Iran is not as religious, or Islamic, as its Shia Moslem religious dictatorship likes to think. To determine the true religious feelings of Iranians GAMAAN (Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran) used its experience with online anonymous surveys to determine just how religious Iranians are and how many still consider themselves Moslems. That has been something of a mystery because for over two years there have been larger and larger anti-government protests. One surprising feature of these protests is the growing number of Iranians hostile to Islam and willing to be public about. Iranians are reluctant to tell strangers how they feel about religion but the word on the street was that most Iranians have quietly abandoned Islam. The recent GAMAAN survey, supervised by expatriate Iranians, contacted a number of online groups inside Iran and convinced them to participate in an anonymous survey of religious beliefs. GAMAAN assembled 400,000 online participants, representing an accurate cross-section of Iranians in Iran, and conducted the survey. The results were a shock, at least to the government. While the government insists that 99 percent of Iranians are Moslem, the survey found that only 40 percent were. Breaking that down further 32 percent of Iranians are Shia, five percent Sunni and three percent Sufi (a more mellow Islam hated by Islamic extremists). Other religious preferences included 8.8 percent atheists, 5.8 percent agnostic 2.7 percent humanist and seven percent non-denominational “spiritualists.” Not surprisingly eight percent were Zoroastrian, a native Iranian religion older that Judaism and eliminated in the 7 th century by invading Islamic armies. Since then a small number of Iranians continued to practice Zoroastrianism in secret inside Iran and openly outside of Iran. Many Zoroastrianism customs are still practiced inside Iran, much to the dismay of some Islamic clerics. Efforts to suppress these ancient customs have failed for over a thousand years. Now Iranians are openly (in crowds) calling for the revival of this ancient monotheistic (one god) religion as more Iranians seek a more humane alternative to Islam.
Another 1.5 percent said they were Christian, 0.1 percent Jewish, 0.5 percent Bahai, 3.3 percent “other” and 22.2 percent declared they had no religious beliefs at all. Overall 78 percent of Iranians believed in God while 90 percent of Iranians admitted to growing up in or still practicing some religion. A third of Iranians admitted they regularly consume alcoholic beverages, something forbidden to Moslems. Less than 40 percent observed the daily schedule of Moslem prayers and about the same percentage observed the fast during the holy month of Ramadan. The rest would claim an illness and this was widely tolerated. Trying to enforce the fast on that many Iranians was seen as an impossible task. Even so 68 percent believed that religious practices should not have the rule of law and 72 percent opposed the law or custom mandating that women wear hijab (hair covering) outdoors.
There is still a large minority of Moslems, most of them Shia. It is from this population that the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) recruit its personnel and this force of about 220,000, plus twice as many “Basj” volunteer civilian “fighters” continues to control Iran by force. That control is weakening and the government is again executing prominent protestors on false charges. The most recent example was a popular athlete and prominent critic of the government. The government threatens more such executions unless the protests stop. The threats began with violent attacks on protestors by IRGC and Basj personnel. This was followed by using lethal force and arrests. Now its executions of prominent protestors. As the crackdowns escalate and the economy declines the protests persists.
The government is also threatening foreign foes with violent retaliation. Several Iranian efforts to kill Americans have been encountered. The most obvious ones are against American troops and diplomats in Iraq. The rulers of Bahrain are now openly threatened with personal attack because of establishing military, economic and diplomatic relations with Israel. American embassies worldwide have been put on alert for possible Iranian attacks against diplomatic personnel. These are not empty threats as Iran is regularly criticized by European nations for murders of Iranian critics living in Europe. Some of the assassins have been caught or at least identified and found to be working for Iran. Two years of protests in Iran have reduced the support for Iran overseas and this makes it more difficult to organize assassinations or terror attacks. The Americans have announced that there would be substantial (but unspecified) retaliation if Iran killed any American diplomatic personnel.
A growing number of Iraqi Arabs recognize these destructive aspects of Moslem culture seen in Iran and are willing to try and deal with it. That is still difficult in Iraq, where religious disagreements often lead to murder, all in the name of God. This shift in attitudes expresses itself in most Iraqis opposing Iranian efforts to turn Iraq into an Iranian puppet state that will serve as a front line in the Iranian effort to dominate all of Arabia. To that end most Iraqis want the 5,200 American and 1,000 other foreign troops to stay. Not just for help in dealing with Islamic terrorism but in keeping the Iranians out. The U.S. plans to reduce its Iraq force to 3,500 by the end of 2020 and NATO forces are also shrinking.
