Iran: Not All Is What It Seems

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March 1, 2016: Preliminary results of the February 26 national elections indicates that the reformers did much better, more than tripling representation in parliament from about ten percent to at least a third. Unlike 2012 the ruling clerics did not try to rig the voting. There were two main reasons for that. First, many hardliners have become pro-reform. Second the ruling clerics know they are in trouble. The government has long used surveys and a large informer network to monitor actual public opinion they knew that an effort to manipulate the vote like was done in 2012 would likely trigger popular anger and disorder. The ruling clerics understand that the huge post-Iraq war (which ended in 1989) generation wants change and within that generation reformers far outnumber religious conservatives. Unless handled carefully this growing pro-reform majority could be a lot of trouble for the government. For example a major complaint of the reformers is against the way the huge financial empire the religious conservatives have built up since the 1980s is run. These companies were taken over by clergy (and their families) for a lot of largely bogus reasons. These huge holdings make the religious conservatives much wealthier, on average, than ordinary Iranians and that is a very unpopular situation. Too much reform could threaten that cozy, and quite corrupt, arrangement. All Iranians want a stronger economy but the reformers understand this will only happen if there is more foreign trade with the West, especially the United States. The official government attitude towards the U.S. is still “Death to America.” Another major complaint of reformers is the use of lifestyle police to enforce unpopular rules about how women should dress and behave as well as prohibitions on all sorts of traditional Iranian pastimes (like drinking alcohol and watching what they want in movie theaters, TV and the Internet). Religious hardliners do not want to give any ground in these areas but the senior clerics pay more attention to Iranian history and know that the hardliners could be crushed if it came to a fight and most Iranians do not want that sort of bloodshed. But most Iranians also want change and in the past they have shown a willingness to fight if pushed too far. Violent rebellion is still a possibility, especially with so many new “reformers” being former hardliners who now are all for less corruption, lifestyle police and more foreign trade but still want America and Israel destroyed one way or another. Yet these same anti-American reformers also want better relations with Turkey and the Arabs as well as less dependence on Russia. As usual, not all is what it seems in Iran.

Saudi Arabia ignored Iranian, Russian and Syrian threats and insists it is sending some troops to Syria to fight ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). These will probably only be small numbers of special operations troops. Syria, Russia and Syria (the Assads) all openly shared 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 high praise. It also sends a message to Iranian commanders and troops to try harder because the Arabs may not be as easy to beat as before. 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. Turkey then warned Russia that an attack on Saudi forces would compel the Turks to enter Syria to assist their Arab ally. Turkey and Saudi Arabia have had good relations for a long time so this Turkish pledge should come as no surprise. The Saudi threat of intervention on the ground is likely to occur after the current multi-national “Northern Thunder” military exercises in northern Saudi Arabia end on March 10th. These exercises involve over 150,000 troops from Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf Arab nations plus Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Jordan, Sudan and Senegal.

It is to Iran’s advantage that ISIL hold the attention of the West and the Arabs. Iran is fighting ISIL, 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 them into fight for Iran instead of against Iran.

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. 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.

The U.S. fears that Iraq is on its way to becoming subordinate to Iranian foreign policy. Because of effective Iranian aid in dealing with ISIL the Iraqi government has become less enthusiastic about needing more American and NATO troops in Iraq. Iraq also announced that Saudi Arabia should not even consider sending troops into Iraq to fight ISIL. The Saudis did not suggest this but are planning to send troops into Syria. The Saudis have no border with Syria but do have land access to Jordan and Iraq. Thus Iraq is making it clear that Saudi forces are not welcome in Iraq even if they are just passing through. Jordan is another matter and has become an ally of the Saudis. Meanwhile Iran supports the increasingly aggressive and autonomous behavior of the Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias that are assisting the army in the fight against ISIL. The Shia militias are also taking control of territory in urban and rural areas, displacing the police and local government. Because of that by late 2015 the Iraq government saw more 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 made it clear to Iran (which is very hostile to U.S. forces in Iraq) that some American troops were 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. But now Iran appears to have convinced Iraqi leaders that American troops come and go while Iranian forces are always next door. 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.

February 29, 2016: A lot of publicity was given to a government announcement about new Iranian designed and made chemical warfare equipment. This included chemical weapons detectors, a protective suit as well as medicines used to treat victims of chemical weapons. Officially Iran does not have any chemical or nuclear weapons. Unofficially no one is sure. Over 100,000 Iranians (mostly military personnel) were killed or badly injured by chemical weapons during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Most of the casualties were from chemical weapons like mustard gas that were developed during World War I (1914-18). But the 1980s also saw the first combat use of nerve gas, a World War II era weapon that, unlike nukes, was never used during that war. Iran and Iraq both made and used nerve gas against each other.

