Amidst all the defeats and setbacks Iran is suffering at home and overseas there is one notable victory. Iran was able to persuade the EU (European Union) to assist Iran in getting around the sanctions the Americans restored because of Iran violating the 2015 treaty that lifted most of the sanctions. Iran offered EU nations lucrative economic opportunities in return for cooperation in getting around the American sanctions. The EU created the SPV (Special Purpose Vehicle) which is basically an EU approved barter system that makes it easy for Iran to sell trade with the EU via barter rather than using dollars. Iran uses a similar system with Russia and China. The EU SPV is a major disappointment to the many Iranians seeking to overthrow the religious dictatorship that has made life miserable for over four decades. Iran considered the SPV a major victory if only because it reduces cooperation between the United States and the EU.
Most Iranians see the EU, Chinese and Iranian economic efforts providing the corrupt Iranian government with more sources of income. Iranians expected Russia, Turkey and China to eagerly do business with the Iranian government but are disappointed that the EU was for sale as well. This means Iranians have to wait longer for some economic and political change. While foreigners can pretend that their investments and trade with Iran benefits all Iranians, the average Iranian knows better because they see the corruption every day as they strive to deal with shortages and rising prices while the Shia clergy and their families prosper. For Iranians, a major predictor of political and economic success is the amount of corruption the country suffers from. It is getting worse. Iran ranks 138th out of 180 countries in 2018 (compared to 130 in 2017 ) while many neighboring nations do better (and many do worse).
Progress, or lack thereof, can be seen in the annual Transparency International Corruption Perception Index where countries are measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually North Korea/14, Yemen/14, Syria/13, South Sudan/13 and Somalia/10) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85. The current Iran score is 28 (down from 30 in 2017) compared to 16 (15) for Afghanistan, 33 (32) for Pakistan, 28 (29) for Russia, 41 (40) for India, 49 (49) for Saudi Arabia, 70 (71) for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 35 (32) for Egypt, 62 (64) for Israel, 10 (9) for Somalia, 13 (12) for South Sudan, 16 (16) for Sudan, 61 (61) for Botswana, 72 (75) for the United States, 72 (73) for Japan, 38 (37) for Indonesia, 57 (54) for South Korea, 18 (18) for Iraq, 41 (40) for Turkey, 14 (16) for Yemen, 39 (41) for China, 62 (63) for Qatar, 28 (28) for Lebanon, 35 (33) for Algeria, 32 (31) for Mali, 43 (40) for Morocco, 43 (42) for Tunisia, 19 (20) for Chad, 34 (33) for Niger, 19 (19) for Angola, 26 (26) for Uganda, 56 (55) for Rwanda, 17 (22) for Burundi, 36 (36) for Tanzania and 35 (37) for Zambia, 34 (35) for Ethiopia, 27 (28) for Kenya, 24 (20) for Eritrea, 25 (25) for Cameroon, 40 (39) for Benin, 41 (40) for Ghana, 43 (43) for South Africa and 45 (45) for Senegal.
A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble and problems dealing with Islamic terrorism and crime in general. Iran’s corruption score has not changed much since 2012 when it was 28. There were slight improvements until 2017 but now it is getting worse and that is one of the reasons so many Iranian are openly calling for a new government. The public unrest is increasingly physical rather than vocal and peaceful mass demonstrations.
It is increasingly common for nearby civilians to attack lifestyle police, even in large cities, when these police arrest women for not dressing properly. This resistance has reached the point where many lifestyle police carefully study nearby civilians before arresting women. That doesn’t always work because with so many new “reformers” being former hardliners the attack is likely to come from men who used to be energetic supporters of the lifestyle police and the regular police as well. A growing number of these government supporters are now all for less corruption, intrusive lifestyle police and restrictions on foreign trade but still, want America and Israel destroyed one way or another. Yet these same anti-American reformers also want better relations with Turkey and the Arabs as well as less dependence on Russia. The growing anti-government protests are also becoming more physical when it comes to symbols of government misbehavior. Chief among these are the many foreign military or terror operations the government not only supports but promotes as one of the positive aspects of the clerical dictatorship. Now protestors are openly destroying billboards praising these foreign wars and disrupting official celebrations of these expensive (in cash and lives) government operations. As usual, not all is what it seems in Iran. Life is so much more confusing, and violent, in Iran these days. The government did admit that there were 271 major protests in January but insisted most were about economic issues.
