The continuing popular protests are largely in response to years of lies, broken promises and growing poverty. Food and electricity shortages existed before the Americans decided to revive sanctions (mainly because of Iranian government lies) and the protestors suddenly realized that the main cause of decades of Iranian problems has been the religious dictatorship, which has relied more on lies than virtue to maintain their rule. The Iranian rulers are now viewed as corrupt hypocrites by their own people and that is proving to be very difficult to deal with. A prolonged (but historically not unusual) drought has created water and energy shortages. The Internet and smartphones made it easy for Iranians to quickly and widely distribute photos and videos of how lavishly their rulers and their families live versus the shabby conditions most Iranians have to endure daily.
In response, the government has created new courts to concentrate on “economic crimes” which means any of the corrupt business of government officials who are deemed expendable. The most corrupt clerics of IRGC generals won’t be touched and those are the very people the protestors are most concerned about. Meanwhile, the European nations that signed the 2015 treaty are showing their businesses how they can legally try to avoid the American sanctions. That won’t work because the major European firms have already done the math and realized that continuing to do business with the United States is worth far more than any new business they can get with a chaotic and corrupt Iran. European politicians also fear that the Americans may be right about Iran (untrustworthy, still developing nuclear weapons). China, with the second largest economy in the world, is willing to replace European firms wherever it can and will continue to buy Iranian oil. China, like Iran, is a dictatorship and a police state. While Chinese and Iranian leaders disagree on religion, they agree on much else.
The Israel Problem
A major complaint of the Iranian protestors is the long and futile effort by their government to destroy Israel. Iranian leaders need a win against Israel and they are not having much luck in getting one. This is one reason Russia makes it clear that it sides with Israel when it comes to Syria and a long-term peace deal there. Despite that Israel has concluded that Russian pressure will not persuade Iran to back off on their efforts to install large quantities of modern weapons and pro-Iran forces in Syria and then launch attacks on Israel.
Russia has made it clear it will cooperate with Israel to block such Iranian aggression. Russia backed this up by openly accepting Israeli use of Jerusalem as their capital and moving functions normally held in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This angers many Moslems, and especially Iran. This support for Israel is one the few things the United States and Russia agree on these days. The durability of this alliance is mainly a matter of paying attention to who can do what. For example, unclassified rankings of “the most powerful nations” tend to include tiny Israel in the top ten, as in; U.S., Russia, China, Germany, Britain, France, Japan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). These rankings combine economic, technical, military and diplomatic capabilities. Israel may be small in population but they are world class in many technology areas, have nukes and the most capable armed forces in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and UAE have much of the world oil reserves and armed forces they have built up over decades at great expense and, to the surprise of many (including Iran) made it work. Their combat pilots are competent and their anti-missile defenses work (as they have intercepted over a 100 ballistic missiles, many of them Iranian made, fired by Yemeni Shia rebels at targets in Saudi Arabia.) Iran and Turkey are not in the top ten and Russia notices that. Despite all that the Israeli alliance with Russia is unwritten and has limits. Yet it is real because Israel has not attacked any Russian targets with its growing air offensive against Iranian forces.
Israel has told the Assads that if they stick with Iran they will be destroyed. The Assads realize that the Iranians are fanatics about destroying Israel and that the Israelis have demonstrated their ability to counter any move the Iranians make. Moreover, all the other Arab states consider the Assads traitors for aligning themselves with the Iranians, who are quite openly at war with Arab control of Arabia and much else. Worse, no one has much sympathy for the Assads, who have very few good qualities. Despite this, the Assads apparently try to side with Russia and Israel rather than Iran.
What this comes down to is the fact that Iran is a foreign (Indo-European, not Arab) power that wants to increase its direct control over Syria. Russia and Israel do not. Many Iranians (but few of their leaders) note that the three most powerful Middle Eastern states (Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE) are now allies, mainly against Iran. While the Turks are now led by a nationalistic Islamic leader who also wants to destroy Israel the Turks also admit that Iran is a traditional rival and the Arabs are not as weak as they were during the centuries the Turks (the Ottoman Empire) ruled them. Many Turks are smitten with the nationalism thing, just as they once were when they had an empire. But the Turks didn’t get their empire and then transition to a modern, industrial age state when the empire collapsed a century ago by being stupid. The only dummies at this point are key factions of the religious dictatorship that rules Iran.
