Written by Evgeny Satanovsky; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront
The main problem in Middle Eastern politics is the opposition between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) is the centre of the Shi’ite world. The neo-imperial expansion as a basis for Iranian foreign policy, changing the export of the Islamic revolution, is the main threat to Riyadh’s plans and its competitors to dominate the Sunni world.
Thus each country has its own project in which it takes on the leadership position, using war, economic or financial power. Support of the army, for those that have it (Egypt or Turkey), or Islamist formations, for those that do not have powerful enough army (such as Qatar or even Saudi Arabia), either hired private paramilitary forces (UAE) transform the region into a warfare arena for transportation, energy, water and strategic areas. And there is no end in sight.
Therefore we constantly see alliances of the most unlikely participants in the Middle East appearing and disappearing (as the alliance of conservative Arab monarchies and Israel was formed on anti-Iran sentiment). The impact on the region by external forces (USA and NATO), are often exaggerated or, conversely, underestimated (Russia after the beginning of the Aerospace Forces of the Russian Federation actions in Syria). Local players, experimenting with current military technologies and allied irregular organisations, happen to be capable of influencing the situation in the region in a much larger scale than in a period of classic use of military forces (which fully applies to Iran). Important internal divisions in their governments and law enforcement agencies are little known outside these countries. We will look at a few aspects of internal policies and foreign military activities of Iran, analysed with material from the expert of the Middle East Institute Y.B. Scheglovin.
“Liberals” versus “Conservatives”
According to analysts close to the Pentagon and US State Department, given the level of support for the President of Iran Hassan Rouhani by the Moderate Conservatives and Liberals in the Iranian political elite, he decisively won the May presidential elections. The Americans base their findings on leaks from the meeting of the Assembly of Experts held in Tehran from March 7 to 9. In addition to members of the Council, key figures attended, representing all political elite orientations of the country, including Conservatives. Two months prior to the election, the Assembly of Experts was ready to call candidates, who were able to take part in them. It was clear that for the Conservatives it would not be possible to unite around a figure that would present an opponent to Rouhani.
The struggle between Conservatives and Liberals in Iran is for the preservation of this or that group and its business ties dominating their position in the economy of the country on the modernisation course. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the business circles, that support it, are not averse of establishing long-term business contacts with Western countries. The essence of their struggle with Rouhani and his supporters is not to give them access to key positions in the new economic reality. In terms of sanctions, the IRGC was best suited to conduct the company through its shady business on the arms embargo. The opening of markets greatly limits the “guard” in the choice of means; hence, the attempt to find a presidential candidate who would have a chance to win against Rouhani. The challenge is to consolidate around a single candidate, as the experience of dispersing votes of the conservative wing among four persons led Rouhani’s supporters to the victory. He is apparently confident in his chances to be re-elected even with rivals from the Conservative wing. It is most likely that he has the support of the Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
At the Assembly of Experts meeting in addition to the presidential elections the question of the successor to Khamenei was discussed, which is more important for the formulation of IRI’s foreign policy. The re-election of Rouhani speaks positively of the economic dynamics in Iran. The president was able to bring the country from a difficult labyrinth of internal problems, economic reforms and the beginning of active political and diplomatic dialogue with the West. The deal on the Iranian Nuclear Programme (INP) was supported with reservations by all layers of the Iranian elite, including Rahbar Khamenei.
The main economic achievements of the IRI were the growth of oil production from 2.8 million to 3.8 million barrels per day, the fall in inflation from 45 to 8.7 percent and the removal of Western sanctions in January 2016. The unemployment rate of 30 percent is still high among the Iranian youth. Twenty percent of university graduates cannot find work. But the resolution of these problems is tied with the President’s path towards the breakthrough from foreign isolation and integrating the economy of the country to the world financial market. Meanwhile the majority of the population and the business elite do not believe in that the West will cooperate with Conservatives as with Liberals and rightly so.
Despite all, the Conservatives do not lose hope in the nomination of one candidate. On February 23 a conference of the Popular Front Forces of the Islamic Revolution was held, which became the primaries of the conservative forces. Twenty-three candidates were presented which testifies to the variety of trends, but only four can compete for the title of favourite. They are Qalibaf, Mohsen Rezaee, Saeed Jalili and Hamid Bahai. All of them are less popular than Ibrahim Raisi, who since March 2016 is the main guardian (the main executive) of the fund “Astan Quds Razavi”, responsible for the management of key sites of religious activities and the largest mosques throughout Iran. The conservatives put Raisi forward from the formal staple of presidential candidates precisely because many tend to believe him as the real candidate for the post of Supreme Leader of the IRI.
Among the rest of the candidates we will note the current head of the judiciary Sadeq Larijani, his predecessor Mahmoud Shahroudi and Hassan Rouhani. However, presently the latter sees himself first as president. Serious pressure is put on him from the business community. Larijani and Shahroudi are mired in petty squabbles and mutual accusations, so that their chances were severely decreased.
