Lower oil prices and covid19 have hit Iran much harder than most other oil producing nations. Iran has smaller cash reserves while the virus has infected nearly 50,000 and killed over 3,000. Many in Iran believe the actual number of those infected is much higher because the current deaths indicate a much higher infection rate than in other nations with similar conditions. One thing is unquestioned, the number of deaths in Iran is the highest in the region. This is also suspicious because Arab nations in the region are accused of under-reporting covid19 losses. This is done to avoid popular uprisings, as in 2011, over government incompetence. There were clear signs of this when it comes to covid19. Arab governments, like the Iranians, were slow to impose travel restrictions, especially flights from infected countries like China. Middle Eastern nations, except for Israel, were less well prepared to deal with a crisis like this.
The Iranian religious dictatorship mismanaged the covid19 outbreak and created even more popular anger towards the government. At first, the government dismissed covid19 as no threat to Iran. Now it accuses the Americans of inventing covid19 to do whatever. That propaganda did not make the U.S. any more willing to help Iran in any way. This angered many European nations who banded together and sent Iran a billion dollars in aid for dealing with covid19. The government spent most of this on treating senior government officials who had come down with the virus. In effect, the billion dollars did not do much for the impact of the virus on the majority of Iranians and the Europeans were not pleased.
With the price of oil now down to $20 a barrel and demand much lower because of covid19, Iran finds itself facing an economic disaster even as they scramble to deal with covid19. Iran pleads poverty but gets little sympathy because they are still spending a lot of money on military efforts in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Spending has been cut but not eliminated and thousands of Iran troops, mostly from the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps), the well-paid security force for the religious dictatorship, are still stationed in foreign nations.
The War Against America
Americans see Iran as the aggressor, as do most of Iran’s neighbors. This is especially true with Iraq and most Arab oil producers in the Arabian Peninsula. The Turks tried to improve relationships with Iran over the last decade but that has not worked out so well. The spread of covid19 from Iran to Turkey did not improve matters. The U.S. killing of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani on January 3rd using a UAV launched missile was something the Iranians were not expecting and are still trying to deal with. This missile attack took place in Iraq, where the Quds Force efforts have led to the deaths of hundreds of Americans and thousands of Iraqis since 2003. Iran was outraged and ordered more anti-American demonstrations in Iran and Iraq. What they got was more anti-Iran government demonstrations in both countries. Putting down these protests left over a thousand Iranian and Iraqi Shia protestors dead. The protests continue in diminished form because of covid19.
During the January violence over Soleimani, covid19 was raging out of control in central China, where it had first appeared in late November 2019. At first, China tried to suppress news of the disease, but during January news was leaking out and at the end of January the Americans halted incoming flights from China while trying to get accurate data about the Chinese Virus. In February the virus hit Iran, whether Iranian clerics admitted it or not. The swift spread of the virus to the U.S. and Europe triggered an economic slowdown. At the same time, Saudi Arabia and Russian got into a dispute over oil prices and both produced more. This came at the same time demand was shrinking. The result was oil prices falling by more than 50 percent. This was a disaster for Iran, which was still smuggling some oil out and selling it at a discount. Now this source of income had shrunk. The Iranian economy was already in bad shape with inflation at 35 percent over the last year and unemployment nearly as high. GDP shrank nearly 10 percent in 2019 and was supposed to lose one percent or less in 2020, then grow at least one percent in 2021. Those forecasts were made before covid19 and plunging oil prices came along. Now it appears that GDP will suffer greater losses than in 2019 and a return to GDP growth is delayed indefinitely, or until there is more clarity about the future.
Politics As Usual
In the midst of all this Iran nearly completed its nationwide parliamentary elections. The religious dictatorship decided to crack down on reform minded candidates and banned nearly all of them from being on the ballot. This was not popular and most Iranians refused to even vote.
