Iran: Bracing For Another Revolution

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March 9, 2021: The government denied any connection with a bombing that occurred January 29 th near the Israeli embassy in Delhi (the Indian capital). Iran has been using this denial tactic for decades. In the case of the Delhi bombing Iran may well have not been directly responsible, but the denial was seen as normal for Iran. These denials are still effective at slowing down sanctions or designation as an international terrorist. What Iran is admitting or claiming is progress in developing nuclear weapons. The purpose of all these attacks and threats is to persuade Western nations to lift sanctions on Iran. Iran appears confident that this is working because they are illegally exporting more oil to India and China. This is risky because the tankers carrying these shipments can be intercepted and seized. As soon as the new American government took power in January, Iran told current and past customers for discounted smuggled oil that Iranian oil would be more easily available in 2021, either free of sanctions or less vigorously enforced sanctions. Iran was betting that the new U.S. government would ease off on the oil export sanctions. So far this has not happened but the Iranian leaders insist it will happen and soon.

Iran is desperate to get the sanctions lifted and believes that is now possible because many officials of the new government in the United States criticized the resumption of sanctions on Iran in 2017 and subsequent actions against Iran. That 2017 resumption was justified by accusations that Iran was cheating on the 2015 treaty that lifted sanctions. Even before the revived sanctions, there was growing unrest inside Iran because of the growing poverty and declining standard of living for most Iranians. This is in sharp contrast to the families of the ruling clerics and IRGC leaders. The IRGC recently reminded everyone (the ruling clerics and the angry Iranians) that lethal force would be used again, as it had in 2018 and 2019 under similar circumstances. Actually the protests date back more than a decade but the government is blaming the current resurgence on those evil Americans and Israelis.

Using so much lethal force to suppress demonstrations of widespread popular anger comes at a cost. It demoralizes some members of the IRGC (Islamic Revolution Guard Corps) and convinces more Iranians that their religious dictatorship has to be removed, even at the cost of another rebellion like the one that overthrew the monarchy in 1979. The generation that lived through the 1979 revolution and subsequent ruinous war with Iraq is no longer the majority. The current generation sees the religious dictatorship for what it is, the result of a coup by the Islamic radicals that were part of the movement that overthrew the monarchy and used the subsequent Iraqi invasion as an excuse to replace the promised democracy with a religious dictatorship. The senior clerics and IRGC leaders know this is a threat because opinion polls have shown, for several years now, that more Iranians are abandoning Islam and many are secretly adopting other religions or no religion at all. The clerics label this as blasphemy, a crime punishable by death if done openly. Iranian use of denial is not restricted to the current government but is a national survival trait that makes sense in many situations. Fewer Iranians are showing up at mosques or religious schools. If pressed by a local cleric, they plead poverty and the need to work more just to feed their families. The local clerics understand there is a lot of truth to this and that they are losing a lot of believers. This is reported to senior clerics and eventually reaches the “Council of Guardians.” This is the group of twelve self-selected senior clerics who have the final political and religious authority in Iran. Each of the guardians is an elderly Shia cleric who appears, on the surface, as a wise and caring holy man. The reality is that the “Guardians” preside over a corrupt and incompetent bureaucracy. That is the cause of growing hatred of the religious government and the failure to effectively deal with the growing number of disasters, including mismanagement of covid19, that torment a growing majority of Iranians. There are senior clerics who recognize the mismanagement and corruption as a threat to Islam in Iran and advise there be an internal revolution that would replace the current twelve guardians with honest and effective clerics. That implies punishment of the corrupt clerics and their families who have grown wealthy in the decades of corruption. But that is unlikely because part of the corruption is moral bankruptcy and a willingness to wreck Iran with another revolution rather than do what a righteous religious leader should do. The current guardians also realize that lifting sanctions is literally a lifesaver for their government, at least temporarily. Most Iranians no longer believe their clerical masters can bluff and bully their way out of the current mess, even if their promised nuclear weapons become a reality. One thing decades of going after Israel has demonstrated is that the Israelis are more competent at defending themselves than the cleric-led Iran is at attacking them. Israel says it will attack if Iran obtains nukes or gets close to that goal. Most Iranians have done the math and calculate that using ballistic missiles, with or without nukes, will turn out badly for Iran.

