Iran: Ancient Rivalries, New Realities

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September 16, 2021: The safety of Afghan Shia, now that the Taliban are back in control of Afghanistan, has become a major issue in Iran. The new Taliban government, now more openly controlled by Pakistan, is not seen as an improvement by most Iranians or the 20 percent of Afghans that are Shia. Many of those Afghans served as Iranian mercenaries in Syria and some are still there because they are the best, and most expensive, mercs. The new hardline Iranian government regards “defending all Shia” as one of its core functions. Doing that in Afghanistan and Pakistan, two nations that have been notorious for persistent anti-Shia violence, is going to be difficult. So far the Taliban have not gone after Afghan Shia, but Iran knows that could change quickly. The centuries old Sunni animosity towards Shia remains. As in the past, Iran will try to get what it can from the Taliban while remembering that many Taliban factions and individuals see tolerance for Shia as bad for Afghanistan.

The Quds Force commander was recently called to address Iran’s parliament about this and admitted that there were no assurances that the attacks on Shia would not resume. Pakistan sees Iranian influence in Afghanistan as a threat. Not just because of the Shia security thing, but also because Iran has, for years, been supporting anti-Pakistan Taliban factions. These are almost all Sunni and the Quds Force sees them as valuable assets. All this has been a factor in western Afghanistan politics for centuries. That is why one of the “national” languages of Afghanistan is Dari, a variant of Farsi. This is still called Persian by many because it is the main language in Iran. Currently Iran is broke and there is growing popular unrest against the religious dictatorship that has run the country since the 1980s. While the supplies of cash and weapons have largely disappeared, some Taliban factions still maintain bases in eastern Iran and have access to local medical facilities and markets.

Then there is the ancient rivalry between Persians and Indians over who gets what inside Afghanistan. The economic basis of that rivalry was control over portions of the Silk Road trade routes between China and points West. The Silk Road was replaced by more efficient European ships, and their firepower, centuries ago. In the 21st century China is reviving the Silk Road as an overland and maritime network through nations friendly towards trade with and investments from China. Iran and India see this as a threat while Pakistan sees it as an economic lifeline as well as an obligation to do what China wants. In Afghanistan China is willing to do business with whoever can provide a safe environment for Chinese investments and trade. There are doubts that anyone can do that and China is waiting to see what Iran and Pakistan can do about it. India and Russia are also cautious about doing business in Afghanistan. Because of the Pakistani control over the Taliban, India is now banned from Afghanistan but still has valuable trade relationships with Iran that Iran does not want to lose. China and India are currently archenemies of each other. Finally, there are the Afghan-based drug cartels that supply most of the heroin to the entire planet. While universally hated throughout the region, cartel money is a major source of income for the Taliban and the Pakistan military, which is currently running the government in Pakistan.

Iran still has major, and expensive, problems in Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon and Yemen. All these efforts are managed by the Quds Force as part of the ongoing war against Israel and Saudi Arabia. None of these conflicts are doing well for Iran. The most damage to Iran is occurring in Syria. The core problem is that if Sunni Islamic terrorists remain in northwest Syria (Idlib province), while ISIL is active in eastern Syria and Iranians near the Israeli border, the Syrian civil war will not be over. Iran needs that civil war to end so they can concentrate on Israel. So far no one, not even Iranian allies, are cooperating. The only ones who cannot walk away from this are the Syrian Assad government, Turkey and Israel. Syria has been at war with Israel from the beginning when modern Syria was created in 1946 and Israel in 1948. Israel would like to make peace with Syria but will settle for a quiet border. Russia depicts itself as an old (since the 1950s) Syrian ally and interested only in peace and prosperity for Syria. That leaves Iran as the real interloper and troublemaker. Dealing with Iran has been a headache for Turkey and Russia for centuries while the Arabs have several thousand years of bad memories created by Iran. In other words, Iran is difficult to deal with, something everyone can agree on. That is a common problem, not an incentive to violently gang up on Iran. Yet there is an unofficial anti-Iran coalition in Syria, with Israel, Russia, Turkey and the Assad Syrian government as active members. Israel is doing most of the fighting and hurting Iran in a major way. Russia, Turkey and Syria sympathize with Iran but do little beyond that and Iran does not like this sort of thing because it is straight out of the ancient Iranian playbook. The Syrian mess makes Iran, and especially Quds Force, look bad to Iranian minions in Iraq (Shia radicals on the Iranian payroll), Yemen (more Shia rebels), Lebanon (Hezbollah) and Gaza (Hamas). Technically Iran also has minions in Afghanistan where the local Shia and anti-Pakistan groups appreciate the help but were never very good at the obedient minion thing. Quds Force recently admitted as much in parliament where it was made clear that Quds could issue orders to the minions but, in Afghanistan, negotiations were also necessary.

