The government responded to American criticism of Iranian aggression in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon by insisting that it had an obligation to aid these nations in their fight against American and Israeli threats. This justification is unpopular with most Iranians who want their government to pay more attention to real problems inside Iran rather than imaginary ones overseas. Leaders of the PMF in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon openly boast of their financial and other support from Iran. This makes most Iraqis and Lebanese uncomfortable. Hezbollah has long been recognized by most foreign nations as an Islamic terrorist organization. Syrians are dreading Iranian plans to create a Syrian Hezbollah.
President Hassan Rouhani responded to the recent nationwide protests by challenging the senior clerics on the subject of criticizing other senior clerics. It has long been customary in Iran to associate criticism of the senior clergy with treason and heresy. Rouhani is a cleric and was expected to know better than to accuse the senior clergy of hiding behind this and avoiding dealing with the very real problems most Iranians live with. The senior clergy and their IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) protectors repeated their ultimate defense; that the senior Shia clergy are infallible in religious matters. IRGC leaders were particularly harsh in criticizing Rouhani and other senior clerics who describe the IRGC as a corrupt organization. There is an element of self-interest here because Rouhani had agreed with most Iranians that the IRGC controls too much of the economy.
Rouhani is considered particularly dangerous because, as a senior cleric, he is eligible for the top position (“Supreme Leader”) who is selected by the Assembly of Experts (88 Shia clerics who rule on religious issues). The assembly members are elected, but in elections that are infrequent and do not attract a lot of attention. There are many anti-corruption clerics in the Assembly and that gives troublemakers like Rouhani a chance of being elected the next Supreme Leader. That might occur sooner rather than later because the current Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Khamenei) is 78 and not all that healthy. Most Iranians wish he would just die for his role in protecting and exploiting the corruption and bad government. Despite his sympathy for the protestors Rouhani is still part of the Islamic government and presided over cuts to social spending and increases in the military budget including more money for the IRGC and the many foreign wars IRGC is involved in.
As in 2009 and 1999 when the IRGC was ordered to shut down protests the IRGC turned to the little known, but much feared, Sarallah. This is the headquarters of an intel organization responsible for security in the capital and throughout Tehran province. Sarallah is actually a heavily guarded IRGC base outside the capital that stands ready to, among other things, quickly organize and carry out responses to anything that threatens the government. In this case Sarallah saw to it that over protestors were arrested and did not mind if many were killed or badly injured in the process. The IRGC implied that any further demonstrations would be handled with even more violence.
Sarallah is the ultimate protection for the Islamic dictatorship that rules Iran and Sarallah relies on information to do that. Sarallah has the best idea of what Iranians are thinking and who actual or potential opposition leaders are and, more importantly, monitors loyalty within the IRGC and knows which units or individuals to call out when a violent crackdown on a popular uprising is required. The protests ended after Sarallah supervised the arrest of over 4,000 people. Many of those arrested were treated roughly during and after arrest. Over 30 people were killed, including those who died while in jail, often while being interrogated. Long term the death toll will number in the hundreds because long-term imprisonment is meant to kill a large proportion of the inmates, as a warning to anyone else inclined to protest.
This was actually the third time the IRGC was called on to suppress widespread protests. The first was in 1999, when the protestors were largely university students angry over a censorship. The 2009 protests involved some of the 1999 protestors and was mainly about the rigged elections and increasingly corrupt and incompetent Islamic dictatorship. The 2017-18 protests continued the trend in that they were larger, more widespread (with outbreaks in over 400 locations) and, worst of all, including many of the religiously and socially conservative country folk who have long been the core support of the Islamic dictatorship. There were also numerous reports of IRGC personnel (usually quite junior ones) who were siding with the protestors. You didn’t need Sarallah to tell you where this is going but Sarallah is expected to come up with some clever and workable plan to deal with this growing problem of popular protests and things the IRGC does not Iranians to want speak about openly (corruption and mismanagement of the government and economy.)
While the public protests have been shut down the Internet based ones have not. Twitter and various other Western social networking applications are blocked in Iran but there are many of alternatives. Sarallah has access to a growing IRGC supported network of Iranian hackers working for the government. This job pays well and allows the hackers to indulge in all manner of government-approved mischief. This includes hacking into Western networks and hunting down government opponents and trolling message apps that government protestors use. The Sarallah trolls post pro-government arguments for protestor complaints and strive to blame it all on the Americans and Israel. Some of the trolls are more subtle than others and they apparently make life more uncomfortable for government critics trying to communicate with each other. The trolls do see a lot of interesting things, like pictures of and personal accounts of life before the 1979 revolution. That has disturbed some of the pro-government trolls and hackers.
