Iran fears its expensive four-decade effort to control region is about to disappear

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As expected, the new U.S. government, containing many people who worked with 2015 U.S. government that joined JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) group and made the lifting of Iranian sanctions possible is trying to negotiate an end to the revived sanctions. JCPOA consists of six nations (China, France, Russia, the Britain, the U.S. and Germany) that negotiated and signed the 2015 treaty with Iran to lift economic sanctions in return for Iran halting its nuclear weapons program, which Iran insisted it did not have. In response to this offer Iran refuses to talk with the U.S. directly, so the new negotiations are being held in Austria where the U.S. representative has to be briefed by the other JCPOA members after every encounter they have with the Iranian delegates. Iran insisted that the U.S. drop all its renewed sanctions on Iran before Americans can negotiate directly with the Iranians. That sort of pre-conditions, thanks to abuse by North Korea, is now unacceptable to most Americans and keeps the American negotiators from actively participating in the new talks. Another obstacle is the growing list of Iranian sponsored violence. In some cases, Iranians are directly involved, something Iran prefers to avoid and just depend on proxies.

The Iranians have adopted this new attitude because their situation has changed considerably since 2015. In 2021 Iranian leaders are much less confident and beset by far more internal and external threats. This was the result of how the Iranian government decided to spend the billions in additional cash and oil income they received after the 2015 deal was signed. Instead of investing in the Iranian economy and improving the lives of most Iranians, the main beneficiaries were foreign military operations Iran was already involved with. The most-costly one was Syria, where an Iranian ally (the Shia Assad clan) was dealing with a massive rebellion against decades of brutal Assad rule. The post 2015 financial windfall enabled Iran to poor billions into helping the Assads survive the rebellion which, in 2015, was on the verge of overthrowing the Assads. To save the Assads required the hiring of over 50,000 Shia men as mercenaries. Most of these came from Lebanon, where Iran had been supporting the Shia Hezbollah militia there since the 1980s. Despite Iranian orders to threaten and antagonize Israel, not start a war, Hezbollah did so in 2006 and saw billions worth of past Iranian aid go up in smoke and Hezbollah suffered an embarrassing defeat. Iran paid to repair most of the damage, including bringing in thousands of new rockets and other weapons as well as more cash to expand the Hezbollah full time and part-time force of militiamen and bureaucrats.

After the 2006 the debacle Hezbollah, which controlled most of southern Lebanon, became more unpopular with the majority of Lebanese, who were not Shia and resented how Iran, through Hezbollah, had come to dominate their country. Going into 2021 Hezbollah had too many enemies and not enough allies. Iran is unable to help decisively because Iran has been broke since 2018 because of the renewed American sanctions. For the last three years Iran has cut the money sent to the Assads and Hezbollah. By the end of 2020 those cuts represented more than half of what Hezbollah used to get. Reductions of aid to the Assads were even larger and now most of the money Iran spends in Syria is to establish a military infrastructure with which to threaten Israel. That has backfired because Israel has responded with hundreds of airstrikes against Iranian forces, bases and shipments of new missiles and other expensive military gear. The Assads are now openly talking about making a deal with Turkey, Russia, Gulf Arabs and Israel to get Iran out of Syria. In Lebanon Hezbollah has lost the support of a lot of local Shia and is desperately seeking a way of this mess. The thousands of casualties Hezbollah suffered in Syria were initially taken care of by Iran, which paid for medical treatment, long term care of wounded and payments to families of those killed. Iran is no longer able to pay for continued long-term care of the wounded and other cuts have put a lot more Hezbollah supporters out of a job.

Back in Iran the economic situation for most Iranians got worse after 2015 and by 2017 there were nationwide protests against this. The protestors included, for the first time, people from areas that had long supported the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) and the religious dictatorship. Until 2017 the religious faction in control of Iran only had the support of about a fifth of the population. After two years of this violence as finally put down by killing nearly 2,000 Iranians and wounding or arresting over 10,000, they realized they were losing their core supporters. It got worse in 2020 when covid19 arrived and the religious dictatorship mismanaged that in a spectacular fashion. It did keep most protestors off the streets but the Iranian leaders realize that is temporary and the renewed protests may be too massive to deal with. That’s because the core problem is the corruption that has grown within the thousands of families that replaced the monarchy and nobility in the 1980s and eventually because even more corrupt and incompetent than the aristocrats. The Internet made this worse because many of the younger members of the new ruling class flaunted their lavish lifestyles on social media.