At the same time, the government demands that the U.S. lift sanctions and unfreeze most of Iran's billions of cash still held in U.S. and European banks. The Americans refused because of the Iranian record of diverting such funds to military purposes rather than to improve the lives of most Iranians. While Iran uses covid19 to accuse the American sanctions of blocking medical supplies from reaching them, Iran is also offering neighbors medical supplies to deal with the virus. This dissonance doesn’t bother Iranian propagandists because they know their efforts to depict the U.S. as deliberately using sanctions to harm Iranian virus victims will connect with some people and every little bit counts. That works both ways as it opens Iranian leaders up to criticism of not using their personal fortunes, some of which exceed a billion dollars and most of it obtained via corruption, to aid Iranian covid19 victims. Such acts of personal charity have been rare among the Iranian leadership, largely because to admit to having such wealth is an admission of corrupt behavior. What angers Iranian leaders the most about American sanctions is that many of the enforcement efforts describe, in detail, illegal efforts to evade the sanctions along with corruption inside Iran that is often part of schemes to evade sanctions.
Neighboring nations are attributing local covid19 outbreaks to visitors from Iran. Turkey, Iraq and Afghanistan have been most affected by this. Turkey and China have persuaded the Iranian government to be realistic about the covid19 problem. Despite that, the virus is still apparently out of control in Iran.
China is Iran’s primary trading partner, source of financing, and legal or illegal goods. The government has forbidden discussion about how covid19 got into Iran via the regular passenger and cargo flights from Wuhan, the center of the covid19 outbreak in China and worldwide.
Most Iraqis agree that Iran is a toxic neighbor that, in its current state (an increasingly unpopular religious dictatorship) is a toxic force obsessed with controlling Iraq and the Iraqi government. Iran has sent hundreds of IRGC officers, most of them from the Quds Force (similar to the U.S. Special Forces, but specializing in supporting Islamic terrorists, not fighting them) and even more lower ranking IRGC personnel to Iraq. Dozens of senior IRGC officers have been killed in Syria and Iraq since 2012. These IRGC personnel are now seen by most Iraqis as hostile foreign agents. What the Quds Force does get credit for is its leading role in organizing the PMF (Popular Mobilization Force) militias in 2014. This came in response to the corrupt armed forces created by the elected Iraqi government falling apart in the face of the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) advance. The ISIL force was much smaller and less well-armed than the Iraqi security forces they encountered. For the Shia majority in Iraq, this ISIL advance was their worst nightmare. Quds stepped in where corrupt Iraqi Shia army and police commanders had failed and turned the poorly armed and trained Shia Iraqi militias into a force that could halt the ISIL advance. But these militias could not drive ISIL out of Iraq. That required newly trained (by American and foreigner military specialists) special operations units supported by American and Iraqi artillery and air power.
Iranian efforts to expand their control in Iraq and Syria are not producing the desired results. This is causing more anti-government activity inside Iran. Iran is hard hit by covid19, in part because the government dismissed the virus as a threat. Despite the much reduced budget for operations in Syria, the Iranian Quds Force officers in charge convinced their bosses back in Iran that more cash was needed in Syria to prevent the Iranian effort there from collapsing. The cash has apparently come though because the Iranians have increased the pay and benefits for many of the mercenaries, including the local Syrian Sunni militias it has been recruiting. The Syrian economy is still a mess and good jobs are hard to come by. While being an Iranian merc can be dangerous, the Iranians tell the new Syrian recruits that they want them to keep doing what they have always been doing; protecting their own town or neighborhood.
The balance of combat power has shifted in the last six months as the government lost a lot of their ground troops. This was because the UAE (United Arab Emirates) withdrew most of its forces in late 2019 over disagreements with Saudi Arabia over strategy and fears in the UAE that Iran might attack. The UAE has less population and fewer troops than Saudi Arabia. The UAE is also smaller and closer to Iran.