The three widespread protests since 1999 were not armed revolutions. The protestors have been loud but not violent unless attacked. Nearly all the deaths have been protestors attacked by the security forces. The government has called out its supporters (or simply those with a government job) to stage pro-government rallies. These are well guarded and thoroughly covered by state controlled media. The goal of the protests is to, at the very least, get the clerical dictatorship to openly discuss the mess they have made of the economy and much else in Iran. The implication is that if the clerics do not make themselves useful they will eventually lose power and much else. But the protestors become more numerous and more demanding each time. In 2017 the protestors were calling for the corrupt religious rulers to be removed. Some protestors called for a return of the constitutional monarchy the religious leaders replaced in the 1980s (after first promising true democracy). Even more disturbing is that some of the protestors are calling for Islam to be replaced with something else, like Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion that Islam replaced violently and somewhat incompletely in the 7th and 8th century. After decades of mandatory rallies where you had to shout “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” these same young Iranians were now shouting about who they believe is really the enemy rather than who they were ordered to pretend was the enemy. The government says it has things under control while admitting that the protestors do voice some (unspecified) legitimate grievances that must be attended to. Young Iranians have, like their Arab neighbors, noted the success of Israel (a former Iranian ally, before the current religious dictatorship took over in the 1980s) and are now demanding changes that involve less foreign troublemaking. The cost, in terms of money (billions) and Iranian lives (thousands) of operations in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, South America, Africa and elsewhere does most Iranians no good at all and makes the people on the receiving end hostile to Iran. The operation in Syria was seen as particularly wasteful and expensive, especially with Israel threatening to use whatever it takes (including their nukes) to prevent Iran from creating a military presence there. Iranian history is one of frequent rebellions and civil wars. The current Iranian rulers were young men in the 1970s and 80s and many can sense a bit of déjà vu here. Since the senior leaders are nearly all clergy, some have always been critical of the corruption and more of them are speaking out.
The monarchy ignored the same signs in the 1970s and four decades later it is happening again with the new rulers who promised to make things better but instead made life worse. This has resulted in a divided leadership. In Iran if you promise change and don’t deliver there are consequences. Surviving this sort of unrest requires a strong, united and ruthless leadership. That is hard to achieve when most of the leaders are clergy, even if a lot of them are corrupt. Arab nations seem pleased with the unrest in Iran, because the demonstrators have expressed anger at the government efforts to exercise more control in Arab countries. It has also been noted that Turkey supports the Iranian government while a lot of Turks support the protestors. This is also seen as a positive development in the Arab world which has felt the impact of what they call “Iranian and Turkish imperialism” for centuries. This is seen as Iran and Turkey both trying to increase their political, economic and military power at the expense of Arab countries.
We Regret To Report
The intel services and secret police have reported to the government the reasons for the recent nationwide protests. The secret police concluded that the main problem was a decline in public confidence in the government. This was obvious but the second cause of the protests was “mismanagement of public opinion.” In other words if government propaganda and media censorship was more effective the protests might not have occurred. The third reason for the protests was foreign interference by enemies like the United States and Israel. The secret police did admit that many of the protestors were complaining about specific illegal acts, like corruption in the banking system and lack of action on reducing unemployment and inflation. The easing of sanctions has meant that oil revenue is way up (about 50 percent in the last year) all because of the mid-2015 sanctions treaty was agreed to by the West. The secret police admitted that more of the protestors were ordinary Iranians, not university grads and professionals as in 1999 and 2009. Many of the protestors this time around called for the return of the Shah or at least true democracy. Some protestors called for replacing Islam with another religion as Islam has obviously not been good for Iran. One positive response to this report was an order by supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei to reduce the number of businesses controlled by the IRGC and, in effect, privatize them. That is easier said than got done, even if you are the Supreme Leader. Over the past decade the IRGC has become increasingly resistant to orders from the Supreme Leader that IRGC generals believe are inadvisable (not in the interests of the IRGC).
The Iraqi government has a hard time getting everyone to agree on who the most urgent future threat is. Iran is the most frequently mentioned threat, the one that even many Shia Iraqis regard as a neighbor more interested in subjugating than supporting Iraq. But Iran is also the neighbor with the most armed and organized local support inside Iraq. One side effect of this is that Iraqi leaders still support links with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Turkey, Jordan and the United States.
