The lifting of sanctions in early 2016 has been good to Iran. Oil exports have increased to two million barrels a day, a level not seen since 2012. Overall oil production has increased to 3.8 million barrels a day. Exports in general have doubled over 2015 levels. The government is making plans to soon achieve annual GDP growth of eight percent.
Yet many Western nations, and their banks and major suppliers, are still reluctant to do business with Iran. This is because of the fear that sanctions will be restored and Western investments will be victims. Meanwhile Iran continues its ballistic missile program and building new nuclear power plants. Iranian government policy still maintains that Israel must be destroyed and that the current guardians (Saudi Arabia) of the mostly holy Islamic shrines in Mecca and Medina are incompetent and should be replaced.
The GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab oil states in the Persian Gulf) declared its intervention in Yemen a success and that it should be the model for further joint efforts against Iranian aggression. While the Iran-backed Shia rebels in Yemen have not surrendered they are very much losing. Iran won’t admit that but the fact that Iran calls for more ceasefires and peace talks in Yemen says otherwise. The GCC also points out that while Iran criticizes civilian casualties from GCC airstrikes in Yemen it ignores the deliberate airstrikes on Sunni civilians in Syria by Russian and Syrian warplanes.
The GCC and the U.S. recently announced that the naval blockade around Yemen has been successful and four Iranian attempts to smuggle weapons (to Yemeni Shia rebels) have been intercepted since early 2015. The blockade is maintained by GCC, American and other foreign warships and that includes joint patrols and more sharing of information to make it more difficult for smugglers. The GCC would also like to expand its efforts against Iran to Lebanon and Gaza but that requires the cooperation of Egypt and Israel. To that end the GCC proposes a GCC+2 model with the +2 being Egypt and Jordan. Since Jordan has been a long-time ally of Israel (in the sense that the two neighbors have cooperated against Islamic terrorism for over four decades) that would make it more politically acceptable to openly accept Israel as an official ally.
The +2 plan is having a problem with Egypt. Saudi Arabia recently told Egypt that shipments of free oil would be halted indefinitely. These shipments were halted ”temporarily” in early October because Egypt refused to vote against a Russian peace proposal in the UN that was favored by Iran and the Iran backed Syrian government. All other Arab states opposed this, in large part because the Gulf Arabs and Iran are at war with each other. The Saudis expect Moslem states they support financially (Egypt has received about $5 billion a year since 2011) to reciprocate by backing Saudi diplomacy and, in effect, recognize Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Arab world. Egypt long held that position because of its long history of Arab leadership, even before Islam appeared in the 7th century. Egypt is broke and still dealing with Islamic terrorist violence. The Saudis are rich and have far fewer problems internally with Islamic terrorism. But for many Egyptians it is humiliating to follow the lead of Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile one thing that the Egyptians and Saudis do agree on is better relationships with Israel. Along those lines a growing number of Egyptians openly support more economic cooperation with Israel. Meanwhile Egypt faces growing economic problems, especially with the Saudi aid gone.
