Now that the sanctions are being lifted the government can allocate more resources to the many wars and insurgencies the country is involved in. Iran proclaims that all this mayhem is merely fellow Shia trying to defend themselves from Sunni aggression. In many cases this is true but over the centuries Iran has always extracted a high price for such protection. The Iraqi Shia are feeling that pressure, with local pro-Iran Shia militia leaders making it very clear that their main loyalty is to Iran, not the Iraqi government. In Syria the Shia minority, which has ruled (as the Assad dictatorship) since the 1970s has been threatened by a Sunni rebellion since 2011. Iran has been key in keeping the Assads going since then and now believes victory is in sight.
As in the past the more numerous Sunni Arabs have self-destructed. Iran points out that ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and all the other Islamic terrorist rebels in Syria are the result of the Saudis and other Gulf oil states generous supporting Islamic radicals worldwide for decades. Iran is able to keep these Sunni terrorists out of Iran and the West has managed to contain them as well. So the Sunni Islamic terrorists mainly kill other Sunnis in Moslem countries, as well as a lot of Shia. This gives Iran a legitimate excuse to get involved in nations where there are significant Shia minorities and having provided this aid for so long Iran has become the indisputable leader of the Shia world.
While Iran is technically part of the international anti-ISIL coalition it often uses rather than attacks ISIL because this group of Sunni radicals is more of a threat to Sunnis than to Shia. You can see this in Syria where ISIL is less concerned about overthrowing the Assads and more into expanding the “caliphate” they have created out of eastern Syria and western Iraq since 2014. So while the Arabs and the Americans bomb ISIL Iran and their ally Russia concentrate on the other Sunni rebels (most of them Islamic terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda). ISIL have been at war with these other Sunni Islamic terrorists for two years now and the pro-Assad forces will step aside to allow the Sunni fanatics to kill each other and then go after the winner. ISIL and many other Sunnis Islamic terrorists were aware of this early on and had worked out some informal, and quite fragile, alliances. Everyone knew this was temporary because once the Assads were gone the victorious Sunni Islamic terrorist groups, who believe democracy is heresy, would fight it out for supremacy.
Iran exploits that mentality (which is less common among Shia) and, along with Russia, says they are in Syria to fight Islamic terrorists but in reality leave ISIL alone and concentrate on rebel groups that are the biggest threat to the Assads. Meanwhile it is to Iran’s advantage that ISIL hold the attention of the West and the Arabs. Iran is fighting ISEL, but mainly in Iraq, where Sunni Islamic terrorists have long focused their attacks on Shia civilians. Since the Shia are a majority in Iraq Iran becomes even more popular there as Iran backed militias and other military assistance plays a crucial role in driving ISIL (and eventually all Sunni Islamic terrorists) out of the country. Iranians speak openly (especially inside of Iran) of how well they have exploited their enemies and duped into fight for Iran instead of against Iran.
Iranian media (and the government) is less interested in publicizing how the Gulf Arabs, led by Saudi Arabia have driven the price of oil so low, and kept it there, that Iran has been greatly weakened. This is a defeat the Iranians are quietly seeking a solution for. The Saudis say their oil price war is directed at American frackers but savvy Iranians (especially those with kin in America) know that is a lie or a delusion on the part of the Saudis. The American oil industry has proved itself very resilient and innovative since the Americans invented the oil business in the 19th century. The frackers, as expected, shut down much of their production as it got unprofitable but are hibernating, not dying. Iranians believe they are the real target of the Saudi oil price campaign because low oil prices, which went from a 2014 peak of $120 a barrel (159 liters) to less than $40 now, keeps Iran weak. At the same time the math indicates that the Saudis cannot keep it up for more than another five or ten years. At that point the Saudis run out of cash reserves and borrowing ability. The Saudis are betting that Iran will crack first while the Iranians believe they can outlast the Saudis. Place your bets. Inside Saudi Arabia the media openly boasts of this particular victory over the hated Iranians.
The Quagmire In Syria
Iranian efforts to get UN-sponsored Syrian peace talks going have been a frustrating failure so far. A major stumbling block is how to deal with the Kurds. The UN agreed to keep the Syrian Kurds out of the peace talks. This was something Turkey insisted on. There were other problems, like the tensions between Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran which have also helped cripple UN efforts to get Syria peace talks going. The growing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran has made cooperation over brokering a Syria peace deal less likely. Russian efforts to mediate are also compromised because of tensions between Iran and the Saudis. A negotiated peace in Syria is always something Iran has hoped for. Iran knows that the Sunni Islamic terror groups will always be on everyone’s hit list but with some smart maneuvering the Assad government can be legitimate again. That will be difficult because the Assads have driven millions of pro-rebel civilians out of the country with deliberate air and artillery attacks on pro-rebel civilians in general.
