September 29, 2017:
Iran refuses to allow the United States to inspect military facilities that might be illegally conducting nuclear weapons research. There is a vague clause in the 2015 treaty that seems to allow such inspections but Russia has threatened to use its UN veto to block having the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) make such inspections. This just makes the Americans, and many others in the Middle East and the West suspicious.
UN nuclear inspectors reported that Iran was starting to dismantle but not destroy some nuclear facilities. That means these facilities could 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. The 2015 treaty required Iran to dilute its supply of 20 percent (and anything above 5 percent) enriched uranium down to below 5 percent. Iran was 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. The foreign inspectors verified this before the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China agreed to the treaty. Since then Iran has been reluctant to allow any foreign inspections to verify that they are still in compliance.
In August 2017 Iran pointed out that it could revive its nuclear weapons program immediately by having Iranian uranium enrichment equipment adjusted to produce weapons grade uranium rather than the less “enriched” form of uranium used for power plants. This implied that Iran already had solved the many other technical details involved with building a nuclear weapon that works. This warning was in response to the United States threatening sanctions on Iran because of the Iranian ballistic missile program and continued support of terrorism worldwide.
So far both sides appear to have complied with the terms of the 2015 treaty, although without any more verification it is uncertain if Iran is still in compliance. Meanwhile Iran has become more of an international troublemaker and a growing number of intelligence analysts in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East believe Iran is still pursuing work on nuclear weapons. Iran appears to justify this effort internally by invoking “the Israeli threat” that, according to Iran, is sustained by the United States. The Iranian government regularly calls for both Israel and the United States to be destroyed. At the same time Iran is concerned that their Arab neighbors are becoming too strong.
The best example of this was in Yemen where the Arabs succeeded in carrying out a sustained air campaign using modern aircraft (mostly F-15s, Tornadoes, Typhoons, F-16s and F-18s) and weapons (GPS and laser guided bombs and missiles) supported by targeting pods and AWACS aircraft. There were also several Arab operated aerial tankers as well as dozens of helicopter gunships and search and rescue helicopters. All this stuff performed well with Arab crews and under the supervision of Arab commanders. All this contradicted decades of Iranian propaganda.
Iran had long derided (openly and among themselves) the inability of the Arabs to effectively operate these modern weapons on a sustained basis and on a large scale. That was obviously not true in Yemen. Nor were the stories the Iranians spread (mostly inside Iran) that the Arabs were using mercenary Western pilots. That proved to be untrue because crew killed when aircraft (18 so far) were lost were named, hailed as heroes and their careers were described in detail. Most of the aircraft lost were Saudi (11) followed by the UAE (4) with Morocco, Jordan, Bahrain losing one each. That was roughly in proportion to how many aircraft each coalition member contributed. Thus the aircraft lost were two F-15s, three F-16s, one Mirage 2000, five AH-64s and four other helicopters plus at least five large UAVs.
After the Saudis the UAE was the largest contributor of aircraft. The UAE sent in about 40 F-16Es (mostly) plus some Mirage 2000s and one aerial refueling aircraft. UAE later sent in more AH-64s and light attack aircraft (armed with Hellfire missiles). The UAE also set up an air base across the Gulf of Aden in Eritrea with at least five Mirage 2000s, three AT-802 light attack aircraft, UH-60 and CH-47 helicopters and several Chinese made CH-4 UAVs (similar to the American Predator). This was mainly to tighten the naval blockade that Iran was sometimes evading to get weapons to the Shia rebels.
Other members of the coalition provided 15 F-18Cs (from Kuwait), ten Mirage 2000s (Qatar), 33 F-16s from Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco plus three Su-24Ms from Sudan. Saudi Arabia supplied most of the AWACS and aerial tankers as well as military transports (fixed wing and helicopter). The coalition did use a lot of foreign contractors on the ground for maintenance and tech support, but they have always done that. What scared the Iranians was the skill levels of the Arab aircrew. These pilots had little or no combat experience until recently. Since mid-2014 many of them had been flying combat missions against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Iraq and Syria and the air campaign in Yemen demonstrated these pilots, and their ground support facilities, could handle a “surge” (several sorties a day for weeks) and then thousands of more sorties over more than a year of operations.