The covid19 crises caused the GDO to shrink nearly ten percent in 2020 while inflation increased to nearly 70 percent. By 2021 nearly two-thirds of Iranians live in poverty (as defined by the government) and about half of those are visibly impoverished because they are living in the new shanty towns that have appeared in over a hundred major cities and towns.

Losing Lebanon

Iran fears its expensive, four-decade effort to control Lebanon is about to disappear. This is partly because of the two million Sunni Arab Syrian refugees that arrived from Syria since 2012. Now the Lebanese Shia are a smaller minority and the Sunnis are nearly half the population. Even before covid19, Lebanon was overwhelmed, economically and otherwise, by the Syrian refugees it was forced to host. That’s a lot of refugees for a country of only five million. Since nearly all those refugees are Sunni Moslems, their presence radically changed the religious mix of Lebanon from 27 percent Shia, 27 percent Sunni, and 46 percent Christian (and other religions) to a more volatile combination. Now there are over seven million people in Lebanon and 47 percent are Sunni, 19 percent Shia and 34 percent Christian (and others). This puts the Hezbollah militia in a bad situation. Their better armed and trained fighters have been able to dominate the other minorities since the 1980s. That was possible because of Iranian cash, weapons and advisors. But the Iranian help and better organization is no longer enough when the Sunnis are nearly half the population and out for blood because of the slaughter the Iran backed Shia Syrian government inflicted on Syrian Sunnis. Lebanon does not want another civil war over this, but it is becoming more difficult to contain the anger. Hezbollah and Iran have had some success attracting non-Shia factions (especially Christians) to be part of the Shia coalition. This is traditional Lebanese politics, with the Christians surviving by forming a coalition with non-Christian groups. Now even these Christian factions are backing away from Hezbollah because of the Iranian influence and anger towards Hezbollah for disrupting the functioning of the Lebanese democracy. Hezbollah gave itself a veto over any government decision. Politicians who opposed Hezbollah or Iran were often assassinated, no manner how senior or revered they were. Hezbollah meddling in government activities was a major reason for the recent economic crisis. Hezbollah can no longer control politics or the economy and are blamed for most of the current problems. Given the large number of families that own one or more firearms, there are a lot of local militias and these are now fighting over scarce resources and the Hezbollah and government security forces are unable to contain the violence. One thing that keeps the violence going and escalating is the ability of the Sunni Arabs to fight back against Hezbollah domination.

Israel does not expect another war with Hezbollah (like the one in 2006), although Iran might try something launched from Syria or Iraq. Meanwhile there are more Lebanese trying to flee into Israel. That complicates border security because Hezbollah and smuggling gangs are still sending armed people across the border. Israeli troops will fire on those, but no so much on illegal migrants.

Losing Iraq

Iranian efforts to increase its influence in Iraq while also inflicting serious damage on American troops and military contractors in Iraq is not working. This increased violence is the aftereffect of the Americans killing Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in early 2020. The Americans had figured out that Soleimani was a, if not the, key Iranian leader responsible for the Iranian military efforts in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. If anything, the Americans underestimated the importance of Soleimani because Iran had no one with the leadership and organizational skills, as well as the trust of so many Iranian and foreign leaders, to replace him. Even the Iranians were surprised at how important Soleimani was and how impossible it was to replace him quickly, if ever.

One of the key services Soleimani provided was to get the Iranian moderates and radicals to cooperate, or at least not slide into open conflict with each other. “Moderate” Iranians is a term that has to be qualified. These are members of the senior leadership, all of them approved by the Council of Guardians (twelve senior Shia clerics) who 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 radicals, including many (it used to be most) Council of Guardians members found that Soleimani was a key factor in keeping rivalries between radicals and moderates from spinning out of control. With Soleimani gone those tensions are growing in obvious ways. For example, Iran-backed groups in Iraq (and elsewhere) have been getting more contradictory commands from the Iranian government, or even from Quds Force leaders. In the past Soleimani was able to prevent most of this confusion even though day-to-day decision making in the Council of Guardians could shift from pro-moderate to pro-radical. Without Soleimani the radicals are losing ground in Iran and the foreign wars Iran is deep into. While the radicals believe they are on a Mission From God and answerable to no earthly criticism, the moderates represent a growing majority of Iranians, especially more senior clerics, who see moderation and pragmatism as the only thing that will save Iran from destroying itself. The IRGC is a problem because it is heavily armed and still has a lot of leaders leading enough armed fanatics to cause problems, at least in the capital, if the government tries to make major changes.

