Iran: Desperately Seeking Another Grand Intimidator

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February 4, 2021: With a new government in the United States, Iran sees a chance to get sanctions lifted and a return to the 2015 deal that halted Iranian nuclear weapons research in return for lifting of sanctions. The U.S. caught Iran cheating, which Iran is still doing, and invoked the “cheating clause” of the 2015 agreement to revive sanctions. That made foreign aggression more difficult for Iran and played a role in continuing public protests against the government that for decades has declared Israel must be destroyed and allies of Israel, like the United States, punished. Iran is now at war with most of the Arab Gulf states because Iran wants to take charge of the Moslem shrines at Mecca and the annual pilgrimage as well as leadership of the Moslem world. This sort of thing seems absurd to Arabs but Iran has shown itself capable of all manner of dirty deeds and devious plans against Arab states.

A growing number of Arab states are making peace with Israel, and those countries want the new American government to recognize this new alliance and its goals of containing Iranian aggression. China, Russia and a few Western European nations want to lift sanctions on Iran and restore the 2015 deal. If the United States rejoins this 2015 coalition, Israel threatens to attack Iran before Iran can attack Israel with nuclear weapons. Iran says it will respond to Israeli threats by firing ballistic missiles at Israel with conventional (high-explosives) warheads if nuclear warheads were not available. It is implied that Iran would also fire missiles at Israel’s new Arab allies, especially the UAE.

The reality is that Iranian leaders don’t want a war with Israel or the Gulf Arabs. Such a conflict would do enormous damage to Iran and Iranian chances of victory are slim to none. Iran prefers undeclared war, which it has waging more and more since the 1980s. This includes supporting a lot of terror attacks against enemy states as well as assassination of Iranian exiles who know, and say, too much. China and Russia don’t care about this because Iran does not harm them. The Europeans are willing to do business with Iran if they receive the same immunity. The rest of the world has no such immunity and is not seeking any. Iran only backs off when it has to or, in places like Israel, has not been able to get into.

Israeli threats are one thing but, in Syria, Iran is suffering more and more damage and casualties as it tries to establish itself on the Israeli border and at last carry out some deadly attacks. So far only Iran is taking losses but they are optimistic because they are slowly establishing a presence near the Israeli border. Sanctions make this more difficult because there is not as much money available since 2018 to hire mercenaries or offer as many bribes as Iran used to offer. Killing Israelis is expensive and Iran needs more cash for that, and to placate growing popular unrest back in Iran. The religious dictatorship used lethal force against the demonstrations in 2019 and killing over a thousand protestors reduced the size and ferocity of the protests. But the angry Iranians are still there and their numbers are growing as their standard of living continues to decline. These Iranians blame that on the billions Iran continues to spend each year on its war against Israel and the Gulf Arabs. It is no secret that the nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs are very expensive, but there is more popular support for that sort of thing because most Iranians agree that Iran should regain its ancient status as local superpower and do it without impoverishing or endangering the Iranian people.

Home Front Horrors

The official Iranian position is that the American sanctions have cost the Iranian economy $100 billion, which otherwise would have been spent on improving the lives of Iranians. The reality is different and it is no secret for the average Iranian. After 2015 oil exports soared as did trade in general. Iranians were told this economic revival would reverse the four decades decline in the standard of living. It did not and there was widespread anger over this confirmation that their government was more interested in foreign wars and enriching clerical families and religious dictatorship loyalists than Iranians in general. Two years of growing public protests was suppressed, or at least discouraged, by 2020 after the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) was ordered to stop the protests by any means necessary. Over a thousand protestors were killed and thousands more injured by the anti-protest violence. Many more Iranians were jailed and some were given long prison sentences. Iran increased its use of IRGC death squads overseas to intimidate or murder exiles who criticized the religious dictatorship.

In the last two years the covid19 recessions and revived sanctions have seen the GDP shrink about five percent year. Reserves of foreign currency, needed to pay for imports, fell from $73 billion to less than $9 billion at the end of 2020. These reserves had been $100 billion in 2017.