When it comes to dealing with Iran the Americans and Israelis are on a roll and intent on exposing much more Iranian bad behavior and take advantage of the growing popular unrest inside Iran. In some cases, Iranians will be a source, but in all cases, Iranians will be consumers of such news and that weakens the control the Iranian clerics have over the Iranian government. More and more evidence of Iranian bad behavior surfaces. This is largely because Israel is allowing the European nations to send their own intel and nuclear weapons experts to examine the huge trove of Iranian documents Israel got out of Iran earlier in 2018. So far these documents have been toxic for Iran and any Iranian claims to never having had a nuclear weapons program. These documents also provided a unique insight into how the Iranian government actually worked because the trove contained many copies of letters and messages between senior clerics and government officials.
Many older Iranians, who were young when the monarchy was overthrown in 1979 now admit that the religious dictatorship that replaced the Shah (emperor) was worse and many believe it will be even more difficult and costly (to Iranians) to remove than overthrowing the imperial government was. These older Iranians also speak of a time when Israel was an Iranian ally. That has not been forgotten in Israel. That explains the recent appearance of a two-minute video by the Israeli prime minister in which he offered to share Israeli tech used to deal with water shortages (especially low use and recycling tech). This is a growing problem throughout Iran (and in neighboring countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Turkey) but Israel has been dealing with far worse situations for decades. Iranian leaders angrily refused the Israeli offer but the average Iranian, especially those personally suffering from the current water problems are willing to take help from whoever offers it. While the Iranian government angrily dismissed the Israeli offer hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the Internet, and eventually to the streets, to back the offer. This has led to a new catchphrase in Iran; “We (Iranian government) offer them death, they (Israel) offer us life”. The Iranian government was further rattled by this response and insisted that Iran had all the technology it needed to deal with the growing water shortages. The average Iranian doesn’t see it that way and the nationwide protests continue. Iranian leaders need a win against Israel and they are not having much luck in getting one.
All these problems inside Iran are one reason Russia made it clear that it sides with Israel when it comes to Syria and a long-term peace deal. Despite that Israel has concluded that Russian pressure will not persuade Iran to back off on their efforts to increase Iranian controlled military forces in Syria and then launch attacks on Israel. But Russia will cooperate with Israel and has an open channel with Iranian military leaders. This means the Russians can explain, in terms the Iranians can better understand and accept, what their military position is versus Israel. That explains the recent Iranian withdrawal of its mercenary and special operations forces from the Israeli border. As a practical matter, this means Iran withdrew the easily identifiable and resolved to work on new techniques to better disguise its forces so they can get near the Israeli border. Iran takes advantage of the fact that Russian aircraft handle most of the aerial and electronic reconnaissance for the pro-government forces. The Russians can show what their high-res and multispectral photos of Iranian troops revealed and add what their electronic eavesdropping picked. All the Russians will say about the Israelis is that the Israelis are even better at this stuff. How much better the Russians won’t say. In part that’s because they are not sure and Russia does not want to anger Israel, which has been on good terms with Russia far longer than Iran.
Anti-government demonstrators are also angry at Iran. In part this is because of the Iranian backed militias in Iraq, whose leaders often speak of imposing a religious dictatorship in Iraq. Yet protestors in Shia majority Basra are also criticizing Iran for halting electricity exports in early July. Iran cut the electricity because corrupt Iraqi officials had not paid for much of it. Moreover, there was an electricity shortage developing in Iran. It was necessary for Iraq to import electricity because for a long time (the Saddam era) there were not many electric power plants in Basra because it was a Shia majority area and Shia were starved for resources during the Saddam era (when the Sunni Arab minority ruled). But after Saddam was overthrown in 2003 and Shia politicians gained power, corruption prevented the construction of power plants. Iran thought cutting the power, especially since they had a good reason, would increase the anger against the Iraqi government. But the protestors saw through the Iranian intentions and added that to the long list of reasons why Iraqi Shia do not like Iran.