The new prime minister (Mustafa al Kadhimi) is decidedly hostile to Iran. He has ordered the removal of many pro-Iran commanders in the security services and disbanded some units that were dangerously pro-Iran. Kadhimi went to the U.S. in late August to meet with the American leader and discuss improving U.S.-Iraq relations. Such a meeting was important because Kadhimi is the first post-Saddam (2003) prime minister that is not heavily influenced/controlled by Iran.
Iran still has enough loyal (to Iran) Iraqi militias to be a threat to the Iraqi government. Most Iraqi politicians and voters want less Iranian influence. Iran wants fewer foreign troops in Iraq. That is a point of contention because Iraqis realize the foreign troops offer some assurance that Western and Arab states would actively assist Iraq if Iran sought to take control via a civil war or invasion. Civil war is the more likely option, but only in an emergency, such as Iraq appearing to succeed in disbanding all the pro-Iran militias.
Iran has ordered its associates in Iraq to try terror, as in kidnapping and assassination, to extract cooperation from Iraqi officials.
The reduced support for Iran within the Iran-backed Iraqi PMF militias crippled the Iranian attack plan against American forces in Iraq. This Iranian campaign began in October and has included over fifty attacks so far. Few of these efforts did any damage and caused even fewer casualties. General Soleimani, commander of Iranian terror operations in Iraq, was trying to fix that when the American got to him in January 2020. Iran expected the death of Soleimani would trigger more anti-American anger among Iraqis. Didn’t happen. Most Iraqis saw Soleimani as more of a threat than the Americans. Iran was next door and forever threatening. The Americans were far away and had left once before, in 2011, and had to be asked to return in 2014 to deal with the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) invasion. The Americans are again eager to leave, the Iranians are not. Most Iranians want less money spent on subverting Iraq and more spent on building the Iranian economy and raising the standard of living. That is not a priority with the IRGC and its Quds Force that specializes in destabilizing other countries, like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
In Lebanon Iran-backed Hezbollah is under growing threat from the Lebanese people and security forces. After decades of Iran sponsored intimidation, Lebanese are talking back and telling Hezbollah and Iran that Israel is not the enemy; Iran and its Lebanese followers are. A lot of those pro-Iran Lebanese were in it for the money and in the last year Iran has cut its cash contributions by more than half. This is because of an economic crisis back in Iran. It was discouraging for Iran when they realized how many supporters Hezbollah lost because Iranian payments had ceased.
The catalyst for the current anti-Iran movement was the August 4th explosion that obliterated the port of Beirut. Buildings were destroyed or badly damaged and windows blown out more than five kilometers from the explosions, which was later calculated to be equivalent to a 1.2 kiloton nuclear bomb. There was also a mushroom cloud characteristic of all large explosions, nuclear or conventional. Over 200 died and at least 6,000 were wounded, mostly by the flying glass. Israel immediately denied any involvement, followed by Hezbollah, which has been accused of storing rockets and other Iranian munitions in the port area. The cause of the huge explosion was apparently the large quantities of explosive materials stored in the port area. One warehouse exploded and that set off others nearby, triggering a “slow” explosion that could be felt 25 kilometers away in the countryside. The main culprit turned out to be 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate explosives used for mining operations and left in a warehouse for seven years. Hezbollah insisted the explosion was not their fault but few Lebanese believed that and now there is more popular enthusiasm for confronting and disarming Hezbollah than ever before. Lebanese don’t want another civil war like the 1975-90 one, but don’t want Hezbollah anymore either.
The war in Syria should be over by now but it isn’t because the foreign factions, especially Iranians and Turks have unresolved issues. Iran is obsessed with destroying Israel and is not having much success at all. Turkey wants to eliminate Kurdish separatists (both Turkish and Syrian) in Syria and that is proving very difficult. The Americans want to keep ISIL down and support their Kurdish allies while Russia wants to prop up the Assad government in order to keep the airbase and port facilities arrangements, they have obtained from the Assads.
Which is the most dangerous faction in Syria? Probably Iran, which is becoming increasingly aggressive and desperate. Iran needs a win against Israel and all it is getting in Syria is an endless string of defeats. Because of the “death to Israel” obsession Iran is destroying its alliance with Turkey and Russia. Yet Iran is not the only one with an Israel obsession.