The Saudis have many reasons to fear Iran. Historically the Iranians have always been more effective militarily and that factor is still present. While the Iranians have a tradition of recruiting the most capable men to be officers, the Saudis and Arabs in general are wary of professional military personnel, especially officers. It’s mostly about fear of a military takeover and the Saudis have crippled their own military by valuing loyalty over competence when it comes to officers, and many troops as well. As a result, the Saudis do not have a lot of troops they can trust to do well in a foreign war. Air Force pilots are another matter but you cannot win a ground war from the air. On the ground, the lack of more talented and experienced ground commanders in Yemen has hurt the Saudis in ways they won’t admit.
The Saudis have a bigger problem with the fact that the rebels are backed by Iran which continues to pay whatever it takes to smuggle in some weapons despite Saudi efforts to tighten the sea, air and ground blockade. Yemen is unique in that it is a nation with a disproportionate number of skilled smugglers, many of them willing to work for whoever will pay.
This new situation puts Saudi Arabia in a difficult position. Efforts to negotiate an end of the Yemen war proved unsuccessful as Iranian control over the Shia rebels could not be reduced. The Iranians are determined to maintain their presence in Yemen and on the Saudi border. From there the Iranians can continue to launch attacks on the Saudis, who do not want to commit the ground forces necessary to take control of the adjacent Yemeni provinces that are the homeland of the Shia rebels. The Saudis also have to maintain sufficient forces in northeast Saudi Arabia, where most of the oil is and the Iranian threat has been a problem for decades. At this point, the best thing the Saudis can hope for is that the religious dictatorship that has ruled Iran for decades will collapse and be replaced by a friendlier and less threatening government.
The Yemeni rebels continue getting some aid from Iran, but this must be smuggled in. Shia Iran also makes demands. So for over a year, the Shia rebels have been imposing more and more religious restrictions on people living under their control. This includes many Sunni tribes. The rebels have even been shutting down cafes and restaurants that cater to groups of women. These gatherings are considered un-Islamic by religious conservatives.
March 31, 2020: In the north, across the border in Turkey PKK Kurdish separatists blew up part of the pipeline that delivers natural gas from Iran to Turkey. This is a key export for Iran and will be interrupted for up to a week as repairs are made. The PKK carried out this attack to hurt Turkey but causing problems for Iran was a bonus. Both Turkey and Iran have been very active in fighting their Kurdish separatists.
The government banned the printing and distribution of newspapers. This was described as a covid19 control measure but it is no as no other nation has used it and Iran does want to shut down increasingly hostile media without openly censoring criticism. The growing poverty means more people no longer have access to the Internet and are more dependent on TV, radio and print for their news.
March 30, 2020: The U.S. revealed that it had brought in Patriot anti-missile batteries to Iraqi bases where there were a lot of U.S. troops. These bases have been attacked by Iran and Iran-backed Iraqi groups. Two batteries are already in Iraq and two more on the way. It is unclear if the U.S. got permission from Iraq for this as a request was made back in January and not much happened after that. Iraq is under heavy pressure from Iran to block the U.S. from bringing in Patriot batteries. Iran is unlikely to use ballistic missiles against American bases as it did in January. That attack backfired big time and was considered a failure. American intel believes Iran is trying to organize a major attack using its Iran-backed Iraqi militias. That is proving difficult because more members, and leaders, of those militias, are no longer loyal to Iran. Months of anti-Iran protests throughout Iraq have had an impact on all Iraqis and many who believed Iran offered benefits to Iraq began reconsidering that. If more and more Iranians were protesting their own government, why should any Iraqis side with Iran?
March 29, 2020: The Iranian president defended how the government had handled the covid19 epidemic and said there was no large-scale quarantine (”stay at home”) effort because that would have crippled the already weak economy.
March 28, 2020: In Yemen Iran-backed Shia rebels fired two Iranian ballistic missiles at the Saudi capital. Saudi air defense intercepted both missiles with Patriot missiles. Two Saudis on the ground were injured by falling missile debris.