The two largest Shia coalitions (anti-Iran Sadr and pro-Iran Amiri) agreed to form a coalition that would control over 30 percent of the seats in parliament and make it possible, with a few minor coalitions added, to form a government. The Amiri faction control pro-Iran PMF (Popular Mobilization Force) forces and is seeking to repeat the Iranian success in Lebanon with the creation of a Hezbollah type organization. Amiri has used violence against those who oppose, secure in the fact that the police are controlled by a pro-Iran politician (who runs the Interior Ministry). These police are suspected of instigating political violence rather than containing it. Police are never around when groups hostile to Iran are attacked and police are the primary suspects in the recent warehouse fire that destroyed half the ballot boxes used in Baghdad. The fire makes it impossible to recount these disputed votes. All this contributed the outbreak of Shia protests in early July.
The real reason for the disputed election results is popular anger at corruption. One thing that united all Iraqi voters was anger at the persistent and crippling theft by government officials. Moqtada al Sadr, who was the unexpected winner, had been openly and actively anti-corruption for years and that was why his victorious coalition contained so many non-Shia groups (including communists, who are anathema to Iran). Despite that many Iraqis (and foreign allies) believe Sadr is secretly allied with Iran because the Sadr family has long had ties with Iran and members of the Sadr clan often took refuge in Iran. But that was because the Sadrs were respected Shia clerics and Iran was where the best schools and scholars were. Yet the Sadrs, like most Iraqi Shia Arabs, are Arabs and Iraqis first and that has been proven time and time again. Moqtada al Sadr has seen up close and frequently how a Shia clerical dictatorship works in Iran and was not impressed. He largely kept quiet about this but it was no secret that Sadr did not want a religious dictatorship in Iraq, mainly because it would make the country even more difficult to rule.
Sadr also noted that Iranian Arabs (and Arabs in general) are despised by most Iranians. Meanwhile, Iraq will demonstrate, over the next few months (or more) why it is considered the most dysfunctional country in the Middle East. Iraqi politicians will argue and negotiate in a lengthy effort to form a governing coalition and then for that coalition to select a prime minister and all the subordinate ministers.
Sadr is often described as anti-American but he is generally anti-foreigner in general but is willing to work with other nations if it helps Iraq. Thus there was a recent visit by Sadr to Saudi Arabia to meet with Saudi leaders. The Saudis had long supported the Sunni minority rule in Iraq because it worked and helped contain Iran. With that Sunni minority government gone and not likely to return anytime soon Sadr believes the Saudis still want an Arab government in Iraq that will help keep Iran out of Arabia. Sadr and the Saudis agree on that as do the majority of Iraqis, including most Kurds and Sunni Arabs.
Western and Arab intelligence agencies report that over the last few months there has been a reduction in Iranian efforts to smuggle weapons into Yemen. This is all about popular protests back in Iran calling for a halt in support of the Yemen rebels. In Iran there is growing popular resistance to the government spending money on overseas military operations while the average Iranian suffers from chronic poverty, a recent collapse in the value of the Iranian currency (it now costs twice as much to buy dollars as it did a few months ago), higher inflation and growing unemployment. People are also protesting the Iranian government spending at least $2.5 billion in 2018 supporting foreign terrorists like the Shia rebels in Yemen, the Assads in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and Shia militias in Iraq. This is in addition to over $14 billion Iran admits it has already spent on supporting the Assads in Syria since 2012. The Iranian protestors need little encouragements as they have been shouting “Down With The Palestinians” and criticism of the Syrian War as well. This unrest, which has been occurring more frequently since late 2017, was noted by those receiving this Iranian support. The war in Yemen is less expensive than Syria but in 2017 is believed to have become as expensive as supporting pro-Iran militias and politicians in Iraq. The Yemeni rebels are seeing less support from Iran when they need it the most. Iran encourages the Yemeni rebels to do whatever they can to hold on to the Red Sea port of Hodeida if only because is the least expensive way to smuggle military equipment into Yemen. Smuggling weapons into Yemen is a high-risk business for professional smugglers and they expect to be paid.
The economic problems in Iran are partly the result of the Americans resuming most of the sanctions in November, which includes bans on buying Iranian oil. Already Iran is offering discounts to its customers to entice them to defy the Americans. China will, and pro-American Asian nations will get exemptions The United States announced this decision in March and that set off a financial panic in Iran, which was already suffering from massive government corruption and decades of mismanagement of the economy.
