Iran: So Close Yet So Far

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August 27, 2015: The July 14 th treaty to lift the sanctions is being celebrated inside Iran as a victory but Iranian leaders know better. The treaty does not kick in until the major Western democracies involved get final approval. The treaty was negotiated by a UN backed coalition of Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States.  Five of these nations are the permanent members (each with a veto) of the UN Security Council while Germany is there because it has the largest economy in Europe. Russia and China can be expected to automatically approve the deal but America, Britain, France and Germany all have local opposition. In the United States and Germany the opposition seems strong enough to block ratification. Meanwhile the government is predicting five percent GDP growth and good times for all, but only if the treaty is approved. So far the sanctions have reduced Iranian GDP over five percent and without the new treaty the shrinkage will continue.

Officially the Arab Gulf states are supporting the new treaty, despite the threat of Iran getting out from under sanctions and continuing to develop its nuclear weapons. The U.S. has assured, and terrified, the Gulf Arabs by openly pledging to help the Arab Gulf States build an improved anti-missile system. Arab public opinion is another matter and is largely hostile to the July 14th agreement. Another worrisome aspect of the July 14 deal is that it does not compel Iran to comply. Moreover there are parts of the treaty that have not been released yet. The U.S. admits that there are secret side deals that must remain secret. Meanwhile Iranian hardliners are openly calling on their government to, in effect, not comply with many aspects (especially inspections) of the treaty. 

Saudi Arabia and the other Arab oil states take some comfort in the fact that they do retain some real leverage over Iran. The world price of oil is still under $50 a barrel and the Arab oil states can keep it there for a long time. While the lifting of sanctions will bring Iran some financial relief, their major money problem is the low price of oil, less than half of what it was in 2013. To deal with the oil weapon Iran will have to negotiate, as least until they have nukes, at which point they can demand.

The government is increasingly critical of Turkish efforts to deal with Islamic terrorism in Syria. Iran, along with Kurds and many other believe that Turkey has been quietly supporting some Islamic terrorists in Syria (al Qaeda factions) against the Assads. The Islamic government is not as radical as the one in Iran but the Turks are Sunni and have been tolerant of Sunni Islamic terror who are not openly hostile towards Shia. Thus a recent increase in terror attacks against Iranian Shia travelling through Turkey has caused more friction with Iran because Iran blames Turkey for tolerating groups that would attack Shia like this.

Because of a recent upsurge of Kurdish violence in Turkey the Turks have joined the air offensive against ISIL and are bombing Kurds in Iraq and Syria. Since Iran is supporting the Shia Assads as the legitimate rulers of Syria they see all this new Turkish activity as directed against Iran. That is hardly the case as ISIL is the most dangerous foe of the Assads and the Kurds are inclined to leave the Assads alone if the Assads reciprocate. Whatever the cause Iran and Turkey are saying a lot more bad things about each other thus sustaining an often bloody rivalry that goes back over a thousand years.

In eastern Turkey the Turkish government continues its offensive against the PKK (local Kurdish separatist rebels). Turkey sees the openly pro-PKK attitude by Iran as a revival of the ancient Iranian practice of trying to stir up trouble among Turkish Kurds to weaken or distract Turkey from doing something Iran does not like. The Syrian Kurds are suspicious of the Turks, in part because the Turks do not hide their belief that the Syrian Kurds are too closely allied with the PKK. Some Syrian Kurds (the PYD) are, or have been, allies with PKK but most Syrian Kurds would rather work with the Iraqi Kurds. Nearly all Kurds see the Turkish reaction as yet another attempt to crush the PKK while many Kurds see all this Kurdish activity against ISIL as an excuse to form a Kurdish state from parts of Iraq, Syria and Turkey. While that is a popular idea among Kurds it is not as high on the agenda as surviving the ISIL threat. Many Kurds believe that the Turkish government is secretly aiding ISIL in order to weaken the Kurdish forces. Then again Iran believes (openly and frequently) that the United States created ISIL and actually controls it.

President Assad of Syria openly claims continued support from Russia and Iran. This is largely optimism talking because Russia is in escalating financial peril because of sanctions and low oil prices. The Iranian peace deal is not final yet and may never be if growing popular Western opposition blocks ratification. For the moment the Assads are holding on but Assad strength is visibly weakening faster than that of the rebels.

In Yemen the Shia rebels lost Aden just as the new UN sponsored treaty with Iran was agreed to on July 14th. Over the next month UAE and the Saudis landed a mechanized “Arab Brigade” in Aden which led an advance north into Shia rebels held territory. The Shia rebels now realize that the July 14 treaty will help Iranian military efforts in Syria and Iraq, as more cash and fewer import restrictions means it is easier to get modern weapons and military gear. However, all this won’t do much for Iran in Yemen, mainly because there is still a blockade (by Arab and Western warships and warplanes) around Yemen. The Saudis and their Arab allies have managed to put the Iran backed Shia rebels on the defensive. This was most visible recently as the Arab Brigade led the way as victorious pro-government militias advanced north killing or driving away Shia rebels who try to stop them. The Saudis and other Arab states continue to provide air support for the victorious pro-government forces. Iran feels humiliated by all this and won’t forget. The Arabs know this and fear that American support will not be as steadfast as the Iranian desire for revenge.

In addition to the Islamic terrorist threat the government also has to contend with the economic damage done by the low oil price. The oil rich Arab Gulf states (particularly Saudi Arabia) are responsible for this and are keeping the oil price low to weaken Iran, which they see as waging a campaign to take control of Arab oil in the Gulf. The Arab oil states point out that even without the Iran threat the new American fracking technology will also keep the oil price low. The Arabs had hoped the oil price campaign against Iran against Iran would also destroy the American fracking firms but that has not worked out as the American companies have adapted. It seems that Iran has adapted as well but is still suffering.

