Iran: Another Imaginary Victory

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April 11, 2015: The government believes it has succeeded in negotiating its way out of the growing list of sanctions seeking to get Iran to shut down its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. The Western negotiators and Iran have agreed on a “framework” deal to end the crisis. This deal has not been signed yet and may never get finalized because the wording is vague enough to allow both sides to assert very different interpretations of what everyone is obliged to do. The West believes that the agreement calls for gradual lifting of sanctions as Iran complies with different parts of the deal. The West also believes that the deal allows more intrusive inspections than Iran is willing to tolerate. It only took a few days for critics of the deal on both sides to start speaking up in defense of their interpretations. The ruling clerics of Iran have come right out and said all sanctions must be lifted as soon as the deal is signed. In the West getting the deal approved is more complicated because of democracy and divisions in the leadership between those who want to do any kind of deal to just 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. So after much diligent negotiating there is really no agreement. The sanctions remain in place. The Iranian negotiators also 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 30 th deadline to reach an agreement 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. Meanwhile the U.S. admitted that the “military option” was still available to the United States if sanctions did not succeed in getting the Iranian nuclear program shut down. Israel keeps saying the same thing.

The religious dictatorship sees these negotiations as crucial to its survival. In part that is because most Iranians have decided that the ruling clerics and their Islamic Republic are a failure. This can be seen in the plunging birthrate, growing number of drug addicts and the many small protests against the rule of religious zealots. Young Iranians (63 percent of the population is under 30) feel like prisoners serving life sentences in a nightmarish jail run by unpredictable religious fanatics who are also corrupt and unable to manage the economy. The clerics have tried to crack down on misbehavior but that has not worked. Hardliners call for more forceful punishments. Most of the leadership can count and do not expect having God on your side will miraculously solve this problem of angry youth. So despite angry hardliners the growing number of more moderate clerics are forcing the lifting of more and more lifestyle rules. One of the more recent examples is allowing women to attend sporting events. That is not enough because the biggest aggravation for all Iranians remains the sanctions. These sanctions make the economy worse and ultimately Iranians blame the clerics for all this pain, not the rest of the world.

While the sanctions have hurt the leadership the religious dictatorship has been pretty competent in organizing countermeasures. But this simply eases the pain of the sanctions and does not eliminate the growing privation all Iranians are suffering. The religious leaders see the ultimate solution to all this as nuclear weapons, which will enable them to force their neighbors and the West to drop the sanctions and deal with Iran on Iranian terms. Pointing out that this is not how it actually works for nations with nukes has no impact on the Iranian leadership. They are determined to have their nukes and see the West as too disorganized and their Arab neighbors too scared to really prevent Iran from building a bomb or negotiating an end to the sanctions. Again, it is obvious that while the Arabian states may be afraid of Iran, they seem determined to use their oil weapon (control of so much of the worlds’ oil that they can keep the price low as long as they wish) to force Iran to surrender their nuclear program. It’s a test of wills but the Arabs have the more powerful economic weapon and show no signs of backing off. The Arab oil states recently raised the stakes by openly discussing obtaining nuclear weapons if the West signed off on a deal that lifted sanctions without shutting down the Iranian nuke program. The implication here is that the Saudis could buy some nukes, most likely from Pakistan, which is perpetually broke and dominated by the generals who control the nukes and are willing to make deals. That’s how Pakistan got its nukes in the first place. The Arabs are also encouraged by the weakening of the Iran backed Assad government in Syria despite billions of dollars in economic and military aid from Iran and Russia. Iran has also sent thousands of trainers, advisors and “combat volunteers” to Syria. Cash strapped Iran really cannot afford to spend all this money on Syria, especially if this aid is not dramatically turning things around for the Assads. The situation in Iraq is not much better although this assistance is much cheaper than what is beings spent on Syria. Yemen is another disappointment. The pro-Iran Shia rebels were making steady progress since late last year but that came to a halt when an Arab coalition intervened in late March. Iran has not really responded to this Arab move and that disappoints most Iranians.

