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Will Iran be able to counteract US sanctions?

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American sanctions and how to confront them

The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) today, as in the past 40 years of its existence, is in the global spotlight as the focus of major political and economic developments.

As you know, on May 8, US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from the nuclear deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – and the resumption of the sanctions regime against Iran.

On August 7, the United States introduced the first anti-Iranian sanctions package that envisages restrictions on the purchase of Iranian cars, gold and metals. The sanctions also affected Iranian companies specializing in aluminum, graphite, coal, and steel, as well as those manufacturing computer programs for industrial enterprises.

On November 4, the United States will launch a second package that will deal a blow to the Iranian energy sector, in the first place, to the oil and gas industry and related industries, and will affect major transactions, that is, the IRI’s banking system.

Undoubtedly, this is a major attack on the Iranian economy. If we recall the period from 2011 to 2016, back then such international sanctions nearly threw it into an abyss in just a few months. However, today the situation is somewhat different. The anti-Iranian sanctions announced by Trump have lost their international status.

Unlike in those days, when due to Tehran’s “nuclear” persistence the entire world rose against it, today Trump’s anti-Iran initiative is not supported by anyone. The White House administration counts only on the financial and economic pressure on the disobedient and the obstinate who do not want to join the campaign against the IRI.

And these turned out to be quite a few. As they met in Vienna in July, the five participants in the nuclear deal with Iran (Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany) agreed to protect the five countries’companies from the impact of US sanctions. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the parties had also agreed to establish methods of maintaining trade relations with Iran which “would not depend on the whims of the United States.”

On August 7, immediately after the introduction of American sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran, the European Union adopted the so-called ‘blocking’ regulation which invalidates American sanctions against Iran on its territory, bans European companies from observing them and prohibits the implementation of any foreign court rulings adopted on the basis of these sanctions.

The coming into force of this regulation also allows all European organizations to claim compensation in court for damage inflicted as a result of implementation of these sanctions from persons responsible for this (referring to US authorities).

In late August, the EU began to discuss the possibility of creating an independent payment system, which would protect the European business from US sanctions against Iran. The project may involve central banks of France and Germany.

Moreover, at the end of August, the European Commission (EC) approved financial assistance to Iran to the amount of 50 million euros to solve the “key economic and social problems” of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The first tranche amounted to 18 million euros, which will be channeled “for projects in support of sustainable economic and social development in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” with 8 million euros allocated to Iranian private companies. Measures to support the Iranian private sector include assistance to Iranian small and medium-sized businesses, development of production and marketing chains, and technical assistance to the Iranian Trade Promotion Organization. Though small, the sums are important.

The EU will support Iran as long as the country is committed to “full and effective” compliance with the “nuclear deal”, which stipulates the lifting of sanctions, the executive body of the European Union specifies.

Despite measures to support Iran, the desire to preserve the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the EU’s protests against anti-Iranian sanctions, large European and transnational companies do not really believe in the European Union being able to counteract the United States. Experts say that judging by the experience of the past, when the European Union put up resistance after unilateral actions by the White House, these not quite effective “threats” are about all the “resistance” Europe can mount, since the Iranian market, despite all its attractiveness, can not be compared with the American one. Robert Einhorn, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, former advisor to the US Secretary of State, said: “Foreign companies are already experiencing difficulty doing business with Iran, and if all these difficulties  – non-transparent rules, corruption, poor management, etc. – become aggravated further by the risk of being cut off from the US market and the US financial system, then no reasoning from  European politicians will work.”

Right now, three months before the Americans introduce the main portion of sanctions, many large companies are leaving the IRI. In the oil sector – this is the French oil and gas giant Total. [1]

Fully aware of the situation, the Iranian leadership relies on cooperation with small and medium-sized foreign enterprises which are not so connected with the United States. Goliam Reza Ansari, the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Economic Affairs, said recently: “There are 23 million small and medium-sized businesses in Europe, and they could assist us in bypassing US sanctions.” We must use the potential of European enterprises to meet our economic needs in times of trouble. We are planning to create a working group of experts to promote such enterprises throughout the country. ”

Many countries back Tehran’s anti-sanctions measures. They are prepared to buy oil from Iran, to invest in projects, to provide know-how and technology. First of all, in the oil and gas sector.

The Chinese economic analyst Kingji Su sayvili said that the Iranian economy is able to overcome US sanctions with minimal difficulties, since these measures are not supported by the international community. The Chinese expert emphasized that after the arrival of sanctions many major economies, including European countries, China and Russia, retained or even strengthened economic relations with Iran.

Indeed, the director of the Department of International Cooperation of China Petroleum and Chemical Industry Federation (CPCIF) said that China will continue to import Iranian oil, despite US sanctions. He underscored that the Chinese market and many other Asian markets strongly depend on Iranian oil. According to The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), the number one buyer of Iranian oil – China, which acquires about a quarter of its oil supplies, is unlikely to cut down on its purchases.

In turn, Investment Director of the Iranian National Petrochemical Company (NPC) Hossein Alimorad said that the amount of Chinese investments in the Iranian oil and petrochemical industry had not changed after the US withdrew from the nuclear deal. As Mr. Alimorad announced recently, the NPC has reached an agreement with a consortium of companies from China and the Philippines regarding a $ 7 billion investment in the petrochemical industry in Iran.