While Afghanistan wants good relations with Iran Afghan officials are quietly trying to get Iran to back off on its program of recruiting Afghan Shia to fight in Syria. The main draw is money (up to a thousand dollars a month) and permission to legally settle in Iran if the fighter survives. Iran officially denies this recruiting but there is growing evidence that it exists and has sent over 3,000 Afghan Shia (many of them illegal immigrants living in Iran) to Syria so far. Many of these Afghans did not survive the experience and the families are angry. Iran has long supported the Shia in Afghanistan. Only 15 percent of Afghans are Shia and these Shia are a particular target for Sunni Islamic terrorists (like the Taliban). Most of these Shia are the Hazara, who are ten percent of the population and the descendants of the hated Mongols who conducted several invasions during the 13th and 14th centuries and destroyed more of the country and its population than any other conquerors. For centuries Hazara have suffered a lot of discrimination and actual violence in Afghanistan.

Iran is eager to go shopping for new arms but is still locked in a dispute with Russia over an old anti-aircraft missile contract. Iran is demanding that Russia pay a billion dollars compensation for cash paid for older model S-300s in 2007 that were never delivered. That sale was halted by the sanctions and deals with Israel and the United States. But now Russia is under sanctions itself because of its invasion of Ukraine and not concerned with sanctions anymore. Although Russia has offered to sell Iran the newer S-300VM system Iran demands delivery of the older ones before their lawsuit is dropped. The S-300VM is the latest (2013) version of its S-300 anti-aircraft missile system. The main issue here is money. Russia has also been badly hurt by the plunging world oil price and recently cut its current defense budget more than ten percent and other government programs even more. Iran will not budge and wants the older missiles before buying any newer ones. It also appears that most of the new Iranian weapons purchases will be from Russia. Iran is also negotiating with Russia to supply American military tech it has obtained from American UAVs that have crashed in Iran.

August 26, 2015: For the second time since June Shia rebels in Yemen launched a SCUD ballistic missile against a major Saudi Arabian base. For the second time the Saudis used Patriot missiles to intercept the SCUD. These ballistic missiles are from North Korea and have been in Yemen since the late 1980s. But as recently as 2002 there were only about twenty of them. Since then Yemen has obtained more and was believed to have (in 2014) six mobile launchers and about 30 missiles. Several missiles and launchers survived the Saudi led aerial bombing campaign. The Yemeni SCUDs are believed to be older models with a max range of 300 kilometers. This means these missiles cannot reach the Saudi capital or the major oil fields. The Shia rebels got these missiles because most of the Yemeni armed forces remained loyal to former president Saleh, who took good care of the military and that was one reason Saleh rule lasted for three decades. If pro-Saleh forces didn’t provide crews to launch a SCUD, Iran could have. For Iran these SCUD intercepts are disappointing because it means the Arab anti-missile forces are competent and Iranian ballistic missile forces are not as scary for the Arabs as they once were. Moreover the Arabs have some missiles and Iran does not have any anti-missile defenses. Older Iranians remember the terrible times during the 1980s when Iraqi SCUDs regularly hit Tehran.

August 24, 2015: Turkey has closed two border crossings with Iran. This will not interfere with vital truck and bus traffic and is mainly to deal with PKK (Kurdish separatists) violence.

August 20, 2015: Israel blamed Iran for a rocket attack launched from Syria against northern Israel. Four Iranian made rockets were launched but did no damage to people or property. A pro-Iran Palestinian terror group (Islamic Jihad) is believed responsible.  Iranian Quds Force (the foreign terrorists support group) troops are known to be operating near the Israeli border. Quds Force has been caught supporting terror attacks against Jews and Israelis in other countries before.

August 14, 2015: In Kuwait police, acting on tips, found 20 tons of ammunition (mostly) and weapons hidden in some homes near the Iraq border. Most worrisome was the presence of 144 kg (316 pounds) of explosives and over 200 grenades. These are for terror attacks and Kuwait suffered the last one in June. Interrogation of those using the buildings revealed that the stuff was smuggled in as part of an Iranian sponsored effort to create a large Shia terrorist organization in Kuwait. Iran was using Hezbollah operatives in Iraq to handle a lot of this. Iran has long supported Islamic terrorism among the Shia minorities (30 percent in Kuwait) throughout Arabia. This is especially true since Kuwait allows the United States to station over 12,000 troops in Kuwait, mainly (and very openly) to discourage any Iranian (or Iraqi) invasion threats. Most Kuwaitis are very concerned with their neighbors (especially Shia dominated Iraq and Iran) invading and that provides the police with more tips on possible terrorist activity. Iran denied the latest revelations and keeps on trying.   

Iran and Russia insisted that a July 24th visit by Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani to Moscow did not happen. Soleimani was said to have met with Russian defense officials and left two days later. Since 2007 Soleimani has been under numerous sanctions, including ones that are not being lifted by the July 14th deal. Soleimani was not supposed to be able to travel to Russia and Russia knows it. But Russia and Iran deny the visit actually happened, the same way Iran denies that Soleimani has spent time in Iraq supervising the creation and use of pro-Iran Shia militias.

August 10, 2015: Iranian leaders are openly admitting that Iran is determined to do whatever it must to keep ISIL, or any other anti-Shia Sunni radicals away from the Shia holy places in southern Iraq. At present this means a large and growing Quds Force presence in Iraq and Syria. But if the holy places become threatened, military intervention is not ruled out.

 

 

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