Iran is making its move to establish a secure route from Iran to the Mediterranean and come one step closer to its goal of destroying Israel. This despite Israel making it clear that they would use whatever resources they had, including nuclear weapons, to defend themselves. Iran seems to consider that a challenge, not an insurmountable obstacle. Besides Iran is run by a religious dictatorship that believes it is on a Mission From God and what could possibly go wrong.
An example of this attitude in action was how Iran had little trouble getting Turkey and Iraqi Arabs to support the recent attacks on the Iraqi Kurds. This was no surprise for those familiar with the history of the nations (Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria) where the regions’ 40 million Kurds live. These nations have never wavered in their willingness to do anything, even go to war with a superpower, to prevent a unified Kurdish state. At the same time the Kurds, a large Indo-European tribe living in eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northeast Syria and northwest Iran, have continued to seek unity (among themselves) and their own state.
In the last century a “Kurdish state” seemed close to reality several times. After World War I ( Iran avoids conflicts like that) the Treaty of Sevres (August 1920) carved up post-Ottoman Turkey and the victorious allies (including the United States) promised that an autonomous (and potentially independent) Kurdistan would be organized in eastern Turkey. The threat of losing eastern Turkey to the Kurds played a role in an unexpected, and successful Turkish rebellion against the Sevres treaty. The Greco-Turk War of 1921 and 1922 halted the implementation of the Sevres treaty and in 1923 replaced it with the Treaty of Lausanne. This not only cancelled any Western efforts to help create a Kurdish state but also forced the ancient Greek population from what is now Turkey (Asia Minor) and in return Turks were forced to move back to Asia Minor from their homes on most of the Aegean islands they had conquered (from the Greeks) over the past few centuries. The Kurds protested, but the victorious allies were not willing to fight the Turks again, especially in the Turkish homeland. The new leader of the Turks, Kemal Ataturk, was a pro-West reformer backed by Turks who preferred democracy and separation of church and state (something not recognized by Islamic conservatives). Ataturk supporters preferred to be free of their empire, especially the Arab parts of it. Let the “victorious allies” deal with that. By the 1930s the allies had helped create independent Syria and Iraq. Both contained Kurdish minorities.
Ever since the 1920s Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria had had frequent disputes, even wars, with each other. But all four could agree on the necessity for preventing a Kurdish state. In 1975 the U.S. supported a peace deal between Iraq and Iran that required the Americans to back away from the traditional support of Kurds in the region. That peace deal did not last and by 1980 Iran was torn apart by yet another civil war (an ancient and well documented tradition there) and Iraq took advantage to invade Iran. That’s a less well established tradition and unlike the 7th century Arab attack on a divided Iran this one failed leaving Iran with a religious dictatorship and Iraq in disarray and ripe for more disasters. The Iraqi Kurds remained divided, as Kurds had been for thousands of years, by clan rivalries. In the aftermath of the 1991 war to drive Iraqi troops out of Kuwait American and British special operations troops in northern Iraq helped train and organize the Kurds who, to the surprise of many, were able to unite and drive out the Iraqi government forces and keep them out ever since, at least until 2017.
What happened in 2017 is the result of existing nations exploiting the ancient clan rivalries of the Kurds. While the Iraqi Kurds were autonomous and seemed united since the early 1990s there were some serious divisions. It came down to a pair of clan-based political groups; the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party (led by the Talibani clan) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) (dominated by the Barzani clan). The Turks, Iraqis and Iranians frequently exploit the PUK-KDP rivalry. That seems to be a factor in the current situation because although the Kurds are the most effective Iraqi fighters the internal disagreements over decisions were something Iran and the Turks had been more successful at exploiting than the Arabs. This is what came to mind when the Iraqi Kurds proposed and went through with a September 25th referendum on independence. Kurdish popular sentiment strongly favors an independent Kurdistan and the current Kurdish leadership openly promised a vote on independence “in a few years.” That was seen as politicians saying the popular thing and not actually doing it because of the repercussions. It doesn’t always work, especially when you have Iran next door.
