While the U.S. has lifted most of the international sanctions on Iran, many key (to the United States) sanctions are still in place. These include continued prohibitions on Americans investing in Iran or exporting to or importing from Iran. These remaining sanctions don’t really bother Iran much because there are plenty of out sources for investments, imports and customers for exports. Inside Iran the 2015 sanctions treaty is celebrated as a great victory for Iran and a humiliating defeat for the United States. Meanwhile the Iranian Minister of Defense blames the existence of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), the rebellion in Syria and violence in Iraq on the United States and Israel. This attitude is widely accepted throughout the Middle East and the Moslem world.
Iranian troops in Syria continue to take heavy casualties. That’s because these 3,000 or so volunteers are there to advise and often lead government, Hezbollah and militia units in combat. Most of the Iranian deaths (nearly 300 so far) in Syria are mentioned in Iranian media and those losses have been increasing in 2016, running at 30-40 a month. There are even more monthly losses for the thousands of foreign mercenaries Iran has recruited for the Assads. All of these are Shia, most from Lebanon but nearly as many from other countries (especially Iraq and Afghanistan). Iran has funded, armed and trained even more local militiamen in Syria, whose main duty is to defend government held territory. The presence of these Iranian troops has been a key element (along with the Russian air and logistical support) in making it possible for the government forces to push back the rebels.
Israel has made it clear that its main priority in Syria is eliminating the Iranian presence. This does not mean Israel would back any Islamic terrorist group, especially ISIL, running Syria if that meant Iran was gone. But Israel has priorities and considers Iran a more formidable threat than any Sunni Islamic terrorist group. Priority is on reducing the possibility that Iran-backed Hezbollah in southern Lebanon will start another war with Israel. A growing number of Israelis believe that Syria cannot be saved as a unified state but that peace will come only when Syria is partitioned. This is anathema to most Arabs and some are already accusing Israel of working on some secret scheme to make partition happen. Meanwhile Western nations and even Turkey agrees that Assad has to go and no Islamic terrorist groups will be allowed to replace the Assads. There is also general agreement that ISIL must be destroyed first.
In Yemen Iran is believed to continue supporting the Shia rebels but the air and naval blockade has been very effective and most, if not all, recent Iranian smuggling attempts have been detected and blocked. Cut off from material (as opposed to diplomatic and media) support the rebels are in a bad situation that is getting worse. Despite that the Yemeni Shia rebels are not defeated yet. They still hold the national capital and much of the traditionally Shia north. The Yemeni Shia never depended on Iran for much but believe once peace is made Iranian aid will return, but secretly, as it had been until the Shia seemed on the brink of victory in early 2015. Iran counts its efforts in Yemen as a success because for a small investment it caused its arch foe Saudi Arabia a lot of trouble and loss.
May 26, 2016: The government has apparently made peace with the Gaza based Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist group and has agreed to supply the group with $70 million to help with attacks against Israel and efforts to take control of Gaza. Over the last two years Iran has feuded with the largely Sunni Islamic Jihad over support for the Syrian Shia government’s battle with Syrian Sunnis (who are the majority there). Apparently Islamic Jihad and Iran have agreed to disagree over Syria. Iran remains at odds with Hamas, the larger Islamic terrorist group that has run Gaza since 2007, especially since Hamas has openly sided with Saudi Arabia against Iran. This renewed support for Islamic Jihad is seen as part of an effort to replace Hamas with a more violent and pro-Iran group. Before 2011 Islamic Jihad was known as an Iran backed terror group that had long been opposed to Hamas rule in Gaza. Islamic Jihad has been threatening armed rebellion against Hamas because of perceived Hamas treason against Islam. Islamic Jihad gets away with this because it continued to maintain some connections with Iran. Islamic Jihad takes credit for continued rocket attacks that violate Hamas ceasefire agreements with Israel. This aggression is believed Iran inspired and meant to goad Israel into attacking Gaza again. Such an attack would force Hamas to try to defend Gaza which would cause heavy Hamas casualties and make it easier for Islamic Jihad to oust Hamas by force. Many in Hamas see this as an effort by Iran to weaken Hamas, because Hamas began openly supporting the Syrian rebels in late 2013 and Iran showed its displeasure by cutting aid. That cost Hamas over a million dollars a month in Iranian cash and caused a lot of internal dissent. Some Hamas men have gone to Syria to fight and Hamas was trying to work out some kind of deal that would allow them to maintain support from both Iran and the Sunni Arab oil states that fund and arm many of the Syrian rebels. Hamas long believed it could resume taking aid from Iran without losing the even larger amounts of aid it gets from Gulf oil states. But Iran and Saudi Arabia have made it clear that the Sunni Hamas has to decide.
May 25, 2016: A Russian shipyard has obtained a billion dollar order from Iran for five offshore oil drilling platforms for use in the Persian Gulf.
May 24, 2016: Russia has halted delivery of S-300
anti-aircraft missile systems because Iran was not making payments as agreed on. In late 2015 the
long delayed (since 2007) S-300 deliveries resumed. Iran was to have all five S-300 batteries operational 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 signed in October 2015 and Russia expects to be the major supplier of weapons to Iran now that sanctions are lifted. Russia and Iran settled disputes over the 2007 S-300 contracts and three S-300 batteries have already arrived before the current halt. Each S-300 battery has a long-range search radar to detect targets and 6-8 launcher vehicles (each carrying four or two missiles).