Moreover, Mohammad Mostafavi, Director of Investment of the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), said that China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) together with the Iranian Petropars can take over from Total, which has 50.1% of the stake in the joint project for the development of the 11th phase of the South Pars gas field, if the French company leaves Iran.

German company ADL recently signed an agreement on cooperation in the oil refining sector with the Iranian oil company Sepahan (SOC). The goal is to share technical know-how and knowledge to improve the quality of products, including industrial oils and lubricants. ADL will begin to implement this ambitious plan in cooperation with its Swiss and Austrian partners.

South Korea (ROK) said in mid-August that Seoul will provide financial support to companies affected by new sanctions against Iran, and will look into the possibility of doing business in alternative markets so as to minimize losses to the local economy. It is clear that South Korea, having bought 147 million barrels of oil from Iran in 2017, is more than interested in expanding oil business with it.

Undoubtedly, international support for Iran as it tries to battle Trump’s sanctions is of great value. However, perhaps no less important are the internal economic measures that Tehran is taking to repel, or at least soften the blow to the key sector of its economy – the oil and gas extraction and processing industries.

Oil import substitution

Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran are stepping up measures to ensure import substitution. Thus, the Iranian Oil Ministry has banned the import of 84 types of equipment for the oil industry on the grounds that such equipment can be produced domestically.

Among the equipment and products prohibited for importation are wellhead equipment, desalination facilities, anticorrosive substances, sulfur recovery catalysts, wellhead control panels, and others.

Can the Iranians solve the problem of import substitution in the oil industry, while ensuring the necessary modernization of the entire oil and gas sector?

New sanctions against Iran have created severe challenges for Iran’s oil and gas production and its petrochemical industry.

However, it should be noted that the IRI, which was under American sanctions ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, has been developing its own production of oil and gas equipment. This kind of work was particularly intensive the period from 2010 to 2016, when anti-Iranian sanctions were the toughest.

The head of the Iranian oil company in southern regions Hamid Bovard said in 2013 that Iranian enterprises were producing oil and gas equipment and developing prototypes for launching into production of about seven thousand items. Mr. Howard expressed confidence that such oil and gas equipment as gas pumps, turbines, ball valves and compressors will be key to the restoration of Iran’s oil industry. By that time, eight hundred projects had been launched, with investments reaching about $ 15.5 billion. All of them aim to increase the recovery rate of crude oil and oil extraction.

Today, amid the increasing pressure from the Trump administration on Iran, measures to counteract sanctions are intensifying. According to Director of the Petrochemical Company Jam Said Shirdel, the company’s specialists, in cooperation with other Iranian companies, have developed and produced 1,000 types of products and equipment for petrochemicals which were previously purchased abroad. He added that in the next two years the company will produce 20,000 types of petrochemical products.

According to Reza Khayyamyan, head of the Association of Equipment Manufacturers of Iranian Oil Companies, the Iranian producers can provide technical services and produce 80% of advanced oil equipment for the development of oil extraction and processing projects. Mr. Hayamyan said this industry employs more than 50 Iranian companies. New contracts worth more than $ 6 billion will soon be signed with local oil extraction and refining companies.

Mr. Hayamyan made it clear that import substitution of oil and gas equipment is on the list of priorities of the Ministry of Oil, which is planning to roll out 14,000 major parts.

As we see, Iran is set on mobilizing its own resources. For one, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani said recently that the Iranian private sector plays an important role in counteracting the economic war, which was launched against Iran by the Trump administration.

Mohammad Hosseini, member of the Board of Trustees of the National Development Fund of Iran (NDF), said that Fund will allocate 12% of financial resources to counter US sanctions against Iran.

However, it is too early to talk about a profound modernization of the entire oil and gas complex on the basis of state-of-the-art technologies. As it happens, the most advanced technologies, know-how, innovations in the oil and gas and petrochemical industry, which mark dramatic breakthroughs in this industry and its overall renovation, are concentrated and receive special protection in the laboratories of just a few of the largest oil and gas companies, which, alas, are not ready to share these technologies with Iran.

Economy and politics under sanctions

In general, the economic situation in Iran before Trump announced anti-Iranian sanctions regime was not in its best condition. But in connection with the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action there were hopes and faith in a better future.

Now the situation has become worse because of sanctions. The rial rate has fallen, which provoked a rush for buying dollars. This further accelerated the collapse of the Iranian rial. Compared to January, when one dollar on the black market sold for 43 thousand rials, at the end of August it trade for 107 thousand. The official rate for this period decreased from about 36 thousand to 42 thousand.

In the meantime, the opposition is seizing on every opportunity to put the blame for the current situation on President Hassan Rouhani and his liberal reform Cabinet.

In late July, opposition MPs used their constitutional right to summon the president for making a report on the effectiveness of his activities. They gave President Rouhani a month to prepare the answers to their questions and explain to them why the government had done nothing to put an end of the smuggling of goods that damages production, what caused the fall of the Iranian rial, and what triggered economic recession and rising unemployment.

On August 25  President Rouhani addressed the Majlis. In particular, he said: “We are not afraid of America or economic problems. We will overcome all difficulties <…>. You can talk about unemployment, foreign currency, recession and smuggling. I think that the problem is people’s views on the future <…>. People are not afraid of the US, they are afraid of our differences. If they see that we are united, they will believe that the problems will be solved,” the president said. At the same time, he acknowledged that part of the country’s population “had lost faith in the future of the IRI and doubts its power”.