One of the things all Iranians can agree on is that for thousands of years Iran was often its own worst enemy. It was internal squabbles that weakened the mighty Persian empire 2,500 years ago so that the Greeks, led by Alexander the Great (for you-know-what) could to the impossible and conquer the Persian (Iranian) Empire. Same situation 1,500 years ago when the Arabs, inspired by a new religion (Islam) did the impossible and conquered the Persian (Iranian) Empire. At that point the Iranians were still recovering from the Greek conquest. Many Iranians believe Iran has not recovered from the Arab conquest and the Islam is more at fault than the Arabs. Many Iranians now believe that without the internal squabbling Iran could have avoided damage done by the Greek, Arab, Mongol and Western invasions. The moderates pay attention to history and the radicals don’t. But when radicals do look closely at the past, they often become moderates and that is now the moderates are winning.

Another reason is demographics. The generation that lived through the 1979 revolution and subsequent ruinous war with Iraq is no longer the majority. The current generation sees religious dictatorship for what it was, a coup by the Islamic radicals that were part of the movement that overthrew the monarchy and used the 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, more Iranians are abandoning Islam and many are secretly adopting other religions or no religion at all. The clerics can 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 Islam is losing a lot of believers for very practical reasons. This is reported to senior clerics and eventually reaches the Council of Guardians. This group of elderly Shia clerics appear, on the surface, as wise and caring holy men. The reality is that the “Guardians” preside over a corrupt and incompetent bureaucracy and Iranians are out in the streets calling them out on this.

April 12, 2021: In Yemen an Iranian shift to civilian targets in Saudi Arabia has caused the Saudis to temporarily close some of the largest civil airports. There have been several Iranian/Yemeni Shia rebel attempts to attack these airports and destroy airliners and kill civilians. Two ballistic missiles and four UAV cruise missiles were apparently sent after the largest airport in the country, outside the capital Jedda. This is city is 800 kilometers from Yemen, which is why the Saudis feared another attack directly from Iran. None these strikes have got past Saudi air defenses but the Saudis realized one cruise or ballistic missile warhead hitting any part of an airport or near one would be a major blow to the Saudi reputation for security from airstrikes or Islamic terrorist attacks. This is more important now because in 2019 the Saudis made changes to their visa laws and access to tourist attractions for all foreigners. This program was interrupted by the covid19 crises but that is now less of a problem and more tourists are beginning to arrive. The Saudi’s assume that this is why Iran has shifted its efforts to Saudi airports. The Iranians realize that many attacks can fail against such high-profiles targets but if one missile gets through, all the failed attacks are worth it. This sort of thing is a standard part of the Iranian playbook, as it the preference for using others (mercenaries or foreign clients) rather than make the attacks from Iran or using easily identifiable Iranian personnel.

April 11, 2021: At the new Iranian Natanz nuclear fuel enrichment facility the power failed just as a new generation of more efficient centrifuges, used for uranium enrichment of uranium to high enough levels to be used in weapons, began operation. Iran blamed Israeli hackers although later Iran said they were seeking someone in the area responsible for a pre-positioned bomb that went off at an electrical substation that controlled the power supply to Natanz. This facility is largely underground and requires a lot of electrical power to function. Israel had no official comment but Iran was certain Israel was the culprit and once more threatened retaliation. Those threats have been active for several years now and Iran is angry that it has not been able to inflict any significant damage on Israel. This makes a lot of Israelis nervous because in the past the Iranians have persisted, often to the point of recklessness (having an attack traced back to Iran) and killed some Israelis. If Iran is directly connected to any murder of Israeli civilians the diplomatic blowback if often enormous. Currently Israelis going abroad are warned to avoid a list of situations that Iran is using to entice Israelis into an area were Iranian operatives can kidnap or kill them.