The Iraqi Kurds thought they were safe because if there is one thing the Kurds and Iraqi Arabs can agree on one was that Iran was out to gain more control over whoever was running Iraq. Iran did have a plan and it was the old “be my bitch and I’ll make you rich” divide and conquer strategy that had worked for Iranians over thousands of years of empire building (or rebuilding). In this case the Iranians already has a large minority of Iraqi Arab Shia in favor of the Iranian style religious dictatorship. In the north one of the main Kurds factions, the PUK was suspected of being a little too willing with work with Iran.
Despite efforts to unite, the Kurds continue to sustain and suffer from ancient squabbles. This was happening despite the two Iraqi Kurd parties agreeing to unify in 2006. At first that appeared to work. But with more foreign aid coming in the PUK accused the KDP (which holds most top leadership positions) of taking more than their share. To make this worse Iran began offering direct aid to PUK and, according to the KDP and many in the PUK, trying to divide the Iraqi Kurds. Iran saw an opportunity and, as they usually do, they make the most of it.
The American Threat And Local Opposition
On October 22nd American and Arab officials from Iraq, Saudi Arabia and several other Gulf Arab states gathered in the Saudi capital for the first meeting of the Saudi-Iraqi Bilateral Coordination Council. This is part of an effort to enable Iraq to more easily participate in Saudi and Gulf Arab economic ventures. The Iraqi prime minister attended the meeting. The question of how to handle an increasingly ambitious and aggressive Iran was not an official part of the agenda but was a frequently discussed item between American and Arab officials. The American Secretary of State was trying to encourage Arab unity. At the moment Qatar and Iraq are increasingly dependent on Iran, as Syria has been since the 1980s. Iran is trying to expand its power and influence “for the good of Islam” as well as potential economic benefits to everyone. But Iran also proclaims (loudly and constantly) that America and Israel must be destroyed because, according the Iran, these America and Israel are the cause of all the woes in the Middle East. Most Arab states used to at least give lip service to that but attitudes have changed in the last two decades and now most Arabs see Iran as the threat while the Americans and Israelis are useful allies. Meanwhile American efforts to get Qatar and the rest of the Gulf Arab states to settle their differences are not progressing. Qatar grows closer to Iran but wants to avoid becoming too dependent on Iran.
Iran wants to turn Syria into a “protectorate” where Iran will establish military bases and organize a Shia militia similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon. No one besides Iran is particularly fond of this plan, even current Iranian allies Turkey and Russia. The Iraq government, despite, being controlled by Iraqi Shia Arabs, does not want to submit to any form of Iranian control and Israel has made it clear it will fight rather than allow Iran to set up shop in Syria. Iran is formidable because they are patient and relentless.
Russia and the Syrian government realize 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. Israel is also aware, as are Russians, Turks, the Assads and nearly all Syrian Arabs, that Iranian efforts to take control of Syria are unwelcome. Since Iran is currently run by determined clerics any opposition in Syria must be overcome to protect Islam. The Iranians, as far as everyone but Iran is concerned, are simply replacing one brand of Islamic fanaticism with another as the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) presence is extinguished in Syria.
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 a significant number of veteran personnel are 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.
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.
Iran has once more established a presence in Gaza which Egypt, Israel and Fatah all agree is a bad thing. On October 12th a delegation of Hamas officials made a visit to Iran to discuss how Hamas and Iran will cooperate since formal relations were resumed in August. This Iranian presence in Gaza benefits no one, in the long run, buy Iran. Short term, some groups, like Hamas (which has run Gaza since 2007) believe Iranian patronage can be an advantage.
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. This is a problem for Iran. But then Russia has always been a problem for Iran since the two empires collided in the 18th century. More recently, during a mid-October visit to Israel, the Russian Defense Minister
confirmed some modifications to their agreement on what Russia would do to keep Iranian forces (including Iranian backed Shia militias like Hezbollah) away from the Israeli border. Israel wanted the Russians to keep the Iranians at least 60 kilometers from the border but the Russians have agreed to smaller buffer zones (10-20 kilometers) and are willing and able to enforce those buffer zones. In part this is done by telling the Assad government that continued Russian assistance for the Assads is contingent on the Assads cooperating with the Russians in keeping the Iranians away from the border. At the same time the Russians do not interfere with Israeli air and missile strikes on Iranian weapons shipments moving from Syria to Lebanon (for Hezbollah). Syria protests via the media but does little beyond that. This cozy relationship with Israel is more valuable to Russia than any deals it has with Iran. Russia recognizes that Israel has the strongest economy in the region as well as the most capable military and nuclear weapons. After the Russian delegation left a senior Israeli official visiting Japan repeated that Israel would, if necessary, use military force to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
Russia and Israel have a longer and better relationship than the one Russia has with its new allies (and traditional enemies) Iran and Turkey. It is possible for Russia and Israel to continue working together, as they have done since Israel was created in the late 1940s. Even during the communist period (especially from 1948 to 1991) Russia often worked closely with Israel while also courting Arab states that wanted Israel to disappear. Russia continues this policy of maintaining multiple alliance with Turkey and Iran while also remaining on good terms with Israel and the Arab oil states in the region. Give the Russians credit, they are getting away with it. But it is becoming increasingly difficult.
