WikiLeaks and Sanctions - What a Way to Start the Week! (7/26/10) Most reporting on the extensive cache of classified documents revealed by WikiLeaks through a few major global media outlets this weekend focuses on the nefarious activities of Pakistan's intelligence service. Yet one of the newspapers chosen by WikiLeaks to break the story, Britain's The Guardian, also provides an eyebrow-raising account of alleged Iranian involvement in Taliban efforts to undermine the Afghan government (see article here). To its credit, The Guardian repeatedly points out that most of the leaked intel is neither corroborated nor what those in the trade call 'finished' intelligence. In other words, wide-eyed readers should not assume that leaked intelligence equates to the revelation of profound, hidden truths. The leaked reports suggest that Iran is providing safe haven within its borders for Taliban-affiliated insurgents to plan attacks against the Government of Afghanistan; the group Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is noted as a primary beneficiary of Iranian aid. Iran is alleged to have even offered financial reward for the killing of Afghan government officials. It is not clear whether such Iranian operations enjoy the direction and approval of the top leadership or whether they are at least partially rogue and driven by the individual or organizational imperatives of the IRGC.
At first glance it is hard to believe that Iran would work so purposively to undermine the Afghan government. Tehran was instrumental, after all, in the success of the Bonn Conference that established the government eight years ago. Tehran nearly went to war with the Taliban in the 1990s and quietly supported the US effort to overthrow the hated Sunni extremist regime. So what may have changed? The case of Iraq may offer some insight into Tehran's thinking on Afghanistan. Iran quietly cooperated with the overthrow of Saddam and the establishment of the new government in Baghdad. Yet as the insurgency wore on, the IRGC was shown to be arming and supporting anti-Coalition forces. This seemingly contradictory policy most likely revealed hedging on Iran's part as well as internal Iranian debate over the probable success of the Iraqi government. Senior Iranian leaders (particularly those in the Revolutionary Guards and intelligence services) who judged that the Baghdad government would ultimately fail appear to have decided that the best strategy would be to cultivate ties to the country's other (violent) power brokers and build leverage to protect Iranian interests no matter the outcome of Iraq's power struggle. The same logic may be at play in Afghanistan. At least some of Tehran's leadership has very likely concluded that the Government of Afghanistan is bound to fail. Rather than throw all of its good money after bad, Tehran is probably hedging its bets and, assuming that some manifestation of the Taliban returns to power, working to ensure that those Taliban elements are friendly or at least non-threatening. The Taliban, after all, is not a monolithic organization; Tehran may be able to live with some form of "Taliban" government. Finally, complicating the American military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan has certainly not hurt Tehran's interest in diminishing US military resources and political will for a possible attack on Iran.
Shifting gears to another very significant story, EU leaders have agreed on the most far-reaching package of sanctions ever taken by European countries against Iran outside of the United Nations context. American proponents of ILSA (Iran-Libya Sanctions Act) may be forgiven for smugly or sarcastically noting that "it only took them fifteen years to see it our way." The new measures ban investment in Iran's energy sector, essentially bringing the EU in line with the controversial US restrictions passed by Congress and the Clinton administration in 1996. The extra-territorial sanctions of ILSA that purported to punish foreign (read: European) companies for investing in Iran's energy sector strained US-Europe relations for years. Not only does the new EU measure put to rest US-EU tensions over sanctions policy, but it increases the chances that sanctions may actual have that "biting" effect that Secretary Clinton has so often touted. If only India, China, and Russia would now come on board.
Making Sense of the Sanctions Whirlwind (7/12/10) The last month has yielded a whirlwind of reporting on new Iran sanctions. The United Nations, United States, and even the European Union have been in on the action. Keeping the details of various sanctions resolutions straight can become confusing for the expert, let alone the casual observer. Here is a breakdown of the fundamental differences and objectives of recent sanctions initiatives, along with links to more detailed information.
First, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed new sanctions on 9 June via Resolution 1929. Like its predecessors, this resolution calls on Iran to cease enrichment as well as other suspect nuclear activities and accede to more stringent international nuclear safeguards. The sanctions included in the resolution intend to constrain Iran's ability to finance and procure military projects - both conventional and nuclear. They DO NOT target Iran's energy sector or economy writ large, due mainly to the objections of Russia and China (both of which have extensive trade ties with Iran - especially in the field of energy). Resolution 1929 prohibits Iran from investing abroad in nuclear-related enterprises, including uranium mining. It establishes a far-reaching conventional arms ban and prohibits further development in Iran's ballistic missile program; there is some question, however, whether the sanctions apply to air defense systems such as the long-sought S-300 (which is still being withheld by Russia and which, if delivered, could greatly complicate any military action against Iran's nuclear facilities). The sanctions resolution also targets Iranian shipping. It requires countries to inspect Iranian cargo ships suspected of carrying contraband but provides no clear standard for suspicion nor mechanism for enforcement. Instead, the resolution establishes a monitoring panel to handle reports of sanctions violations and to discuss means of enforcement at later dates. "Vigilance" is a keyword employed in the resolution to apply to Iranian shipping as well as finance. While vigilance is of course welcome and encouraged, the lack of clearer guidelines and enforcement mechanisms is likely to lead to uneven application of the sanctions.