The Iran-backed Shia rebels still believe time is their side as long as the Iranian support continues. Iran understands this as well and is willing to finance the expensive smuggling effort at a reduced level because of the distress it causes the Saudis.
The rebel budget problems mean the fighting is not as widespread. Less money means less cash to buy ammo and fuel from local sources, usually black market. Yemen has long supported a thriving black-market economy for just about anything. Sort of a tradition. But six years of civil war have damaged the underlying economy and the rampant theft of foreign aid has dried up that source of sustenance as well. The rebels are still active but mostly to deliver verbal threats or the occasional missile or UAV attack. Iran cannot send as many missile and UAV components so that the ballistic missiles and UAVs can be assembled and armed locally.
September 14, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) there was another Israeli airstrike against Iranian weapons being stored near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. There were ten deaths (two Syrian, eight Iraqi), all of them pro-Iran militiamen. This is the third Israeli airstrike in Deir Ezzor province this month.
September 13, 2020: Despite strenuous government efforts to make the Iranian currency stronger, it has fallen to a record low value compared to the U.S. dollar; 262,000 rials per dollar. Back in August 2019 Iran issued new currency that was supposed to deal with the enormous inflation and the bad reputation the rial had acquired. For example, in August 2019 it cost 120,000 rials to buy a dollar. The new currency, the toman, made that 12 toman to the dollar. The toman was what some Iranian currency was called for a long time, until 1925. Many Iranians still use the term. The exchange rate has since gotten worse. Now you need over 26 toman to buy a dollar. Back in 2015 a dollar could be had for 3.2 toman. The current foreign exchange crises is largely 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.
September 12, 2020: The IRGC issued a threat to neighboring Bahrain because that small Arab ally of Saudi Arabia had agreed to establish diplomatic, military and trade relations with Israel. The IRGC declared that Bahrain’s rulers would eventually suffer harsh punishment for this traitorous (to Islam in general and Palestinians in particular) act. Bahrain has long accused the Iranian Quds Force (the IRGC branch that specializes in supporting Islamic terrorists) of providing terrorist training to Bahraini Shia in Iraq and Iran and assisting in obtaining explosives and weapons for Bahraini Shia rebels. Relations between Bahrain and Iran have been getting worse since the 1980s. Iranian politicians increasingly speak out about how Bahrain is really the 14th province of Iran. That's because, well, it isn't called the "Persian" Gulf for nothing. There have been ethnic Iranian communities in Bahrain for centuries, along with a Shia Arab majority, and Iran had a formal claim on the island until 1969 when the claim was dropped, in order to improve relations with Arab neighbors. Iran has always been an empire and still is (only half the population is ethnic Iranian). The way this works you always have a sense of "Greater Iran" which includes, at the least, claims on any nearby areas containing ethnic Iranians or people of similar religion. Hitler used this concept to guide his strategy during World War II. Bahrainis (both Sunni and Shia) get very upset when these claims are periodically revived. The local Shia want an independent Bahrain run by the Shia majority. The Iranian government officially denounces such claims on Bahrain but apparently many Iranians have not forgotten. Arabs are not very happy about that and have responded by pointing out that Iran was Sunni until 500 years ago and were forced to convert, on pain of death, by a Shia emperor who killed about a million of his subjects in the process. The Iranian claim is based on Iranian control of Bahrain for a few years during the 18th century. Iran resents Western interference in the area believing themselves to be the regional superpower and the final arbiter of who is sovereign and who is not. Arabs see Iran continuing to throw its traditional weight around, despite the decades of sanctions and the current low oil prices. Traditional thinking among Sunnis is that Shia are scum and a bunch of unreliable losers, although the Iranians have always visibly contradicted that. The average Iranian holds similar views towards Arabs, especially Sunni Arabs.
September 11, 2020: Bahrain agreed to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel. Bahrain is the second Gulf Arab state to do this. The larger UAE did so in August and Saudi Arabia is considering such a move. Meanwhile the Saudis have agreed to open their air space to Israeli commercial aviation.
In northern Syria (Aleppo) an Israeli airstrike damaged an Iranian military facility outside the city.