What started in 2011 as another uprising against a tyrannical and inept government has evolved into something far worse. The Assad clan, like other post-World War II Arab rulers has survived by making deals with whoever was available. Thus a Shia minority (the Assads and their fellow Syrian Shia) took control of a Sunni Arab majority country half a century ago and has survived since then by making the right alliances at the right time. Thus in 2011 it looked like the end for the Assads. Not only were most Syrians willing to support the rebels, the primary foreign backer since the 1980s, Iran, was unable to do much. But there were still opportunities. The rebels soon began to fight among themselves. While most rebels were Sunni (or at least not Shia) Moslems there were also ethnic (Kurd versus Arab, various other non-Arab minorities versus Arabs) and religious (non-religious or less-religious Syrians versus various intensities of Islamic radicalism). The Assads had always exploited these differences and was able to do so once more. This led to ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), an Islamic terrorist group so dangerous that even other Islamic terrorist groups opposed it. Iran increased its aid, even though Iran was still under sanctions and suffering from a sharp drop in oil income. Sunni Arab governments were divided over which rebel groups to support, especially when it came to Islamic terrorist groups that also wanted to go after the West (which was providing the Arabs with protection from the Iranians.) Then there were the Syrian Kurds, which were simultaneously attacked by the Assads (for being separatist) and supported (for being considered a threat to Turkey, a country Syrians have long had bad relations with). Speaking of Turkey, in 2011 the Turks were entering their second decade of being ruled by an elected “Islamic” government. The Turks were basically anti-Kurd but willing to make deals with the Syrian Arabs. The Assads eventually got friendly with the Turks by surviving and going after ISIL, which was seen as a threat to Turkey. The Assads had long been willing to tolerate the presence of Islamic terrorists as long as these fanatics did not attack anything inside Syria. ISIL was unwilling to follow that rule and most other Sunni Islamic terrorist groups Syria had long provided sanctuary for turned on the Assads. That made the Assads more useful to Iran, Russia and even Israel. Western nations were also concerned about the ISIL threat but the Europeans countries were also concerned about the growing number of Syrian refugees headed their way. Most of these refugees go no farther than Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan but those with the means (some cash and a willingness to take big risks) headed for the West. In the midst of all this the Assads went from being the nasty threat that had to go to one of many even more threatening (to the neighbors as well as Syrians) groups. Be becoming the one of many threats the Assads gained some allies and a lot of foes who were now willing to tolerate the Assads as the lesser of many more evils. With all that Iran is now pushing the idea that peace in Syria is possible if there is a deal to keep the Assads in power.
November 15, 2016: Israel has told Russia that Israel will do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from having nukes or establishing any military bases in Syria. Russian officials continue to be friendly towards Israel despite that is going on in Syria and the Russian cooperation with Iran. At the same time Israel and Russia have maintained good diplomatic relations, in part because nearly 20 percent of Israelis have Russian ancestors. Russia is still a major source of Jews immigrating to Israel. Russians in general admire Israel for being resourceful and able to defend themselves in a rough neighborhood. Thus while Russia is currently an active ally of Iran, Russia and Israel continue to have good diplomatic and trade relations. Israel has become a tourist attraction for Russians who can still afford to travel to the Middle East but want to go somewhere that is not threatened by Islamic terror attacks and is hospitable to Russians. Since 2015, when most Russians stopped going to inexpensive Egyptian resorts because of the terror threat a growing number have trying out the more expensive Israeli resorts. Most of these Russians go home and report that the higher cost of vacationing in Israel is worth it because so many Israelis speak Russian and are nostalgic for Russian culture.
In the United States the Congress agreed to extend sanctions on Iran approved new laws to impose more sanctions the Iran backed Assad government of Syria.
November 12, 2016: In Syria a reporter for a state run Iranian TV station was killed by a mortar shell while reporting from Aleppo.
November 10, 2016: A well-publicized funeral was held for ten Iranians recently killed in combat in Syria. This means that more than 400 Iranians have been killed fighting in Syria. This does not include several IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) officers who have been executed recently for refusing to serve in Syria. The state controlled media is less willing to publicize some of the Iranians who do volunteer to fight in Iraq. This is especially true of the thousand or so Iranian Kurds who are fighting alongside Iraqi Kurds against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in northern Iraq. That’s because these Iranian Kurds speak openly of fighting to defend “Kurdistan”. The autonomous Iraqi Kurds of northern Iraq play down these attitudes, which assume that Kurdistan consists of Kurdish majority areas in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.
An Iranian general confirmed that Iran had set up a rocket factory in Syria more than a year before the 2006 Hezbollah war with Israel. The factory built short range weapons and components for rockets to be built inside Lebanon. This admission came as Iran complained that American airstrikes had destroyed this facility.
