western Iraq soon and from Mosul by the end of the year. ISIL is expected to concentrate in eastern Syria for a last stand and Iran wants to get some credit for that finale.
Saudi efforts to portray Syria as one of several (Yemen, Lebanon, Afghanistan) areas where Iran is quietly getting away with murder have not worked. Iran and its Arab neighbors accept the fact that Iran has, for thousands of years, been more successful at Information War as well as physical combat. What terrifies the Arabs is that Iran is winning the worldwide effort to sell their version of reality; that Arabs are murderous thugs and Iran is the calming influence the Middle East needs. Arab fears that Iran is serious about taking over (one way or another) all of the Arabian Peninsula. These fears are largely dismissed by the rest of the world even though Iran media often mentions it, especially the part about Iran replacing the Saudi monarchy as the guardians the most holy shrines of Islam in Mecca and Medina. Perception is reality in the Persian Gulf and the Arab rulers (and Sunni Arab majority) are terrified. At the same time Iran is right about one thing; the Sunni Arabs, especially Saudi Arabia, continue to support many Sunni Islamic terrorist groups. This does not include ISIL or al Qaeda, two of the most outspoken foes of the Saudi monarchy. Many of the Islamic terror groups the Saudis support or encourage are currently murdering Shia Moslems for being heretics. Most of Iran is Shia so you see how this sort of thing adds to the animosities and gives it all a blood feud vibe.
Iranian military advisors are very active and visible in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. At the same time Iran has a bit of a crisis in Lebanon where over a million Syrians refugees live. Nearly all these Syrians are Sunni and that changes the demographics of Lebanon where, before 2011, about a quarter of the population was Sunni. Since all those Syrian refugees appeared the number of Sunnis has doubled and suddenly Sunnis are 40 percent of the population. The growing number of suicide bombing and other terrorist attacks in Lebanon are being committed by Sunni Islamic terrorists, many of them from refugee camps in Lebanon. This is Iran’s problem because Iran created and supports the Shia Lebanese militia Hezbollah, which exists to protect the Shia Lebanese. With the arrival of all those Syrian refugees the Shia are now outnumbered by Sunni and Hezbollah is expected to do something about it. But expelling the Syrian refugees is not an easy option and if it is attempted Hezbollah would be involved, and so would Iran.
In Yemen Iranian support for the Shia rebels has been largely intangible but very effective. UN sponsored peace talks are stalled because the Shia rebels insist on being part of any new government. The Shia rebels are willing to keep fighting and the largely Sunni government forces don’t want a bloody finale to all this. Meanwhile the Arab coalition air and naval blockade has kept out nearly all Iranian efforts to send in weapons or ammunition for the rebels. The major Iranian contribution has been a formidable Information War (propaganda and media manipulation) capability. Using this Iran has successfully made a major international issue of Arab coalition air strikes and the resulting civilian casualties. At the same time Iranian publicists and diplomats have successfully played down the Yemeni rebel practices of deliberately using civilians as human shields. Since the Arab coalition entered the Yemen civil war in early 2015 both sides have accused the other of deliberately attacking civilians. The Arab coalition believes their efforts (since March 2015) have succeeded and expect to withdraw most of their forces by the end of 2016. The Yemeni rebels have not surrendered yet but the Arab coalition assessment seems reasonable. In the part of the world, making a deal is always possible.
July 7, 2016: In the southwest a new (since 2015) Iranian Arab separatist group (Hawks of Ahwaz) took credit for a recent fire in a local petrochemical plant. The group took credit for two other similar fires that have occurred since 2015. Iran is acutely aware of how unruly its own Arab minority (a few percent of the population) can be. There are a growing number of terrorist incidents inside Iran traced to Iranian Arabs. Most Iranian oil is pumped from the ancestral lands of these Arabs, who are bitter about how they receive little for all that oil. The three million Arabs in Khuzestan province (formerly Arabistan) are Shia and have been ruled by non-Arab Iranians for centuries. Arab unrest here has grown since 2003, when the Sunni dictatorship of Saddam Hussein was overthrown in Iraq and the Shia majority won elections to take power. Iranian Arabs noted that the Iraqi Shia were not getting most of the oil income, unlike just across the border in Khuzestan. Since 2003 hundreds of Iranian Arabs have been arrested for separatist activities. Many are still in prison and nearly 30 have been executed.
July 6, 2016: In the southeast four border guards were ambushed and killed near the Pakistan border by Baluchi rebels, who appear to have fled back into Pakistan. Iran protested the inability of Pakistan to control violence by violent outlaw Sunni groups. The Sunni Baluchi rebels are terrorists, but for political rather than religious reasons. This makes little difference to Iran which is also angry at the growing number of attacks by Pakistani Sunni Islamic terrorists against Pakistani Shia. These attacks have been growing since the 1990s. Such attacks on Pakistani Shia are a regular occurrence that Iran keeps demanding Pakistan do more to prevent. Baluchis comprise about two percent of the Iranian population and are also Indo-European like most Iranians, Afghans, Pakistanis and Indians.
July 5, 2016: In the northwest IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) troops again clashed with PJAK Kurdish separatists near the Iraq border and claim to have killed two of them. Iran claims that a large PJAK force came from Iraq in early June and IRGC forces are trying to hunt them down ever since. Iran claims to have killed 30 or more PJAK fighters in the last month and admitted to at least six IRGC dead. It is unclear if this PJAK force retreated back into Iraq after the clash. Kurds are about ten percent of the Iranian population and most live in the northwest near the Iraq border. The PJAK separatists have been active for a long time and have links to similar groups in Turkey (PKK) and Iraq (where the Kurdish minority in the north has been autonomous since the early 1990s). Most of the 2,000 armed PJAK members are in northern Iraq, where local Kurdish government tolerates their presence. There has been more clashes between PJAK and the IRGC since Saddam Hussein was taken down in 2003.
June 28, 2016: ISIL carried out a major terror attack in Turkey, killing or wounding hundreds at the largest airport in the country. While Iran officially offered condolences, many prominent Iranians openly called this attack the result of Turkey supporting Sunni Islamic terror groups among the Syrian rebels. Even though Turkey has been openly at war with ISIL since 2015 Iran believes that many of the other Sunni Islamic terror groups in Syria would turn on Turkey when the opportunity presented itself. It is common knowledge among counter-terrorism people that all Sunni Islamic terror groups follow the same script with some of them being more pragmatic about temporary alliances than others. In the end all these Sunni Islamic terror organizations want to force everyone to submit to their version of Islam and live under a worldwide religious dictatorship. Many Turks have understood this and until an Islamic political party gained power in 2000, Turkey was extremely hostile to any form of Islamic radicalism. The airport massacre was the last straw for many the Turks and now Turkey is moving ahead with repairing its diplomatic and other links with Russia, Israel and the non-Moslem world in general. There are still many Islamic conservative Turks but their approach to dealing with Islamic terrorists is now in the reject pile. This is not good for Iran, because Iran is run by a different (Shia rather than Sunni) flavor of Islamic radicals and the Turks have been fighting militant Shia Iran for centuries. That ended in the 1920s when the Ottoman Turk Empire was dissolved and Turkey rejected Islam as a political force. The new Turkey eventually became a member of NATO and aspired to be considered European. That goal was sidelined by the emergence of Turkish reformers (who have reduced corruption and improved the economy) in 2000 who also restored Islam as a political force in Turkey. That is changing and it means militant Shia Iranians will have to be more careful with the Turks.
June 24, 2016: In the northwest IRGC troops fought PJAK Kurdish separatists near the Iraq border. Iran claims five PJAK fighters died while Kurds say they killed several IRGC men.