This kind of conflict between Israel and Iran, which avoids doing anything to trigger direct attacks between the two countries, has been going on for decades. Iran does not want to cross the line because Israel has more military options than Iran and also wants to avoid direct attack, like airstrikes against Iranian nuclear weapons facilities. The Iranians know that Israel has carried out such airstrikes in the past and is capable to doing it against Iran. Israel has refrained because Iran, which has been close to actually building a nuclear bomb for over a decade, has never done so. Twenty years ago, Western nations began predicting that Iran would have a nuclear bomb within a few years. None of these predictions came true and Iran seemed more intent on maintaining the illusion that they were going to test their first nuclear device any time now. One reason that has not happened is because the Iranian leadership wants nukes to enhance Iranian efforts to intimidate other countries into cooperating with Iran. That’s an ancient Iranian strategy. But this time Iran has a powerful armed faction of Islamic fanatics (the IRGC) who cannot be trusted to follow tradition. Many IRGC members truly believe they are on a Mission From God and not bound by tradition or reality. Iran won’t official admit this but it is common knowledge inside Iran and even within the IRGC. Iran does not want to build a bomb unless they can be sure it’s use will be rational and not subject to unpredictable whims of religious fanatics.

April 10, 2021: In southern Syria (Damascus) an Israeli airstrike near the Damascus airport destroyed an Iranian ammunition storage site, setting off large secondary explosions and fires which were visible from the city. Three Iranian personnel were killed.

Back in Iran Covid19 continues to be a major problem and today a ten-day lockdown begins for most (over 80 percent) of the country. The new lockdown is to deal with the fourth wave of virus infections. Iran has suffered more than any other country it is adjacent to as well as all the nations it has any contact with. Iran was one country where the arrival of the virus was deliberately downplayed to a fault. The religious dictatorship insisted that Moslems were immune to it. They weren’t and before reality was recognized the covid19 death rate for Iran was more than double the global average and higher than 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. Iran with an admitted rate of 757 deaths per million and internal reports of more than twice that. Other nations have suffered much less. For example, so far Afghanistan has 64 admitted deaths per million people compared to Turkey with 396, India 122, Iraq 359 and Pakistan 69. Further away Saudi Arabia has 192 deaths per million and the UAE 153. In Europe Spain has 1,632, Britain 1,864 and Sweden 1,342. The U.S. rate is 1,731. The world average is 377 deaths per million.

April 9, 2021: A new IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) report on the Iranian nuclear program revealed that Iran had found a way to violate the 2015 treaty by enriching nuclear material to 20 percent purity using a method not known when the terms of the 2015 agreement were drawn up. Enriching any Uranium ore to 20 percent purity s a clear violation of the treaty but Iran claims the enrichment was not mentioned in the 2015 treaty, making it legal for Iran to use that new method to enrich material to 20 percent purity. Iran persuaded the IAEA inspectors to not call this a treaty violation and let the JCPOA see the report and decide. This is apparently how IAEA is handling this situation.

Last November Iran admitted to the IAEA that its new Natanz underground nuclear material enrichment center existed and was a violation of the 2015 nuclear weapons control treaty. During 2020 UN inspectors of the IAEA have uncovered several such violations. In May 2020 the inspectors reported that Iran has stockpiled eight times more enriched uranium than allowed by the 2015 treaty to lift sanctions. Later in 2020 IAEA found an underground facility that was enriching nuclear materials to levels required for nuclear weapons. During 2020 the IAEA reported another violation of the 2015 deal because Iran blocked IAEA inspectors from two sites where nuclear weapons research was suspected of being underway.

In 2017 the U.S. accused Iran of violating the 2015 treaty and renewed its sanctions. The other JCPOA nations disagreed with that assessment and did not renew sanctions and have continued to observe the terms of the 2015 treaty. Throughout 2020 the Americans pointed out that Iran is obviously in violation and was urging the UN to impose stricter sanctions and enforce them. Germany and France, the main European participants in the 2015 deal, are angry at Iran for continuing to sponsor terrorist activities in Europe, including assassinations of exiled Iranians who criticize the Iranian government. Many European and American politicians still believe the 2015 treaty is worth preserving.