Iran has not said anything about how they might have changed their war plans now that they know how capable their Arab adversaries are. The Arabs believe this explains why the Iranians appear to be working on nuclear weapons again.
Most UN members agree with Russia and Iran that the Syrian rebellion has been defeated but there is still no widespread support for the Assads, which most UN members want to prosecute for war crimes. As long as Russia and China make their UN vetoes available the UN will not be able to make a serious effort to take down the Assads. Moreover, even with the Assads, the largely Moslem Syrian population has not demonstrated any willingness to try democracy. The United States has said it does not want to use its armed forces to fight the Assad government, even though the U.S. and most Western nations agree that the Assads are unfit to run Syria effectively and should be removed from power. So American forces will remain active in Syria until ISIL is eliminated and then, as the current thinking goes, withdraw. The Syrian Kurds and Turkish efforts in Syria may delay the American departure.
To further complicate the situation Iran and Russia have both signed deals with the Assads to establish military (mainly naval) bases in Syria. Then there is the fact that Iran openly calls for the destruction of Israel while Russia and Israel have often worked together, even during the communist period (that ended in 1991 along with the Soviet Union did). Russia tries to maintain its alliance with Turkey and Iran while also remaining on good terms with Israel and the Arab oil states in the region.
Meanwhile Israel remains openly hostile to a permanent Iranian presence in Syria. Turkey quietly agrees and Russia is seeking opportunities for itself but seems to dislike the Iranian long range plan. Israel is quite blunt about describing Iran as replacing ISIL as the new threat to just about everyone. Russia sometimes supports that openly and Israel keeps trying to improve relations with the unstable Turkish Islamic government.
And then there are the Sunni Arab states, who want the Assads gone and are more open in opposing Iranian plans for post-war Syria. As part of this the Arab Gulf states are moving closer to an open alliance with Israel. That includes diplomatic relations and dropping the decades of Arab sponsored boycott against Israel. Despite opposition from Israel, the Arabs, the Americans and even some Iranian allies Iran is determined to have a land route from Iran to Lebanon and military installations in post-war Syria. Israel has made it clear that it will, and can, make sure that does not happen. Turkey and Russia recognize that Israel is not only the stronger military power here but also has the most at stake. For decades Iran has called for the destruction of Israel and that does not sit well with Turkey and Russia because both nations have had clashes with aggressive Iranian ambitions over the past few centuries and see the current Iranian strategy as eventually taking down Turkey (for being Sunni and an ancient rival) and Russia (for not being Moslem and defeating Iranian attempts to expand in the 19th and 20th centuries). But at the same time Russia and Turkey will play Israel and Iran off against each other to do what is best for Russia or Turkey.
Although Iran backed Hezbollah in Lebanon is increasingly active in the media about how soon its next war with Israel will happen, the reality is somewhat different. Israeli wargames and monitoring of attitudes in Lebanon (among Hezbollah supporters and the majority of Lebanese who are hostile or neutral) indicates that another Hezbollah war now would be unlikely. At the moment Hezbollah military power is crippled by losses in Syria and the continued deployment of about a third of their available forces there. In addition there are significant veteran personnel working in Iraq and Yemen supporting local pro-Iran Shia militias. More Hezbollah personnel will be heading back to Gaza now that Hamas has resumed its alliance with Iran. But in the long term (the 2020s) Iran is building something that threatens Israel in a big way. By establishing military bases in Syria and organizing a branch of Hezbollah in Syria Iran has legal justification for stationing Iranian troops in Syria. Unless Israel interferes Iran could rebuild the Syrian military, especially the Syrian ballistic missile stockpile. Iran would have time (and money) to deal with the financial problems that are crippling Hezbollah and Hamas. Thus by the mid-2020s Iran would be in a much stronger position for attacking Israel. That would include the new Israeli natural gas fields off the coast near the Lebanese border.