The unemployment rate is officially 25 percent but the real rate is nearly twice that. Inflation is over 40 percent. Official Iranian statistics show that between 2005 and 2020 average per capita income fell 12 percent. That means over a third of Iranians are now living below the official poverty level. While ten percent of Iranians that actively support the religious dictatorship prosper, the majority are more impoverished each year. This has been making a lot of well-off Iranians nervous. This is not a new fear, because over the last decade at least $10 billion a year was moved out of the country. That has increased as hundreds of individual Iranians were sanctioned and had to get money out of the country via Russia or China. These two countries could do that, for a hefty fee, without alerting the international banking system auditors and monitors. Tracking these currency exports has been used to measure corruption in nations since the Cold War, when it noted that cash being moved out of some poor countries matched the amount of foreign aid coming in. That aid never seemed to have much impact on the local standard of living and, even before the Cold War ended, sanctions on the most corrupt individuals were shown to be more effective than blanket sanctions on an entire nation. Currently the majority of all personal sanctions imposed on individuals are against Iranians.

While most Iranians find themselves with a lower standard of living each year, it is obvious that some Iranians are doing very well. The Internet is making it possible to share more videos showing the families of the ruling clerics and senior IRGC officers enjoying affluent lifestyles, often while vacationing outside Iran.

Whenever sanctions are lifted the first thing the Iranian government wants is cash frozen in overseas accounts to be released. That is followed by increases in violence wherever Iranian-backed mercenaries or rebels are active. This happened after 2015 and Iran wants to happen again. The revival of sanctions after 2017 had a very visible impact on Iranian supported violence in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. The post 2017 cuts to Iran backed terror groups averaged about fifty percent and generated very public complaints from the many Syrians and Lebanese on the Quds Force payroll. In Lebanon Iran-backed Hezbollah had to lay off so many employees that it became big news locally and the cause of more popular anger against Hezbollah and Iran. Many Lebanese did not realize Hezbollah was so dependent on Iranian cash to operate. In Syria the Assad government found that it could no longer depend on Iran for financial help to rebuild economy. That situation became so desperate that there many Assad loyalists calling for a break with Iran and alliance with Arabian Arab nations able and willing to finance reconstruction. Turkey, Russia and even Israel were OK with this. This was one reason why Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani got so much more unwanted publicity after 2017. Soleimani was very effective at personally intimidating wavering allies into submission. This was especially true with allies dependent on Iranian cash and other expensive support. This is a major reason why Iran was so angry when an American UAV missile strike killed Soleimani in early 2020. Without their veteran Grand Intimidator to impose discipline, there were growing problems with managing operations in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. With Soleimani gone Islamic terror group leaders in Gaza that depended on Iranian support felt free to boast of how Soleimani gave direct orders on how and when to attack Israel. Iranian leaders found that there was no one available to replace Soleimani and their best hope now was to get sanctions lifted and billions in frozen cash released. Unless something changes the Iranian position in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon will continue to crumble. Lacking cash or a Grand Intimidator, Iran’s overseas wars will be lost and that will make the religious dictatorship at home even more unpopular.

Iran is continuing its traditional campaign of intimidation, and occasional assassination, against hundreds of overseas Iranians who criticize the religious dictatorship. This criticism is made worse because it is delivered in both the local language and Farsi (Iranian) to followers in Iran via the Internet or Farsi language satellite TV and shortwave radio programs. Iran tries to portray killing known terrorists like Soleimani in the same category as Iranian critics of Iran living in Europe murdered at the order of Soleimani. This is an effort to portray the U.S. as guilty of something Iran very much aspires to. Iran is angry about their inability to avenge Soleimani and the way that boosts the morale of their overseas critics.

Yemen

Most Iran-backed Yemeni Shia rebels still believe time is their side as long as the Iranian support continues. Iran understands this as well and is willing to finance the expensive smuggling effort at a reduced level because of the distress it causes the Saudis. The problem with this strategy is that Iran can afford to abandon the Shia rebels while the Saudis cannot afford to have an Iranian ally on their southern border. This fighting in 2020 has left about 4,000 people dead or wounded. Most of the casualties have been civilians victimized by the rebel tactic of trying to hide combat units and supplies in residential areas to discourage air strikes. That only works some of the time.