Israel openly proclaim that their main priority in Syria is eliminating the Iranian presence. When pressed Israeli officials admit that this means preferring an Islamic terrorist group (even ISIL) running Syria if that meant Iran was gone. To Israel Iran is a more formidable threat than any Sunni Islamic terrorist group. On the plus side Israel believes the Russian intervention in Syria will, in the short term, lessen the possibility that Iran backed Hezbollah in southern Lebanon will start another war with Israel.
Israel is also not happy with the way Russia used its influence to get Western nations to agree to the July 2015 peace deal with Iran that is lifting most of the economic sanctions on Iran. This means Hezbollah will get more cash from Iran. The sanctions led to Iran reducing annual payments to Hezbollah over ten percent during the last two years. Hezbollah understood that Iran was short of cash because of sanctions and low oil prices but pointed out that the missing cash was even more of a problem because Hezbollah had suffered over 8,000 casualties fighting for the Iranian-backed Assad government in Syria. This is actually bad news for Israel because over 10,000 Hezbollah militia men and hundreds of combat leaders have obtained valuable combat experience. More to the point a lot of that experience is gained fighting alongside Russian forces and learning how to fight a conventional war. This will cause Israel problems in the future. Meanwhile Hezbollah has not been ignoring its rockets (more than 50,000 of them) stored in portable or underground launch sites in over 200 Shia villages near the Israeli border.
The Takeover In Iraq
In Iraq the government has become less insistent about not needing foreign troops in Iraq. This is because of the increasingly aggressive and autonomous behavior of the Iran-backed Shia militias that are assisting the army in the fight against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). The Shia militias are also taking control of territory in urban and rural areas, displacing the police and local government. Now the Iraq government sees the American troops as saviors. At the end of 2015 there were several thousand American troops already in Iraq and more (most of them Special Forces) on the way. The government has apparently made it clear to Iran (which is very hostile to U.S. forces in Iraq) that some American troops are essential. The presence of American troops also makes it less likely that Iran will attempt anything too ambitious (like invading or backing a takeover by Shia militias) and everyone knows that. Most Iraqis are more concerned with Iranian meddling than anything the Americans might do. At the same time Iraqis are wary of the other Gulf Arabs, especially Saudi Arabia. For example the Saudi ambassador to Iraq suggested that the Iran backed Shia militias in Iraq should stand aside and let the Iraqi Army deal with ISIL. That comment was widely condemned by Iraqi Shia clerics and politicians. The Shia politicians running Iraq have to move carefully because Iran, Saudi Arabia and America are making demands, often contrary ones, on Iraq.
Meanwhile Iran has been so successful in Iraq that Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, the head of the Iran backed Shia militias in Iraq has said publicly that if Iran ordered him to overthrow the Iraqi government he would do so. This confirms what Iraqi leaders have long feared. The Shia militias are supposed to be under the control of the Iraqi government, if only because the militia members are paid by the government. Yet the Shia militias often refuse orders from the government and are demanding more money while refusing to account for how they spend it. Abu Mahdi al Muhandis is also very vocal about his belief that ISIL is the invention of the United States and secretly supported by the Americans as a way to weaken Islam.
Pointless Humiliation In Yemen
Iran understands that Yemen is far more important to the Gulf Arabs than to Iran. Moreover the Yemeni Shia have never been dependent on Iran like those in Lebanon (Hezbollah), Iraq or Syria. Control (or substantial influence) in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon give Iran a land route to their declared main foe; Israel. The Saudi royals and Arabs in general are secondary to the Iranian official hatred of Israel. This hate campaign is maintained by the senior Shia clerics who turned Iran into a religious dictatorship in the 1980s. Historically strange things like that happen occasionally in Iran. A growing majority of Iranians no longer see the point (or if there ever was one) in this obsession with destroying the only functioning democracy and most successful economy in the region. That seems to encourage the ruling clerics to intensify the government sponsored “Israel must be destroyed” mania. The Iranian threat to the Arab states in the region, especially those with oil, is of more immediate concern for the Arabs and the main reason why Arabs have openly become allies with Israel against Iran.