Qatar was accused by fellow Arabs of siding with Iran in the current struggle between Shia Iran and the Sunni Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia. Qatar has long been a supporter of other Islamic terrorist groups and is effective at that despite being a tiny (11,437 square kilometers/4,416 square miles) nation with a population of 2.1 million. Only about 12 percent of the population are citizens. The United States and Kuwait (an ally of Saudi Arabia) have been trying to work out a peace deal and end the economic boycott the Saudis and the rest of the GCC Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab oil states in the Persian Gulf). Qatar is also a member of the GCC and too unconventional in its ideas and actions for its more conservative GCC partners.
Qatar is very wealthy (it has the highest per-capita income in the Persian Gulf) and its ruler has been increasingly active in backing radical change in the Arab world. Qatar was an early supporter of the Syrian rebels, including the Islamic terrorist groups and urges political reforms throughout the Arab world, something that has polarized Arabs everywhere. Meanwhile Qatar has survived the boycott, in place since June 2017, and admits that the longer this goes on the closer it will get to Iran.
Putting Pakistan In Peril
Since late 2016 Iran and Afghanistan have sped up the completion of the rail link from Afghanistan to Iran and a new port on the Indian Ocean. In addition there is an extension of the railroad to the Russian border and thence to Central Asia. Currently all this is to be completed by late 2018. Already a lot of Afghan business that used to come and go via Pakistan (and the port of Karachi) is now doing so via the new Iran link. To encourage more trade Iran is offering major cuts in Iranian tariffs for Afghan imports and exports along with secure travel via Iran and that is working. This is part of the Indo-Iranian project (largely financed by India) that enables foreign cargo delivered to the port of Chabahar (in southeastern Iran) to enter Afghanistan by rail or road without any additional tax problems or other restrictions. Iran and India are building the 1,300 kilometer long rail line from the port to the Afghan border (near Herat) in the north. Indians are providing over two billions dollars to upgrade the port and build new roads and railroads to Afghanistan and Central Asia. For Iran the Central Asia link is the most valuable one. But for Afghanistan having another way to move most of their imports and exports is a major achievement because Pakistan and Iran will have to complete and that will keep costs down for Afghans and reduce the use of closing the border (which Pakistan has done frequently to coerce the Afghans) because that will just drive more trade permanently to the Iran link.
The Yemen government accuses Iran of exercising control over the Yemeni Shia rebels because several times recently peace negotiations with the rebels seemed to achieve an agreement only to have the rebels later cancel the deal for no reason other than what appears to be Iranian interference. Iran denies such involvement but then Iranian long denied assisting the Yemeni rebels until the evidence became impossible to deny. Now Iran admits backing the rebels but denies exercising a veto over negotiations between the Yemen government and the Shia rebels.
The United States, which participates in the naval blockade of Yemen, points out that Iran is obviously getting major items smuggled in on a regular basis. The blockade ships have had to deal with naval mines, anti-ship missiles and explosive boat attacks that could all be tracked back to Iran. On land there is evidence Iran has brought in ballistic missiles that are now used because the rebels have exhausted the supply they obtained in 2014-15. Most of those missiles are intercepted (using American made and Saudi operated Patriot missiles) over Saudi Arabia, where fragments of the ballistic missiles can be collected and analyzed. This makes it clear that the missiles are Iranian. Iran has also sent in more, and larger, UAVs for the rebels to use (and increasingly lose do to equipment failure or being shot down).
September 26, 2017: Police and para-military forces broke up Kurd demonstrations in several cities and arrested several hundred Kurds. The demonstrations were in reaction to the vote yesterday in northern Iraq where the autonomous Kurdish government held a referendum on Kurdish independence and 92 percent voted for independence. Iran, like Turkey, has a large Kurd minority that would prefer to be part of a larger, and independent Kurdish state.