Raisi remained above the fray inside the conservative wing, which makes him an ideal candidate to the position of president from this political segment. But should he accept, he will be embroiled in an intra-party struggle and in the event of a loss of the elections may lose the authority and forfeit his chances to become Ayatollah Khameini’s real contestant. The latter may ask Raisi to head the list of conservatives for the presidential elections, but the same alignment will remove him from the list of candidates in their primaries.
If Raisi refuses to participate in the presidential elections, the Conservatives have only one candidate who can compete on equal terms with Rouhani. He is the speaker of the parliament Larijami, close to Ayatollah Khameini, and although does not enjoy the support of fringe Conservatives, can rally Moderates and Traditionalists. But he is not interested in the post of president. Some experts argue that the speaker will support the candidacy of the present head of the IRI at Ayaatollah Khameini’s request. The same experts say that the leadership of the IRGC will not oppose in order to prevent Rouhani’s re-election. They are satisfied that the relationship between the USA and Iran in the short-term does not improve to the level at which the IRGC will begin to lose ground. It looks like the IRGC (or part of the organisation leadership) reached an agreement with the entourage of the president on the separation of government and the economic pie. This makes the re-election of Rouhani inevitable.
The Fight for Economic Power of Constituent Entities
According to experts, relations between the Ministry of Security of Iran (SAVAMA) and the intelligence services of the IRGC are in a deep crisis. The head of the SAVAMA Mahmoud Alawi publicly voiced his department’s desire to receive a greater part of financial help from the state budget, allocated to national security. The leaderships of the IRGC also request an increase in the allocated funds. The motives for the sides are as follows. SAVAMA is responsible for the support of internal security; its functions are to counter the separatist groups in Baluchistan on the border with Pakistan and Khuzestan Province. The first concern of the authorities is to bring the Balochis, in the second the ethnic Arabs-Ahwaz. Both groups, according to SAVAMA, are supported and sponsored by the Office of General Intelligence (OGI) of Saudi Arabia. The IRGC focuses in their demands for a key role in carrying out missions abroad, firstly in Syria and Iraq. They spend much on equipment and training of Shi’ite militias in countries that they oversee.
The IRGC is assigned contacts, which requires money, with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s George Talabani and the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan, with the Taliban from the pro-Pakistan faction in Afghanistan, not to mention the financing of the Lebanese Hezbollah. The scope of activities of the SAVAMA at first glance is more modest. The work with the Balochis and the Ahwaz are two main projects of the ministry. Thus the military activities of the Balochis managed to decrease in recent years, thanks to coordinated joint actions with Pakistani counterparts. In Khuzestan Province, the most recent serious attack took place this past January. The SAVAMA analysts predict a sharpening of the situation in this oil-producing province of Iran linked with the fact that the leadership of the main terrorist group “The Movement of the Struggle of Arabs for Liberation of Khuzestan” (MSALK) met in December 2016 in Tunis with operatives of the OGI of the KSA and received from them assurances of increased funds. The fighters of the MSALK received their orders to prepare an assault on the oil field infrastructure of “Yadavaran” under joint management of the Iranian National Iranian Oil Co. (NIOC) and the Chinese Sinopec.
SAVAMA predicts not only the creation through the Ahwaz-fighters of increased risks for the oil production, but the deterioration in the investment climate in the country. Alawi presented with an initiative to examine the system of internal security in this province, which will be done with the involvement of a large number of workers of the department, which means, more financing. He proposes to modernise SAVAMA for timely and adequate responses in case of an attack on foreign investors and spheres of application of their capital in the whole country. Thus he recommended to the leadership to pay attention to the activities of the IRGC-affiliated companies and funds, which should ideally be financed by its operations. On the appropriate response of the leadership of the IRGC it is unnecessary to speak.
According to experts, the fight between competing security agencies have a different nature than the desire to reallocate the budget in their favour. The main motive for Alawi’s initiative, which would never be resolved alone by challenging the IRGC, is the desire of the people from the entourage of President Rouhani to cut funding for the main opponent, the IRGC, to weaken its position in the pre-election race. The main architect of the current battle is the previous head of the SAVAMA, now a member of the Supreme National Security Council and Advisor to President Rouhani, Ali Yunusi. Alawi is his creature and Yunusi agrees all his initiatives in advance.
In March of last year in the midst of the campaign, the IRGC by the deposition of the current Iranian president, Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Khameini asked him to intervene and become an advisor to Rouhani to protect him. This request illustrates Yunusi’s closeness to Ayatollah Khameini. Yunusi stabilised the situation then, but now, it seems, decided to go on the offensive. He has direct connections to the formulation of the main threats to the national security and to recommendations in respect of funding trends in this area. Funding cuts would weaken the position of the IRGC and increase opportunities for SAVAMA, primarily inside Iran, which has a priority for the warring parties on the eve of a crucial vote. The dispute between two major competitors in the security field will allow Yunusi to reallocate some of the funds and, perhaps, authority in favour of “dear” to him SAVAMA.