Stymied In Syria
Iran has problems with Israel in Syria, as well as its own allies. The Iranians want the Assads to accept Iranian domination (as Hezbollah does in Lebanon) and agrees with Turkey the Syrian Kurds should not get autonomy and should except rule by Iran backed Syrian government as well as Turkish control of border areas. Iran has a major problem in that no one wants them in Syria much less acting as an occupying military force in Syria dedicated to starting a war with Israel.
The Russians would prefer that the Turks and Iranians got out of Syria and that the Assads and Kurds worked out a compromise (which the two seem willing to do). The Americans, Israelis and most other Middle Eastern nations agree with this approach.
Israel wants Iran out of Syria and would prefer that the Kurds got their autonomy. Israel is willing to make a peace deal with Syria and Turkey. Israel has successfully attacked Iranian efforts to build a military infrastructure (bases, arms factories, forces on the Israeli border) in Syria and this has made the Iranian leadership angrier and very frustrated. Iran is seen as even more unstable and unpredictable than Turkey.
The Americans (and most NATO members) want Turkey to act more like a NATO member and less like a Turkey trying to reestablish its imperial influence in the Middle East and Islamic world. The Turks are seen as unreliable and dangerous by just about everyone. For somewhat different reasons the Iranians are viewed the same way. The Americans are also threatened with attack and destruction by the Iranians but the Turks still like to at least pretend they are a NATO member in good standing and would like the Americans to appreciate what the Turks are trying to do. The West has been unable to understand, appreciate or support whatever it is the Turks are trying to do. The Americans are trying to negotiate some sort of compromise with the Turks but this is not going well and the Turks seem less concerned about being expelled from NATO and regarded as a hostile force than to the Americans and other NATO members.
Retreat From Israel
The Iranian threat has become more ominous as Iranian officials escalate their threatening gestures and rhetoric. This puts Iran in an embarrassing situation because the reality is that Iran does not really have the capability to launch an effective attack on Israel. They can carry out attacks that will likely fail and undermine Iranian credibility throughout the region as well as insider Iran itself. In addition to all the Iranian bases and facilities hit with airstrikes over the last few years, the Israeli military recently revealed that in 2017 Israel had detected and thwarted a major Iranian effort to hack into the Israeli domestic warning system. In the last year alone Israeli Cyber War defense efforts have thwarted 130 Iranian Internet-based attacks on Israel. At the same time, similar Israeli attacks on Iran are succeeding. When you hack what is a secret enemy facility, to begin with it is especially difficult to assess your success or failure. Along those lines, the chatter coming from Iran is that their nuclear enrichment (turning uranium into weapons-grade material) facilities are again suffering massive equipment failures (the centrifuges were apparently hacked again, as they were nearly a decade ago by Stuxnet).
Iran is a much greater threat to the Arab Gulf states than anything else and Israeli leaders admit this is the main reason Arab states, after so many decades, are finally recognizing that Israel is more useful as an ally than a foe. That may not last beyond the current Iranian threat to Arab states, which is both religious and territorial. The previous Iranian government (the monarchy) coveted Arab oil but was held in check by the Western powers. Any new Iranian government will probably be secular and democratic. Before the Iranian theocracy took over Israel and Iran were on good terms. When that status returns the Arabs may see Israel differently. But that is then while Arabs and Israel as allies is now.
Iran desperately needs a win and Yemen is one area where that is still possible, despite numerous setbacks there. For one thing, Iran still has a lot of support from leftist politicians in the West. This is partly resentment against the United States, which has always been the primary supporter of Saudi Arabia, and Gulf Arab oil states in general. Now the majority of legislators in the American Congress are willing to demand the U.S. halt military aid to Saudi Arabia. This is unlikely to pass into law but if it did it would be a major win for Iran.