The president’s report did not satisfy Deputies of the Mejlis, who expressed their discontent with the work of Rouhani and his government. In addition to that, the MPs struck a blow to the government’s makeup by securing the dismissal of the Minister of Economy and Finance Masoud Karbasian, Minister of Labor, Social Welfare and Cooperative Affairs Ali Rabiyyi. Dismissed earlier was the head of the Central Bank, Valiollah Seif. Abdolnasser Hemmati was appointed instead.

Thus, the political situation in Iran is no longer stable being marred by visible signs of a schism within the ruling elite. However, it would be premature to suggest a crisis of the Iranian regime. The American sanctions have jeopardized the positions of only President Rouhani and his team, which was ready for a dialogue with the West. The growing political weakness of President Rouhani and his government has given a chance to his hardline opponents to strengthen their positions and exert a significant influence on the policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran at home and abroad.

For now, removal of Rouhani is not on the agenda. Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, fearing an internal political explosion, is supporting the president. However, given the situation and increasing pressure from the opposition, Rouhani’s policies (both domestic and foreign) may change, though not in the direction of reforms and liberalization.

Whether Tehran will agree to new talks with Washington, to compromises on nuclear missile programs is difficult to predict. For today, it is 100% no. This would mean a ‘political death’ for Rouhani and for the supreme leader Khamenei as well. What will happen next is difficult to say. Much will depend on the ability to retain the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and, most importantly, on the ability of all opponents of Trump’s anti-Iran sanctions to confront them financially and economically.

However, Ayatollah Khamenei is rather pessimistic about this. He said on August 29 that Iran should give up hopes that Europe will save a nuclear deal. In addition, he added two important things. First, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is not a goal, but a means, and Iran, if it finds that the Plan has ceased to meet Iranian interests, will reject it. And the second: Iran has no intention of negotiating a new agreement with the US at any level because of the “obscenity” of such talks.

Indeed, there are no conditions and no incentives for Iran entering new talks on nuclear missile issues,

Even in case of the worst of scenarios, if the IRI economy faces serious problems, the most radical groups concentrating around the political opponents of Rouhani may come to power in Tehran. These forces will not even consider the issue of negotiations with the US. The Islamic Republic of Iran will yet again become a “besieged fortress”, but this is unlikely to affect foreign policy ambitions, especially in the region. On the contrary, they will grow under the leadership of anti-Western politicians and IRGC, forming a foundation for the military and political instability in the region.

  •  [1] Total is getting ready to leave Iran before November 4. The company is developing the South Pars gas field. Total has already invested in it app. 50 million dollars. The French make it no secret that they do not want to anger Washington. The $ 2 billion project is under threat, but these losses are nothing in comparison with the fines that could be imposed on the violators of sanctions by the US Treasury, and other consequences. The most serious threat is the “cut-off” from the US financial system. For many large companies, this threat is even worse than billions in fines. For example, over 90% of all financial transactions at Total pass through US banks.
  • [2] Wellhead equipment is a set of equipment designed for tying casing strings, sealing the wellhead (annular space, internal tubing cavity, well production diversion) during drilling, well workover and well operation mode regulation.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Middle East

Iran in Iraq

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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It is exactly the withdrawal of the 2,000 US soldiers from their current positions in Syria and Jordan – an operation that continues at considerable speed – which is creating significant strategic space for Iran.

President Trump also claims he wants to keep an indefinite amount of US soldiers in Iraq, just to control Iranian movements and developments towards the Syrian border with Iraq.

Hence it is quite probable that, in the near future, the already evident tensions between Hezbollah and Israel on the Bekaa-Golan border could explode. In this case, the clash could certainly involve also the Iranian forces, as well as Bashar al-Assad’s ones and even other Sunni and Lebanese groups stationing in that area.

In this phase the primary goal of the Lebanese Shiite “Party of God” and of Assad’s himself – who can no longer say no to Iran – is to provide effective missiles to the Lebanese and Iranian-Syrian forces to hit the positions in  Northern Israel.

And later possibly shift from the control of the Bekaa-Golan axis directly into the Jewish State.

In this phase, however, Iran wants to avoid a conventional confrontation with Israel and its US allies.

Currently, also in the areas it currently holds in Syria, Iran is interested only in its traditional asymmetric war, which enables it to have a low-cost clash with the minimum use of its forces.

This, however, does not enable us to think about an Iranian war against Israel that is only at low intensity: we should recall, in fact, the operations of the Iranian UAVs in the Israeli airspace of February 2018 or the many missile test launches in June 2018.

Also the Jewish State, however, does not want an open clash. In fact, since 2013 Israel has carried out over 230 operations in Syria, especially against the trafficking of arms for Hezbollah, in addition to many operations – in the “war between wars ” – against the Iranian bases in Syria at least since 2017.

In the statements made by Hassan Nasrallah in February 2019, however, Hezbollah maintained that if there were a clash between the Shiite “Party of God” and Israel, it would not be necessarily confined to the Syrian-Lebanese or to the Lebanese-Israeli system, but it would immediately involve all the “voluntary” forces of the Arab world.

All the organizations that, in various capacities, are part of the Iranian system between the Lebanon and the Sunni area south of Israel will certainly be used by the “Iranian Revolutionary Guards” to operate against the Jewish State in an integrated way.