The United States followed UN passage of Resolution 1929 with supplementary domestic sanctions legislation primarily targeting Iran's energy industry. The major provisions of the oft-mentioned Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (and some provisions of SWIPA and IDEA) were incorporated into the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010. The major feature of the legislation is the sanctioning of companies that directly ship or participate in the shipping (i.e. through finance and insurance) of refined petroleum products to Iran. Despite being one of the world's largest oil producers, Iran lacks refining capacity and requires extensive imports of gasoline and other refined oil products - hence Congress's view that refined energy products constitute the (or at least an) Achilles' Heel of the regime. The new sanctions also target Iranian banking and prohibit American and foreign firms from providing financial services that may in any way assist the IRGC or Iran's nuclear program. The law is especially conscious about targeting multiple degrees of separation between American business and illicit Iranian activity, holding parent companies responsible for the activities of subsidiaries and encouraging widespread divestment. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) approves of the legislation (and provides a useful fact sheet), while the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC) is ambivalent at best, viewing the act as a blunt instrument and decrying what it views as mere lip service to the smarter provisions of SWIPA and IDEA.
Finally, after nearly two decades of American frustration with Europe, the EU appears to be putting security and principle ahead of commercial interests by discussing its own embargo on investment in Iran's oil and gas sectors. French giant Total ceased petroleum shipments to Iran six weeks ago, and Spain's Repsol has withdrawn from a contract to develop the large and lucrative South Pars gas field. A more detailed EU initiative is possible by the end of the summer. Meanwhile, the momentum and facts on the ground suggest at least partial European divestment from business interests in Iran. A potential point of leverage remains for Iran vis-a-vis the Europeans, however. EU countries are investing billions in the development of the Nabucco gas pipeline, which Europe hopes will provide an alternative to Russian-supplied gas. The Nabucco pipeline will straddle Iran and may ultimately transport Iranian gas to Europe if sufficient supplies cannot be garnered from other countries in the region.
Iran may not have to worry about blackmailing Europe with piped gas, however. Russia and China appear willing to fill the void left in large energy development projects by American and European companies, rendering the value of energy sanctions rather dubious. Sanctions optimists suggest that Russia and China cannot provide the advanced technology that Iran needs to optimize its resource exploitation. US-Iran-Relations.com takes the more pessimistic view that, given the choice between retaining its nuclear enrichment capacity and having access to cutting-edge fossil fuel extraction equipment and techniques, Tehran will chose the former. The value of US and EU energy sanctions is also called into question by Iran's advances in oil refining. While Iran is regularly reported to depend on imports for 30-40 percent of its refined products, energy expert Gal Luft warns that Iran may reduce its dependence to 15-25 percent by 2011 and be gasoline self-sufficient by 2012. A more recent Washington Post article also suggests that Iran has been long anticipating and preparing for refined petrol sanctions and has limited its vulnerability. Finally, reports of Iraqi smuggling and IRGC profits call into question the efficacy of many sanctions initiatives.
Is the Green Movement Winning? And Should the US Help? (6/11/10) Iran is dominating the opinion pages this week. Few analysts and pundits are taking seriously the Obama administration's claims of the new UN sanctions' potency. The BBC reports that the new sanctions will not preclude Russia's still-pending sale of the S-300 air defense system to Tehran, and the New York Times reports that even the Obama team is well aware that supplementary efforts (some covert) are necessary to truly inconvenience Iran's nuclear program. Attention today has shifted from the deficiencies of sanctions to the state of the Green Movement on the one-year anniversary of last summer's disputed election. The outlooks are anything but uniform. Two pairs of dueling commentaries appear in Current News Links today. Each pits an optimist against a pessimist. Senator John McCain writes that hope remains for the Green Movement and that the US should more purposively and outwardly support the cause for freedom and democracy in Iran in order to achieve peaceful regime change from within. Hooman Majd takes a completely different stance, arguing that the Green Movement has all but failed due to the kiss of death of foreign support - including not only Western support but support from disreputable Iranian exiles like the MKO and Reza Pahlavi, the Shah's son.