May 23, 2016: Senior Iranian officials rejected American demands that they slow down development and construction of long-range ballistic missiles. Since the 2015 sanctions deal was signed Iran has conducted eight test launches of its long-range ballistic missiles. In the two years before that Iran had not tested any of its large ballistic missiles (the ones capable of carrying a nuclear warhead). A senior Iranian military commander recently boasted that with current capabilities Iranian ballistic missiles could destroy Israel in eight minutes. Israel feels betrayed because in mid-April the United States clarified its interpretation of the 2015 treaty that lifts sanctions on Iran by confirming that Iran only has to shut down its nuclear development program. There are no such restrictions on the ballistic missile program or the Iranian support for Islamic terrorism. This includes aggressive actions against Israel and Sunni Arabs. Many American allies, especially Israel and the Gulf Arab states, were disappointed with this U.S. “clarification” and demanded that Iran be pressured to halt its ballistic missile program. In March the U.S. imposed some sanctions on Iran over its continued missile development but soon backed away from that and admitted the 2015 treaty ignored the ballistic missile program.
May 21, 2016: In Pakistan an American UAV used a missile to kill the Afghan
Taliban supreme leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour. Iran is now accused of helping the Americans but denies this. Iran is generally hostile to the Taliban because that group has killed thousands of Afghan Shia. Yet Iran has helped the Taliban in the past when it was believed that aid would get Americans killed. The Mansour attack was made possible because American intelligence knew that Mansour’s family was hiding in Iran and spotted Mansour travelling from the Taliban sanctuary in southwest Pakistan (Quetta) and then returning the same way. When Mansour’s car was alone on a rural Pakistani road, the missile was launched. Mansour was quickly replaced with an unknown cleric who was believed to be a figurehead for the real new leader, who is also the head of the Haqqani Network. Mansour had only recently managed to deal with internal threats to his leadership. He was shot and wounded during a December 2015 meeting with dissident Taliban. He recovered and kept negotiating until he calmed down the dissidents. It was Mansour who, for two years, hid the fact that founding leader Mullah Omar had died in a Pakistani hospital in 2013. This led many Afghans to wonder if you could trust the Taliban if the Taliban didn’t trust each other. But Mansour had been founder Mullah Omar’s chief deputy for many years and knew his way around the organization as well as traditional allies like the Haqqani clan. After months of civil war in late 2015 Mansour was clearly in charge and began implementing some policies his predecessor Mullah Omar opposed or was not enthusiastic about. This included no interest at all in peace talks with the Afghan government and active support for al Qaeda.
Iran is also hostile to al Qaeda which has also killed a lot of Shia. Yet Iran will also work with al Qaeda if need be. In late 2015 Iran released several al Qaeda leaders from captivity. This was done to obtain the release of an Iranian diplomat who had been kidnapped by al Qaeda in Yemen back in 2013. This sort of trade is nothing new and in the last few years Iran has released over twenty senior al Qaeda leaders or technical experts. Since 2012 Western intelligence services have detected several of the 13 high-ranking al Qaeda officials thought imprisoned by Iran suddenly leaving. Many al Qaeda leaders fled to Iran after the Taliban lost control of Afghanistan in late 2001. While not all of them were imprisoned while in Iran they were not allowed to move freely and most appear to have been under what amounted to house arrest. Normally the Shia avoid al Qaeda but Iran has taken the position that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and encourages its allies to work, when possible, with Sunni terrorists like al Qaeda. The strategy is not popular with a lot of Iranians, although the Iranian government openly approved of the fact that senior al Qaeda leadership (including those outside Iran) had, since at least 2006, advised their subordinates to not kill Shia women and children. That advice has been frequently ignored but Iran has continued to work with al Qaeda when it suited Iranian interests. Recently Iran was allowing more al Qaeda leaders to leave in order to make al Qaeda, when has openly declared war on ISIL, a more effective organization. That al Qaeda is also more active than ISIL in carrying out attacks in the West is simply a bonus.
May 12, 2016: In Syria (outside Damascus) Mustafa Badreddine, the military leader of Hezbollah, was killed by an Israeli air strike (or rebel artillery, according to Hezbollah and the Syrian government). Unspecified Islamic terrorists were blamed for this killing although no one denied the possibility that it was Israel. Hezbollah blamed Israel for the death of another senior Hezbollah official killed in Syria last December. Badreddine was a more important target because he has been an active terrorist since the 1980s and has long been sought by the Israelis and the many Arab governments who have suffered from his attacks. Israel is suspected in this attacks because in April Israel revealed that it had, in the last few tears, actually carried out “dozens” of air attacks against Hezbollah efforts to move Syrian, Russian and Iranian weapons from Syria into Lebanon. It was no secret that Israeli aircraft have been attacking Hezbollah trucks trying to move Syrian missiles and other weapons into Lebanon. But confirmation, or extensive mention in the media, only occurred for about six of these attacks since early 2013. Israel always promised more such attacks and in late 2015 apparently worked out an arrangement with Russia that eliminated the risk of Russian interference. Hezbollah has been threatening another massive rocket attack on Israel, larger than the last one in 2006. In addition to these attacks on their weapons and leaders, Hezbollah also has to worry about the American economic sanctions which have crippled the organizations finances. More Iranian financial aid was the major reason Hezbollah kept it fighters in Syria, despite the adverse impact that had on Hezbollah morale (because of the casualties) and political support within Lebanon (where most people hated the Assads and Iran). But that was before many of the economic sanctions against Iran were lifted this year. Now Iran will have more cash and greater control over the broke and heavily sanctioned Hezbollah.