Russia and Iran have become allies in part because of the economic opportunities. Both nations are hobbled by economic sanctions. Iran believes that the end of economic sanctions on Iran in 2016 will enable trade with Russia to more than double by 2018. Russia needs the business because the Russian economic sanctions are still in place. This tight bongs creates a coalition of three nations (Iran, Russia and China) accused of armed aggression against their neighbors and increasingly isolated from the rest of the world because of it. Each of these three aggressors blames others for their situation. Russia insists that NATO is engaged in a scheme to surround and strangle Russia. China insists that long dormant territorial (except, for now, the ones with Russia) claims be resolved now and in China’s favor. The claims on India and the South China Sea are seen as illegal by the victims and international law. China ignores these issues as irrelevant. Iran has claims on Saudi Arabia, all in the name of religion because the Shia Iranians believe they would be more effective guardians of Islam’s most holy places in Mecca and Medina. Less loudly Iran believes it would make better use of Saudi oil as well. Iran believes the Arabs are resisting these propositions mainly because of pressure from the West and the United States.
In Syria Russia and Iran apparently agree that a negotiated peace deal is possible and that removing the Assad government from power is a price worth paying to achieve such a deal. Iran recently revealed that in 2013 it had offered the Assad clan sanctuary but the offer was refused. Russia and Iran are confident that they can arrange a local ceasefire outside Damascus and then expand that deal between government forces and non-ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant) rebels. Iran is taking advantage of the growing international anger at ISIL because of that group’s use of attacks against civilians (Sunni, Shia and non-Moslem, as in Paris). In Syria one thing everyone can agree on is that ISIL has to go. Iran is offering to help remove the Assads (via exile, or worse) from the scene in order to help. The main stumbling block here is that many of the non-ISIL Islamic terrorist groups are not in agreement with each other or anyone else and believe they are on a Mission From God and cannot be expected to compromise. Negotiating with these groups is difficult and often impossible. Iran is also an Islamic terrorist organization, but one that is willing to make deals.
Iran has a growing number of highly trained and experienced military specialists Syria. Most of these are agents of the Quds Force (who assist pro-Shia terrorists worldwide) as well some commandos who serve mainly for collecting intelligence and attacking key rebel leaders (not always successfully). Apparently several dozen of these highly trained Iranian agents and commandos have died in Syria so far, along with some senior officers. This includes ten senior officers (colonels and generals) who have died there since 2013 and most of those deaths were recent. Syria is a much more dangerous place for Iranian military advisors as only one Iranian general has been killed in Iraq so far. Casualties have been much higher among the Iranian backed Shia mercenaries in Syria. Most of these are not Iranian and these deaths are not as much of an issue inside Iran (other than all the money it goes to transport, maintain and pay them). Nevertheless over fifty Iranians have died in Syria in the last month and this makes news back home. Iran is providing a lot of trainers, combat advisors in Syria. Iranians are deeply involved in supervising offensive operations there and some defecting Syrian soldiers insist that it is the Iranians who are actually running the Syrian armed forces these days with Syrian commanders nearly always “assisted” by an Iran advisor who appears to be in charge. Sometimes the advisors are Lebanese Hezbollah, often men who have attended Iranian military schools. Some defectors report that Iranian and Hezbollah troops have replaced most Syrians in many Syrian army combat battalions. Many of the Iranian troops are the Iranian mercenaries, who are officially called Shia volunteers. The defectors also complain that the Iranian mercenaries (which includes Hezbollah) get paid a lot more (more than six times as much) than Syrian soldiers. Iran has also been testing new equipment in Syria, especially new UAV designs and various infantry weapons and gear. Russia has also brought in a lot of their own UAVs but the Syrian forces are only receiving UAVs from Iran.
Another bright spot for Iran is its situation with its Kurdish minority, which has been kept quiet even as Syrian, Iraqi and Turkish Kurds have been quite active. The government has managed to suppress Kurdish separatists (mainly the PJAK group). Iraq has been asked to help but only pretends to cooperate and doesn't do much in order not to antagonize Iraqi Kurds. Iranian secret police agents also have informants in these foreign Kurdish communities, to monitor PJAK activities, and provide targets for Iranian death squads, which still stalk PJAK members who are deemed too troublesome to tolerate. Iran has to be careful with overseas "wet work" (assassinations), as without permission from the local government, this sort of thing invites diplomatic retaliation. There are no such problem inside Iran, and in northwest Iran, where most of the Kurdish minority lives, Iranian secret police and Revolutionary Guards have long maintained a reign of terror, to smoke out PJAK members and discourage Kurds from cooperating with the rebels. That kind of effort often just helps PJAK, which only has a few thousand armed members (out of 12 million Kurds in Iran).