March 22, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) there was apparently another Israeli airstrike against Iranian weapons being stored near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. This border crossing is vital for the Iran-to-Mediterranean land route. This road is essential to supporting any Iranian military expansion in Syria and Lebanon. Israel has bombed it before and will apparently continue doing so. That is what will also to happen to the new military base Iran is building here on the Syrian side of the border. The base is nearly complete despite several Israeli airstrikes. At that point, the Israeli airstrikes usually intensify in an effort to obliterate the completed base.
For the first time, the Assad government admitted that the covid19 virus has reached Syria. Unofficially the virus had been encountered in Syria over a month earlier. The Assad government denied this for as long as they thought they could get away with it. There are still a lot of anti-Assad Syrians in Syria and they believe Assad looked the other way as Iranians infected with covid19 were allowed into the country. This happened before these Iranians experienced symptoms. One can get covid19 and not feel it for a week or two. Most countries avoid letting infected people in by imposing a two week quarantine on visitors to verify they are virus free. No such quarantine was imposed on any Iranians coming in.
March 20, 2020: Traditional new year’s celebrations begin today and the government ordered a ban on mass gatherings and travel related to the new year activities. Many Iranians are ignoring the ban.
March 18, 2020: In Syria, Iranian military advisors are continuing to recruit local Shia into new mercenary units based in the south, near the Israeli and Jordan borders and the northeast, near the autonomous Kurdish provinces. Some of these units are for local defense but the better paid ones will get more training and better weapons so they can be moved around the country as needed.
March 17, 2020: In Syria, it was revealed that an Iranian IRGC commander, Mehran Azizani, had been killed while captive of an al Qaeda group. Azizani had been captured three weeks ago and it was unclear how he died. One rumor is that it was covid19 because Azizani could be exchanged for something the al Qaeda group needed.
March 16, 2020: The government cancelled the last round of parliamentary elections but said the April 17 vote would take place on September 11. The various religious tourist attractions for Shia pilgrims in Iran, especially the city of Qom, were closed for an indefinite period. At the same time all Iranians were urged, but not ordered, to stay home.
Outside Baghdad someone fired rockets at the Basmaya military base, apparently in an effort to kill Spanish troops based there to train Iraqi forces. Iran-backed Iraqi groups want all foreign troops, except the Iranians, out of Iraq.
March 14, 2020: Outside Baghdad
at least 33 107mm rockets hit Camp Taji, a joint Iraqi-American military base. The rockets caused no injuries and it was believed the Iran backed PMF militiamen were responsible. This is the 23rd such attack on American bases in Iraq since last October.
March 12, 2020: The government canceled all public celebration of the springtime new year’s festival on March 21. This is the traditional (l0ng before Islam or Christianity showed up) Nowruz (Festival of Fire) celebrations. This is a collection of cultural customs, many of them over 4,000 years old that have survived as a major holiday. The Islamic dictatorship tried to ban Nowruz, mainly because they shared many beliefs with the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian religion of Iran. Over the last few years protests often involved people condemning Islam and openly advocating a return to Zoroastrianism. Doing Nowruz right means lots of special foods and recopies and this year most Iranians cannot afford the food treats because the essential ingredients are either too expensive or simply not available in many parts of the country.
March 11, 2020: Outside Baghdad (Camp Taj) Iran-backed militia fired twenty rockets at NATO forces there. Two Americans and one British soldier were killed. The Katab Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Iraqi group based on the Lebanese Hezbollah, took credit for this attack. The next day the U.S. carried out airstrikes on five Katab Hezbollah facilities. One the airstrikes was across the border in Syria near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. This attack killed 26 pro-Iran PMF men, who are increasingly showing up in Syria, despite Iraqi laws that prohibit that.
In the southeast (Maysan province) an angry mob burned down the headquarters of an Iran-backed militia. The anger was over the militia killing two local critics of the militia. All involved here are Shia as are most people in the province, which borders Iran.