This outcome has been visible in Syria for years as the Iranian government squandered billions in post-2015 income on efforts to create a military presence in Syria that would make a major attack on Israel possible. That has been an expensive failure for Iran. Recent Israeli airstrikes near Damascus (the Syrian capital) were apparently retaliation for the earlier attack on an Israeli-owned ship in the Persian Gulf. In the aftermath of the Damascus attacks, the Syrian Internet saw a spike in anti-Iran messages. There has been a shift in Syrian public attitudes towards Iran as Iran moves in more of its Lebanese (Hezbollah), Afghan and local mercenaries to Syrian army bases around the capital and other areas where a lot of Assad supporters live. That is followed by truckloads of missiles and other weapons from Iran to be stockpiled for use against Israel. Several hundred times over the last few years Israeli airstrikes have destroyed these Iranian stockpiles, usually with few casualties on the ground and those tend to be Iranians or their mercenaries. Now the Iranians, or at least their Hezbollah veterans, are talking of the need to store these weapons in residential areas to use Syrian civilians as human shields to discourage Israeli air strikes. But the Syrians know how this works. The Israelis guided missiles do not cause a lot of civilian casualties.

Instead, the Iranian missiles, rockets and explosives do that as they explode and that causes most of the civilian casualties. The Iranians see this as a plus as it is supposed to make the locals more anti-Israel. The Syrians see the Israelis attacking no matter what, even if Iran switches to the “human shields” approach, because otherwise those weapons will be used against Israeli civilians. This shift in public opinion against Iran is a problem for the Assad government because Iran has hundreds of “advisors” working within the Assad government and military. These Iranians report potential problems back to Iran or, rather, the IRGC that runs Iranian operations in Syria and Lebanon. If the Iranians suspect that the Assad government is considering switching sides and joining an Arab coalition that opposes Iran and considers Israel an ally, Iran could do a lot of damage to the Assad clan.

The IRGC also suspects Russia of working with Israel to broker a peace deal between the Assads and Israel. These suspicions increased three weeks ago when Russia brokered a deal with Syria to participate in an exchange with Israel that saw the return of two Syrians and one Israeli civilian who had crossed the border. Iran was not consulted and Russia refused to reveal details. The Assads deny there were any hidden objectives. Iran did note that the deal also involved Israel reducing the prison sentence for a pro-Syrian Arab. And there were rumors that Israel would also help Syria obtain covid19 vaccines and so on. Rumors are rumors but the strains in Iran-Syria relations is real.

To make matters worse for Iran, Turkey and Israel are negotiating a deal to improve diplomatic and economic relations. The Turks have been increasingly hostile to Iran lately and that includes ignoring Iranian requests during the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Turkey sent advisors, armed UAVs and Syrian mercenaries to help the Azeris score their first victory over Armenia in a three-decade long territorial feud. Iran was also unhappy with the fact that the Azeris gave credit to the many Israeli weapons that had purchased over the last decade. This included the Israeli Barak 8 anti-aircraft system which intercepted a number of Russia made ballistic missiles fired at Azerbaijan by the Armenians. One of those ballistic missiles was an Iskander, a recent Russian design that was supposed to more difficult to detect and intercept. In short, Iran has reasons to be displeased at how its campaign in Syria is proceeding and how unhelpful, or even hostile, their allies have been.

This is not a new development. As far back as 2018 there were signs that Iranian allies in Syria were something of an unnatural act. Israel had made it clear that they would fight if Iran tried to establish a military presence in Syria. That was complicated by the fact that Iran had allies in Syria; Russia and Turkey, who were traditional enemies. In contrast Israel and the Gulf Arabs are not. What to do? Israel and Russia began trying to negotiate a deal to prevent a war between Iran and Israel over Iranian plans (already announced and underway) to establish bases in Syria and organize anti-Israeli forces for a final battle. For Israel any long-term Iranian presence in Syria was intolerable. Russia believed it could work out such a deal but many Israelis were skeptical and Iran declared that such a deal was not possible. When it comes to opposing Iran, Israel always had some very public backing from Russia despite the fact that this put Russia at odds with their two other allies in Syria. The Russians see the Israelis as a more powerful and reliable ally than the Turks or Iranians. Russia is also backing the Kurds in Syria and that is causing problems with Turkey. Recently Turkey agreed with Russia and is seeking to improve relations with Israel, even if that is at the expense of Iran.

Budget Buster

The cost of fighting in Syria is a financial burden for all concerned but it has been something that Iran found it could not sustain and so has sharply cut its expenses in Syria. This forced the Assad government  to cut costs in early 2021 by ordering the military to reduce costs by having most military units return to lower peacetime (pre-2011) levels of readiness. Syria is not at peace but the Assads cannot afford to keep most of the military combat ready. The cutbacks are dictated by the sharp reduction in financial support from Iran. The American economic sanctions have, in the last three years, greatly reduced the amount of money Iran could spend on its foreign wars. Iran-backed groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen are all feeling the impact. Iran is hoping the new American government will relax the sanctions. While the Americans are now saying nice things about Iran, the sanctions are still in place and enforced. That means Syrian troops have less ammo and fuel for patrols and combat. As was the case in peacetime, more soldiers and officers were given leave, to spend a few weeks visiting families or even take vacations.