The Shia rebels are going broke because it costs a lot of money to maintain a force of several thousand gunmen and also pay for the staff of the temporary government the rebels have established in the north. The rebels control access to over a third of the Yemeni population and these are among the most in need of foreign food and medical aid. The Arab Coalition has been taking apart the legal income sources the rebels had because they captured the national capital in 2014 and held on to it. That meant they maintained control over vital, and profitable (via taxation) industries. As long as Iran is able or willing to make up enough of the lost rebel income, the rebels will continue. That is difficult for Iran because the revived (in 2017) economic sanctions turned out to be more of a burden that the religious dictatorship of Iran expected. That was made worse by covid19, which the Iranian clergy initially declared as something that only killed infidels (non-Moslems). The attitude enabled the virus to spread rapidly throughout Iran before the government took action. That led to more anti-government demonstrations and calls for less spending on foreign wars.

February 3, 2021: The government announced that it is freeing most of the twenty-man crew of the South Korean chemical tanker the IRGC seized on January 2nd as part of a campaign to get nations holding frozen Iranian cash to release it. Iran justified the seizure by falsely accusing the tanker of pollution. Unofficially Iran will not free the tanker unless South Korea releases some or all of the $7 billion in Iranian cash frozen by American sanctions. South Korea initially demanded Iran release the tanker and ordered nearby South Korea warships with the Somali anti-piracy patrol to head to where the tanker was seized. Other nations with an interest in free passage to the Persian Gulf backed the South Korean demands. The extortion negotiations have continued without much publicity. Neither country wants to go to war over this but Iran is desperate to get access to over $100 billion in frozen assets. South Korea holds so much Iranian cash because South Korea has long been a major customer for Iranian oil. South Korea was a poor choice for extortion because South Koreans are fed up with decades of similar scams by North Korea. Popular opinion in South Korea is hostile to making any concessions to the Iranians. The tanker seizure is making Iran look bad and there is no upside. This appears to be another case of the IRGC acting impulsively and leaving the government and Foreign Ministry to clean it up. That sort of thing is increasingly common and the senior clerics appear weak every time this happens. Many Iranians, high and low, see the IRGC as more of a problem than asset. The IRGC disagrees and has a reputation for violent responses to any perceived threat to their existence. Iran is desperate and offering to release the tanker if South Korea will release some of the frozen cash to settle its $16.2 million debt the UN for unpaid dues. This is less than two-tenths of one percent of the frozen cash and will appear as a humiliating defeat for Iran. For the Iran the UN debt is very important. Last month Iran had its voting rights in the UN suspended until it pays it dues. There are currently seven UN members in arrears with their dues and Iran owes the most. South Korea agreed to do this and is discussing the matter with the U.S., which has a new government that is seen as more Iran-friendly. Breaking the sanctions with or without American approval will be publicized by Iran as a great victory.

February 2, 2021: In the southeast on the Pakistan (Baluchistan) border two IRGC operatives entered Pakistan at night and in cooperation with Pakistani forces rescued two Iranian border guards that had been kidnapped by Iranian Jaish al Adl Baluchi rebels in late 2018. The Iranian Baluchi rebels often maintain temporary bases across the border in Pakistan. The 2018 incident saw twelve border guards captured and taken back to Pakistan where the rebels tried to use them to extract concessions from Iran. That did not work and since then there have been ongoing efforts to find and free the captives. Four of the captives were released a month after the kidnapping while another four were rescued by a Pakistani raid in early 2019. Now only one border guard remains a captive, or may be dead. Jaish al Adl took credit for the 2018 kidnapping and said it was in retaliation for Iranian attacks on Iranian Baluchis (who are Sunni Moslems). Another grievance was the late September 2018 border clash in which a Jaish al Adl leader was killed. Iran depended on Pakistan to locate the missing Iranians as they were held in a series of Jaish al Adl camps and bases in Pakistan. Jaish al Adl has been around since 2012 and is the successor to Jundallah and perpetuates Iranian Sunni Baluchi resistance to Iranian Shia rule. The Iranian and Pakistani Baluchis have family, tribal and ideological links and that makes it easier for an Iranian Baluchi Islamic terror group to establish and sustain bases in Pakistan. This is a constant source of friction between Iran and Pakistan because the Iranians could shut down groups like Jaish al Adl were it not for the Pakistani sanctuaries. Pakistan is unable to suppress its own Baluchi Islamic terrorist and separatist groups.

In southern Syria (Quneitra province) there was another Israeli airstrike against Iranian forces near the Israeli Golan Heights. Like so many recent Israeli airstrikes this was targeting Iranian rockets or missiles being moved to Lebanon or firing positions near the Israeli border.