April 8, 2021: Iran released the South Korean chemical tanker the IRGC seized on January 2nd as part of a campaign to get nations holding sanctions related frozen Iranian cash to release it. Iran justified the seizure by falsely accusing the tanker of pollution. Iran initially implied it would not free the tanker unless South Korea releases some or all of the $7 billion in Iranian cash (payment for Iranian oil) frozen by American sanctions. South Korea convinced Iran that to release the cash was not possible without risking repercussions against South Korea. The extortion negotiations went on for three months and the result was Iran let the tanker go in return for an official visit two days later by the South Korean prime minister. This was rare and last happened 44 years ago. The South Korean leader apparently told the Iranians that South Korea would advocate for a lifting of the sanctions. 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 as well as friendly towards Iran. Neither country wants to endanger that relationship and releasing the ship without receiving the frozen cash is another example of that.

In Yemen, UN efforts to revive peace talks between Saudi Arabia (and a coalition of other Arab states) and Iran-backed Yemeni Shia rebels, are stalled because of disagreements over what can be negotiated.

April 7, 2021: In southern Syria (Damascus) an Israeli airstrike near the Damascus airport destroyed an Iranian ammunition storage sites, setting off large secondary explosions and fires which were visible from the city. Four soldiers were wounded. The airstrike was apparently launched from aircraft in Lebanon and the Israeli Golan Heights, where they launched their air-to-ground missiles.

April 6, 2021: In the Red Sea, off Yemen, Israeli commandos placed a limpet mine on the side of a stationary Iranian freighter (the Saviz) and cause minor damage, including a fire that was quickly extinguished. The Saviz has been anchored in international waters 150 kilometers northwest of the Yemeni port of Hodeida since 2017 and Iran insists it is there to keep that portion of the Red Sea safe from pirates. Everyone has gone along with that fiction. For example, in mid-2019 a Saudi military transport helicopter paid a visit to pick up an ill Iranian sailor who was flown to a Saudi hospital for emergency treatment. The Iranian request for a medical evacuation was done via the UN because the Saudis and Iran have no diplomatic relations. This is one of those curious situations so common to the cultures of the region. The Saviz has been anchored (outside the shipping lanes and in plain sight) for years. Apparently, the ship, which is regularly resupplied by other Iranian merchant ships, is unarmed but there are also several speedboats on the deck and men in IRGC uniforms are regularly seen out in the open as well. In reality the Saviz serves as a mothership for small, fast, smuggling boats that can carry limited quantities of small items ashore and get away with it. The Saudis have not shut down the Saviz because of some unofficial understanding that as long as Iran does not resume putting naval mines in the shipping channel and firing missiles at passing military and commercial traffic, the Saviz would be left alone. The Saviz may well be the main source of the additional UAVs the Shia rebels have been getting and using since 2017. But as long as none of these UAV attacks do any serious damage, the Saviz will be left alone. It was believed that eventually the truth about the Saviz would come out, and join that many other strange tales of mysterious Middle East. Israel moved this story forward with the limpet mine attack and the Saudis may follow with a seizure of Saviz, especially considering the growing number of Iranian UAVs used by the Yemeni Shia rebels to attack Saudi Arabia.

March 31, 2021: In southern Syria (Sweida and Quentera provinces) along the Israeli and Jordan borders the Iranian presence has become visibly unpopular. Anti-Iran graffiti is showing up in border villages. The main complaint is the Iranian Lebanese Hezbollah mercenaries. Iran has tolerated Hezbollah raising money by distributing illegal drugs. This is something Hezbollah has done in Lebanon and other countries for decades. This, and large annual Iranian subsidies, have paid for Hezbollah becoming the most powerful armed group in Lebanon and de-facto ruler of southern Lebanon. The drug business has made Hezbollah unpopular with most Lebanese and people in the many countries where Hezbollah is active in the drug trade. This includes some African and South American countries as well as the United States and Canada.