September 10, 2020: Iran began several of naval exercise on the Indian Ocean side of the Strait of Hormuz. This includes firing missiles, torpedoes and unguided rockets. This allows the Americans and Arab nations to observe and determine of Iranian military capabilities are improving.
September 7, 2020: North of Baghdad a roadside bomb was used to attack a supply convoy for foreign troops in Taji. So far this year there have been one of two of these attacks a month. Not much damage is done and when someone does claim credit it is a pro-Iran militia.
September 6, 2020: The government revealed that oil and natural gas income fell by more than half in 2019. In 2018 petroleum sales brought in about $5 billion a month. In 2019 this fell to less than $2.5 billion a month. The decline appears to have continued into 2020 because of the covid19 triggered economic recession.
September 5, 2020: In Baghdad and Basra police raided several locations where illegal weapons were bought and sold. Many of the weapons were heavy machine-guns and mortars, which civilians are not supposed to possess. Civilians may own a rifle or pistol if they notify police and list the weapon on their ID card. Police arrested 13 people and seized hundreds of weapons, including some “technicals” (pickup trucks with a heavy machine-gun mounted in the cargo bed). The Arab Tribes Council in Anbar province also demands the disbanding of PMF militias, or at least withdrawing them from Anbar where they often attack Sunni tribesmen for no reason. With ISIL largely gone from Anbar the major threat to the tribal population are the Shia PMF brigades, especially the ones loyal to Iran.
The U.S. has managed to get two Iraqi Islamic terrorist web sites removed from the Internet. Aletejahtv.com and Aletejahtv.org were operated by Iran backed Katab Hezbollah. This is an Iraqi version of the Lebanese Hezbollah Iran helped organize in the 1980s and has supported ever since.
September 3, 2020: In Baghdad rockets were fired at the headquarters of G4S, the British company that provides security for the Baghdad airport. There was property damage but no casualties. Someone, apparently Iran, was sending a message to G4S that the British firm should tolerate Iran doing whatever it wants at the airport. That is no longer allowed and using a foreign firm means it is less likely Iran or anyone else will get their way via intimidation.
In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) an airstrike, apparently Israeli, attacked an Iranian base, killing nine Iraqi Hezbollah militiamen.
In central Syria, Israeli airstrikes again hit the T4 airbase in Homs province, as well as air defense systems outside Damascus and Iranian bases in eastern Syria. At least sixteen Iranians or Iranian mercenaries were killed. Israeli warplanes launch air-ground missiles while still in Israel or just across the Syrian border in areas not covered by Syrian air defenses. Syrian usually claims to intercept all these missiles but commercial satellite photos reveal that the Israeli missiles usually get through and inflict significant damage. The T4 airbase, i n central Syria near Palmyra, was hit by Israeli airstrikes several times in 2019, at least twice in 2020 and many more times in earlier years. The T4 airbase is the largest in Syria and Iran is building new structures for storing weapons and housing personnel. This is where Iran moved its UAV operations in 2018 after its original UAV base in Syria was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike. Meanwhile Israel is gradually destroying most of Syria’s SAM (Surface-To-Air Missile) capability.
The Persian Gulf Arab nation of Bahrain announced it would allow Israeli commercial aircraft to fly across Bahrain. Saudi Arabia has apparently agreed to do this as well.
August 31, 2020: In southern Syria Israeli aircraft used missiles to attack several targets, killing eleven people. It was later revealed that one of the dead was a civilian who died when their house was hit by a defective Syrian anti-aircraft missile. This was only the second Israeli airstrike for August in Syria. Syrians and Arab journalists in Syria report that the Israeli air strikes are doing serious damage to the Iranian efforts to establish a formidable military force in Syria. Israel attacks nearly all Iranian arms shipments entering Syria as well as many of the Iranian mercenaries, along with the smaller number of Iranian personnel. Commercial satellite photos show that the Syrian airbases Iran uses to fly in personnel and equipment are out of action most of the time because of the Israeli airstrikes and tend to get bombed again shortly after they are repaired.
August 29, 2020: Israel and the UAE are apparently planning to establish a joint ELINT (Electronic intelligence) operation on one of the Yemeni Socotra Islands. The main island is in the Gulf of Aden, 380 kilometers south of Yemen and 240 kilometers from the northeast tip of Somalia. The population is 60,000 and the island (and a few much smaller ones) lies within busy shipping lanes from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea. The UAE has recently used massive economic investments and well-placed bribes to gain control of the Socotra Islands government. The ELINT facility keeps track of Iranian and Yemeni Shia rebel activity around the islands. This includes Iran smuggling weapons and other military gear to the Yemeni rebels.