The Arab coalition has internal disagreements which limit what the Arab military coalition there can do. What all the coalition members share (aside from oil wealth) is fear of Iran. What is going on in Yemen reinforces that fear. Iran has created a serious threat to the Gulf Arabs while spending far less than the half billion dollars a month the Yemen effort is costing the Arab coalition. Iran has only a handful of Iranians in Yemen. Most of what are described as “Iranians” in Yemen are Lebanese (Shia Arabs belonging to Hezbollah). The Iranians have always been able to do a lot more with a lot less and this worries the Arabs more than anything else. Iran wants to replace Saudi Arabia as the guardian of the most holy Islamic sites in Mecca and Medina (western Saudi Arabia near the Red Sea). The GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab oil states in the Persian Gulf) and Iran are using Yemen as a battlefield and no one likes this. But for Iran it is a cheap way to annoy and demean the Saudis. There is some blowback because some of the Iranian weapons showing up. Twice in October Shia rebels fired Iranian Qaher M2 ballistic missiles across the Saudi border into Narjan province. These attacks are not very accurate but the use of an Iranian made missile are obvious from an examination of the debris. The UN inspectors have also seen a lot of physical evidence of Iranian weapons in Yemen, including ballistic missiles and large rockets. It is becoming for difficult for Iran to play the innocent bystander.
A more recent international survey, of Global Competitiveness, ranked 137 countries on how well the local conditions (low corruption, economic freedom and opportunity and robust economy) facilitated the ability of that nation to compete in global markets. The top five were Switzerland, the United States, Singapore, Netherlands and Germany. Iran was 69, Russia was 38, Turkey 53, Israel 16, Qatar 25, UAE 17, Pakistan 115 and so on to the bottom five (Mauritania, Liberia, Chad, Mozambique and Yemen).
October 31, 2017: The head of the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) broadcast a speech in which he claimed that Iranian long range (up to 2,000 kilometers) ballistic missile were ready and able to hit American bases throughout the region and would do so if American military forces got in the way of Iran.
In the Central Asian city of Astana (the capital of Kazakhstan) the pro-Assad coalition of Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government resumed their negotiations (also called “peace talks”) with each other about how to achieve everyone’s goals. Iran wants access to the Israeli border and suppression of the Syrian Kurds. Turkey wants an end to Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria. Russia wants to get most of its troops out of Syria, declare victory and avoid Iran triggering a war with Israel that could get out of control. The public sessions are propaganda the private meetings, the ones that matter, are kept secret.
October 30, 2017: In the southeast, the first major cargo for Afghanistan arrived at the port of Chabahar. It was 130,000 tons of wheat, the first (of seven) shiploads of the 1.1 million tons of wheat India is shipping to Afghanistan. Without Chabahar there was no way India could economically ship bulk food to Afghanistan. The port is part of the Indo-Iranian project (largely financed by India) that enables cargo shipped by sea to Chabahar to complete its journey to Afghanistan by rail or road. This wheat cargo is the first major test of the Chabahar link to Afghanistan. A recent agreement between Iran and Afghanistan allows that to happen with 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. At the same time Iran will have as much economic leverage on Afghanistan as Pakistan has long exercised (and often abused).