March 27, 2021: In Iran, Chinese and Iranian officials signed the 25-year economic/political/military agreement. The basic terms are that China will buy most of Iranian oil exports at an unspecified discount and invest over $400 billion to build infrastructure in support of the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) that is creating a new Silk Road via land and sea from China to the rest of Eurasia and Africa. There will also be military cooperation and intelligence sharing. Most other details of the agreement were not revealed. Negotiations on terms for the 25-year deal have been under negotiation since early 2020. The draft documents indicated Iran was willing to make a lot of concessions to become a close economic partner of China. That would mean China would have an incentive to protect Iran diplomatically and militarily. The document makes Iran the major supplier of petroleum to China and China the major source of foreign investment as well as becoming Iran’s largest trading partner. China has long been helpful to Iran. For example, in mid-2019 China sided with Iran in the Iranian effort to evade the renewed American sanctions. China made this public during an emergency meeting of the ICPOA. Inside Iran this treaty was considered a great victory that would cost Iran nothing and provide much benefit. The nuclear program would be halted for a while but not dismantled. This angle was documented in early 2018 when an Israeli intelligence operation in Iran got away with tons of documents from an Iranian storage facility. This was a major embarrassment for Iran, which declared all the evidence fakes. Western intel agencies, especially American and Israeli ones, already knew what Iran was doing with its nuclear weapons program but did not have such explicit documentary evidence. The Americans left the 2015 treaty in 2017, citing the clause that allowed for this if Iran was in violation. That did not persuade any other JCPOA members to do the same. The Americans were seen as a special case as they were the only JCPOA member that Iran has openly been at war with since the 1980s. Iran still holds anti-American demonstrations several times a year in which everyone repeatedly shouts “death to America.” Iran perpetuates that attitude mainly because of the support the U.S. has long provided to Israel, which Iran also wants to destroy. The other JCPOA members believe they can avoid any trouble with Iran by supporting Iranian efforts to evade the American sanctions. Some JCPOA members believe China and Russia would be able to prevent a nuclear armed Iran from actually using the nukes. Left unsaid by China and Russia is that they benefit from Iran having access to more cash for overseas mischief. As long as all that murderous mischief is directed at America and the West, it benefits China and Russia.

Meanwhile, in the Arabian Sea, near the Iranian coast, an Israeli container ship on its way from Oman to India was damaged by a small missile, apparently fired from a nearby Iranian vessel. The container ship continued on to India where the minor damage would be repaired. A month ago, there was a similar attack in same area against an Israeli owned RO/RO (roll on, roll off) vehicle carrier ship. These two attacks were apparently Iranian attempts at retaliation against Israel for three years of unannounced (by either country) Israeli attacks (by air, sea and via commandos) against Iranian tankers and other commercial ships carrying oil and other contraband to Syria. Many of these shipments were for Hezbollah, which had long received such aid from Iran. But those shipments often contained weapons or other contraband. Iran could not admit these losses, which are estimated at over a billion dollars in damage to ships and cargoes.

March 23, 2021: Turkey is once again practicing disruptive diplomacy. Turkey recently expressed regret that Azerbaijani territory is divided. This was a shot at Iran’s religious dictatorship. What was once southern Azerbaijan is now under Iranian control and Iran wants to keep it that way. The area has many ethnic Azeris and the Azeris are a Turkic people, so Turkey tried to improve its pan-Turkic reputation. Turkey was seen as less loyal to fellow Turkic people when they bowed to Chinese pressure by agreeing to an extradition treaty that targets Uighur (Chinese Turkic Moslems) activists be allowed in. Turkey has a sizeable Uighur community of about 40,000. Meanwhile some diplomats and analysts believe that a Turkish confrontation with Iran’s Shia religious dictatorship is coming. Such a confrontation with Iran could take place in Iraqi Kurdistan (autonomous northern Iraq). Iran supports Turkish separatist PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) terrorists who have been fighting their Turkey since the early 1980s. The PKK still has bases in northern Iraq, in the border triangle area of Turkey, Iraq and Iran. PKK has supply sources in Iran. Syria is another place Turkey and Iran could clash, or at least have a more serious clash than they have already had. In February 2020 Iranian-backed Iraqi PMF militias began to attack pro-Turkish rebels in northwestern Syria (Idlib), but Turkey and Iran avoided a direct confrontation. Turkey opposes the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

March 16, 2021: In southern Syria (Damascus) an Israeli airstrike near the Damascus airport destroyed two Iranian ammunition storage sites, setting off large secondary explosions and fires which were visible from the city.