Even with the sanctions lifted Iran still has the problem with the Saudi ability to keep the price of oil so low that Iran cannot maintain living standards or modernization of their military and oil industry. The nightmare scenario is the Arabs standing up to Iranian nuclear threats. The Saudi price war makes Iranians more eager to get nukes because that would give them a weapon that might be capable of getting the Saudis to back off and let the price of oil rise (by cutting Saudi production). But there is no guarantee that would work. Even if it does there is the problem with the growing use of fracking to obtain oil and gas trapped in shale formations. These shale formations are found worldwide and production from this source will ultimately lower the value of Iranian (and Arab and Russian) oil fields. It gets worse. Oil industry experts point out that lifting the sanctions will drive the world price of oil even lower, for a while at least. That’s because Iran has at least 30 million barrels of oil stored in tankers just waiting for sanctions to be lifted so this stuff can be delivered. Iran has even more oil stored in land-based facilities.

But ending the sanctions and producing a working nuke are the only two things the Iranian clerics can do to improve their position. Resigning or allowing free voting are not options because most of the senior clerics (or members of their families) would be vulnerable to prosecution for corruption or abuse of power (having enemies, like reform advocates, killed or falsely imprisoned) if they lost control of the government. The clerics can deceive themselves thinking they are running the country in the name of Islam, but that does not justify the corruption, murder and sundry other bad behavior. Most Iranians have already figured that out.

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 there, usually not far from the Iranian border. 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 often have Iraqi crews largely because older Iraqi Shia who were conscripted to serve in the army as tank or artillery crews when Saddam ran the country. The Iranian rockets tend to be based on Russian designs and thus are familiar to Shia veterans of the Iraqi army.

In Yemen most Shia rebels don’t want the religious fanaticism of Iran but are willing to accept aid from Iran and work to make the Sunni majority Yemen a “friend“ of Iran (much like the Shia minority has done in Lebanon and Syria). The Yemeni Shia have already shown they will tolerate the presence of Iranian commandos (who freed a long-held Iranian diplomat) and the Saudis are certain that Quds has also arrived. More of the Yemeni Shia are showing up in new combat uniforms, some of which may have been made in Iran. While the Iranians would like the Yemeni Shia to impose a religious dictatorship it is certain they won’t insist on that. In Lebanon the Iranian supported Hezbollah never pushed for a religious dictatorship which, as in Yemen, the locals want no part of. Hezbollah has done Iran’s bidding since the group was created with Iranian aid in the 1980s and that is that. In Yemen it is a little different as the Shia rebels are not only fighting for Shia autonomy but also for some real efforts to curb the corruption that has long crippled the government and economy. This anti-corruption angle is popular with Sunni as well as Shia Yemenis and is one reason the Sunni majority cannot muster sufficient forces to halt the Shia rebel advance. But the Arab intervention has halted or slowed the Shia rebel advance. The Shia rebels have seized some of the oil fields (in Shabwa province) and threaten the rest in Marib province. But the Shia rebels are taking more and more losses from the air strikes. They have also been reinforced by army and police units led by officers who remained loyal to former president Saleh. This gives the Shia rebels access to heavy weapons (armored vehicles and artillery) and people who know how to use them. These armored vehicles have proved to be popular targets for Arab warplanes and that has reduced the effectiveness of these weapons. The Arab coalition supporting president Hadi (the last elected president) has imposed an air and sea blockade, mainly to keep Iranian aid out. Meanwhile Iran has sent two small warships to the Yemeni coast (the Gulf of Aden) to “protect Iranian shipping”. Despite the Arab blockade the Arab warplanes have not attacked any of the Iranian transports that still enter Yemeni airspace. Yemeni airspace is now closed to commercial traffic, meaning some flights that used to pass over Yemen have to detour adding up to another hour in flight time.

The Arabs are (so far) reluctant to fire on Iranian transports because that would be an escalation that could trigger an air war with Iran. The Arabs don’t want to risk that, even though Arab air forces have much better aircraft and, in some cases, better pilots. Some Gulf Arabs have paid more attention to pilot selection and training in the last decade, largely because of the growing threat from Iran. But Arab pilots are still a mixed bag, with inept but well-connected ones serving next to very competent fellows who got the job strictly on merit.  One thing about pilots and ship crews is that if you put the aircraft into the air and the warships out to sea often enough you will attain a higher degree of crew competence simply because these are dangerous environments and the most incompetent soon die or are discouraged from further service and quit. The Arab countries have been spending more money (than Iran) on keep the ships at sea and the aircraft in the air. Now, with a war going on, squadron commanders can determine which of his pilots are very good and which should be kept on the ground most of the time. This lesson has already been learned by the Arab participation in the anti-ISIL operations in Syria and Iraq. The Americans did most of the strikes there but Yemen air operations are all Arab and has more Arab pilots spending more time flying in a combat zone than has been experienced since the 1990-91 campaign to liberate Kuwait. So the Arab air strikes will continue to improve and there’s not a lot Iran can do about it.