The “corridor” line between Iraq, Iran, Syria and the Lebanon -which is the Iranian target in the Syrian war – is the axis along which all future operations against the Jewish State will take place. It is a broad and very difficult front to hold for both sides, namely Israel and Iran.

Hence, in principle, the future scenarios could be the following: a) a conventional war in Northern Lebanon, with the participation of Hezbollah, Iran, the Hamas network already present on the Litani river and some Syrian groups.

Or b) a clash on the Bekaa-Golan border initially focused on the Syrian territory, thus leaving Southern Lebanon free for a possible secondary attack on Israel, at a later stage of operations.

This war against Israel would clearly be waged by Bashar al-Assad’s forces, by the Iranian Pasdaran, Hezbollah, the Shite groups on the Syrian border, as well as Hamas and the Southern Sunni Islamic jihad and, in all likelihood, also by the pro-Syrian groups present along the border of the Palestinian National Authority with the Jewish State.

Finally, there could be c) a “dual war” in the Lebanon and Syria at the same time, with the further and subsequent support of Hamas and Islamic jihad attacks on Israel from the South.

It should also be recalled that the Houthi guerrillas in Yemen are already capable of blocking the Israeli maritime interests in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and across the Red Sea.  Not to mention the always possible attacks of Iranian missile positions in Iraq towards the Jewish State, thus probably resulting in further attacks on the remaining US units between Syria, Iraq and Jordan.

In this case, only two considerations can be made: Israel’s future war in the Lebanon would certainly be less limited than the operations already carried out from 1978 to 1982 until 2000 (the stabilization of Hezbollah) and the actions of 2006.

We can also add that currently the Iranian, Sunni and Syrian forces will shift – as quickly as possible – from an attack against the Israeli critical infrastructure to a real counterforce occupation on the ground.

However, will the Hezbollah and Iranian centres of gravity, as well as those of the Sunni forces in the Lebanon, be quickly identified by Israel in an upcoming attack?

However, in the future is it not ever more probable to have a wide area of action from the North, which will imply – from the very beginning – Hezbollah, Syrian and Iranian positions all along the Syrian border with Israel?

Moreover, what will the Russian Federation do?

Will it want to be hegemonic throughout the Middle East and hence will it reach a sort of agreement with Israel, or will it choose the old strategic posture of acting as defender of the Arab world against the Jewish State?

Where would Russia go with such an old and weak geopolitical perspective?

Whatever happens, the Russian Federation will be the keystone of every operation between Israel, the Lebanon and the Syrian-Iranian axis.

Therefore Russia has only two options: either it steps aside in the future Syrian-Lebanese-Israeli conflict – and hence runs the risk of losing all its power also in Syria – or it chooses to take part in the clashes, possibly indirectly, to favor one party or the other, but only at the right time.

In the future, however, Russia will never do anything to trigger the Syrian fuses again.

Every war operation across Syria runs the risks of undermining above all Russia’s new strategic assets.

In a short time, however, the United States could support the Israeli missile defences. Later Russia could support Iran and Syria only to be consistent and fulfill a commitment made, thus preventing them from using the Russian advanced weapons on Assad’s territory. Furthermore the United States could support Israel, but also an international diplomatic effort that would turn the clash into a short and conventional war, without Israel’s “access to the extremes”, in the customary style in place since 1973.

At that juncture, Israel could choose to systematically weaken the enemy forces, or to divide the opponents, according to the strategy of the Horatii and the Curiatii or of the “distant friend”. Or, as it has already proven it can do, Israel can destabilize Syria and possibly even Iraq on the border of Iraq with Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The extent to which Israel can still trust the United States in this operational and strategic choice is largely uncertain, if not unlikely.

If possible, in the future Israel can organize only a cold peace with Russia, thus increasing – however -its possibility to put pressure on the Russian Federation, also at military one.

The first rule for the Jewish State will always be to avoid splitting and fragmenting its forces. Hence it will always primarily need to immediately identify the enemy’s centre of gravity, although complex and resulting from alliances between different strategic aims.

Hence what can Hezbollah alone do in this phase?

The “Party of God” could avoid bringing the clash with Israel to Southern Lebanon, so as to avoid turning its primary assets into relatively easy targets for Israel.

A movement like the Shiite “Party of God”, but without a Lebanese hinterland or a cover area between the Litani river and Beirut, does not stand a chance and is defeated at the outset.

How much would Syria participate in the operations against Israel?

Probably, as much as to be able to decide the political effects of the war on its border with the Lebanon, but never so much as to use up its forces, in view of a destabilization on the Golan region.

Furthermore, how and to what extent would Iran arm the Houthi with a view to stopping the Israeli supplies in the Red Sea?

Is it possible that the Houthi’s primary goal for Iran is precisely to keep Saudi Arabia away from the new war in the Lebanon?

Would Iran better use them solely for putting pressure on Saudi Arabia, especially pending a Shite uprising from Bahrain, so as to later reach the Saudi provinces – with a Shiite majority – of Baharna, al-Qatif and Al- Ahsa, with the powerful and hidden Twelver Shia community of the Nakhawila, who have always lived in Medina?

You cannot do everything at the same time.

Or Iran and Hezbollah could opt for a low-medium intensity “long war” on the Israeli borders.

As far as we can currently know, however, Hezbollah has not yet clear ideas in mind.

This Shite movement is ever more the result of the many tensions within the complex and now fragmented Iranian regime.

According to the most reliable sources, however, the Lebanese Shiite “Party of God” has at least 110,000 missiles and rockets on the border with Israel.