Iraqis are generally seeking help from fellow Arabs, and not Iran, when it comes to reconstruction. Iraqi Arabs, including most Shia, see Iran as more threat than friend. Most Arab oil states seem much less threatening than in the past, especially with Saudi Arabia enacting long overdue reforms that make it easier for the Saudis to support Shia majority Iraq. All Arabs agree that ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is not gone, it is simply diminished and gone underground. ISIL survives because of the social and political problems still common throughout the Middle East. The big issue is corruption and incompetent governments. Dealing with ISIL dirty money and their transformation to well financed gangsters is an easier problem to deal with than the corruption that is found everywhere.
Iranians and Iraqis continue fighting for control of the PMF (Popular Mobilization Force) militias that were organized after 2014 because the Iraqi army fell apart in the face of the ISIL advance that took Mosul and about a third of Iraq in a mid-2014 surprise attack. Three years later, with ISIL defeated and there are over 120,000 PMF militiamen on the government payroll. Most of the PMF were organized by Shia leaders and most of them accepting assistance (and direction) from Iran. The PMF accounts for nearly half the strength of the military and even if you include the Interior Ministry force (National Police and several thousand SWAT and special operations personnel) the PMF accounts for a quarter of the armed personnel the government pays for and, in theory, controls.
Although the Shia Arabs feel an affinity with Shia Iran, the ancient (we're talking thousands of years here) Arab fear of the Iranians makes it possible for Shia and Sunni Arabs to make deals. And that's what Saudi Arabia, and the other Sunni Arab Gulf States, are doing with Iraq. Saudi Arabia sees Iran as the neighborhood bully, and Iraq as an Arab, not an Iranian, asset. Part of this came about because of the pro-Iran PMF militias in Iraq. By 2016 most Shia Arab politicians in Iraq tended to feel they are expendable to the Iranians, who are, quite naturally, more concerned with taking care of Iran, than Iraq, in all of this. Blood is thicker than religion.
The Iraqi Shia Arabs don’t want to be dominated by non-Arab Iran (where Arabs are openly despised, especially the few percent of Iranians who are Arab) but also don’t want to be dominated by their Sunni Arab neighbors and especially not by their own Sunni Arab minority (which created ISIL and has been a major supporter of Islamic terrorism since 2003).
There are constant reminders of the Iranian threat, which is considered equal, or even worse than the Sunni Arab Islamic terrorism attacks on Shia. For example in early 2018 an IRGC commander boasted of how Iranian supported PMF units were essential in pushing the Kurds out of Kirkuk province in late 2017. In September 2017 a leader of one of the PMF Shia militias went public with his belief that his men would start killing American troops once ISIL was no longer a threat in Iraq. That was not a surprise to many Iraqi Shia. Now the IRGC openly talks of attacking American troops in northeast Syria, with the help of Turkish troops who are already attacking Kurds in northwest Syria (Afrin).
There is a lot of local resistance to this sort of thing. In August 2017 senior Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr called on the Iraqi government to dismantle the Iran backed Shia militias and incorporate loyal (to Iraq) members into the armed forces. The Iraqi prime minister (a Shia), wants to dismantle these Iran backed Shia Arab militias with more care and take more time doing it. There will be elections for parliament on May 12th and that will be a very concrete example of how much political clout Iran has gained in post-ISIL Iraq. Already Iran is working hard to line up political support in Iraq.
Since ISIL was defeated (even before Mosul fell) the number of Shia religious and militia leaders who openly supported Iran was declining. More Iraqi Shia are doubting Iranian intentions regarding Iraq and believe Iran ultimately wants to control the Iraq government or even partition Iraq and annex the largely Shia (and oil rich) south. At the same time Iranian efforts to discourage Iraqi Kurds from obtaining more autonomy are unwelcome with many Arab Iraqis who see this as another example of Iran treating Iraq like a subordinate, not an ally.
There are still over a thousand Iranians providing training, advisory and support assistance to the PMF Shia militias. The Iraqi government fears that these IRGC advisors and trainers are secretly building pro-Iran armed militias in Iraq. That’s simply not true because the IRGC is quite open about what they are doing to encourage Iraqi Shia to organize armed groups so they can work with Iran someday to impose the same kind of religious dictatorship in Iraq that has existed in Iran since the 1980s. That is equally unlikely (because of popular opposition inside Iraq) but the Iranians tend to think long-term.
February 1, 2018: The government admitted that it had arrested over 30 women recently for deliberately appearing in public without the mandatory head covering (hijab). The dress codes were a prominent for the recent nationwide protests against the religious dictatorship.