The Arabs and Iran are both reluctant to push their military participation too far, but for different reasons. The Arabs have far better equipment, and a lot more of it, but the Arab culture of corruption has created a lot of military power that is an illusion because of poor training and inept officers. The Iranians have always (as in for thousands of years) had better commanders and troops but decades of embargoes have left Iran with ancient weapons and poor military equipment in general. Iranian propaganda, mainly for domestic consumption, has long claimed otherwise. Thus the Arabs don’t want to push things too far lest it become obvious how unprepared many of their military personnel are for combat. The Iranians don’t want to expose the poor quality of their air force and navy equipment. This situation is forcing the Iran-backed Shia rebels to be creative. The Yemeni pro-government forces are largely tribal militias which vary enormously in quality depending on their leadership. The Shia rebels have better leadership and more faith in their cause (less corruption in Yemen). The corruption is known by all Yemenis to be the main cause of the country’s problems but only the Shias put it first on their list of priorities. The Shia rebels also take advantage of the corruption and will buy cooperation from Sunni tribes if they can. The Shia tribes have so far proved largely incorruptible. Thus despite the losses from air strikes the Shia rebels are still advancing, although more slowly. The Arab coalition is reluctant to commit ground forces and risk embarrassing defeats. That may change soon because a large number of combat brigades have showed up on the Yemen border. Any situations where the relatively less well armed and equipped Shia rebels defeated Arab coalition troops would be a major morale crises for the coalition. Moreover, sending in ground troops means getting more involved in putting Yemen back together than most Arab neighbors are comfortable with. Yemen has always been a mess politically and a morass for any neighbors who get too involved. Yet if it comes down to a choice between Yemen becoming an Iranian base area or an expensive (in lives, cash and reputation) ground invasion, the Arab troops will probably move south.

April 8, 2015: Iran and Pakistan announced they would cooperate to achieve a peaceful end to the violence in Yemen. The Sunni Arabs in Arabia (especially Saudi Arabia) are furious at the Pakistanis (who are mostly Sunni and consider themselves major defenders of Islam) for siding with Shia Iran. Pakistan believes it is being neutral but the Sunni Arabs don’t see it that way.

April 6, 2015: Iran reported that Baluchi rebels from a base in Pakistan had crossed the border and killed eight Iranian border guards. The Baluchi gunmen fled back into Pakistan after this clash. Iran protested the inability of Pakistan to control violence by violent outlaw Sunni groups. The 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. Earlier this year one of these attacks, on a mosque, 69 dead. Such attacks on Pakistani Shia are a regular occurrence that Iran keeps demanding Pakistan do more to prevent.

April 5, 2015: Pakistan told Iran that it would not, despite pleas from Saudi Arabia, join the Saudi led coalition (Qatar, UAE, Kuwait, Egypt, Sudan, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt) fighting Shia rebels in Yemen. At the same time Pakistan assured Saudi Arabia that Pakistan would provide military assistance if the territory of Saudi Arabia were invaded. That would only happen if Iran attacked as the Yemeni Shia rebels know that, for them, such a move north would be counterproductive. In early March Saudi Arabia had asked Pakistan to join a Sunni Arab coalition against Iranian aggression and send warplanes, warships and a brigade of troops to help deal with the Shia rebellion in Yemen. Pakistan declined apparently because it was not willing to antagonize Iran. The Saudis were dismayed by this refusal because they have been a generous provider of financial aid to Pakistan for decades. In the past the Pakistani response has been different. Pakistan got a similar request in 1979 when Shia clergy led a revolution against the Iranian monarchy and talked of attacking the Sunni Arab states. For most of the 1980s Pakistan had an armor brigade stationed in Saudi Araba and Pakistan served as a threat to eastern Iran, which borders Pakistan. Since then Pakistan and the Shia religious dictatorship in Iran have learned to get along. About 20 percent of Pakistanis are Shia and Pakistan has its hands full trying to halt Sunni Islamic terrorists from attacking those Shia and anyone else who opposes them. Those attacks on Shia anger Iran and Pakistan does not want to make that worse. With Iran on the verge of getting nuclear weapons, Pakistan apparently feels the Saudis will need Pakistani nukes and that will keep the Arab money flowing into Pakistan.