Iran has at least 3,800 of them between the Litani border and the Bekaa-Golan axis.

Nevertheless 80% of these Iranian missiles cannot yet reach the Israeli territory while ensuring operational safety and security.

Apart from those left by Russia – and closely monitored by it – Syria still has few own missiles, all controlled directly from the Moscow’s Centre for the Aerospace Forces.

Obviously, the only potential that Hezbollah can use is currently its missile and military system in Southern Lebanon.

Also Iran closely monitors Southern Lebanon and, as far as we know, it has a dual command chain for the most relevant missiles.

Hence, time is short for a “war between wars” of the Lebanese, Iranian and Syrian Shiites against Israel.

Nevertheless, while the Party of God’s centre of gravity is so evident and small – and Lebanese only – Israel can always attack massively and in a very short time, thus blocking Hezbollah’s response and implicitly threatening any Lebanese Shiite allies.

Hence, for the “Party of God” the problem is also to be ready for an effective war against Israel, but without ever involving the Lebanese territory, which could become a necessary safe haven after the first Israeli salvos.

Therefore, a concrete possibility is that Hezbollah, Iran and a part of Syria create their guerrilla groups along the Bekaa-Golan and Iraq-Lebanon “corridor”, with a view to distributing the efforts against Israel and avoiding the immediate elimination of their centre of gravity by Israel.

There are currently around 20,000 Shiite foreign fighters in Syria, although Iran has always claimed to have called and trained at least 180,000.

Hence an inevitably slow mobilization – an easy goal of interdiction by the Israeli air forces.

However, Hezbollah’s missiles alone are enough to saturate Israeli defenses.

However, despite the recent Iranian support, the salvo quality and accuracy still leaves something to be desired.

Currently the only possibility for Iran and the Shiite Lebanon against Israel is to launch a limited attack and then use diplomacy and the international business and influence networks to contain and curb the strength of Israeli response.

Hence a good possibility for the Jewish State is to exploit or support Iran’s tendency to trigger a non-conventional conflict, but with the obvious possibility that, from the very beginning, the Syrian or Lebanese conflict may expand directly also onto the Iranian territory.

Hence, we could think of a further effort by Israel to “keep the Americans in”, but even the “Russians in” – just to paraphrase what Lord Ismay said about NATO -as well as to move Hezbollah away from the borderline of the Litani river and the Bekaa-Golan axis, well over the 80 kilometers already requested by Israel.

If Russia remains in Syria, as is now certain, it will have no interest in a long war in Syria or in the Lebanon.

Hence, it could slowly separate its forces from the Shiite and Syrian ones, or ban some areas to the Shiite guerrillas that Iran has already called in Syria.

The Israeli military services, however, have already signaled the presence of Iranian forces from the border with Israel to Northern and Eastern Syria, with a strong Syrian-Lebanese and Iranian military pressure that will almost certainly take place around the upcoming Israeli elections of April 9.

Shortly afterwards, Israel shall assess President Trump’s proposal for a definitive peace between Israel and the Palestinian world.

A peace that will change the whole strategic formula of the Greater Middle East.

Hence, it is not hard to foresee that the Gaza Strip will become an area of overt and full-blown war, put in place by Palestinians and their Iranian supporters.

Over the last few days, major incidents have already occurred at the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel. Therefore the electoral tension in Israel will be a further trigger of very strong and future political-military actions in the North and in the South.

At the Northern border, between Bekaa and Golan, there will be further tensions that will lead to actions by Shiite guerrilla organizations on the Israeli territory.

Both Hezbollah and the Al Qods Brigades of the “Iranian Revolutionary Guards” will choose the right time to hit the Jewish State with their missiles, obviously when the tension towards the Gaza Strip reaches its peak.

Or – but it is not an alternative option – along the border between the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and Israel.

There is nothing to prevent the Shiite organizations from using Russian positions as shields, which will obviously never participate in the operations of their Syrian-Iranian or Lebanese allies against Israel.

During the Israeli electoral period, the Palestinian jihadist organizations will operate especially between Judea and Samaria. They will possibly be even supported by the Russian Federation, which still plays the card of Palestinian unity both to compete with Iran and to organize the support for Russia by the Sunni world.

Nevertheless, nothing prevents us from thinking that Russia also has some political “champion” within the Israeli electoral campaign.

Not surprisingly, the first Conference for Palestinian Unity began in Warsaw on February 13, with as many as 60 countries invited and the initial proposal for mediation by the United States.

Nevertheless, precisely on February 11-13, a new inter-Palestinian Conference was organized in Moscow, with the participation of Hamas and other groups of the Sunni jihad.

What does Russia want to obtain from these operations?

Firstly, Russia wants to avoid a new Iranian hegemony in this region that Russia has always nurtured.

For obvious purposes, which have little changed since the end of the Cold War.

Secondly, the Russian Federation wants to win the geopolitical support of this unified Palestinian region, with a view to becoming the real broker of a new Middle East peace, thus ousting both the United States and the much sillier “mediators” of the unaware and now comical Union European.

Hence, the Russian Federation’s bet is a minimax, as we would say in mathematical terms: to reach the primary goal, that is the Russian hegemony over the whole Middle East, with the minimum effort, i.e. the systematic negotiation with all actors.

In all likelihood, Russia will ask the Jewish State to reduce the military pressure eastwards and southwards, but only to replace it with its own future “deterrence force” at the edges of the various borders.