While the Iranian Information War campaign (with the help of Russia) to demonize the Arab coalition in Yemen, continues more Western analysts are pointing out that the main cause of civilian casualties are the Shia rebels, who deliberately use civilians as human shields. Arab armies will attack anyway but the Shia rebels are setting up those civilian deaths mainly to manipulate Western media. This has been more obvious during the current ceasefire. The main cause of ceasefire violations, and dead civilians has been Shia rebels.
The Iranian smuggling efforts are no longer able to bring in ballistic missiles (broken down and later reassembled under the supervision of Iranian technicians) into Yemen. There is still some threat from Iranian UAVs, but while these are smaller and easier to smuggle in there appears to be a limited number of them left in Yemen because of the numerous Arab air raids (in the last month) against bases they operate from. The Saudis are pleased that the ballistic missile attacks have been halted along with the reduction of armed (with explosives) UAV attacks. The Arabs will probably prevail in Yemen but it is the only one of Iran’s wars where Iranian prospects are good. Iraq, Syria, Gaza and Lebanon are all more expensive and less likely to provide the Iranian theocracy with a much needed victory. That means the growing domestic protests will become more of a threat.
Another area where Iran can claim a victory of sorts is in Venezuela. In early 2019 Mossad revealed how during 2018 it had provided key information that aborted four Islamic terrorist attacks in Europe and assisted counter-terror threats in many parts of the world. This included Venezuela, where the Israeli help is appreciated. Interim Venezuelan president Juan Guaidó said he wanted to work with Israel to identify and arrest or expel Iranian backed Islamic terrorist operations in Venezuela, along with any other criminal organizations Iran created and sustains. Hezbollah has been part of the criminal underground in Venezuela for decades and has been able to expand its operations considerably since the socialist government took power in 1999. Since these Iran backed gangsters have long supported the socialist government they are very unpopular but the Lebanese criminals are but one small part of a vast network of gangs that prosper by dealing with illegal drugs, smuggling whatever is profitable and providing any illegal service if the price is right.
Venezuela currently has two rival presidents. The other one is Nicolas Maduro, the head of the leftist party that ruined the economy and blatantly rigged elections. Maduro is no longer recognized by most South American nations and many in Europe and elsewhere. If Maduro is ousted, so is Iran, which the Israelis would be eager to assist with.
For over a decade Israel has warned of Iranian and Hezbollah backed companies in Venezuela benefitted from the leftist government there that is blatantly anti-Israel and tolerant of Islamic radicalism. Israel believed these commercial operations are a cover for teams of terrorists intent on kidnapping Jewish residents of, or visitors to, Venezuela. The captives would then be smuggled back to Lebanon and used to extract prisoners and other concessions from Israel. This never happened, in part because most of the 22,000 local Jews left Venezuela since the leftists came to power in 1999. When the Iranian threat became apparent more Jews left and those still around took precautions. In neighboring Colombia, the army captured documents as early as 2008 showing that leftist rebels had close, but secret, ties with Venezuela. It is believed that similar arrangements were made with Hezbollah.
The current effort to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan is not popular with Iranians. The Taliban are seen as inherently anti-Iranian. Iran also has issues with the Afghan drug gangs, who continue to produce, with Pakistani cooperation, the majority of the world’s supply of heroin (in addition to the cheaper opium and hashish). This is unpopular with the civilian populations of all nations adjacent to landlocked Afghanistan. That’s because the exported heroin passes through all of these nations and creates millions of local addicts in the process. Then there is the violence on the borders as the Afghan drug smugglers are armed and if bribes don’t work bullets come next. Bribes work best on the Pakistani border while the Iranian border has been a war zone for years.
Iranian efforts to dominate Iraq and profit from that relationship have run into problems. This takes many forms. For example, the Iraqi delays in capturing natural gas that is currently wasted (burned off) is good for Iran, which sells Iran natural gas and would lose that business if Iraq finally, after decades of delays, invested in the effort to capture the gas, at least for internal use. Iran will bribe or intimidate whoever they must to retain the gas export business and the resulting dependence on Iran. There are many less lucrative economic dependencies that Iran profits from. The trade dependencies are just one of many ways Iran maintain influence and control in Iraq.