The government announced it was going to finance a billion dollar oil refinery in Syria. Enough oil is produced there to keep such a facility going (to produce vehicle fuel and other refined products like heating oil and kerosene.) Earlier in 2017 Russia and Iran agreed to rehabilitate Syrian oil and gas production facilities.
September 25, 2017: Despite loud and threatening protests from Iran, Turkey and Iraq the Iraqi Kurds in the autonomous north of the country held their referendum on declaring independence. Some 72 percent of 4.55 million registered voters showing up, over 90 percent voted for independence.
September 24, 2017: Saudi Arabia is going to become a major investor in the new Pakistani Gwadar port facilities. Pakistan favors Saudi involvement because it makes Gwadar less Chinese dominated operation and assures the Saudis of better access to Chinese export and delivery of Saudi oil via the pipelines that are part of the Gwadar project. Earlier this year China and Pakistan finally signed the agreement that grants China a 40 year lease on new facilities China is building in the southwestern port of Gwadar. The lease grants China most (over 80 percent) of the revenue brought in by port and free trade zone operations. Gwadar is a key part of the $55 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This project began in 2013 when China agreed to spend $18 billion to build a road from Gwadar into northwest China. This will require drilling long tunnels through the Himalayan Mountains on the border (in Pakistani controlled Kashmir.) The road and a natural gas pipeline are part of the larger CPEC project. This will make it much easier and cheaper to move people, data (via fiber optic cables) and goods between China and Pakistan. India fears Gwadar will serve as a base for Chinese warships. Pakistan has no problem with Chinese warships using Gwadar as it helps keep local troublemakers out. Pakistan has assured China that there would be no terrorist violence against Chinese working on upgrading the port of Gwadar and land links north to China. Pakistan is willing to pay a high price to get CPEC done because it means Pakistan has an ally against Iran and even Western powers that might have some violent disagreement with Pakistan. The Saudis are interested not just because of the economic opportunities but also because over three million Pakistanis work in Saudi Arabia and have been there for some time.
September 23, 2017: The government revealed that the inflation rate for the last six months was 9.9 percent. Inflation has come down since sanctions began to ease in late 2015 when it was about 15 percent. Inflation got as high as 50 percent in 2014 because of a sanctions and plunging oil prices.
September 22, 2017: A new ballistic missile (the Khorramshahr) was displayed during a parade in the capital. This one was described as having a range of 2,000 kilometers. Later in the day the government announced one of the Khorramshahr was successfully test fired. This new missile is similar in performance to the earlier Shahab-3 and it is unclear exactly what the difference is between the two. U.S. intelligence officials later reported that there was no evidence the missile test took place and that the video Iran released was actually of another missile test seven months ago.
September 21, 2017: Lebanese media is reporting that an air strike, apparently Israeli, his a weapons storage area near the Damascus airport. Weapons (from Iran) for Hezbollah were apparently the target. Israel admits that it makes these attacks, and does so frequently. The Israelis rarely comment on individual airstrikes.
September 20, 2017: The U.S. is demanding that the 2014 treaty that lifted sanctions on Iran be renegotiated because Iran is not keeping its end of the deal. The U.S. has some political support in the other countries that signed the deal (China, France, Germany, Russia and Britain) but China and Russia still back the treaty and all five of those countries have already sold Iran billions of dollars’ worth of goods and services.
September 19, 2017: In northern Israel a large (apparently Iranian) UAV was spotted crossing the border and was shot down using a Patriot missile. The wreckage was apparently not available to be studied (to obtain more details) because the UAV was brought down in Syrian air space just before it would have crossed the border into Israel. .