A typical loyal minion response was seen recently in Gaza where renewed violence against Israel was no surprise because in August Iran-backed Hamas told Egypt, the mediator of ceasefire talks with Israel, that peace with Israel was no longer possible and another offensive will soon begin. Hamas is trying to get some sympathy and outside access from Egypt. That has not worked since Iran is at war with Egypt because it is an ally of Saudi Arabia. Hamas had demanded free access to the outside world and that means the ability to bring in dual-use materials that can be used for military purposes. Turkey is currently in negotiations with Egypt to revive diplomatic and economic relations and is willing to abandon support for the Moslem Brotherhood and Iran to make Egypt and other Arab states partners once more.

Lebanon Endgame

In Lebanon, Iran is trying to revive Hezbollah power by sending several illegal oil shipments to Syria rather than Lebanon because Syria is already under sanctions and Lebanon is not, at least not yet. Iran hopes to change that, in order to make Lebanon easier to control because Hezbollah already controls many of the black market and outlaw enterprises in Lebanon. Iran has been a major disruptive force in Lebanon since the 1980s when they provided the cash and military assistance to form Hezbollah. This was don’t to protect the Shia minority in Lebanon. Where the Shia were one of the many factions participating in a civil war that had been going on since 1975 and Iranian interference led to a negotiated end to the civil war. This involved Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states, cooperating with Iran. This settlement came with a catch that meant the civil war had not ended but just paused while Iran expanded Hezbollah power via cash and weapons. Hezbollah soon became a state within a state by controlling large portions of southern Lebanon and acquiring veto power over the elected Lebanese government. Iran also acquired Syria as an ally in the 1980s and got away with having Syrian troops part of the peacekeeper force that occupied much of Lebanon to prevent the civil war from restarting. Most Lebanese saw the Syrian troops as an occupation force that was there to protect black market and drug smuggling operations that enriched Hezbollah and Syria at the expense of most Lebanese. Over the decades the Lebanese government sought to reduce the Iranian influence and illegal Hezbollah control of the south. Iran helped Hezbollah exploit the complex and often corrupt factional politics of Lebanon, which had a population where no one was a majority. Christians were the majority after World War II but that changed as Palestinians moved in as refugees and formed armed militias that became a threat to Lebanese as well as Israel, which until the last decade was generally considered the enemy by most Moslems in the region. That began to change in the 21st century when more and more Arab states realized that Israel was more valuable as an ally than the target of violence that always ended up hurting the Arab attackers much more than the Israeli defenders. The Israelis were also the most effective nation in the region against the growing Iranian threat. Iran and Hezbollah are seen as the cause, and chief beneficiary of the recent collapse of the Lebanese economy and continued political chaos. The non-Shia majority in Lebanon realize that the fuel shipments to Lebanon are not “free” but do fill an immediate need because the Lebanese currency is worthless and the economy unable to function. With control of the black market for fuel, Hezbollah and Iran can expand their power, as they did in Syria until 2011 when the non-Shia majority rebelled.

For the moment Iran cannot call on Hezbollah to carry out any sort of major military operation against Israel. First, Hezbollah must deal with local problems because most Lebanese want Hezbollah gone and getting Lebanon involved in another war with Israel might see Hezbollah fighting Israel and Lebanese at the same time. Iran wants to destroy one enemy at a time. Iran hopes a major war with Israel will result in more popular support from all Moslems in the region. That’s more of a gamble than a sure thing as Iran has replaced Israel as the designated “enemy”.

Nuclear News

The new Iranian government has made it clear that it wants all sanctions lifted before any serious (and probably unsuccessful) negotiations over ending the Iranian nuclear weapons program can take place. China does not see Iranian nukes as a problem because Iran understands that China has no qualms about using extreme (even nuclear) violence against any threats from a nuclear armed Iran. China is telling Iran that China can be their best friend or worst enemy. So far Iran is playing nice towards China because that makes it easier to pressure European countries into lifting sanctions despite Iran continuing with its nuclear problem. The Americans are still a problem but are not beyond some creative deception and intimidation.