Intrigues Around the Drone
The high command of the military block of the USA issued a memo to the White House about the growing potential threats of “domestic drones” usage for attacking American civilian and military targets. As expected, the statement came to light thanks to the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA). It is mentioned that the growth of drone usage by the Islamic State fighters (banned in Russia) and other jihadi groups are due to the price drop of “domestic” drones, as well as the lack of restrictions on their acquisition and use. The quantities of specialists grew in the ranks of jihadis, this forces the talk about the necessity to work out new measures against these threats. In summary, it needs to put before the Congress a task to find funding for the US military-industrial complex as part of the development of new tools of counteraction against potential threats: detectors, jammers and missiles.
It is noted that “according to reliable information” the attack in January by the Houthi speedboats (they were “appointed” as responsible for it) on the Saudi frigate in the Red Sea was carried out not by suicide bombers, as was previously stated, but by radio controlled sea drones, camouflaged under boats or jet skis. Five sailors died in the explosion, 10 were wounded, and the frigate broke down and was towed to the nearest base. The Saudis did not speak of the victims, declaring that the ship suffered minor damage. It is known that during the attack conversations in Farsi were intercepted in the immediate vicinity of the attack. This allows us to conclude that jet skis, possibly, were operated through mobile telephones.
The Iranian trace in this case indicates that the IRGC actively uses the Yemeni territory to develop new means to wage war on the sea. This is indicated by the launches of the upgraded Iranian missiles of Chines production on the UAE cargo ship and the destroyer of the US Navy in 2016. Now sea drones roll, which will replace the speedboats used by the IRGC and shelling of tankers with their RPGs. The tests can be considered as successful, although we must make allowances for the level of combat training of the Saudi sailors. Here we look at the modernisation of attack drones, which cannot be purchased on the free market. Iran has been engaged in these developments for a long time. The Americans believe that the basis for the creation of the Iranian combat unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) came from the technology of the American Predator that crashed in Iran in 2011. In reality the military UAVs programme is carried out with the help of China. The products are rolled out in Yemen and Lebanon in the interest of both countries
The second case of the use of drones, written in the report, the American believe was the use of the drone on October 2, 2016 by IS supporters in Iraq before the explosion in the vicinity of Mosul which killed two soldiers of the Kurdish Peshmerga and wounding several French commandos. According to specialists, Jabat al-Nusra (banned in Russia) and IS actively use drones to correct the line of fire and intelligence, but their massive use for terrorist attacks is not considered. Amateur drones cannot make a resounding terrorist attack; from a military point of view it is ineffective. As was shown during the last battle in Mosul and its surrounding areas, the Islamists’ drones are easily jammed with simple electronic warfare. As a consequence, the main objective of the report to the American leadership is for lobbying. The real threats to the American military potential and its allies, which the Iranian combat drones represent, remain in full extent.
The Irreplaceable Hezbollah
We will note that not only Americans use questionable data. According to French sources, disagreements intensified between Moscow and Tehran regarding the participation of the Lebanese Hezbollah in the fighting in Syria. Allegedly Moscow insists that the Lebanese reduced their numbers but the Iranians to the contrary. Disagreements allegedly reached to a point that the head of Iranian IRGC “Al-Quds” General Qassem Soleimani visited twice the headquarters of Hezbollah in February in Beirut. Sheikh Nasrallah had appointed Khalil Harb, former operational commander of the forces on the southern front, the curator of Hezbollah operations in Syria. One of the main tasks, which Nasrallah put in front of him, was the withdrawal of Lebanese troops from the Golan Heights and the Syrian-Israeli border. The French note that units of Alawite militia displace the units of the Lebanese Hezbollah from Syria. These left form Homs, the village of Barada in the suburbs of Damascus and the Lebanese-Syrian border.
The French in this case got everything wrong. Disagreements between Moscow and Tehran about Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria are non-existent; it cannot be replaced. The creation with the help of Iran of the Alawite militia in Syria creates support for Damascus. The Lebanese cannot fight in Syria forever, maintaining Hezbollah there is expensive for Tehran. Of the concentration of Hezbollah units in the above-mentioned parts of Syria, we must note that in addition to Aleppo and Idlib, namely Homs and the suburbs of Damascus is presently the area of activation of Assad’s opponents. Hezbollah is experiencing a shortage of funds, which was the reason for Soleimani’s visit to Beirut. The appointment of a liaison officer with Soleimani is noteworthy. It was the youngest son of the former head of Hezbollah External Security, Imad Mughniyah and advisor to its leader, Mustafa. His father before his death in Damascus in 2008 had with the Iranians close ties and was, as his oldest son Jihad (killed as a result of Israeli air strikes in 2009), close contact of Soleimani. The continuity of generations and commitment to the Lebanese Shia Alliance with Iran, therefore, is fully met.
Evgeny Satanovsky, President of the Middle East Institute