March 10, 2020: Iraq ordered nationwide shutdowns of businesses and public gatherings as well as international air travel. This will last until the end of the month or slow the spread of covid19. This included canceling meetings (for prayer or whatever) at mosques and schools. So far fewer than 200 Iraqis have tested positive for the virus and there have only been about a dozen virus related deaths. In Iran, there have been a hundred times more people who tested positive for the virus and at least a hundred times more virus related deaths.
In eastern Iran over 80,000 Afghan refugees have returned from Iran since March 1st, most of them because of the spread of the covid19 virus inside Iran. This exodus is believed to be the source of the few covid19 cases found so far in Afghanistan.
March 6, 2020: Russia imposed border restrictions on people seeking to enter from Iran. This was done to keep people with covid19 out of the country.
March 5, 2020: In Syria Farhad Dabiryan, another IRGC commander, was killed in combat.
March 4, 2020: In Syria, there were two Israeli airstrikes overnight. One was in central Syria (Homs province) and the other in the south
(Quneitra province) near the Israeli Golan Heights.
Both attacks apparently involved Iranian rockets or missiles being moved to Lebanon or firing positions near the Israeli border. Syria said its air defenses intercepted some of the Israeli missiles but there was no proof. Satellite photos usually show if attacks are successful by revealing destroyed buildings or other obvious damage.
March 3, 2020: Parliament was suspended because at least 23 members were found to have covid19.
March 2, 2020: In Syria Iran threatened to support the Syrian forces if the Turks attacked. The Iranians apparently fired a ballistic missile at the advancing Turkish forces but the missile did not appear to do any damage. The Turks claim to have intercepted the missile but did not say with what. Beyond that Iranian forces stayed away.
February 29, 2020: Turkey demanded that Russian forces cease supporting the Syrian offensive against rebels in Idlib province. Both Russia and Iran insist they are the only legitimate foreign force allowed in Syria. The Assad government, although widely condemned for past and current atrocities has been the legitimate government of Syria for decades and did invite Russian and Iranian forces in. The Turks were invited in by the Syrian rebels who, since 2011, have been trying to oust the Assads. The problems is that Turkey has backed Islamic terror groups who are at war with the world as well as the Assads. Any nation backing or trying to use Islamic terror groups is deluding itself. Recognizing this the Turks mainly depend on the one secular Syrian rebel group, the FSA, and hire them as mercenaries. The FSA that the Turks are not fighting to overthrow the Assads but rather support Turkish efforts to establish a 30 kilometers deep security zone on the Syrian side of the border in order to keep Islamic terrorists and other undesirables (like Syrian refugees) out of Turkey.
Russia sympathizes with Turkey on the issues of Islamic terrorists and illegal migrants. Russia has to choose between Iran, which wants the Assad rule in all of Syria no matter what the cost, and Turkey while wants its security zone no matter what the cost. Russian and Turkish leaders have agreed to meet soon and discuss possible solutions. The key problem here is that Russian wants a unified Syria under a Russia-friendly government. At the moment that means the Assads and their patron Iran. The only compromise opportunities are a suitable deal on Turkish border security. The only positive factor here is that neither Turkey nor Russia want to keep fighting each other. That is a losing proposition for both nations but the Turkish leaders have committed themselves to securing the border and the Russian leader cannot afford anything the reeks of defeat in Syria.
February 28, 2020: All Iranian schools and universities were closed to prevent the spread of covid19.
February 27, 2020: Israel revealed that it had seized $4 million in cash Iran was trying to transfer to Hamas in Gaza. Israel discovered who was handling the transfer, an international currency exchange firm owned by Zuheir Shamlakh, and went after them. Most of the foreign cash Hamas receives for any reason is still diverted to military purposes.
February 25, 2020: The UN renewed, for another year, its arms ban on weapons imports to Yemen. The ban has been in force since 2015 and Iran has been the primary source of illegal weapons smuggling.