The U.S. is seizing a second tanker to sell off its Iranian oil cargo. The tanker was caught illegally taking on the Iranian oil in a ship-to-ship transfer off Oman. This is a clear violation of the sanctions and the Americans are seizing the cargoes. This was done for the first time in mid-2020 and is continuing.

February 1, 2021: Israeli media revealed that Israel, the U.S. and the UAE cooperated in disrupting Iranian plans to bomb their embassies in an unnamed East African country. The three nations have been threatened by Iran and cooperate in alerting each other when Iranian operations like this are detected. East African nations are also aware of this threat because in the past Islamic terrorists have carried out such attacks, and killed more locals that foreign embassy staff. The Iranian advance team included one member that had a European passport and dual citizenship. The team had a list of objectives which included confirming data about the three embassies, their security measures and local resources the bomb delivery team could use. The Iran threat is dangerous because there are systematic, not spontaneous with these attacks. Several of the advance team members were arrested and others are being sought.

January 30, 2021: The government has purchased large quantities of the Russian Sputnik covid19 vaccine. How many doses and how fast it can be available in Iran won’t be known until mid-February. The religious dictatorship had recently banned the use of Western covid19 vaccines, fearing that these might be sabotaged by the Americans in order to hurt Iran. This sort of thinking is not new, but most Iranians have learned to expect it from their dysfunctional rulers. There are millions of Iranians living outside the country who quietly report that there is no Western conspiracy against Iran.

January 29, 2021: In Delhi, India a crude bomb went off outside the Israeli embassy. A letter left nearby said the bomb was revenge for the death of Iranian terrorism chief Qassem Soleimani, killed by an American Hellfire missile as he and associates departed Baghdad airport in January 2020. The letter claimed that this attack was just the beginning. Throughout 2020 Iran has openly sought to strike back at the United States or Israel but has been unsuccessful. Israeli embassy security had been increased over the last few weeks but the Israelis would not make public what they believed the threat was. This Delhi bombing was obviously inspired by the death of Soleimani and Iranian calls for revenge, but it is unlikely Iran was directly responsible. Iran and India are trading partners and generally on good terms. Iran sees India as a friendly neighbor while Pakistan is distrusted by India and Iran. Indian police are seeking two men security camera video shows in the area about the time the bomb was left outside the embassy and detonated. India has an even closer relationships with Israel, which supplies more and more modern weapons India needs to modernize its forces.

January 28, 2021: The U.S. effort to block illegal Iranian oil exports have noted that since late 2020 there has been a lot more Iranian oil going to China. This usually involves transferring cargoes at sea while one or both ships have their AIS (position transponders) turned off to avoid detection. Despite such deceptions more and more Chinese tankers are being caught in the act. Also caught are illegal shipments to Syria and Venezuela (which needs light oil to make its heavy oil usable). China apparently believes it is worth the risk to leave Chinese oil smugglers alone because there is an expectation that the new American government will, one way or another, lift the Iranian sanctions.

January 27, 2021: Iran continues to be one of the most corrupt countries on the planet. For 2020 Iran ranked 149 out of 180 nations surveyed for the annual Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. Corruption is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually Yemen/15, Syria/14, South Sudan/12 and Somalia/12) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (Finland, New Zealand and Denmark) are over 84. Iran is not at the bottom of the list but is among the 30 most corrupt nations. Iran has a score of 25, down from 26 in 2019.

Iran is in an arc of Moslem majority nations stretching from north and northeast Africa, through the Middle East and Central Asia that continues to be one of the most corrupt regions on the planet. The four most corrupt nations are in this arc, although South Sudan is not Moslem. But Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Syria, Lebanon, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan are.

There are exceptions. For 2020 the least corrupt nation in region was UAE (United Arab Emirates), which ranked 21st out of 180 nations. The current UAE score is 71 (same as 2019) compared to 61 (61) for Israel, 15 (15) for Yemen, 67 (69) for the United States, 33 (35) for Egypt, 25 (26) for Nigeria, 44 (44) for South Africa, 21 (20) for Iraq, 40 (39) for Turkey, 53 (53) for Saudi Arabia, 33 (30) for Ukraine, 47 (45) for Belarus, 56 (58) for Poland, 80 (80) Germany, 65 (65) for Taiwan, 40 (39) for Turkey, 40 (41) for India, 30 (28) for Russia, 61 (57) for South Korea, 42 (41) for China, 18 (14) for North Korea, 36 (37) for Vietnam, 85 (85) for Singapore, 74 (73) for Japan, 37 (40) for Indonesia, 38 (38) for Sri Lanka, 34 (34) for the Philippines, 31 (32) for Pakistan, 26 (26) for Bangladesh, 25 (26) for Iran, 19 (16) for Afghanistan, 28 (29) for Burma, and 25 (28) for Lebanon.