September 17, 2017: Russia is having some problems with Israel over where Iranian forces can go in Syria. Israel has said it will attack any Iranian forces that get within 80 kilometers of the Israeli border. Currently Russia says it will only agree to five kilometers and implies that Russian warplanes and air defense systems will side with Iran if there is a problem. Since July Russia and the United States have agreed with Israeli concerns about Iran setting up bases in Syria and Lebanon. This is another way of saying Russia and the U.S. will not try to block Israeli attacks against Iranian forces getting too close to the Israeli border or Iranian efforts to establish new facilities in Syria and Lebanon. Russia does not want to put this to the test and understand that Israel has more at stake here than anyone else. In other words, nothing has changed and Iran has been officially reminded that they are on their own when they threaten Israel. Meanwhile Russia reminds the Syrian government that Iran intends to control a post-war Syria and attempt to turn it into a Shia majority nation (via forced conversions and expulsions of stubborn Sunnis). That would make the Assads totally dependent on and subservient to Iran, something that most Assad supporters are not in favor of. But defying Iran does not appear to be a practical option because the most effective troops the Assads have are the 20,000 or so Iranian supplied Shia mercenaries.
September 16, 2017: In the Central Asian city of Astana (the capital of Kazakhstan) the pro-Assad coalition of Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government continues their negotiations (also called “peace talks”) with each other about how to settle the Syrian mess. The latest agreement is for the expansion of the existing “de-escalation” zones in rebel held areas of Idlib province. Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed that each would contribute 500 observers to monitor compliance in the de-escalation zones. No one else monitors the monitors which makes the United States, Israel and several other Middle Eastern nations wary of what Russia, Turkey and Iran are up to.
In Hama province (central Syria) Russian troops (mainly advisors and military police) help the Assad forces take control of territory the rebels were driven from with the aid of Russian air support in early September. Earlier this year these talks also involved some rebel factions but the rebels soon left because they described the Astana talks had nothing to do with peace but everything to do with how to defeat the rebels and put the Assads back in control of Syria. The rebels see the decision to establish “de-escalation” zones in rebel held areas (Idlib province, of Homs province; near the Israeli border and outside Damascus) as a ploy to make it easier to defeat the rebel forces there. By the terms of this the zones would be “no-fly” zones for all aircraft except those from Russia, Turkey and Syria. The Assads and their supporters (Russia, Iran and Turkey) would establish checkpoints around the zones to control ground access. This would, in theory, allow emergency aid to get in (or be blocked) and eliminate air attacks on civilians. But the rebels point out that in previous ceasefire agreements the Russians and Assads ignored the terms and attacked rebels and civilians claiming they were reacting to rebel violence. In the case of the de-escalation zones established already that’s exactly what happened.
September 11, 2017: President Maduro of Venezuela is travelling to overseas allies seeking help and coming up empty. The only help Maduro is being offered involves illegal activities. Iran, for example, has the largest Iranian embassy in the world that is mainly because Iran conducts a lot of illegal activities there and provides the Maduro government with cash and other favors in return. None of this is fit for a press release and, officially, the Maduro road trip has been unsuccessful.
September 5, 2017: In the northwest (Kurdistan Province) border guards killed two Kurdish men in an incident locals described as murder. This led to large demonstrations that only stopped when the government checked the complaints and arrested five border guards.
August 30, 2017: After Israeli officials revealed that they regularly conducted airstrikes on targets in Syria Russia told the media that it had warned Israel not to attack Iranian forces or bases in Syria. What the Russians told Israel and Turkey privately is another matter. The problem here is that no one in the region wants Iran turning Syria into another Lebanon. Actually Syria would be worse than Lebanon where there is a local Shia militia (Hezbollah) that is controlled by Iran. Hezbollah does what it wants in southern Lebanon and has a veto on anything the Lebanese government (technically controlled by the non-Shia majority) proposes. That veto is useful but Hezbollah was never able to coerce the Lebanese government to allow Iran to establish bases on the coast or anywhere else. Syria is different as Iran has already made deals to allow Iran and Russia to operate naval and air bases. For the moment Iran, Turkey, Russia and the Assads are all allies but no one expects that to last. The only question is when will Iran get the bad news.