Hamas, the Islamic terror group running Gaza, is again an ally of Iran and continuing to make largely futile attacks on Israel. But not a lot of aid from Iran was likely because while the Iranian government supports Hamas again (since 2017) more and more Iranians have been participating in anti-government demonstrations where one of the favorite chants is “Down with the Palestinians.” At the moment the main Hamas sponsor is Iran and the Iranians have lots of new ideas, especially when it is Arabs who are going to do most of the dying. Most of the current Hamas leadership is opposed to getting involved with an Iranian offensive against Israel, although a minority faction of Hamas is all for any offensive operations against Israel. Hamas leaders have noted that Iran is suffering heavy losses from Israeli airstrikes in Syria and over 130 Gazans have died in the current Hamas “fence offensive” with nothing to show for it. Hamas managed to kill one Israeli soldier and suddenly a major chunk of Hamas military assets in Gaza disappeared. This time around Egypt sees an opportunity to get Fatah and Hamas to unite. In part that is because several of the senior Hamas leaders who live outside of Gaza have agreed to visit Gaza and decide whether or not they will support an enforced ceasefire with Israel as well as the fate of the Hamas/Fatah negotiations. Even Egypt sees Iranian support for Hamas as counterproductive for Palestinians in general.
August 11, 2018: In the northwest (West Azerbaijan Province) Kurdish PDK separatists clashed with IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) troops. PDK claims to have killed 12 IRGC men while the IRGC claims to have killed 11 PDK. The clash took place close to the Iraqi border (and Kurdish controlled northern Iraq) and the PDK men apparently crossed the border, traveling from their bases in northern Iraq. The battle went on for nearly five hours and it appears the PDK men retreated back to Iraq before dawn.
Israel released satellite photos showing the massive damage done by a July 22nd attack on an Iranian run missile assembly plant in northwest Syria.
August 10, 2018: In Tehran the crowd at a football (soccer) game shouted: “death to the dictator” (Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei). The TV broadcast of the game muted the sound (without saying why) while police went and beat the fans leading the chant. That was also kept off the broadcast but it was in plain view of all others attending the game.
August 9, 2018: Russia, Turkey and Iran announced that they would do all they could to avoid a bloodbath in the in northwest Syria where Russian warplanes are bombing rebel positions in the province and Iranian mercenary troops are ready to accompany Syrian troops for an advance into Idlib. The three allies did not reveal how they planned to deal with Turkish concerns that combat in Idlib would drive over a million refugees into Turkey.
August 8, 2018: In northern Yemen rebels fired a ballistic missile towards the Saudi city of Jizan. Saudi air defense intercepted the missile over Yemen. There were no casualties in Saudi Arabia but debris from the intercepted missile landed in Yemen where it killed one Yemeni and wounded 11 others. By Saudi count that makes 165 ballistic missiles fired towards Saudi Arabia by the rebels since 2015. Most of these missiles have been intercepted by Saudi Patriot anti-missile missiles. None have yet done any significant damage and many fragments of the intercepted missiles have been collected and identified as made in Iran. Confronted with this evidence Iran simply denies it.
The U.S. announced that it had increased the rewards (to $10 million each) for information leading to the capture or death of two senior al Qaeda leaders (Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah and Saif al Adel) who have, since 2001, spent most of their time in Iran. There the two have often acted as emissaries from al Qaeda to coordinate terrorist operations with the IRGC. Iran is officially hostile to al Qaeda, if only for killing a lot of Shia. Yet Iran will also work with al Qaeda if need be. In late 2015 Iran released several al Qaeda leaders from captivity. This was done to obtain the release of an Iranian diplomat who had been kidnapped by al Qaeda in Yemen back in 2013. This sort of trade is nothing new and since 2012 Iran has released over twenty senior al Qaeda leaders or technical experts. Since 2012 Western intelligence services have detected several of the 13 high-ranking al Qaeda officials thought imprisoned by Iran suddenly leaving. Many al Qaeda leaders fled to Iran after the Taliban lost control of Afghanistan in late 2001. While not all of them were imprisoned while in Iran they were not allowed to move freely and most appear to have been under what amounted to house arrest. Normally the Shia avoid al Qaeda but Iran has taken the position that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and encourages its allies to work, when possible, with Sunni terrorists like al Qaeda. The strategy is not popular with a lot of Iranians, although the Iranian government openly approved of the fact that senior al Qaeda leadership (including those outside Iran) had, since at least 2006, advised their subordinates to not kill Shia women and children. That advice has been frequently ignored but Iran has continued to work with al Qaeda when it suited Iranian interests. After 2015 Iran allowed more al Qaeda leaders to leave in order to make al Qaeda, which had openly declared war on ISIL, a more effective organization. That al Qaeda is also more active than ISIL in carrying out attacks in the West is simply a bonus.