January 30, 2018: Mehdi Karroubi, one of the growing number of senior Iranian clerics who criticize the religious dictatorship for mismanagement and supporting or tolerating corruption, went public in a rare act of defiance. He and another senior cleric have been under house arrest since 2011, partly because they supported the 2009 protestors. In 2016 Karroubi openly demanded a public trial to justify his house arrest. That was ignored by the government.
January 28, 2018: In the northwest (Western Azerbaijan Province) police arrested fifteen Kurds and accused them of working with Kurdish separatist groups in Iraq and Turkey. This makes nearly 30 such arrests this month in the Kurdish areas of northwest Iran.
January 27, 2018: Iran accused the United States (for years) of creating ISIL. Now Iran insists that the Americans are making it possible for the surviving ISIL personnel from Syria and Iraq to move to Afghanistan. While there are some ISIL personnel in Afghanistan most of them are former Taliban looking for something more hardcore. Meanwhile Afghanistan sees Iran as a threat, if only because Afghan security officials keep finding more Afghans spying for Iran.
January 26, 2018: Off the Yemen coast the Saudi led maritime blockade force intercepted a second unmanned Shark 33 patrol boat loaded with explosives and headed for warships off the coast. The bomb boat used an Iranian guidance system. It was intercepted and disabled. The first such Shark 33 boat was intercepted in late 2017 by U.S. naval forces. Both Shark 33 boats were launched from Shia rebel controlled areas on the Red Sea coast.
Iran is calling for a military coalition with Iraq and Pakistan to oppose American expansion in the region. Iraq is not interested and Pakistan quietly pointed out that it is on very good terms with Saudi Arabia, an ally of the United States and now Israel as well.
January 22, 2018: In Iraq the governor of largely Sunni-Arab Anbar province is pressuring the government to order all PMF militia units out of Anbar. Many of the PMF are run by pro-Iran Shia Arabs and are regarded by many Anbar residents as a threat, especially now that the ISIL presence is nearly gone. There are still several hundred ISIL men hiding out in Anbar but the governor believes the army and local militias can take care of that, as well as clearing ISIL bombs and such from areas they had long occupied. Iran wants to keep the PMF in Anbar to assist in keeping the land route from Iran to Lebanon open. Meanwhile there is a lot of ISIL activity in provinces north of Anbar, especially in and around Mosul and the Anbar governor feels those provinces could make better use of the PMFs.
January 18, 2018: The United States announced that it intended to keep troops (currently about 2,000) in northeast Syria in order to keep an eye on Islamic terrorism in Syria, especially a possible resurgence if ISIL. The U.S. troops, working with local Kurds and a largely anti-Assad population in that area, also want to make sure that Iran does not gain access to this area and that Turkish forces stay out. Inside Iraq there is a lot of support for continued U.S. presence, in large part to keep Iran from gaining too much power over Iraqi political and economic life. Naturally Iran considers any U.S. presence in the region as a “foreign invasion.” The Turks agree and have attacked Kurdish forces in northwest Syria and threaten to do the same in northeast Syria even if it means conflict with American troops.
January 15, 2018: In Gaza Hamas carried out some rocket tests off the Mediterranean coast, firing three rockets out to sea. Israel pointed out that this was the result of increased military aid from Iran. The Hamas military budget for 2017 was $260 million and 39 percent of that came from Iran. That was one the things that triggered the recent protests in Iran.
January 12, 2018: A UN report on their investigation of arms smuggling and casualties in Yemen was leaked to the media. In addition to the usual criticism of the Arab coalition air attacks (which often kill civilians as well as nearby rebels or rebel bases) there was also data on Iranian and rebel activities. Nearly 9,000 have been killed since early 2015 by the fighting in Yemen. Nearly 50,000 have been injured. Over seven million civilians (a third of the population) are cut off from regular access to food. The report also confirmed other evidence that Iran was smuggling weapons, particularly ballistic missiles, into Yemen and these ballistic missiles were being used for attacks on Saudi Arabia. Iran denied the charges and Russia sided with Iran and said it would use its veto to block UN measures against Iran.
January 11, 2018: In Yemen supporters of recently killed Shia politician Ali Abdullah Saleh have escaped from rebel territory and are providing details of Iranian advisors (apparently from the Quds Force) supervising security operations in the rebel occupied capital.
January 10, 2018: Turkey offered to mediate between the autonomous Kurds of northern Iraq and the Iraqi government. The Iraqi Kurds are divided into two main factions, one of which tends to side with Iran. That became much less fashionable when Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias took the lead in a late 2017 offensive to drive Kurds out of Kirkuk and much of the territory they had occupied since 2014 in order to keep ISIL out. Internal Iraqi Kurdish politics led to a disruptive September 2017 referendum in northern Iraq on establishing a separate Kurdish state. Some 93 percent of Kurds approved of this and instantly wrecked most of the good will they had with Turkey and the Iraqi government.