What Really Matters News

Economic conditions for most Iranians continue to get worse. Last month the (12-month average) inflation rate hit 45 percent and is a little worse in rural areas, where most of the religious dictatorship supporters live. The American trade and financial sanctions mean there are a lot fewer dollars in Iran and these are essential to pay for imports. The Iranian currency has been at record lows versus the U.S. dollar. Currently it costs about 278,000 rials to buy one U.S. dollar. A year ago it hit a record 317,000 rials per dollar. This catastrophic weakening of the rial began in 2017 when the U.S. revived economic sanctions. By August 2019 it cost 120,000 rials to buy a dollar. Back in 2015 a dollar could be had for 32,000 rials. The current foreign exchange crisis is partly due to exporters of non-oil goods keeping about half the money they receive outside the country. That is a good business decision because that money is safer from government corruption if it is kept in foreign banks. These sanctions plus the covid19 shutdowns shrank the economy (GDP) by nearly ten percent in 2020. GDP has been tanking since sanctions were revived in 2017. Inflation was 30 percent a year ago and getting worse. The unemployment rate is twelve percent but the underemployment rate, because of firms shut down by quarantines, is much higher. Over half the population is visibly living below the poverty line. For more than a year a growing number of senior officials expressed fear this will spark another round of violent anti-government protests. Even government-controlled media is openly discussing this prospect. Surrender is not an option for the religious dictatorship, which encouraged retired IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) generals to run for parliament and the presidency. This worked and the 2021 elections created a very pro-dictatorship parliament and president. While parliamentary decisions are subject to veto by the senior clerics in the Guardians Council, such vetoes always cause more popular opposition to the government. With more IRGC men in parliament it is now possible to block embarrassing new laws before they are passed and must be vetoed.

September 11, 2021: Iran launched two armed UAVs to attack the airport outside Irbil, the capital of autonomous Kurdish northern Iraq. The airport also hosts an American base which is defended by C-Ram and other defenses against air attack. The two UAVs were destroyed and a later examination of the debris confirmed that they were Iranian. Similar Iranian attacks on Kurdish towns and villages near the Iranian border usually succeed.

September 9, 2021: In southern Syria (Daraa province) there was a little noticed (by Iranian media) incident t where Iranian forces were forced to leave the border area because of Russian and Syrian pressure. Russia and Syria have been seeking to get Iranian forces (Arab Shia wearing Syrian army uniforms) away from the Israeli border. This is a big deal for Syria and Israel and a major embarrassment for Iran, which is why Iran has not cranked up its usual media outrage to complain. Negotiations are underway between Iran and Russia/Syria but are not making much progress.

This seemingly sudden move by Syrians and Russians is the result of years of effort working to gain the support of the largely Sunni and Druze civilian population along the border in (from west to east); Quneitra, Daraa and Suwayda provinces. This is a joint effort to block Iranian efforts to gain the support of the border population. Total population of these provinces in 2011 was 1.4 million but only about 20 percent of that was on or near the border. After the 2011 Civil War began much of the Sunni population fled. How much remains on the border is unclear but is apparently at least 100,000. Only Queneitra and Daraa border Israel. Israel has occupied most of Queneitra province since the 1967 War and the Israeli controlled area is mostly the Golan Heights. This is the high ground overlooking northern Israel and the Syrians made a major and ultimately failed effort in the 1973 War to retake Golan. Control of the Daraa border with Israel was sought by Iranian forces but Russian and Syrian troops blocked many of the Iranian efforts and are now pushing away Iranian-backed forces already there.

Israel was also aware of what Russia had accomplished here and two days later the Israeli foreign minister was in Russia to discuss this and many other matters of mutual interest with the Russian foreign minister. A key result of these talks was Israel’s willingness to tolerate continued Assad rule in Syria while Russia and the Assads continue to clear anti-Israel groups from the border area. This meeting and its agenda were no secret but Iran had nothing much to say.