Obviously, by using all Russia’s allies.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will discuss these issues in his upcoming meetings with President Putin in Moscow on February 21.

However, Syria and Iran will certainly not be the only topics of the bilateral talks with President Putin.

Hence, as already said, the Iranian and the Lebanese Shiite forces, the proxies of the Shiite guerrillas that Iran has called in Syria, the Iranian special forces and those of Bashar al-Assad are moving away from the border with Israel to gather in Northern and Eastern Syria, up to the border with Iraq.

This is really bad news for the Israeli decision-makers.

Currently Iran – with its “revolutionary” groups called from Afghanistan, Iraq and even Pakistan – but also the Hezbollah and the Pasdaran special units, are quickly moving away from the Golan region and -hence – become hard to be attacked by the Israeli forces.

This obviously happens because of the USA leaving its positions – a withdrawal that Iran wants to capitalize quickly and fully, thus removing forces from Syria and, hence, reaching full strategic depth in Iraq, a country from which Iranian missiles can still reach the Israeli territory.

Iran’s plan is therefore to leave the various militias, its Shiite proxies and a part of Hezbollah on the Syrian-Israeli border, as if they were various buffer areas, so as to later protect itself permanently from the Israeli attacks and anyway make it hard for the Israeli forces to control Northern Israel militarily.

Said forces could not control remote operations, if not when it is too late.

Hence, Israel is currently the primary target of the missiles owned by the Palestinian jihad, both in the South and in the East, as well as of the Iranian and Shiite forces in Iraq, of Hezbollah in the north and of Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Not to mention the Iraqi networks of Iran and part of its Shiite proxies.

It will be a war on several fronts and with centers of gravity other than the usual ones.

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Iran: How to Avoid a War

Rahul D. Manchanda, Esq.

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Upon closer inspection, it appears that the Islamic Republic of Iran has a relative near dearth of human rights organizations operating freely within that country.

Although Iran has apparently allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations, as all as some foreign nations to inspect from time to time its weapons facilities and nuclear power apparati, there does not seem to be a corresponding level of interest generated both externally or internally in investigating the various human rights complaints and abuses within Iran.

To be sure, this is the ultimate Achilles Heel of Iran – and a massive glaring fact that Western powers such as the United States, Israel, and other nations seize on to justify bombing the current government of Iran into oblivion.

On a more sick and hypocritical level the fact that Gulf States nations such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain also constantly issue clarion calls for regime change or war with Iran, when they themselves host numerous and countless violations of human rights against women, minorities, religious organizations, and “heretics,” still this only underscores the geopolitical reasons that these aggressive nations want to change or destroy the current Iranian regime.

In order to both diffuse and defray these attacks, Iran has no other real choice other than to augment and increase their internal human rights organizations to both monitor as well as organically implement change in their country, subject to the will of their governed people.

By doing so, Iran could effectively accomplish 2 goals: (1) maintain their current government with relative stability; and (2) organically grow and develop to adequately and accurately transform their government into one that faithfully represents the interests and aspirations of its people, rather than appearing to subjugate and suppress them.

To be sure, Iran would be giving up some of its internal and external sovereignty by allowing more human rights monitoring agencies to actively police and report on its internal human rights conflicts and complaints, but it would go miles towards placating its enemies, removing their arguments for regime change/outright disastrous war, and would also allow for Iran to approach modernity with the rest of the world, rather than being trapped in a society/culture which really has nothing in common with the rest of the civilized world, any more.

In a similar vein, if the Iranian regime is truly serious about joining the league of modern nations, then they should not be afraid or closed off with regards to implementing this.

A nation must be confident in itself, its government, and its own culture, but should also evolve and reflect global change as it presents itself by and for the will of its people, not repressing them as such.

Iran has apparently had a troubling history with appointing human rights organizations in the past, as is reflected by its handling and treatment of the Human Rights Activists in Iran (also known as “HRAI” and “HRA”) which is a non-political non-governmental organization composed of advocates who defend human rights in Iran, which was founded in 2006.

This HRAI organization supposedly was set up to keep the Iranian community and the world informed by monitoring human rights violations in the country and disseminating the news about such abuses.

Additionally, HRAI was allegedly enacted to strive to improve the current state of affairs in a peaceful manner and support strict adherence to human rights principles.

However, the Islamic Republic of Iran has apparently moved to both dismantle and arrest many of the organization’s leaders and representatives, beginning in 2010.

Specifically, on March 2, 2010, the government of Iran moved to break up HRAI.

During the subsequent reconstruction of the organization, the organization apparently registered as a United States non-profit organization and was invited to attend the annual NGO Conference sponsored by the United Nations.

While the Iranian government may have a reason to distrust the impetus/motivations of the United States, Israel and the Gulf States, it really has no reason to distrust the United Nations, which has historically been its only real honest broker/ally.

Adding insult to injury, the HRAI has also been invited to join the World Movement for Democracy and to participate in the human rights events sponsored by the governments of Canada, the United States and the European Union.

The Islamic Republic of Iran can not (and should not) avoid this issue any further.

Merely parroting the mantra that “Saudi Arabia engages in more (or less) human rights abuses” is no longer adequate to stave off and prevent the war drum that is heading Iran’s way.