The second pair of dueling commentaries leaves aside the role of foreigners and focuses on what is going on within the country. Jason Rezaian declares the Green Movement essentially dead due to poor leadership and apathy. While his pessimism may be a bit extreme, Reza Aslan seems to take his optimism to another extreme, suggesting that the Green Movement has won the battle for Iran's political soul and that it is now just a matter of time before the current system collapses. Although he may be a bit too enthusiastic, Aslan comes closest to the heart of the issue in noting that a new generation of Qom seminarians is emerging which is more influenced by the traditional, apolitical Shi'ism espoused by Grand Ayatollah Sistani of Najaf. Aslan reports that Sistani has been "flooding Qom's seminaries with his disciples." If true, this generational and philosophical sea change at the heart of Iran's theocracy could be key to a future revision of the system of veliyat-e faqih. Such a generational change in Qom is an essential ingredient of gradual reform noted in last summer's US-Iran-Relations.com analysis Evolution, Not Revolution. US-Iran-Relations.com stands by last summer's assessment. Just because we are unlikely to see grandiose protests this weekend or near-term change does not mean that the Green Movement is dead. However, its ultimate success is not inevitable. Though it may not make for an exciting column, level-headedness and patience remain the best approach to forecasting Iran's political future.
UN Set to Move on Sanctions as Anniversary Approaches (6/8/10) The United Nations Security Council appears set to vote on a new sanctions resolution targeting Iran's nuclear program this week ahead of the one-year anniversary of Iran's disputed Presidential election on Saturday. The sanctions will increase pressure on Iran's Revolutionary Guards, its banks, and its international shipping operations. The New York Times has published a must-read article about Tehran's extensive efforts to out-maneuver policing of its shipping lines. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warns that the United States is mistaken if it believes that coercion such as sanctions will lead to further constructive talks.
This week's milestones are sure to be bittersweet for many Iran observers and those with a vested personal interest in the country. It is fitting on the one hand to see Iran facing international censure on the eve of last summer's stolen election. Iran remains an international pariah. Yet the fact that headlines remain fixated on Iran's nuclear program reveals how little has really changed in the last year. It is possible but unlikely that the Green Movement will capture the headlines this weekend with protest marches comparable to those that captivated the world last summer. The regime's crackdown has been largely successful, and Mr. Ahmadinejad will spend the weekend enjoying the World Expo in Shanghai, China.
There will be some rallies this weekend for sure, and many shouts of "Death to the Dictator!" from rooftops. Yet the extent to which Iran's would-be reformers have fallen off the radar and the maddening repetition of moves and counter-moves on the nuclear program reminds us just how long the road remains to a better Iran and a better US-Iran relationship.
New Editorial: Tip Your Hat & Take the Uranium (5/27/10) Iran made a shrewd diplomatic move in reaching an agreement with Brazil and Turkey to send nearly half of its uranium abroad. The US reaction has been rightly skeptical, but skepticism is no reason to dismiss the agreement. Instead of taking its ball and going home because Iran won't play fairly, the US should tip its hat and come back with a better counter-move. The default counter-move of UN sanctions is dubious at best. Russia may even benefit from a well-fortified Iran with a nuclear breakout capability. None of the United States' options are without drawbacks, but serious strides are needed toward a more coherent American strategy. Read the editorial here.
Iran Strikes Deal to Send Uranium to Turkey (5/17/10) Iran has reached a deal with Brazil and Turkey to send a portion of its low-enriched uranium stockpile to Turkey. The deal is similar to the Western proposal for a fuel swap that Iran rejected last Fall, yet immediate concerns are being raised that Iran would retain enough uranium for a weapon under the current deal and that Tehran is merely engaging in a ploy to divide the international community and throw a monkey wrench into plans for new sanctions. At first glance, it does appear to be a very shrewd if obvious diplomatic chess move on the part of Iran. More original thoughts will follow on this page as the story unfolds. For now, follow coverage under Current News Links.
Iranian ICBM Still a Decade Away (5/10/10) The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies has released a report entitled Iran's Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment. The full report requires purchase, yet the Press Statement itself is the most thorough summary and explanation of Iran's ballistic missile order of battle, strategic utility, and research and development efforts (and challenges) that this author has seen in the open sources in some time. In short, IISS experts (who are drawn from around the world and have no ostensible political agenda) believe that Iran has made impressive strides in its missile programs over the years but still faces significant challenges prior to fielding reliable weapons that could strike Western Europe and especially the United States. Among these challenges are waning foreign assistance, poor missile accuracy, and insufficient telemetry and test data to determine reliability. They judge that Iran remains at least 4-5 years from fielding a weapon that could reliably strike Western Europe, and a decade from fielding an ICBM capable of striking the United States.