November 9, 2016: In Gaza Mithqal Alsalmi, an outspoken Palestinian proponent of Shia Islam, was shot dead. Alsalmi worked for the Palestinian Authority in Gaza as an intelligence officers and only became an outspoken advocate of Shia Islam this year. His death became big news in Iran and throughout the Shia world and brought Hamas a lot of criticism for not preventing violence against Shia in Gaza. This is an important issue for Hamas which, since 2015, has resumed close relations with Iran and tolerance for Palestinian Shia. Yet hostility towards Shia still exists in Gaza. In 2012 Hamas gunmen began attacking the few Palestinian Shia in Gaza. This was part of an attempt to limit Iranian influence in Gaza and marked the end of a decade long relationship between Iran and Hamas. In response Iran cut its funding of Hamas (and Hamas had to cut its payroll the next month) because Hamas would not support the Shia Assad dictatorship in Syria that was under growing popular pressure from the Sunni Arab majority. Hamas criticism of Syrian violence against its people caused major friction between Iran and Hamas. Worse, a lot of the Iranian money was shifted to Hamas rivals (in Gaza) like Islamic Jihad (a terrorist group that still attacks Israel). Iran expected Hamas to allow local Shia to seek converts among the Sunni majority. Hamas cracked down on that between 2012 and 2014 but in the last year has eased up. Sunni Islamic conservatives believe Shia caught trying to convert Sunnis should be punished by death and pro Iran activists like Alsalmi were a target because of that.
November 8, 2016: Iran called for political settlements in Syria and Yemen. In both countries a Shia minority is trying to gain control of the entire country by force. In both cases the local Shia are doing this with Iranian support and that has not proven sufficient to achieve Shia victory.
November 7, 2016: The government has threatened to further restrict traffic across the Turkish border if Turkey does not do something about the deteriorating security situation in eastern Turkey. This is mainly the result of increased attacks by PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists). This has already led to the suspension of passenger train traffic across the border. Now restrictions on road traffic are threatened.
November 4, 2016: Israeli intelligence officials believe that Iran currently controls some 25,000 Shia foreign mercenaries and local Shia militias in Syria. Iran has been quite public about its efforts to recruit Shia mercenaries in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere for service in Syria. This Iranian mercenary force now amounts to over 12,000 fighters, all recruited and trained by the Iranian Quds Force, which specializes in this sort of thing. In 2012 the IRGC commander openly bragged that members of the Quds Force were operating in Syria and also training, and sometimes organizing, local Shia into militias. These men, like the foreign Shia mercenaries were recruited, trained, armed and led by Iranian officers and NCOs.
October 31, 2016: Russia revealed that during the first eight months of 2016 trade with Iran was up 50 percent over the same period in 2015. It was also mentioned that Iran and Russia are discussing a $10 billion arms deal that would update much of Iran’s Cold War era weapons and equipment. Iran is also seeking more military tech from China, but at the moment Russia is offering the most attractive prices.
October 28, 2016: In Pasargadae, 800 kilometers south of the capital, over 10,000 people gathered to celebrate the birthday of Cyrus the Great, considered the founder of the Persian Empire 2,500 years ago. The religious dictatorship that has run Iran since the 1980s quietly tries to discourage this sort of thing, without giving it a lot of publicity. That has proved increasingly difficult. This is a problem because this form of Iranian nationalism appeals to all Iranians to one degree or another but particularly to royalists and democrats who want to keep religion out of government.
October 26, 2016: In northern Syria (outside Aleppo) an Iranian officer (Qolam-Reza Samai) was killed while commanding (“advising”) Iranian mercenaries fighting for the Assad government. Samai was a retired IRGC Brigadier General and the second such senior IRGC officer to die in Syria since September. Iran admits it has troops (over 3,000) in Syria. Iran insists they are all volunteers, which explains the presence of so many retired officers. Many Iranian officers and NCOs in Syria are not volunteers but realize serving in Syria provides useful combat experience and improves promotion prospects. If you are killed you are hailed as a hero and if disabled the government usually provides a civilian (often government) job. In Syria the Iranian military are needed to help government army units as well as the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian recruited militia units. Most of the Iranian deaths in Syria are mentioned in Iranian media 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.
October 23, 2016: In Yemen the GCC airstrikes resumed as the GCC backed government accused the Shia rebels of breaking the UN arranged ceasefire.
October 21, 2016: In northern Iraq (Kirkuk) a suicide bomber attack on a power station killed four of 80 or so Iranians working in the facility. The government said it would withdraw the other Iranians from the power plant. This is necessary to maintain morale among other Iranians working in Iraq. Recruiting civilians to work on economic projects in Iraq was always difficult because Sunni Islamic terrorists preferred to attack Shia and especially Iranians.