The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran has been attacked by malware once again.
In a letter made public on the company's website, an unknown Iranian scientist from the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) contacted Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer of Finnish security company F-secure, with an unusual complaint:
I am writing you to inform you that our nuclear program has once again been compromised and attacked by a new worm with exploits which have shut down our automation network at Natanz and another facility Fordo near Qom.
According to the email our cyber experts sent to our teams, they believe a hacker tool Metasploit was used. The hackers had access to our VPN. The automation network and Siemens hardware were attacked and shut down. I only know very little about these cyber issues as I am scientist not a computer expert.
There was also some music playing randomly on several of the workstations during the middle of the night with the volume maxed out. I believe it was playing 'Thunderstruck' by AC/DC.
Though Hypponen emphasized that he could not verify the attacks upon the Natanz Uraniam enrichment facility in central Iran and Qom, a research facility in an undisclosed section of southwest Tehran, he confirmed that the message was sent from the AEIO.
This sort of thing isn't new. Music was central to 1989's Operation Just Cause, in which U.S. soldiers attempted to coerce Panamanian President Manuel Noriega from his refuge in the Vatican embassy by blaring loud music at the building. In documents acquired by the National Security Archives, U.S. SOUTHCOM admitted U.S. military DJs took requests, blaring a playlist that ranged from Paul Simon's 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run and, an apparent favorite, AC/DC's You Shook Me All Night Long.
More recently, U.S. Psychological Operations Company (PsyOps) admitted to the use of heavy metal in Iraq as a mechanism to break uncooperative prisoners' resistance. Similar use was reported by the International Committee of the Red Cross as part of the "cruel, humane and degrading" treatment of Guantanamo inmates. Though the use of heavy metal as a interrogation technique incited some record companies to warn that the United States may owe royalty fees, military officials were unrepentant. As one officer told Newsweek, "Trust me, it works."
Though hackers have been known for their peculiar brand of humor -- see Stuxnet's hidden biblical references -- the use of music in cyber warfare is certainly a new development. Start planning your requests.
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Russia and Israel may disagree on Iran's nuclear program, but President Vladimir Putin and his entourage of about 400 officials and businessmen were warmly welcomed by Israeli officials during the Russian leader's first visit to the country in seven years. Upon arriving at the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Putin was "greeted by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and an IDF honor parade." Later that day, he attended an inauguration ceremony in Netanya for a memorial to the Soviet Red Army soldiers killed in World War II, along with Lieberman, President Shimon Peres, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Speaking at the ceremony, Putin invoked Russia as both war and peacemaker:
"Russia who so greatly helped win the war is the same Russia that can help peace in the Middle East."
Putin's agenda also included a stop at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, but his 24-hour tour made plenty of time for discussions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and other Israeli officials about regional issues -- namely Iran and Syria. According to the New York Times, Netanyahu said during a joint news conference that he and Putin "agreed that the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran ‘presents a grave danger first of all to Israel, and to the region and the world as a whole.'"
Israeli officials, however, are not optimistic that their concerns will have any impact on Russian policy:
"Let's not exaggerate. It is a very brief visit," said a senior Israeli official who spoke on the condition of anonymity for reasons of diplomacy. He added, "Do not expect any major breakthrough."
According to Haaretz, Peres did not have much success with Putin at the state dinner that evening:
"President Shimon Peres pressed Putin further, asking that he ‘raise his voice' against a nuclear Iran. Putin responded by saying that Russia has a ‘national interest' to secure peace and quiet in Israel but did not elaborate further."
Despite the fact that talks about Iran were more process than substance, Tel Aviv University Russia specialist Boris Morozof notes that Israel and Russia do have "points of common interest," such as military technology, counterterrorism, and Israel's vast natural gas fields.
On Tuesday, Putin traveled to the West Bank, where he "inaugurated a Russian cultural and language center in Bethlehem" and toured the Church of Nativity. He also told President Mahmoud Abbas that Russia "has no problem recognizing a Palestinian state," called his Palestinian counterpart's position on negotiations with Israel "responsible," and referenced Israeli unilateral actions as "not constructive."
Russia is a member of the Middle East Quartet, a diplomatic body charged with mediating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, whose members also include the U.S., the U.N., and the EU. The Quartet has made little progress since its inception in 2002, but Abbas reportedly "called for an international peace conference to take place in Moscow."