Iran’s corruption score has gotten worse over the last decade, from a high score of 30 to its current 25. This has been noticed by the Iranian people, who have seen their standard of living decline as their country became more corrupt. In contrast neighboring UAE achieved the most favorable corruption score in the region because it has long depended on foreign trade to survive and to make money in that business you must be known as an honest trading partner. The UAE is also different in that it is a federation of formerly independent “emirates” that realized the wisdom of joining forces and making powerful friends outside the region. Laws and customs vary somewhat among the emirates and some are more gangster than others. Overall, the UAE is a place where foreigners, and locals, feel comfortable doing business.

January 25, 2021: A former member of the Iranian senior religious leader community, Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani, was interviewed by an Israeli TV station. Masoumi-Tehrani is now a prominent opposition leader and that became clear as he told the Israeli interviewer that he and most Iranians had no problem with or animosity towards Israel. Masoumi-Tehrani has held this opinion for a long time but it finally angered too many fellow ayatollahs (senior Shia clerics) who arranged to revoke is ayatollah status and expel him from the religious leadership. So far, the government has not sought to imprison or kill Masoumi-Tehrani, who was long known to oppose the official policy of “inventing enemies that do not exist”. He had been jailed before because of his outspoken views, but always released after a few years. Masoumi-Tehrani noted that before the 1979 Israel and the United States were allies of Iran and it was a mistake to declare the U.S. and then, much later, Israel as major foes of Iran. Many Iranians came to agree with Masoumi-Tehrani and fear of enraging that many Iranians may be what is keeping him alive and free to speak. Masoumi-Tehrani was a champion of religious tolerance and separation of church and state even before the 1979 revolution that overthrew the monarchy. Back in 1979 the senior clerics agreed that there should be democracy but changed their minds after Iraq invaded in an attempt to seize Iranian oilfields. Religious leaders delayed establishment of democracy and by the end of 1980s has established a religious dictatorship.

In southern Lebanon six Israeli F-35s were seen in the air where they could be easily photographed. This F-35 mission was to demonstrate to Lebanese and Iran-backed Hezbollah that Israel still rules the skies. The F-35 usually fly at night where neither eyes nor radar can spot them, much less stop them. Operations over Lebanon and Syria are common for the F-35, which regularly carried out missile attacks on Iranian targets throughout Syria. Most of the missiles are launched from Israeli aircraft inside Lebanon, Israel or Jordan and, rarely, from inside Syria. Syrian and Russian air defense system keep trying to bring down an Israeli aircraft and keep failing. Russia has its latest S400 air defense systems guarding its bases in northwest Syria. The S400 radar can see almost all of Syria and into adjacent nations. The Russians have had a hard time detecting Israeli bombers, especially the F-35s. Syria is armed with the older S300 systems and they regularly fire lots of missiles at the Israelis and have yet to bring down an aircraft. The Syrians have shot down some Russian aircraft by accident. Syria urges Russia to at least try but the Russians know that if they try and fail it will a lot more difficult to get export orders for the S400. Russia watches and continues seeking a way to defeat Israeli aircraft,

January 23, 2021: In Syria Iran is trying to organize a Syrian version of Hezbollah with the formation of the Sayyida Zaynab Brigade. To do this Iranian spends a lot of money on hiring Syrian mercenaries who are deemed likely to become loyal and reliable true believers in Iranian goals. The same thing is underway in Iraq. Both efforts depend on lots of cash incentives, especially at the beginning. To pay for this Iran has reduced the budget for bribes and less-special mercenaries.

January 22, 2021: In western Syria (Hama province) Israel launched another airstrike against Iranian forces. Five separate targets were hit, one of them a missile storage warehouse. There were over fifty casualties, most of them Syrian army soldiers, the rest Iranian mercenaries. There were some civilian casualties, caused by fragments of Syrian anti-aircraft missiles fired at the Israeli air-to-ground missiles. Syria claims the fatal fragments were from Israeli missiles destroyed by Syrian missiles.