In Yemen the Shia rebels said they would be willing to negotiate if the Arab air strikes ceased. The Arabs refused to stop bombing but are willing to talk.

April 4, 2015: The government announced that, because of growing demand in Turkey and Armenia, Iran had exported eight percent more natural gas in the last year than in the year before. Additional sanctions could make these export deals illegal.

April 2, 2015: Negotiators reported that both sides had agreed on a “framework” deal that would end sanctions and the Iranian nuclear program. This proved to be wildly optimistic. This apparent breakthrough came after a March 31 deadline was extended because both sides admitted progress was being made. That turned out to be an illusion.

March 27, 2015:  The United States has expressed concern that Iranian Quds Force personnel are in Yemen advising and training the Shia rebels. Iran denies this although it does take credit for recognizing the Shia rebels as the legitimate government of Yemen and supplying economic aid.

March 25, 2015: In Iraq pro-Iranian militias pulled back from Tikrit and allowed the Iraqi Army to bring in American airpower to break the ISIL defense of the city. The fanatical but poorly trained Shia militias had taken the lead in the assault on Tikrit and made some progress. But ISIL defenses inside city had halted the militias. Iran refused to cooperate with army units if American air power were called in. The U.S. air strikes worked and the army advanced, much to the chagrin of the Shia militias and Iran.

For the first time since 2012 Somali pirates captured a foreign ship. In this case it was a slow moving ocean-going Iranian fishing trawler. That may be a problem for the pirates as there is a possibility the Iranians will respond with military force rather than a ransom payment. The Iranian ship was fishing illegally in Somali waters as were two South Korea trawlers. These "freezer trawlers" are up to 100 meters (310 feet) long and have facilities on board to store hundreds of tons of frozen fish. These ships normally stay at sea months at a time and have crews of 15-30. The pirates don't get as large a ransom for fishing ships as they do for larger cargo and tanker ships. This is particularly true of the coastal freezer trawlers, which are often old and worth less than half a million dollars each. The owner cannot pay whatever ransom the pirates often demand for these ships. These trawlers are all over the Indian Ocean, between Africa and India, and early on the pirates realized that they could hide two speedboats on these vessels and the fishing crew could be used to operate the ship, in addition to twenty or so pirates as passengers. But coast guards in the region, and the international anti-piracy patrol in general, were soon paying closer attention to all those fishing ships. If you know what to look for, and look closely, you can detect which ones are run by pirates. The names of captured fishing ships were known, and added to a “wanted” list distributed to all ships in the anti-piracy patrol and coast guards in the region. There was a sense of urgency with this because the pirates treated the fishermen much more savagely (starving and beating them, often to death). While trawlers were preferred for mother ships at least one group of pirates used a small (95 meter long) tanker instead. The motherships have been largely absent since 2012 and it is unclear what is going to happen to the captured Iranian trawler. Meanwhile the anti-piracy patrol is warning trawlers and the companies that own them to stay away from the Somali coast. When these trawlers are fishing illegally they can expect no protection from the anti-piracy patrol. When under attack the trawlers can call for help but because trawlers move slowly while working and are close to shore there is rarely time for anti-piracy forces to reach them in time. To many (especially Somalis) the illegal fishing is simply another form of piracy. 

March 24, 2015: Iran said it would under no circumstances ever allow unannounced inspections to verify any peace deal.

March 22, 2015: The U.S. said it believed Iranian assistance to Iraq (to resist ISIL) was really an attempt to build support for an Iranian style religious dictatorship in Iraq. Most Iraqis, including most Shia Arabs, oppose this. But Iranian aid for Shia militias, ostensibly to fight ISIL, also creates a pro-Iran force that could eventually attempt a coup.

 

 

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