One reason for increasing the rewards for Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah and Saif al Adel, and reminding Iranians of large rewards for other al Qaeda leaders in Iran, is to take advantage of the popular outrage against the government by most Iranians, mostly because of economic mismanagement and spending money on overseas terror operations, sometimes in cooperation with al Qaeda. It is no secret that al Qaeda factions are killing Shia in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. If nothing else this encourages more Iranians to get in touch with the Americans with information about al Qaeda in Iran. To most Iranians, the Americans are more intent on shutting down al Qaeda than the Iranian government.
Recently Iraqi politicians demanded that Iran pay Iraq $11 billion in reparations because of all the terrorism Iran has supported in Iraq since 2003. This includes Iranian support for al Qaeda.
August 7, 2018: In Iran, a senior IRGC general revealed that Iran had asked the Yemen Shia rebels to attack two Saudi tankers near the Bab al Mandab Strait during July and the rebels did so. This caused Saudi Arabia to halt tanker movements for a week. The damage to the tankers was minor but tie incident indicated the rebels could have used a more powerful weapon (naval mine or larger missile) that would do a lot more damage.
August 5, 2018: In Qom, a city full of Shia religious schools and long considered the most pro-government place in Iran, there was a large anti-government protest that concentrated on the expensive foreign activities. Thus the crowd shouted “death to Hezbollah” a lot as well as denouncing Iranian operations in Yemen, Syria and Gaza. Nevertheless, it was an anti-government demonstration with an emphasis on denouncing corruption.
In the south, near the Straits of Hormuz, the IRGC test fired a Khalij Fars anti-ship missile. This missile is based on the Fateh 110 ballistic missile (a solid fuel design with a max range of 300 kilometers). Khalij Fars must be aimed at an area close to the target after which the guidance system in the missile takes over. Khalij Fars has a max range of 250 kilometers. This was the first time Iran fired a ballistic missile in 2018.
August 4, 2018: In the northwest Syria Aziz Asbar, a senior Syrian scientist died when his car exploded in the city of Masyaf, where he ran many programs at the main government research center for advanced weapons. Israel is the prime suspect, although it could have been any number of rebel groups because this research center was also in charge of developing and manufacturing chemical weapons. The Aziz Asbar was linked to design and construction of new underground factories for assembling Iranian ballistic missiles. Asbar also got credit for designing the “barrel bombs” shoved out of helicopters and transports onto pro-rebel civilians to encourage them to flee the country. Even the Assads believe Israel carried out this attack because it requires skilled operatives and planners to make it work as well as agents apparently able to operate anywhere in Syria. Killing Asbar not only removes a key person in the Syrian special weapons effort but also reminds the Syrians that cooperating with Iran will lead to more targeted assassination and airstrikes on Syrian locations used by Iran. Asbar was known to have worked closely with Iran on various projects including delivering weapons from Iran to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon via Syria.
August 3, 2018: Iran announced that it would withdraw all of its forces from Syria if Iran was convinced that the situation was stable. Iran would also withdraw it the Syrian government requested it. What was not revealed was the extent to which Iran has been concealing its forces in Syria. This is not just to make it more difficult for them to be hit by Israeli airstrikes but it also makes it difficult for anyone to measure the full extent of the Iranian presence in Syria. This is one reason why it is considered unlikely that Iran will leave Syria, even if the Assads and Russia try to make it happen. As far as Iran is concerned, they are in Syria for the long haul.