January 9, 2018: In northwestern Iraq (Nineveh province) Sunni tribal leaders are calling for Kurdish and American troops be moved into the area to discourage bad behavior by pro-Iran PMF militias. Mosul and Tal Afar are the largest cities in Nineveh province and to the south is Anbar province where some ISIL groups are still active but are being tracked down by the local Sunni tribes. The Iraqi government believes that there are over 3,000 ISIL members or supporters remaining in Nineveh, Anbar, Salahuddin and Diyala provinces. That seems like a high number but includes ISIL supporters who are not active all the time but are armed and willing to fight if ordered to.
January 7, 2018: The IRGC declared the nationwide anti-government protests had been shut down two weeks after they began. That was a little optimistic but not by much.
January 5, 2018: Iranian media reported that Afghan mercenaries in the Iran created Fatemiyoun Brigade in Syria had suffered over 10,000 casualties since 2013. Over 20 percent of the casualties were fatal. Some 20,000 Afghan Shia have (or still are) served in the Fatemiyoun Brigade. Most of these Afghans were recruited from the three million Afghan refugees still in eastern Iran. Nearly all of these Afghans are Shia who fear returning as long as the Afghan Taliban (and ISIL) are active in Afghanistan. These two groups, and Sunni Islamic terror groups in general, consider Shia heretics and targets them for death on a regular basis. It was also reported that over 3,000 Afghan Shia mercenaries died fighting against Iraq in the 1980s. Then as now the Afghans were recruited with the promise of Iranian citizenship for them and their families as well as regular pay while fighting and medical care if wounded. The Iranian mercenary force in Syria has been a decisive factor in keeping the Syrian security forces from being completely destroyed. Occasionally the recruiting of Afghans for this becomes a political issue in Afghanistan but Iran simply points out that the Afghan volunteers are exiles who do not want to return to Afghanistan because the Afghan government cannot protect them from attack just for being Shia.
January 4, 2018: The U.S. Navy noted that there was a sharp decline in IRGC armed speedboats harassing American warships. There were 14 such incidents in 2017 compared to 36 in 2016. In that year there was also an incident in which ten American sailors were taken prisoner when the Americans were encountered in small patrol boats and accused of being in Iranian waters. The American sailors were going through what happened in 2007 when 16 British military personnel were taken by the Iranians and released after maximum propaganda value was obtained. In early 2017 the Iranians were told that the U.S. Navy was no longer going to tolerate these harassment tactics and the Iranian harassment stopped completely in August 2o17. That was after an American warship opened fire on Iranian speedboats that refused to back off. The Iranians withdrew after those warning shots and have not tried to harass American warships since.
January 3, 2018: In the northwest (Western Azerbaijan Province) KDPI Kurdish rebels clashed with IRGC troops and killed six of the IRGC troops and wounded another seven. The KDPI did not suffer any casualties. The IRGC say they lost only three men and killed sixteen people in return.
In Egypt (Sinai) the local ISIL affiliate released a video in which an ISIL member was executed for helping Hamas (which the dead man had defected from) obtain weapons. In the video the ISIL leader who served as executioner (via pistol shot to the head) declared that Hamas was run by heretics and ISIL was declaring war on them. Shia Iran is now a major supporter of Hamas so this declaration makes sense for the radical Sunni Moslem ISIL. In addition to the Iran connection Hamas has been cracking down on smaller Sunni Islamic terror groups in Gaza that constantly violate the ceasefire with Israel. This usually means an air or artillery strike against a Hamas target, because Israel holds Hamas responsible. Same with Egypt, which had long complained about Hamas offering sanctuary (in Gaza) to anti-Egyptian Islamic terror groups. This is no longer practical for Hamas which has suffered greatly because Egypt has shut down nearly all the smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt and rarely opens the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. Israel and Egypt are now quite united in their opposition to Hamas. Egypt also hosted peace talks between Hamas and Fatah which, in theory, united the two groups last October. That is more fiction than fact and ISIL takes advantage of that as well, using it to establish cells in the West Bank (which don’t last long because Israel and Fatah cooperate in finding and shutting them down). ISIL is heading for the same fate in Sinai where, until recently, they enjoyed cooperation from several Bedouin tribes and clans. Not so much anymore, not since the recent attack on a Sufi mosque in Sinai and the slaughter of 300 local Moslems. Meanwhile Hamas is generally regarded by Arabs as a traitor for siding with Iran.