January 19, 2021: Iraq announced that the June national elections would be delayed until October for “technical reasons.” Chief among these is implementing measures to ensure the voting is free and fair. Iran has been the main offender in subverting the election process, seeking to prevent the election of anti-Iran candidates. There are a lot more anti-Iran candidates this time and Iran has less money for bribes is seen as relying more on threats and violence instead. Iran is not the only offender; other neighbors will seek to use cash to get “cooperative” candidates elected. This time around Sunni Arab oil states are the usual suspects but those foreigners are not trying to take control of Iraq.

South of Baghdad, in an area controlled by the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah, an explosion took down some electricity supply pylons and caused power outages. Initially it was though that the explosions were from an American airstrike on Kataib Hezbollah, which has long backed attacks on Americans, especially troops, in Iraq. The Americans said it was not them and Iraqi police examining the site noted that the cause appeared to be explosives placed on the towers to quickly bring them down. Moreover, there were no civilian casualties. Locals suspected ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), which has been fighting with Kataib Hezbollah, but ISIL did not claim credit for this action. One reason Kataib Hezbollah was popular in this area was because they drove out ISIL cells operating in the area and ISIL has not been able to reestablish a presence in the area which once was largely Sunni Arab. ISIL sought to protect the remaining Sunni Arabs and failed. There are other possible suspects; Sunni Arabs who once lived in the area and are angry at the government for not helping them. Another suspect might be gangsters trying to export money from the power company, which is under a lot of popular pressure to improve service. At the moment the culprit is unknown.

January 18, 2021: Iraq announced that it had arrested those responsible for recent rocket attacks on the Baghdad Green Zone, where the American, and other embassies, are. The government also tried to persuade Iran to use its influence to discourage such attacks. While most of the recent attacks were not carried out by Iraqis paid by Iran, they often were Iraqis who agreed with the Iranian description of America as the “Great Satan” and enemy of all Moslems. That view was once very popular in Iraq but since the Americans overthrew the hated dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 and played a key role in defeating Sunni Islamic terrorists from trying to reimpose Sunni rule on Iraq (where Sunni Arabs were never more than a fifth of the population), the average Iraqi became much less hostile towards the Americans. The recent rocket attacks on the Green Zone were amateurish and rarely hit the large American embassy compound. Instead, it is Iraqi civilians who are getting killed and wounded by the rockets. This made it easier to catch those responsible because more Iraqis were eager to see that happen and cooperated with police.

January 17, 2021: In southern Syria (Quneitra province) gunfire could be heard near the Israeli Golan Heights. Some unidentified gunmen attacked a Syrian army checkpoint and killed three soldiers. The attackers apparently were not Israeli or Iran-backed militia, which leaves rebels who controlled this area until 2018. Not all of the rebels left, usually because many of them were from this area.

January 16, 2021: Iran is upset at how Turkey and Russia blocked Iran from playing a major role in ending the recent battles between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Both adversaries were formerly part of the Soviet Union and quite different even though they were neighbors. Azerbaijan is majority Moslem while Armenia is Christian. Along with northern neighbor Georgia, these two are the only two Christian nations in the Caucasus. For over a thousand years Armenians and Georgians resisted efforts by local Moslems to make them Moslem. Russia played a key role in that and considers itself the “protector” of Armenia. Despite that, Russia has managed to maintain good relations with Azerbaijan as well. In doing that Russia established one of the more successful peacekeeping operations since the Cold War ended in 1991 by getting Armenia and Azerbaijan to agree to a ceasefire in 1994 after an earlier round of heavy fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia became a military ally of Armenia as part of that arrangement. Iran has tried, and not always succeeded, to be on good terms with Azerbaijan, if only because about a quarter of the Iranian population are Azeris. At the same time Iran and Russia, traditional enemies, have become allies and those links are being used to deal with latest round of violence.