February 28, 2016: The United States revealed that it had halted an Iranian arms shipment to Shia rebels in Yemen.

February 27, 2016: In Syria a ceasefire was supposed to begin on the 27th but it only really lasted a day and there is widespread doubt that it will actually work. The main reason is the fact that ISIL and al Nusra (nearly as large as ISIL and affiliated with al Qaeda) have not agreed to stop fighting. This is the second attempt at a ceasefire this month. That first effort failed for the same reasons the new effort will. The UN and most of the West is eager for peace in Syria but for most Moslem nations Syria is a main battleground in the current Shia (led by Iran) and Sunni (led by Saudi Arabia) civil war as well as a joint effort to destroy ISIL, which threatens everyone. The West is not willing to use enough force to make a difference and the pro-government forces are better armed and more determined than the rebels. The UN is caught in the middle and goes along with whatever seems least offensive. Meanwhile the rebels willing to negotiate demand a lot of pre-conditions aimed at the Russians. At the very least the rebels wanted the Russians to halt their Assad support while peace talks go on. That never went anywhere. The rebels are asking for other concessions, like release of captured leaders and lifting of sieges of some pro-rebel civilian areas. Russia refused to consider this as well. Another issue the rebels are angry about was the UN agreeing 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 obtain a meaningful Syria peace deal. 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 with Iran and the Saudis.

February 25, 2016: The government announced an aid program to Palestinians that would pay $7,000 to the families of Palestinians killed while trying to kill Israelis. Over 116 Palestinians have died that way since September 2015. Iran will also pay $30,000 to Palestinian families who have their homes destroyed by Israel (to encourage families to dissuade their children from being terrorists). Until 2003 Saddam Hussein had a similar Palestinian aid program.

February 20, 2016: Officials have been in Russia discussing a multi-billion dollar deal to buy Russian Su-30 jet fighters, Yak-130 jet trainers and Mi-17 helicopters. Such sales are still forbidden without explicit permission from the UN. At the same time it was confirmed that Iran is still discussing details of the S-300 anti-aircraft systems sale. This was thought to be a done deal. In December Russian announced that deliveries would be made via the Caspian Sea. Some supporting equipment has already been flown in or came by sea as non-military equipment. Apparently the key S-300 components (missiles and fire control systems) have not been delivered.

February 19, 2016: Saudi Arabia is suspending military aid to Lebanon largely because the Lebanese government has been unable to curb Iranian use of Hezbollah fighters in Syria and Yemen. The $3 billion in weapons and equipment is being supplied for by France, paid for by Saudi Arabia and was arranged back in 2013. Deliveries began in early 2015 and were to have been completed by 2018. Training and maintenance services were to continue into the 2020s.

Pakistan officially lifted all economic sanctions it had imposed on Iran. Pakistan was obliged to enforce these sanctions because of international treaties (like belonging to the UN). Now that a July 2015 international agreement has lifted those sanctions Pakistan is free to resume trade and revive joint economic projects that had been stalled by the growing list of sanctions. India and Pakistan were both doing a lot of business with Iran before the sanctions and both countries are now reviving those activities.

February 18, 2016: The government revealed that it had sent special operations troops (Saberin) to Iraq and Syria. Those in Iraq are there mainly to ensure security around some very important Shia shrines in southern Iraq. The Saberin in Syria are apparently for special combat missions. The Saberin are modeled on the British SAS and U.S. Special Forces. At the same time the Saberin were headed to Syria many, if not most, of the 2,000 trainers and advisors from the IRGC (Revolutionary Guards) have been withdrawn. Many of these appear to have been shifted to Iraq where Iran wants its military well represented as Iraq seeks to clear ISIL out of western Iraq (Anbar province) and Mosul (second largest city and held by Iraq since mid-2014). At least 500 Iranians remain in Syria. Thousands of Iranians have served in Syria since 2012. Although Iran has never revealed how many troops have been in Syria it is known (from Iranian media) that at least 150 of these military personnel have been killed in Syria and several hundred more wounded. That would indicate that at least 5,000 (and probably more like 10,000) Iranians have been there training and advising Syrian troops or pro-Syrian militias and foreign volunteers. Israel believes that many more Iranian troops will return to Syria once ISIL is crushed in Iraq. Once the rebellion is crushed in Syria Iran expects the Assads to be more cooperative in supporting terror attacks against Israel.

February 11, 2016: Saudi Arabia detained a cargo ship carrying UN aid for Yemen. Saudi inspectors say they found four cargo containers containing computer and communications equipment that was not declared and is considered suspicious because this gear can also be used for military purposes and would be useful to the Shia rebels.

 

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