March 8, 2021: In Yemen Iran-backed Shia rebels sent another explosives laden UAV into southwest Saudi Arabia (Asir province). Air defenses detected and downed the UAV as it headed for King Khaled Airbase. The day before the Shia rebels launched a ballistic missile at the airbase. The missile was intercepted and destroyed. Iran denies responsibility for all UAV/cruise missile/ballistic missile attacks on Saudi Arabia.

March 7, 2021: In northeast Saudi Arabia (tanker loading port of Ras Tanura) an Iranian explosive laden UAV was intercepted before it could reach the port. Further south, a ballistic missile was intercepted as it approached Dhahran, the city where ARAMCO (the Saudi oil company) is located. The UAV was launched from an Iranian ship in the Persian Gulf while the ballistic missile came from the Iran-backed Yemen rebels. This and other recent Iranian attacks on Saudi Arabia have done some good for Iran by driving the price of oil up to $70 a barrel. This makes smuggling more Iranian oil less of a financial risk because even with the discount offered to buyers and the risk of having Iranian tankers seized.

March 6, 2021: Covid19 has been a disaster for Iran and the government admits to a virus death rate that is the highest in the region. The official number of covid19 deaths in Iran recently passed 60,000. That’s 700 per million. That’s up from a mid-2020 cumulative death toll of 18,000 Iranians, mainly the elderly or those already ill with something else. Unofficially the death toll is three more times higher than the official number. That means over 200,000 dead so far and a death rate of over 2,000 per million populations. Such high rates have only been seen in a few Western European countries.

Initially the clerical rulers of Iran (the Guardians Council) denied the virus would hurt Moslems and would only threaten non-Moslems. Then elderly clerics began to die in significant numbers and soon Iran was suffering more covid19 deaths per capital than most anyone else. By early June 2020 Iran had already suffered over 8,000 confirmed covid19 deaths. That came out to and a hundred deaths per million population. By August deaths per million are officially 221, which was more than double the global average of 95 and higher than nearly 90 percent of the word’s nations. Iran is considered the epicenter of covid19 infections in the region and the source of infection for most of its neighbors. For example, so far Afghanistan has 717 admitted deaths per million people compared to Turkey with 342, India 114, Iraq 333 and Pakistan 59. Across the Gulf Saudi Arabia has 186 deaths per million and the UAE 134. In Europe Spain has 1,527, Britain 1,828 and Sweden 1,282. The U.S. rate is 1,621. The world average is 335 deaths per million.

March 4, 2021: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) American troops and their Kurdish SDF allies shut down two Iranian border crossings on the Euphrates river. The U.S. shut down construction of a bridge connecting two Iran-backed militias while the Kurds shut down a pipeline crossing the river that delivered Iranian oil to Iran backed groups in Syria.

March 3, 2021: In western Iraq (Anbar province) an Iran-backed militia launched at least a dozen 122mm unguided rockets at the al Asad airbase. This sprawling facility is on the Euphrates River some 200 kilometers west of Baghdad. Al Asad airbase is where over a thousand American and NATO troops have been stationed since 2015. Many of the incoming 122mm rockets were intercepted by the American rocket-defense systems but some hit the base, doing no damage. One American contractor had a fatal heart attack while in a bomb shelter. This is a common type of casualty when civilians are involved and make it to a shelter. The attack was unusual because it used the larger 122mm rocket and were fired from an improvised launcher hidden in the false bottom of a dump-truck that was later found, abandoned with the truck-bed be raised and the launch tubes empty. The 122mm rocket has a longer range (20 kilometers or more) than the smaller 107mm rocket usually used for these attacks. The 107mm rocket weighs 19 kg (42 pound) each and is 84 cm (33 inches) long rocket. This rocket has a range of six to ten kilometers and 1.35 kg (3 pounds) of explosives in its warhead. The 107mm design is very popular with guerillas and terrorists because of its small size and portability. The 122mm rocket is three meters (1o feet) and delivers a 20 kg warhead.