Iranian Disillusionment an Intelligence Goldmine (4/25/10) The Washington Post has published an important article today suggesting that disillusioned Iranian "technocrats" (scientists, government officials) are defecting and providing the United States with valuable intelligence about Iran's nuclear program. Many of the sources cite the regime's election fraud and crackdown as the impetus to change sides. The flood of new intelligence continues to delay the completion of a new, highly-anticipated National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program...Meanwhile, the Christian Science Monitor sounds an alarm that gasoline sanctions may lead to war; the only way to enforce an embargo would be to blockade Iran. The CSM is right that a blockade would be an act of war, yet it is highly unlikely to come to this. Whether the United States and the international community would have the will to actually enforce the sanctions against companies that might violate them is itself in doubt. The House and Senate reportedly hope to reconcile their versions of the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act by late May.
Report Outlines Investment in Iranian Energy Sector (4/24/10) The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO), a non-partisan "watchdog" agency affiliated with Congress, has released a report identifying forty-one foreign firms that have commercially engaged in the Iranian oil, natural gas, and petrochemical sectors since 2005. The report draws upon open sources such as corporate statements and industry publications; it eschews newspaper reports and other RUMINT (rumored intelligence) in order to achieve a high level of reliability. GAO makes no determination as to whether the activities of these companies are sanctionable under US law; such determination is the responsibility of the Secretary of State. The GAO report is an excellent source for anyone interested in a clear, detailed, and credible accounting of foreign investment in Iran's energy sector.
Iran Opens Own Nuclear Disarmament Conference (4/17/10) A two-day nuclear disarmament conference is underway in Tehran. Unsurprisingly, the opening statements and headlines from the event portray the United States as the real nuclear threat. Ayatollah Khamenei has referred to the US as a nuclear criminal and repeated the oft-heard statement that nuclear weapons are religiously prohibited. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehman-Parast has stated that the US is guilty of nuclear terrorism, as most recently demonstrated by what Tehran interprets as President Obama's targeting of Iran for possible nuclear attack in the new US Nuclear Posture Review. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims that the nuclear powers are hypocritical and incapable of carry through global disarmament. Beyond rhetoric, the goals of the conference are unclear. Iran claims it is intended to revive the NPT, yet it calls for a new organization to enforce global nuclear disarmament and for the expulsion of the US from the IAEA Board of Governors. Press reports are also vague about the participants. Al Jazeera reports that foreign ministers and deputy foreign ministers from twenty-four countries are in attendance. An Iranian state news report suggests participants from sixty countries. See Current News Links for featured headlines. You can also follow Iran's own (state-controlled) coverage of the event in English via the websites of Tehran Times, Fars News, and Press TV.
The Language of Interests (4/13/10) The nuclear dispute between the US and Iran has reached yet another fever pitch in recent days. The new US Nuclear Posture Review forswears the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states -- except those that are not in good standing with arms control and non-proliferation regimes and commitments (read: Iran). The intended message is, of course, that a country that does not seek nuclear weapons need not fear a nuclear attack by the United States. The Obama administration, however, has either ignored or does not care about the more likely interpretation: that the United States has Iran uniquely in its nuclear crosshairs. This indeed has been the official interpretation in Tehran. Meanwhile, President Ahmadinejad has hurled sophomoric (if not downright amusing) invective toward the Nuclear Security Summit currently underway in Washington. Iran plans its own alternative nuclear summit this weekend in reminiscence of its reaction to the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991-1992. The US summit is a laudable and unprecedented effort to secure dangerous nuclear material around the world. Iran is not on the official agenda (and is, of course, not a participant). Yet framing Iran as a nuclear pariah is an unmistakable subtext of the meetings, and President Obama is reportedly using his many encounters with world leaders to marshal support for international sanctions against Iran.
Indeed, it seems that sanctions are all that anyone hears about anymore. The Obama administration's effort to negotiate with Iran was disappointingly short-lived, consisting of one P5+1 meeting in Geneva and a take-it-or-leave-it nuclear fuel swap proposal. The US and company made little apparent effort to re-shape the initial proposal in a way that would satisfy the interests of both parties and instead walked away from the table in a huff over Iran's supposed bad faith. They have since reverted to the approach, popular since the Clinton administration, of invoking the language of international laws and norms to frame Iran as a pariah or outlaw. As has been the case for nearly twenty years, this framing of the issue is unlikely to achieve anything of substance. Invocation of international laws and norms are often influential, but it is beyond obvious that these forces are insufficient to move Iran. Iran cares less than the average state about its standing in the international community, and it is clear that the international community lacks the political will to squeeze Iran to the satisfaction of the United States. China and Russia are still waffling on sanctions, and Tehran continues to make inroads in Latin America in contravention of the Monroe Doctrine that could be exploited to circumvent any "crippling" or "biting" sanctions. One increasingly senses that we are witnessing lowest-common-denominator solutions if not an outright charade.