September 1, 2021: Citing Iranian attacks on shipping in or near the Persian Gulf, International shipowners’ associations agreed to reduce and redraw the HRA (High Risk Area) off Somalia from most of the East African coast and deep into the Indian Ocean to a smaller area encompassing the EEZs (Exclusive Economic Zones) off Somalia and Yemen and the approaches to the Persian Gulf. EEZs extend 380 kilometers off the coast and the new HRA found that this is where the piracy risk remains, closer to Yemen and Iran than to Somalia. The international piracy patrol already had more ships watching the Yemeni Coast and Persian Gulf entrance, where Islamic terrorist groups have turned to piracy but have so far been more of a threat than successful. The threat near the Persian Gulf entrance has been increased by Iran, which tried using some of its commandos to seize a ship, but the crew carried out their anti-piracy safety drill before the Iranians could board. The crew reached their fortified safe space and disabled the engines. The Iranians tried to get the engines going but failed and fled before help arrived and killed or captured any of them. The crew heard the pirates speaking and realized they were Iranians. As usual, Iran denied any involvement. The recent missile and mine attacks were disproportionately directed at Israeli-owned ships. Groups staging an attack to make it appear like someone else did it is an ancient practice referred to as “false flag” attacks. Like many other criminal activities, rapid technology developments have made it more difficult to make these successfully.

August 24, 2021: In southern Syria (Daraa province) weeks of attacks on a rebel enclave ended when the rebels agreed to leave the area and be moved north to Idlib province. At least that’s the plan Russia is trying to make happen. The rebels don’t trust the Assad forces but the Russians have Syrian mercenaries and Moslem Russian troops to assist negotiations and reassure the rebels. Russian troops will also supervise the surrender and movement of rebels and civilian supporters to another area, apparently Idlib province in the northwest. The alternative was more artillery and airstrikes and the deaths of civilian supporters as well as armed rebels.

August 20, 2021: In central Syria (Homs province) and further south near the capital (Damascus) Israeli airstrikes hit several Iranian targets. At least four Iranian mercenaries were killed in Damascus. There were a lot of people in the Damascus region, including foreign reporters, who got out their cell phones and took videos of action. This involved Israeli air-to-ground missiles hitting their targets while Syrian anti-aircraft missiles were launched but not hitting anything. Russia later reported the air defense systems they provided to Syria had again destroyed most of the Israeli missiles.

August 15, 2021: According to Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon their Iranian sponsors believe now is the time for an all-out joint attack on Israel. The religious dictatorship in Iran is now dominated by the extremists, or “radicals”. Most of the extremist attitudes come from the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) who suffered greatly from the return of economic sanctions in 2017. Because of these sanctions Quds force, which handles foreign wars and terrorism for the IRGC, saw its budget cut by half, forcing major reductions in Quds activities in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The IRGC was created in the 1980s to protect the new religious dictatorship and suppress, with violence if necessary, local opposition to the new religious overlords. The IRGC has become increasingly assertive in backing radical solutions to problems and that has created a growing number of nationalist clerics, including some eligible to be one of the twelve senior Shia clerics who run the Guardian Council. The senior clerics have become divided into mutually antagonistic factions. The “moderates” are those who want to put Iran’s interests first and concentrate on the economy and reducing the poverty that is visibly turning more Iranians against their government, Islam and all the foreign wars the radicals have dragged Iran into. These “realists” are also nationalists and often called “moderates” by foreigners. The IRGC believes force is the key to Iranian power and all Iranians must support that. Most Iranians do not support the IRGC and for over a decade have become increasingly open about that opposition. The IRGC has killed over a thousand of these protestors over the last few years. As a result of this the Guardian Council has blocked nearly all “nationalist” candidates from running in the latest national elections. This meant the new parliament and senior leaders were dominated by IRGC and Quds Force veterans, including several recognized as terrorists or guilty of war crimes.

A more aggressive new government in Iran has led to more Iranian violence and threats against neighbors. Arab states, including Iraq, are seeking help from the United States to improve air defenses against Iranian ballistic missiles and UAVs used as cruise missiles. The Americans point out that the most successful weapons against the Iranian missiles and UAVs have been developed by Israel, which now has diplomatic relations with the UAE, and other Arab states are considering doing the same because Israel is the most technically advanced country in the region and a primary target for Iranian aggression. Israel has also been the most successful at fighting back against Iran. This is popular in Arab countries, as is the seeming Iranian inability to retaliate against Israel.

Now Iran is openly calling for its foreign minions in Lebanon, Gaza and Syria to unite in a joint massive attack on Israel. Iranian hardliners believe their allies are getting weaker and that Israel will never be this vulnerable to attack. Some of the hardliners also understand that the religious dictatorship is in danger of being overthrown. The IRGC faction needs a win. The decision to pull the trigger has not been made yet because even in the IRGC and Quds Force there is disagreement about just how effective and reliable Iranian allies are. Many of those foreign supporters believe Iran will order an attack and then not participate themselves. This is a common and often used Iranian tactic.

 

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