This complex web of opportunities and capabilities means Yemen is basically a sideshow where winning is not the highest priority for Iran or Arabs. Both the Arabs and Iran have an interest in shutting down the Sunni Islamic terrorists in Yemen because these cutthroats see both Arab rulers and Shia in general as prime candidates for elimination. But the Iran/Arab animosity also makes it difficult to even meet for peace talks. So far this year Iranian radicals have set fire to the Saudi embassy in Iran and the Saudis responded by cutting diplomatic ties. Other Gulf Arabs reduced their diplomatic representation in and ties with Iran. So the Yemen peace talks that were supposed to start in January, and work out a peace settlement for Yemen, are on hold.
Even as the July 2015 treaty was being signed there was mounting evidence that Iran was already working to continue its nuclear weapons research program. Before and after July 2015 there were satellite photos available showing work performed at the underground nuclear facilities at a military base (Parchin) that was long suspected of housing a nuclear research facility. For a long time Iran never let UN (IAEA) inspectors near inspect this base. Yet recent satellite photos showed Iran “cleaning up” evidence that nuclear weapons research was going on there. One condition of the July 14 treaty was to let IAEA visit Parchin before the end of 2015. The facilities IAEA wanted to inspect were all destroyed or modified and much material removed before the inspectors finally arrived. Meanwhile there were new underground facilities being built that the inspectors were not allowed near.
February 8, 2016: Iran went public to confirm that it was still subsidizing the Sunni Islamic terror group Hamas. This group has run Gaza (between Israel and Egypt) and its 1.5 million Palestinians since 2005. There were recently more rumors that Iran had stopped supporting Hamas. Iran had decreased its support, in large part because of the sanctions and low oil prices but never cut off Hamas completely. Although Hamas sometimes persecutes Shia, Iran supports energetic Hamas efforts to attack Israel. Hamas also supports Islamic terrorists active in Egypt and that has turned Egypt completely against Hamas and helped put Egypt firmly into the anti-Iran Sunni coalition.
February 5, 2016: Saudi Arabia announced that it was ready to send ground troops into Syria to fight ISIL. In response Syria, Russia and Syria (the Assads) went public with their belief that Saudi ground troops could not handle ISIL or Syrian soldiers. Iran and Russia have long felt that the Saudi armed forces were second rate. There is some truth to this and it has long been an open secret even among Gulf Arabs. But after decades of efforts (including a lot of blunt criticism) by foreign (mainly American and British) military advisors and trainers change did occur. The Gulf Arab ground forces proved quite capable (or at least more so than Iran expected) in Yemen. Foreign Arabs have been fighting there since early 2015. Iran was also dismayed to see the skill of Saudi and other Arab pilots in Yemen (and earlier in Iraq and Syria). In this part of the world publically demeaning a neighbor’s troops after those forces have recently displayed competence is a form of compliment. It also sends a message to Iranian commanders and troops to try harder because the Arabs may not be as easy to beat as would they expect them to be. The fact that Iran went public with disparaging remarks about Saudi troops ensured that the war of words stayed in the media and more recently Iran has threatened Saudi troops with Iranian supplied violence if the Saudis dared to send troops into Syria. Iran knows that such an “invasion” would be as much against the Assads and their Iranian backers as against ISIL. The Saudis have warned Russia to stand aside if the Saudis and Iranians get violent with each other inside Syria.
February 2, 2016: Iranian media showed video of the new (since 2012) Shahed 129 UAV in action. This is one of the largest (over half a ton) UAVs Iran has developed and built and has been spotted in Syria and along Iranian borders doing surveillance. But the new video showed the Shahed 129 using laser guided air-to ground missiles. Iran has also developed these from older (1970s era) American technology the monarchy has purchased.
January 31, 2016: Saudi Arabia and Turkey reminded everyone that they were united in opposing Iranian interference in Middle Eastern Wars (particularly Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon). Turkey has always tried to maintain good relations with Iran but has, for the moment, joined the Arab coalition opposing Iranian expansion. Turkey and the Arabs know that one of the biggest advantages Iran has in this conflict is the historical inability of the Sunni states in the region to remain united in opposing Iran. For centuries (until 1918) a Turkish Empire united, by force, most of the Sunni states in the region. But since the Turkish Empire ended Iran has been trying to take advantage of that and Turkey is now convinced that a united Sunni opposition is the only solution to the growing Iranian threat. So far Egypt and all the Arabian states have also joined the coalition.