October 27, 2017: Iran denied that its military advisors in Iraq (especially those with the Shia militias) are encouraging savage (technically war crimes) reprisals against Sunni Arabs, especially those associated with ISIL. Even the UN has recognized this and named some Iranian advisors or their local deputies as war criminals because the revenge attacks. The Kurds recently benefitted from this while fighting alongside Iraqi forces to drive ISIL out of Hawijah (their last urban stronghold) during September. It was obvious that ISIL personnel in the area believed that if they were captured alive by the Iran-backed Shia militia (allowed to assist Iraqi forces in retaking Hawijah), they could expect torture and death because ISIL had carried out most of its terror attacks against Iraqi Shia and even a few inside Iran itself. Surrender to the Kurds and your risk of torture and execution were much less and if you provided useful information things went even better for you. So the Kurds got most of the ISIL willing (and sometimes eager) to surrender. Iran has faced these accusations before and finds that “deny, deny, deny” works if followed up by adroit manipulation of international media and UN officials willing to quietly discuss matter for a fee.
October 26, 2017: The Iraqi and Iranian leaders met in Baghdad. Iranian media reported that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (the head of the religious dictatorship that has run Iran since the 1980s) told Haider al Abadi (the elected leader of Iraq) that the United States could not be trusted and praised Abadi for destroying ISIL, which Khamenei (and many others in the Middle East) believe was invented and secretly supported by the United States and Israel. Iranian media did not report on what Abadi said. Many Iranians (and Iraqis) believe this meeting was not a discussion but an opportunity for Iran to emphasize what the Iraqi Shia must do to survive. Iran apparently believes that the Americans will not assist the Kurds, something which is still unclear. Iraqi is believed waiting to see what the Americans and Saudi Arabia have to offer.
In northwestern Iraq Iran-backed Shia militias joined with Iraqi troops to attack one of the original (since the early 1990s) autonomous Kurdish provinces (Dohuk). The objective of the advance appears to be the Fishkhabour border crossing to Syria. This is also near one of the main border crossings to Turkey. But the crossing to Syria connects Iraqi Kurds with the Syrian province of
Hasakah. This would make it more difficult for American troops who aid and advise the Kurds from moving between Syria and Iraq. Turkey wants this as well as Iran and the Syrian Assad government.
October 20, 2017: The Iraqi military and Iran-backed Shia militias have moved into Kirkuk province, which the Kurds claim is part of the autonomous Kurdish north. Apparently, rather than fight a war they know they would probably lose, Kurdish troops and over 100,000 Kurdish civilians fled. There is some fighting near the border between Kurdish northern Iraq and the rest of Iraq. This involves Kurdish forces and advancing Iran-backed Shia militia. These militias have been unpredictable since Iran was allowed to form them in 2014.
Actually there is some confusion over who ordered what in Kurd controlled parts of Kirkuk province. Kurdish officials (from the Barzani clan) accused pro-Talibani Kurdish military commanders in Kirkuk of ordering a withdrawal without permission. Many Barzani supporters believe the Talibanis made a secret deal with Iran to allow the Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militia take over northern Kirkuk province, Kirkuk city and the nearby oilfields. Some Iraqi Kurds accuse the Americans of being in on this as well. It may be a while before it is clear who made deals with who beforehand. Meanwhile it is clear that the Iraqi government had again, as had happened several times in the past, sold out the Kurds to placate Turkey, Iran and others. This is nothing new and is actually part of an ancient conflict. Very ancient rivalries between Kurds, Iranians and Arabs that predate the arrival of the Turks, Europeans and Americans. In this part of the world ancient history tends to be frequently recycled as today’s news.
October 18, 2017: In the northwest (outside Mosul) Kurdish forces guarding the Mosul dam opened fire on Iran-backed Shia militia that tried to take control of the area. At least nine people died before the shooting stopped and the Shia militia dug in opposite the Kurdish forces. Elsewhere in Nineveh Province Kurdish forces withdrew, as they had earlier agreed, from the border town of Rabia and the major border crossing with Syria.
October 17, 2017: In Syria the U.S. supported SDF (largely Kurdish) militia declared their effort to take control of the ISIL capital of Raqqa was completed. Now the Syrian Kurds have to decide what to do about the Iraq and Iranian forces attacking the Iraqi Kurdish areas. The SDF suspected the same sort of thing will happen to them. Since mid-2017 Iran led Iraqi Shia militiamen have entered an area (Hasakah province) that has largely been under Kurdish control since 2012 and the Syrian Kurds warned Iraqis to stay out. These “accidental” incursions apparently had more to do with the Iranian goal of establishing a safe (for Iranian arms shipments) land route from Iran to Lebanon. A major highway crosses the border in the area where the Iraqi Shia militia are operating, now on both sides of the border.