The U.S. was ready to carry out an airstrike on an Iran backed militia but was called off at the last minute when it was discovered that women and children were brought into the base to act as human shields. This is a favorite Iranian defense technique against airstrikes by nations that will recognize human shields as a legitimate reason to not attack. Human shields don’t work when Arab, Russian, Iranian or Turkish warplanes are attacking and most of the time Israel will not call off attacks either, especially against someone who is firing at Israeli civilians.

March 2, 2021: Israel carried out more airstrikes against Iranian targets near Damascus. The target was new Iranian bases for Iranian Arab and Afghan mercenaries as well as Iranian military (mostly IRGC) personnel. This latest attacked caused over fifty casualties among the military personnel, including fifteen dead. Eight of the dead were Iranians and one of them was an IRGC general. Another three were senior IRGC officers working for or meeting with the general.

March 1, 2021: Iran confirmed that it had tested a new SLV (Satellite Launch Vehicle) called Zuljanah a month earlier. The U.S. ballistic missile early warning system had detected the launch and noted that no satellite was put into orbit and the “SLV” was probably another ICBM test. Iran insisted that Zuljanah was an SLV, something they have done for all their ICBM tests.

February 28, 2021: Israel carried out a several airstrikes against Iranian targets outside Damascus. The sound of the many explosions could be heard in Damascus. Hezbollah gunmen quickly set up checkpoints and restricted access to the bases that apparently suffered a lot of damage, in part because warehouses containing weapons and ammunition were hit, triggering secondary explosions with debris scattered over a wide area, including many fragments of Iranian made weapons.

February 27, 2021: In Yemen Iran-backed Shia rebels launched more Iranian ballistic missiles at targets in Saudi Arabia. The missiles were all intercepted by Saudi BMD (Ballistic Middle Defense) systems.

February 26, 2021: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) an American airstrike, using two F-15E fighter-bombers, delivered seven smart bombs against an Iranian facility and largely destroyed it. There was at least one death and four wounded. The facility was built to support the Iraqi Kataib Hezbollah, an organization that is meant to become as powerful in Iraq as the original Lebanese Hezbollah has been since the 1980s in Lebanon. The U.S. holds Kataib Hezbollah responsible for recent rocket attacks on American bases and embassy in Iraq. Iran denies responsibility but the rockets used were made in Iran. The air strike was near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. Iran is seeking to provide a safer environment for its Iraqi militias. Inside Iraq Kataib Hezbollah is subject to attack by security forces and pro-government militias. In eastern Syria the biggest threat is Israeli airstrikes and the occasional American one. For that reason, the Americans warned Israel the day before that there going be U.S. airstrike, to ensure an Israeli airstrike was not scheduled to take place at the same target or another one in the area. This was the first American airstrike in Syria since a new U.S. government took power. Eben though the new government had indicated it would no longer carry out such airstrikes in Syria.

In the Gulf of Oman, near the Iranian coast, the Helios Ray, an Israeli owned RO/RO (roll on, roll off) vehicle carrier ship was apparently hit by missiles or some kind of weapon. There were two holes visible above the waterline on each side an empty cargo deck of the 35 meter (112 foot) wide ship. There was no serious damage to the ship, that had made several stops in the Persian Gulf to unload new vehicles. After the attack the ship turned around and returned to Dubai to get the hull patched and the damage examined by weapons experts to determine the source of the attack damage. The ship was on its way to Singapore, a voyage that was to take about a week. Iran was suspected of causing the damage, which is similar to what earlier happened to other commercial ships in the area. At first Iran denies any responsibility, but two days later changed their mind and admitted they carried out the attack because the RORO ship was spying on Iran.

February 25, 2021: Turkish President Erdogan appears to be reconsidering his decision to let Turkish-U.S. relations deteriorate. The last week has been instructive. First Erdogan acknowledged the deterioration in relations with America and then characterized the Turkish-U.S. strategic relationship as vital. That statement alone was a backdown from his accusations in mid-February that America was supporting the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Erdogan made the outrageous accusation after PKK guerrillas in northern Iraq murdered 13 Turkish hostages. The U.S. does not support the PKK. The U.S. labels the PKK a terrorist organization. The PKK is a terrorist organization. The U.S. does support Syrian Kurdish militias fighting ISIL in Syria. That support infuriates Erdogan, though many observers think his fury is theatrics for his Turkish Islamist supporters. Why? Some of the American logistical support for Syrian Kurds is believed to flow through Turkey. As it is, Turkey invests in northern Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan. Who really aids the PKK? Iran. And Turkish intelligence knows it.