March 15, 2021: Iran has resumed illegally exporting 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.

Outside Baghdad (the Balad airbase) five rockets landed inside the sprawling facility, but caused no injuries or damage. Airbases and airports are large and easy to hit targets for unguided rockets. These targets consist of a lot of unoccupied (by people or structures) areas for the rockets to land in. The Baghdad airport, the largest in the country, consists of 14 hectares (35 acres) of enclosed (fenced in) space. Airbases and airports are currently favorite targets as Iran-backed groups are urged to kill or wound American military or contractor personnel, who often work or live on or adjacent to these large fenced and guarded areas.

March 14, 2021: This month marks the 66th month Russian forces have been in Syria. Russian intervention, added to the earlier Iranian assistance and that enabled the Assad government to survive what at first appeared to be almost certain defeat. In those 66 months Russia also negotiated treaties with the Assad government to obtain Russian use of a major airbase and part of one of Syria’s Mediterranean ports. Russia pays modest rent for these bases, because the Assads want Russian forces present in the long term to keep the Assads in power. Russia is also assisting the Assads in persuading the Turks, Iranians and Americans to pull their forces out of Syria and for a long-term peace deal with Israel. That last bit depends on getting the Iranians to leave. Once, and if, that happens it becomes a lot easier to negotiate the departure of Turks and Americans, leaving the Russians as the only legal foreign troops in Syria. Until all this happens, the civil war is not really over and currently Russia carries out lots of airstrikes on the remaining ISIL and al Qaeda forces in the country and operates joint patrols with Turkish, American and Syrian forces, especially in eastern Syria where ISIL is still active.

In Pakistan, Ismail Qaani, the IRGC Quds Force commander boasted to local journalists that Quds had organized 18 attacks in Yemen over the last ten days and these had done damage to Saudi Arabia and Yemeni government forces. Qaani’s predecessor, Qassem Soleimani proved a hard act to follow. Soleimani died in January 2020 when the Americans killed him and some Iraqi associates outside the Baghdad airport with missiles. Iran has been frustrated at its inability to carry out adequate revenge attacks on the Americans. Qaani gets most of the blame for this because Soleimani was the key to earlier Iranian success in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Qaani has presided over more defeats than victories. In 2020 Qaani sent a Quds Force general to be the Iranian ambassador to Yemen. Since the rebels control the traditional Yemeni capital, they can pretend to be a real government. The new “ambassador” is in Yemen mainly to supervise Iranian support for combat operations. Quds felt so confident that they ignored recent American offers for ceasefire talks and instead increased the number of offensive operations, which Qaani was now boating about to foreign journalists who proceeded to publish what Quds Force was up to in Yemen. Someone in Iran realized that approach was a mistake and ordered the Shia rebels to do some damage control. Now the rebel spokesmen insisted they did not reject the American ceasefire offers but were simply seeking “clarification.” Previously the Saudis and Yemeni government had announced willingness to try another ceasefire. All previous ceasefire deals with the rebels were eventually rendered useless by rebel violations of the terms.

March 13, 2021: In eastern Syria (Raqqa province) Russian troops forced Iran-backed militias out of two small oil/natural gas fields. These two fields have been largely shut down since 2011 and are being brought back into production. Together the two locations produce about 6,000 barrels of oil a day and similar amounts of natural gas. The Kurds control most of the active oil/natural gas fields in eastern Syria. The Kurds depend on the U.S. to supply air support and other assistance to hold on to their oil/natural gas resources.

In southern Syria ( Qadisiya province) Ashab al Kahf, an Iran backed Islamic terrorist group took credit for an attack on an American supply convoy approaching the provincial capital. Some vehicles were damaged by roadside bombs but there were no casualties. Ashab al Kahf was created in 2019 but did not become particularly active until after the Americans killed Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020. Iran loudly and openly called for vengeance but so far has been unsuccessful. Iran is spending a lot of cash and other support on groups like Ashab al Kahf in an effort to inflict some significant hurt on the Americans. These efforts, especially the roadside bombs and use of unguided rockets, does produce civilian casualties and damage to civilian or government property. This costs Iran popular support in neighborhoods where these losses occur. Despite that, Iranian desperation breeds attempt after attempt.

Source » strategypage

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