The US must invoke the language of interests if it is to achieve anything of substance with Iran. Iran has shown time and again that it does not respond favorably when it feels that it is being scolded. Tehran has suggested that it will deal with the US when Washington recognizes its legitimate interests. Take, for example, the nuclear fuel swap proposal. The P5+1 proposal called for Iran to ship its HEU abroad prior to receipt of medically-applicable fuel plates/rods. Given the tone of US-Iran relations, one must wonder whether he himself would, if he were the leader of Iran, accept such terms. Iran countered with a proposal that would keep the worrisome uranium under international safeguards on Iranian soil - perhaps on Kish Island. The West rejected this on the basis that it would not remove the danger of an Iranian nuclear weapon because Tehran could kick the international monitors out at any time. But isn't this is a risk with any international monitoring regime? Scientists from the Federation of American Scientists argue that the US should accept the Iranian counter-proposal. The risks of acceptance are no greater than the risks of inaction. Yet instead, the US seems married to the notion that it cannot acknowledge any level of Iranian reasonableness.
This argument is not an apology for Iran, as some hawks are sure to suggest. It is an argument for a dose of cold, hard realism. The Iranian regime is morally repugnant and, like all states, lies or misleads when it is in its interest to do so. Iran may very well intend to develop nuclear weapons. This is not in dispute. In fact, if Iran is developing nuclear weapons, that makes a turn toward realism all the more urgent. The US has an interest in a non-nuclear Iran. In order to realize this interest, it must be willing to engage Iran in dialogue that uses the language of interests.
New Developments in CIA Efforts & Views on Iran (3/31/10) ABC News has reported that an Iranian nuclear scientist has defected to the United States and is providing information and assistance to the CIA. Iran has long claimed that the scientist, Shahram Amiri, was kidnapped while performing the hajj in Saudi Arabia. The report also suggests that the CIA is attempting to persuade more Iranian scientists to defect by leveraging family and Iranian expatriate networks. Meanwhile, the CIA has released its newest Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions. The report - which does not represent the collective view of the US intelligence community in the same manner as an Intelligence Estimate - suggests that Iran continues to make progress toward fielding a nuclear weapon. The CIA assesses Iran seeks the option to produce a nuclear weapon but is uncertain whether it will do so. The report also includes assessments of Iran's ballistic missile and chemical and biological weapons programs.
Obama Sends Nowruz Message to Iran, Says US Still Willing to Talk (3/20/10) For the second year in a row, President Obama has recorded a five-minute Internet video message to Iran on the occasion of the Persian New Year (known as Nowruz). In his usual measured tone, the President chides the Iranian government for its repetition of grievances and failure to live up to international norms, and challenges it to state what it is for rather than simply what it is against. He invokes the imagery of a clenched fist, first articulated in his inauguration address, but states that the US remains open to engaging Iran in comprehensive talks. The President also expresses his admiration for the Iranian nation and desire for a better future for the Iranian people. One part of the message sure to elicit chagrin from the regime is Obama's intention to aid the Iranian people in fighting censorship by making available special software and Internet programs. View the full video here and read more under Current News Links.
Which 'China Model' Is Iran Following? (3/15/10) Many have speculated in recent years that Iran's regime would eventually embrace the 'China Model' in order to maintain power. This notion has grown especially salient since June's election unrest. The weeks and months following have arguably been Iran's Tiananmen. Following the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989, China judged that the best way to hedge against further unrest was to relax ideological rigidity and help the people get rich. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was no longer just the representative of the proletariat; it co-opted the urban intelligentsia and bourgeoisie by providing them opportunities for economic upward mobility. Whereas students had long eschewed CCP membership, 80 percent were applying just a decade after the Tiananmen crackdown (see Journal of Democracy, July 2009). The Iranian regime appears to embrace no such model today. Instead, a second and much more frightening 'China Model' may better apply - that of the Cultural Revolution. By 1966 Mao Zedong had grown dissatisfied with his people's revolutionary fervor. He feared that pro-Western and capitalist forces lurked just below the surface, ready to undermine his revolutionary achievement. Mao and the CCP's most radical elements thus launched a cultural revolution to purge China's bureaucracies and academies of any such influences and re-affirm the primacy of 'Mao Zedong Thought.' Even regime stalwarts such as Deng Xiaoping fell victim, losing their posts and their public standing (at least temporarily). The CCP unleashed bands of youths known as the Red Guards to harass those who did not comply with Mao's re-enforced strictures. Intellectuals died or languished in prison; libraries were destroyed.