Another dependency is the pro-Iran PMF (Peoples Mobilization Forces) who serve as security forces in most of the Sunni Arab parts of Iraq that the PMF helped free of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) control. The United States is demanding that the Iraqi government disband or discipline on armed pro-Iran groups in Iraq that use violence against Iraqi civilians and threaten to do the same to foreign troops. The NATO troops, particularly the Americans, can defend themselves from PMF violence but the Sunni Arab civilians being policed by PMF militias have less attractive options. The best way these civilians can fight back is to tolerate continued ISIL recruiting and operations in their neighborhoods. American and Iraqi Special Forces, as well as Iraqi counter-terrorism forces all agree that a major factor for continued popular support for ISIL in Sunni Arab areas is the bad behavior of the Iran-backed PMF units. ISIL provides the easiest and quickest way to fight back against the rogue PMF units. Even PMF units loyal to the government have problems because some of them consider their first loyalty is to an Iraqi Shia cleric and then to the government. At least these groups oppose any foreign influence. The pro-Iran PMF also face dissent, with a growing number of these militias beginning to doubt that Iran is the solution to Iraqi problems. Not when so many Iranians are calling for the fall of the religious dictatorship that is seeking to control Iraq.
February 20, 2019: On the Syria-Iraq border, American troops continue to occupy positions in Syria at the Tanf border crossing to Iraq. This key crossing is near the Jordan border. With the American forces present there is a 55 kilometers “deconfliction zone” maintained by American forces that unwelcome military forces (Russian, Syrian and Iranian) are banned from. The unwelcome are unhappy about this and have expressed their feelings by not allowing supplies to reach the American run refugee camp within the zone. Most of the 50,000 Syrian refugees are women and children and the U.S. has to bring in all the supplies from Iraq.
February 18, 2019: In the southeast (Sistan-Baluchistan province), IRGC troops arrested three suspected Baluchi separatists and seized 150 kg (330 pounds) of explosives and other bomb-making materials. Raids also shot down at least two safe houses in two cities of province used by Baluchi separatist group Jaish al Adl.
February 14, 2019: Leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran met and agreed that there would be no military offensive against the thousands of Islamic terrorists trapped in northwestern Syria (Idlib province) but that other, unspecified, measures would be taken to increase the pressure on the trapped Islamic terrorists to surrender. There were also no details on the issue of recent fighting between pro-Russian Syrian Assad troops and Iranian mercenaries. Russia and Iran are competing for the position of the main foreign supporter of the Assad government. The Assads would prefer the Russians, who are not as ideologically fanatic, economically weak and diplomatically isolated as Iran. Russia has to be careful here because the Iranian ground forces (over 20,000 Shia mercenaries) are the largest infantry force in Syria. Russia does not want a war with Iran but they do not want Iranian forces to remain in Syria because Iranian plans for Syria will not end well for anyone.
February 13, 2019: In the southeast (Sistan-Baluchistan province on the border of Pakistani Baluchistan), 27 IRGC troops were killed and 13 wounded when a suicide car bomber destroyed an IRGC bus. The government blamed Saudi Arabia, Israel, Pakistan and everyone but the Iranian Sunni Baluchi separatists who operate from bases in Pakistan and frequently cross the border to carry out attacks in the IRGC forces who guard the border. Often the border guards intercept the separatists at the border and kill or capture them. This violence has been going on for decades and never needed any outside assistance to keep going. Pakistan keeps getting blamed for the continued presence of Iranian Sunni separatists in Pakistani Baluchistan. Pakistan tries but the Baluchis live on both sides of the border and Iranian and Pakistani Baluchis want to create an independent Baluchistan that includes a chunk of southeast Iran where most of the Iranian Baluchis live. One of the usual suspects, Iranian separatist group Jaish al Adl took credit for the attack. In late 2018 Iran threatened to send troops across the Pakistani border to find and destroy Iranian Jaish al Adl camps in Pakistan if the Pakistani security forces did not take action and neither did the IRGC.
Russia agreed to lend Iran $5 billion dollars in the form of economic aid projects and euros. Iran is resorting to a wide array of techniques to get around the resumed American sanctions. The Iranians are having some success but the economic situation continues to get worse and the public protests are more frequent.