Iran has long harbored an intense interest in Azerbaijan. This is because most of the Turkic and Moslem Azeris live in Iran. Up until 1813, modern Azerbaijan was part of Iran. Then the Russians showed up. Armenia and Azerbaijan were the last Russian conquests as the tsar’s soldiers and Cossacks advanced through the Caucasus in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Russians stopped when they ran into the Turkish and Iranian empires, but not before taking a chunk of Azerbaijan from Iran. The Iranians did not forget. In effect, most of "Azerbaijan" is in Iran and Iran has long hoped to reunite all Azeris under their rule. Many Iranian Azeris have risen to senior positions in the government. Despite that, most Azeris would like all Azeris united in a single Azerbaijan. This is not a popular idea within Iran. The Russians, on the other hand, have come to accept the 1991 loss of Azerbaijan and Armenia. Iran is less accepting of such losses.

January 13, 2021: The U.S. announced sanctions on the chief-of-staff of the Iraqi PMF militias, declaring the PMF official a supporter of international terrorism and loyal to Iran, not Iraq. This is the second PMF official to be so designated in the last week. Many of the PMF gangs, especially the Iran-backed ones, are concentrating on making money rather than making Iraq safe for Iraqis. The criminal militias often make money via smuggling or providing guarded border crossings where smugglers can pay a fee to get past. This works best on the Syrian border because there are a lot of Iran-backed militias in Syria. This “smuggler’s gate” scam works less well on the borders of Iran, Turkey, Kuwait, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Turning partisan militias into military and political instruments is an ancient tactic and one that Iran favors. After of in part because Iran was rapidly turning the entire PMF into an Iraqi version of the Lebanese Hezbollah organization called Kataib Hezbollah. Founded in the 1980s with Iranian help, the original Hezbollah still takes orders from Iran and has dominated Lebanese politics for over three decades. Most Lebanese want Hezbollah gone but a heavily armed militia with enormous economic power in Lebanon is difficult to disband. Iraqis want Kataib Hezbollah gone now and cannot understand why their prime minister does not act. Fear probably has a lot to do with the delay. In Lebanon Iran had several senior Lebanese politicians assassinated for being too openly hostile to Hezbollah. The personal danger for the Iraqi prime minister is based on fact, not just speculation.

January 11, 2021: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) unidentified UAVs fired eight missiles at Iranian forces near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. Night attacks by unidentified jets and UAVs in this area are believed to be the work of the Americans. These attacks, which no one takes credit for, have been more frequent in the last few months.

January 10, 2021: The U.S. labeled the Yemeni Shia rebels international terrorists. The rebels, also known as the Houthis or Ansar Allah, are sponsored by Iran and regularly attack Saudi Arabia and ships from all nations in the Red Sea. Because the rebels are so dependent on Iran, the new the Iranian ambassador to the rebel government is IRGC general Hassan Irloo, who had similar sanctions imposed on him two days ago. Many Western politicians, especially in Europe, oppose the designation of the rebels as terrorists and favor trying to negotiate with Iran and the rebels to achieve a peace deal. The American government and most Arab point out that the main reason Iran backs the Shia rebels is because it gives them a base from which to attack Saudi Arabia, a nation they are at war with. Iran is also at war with Israel and the United States. Iran has a record of not complying with agreed-to treaties and the Yemeni rebels do the same. Unless blocked by the U.S. Congress the Yemeni rebel designation and impact with take effect January 19th.

January 7, 2021: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) an unidentified UAV fired at least one missile at a truck transporting about ten members of an Iran-backed Iraqi militia. The vehicle was crossing the border on a road near the Al Bukamal border crossing. Four men in the truck were killed and several wounded.

January 6, 2021: In southern Syria (Damascus and Suwayda province) several Israeli airstrikes hit Iranian camps and Syrian air defense systems. These airstrikes come after several senior IRGC commanders flew in from Iran to inspect IRGC operations in southern Syria. This included verifying the quality of housing and business structures local IRGC officers wanted to buy and rehabilitate for local Sunni civilians Iran was trying to make peace with. This was proving difficult because there was still a lot of anti-Assad and anti-Iran civilians in the area and that had resulted in nearly 900 attacks on Syrian and Iranian forces since mid-2019. That left over 500 people dead, most of them soldiers and government officials. This over fifty assassinations. Some of the dead were Sunni Arabs because the peace effort had persuaded over a hundred rebels to join the new Iran-sponsored government.

January 5, 2021: Israel is sending an Iron Dome battery to its Red Sea coast and may deploy other anti-missile systems there as well. Israel believes that an Iranian attack from Yemen or Iraq is more likely than one from Syria, where the Israeli military is free to attack Iranian military preparations.

 

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