Fast-forward to Iran, 2010. At a recent gather of the Revolutionary Guards (who seem to be taking over everything in Iran these days), IRGC officials and 'cultural elites' decried the state of Iran's educational system, which they deem to be lacking an acceptable level of enthusiasm for and deference to the Islamic Revolution (see article by insideIRAN.org). Supreme Leader Khamenei's representative to the Revolutionary Guards suggested that a cultural revolution in Iran must be undertaken in order to preserve the theocratic system, no matter how tiring and time-consuming such an initiative may be. Tangible steps as well as talk suggest that just such an effort is underway. Iran quadrupled funding after last summer's unrest for the Basij -- the loose, IRGC-affiliated vigilante group that committed most of the violence against election protesters. Much of the increased funding is likely to go toward recruitment, especially of youths (the Basij is estimated at one million foot soldiers). The Basij already plays a prominent role in mosques and schools; its role in monitoring academic instructors and curricula is likely to grow. It is, potentially, Iran's own version of Mao's Red Guards.
Iran's leadership knows that it is engaged in a long-term struggle. I have posited since the launch of this website that generational change is the most likely avenue to regime change. Ayatollah Khamenei, et al, appear to agree, and seem poised to do what it takes to win a long cultural war. Iran watchers and policy-makers should stay attuned to the possibility of Iran following an altogether different 'China Model.'
The More Things Change... (2/28/10) It has been a relatively quiet few weeks in Iran since the Islamic Revolution's anniversary. The occasion was supposed to serve as the next chapter in the Green Movement's inexorable march. Instead, it was largely a dud, and the regime for all intents and purposes appears to have snuffed out the street protests and asserted control. Mir Hossein Mousavi spoke out boldly this weekend, calling the government a dictatorial cult that has distorted the Islamic Revolution (see Current News Links for stories). He deserves credit given the risks to him and his family (one relative has already paid the ultimate price). Yet Mousavi has not articulated any bold strategy that would appear to significantly challenge or threaten those in power in the near term. Instead, Mousavi says that the Green Movement's main strategy is fostering public awareness. He seems to accept that reform of Iran's system will be gradual, as forecast in the US-Iran-Relations.com analysis Evolution, Not Revolution. This has important implications for US policy. The US may prefer to wait things out and avoid the moral unsavoriness of dealing with Iran's current leaders, but this is looking less and less like a realistic option. Meanwhile, the old fall-back strategy of sanctions looks less and less potent. China continues to hold out on new United Nations sanctions, and Russia intimated this week that it may not be on board with crippling sanctions, either. It is plausible that both could abstain from a UN vote, thus allowing a new sanctions resolution to pass. But passing sanctions resolutions or laws is not enough - implementation and enforcement is what matters. So we appear to be left about where we always find ourselves. Iran is moving forward with its nuclear program, the regime looks relatively secure, and the US is spinning its wheels trying to win support for truly effective multilateral sanctions. As argued regularly on this website, the US must broaden its thinking and become more creative in dealing with Iran. One option is to adopt a model similar to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe as explained in the US-Iran-Relations.com editorial analysis A Helsinki Process for Iran?. This framework successfully addressed both geopolitical and human rights concerns with the Soviet Union. An adaptation may work equally well in dealing with both geopolitical and human rights concerns in Iran. Trying to garner support for crippling sanctions and/or waiting for the Green Movement to achieve victory are not the only options, and cooperating with Iran's current leadership does not necessarily imply selling out the reformers. Following the US-Iran relationship feels increasingly like the life of Bill Murray's character in the movie Groundhog Day, who lives the same day over and over again. If the US wants to see actual, constructive change on Iran matters and break out of this Groundhog Day-like condition, it ought to start thinking seriously about some new options.
IAEA Suspects Iran of Nuclear Weapons Work (2/19/10) A new report by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) suggests extensive evidence of Iranian nuclear weapons development activity. The leaked report claims that such activity continued "beyond 2004;" it thus counters the 2007 American intelligence assessment that Iran halted weapons work in 2003. Iran of course denies that it seeks nuclear weapons. Ayatollah Khamenei has repeated that use of nuclear weapons is against Islam. Iran's IAEA ambassador claims that the evidence is fabricated. More ominously, he states that Iran finds IAEA requests for more inspections to be unacceptable. The report is likely to raise tensions and give momentum to Western efforts to apply new sanctions to Iran; the bold engagement envisioned by President Obama appears to be all but dead. Read more and follow developments under Current News Links. IAEA Board Reports on Iran going back to 2003 can be found on the IAEA's Iran page; the new report has not yet been posted.