October 15, 2017: In the north Iraqi troops and Iran-backed Shia militias advanced further into Kirkuk province and headed for Kurdish controlled oil fields and Kirkuk city. Kurdish forces did not resist and pulled back to areas that Iraq recognized as under Kurdish control. Iran closed the border crossings with Iraqi controlled northern Iraq.
Iran and Pakistan signed off on new agreements to make it easier for both nations to detect and deal with terrorist threats from each other to each other. For many generations rebel groups in each nation have managed to establish bases or even sanctuaries in the other nation and this has become particularly the case with Iranian and Pakistan Baluchi rebels from each country. There is also a problem with Sunni Islamic terrorists who target Shia Moslems in both nations.
October 14, 2017: In Syria an IRGC general (Abdollah Khosravi) was killed while commanding Shia mercenaries. Khosravi was known to be involved organizing a unit of Shia volunteers from Iran and Iraq.
October 13, 2017: The United States announced that it will not continue to support the 2015 treaty that lifted sanctions on Iran because Iran is not keeping its end of the deal. The U.S. has some political support in the other countries (China, France, Germany, Russia and Britain) that signed the deal 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 and are reluctant to give that up just because Iran is cheating a bit. Russia was particularly critical of the United States for not being a team player and trying to wreck an international agreement.
The Americans are accusing Iran of continuing to develop nuclear weapons. So far both sides appear to have complied with the terms of the 2015 treaty where Iran gave up nuclear weapons research for 15 year, 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.
October 11, 2017: Russian and Iranian companies agreed to develop software to connect Iranian and Russian credit card and electronic banking systems. China is also working on developing an alternative to the “Western” financial system that has been dominant for several centuries.
October 6, 2017: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) an American airstrike hit a convoy of Syrian government forces (and Iran backed Shia mercenaries) who had moved too close to the U.S. controlled Tanf border crossing (into Iraq). This airstrike killed seven and wounded sixteen and occurred two days after these forces came closer than 55 kilometers to Tanf. The Americans had an arrangement with Russia that if anyone came closer than 55 kilometers the U.S. would first call the Russians (on a special hotline) to warn them that the Americans would attack the intruders. Apparently the Russians could not get the Iran-backed forces to retreat and the U.S. struck. Airstrikes like this have occurred since late May despite repeated warning to the Russians to persuade their allies (the Assads and Iran) to remove forces from the area. The first airstrike (May 20) was carried out because a convoy had entered a “de-confliction” zone the U.S. and Russia had agreed would be controlled by U.S. backed rebels who operate out of training bases in Jordan and the Tanf base near the Iraq border. The Iranian mercenaries (Hezbollah and Shia from other nations) militia did not try to advance again for a while. In response to the American air strike the Russians accused the U.S. of allowing ISIL and other Islamic terrorists to take shelter in the Tanf “no-go” zone and from there make attacks outside that zone. No evidence of this has been presented but the Russians have to say something that won’t offend their Iranian ally.
September 30, 2017: Turkey threatened Israel for its alleged support of Kurdish independence. This comes after the September 25th referendum in autonomous Kurdish northern Iraq where 92 percent of the voters approved of efforts to establish a Kurdish state. This vote was largely to get some publicity for the Kurds and it did. The outcome was no surprise and neither was the outrage from the nations (Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria) where the regions’ 40 million Kurds live. These nations will go to war to prevent a Kurdish state. Meanwhile Turkey and Iran used the “Kurdish threat” as an excuse to appear on good terms and make some more security and trade deals. Turkish trust in Iran is another illusion as is the Russian alliance with Iran.
September 29, 2017: The UN has agreed to send a war crimes investigation team to Yemen to try and document accusations that both sides are deliberately using tactics that cause enormous harm to the civilian population. The Arab coalition has resisted this effort, backed by Iran, because the Iran backed Shia rebels have proved better able to keep independent investigations out of their territory and it is easier to hide the efforts to keep food and other aid from hostile civilians than it is to hide the activity of Arab coalition air attacks. The Arab coalition does not trust the UN because the UN officials have proved easy for the rebels to bribe or intimidate. This is a common problem worldwide and the UN would rather not dwell on it.