August 2, 2018: Israel announced that if Iran backed Shia rebels in Yemen blocked the Bab al Mandab strait Israel would intervene militarily. Bab al Mandab is also used by the Israelis, who have a port on the Red Sea as well as the use of the Suez Canal.
In southern Syria Russian military police are operating with UN peacekeepers so that, for the first time since 2014, the peacekeepers can patrol the 1974 UN demilitarized zone (extending 24 kilometers from the Israel-Syrian border). By the terms of the 1974 deal, any Syrian violation of that zone would be considered an act of war and would be met with force from Israel. Russia has also agreed to keep Iranian forces 85 kilometers from the Israeli border. This includes Hezbollah and other Iranian mercenaries. The Russian military police are also taking possession of the abandoned Syrian observation positions which, along with their Israeli counterparts, monitored the border and the actions of the UN peacekeepers. The Russians will soon turn over these observation posts to the Assad forces.
Syria claimed that Israeli warplanes had attacked three Iranian bases in Syria overnight and that Syrian air defenses shot down some missiles and a UAV. There was no evidence presented and Israel had no comment on the claims.
July 31, 2018: In southern Syria, on the Israeli border, Iranian forces appear to be pulling back. Russia says it has persuaded the Iranians to stay at least 85 kilometers from the Israeli border. The problem is constantly monitoring and verifying compliance. The Iranians regularly make peace deals like then and then devote a lot of effort to developing ways to violate the terms of their agreement and not get caught. Russia has also told Israel that Iran has rebuffed Russian suggestions that Iran withdraw its forces from Syria.
July 30, 2018: The United States accuses Iran of using illegally purchased printing presses, special paper and inks to create large quantities of counterfeit Yemen currency to finance the Shia rebels there. The special printing equipment, paper and inks are restricted export items and only sold for legitimate uses.
July 23, 2018: Israel accused Iran of supplying the sniper rifle that killed an Israeli soldier. A Hamas sniper, apparently using an Iranian AM50 12.7mm sniper rifle, killed the Israeli soldier on the 20th. The soldier was on the Israeli side of the fence. Since this was the first Israeli fatality since Hamas began its current campaign of weekly violent demonstrations Israel retaliated so swiftly and on such a massive scale that Hamas agreed to a ceasefire to avoid what they believed would be an Israeli invasion. That ceasefire did not last, but the impact of the swift and massive Israeli retaliation did. Israel knew there were 12.7mm sniper rifles in Gaza and Hamas had boasted of having some Steyr HS50 12.7mm rifles as far back as late 2013. But none of these were ever seen in action. Iran has been supplying Hamas with weapons for over a decade and Israel was more concerned with longer range Iranian rockets that had reached Gaza. It was common knowledge that Iran had imported 800 Austrian Steyr-Mannlicher 800 HS50 12.7mm (.50 caliber) sniper rifles to Iran in 2006. Actually, these had been ordered in 2004, right after they were put on sale, and Steyr insisted the sale was legal (despite weapons sanctions on Iran) because they for use by Iranian border patrol forces against Afghan and Pakistani drug smugglers. The United States saw the weapons as eventually being used against U.S. troops and that’s what happened by 2007 when American soldiers were killed by these weapons and raids on Iran backed militias found more than a hundred of them.
July 22, 2018: Israeli aircraft again attacked an Iranian run missile assembly plant in northwest Syria. Several Hezbollah personnel were killed. This is the fourth such attack on Syrian targets so far this month.
July 21, 2018: In the northwest (Kermanshah Province) PJAK Iranian Kurdish separatists attacked a border patrol base killing eleven Iranian border guards and destroying much of the facility. The PJAK attackers then fled back to their base in Iraq (Sulaymaniyah Province) and apparently got across the border before Iranian troops pursuing them could catch up. Kermanshah Province is also largely Kurdish and frequent scene for clashes like this. Iran complained to the Kurdish government in northern Iraq but was told that the limited Kurdish security forces are concentrating from the continuing threat posed by ISIL and other Islamic terror groups.
July 19, 2018: In the southeast, on the Pakistani border, two IRGC border guards were during a clash Iranian Sunni rebels on the Pakistani border.