Imperfect Information = Imperfect Predictions (2/12/10) Stephen Walt is usually a good read, but his piece yesterday in Foreign Policy is a must-read. Walt, in clear and pithy fashion, explains the dilemma that all Iran analysts face in understanding and predicting events in that country. Despite one's best efforts to assess what is going on in Iran, the lack of information requires all pundits and prognosticators to show some restraint and humility. For their part, readers should beware any analyst who speaks in absolutes and claims certainty about Iran's present or future. Any such claims are likely based on an agenda or on intellectual dishonesty.
Sanctions Developments (2/12/10) While attention was focused on Iran's anniversary celebrations yesterday, the United States was taking steps to enhance its sanctions policy toward the Islamic Republic. Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman introduced a bill that would target individuals involved in human rights violations; this would complement sanctions targeting Iranians implicated in Tehran's nuclear efforts. The Executive Branch also took action. The Treasury Department imposed sanctions under existing statutes against four companies associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Anniversary, Repression, and a Stalled Nuclear Program (2/11/10) Today is the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Iran, an occasion for regime believers to indulge in defiance of the West. This year's anniversary celebrations are buttressed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's claim that Iran has successfully enriched its first batch of uranium to 20 percent. Iran's nuclear program is a major symbol of both its defiance of and supposed technological parity with the West. But Iran's nuclear enrichment may not be going very well. Many headlines about Iran today are concerned with Green Movement protests. This is indeed an important day in Iran's political saga. The regime appears to have been largely successful in preventing massive demonstrations. Green Movement leaders have reportedly been harassed and even attacked, including Mehdi Karroubi. But arguably the most important story of the day (from the American standpoint, anyway) is a Washington Post article discussing a new report on Iran's technical difficulties enriching uranium. Iran's efforts to enrich on a large scale are apparently being hampered by outdated equipment, poor planning and execution, and even sabotage. Evidence of such problems, drawn largely from three years of UN data, is being compiled and analyzed by the Institute for Science and International Security. In short, there may be significantly less progress behind Ahmadinejad's bluster than previously thought. Read more about the nuclear issue and protests under Current News Links.
Iran Likely Stalling, Playing Diplomatic Divide and Conquer (2/6/10) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated earlier this week that Iran would have "no problem" after all sending some of its uranium abroad. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki stated yesterday at a security conference in Munich that a deal was close to send Iranian uranium abroad. Unfortunately, the Iranians are offering very few details of what this supposedly close deal looks like. As Western diplomats sense, this week's developments are most likely just disingenuous diplomatic maneuvering on Tehran's part. Iran's statements are probably timed to stunt progress toward new sanctions by driving a wedge between China and the West. The timing is right for such a strategy. France, one of Iran's biggest critics, assumed the presidency of the UN Security Council this week, and the United States finds itself in a row with China over new arms sales to Taiwan. Moreover, the United States Senate last week passed the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act - a complement to the House's Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act. It is important to note that passage of these bills does not mean that new US sanctions have been implemented; the bills must be reconciled and then be enforced by a somewhat reluctant Obama administration. Still, momentum is growing in the US for unilateral sanctions, and the most recent and ostensibly hopeful comments by Tehran may be intended to influence the debate in the US as well as at the UN. It is indeed harder than ever to gage what exactly is going on in Iran's halls of power. It is possible that Iran's calculations have shifted; yet if it is truly interested in reaching agreement on a uranium transfer, it needs to be more proactive in offering specific proposals. Iran's penchant to speak in platitudes and vague terms does not aid the effort to achieve diplomatic solutions. The West is right to be wary of Iran, but it should not yet go so far in the direction of cynicism that it renders escalated confrontation a self-fulfilling prophecy. It should keep probing Iran for specific alternatives in order to either reach a solution or demonstrate beyond a doubt the emptiness of Iran's diplomatic overtures. For more coverage of these issues, see Current News Links.
US Intelligence Believes Iran Seeks Nuclear Breakout Capability (2/2/10) Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair delivered today to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence the US Intelligence Community's Annual Threat Assessment. The report includes the IC's latest assessment of nuclear developments in Iran (see p 13 of the report; p 14 of the pdf). The report states that Iran continues to develop "various nuclear capabilities" that would allow it to build a weapon should it choose to do so. In other words, the IC believes Iran seeks a nuclear breakout capability. It does not assess that Iran intends to weaponize at this point: "We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons." The report repeats the finding of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that Iran is technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in the next few years. The 2010 report also maintains the pre-existing judgment that Iran's decision-making on its nuclear program is driven by a cost-benefit calculus that provides the international community the opportunity to influence Tehran.