February 19, 2021: Diplomats from Russia, Turkey and Iran met and agreed to back Syrian claims that continued Israeli air strikes violate the 1974 UN brokered ceasefire that halted the Israeli advance on Damascus after defeating the Syrian surprise attack to retake the Golan Heights during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. In 1973 the Arabs believed their simultaneous attacks against Israeli forces in the north and south would push the Israelis out of the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan heights and possibly other Israeli territory as well. After some initial success the Israeli defenses held and counterattacks forced the Egyptians and Syrians to retreat in an effort to defend their capitals. The ceasefire agreements that halted the fighting on both fronts included Egyptian and Syrian pledges to not back covert terror attacks on Israel. As far as Israel is concerned the Iranian military buildup in Syria is a violation of the 1974 agreement and justifies the continued airstrikes against the Iranians. Syria protests that the airstrikes endanger commercial air traffic and Syrian civilians living near Iranian military facilities. Russia and Turkey are unlikely to do anything to block Israeli airstrikes because Israel, Turkey and Russia all want Iran to get out of Syria but only Israel can admit it openly.

February 17, 2021: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) another Israeli airstrike hit an Iran base occupied by Syrian troops and Iranian mercenaries. There were at least 57 fatalities, including 17 Syrian army troops, sixteen Iraqi militiamen, and eleven Afghan mercenaries.

February 15, 2021: Iran confirmed that Turkey had arrested an Iranian citizen earlier this month but denied the individual was a diplomat.

In the north (autonomous Kurdish provinces) someone fired about two dozen 107mm rockets at the Erbil (Kurdish capital) airport complex and fourteen of them landed in populated areas. This facility is heavily guarded but unguided 107mm rockets have a max range of ten to twelve kilometers and the American C-RAM rocket defense is short range and there mainly to defend the Patriot anti-ballistic missile battery. The airport has a heavily patrolled eight kilometers security zone around it to make rocket and mortar attacks more difficult, or at least much less accurate. Several of the rockets hit areas containing American troops and civilian contractors. One contractor was killed and eight others wounded. Five of the wounded were Americans, including a soldier. The contractors are recruited worldwide even though most work for American firms. Awliya al-Dam, a minor Shia Islamic terror group claimed responsibility. Smaller Islamic terrorist groups often stage attacks like this to get publicity. This helps them with recruiting and fund raising. It also increases efforts to find and destroy them. Another complication is that nearly all Shia Islamic terror groups in Iraq are taking orders from Iran. Such groups have been responsible for attacks on American troops in Iraq for over a decade.

February 12, 2021: In Turkey media reported an Iranian consular official had been arrested in Istanbul. The suspect is believed to be connected to the November 2019 assassination of Masoud Molavi, an Iranian dissident leader who was murdered in Turkey.

February 11, 2021: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) another airstrike hit a convoy of trucks carrying Iranian weapons as it passed through the Iraqi Al Bukamal crossing into Syria. There were several large explosions, made possible by the munitions carried in the trucks. The attacking aircraft could not be identified but were believed to be Israeli and part of a campaign to cripple Iranian efforts to build up a large force in Syria that would be capable of launching thousands of guided and unguided rockets into Israel.

February 9, 2021: In the southwest Yemen (port city of Aden) the investigation of the December 30 attack on the Aden airport by three Iranian cruise missiles continues. More evidence of rebel complicity has arrived from rebel territory, where local civilians took cell phone videos of the missile launches that apparently hit the Aden airport. The Shia rebels are now regarded as an oppressive occupying force in most areas they control. The Shia rebels no longer seek to hide the Iranian support and increasingly exercise control over civilians with threats of violent retribution for those who cooperate. This has been a major intel victory for government and Arab coalition forces because there is a steady stream of accurate information on rebel activities coming out of rebel territory.

The December 30 attack hit the airport shortly after members of the new Yemeni government arrived from Saudi Arabia. The officials were not harmed but the missiles killed 25 and wounded 110. The airport remained closed until January 3rd. These Iranian missiles are used by the Shia rebels more frequently indicating that the Iranian smuggling network is growing again. The rebels denied that they were responsible for the airport attack and blamed it on Saudi Arabia. Fragments of the three missiles were collected so that precise identification of the cruise missiles could be made. UN investigators are involved in the identification process and have confirmed the Iranian origins of the rockets and missiles (cruise and ballistic) used by the rebels. Also employed are Iranian UAVs equipped with explosives but these are being replaced by Iranian cruise missiles. One such UAV was shot down on December 30th as it headed for the Presidential Palace in Aden. Saudi Arabia responded with several air strikes against rebel facilities, including at least one involved in assembling cruise missiles using Iranian components.

 

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