There are simply too many financial, oil and gas, military industrial complex, geopolitical, and human rights reasons and powers fixated on either regime change or outright war with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

If Iran is truly a confident nation that values it past history and desired future, it must drastically increase and augment its human rights organizations (to get on par with the United States, Europe, and Israel) and move forward to finally embrace its place in the sun as its leaders supposedly state that they want.

If not, then it deserves exactly what it is probably going to get, more war, destabilization, destruction, disorientation, and disarray, similar to what happened to Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and other nations with closed door human rights policies.

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Middle East

The new strategic axis between the Russian Federation and Iran

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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On February 11 last the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, arrived in Beirut, shortly after the establishment of a new Lebanese government that, although led by an old friend of Westerners, namely Hariri, is certainly one of the recent governments closest to Hezbollah.

Minister Javad Zarif offered the Iranian support to the new government – “support in all sectors”.

Besides the Foreign Minister, the Iranian delegation was composed of a select group of 30 Iranian businessmen, who met Lebanese and Palestinian businessmen.

It is the first sign of an Iranian “grip on the Lebanon” by the Shiite Republic of Iran, which will lead to many strategic, geopolitical and economic changes.

It is obvious that, at the end of clashes in Syria, Iran wants to secure a stable centre of power in the Mediterranean region, in close contact with Israel and towards the East Mediterranean gas area which – as often noted – will be very important in the future.

Nor should we forget that Zarif’s visit was scheduled precisely on the day of the 40thanniversary of Imam Khomeini’s Shite revolution – a political symbol which should certainly not be overlooked in a country with a large Shite population.

Same religion, same political leadership – this seems to be the meaning of this careful choice and coordination of dates.

Hence both Russia and Iranthink that the new stability in the Syria led by Bashar al-Assad is based above all in the Lebanon.

Both Russia and Iran, however, have indicated – at least indirectly in the case of Russia – Hezbollah, in particular, as their primary point of reference in the Lebanon.

For the Russian Ambassador to Beirut, currently only the United States can trigger a conflict with Iran, given its regional policy.

As to the probable future conflict between Israel and the Lebanon, Ambassador Zasypkyn believes that the situation is much more unstable and even more controllable.

In other words, Russia still relies on its power of political and military deterrence in Syria to avoid a clash between Hezbollah and Israel – a war that would put a strain on both its new hegemony in the Middle East and stability in Syria.

Just one day before Zarif’s visit to the Lebanon, the Russian envoy to Jerusalem had reassured the Israeli government that Hezbollah was a “stability force” throughout the region.

Probably Russia cannot yet do without Iran, both in Syria and in the Lebanon, and accepts – like it or not – that the primary link in the Lebanon is between the “Party of God” and the new government led by Hariri.

But how long can it last?

If Hezbollah decided to exert new pressure on Israel, Russia could quickly lose its grip on Southern Syria and miss its primary goal of becoming the rotating platform of the Greater Middle East.

Inter alia, the signals coming from the Lebanese Shiite military group are very clear: on February 7 last, Hassan Nasrallah openly called for the rearming of Lebanese forces (obviously) only by Iran and later made it clear that, in a possible US future attack to support Israel, Hezbollah would immediately fight on the Iranian side.

Nasrallah also asked to make the new Iranian “advanced” missiles available to the Lebanon, as well as sensor systems and tactical and signals intelligence.

It is therefore the request for a real strategic parity between Southern Lebanon and Israel.

This means that the Lebanese Shiites’ aim is to eliminate all kind of US interference in the region and later put pressure – not just at military level – on the Jewish State that, without the US support, would be forced to accept a downward and uncertain peace.

This is the first goal of both Iran and Hezbollah, but certainly not of the Russian Federation.

Nevertheless, in his Lebanese meetings, Javad Zarif – who implicitly accepted Hezbollah’s request for help – also made it clear that Bavar 373 – a missile launching and air defence system very similar to the Russian S-300 – was ready for the forces of the “Party of God”, but also for the Lebanese regular army.

“Bavar” means “belief”, albeit in a strictly religious sense, while the number 373 reminds of the soldiers belonging to the final ranks of the Twelfth Imam.

Iran is full of political symbols that must always be taken into account.

Bavar 373 is a well-copied surface-to-air missile system – probably from the Russian S-300 system that appeared in Iran for the first time in 2015.

The system uses the Iran-made missile called Sayyad-4 having a range of 150 kilometres. It also uses advanced radars that – as the analysts who saw Bavar 373 at work maintain – can saturate at least sixty targets at the same time.

It is therefore obvious to imagine what will immediately happen: sooner or later Israel will have the opportunity of destroying the Iranian networks in the Lebanon with a surgical operation. In all likelihood, however, Hariri’s government will refuse Iran’s offer, thus allowing Russian weapons and, above all, the S-300 missiles to arrive in the Lebanon.

It should be recalled that the S-300 missiles will be carefully monitored both from the Russian bases in Syria, which will never be abandoned by Russia, and simultaneously from the Russian missile site.

Obviously Iran does not object to the transfer of Russian weapons to the Lebanon. Quite the reverse.

Furthermore, the Shite regime will soon maintain that, since the United States still arm and train the Kurds against the so-called Caliphate, it also regularly and lawfully arms their Hezbollah units against the same enemy, and with equivalent devices and systems.

Hence Iran’s and Russia’s primary goal is the total expulsion of the United States from Syria and from the Lebanese and Israeli Mediterranean coast.