August 27, 2020: In northwest Yemen an Iranian naval mine was found offshore by the naval blockade force. The Shia rebels are trying to disrupt Red Sea traffic, which is essential for Saudi Arabian imports and even more critical for Egypt. Nearly 20,000 ships a year pass through the Red sea headed for the Suez Canal, which earns Egypt nearly $6 billion a year in transit fees. Naval mines have been put into offshore waters by Shia rebels before but so far none have succeeded in disrupting shipping.
August 21, 2020: The UN voted to end weapons import sanctions against Iran in October. This would make it legal to sell weapons to Iran. Russia or China are the most likely suppliers but neither is inclined to offer credit terms. China and many European nations oppose the revived American economic sanctions on Iran and allowing the arms importing sanctions to lapse is one way to show their displeasure at American aggressiveness. The American economic sanctions have cost China, Russia and European nations lucrative trade deals with Iran.
August 20, 2020: In northern Somalia local pirates released the last three of their foreign hostages. These were Iranian fishermen captured in 2015. The Iranian government used various techniques to obtain the freedom of the other 16 crew on that fishing boat. Details were not made public about how the last three hostages were freed. This marks the end of an era of Somali pirates keeping captured crewmen for years. The decline began in 2008 with the organization and deployment of the international anti-piracy patrol off the Somali coast. By 2012 the pirates were unable to capture anymore large ships for multi-million-dollar ransoms. It was still possible to capture foreign fishing boats or small coastal cargo ships but these often yielded no ransom at all. With the big money gone the major pirate gangs disbanded. Some pirates still operate off the coast, without much success. The anti-piracy patrol is still there and large ships carry armed guards now, who will open fire if small speedboats get too close.
August 19, 2020: In Baghdad another PMF (Popular Mobilization Forces) weapons and ammo storage warehouse exploded. There were two similar incidents in July and all where warehouses belonged to Iran-backed PMF brigades.
August 15, 2020: In the eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) an airstrike, apparently by armed Israeli UAVs, attacked an Iranian base, killing 23 Afghan and Iraqi mercenaries and destroying large quantities of ammo and weapons. This could be seen by the number of secondary explosions (caused by the UAV missiles). These Afghans are Shia recruited from Afghan refugees in Iranian camps or Afghan Shia living in western and central Afghanistan.
August 13, 2020: Israel and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) agreed to establish diplomatic relations. They also agreed to call this new agreement a peace treaty, which will be signed in United States in September. Some economic agreements are being signed before that. Other Arabian states are expected to follow. Israel and the UAE have had covert relationships for over a decade but making it formal is all about Iran and Turkey. These two nations aspire to “lead” the Moslems in the region, at the expense of Arab Moslems. This new alliance is, in part, because of the realization that Israelis are also Semites while the Turks are Turks and the Iranians are Indo-European. Such differences matter, especially in the Middle East.
August 12, 2020: Israel has reduced the number of airstrikes inside Syria because there are fewer targets. Meanwhile there is more activity on the Israeli border with Syria and Lebanon as well as in the south (Gaza) where Hamas and other Gaza-based Islamic terror groups have become more active. During the past three years Israeli forces, mainly the air force, have used over 5,000 missiles to hit about 950 Iranian targets in Syria. During this period Syria fired 844 SAMs (Surface to Air Missiles) at Israeli aircraft. Only one of these missiles damaged an Israeli F-16 and that was in 2018 because the pilot did not, as he was trained to do, carry out evasive maneuvers when his missile warning system alerted him to the threat. The pilot tried to complete his mission first and then evade. The F-16 was damaged and crashed in northern Israel. The pilot safely ejected. This incident demonstrated that the Syrian Air Defense systems could be dangerous if a pilot did not pay attention. As a result, more attacks (firing long range missiles) were carried out from Israel, Lebanon or Jordan, with missiles launched near the border. With new missiles Israeli aircraft were still able to hit anywhere in Syria. Israeli did attack Syrian air defense units that were particularly dangerous. These SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) missions are difficult and dangerous but Israel managed to destroy a third of Syrian air defense systems (launchers and radars) without losing any aircraft.