Regime Change - How Will It Happen? (1/27/10) Sentiment appears to be growing in American discourse that regime change in Iran is highly possible and ought to be the focus of the Obama administration. This is perhaps normal given human nature and all that Iran has done to threaten US interests and offend humane sensibilities. But is it analytically sound? As wonderful as 'regime change' may be, no one advocating it has made remotely clear how it will happen. US-Iran-Relations.com attempts to add some sober causal analysis to all of the assertions and wishful thinking in the new editorial analysis 'Regime Change' In Iran - How Will It Happen?
P5+1 Crawling toward New Sanctions (1/17/10) The P5+1 (including the US, UK, France, Russia, China, and Germany) met in New York this weekend to discuss possible next steps in international sanctions against Iran (see New York Times article here). Very little appears to have come of the meeting, thanks largely to China. China sent a low-level diplomat to the meeting and maintains that it opposes new sanctions on Iran - at least for now. The conditions under which China would support sanctions remains unclear. Meanwhile, Russia appears to have grown especially frustrated with Iran and amenable to an enhanced sanctions regiment. This is significant given past Western doubts about Russian reliability in putting the squeeze on Tehran. Russia also supports continued efforts at negotiation. The outcome of this most recent meeting, then, is a continuation of a dual-track policy whereby the P5+1 will persist with attempts to achieve a negotiated solution to Iran's nuclear program (Track One) while simultaneously cultivating sanctions options (Track Two) for relatively quick application once they deem that negotiations have failed or need a coercive boost. It is unclear at what point the P5+1 will choose to finally bring sanctions to bear. It also remains unclear what the next steps are in negotiations. There may indeed be active diplomacy behind the scenes, but there is currently little in the public domain to suggest optimism for an imminent nuclear deal.
New Resource Added (1/14/10) US-Iran-Relations.com has cataloged a new resource that users of this site are sure to find interesting. Booz Allen Hamilton, a highly respected consulting firm, runs a Center of Excellence dedicated to Iran affairs called Persia House. Persia House offers professional analysis of Iran's domestic political and economic and international affairs. The new Persia House website can be accessed here.
US Adjusts Approach to Nuclear Issue (1/8/10) The Obama administration's year-end deadline for nuclear diplomacy has quietly passed. The political turmoil and violence in Iran has captivated audiences and dominated headlines so far in 2010. Some reporting suggests erosion at the core of the Islamic system and the emergence of a coherent Green Movement platform. Analysis by others, including Stratfor and Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, suggests caution in writing the obituary of the clerical regime. We are certain to see more political fireworks in Iran in 2010 (the next large demonstrations will most likely occur in conjunction with the anniversary of the 1979 Revolution next month). Yet the outcome of these demonstrations is patently uncertain. Meanwhile, a quiet evolution appears to be taking place in American strategy toward Iran and its nuclear program. Secretary of State Clinton stated earlier this week that there is in fact no hard-and-fast deadline for nuclear negotiations, though the US will continue to cultivate various sanctions options. Why such newfound patience and flexibility? Has Obama been bluffing all along? Does the US lack the will or the diplomatic leverage to punish Iran? Not necessarily. According to the New York Times, senior Obama administration officials believe that Iran's nuclear efforts have suffered significant setbacks, and that Tehran will not achieve a nuclear breakout capability for another 18-to-36 months, thus permitting more time for measured diplomacy. According to "top advisers" in the White House, Iran's nuclear efforts have been hampered by the revelation of the Qom enrichment facility, by old and unreliable centrifuge designs, by domestic political turmoil, and even by sabotage. Enrichment operations at the vast Natanz enrichment facility have dipped 20 percent since the summer due to technical problems. These developments have apparently convinced the Obama administration that it need not rush to a nuclear denouement; there is time to watch political events further unfold in Iran and to craft targeted sanctions that work synergistically with the efforts of the Iranian opposition movement to successfully coerce Iran's key regime elements. The US remains concerned about Iran's nuclear program despite its difficulties with enrichment. The same New York Times article revealing Iran's technical difficulties reports that the Obama administration no longer accepts the finding of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that Iran ceased nuclear warhead design efforts in 2003. New intelligence appears to have brought the Obama team closer to the position of allies such as France, Germany, and Israel that Iran continues its weaponization efforts. This itself is worthy of bold headlines. Still, Obama favors a measured approach for now. Read more and follow future developments under Current News Links.
Quick Takes Archive: 2009