February 11, 2019: In southern Syria (Golan Heights), Israeli tank fire destroyed what turned out to be an Iranian observation post near the Israeli border. Two Iranians died in that attack. Apparently as a result of this attack and several recent airstrikes on Iranian bases in Syria Iran has pulled back its forces from the Israeli border. These forces are being moved to bases closer to the Iraq border, making it easier to move them into Iraq if necessary. If Iran sets up missile launchers in Iraq aimed at Israel the Israelis would bomb them and the Iraqis now it do not want to get involved in that sort of thing. Syrian army forces could be seen coming in to replace the departed Iranian troops.
February 9, 2019: Russia and Iran claim that Israeli military intelligence personnel are operating in western Afghanistan (Herat province) from the American portion of the Afghan Shindand Air Base. This base is 120 kilometers from the Iranian border and has long been used for American air surveillance operations along the Iranian border and inside Iran as well. Back in 2009 the U.S. Air Force admitted that it was operating the new, jet-powered RQ-170 UAV in Afghanistan. At that point, the RQ-170, which looks like a miniature B-2 bomber, had been in development for over six years. It was believed to be flying over Iran, which would be a real test for a stealthy UAV like this. This turned out to be the case and in 2011 a RQ-170 crashed in Iran and the Iranians recovered and restored the damaged UAV. Israel and the United States often cooperate on intel collecting operations and there have been earlier reports about Israeli experts coming to Afghanistan to assist in the effort to monitor what is going on in Iran.
February 8, 2019: In North African Saudi ally Morocco is withdrawing its forces (six warplanes and ground support personnel) from the Arab coalition force in Yemen because a Saudi TV network recently broadcast a documentary that cast doubt on Morocco claims to the Western Sahara territory that Morocco and Algeria have been feuding about for decades. Algeria tends to ally itself with Iran but tries to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia as well. Morocco refused to get involved with the feud between Saudi Arabia and Qatar (an Iranian ally).
February 2, 2019: In the southeast (Sistan-Baluchistan province), Baluchi separatists attacked an IRGC base killing one soldier and wounding five. Iranian Baluchi separatist group Jaish al Adl took credit for the attack.
January 29, 2019: In the southeast (Sistan-Baluchistan province), three bomb disposal technicians were wounded as they sought to disable a Jaish al Adl bomb found in the provincial capital.
January 25, 2019: Egypt told Hamas to choose between working for Iran or with Egypt. Hamas is currently the recipient of cash and other aid from Iran, but the cash and the legal (no weapons) aid gets in with Egyptian cooperation. Egypt already has the one legal crossing from Gaza to Egypt closed most of the time and continues to destroy any smuggling tunnels they find. It is more and more difficult to build a tunnel into Egypt and keep it operational. Hamas also has to worry that Egypt will, or already has, invited the Israelis to test their new tunnel detection technology along the Egyptian border with Gaza. That would mean all currently operating tunnels would be found and destroyed. Hams would then be almost completely cut off from Iranian aid. Iran could still get some material and people through, but much less than now and at much greater risk and expense (for bribes and smuggler fees). Hamas has not yet responded to the Egyptian offer, which includes assistance in negotiating with Israel. This is something most Gazans would like but that Hamas is largely opposed to.
More problems in Iraq. Much to the displeasure of Iran, the Iraqi leader recently met with the king of Jordan in Iraq. This was the first time the Jordanian had been in Iraq since before Saddam was overthrown in 2003. After that, the Iraqi leader spoke with the Saudi Crown Prince on the phone for the first time. Jordan offered military and intel cooperation to improve security along their mutual border as well as economic opportunities. The Saudi Leader offered economic aid and any other joint projects the Iraqis might be interested in as well as cooperation with mutual security needs. Iran doesn’t like to be reminded that Arab Shia will ultimately be Arabs first and Shia second. Iran helps with that continuing to treat their own Arab minority badly.
January 22, 2019: In Israel, there was an Arrow 3 anti-missile missile test in southern Israel against an air-launched rocket that returned to earth at the same speed as a ballistic missile warhead fired from Iran. The test warhead was intercepted. This test had been planned for a long time and was not carried out just to send a message to the Iranians, but it did that as well.