Unlike Syria the Iranian prospects in Yemen are less promising. The pro-Iran Shia rebels of Yemen are facing defeat and Iran is working with the UN to try and get some kind of peace negotiations going. The Yemen rebels have not been able to obtain much support from Iran because of the Arab air and naval blockade. The U.S. is helping with this but it is the Arab forces who are doing most of the work and these efforts have been effective. The worst aspect of all this is that the foreign intervention was all Arab (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain), using their modern Western weapons. The Arabs are succeeding, which does not bode well for Iran which has long (at least in the last few centuries) relied on its superior military capabilities to intimidate their Arab neighbors. What’s going on in Yemen is diminishing that threat quite a bit. The Yemen rebels still hold the capital and areas around that city but without some military assistance from Iran the Arab coalition will eventually win, and Iran will very publicly lose.
Inside Iran counter-terror operations have been more successful. ISIL has been trying to get people into Iran via the Iraq border and several who made it across have been captured. Normal procedure on the border is to shoot first at anyone caught trying to sneak in. In eastern Iran those people are often heavily armed Afghan drug smugglers who will shoot back or shoot first if they get the chance. The smugglers on the western borders have not gotten that dangerous but some have, especially Islamic terrorists. No one along the eastern borders (including Kurds in the northwest and Arabs in the southwest) have any sympathy for ISIL and that makes it easier to detect and catch any ISIL who do get in. The Sunni Islamic terrorists in the southeast have been quiet lately, largely because Pakistan has been more cooperative in this area.
The July peace deal to lift sanctions is still not assured. Not all the Western nations have ratified the deal and many Western voters and politicians do not trust Iran or believe that Iran will abide by the provisions of the July deal. Meanwhile UN nuclear inspectors report that Iran is starting to dismantle but not destroy some nuclear facilities. That means these facilities can quickly be activated and put back to work. This mainly has to do with equipment for the enrichment of uranium above the 3.5 percent level required for power plant fuel. Iran also agreed to dilute its supply of 20 percent (and anything above 5 percent) enriched uranium down to below 5 percent. Iran is supposed to dismantle most of its 20,000 centrifuges (which are used to enrich uranium) and allow UN inspectors access to all nuclear facilities. Older (and less efficient) centrifuges are being dismantled but not destroyed. According to the treaty Iran will only have 5,060 centrifuges in operation and none will enrich uranium above five percent.
November 12, 2015: Iran and Pakistan agreed to increase their cooperation in dealing with terrorism and drug smuggling. Both nations are concerned about ISIL and Sunni terrorists in general.
November 10, 2015: An Israeli official announced that Israel was now neutral when it came to removing the Assad clan from power in Syria. That is the goal of the Syrian rebels but Russia and Iran back the Assads, at least officially. Many Israelis note that as the Syrian rebels were taken over by Islamic terrorist groups (especially ISIL) there were calls for a more aggressive hatred of Israel than the Assads practiced. At that point it became clear that, for Israel, Assad was not so bad after all. However Assad has long depended on Iran for support and Iran backs Islamic terrorist group Hezbollah in Iran which has long used violence against Israel. Russia has become a close ally of Iran and all these developments and connections are not good for Israel.
November 9, 2015: A Russian official revealed that the long delayed (since 2007) S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems Iran had purchased were now being prepared for shipment and should arrive in Iran by the end of the year and deliveries completed by 2017. The S-300 version Iran is receiving can use the latest S-300 missiles with a range of 200 kilometers. The new contract was recently signed and Russia now expects to be the major supplier of weapons to Iran once the sanctions are lifted. Russia and Iran have settled disputes over the 2007 S-300 contracts. After the 2007 S-300 purchase stalled Iran said it would create its own clone (Bavar-373) of the Russian S-300. 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-373 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. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia and other Gulf oil states have ordered nearly $20 billion worth of American weapons so far this year.
November 6, 2015: In central Somalia (Galgadud) soldiers raided a house where four Iranian fishermen were being held for ransom. Iran insists that no Iranians were being held by the Somali pirates, perhaps because Iranian fishermen have been illegally fishing off Somalia with greater frequency as the pirate threat diminished. Despite the denials in August one of two Iranian fishing boats captured by pirates on March 26th managed to escape with its crew of 19. No one was willing to pay the small ransom demanded and the pirates did not have good security on the two boats. Somali pirates seized several Iranian fishing boats earlier in the year.
November 4, 2015: The head of the Pakistan military visited Saudi Arabia and proclaimed that Pakistan would defend Saudi Arabia if the kingdom were attacked. The only country likely to do that is Iran, which does not yet have nuclear weapons while Pakistan does. This comes after Iranian and Pakistani leaders met on October 28th to agree on more security and defense cooperation deals. Both countries have problems with Sunni Islamic terrorists as well as well armed drug smuggling gangs.