Once completed this operation, Russia will ask Israel for a new deployment of its potentials against Hezbollah and the Palestinian jihad forces, which are also in Iran’s calculations.

And possibly, in the future, in Russia’s calculations.

However, as far as we currently know, the final US withdrawal from Syria should be completed by the end of April.

But, again, what is the reason underlying this new Russian interest in the “Party of God”?

It is already clear that Russia does not want to remain alone in Syria.

The Russian Federation, however, does not even want Iran to undermine its regional hegemony, since it believes that everything Iran can ask is the stability of its “corridor” from Iraq to the Lebanon, but only under Russia’s control.

Hence taking Hezbollah away from Iran’s hands is vital for the Russian Federation, which desperately needs strategic buffers to control Syria by isolating Iran’s primary instrument, namely Hezbollah.

As already seen, also on February 11 last, in its talks with Netanyahu’s government, Russia maintained that “Hezbollah was a peace force”.

This also makes us understand that President Putin has no interest in stopping the Israeli operations against the tunnels of the Shiite military organization.

Again, for Russia, the possible conflict between Israel and Lebanon can only break out because of the United States, considering that Hezbollah supported only the lawful government of Damascus, unlike what the United States did since the beginning of hostilities.

Hence Russia believes that the United States should tone down its attacks on Iran, with a view to reducing the Shiite Republic’s pressure on Hezbollah and the current Lebanese government.

Is this hypothesis reasonable? Both yes and no.

Certainly, if the United States wants a prolonged war (this is the sense that Iran attributes to the US statements), the most likely reaction will be an Iranian attack that will set fire to the whole “corridor” and destabilize the Golan region.

Nevertheless, is it not equally probable that the US Presidency’s brags were just a strategic “trial balloon” and boasts for internal use?

As is currently probable, it is precisely Russia that wants the “Party of God” shift from a clear Iranian dominance to a stable (and hegemonic) Russian protection.

If this happened, Russia would avoid paying too high a Syrian price to Iran. It would also have a military organization at its disposal that could well secure the East Mediterranean region and keep – again on Russia’s behalf – peace and stability of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, whose Armed Forces it never liked much.

Three important considerations shall be made in this respect: the S-300 operating systems that Russia has left in Syria since last October are not yet operational.

This means that Russia has not yet decided what to do with them in Syria.

Furthermore, Iran has not yet completed the factory and has not yet started the production of “advanced” missiles on the Syrian territory.

It was, in fact, mere psyops to show to Israel and the USA a greater development stage than the real one and to underline the impending  danger of an Israeli attack.

Finally, Iran has not yet accepted the pressing Russian request to quickly move the centralized command of its forces in Syria, which operates from the Damascus International Airport area.

All Iranians are still there and they will stay there for a long time.

Therefore, in essence, Russia believes that all these post-truths are the result of an American and Israeli psywar operation, designed to clearly separate the Iranian, Russian and Lebanese interests and hence rebuild a security network in Syria and in the Lebanon.

Precisely in response to said alleged psyops, Russia is currently trying to place the whole “Party of God” movement under its wing, at a time when it knows very well that the Iranian support for Hezbollah is weak and economically unpredictable.

Hence a new Hezbollah, which would act as a watchdog in Syria and ensure the security of the coasts south of Latakia and Tartus. It would also enable Russia to have access to the wide universe of Sunni and Shite “resistance” movements opposing the Israeli expansion.

Russia wants a stable Israel, but small and less powerful than it currently is.

We have already seen important signs of this operation during the Sochi meeting between Putin, Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani held on February 14 last.

On that occasion President Putin clearly reaffirmed his support for Hezbollah, i.e. his “grip on the group”, and the possible use of this new protection for both Turkey and obviously Iran.

Probably Russia knows that Iran can no longer afford to support the very expensive “Party of God”, as well as the whole jihadist network south of Israel.

According to Russian plans, however, Iran and Turkey will never be able to use the new arrangement of the “Party of God” on their own.

In addition, Rosneft has already penetrated the complex and largely autonomous Lebanese natural gas market which, as already noted, has left the sphere of the Cairo Conference.

A twenty-year agreement between the Russian natural gas giant and the Lebanese government is already in place for a storage site in Tripoli.

As soon as the USA leaves the Middle East, Russia will immediately occupy the oil and gas sites and positions.

But it will do so on its own, without parallel agreements with Syria or Iran.

Moreover, from now on, the Lebanon explicitly wants Russia to manage the relations between the Lebanon and Syria that, as is well-known, have never been particularly peaceful.

The variable of the Lebanese real independence from Syria is the central point of Russia’s current posture and, hence, of its specific focus on Hezbollah.

The one billion US dollar agreement of military transfers from Russia to the Lebanon, which has been much discussed in Western capitals, is a first sign showing that Russia does not want Iran in the Lebanon, but can accept it among the other secondary players, above all in Syria.

The Russian-Lebanese trade has risen from 423 million in 2016 to the current 800 million, with a market dominated by Russian energy transfers to the Lebanese market.

In all likelihood, in the future Russia will support Hezbollah’s request that the Israeli deep-sea Leviathan gas field illegally acquires some of the resources of the Lebanese gas fields.

The threat is clear: if Russia fully supported the Lebanese requests, there would be the possibility of a beginning of hostilities between the “Party of God” and Israel. At the end of a short, but harsh confrontation, said hostilities would be mediated exactly by the Russian Federation.

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