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Washington Post columnist David Ignatius has been on a tear lately: breaking news on the files found in Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad safe house, revealing details of the backchannel negotiations between Erdogan and Ayatollah Khamenei, and now, channeling the Obama administration's negotiating strategy toward Iran.
At a time when Thomas Friedman is writing his 35th column complaining about the state of America's train system and urging New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to launch a third-party bid for the presidency, Ignatius is far and away America's must-read columnist right now. Iggy has always been known for his top-notch sources, especially in the intelligence community, but his columns seem especially well-sourced of late -- it's almost as if he has a weekly lunch with Tom Donilon or something.
Let's take a look at his latest. Ignatius says that "the smart money in Tehran is betting on a deal" -- picking up on a rise in the Iranian stock market to argue that a nuclear agreement is in the offing. "So far," he writes, "Iran is following the script for a gradual, face-saving exit from a nuclear program that even Russia and China have signaled is too dangerous. The Iranians will bargain up to the edge of the cliff, but they don’t seem eager to jump." According to Ignatius, under this deal, "Iran would agree to stop enriching uranium to the 20 percent level and to halt work at an underground facility near Qom built for higher enrichment. Iran would export its stockpile of highly enriched uranium for final processing to 20 percent, for use in medical isotopes."
In exchange, Iran would get ... nothing, at least right away. Ignatius suggests that the Europeans would agree to delay implementing their oil embargo, set to take effect July 1, and the Americans would delay their own fresh round of sanctions due to be implemented in late June.
Frankly, I don't see how this can work. There do seem to be signs that Khamenei is laying the political groundwork for a deal, for instance by bringing his pragmatic former president, Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, back into his good graces. But any deal that doesn't visibly benefit Iran -- rather than merely preventing future harm -- will inevitably be viciously attacked within the country's fragmented political system. And I suspect, given his past behavior, that the supreme leader will stick his finger in the air before staking out a clear public position.
It seems equally unlikely that President Obama will risk handing an electoral issue to his rival Mitt Romney by making any real concessions to Tehran. Americans may not be eager to fire up the B-52s -- and the Pentagon certainly isn't -- but they don't want to see their president look weak. And even if Obama did cut a deal, Republicans and pro-Israel groups would likely make a lot of noise, and might even be able to derail it.
Then there's Israel, which has set the bar extremely high for these negotiations, insisting among other things that Iran shut down its Fordow enrichment plant -- the one it spent years building in secrecy and burying 200 meters beneath a mountain outside the city of Qom at a cost of millions of dollars. Indeed, everything the Obama administration agrees to apparently has to be vetted with the Israelis, who have completely unrealistic notions about what Iran is willing to accept.
Moreover, the intricately choreographed arrangements of the type Ignatius suggests seem hard to imagine given the deep levels of distrust between the two sides. It beggars belief to think that two countries whose diplomats will barely even sit in a room with one another can work out "confidence-building measures" that will survive the political maelstrom news of a deal would unleash. We are not anywhere close to a Nixon going to China moment, in any sense of that hackneyed historical analogy.
What will most likely happen, as Time's Tony Karon lays out here, is that the can gets kicked further down the road: Talks will proceed for the sake of talks, and a decision about whether to bomb will be deferred until at least November (unless Iran crosses a red line like installing next-generation centrifuges at Fordow).
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that if you want to know what the Obama administration is thinking, read David Ignatius. But don't expect to be optimistic once you do.
Last week, I explained how upcoming nuclear talks could get bogged down in disagreement if Western powers demand that Iran, as a confidence-building measure, stop enriching uranium to 20 percent (which is steps away from weapons-grade material) and ship existing stockpiles of the higher grade uranium out of the country.
Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that the United States and its European allies will indeed open negotiations with this demand, along with a call for Iran to shutter a nuclear facility burrowed under a mountain:
The hard-line approach would require the country's military leadership to give up the Fordo enrichment plant outside the holy city of Qum, and with it a huge investment in the one facility that is most hardened against airstrikes....
"We have no idea how the Iranians will react," one senior administration official said. "We probably won't know after the first meeting."
Indeed, with negotiations set to begin this Saturday in Istanbul, the Iranians are already reacting. Fereydoon Abbasi, the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, called the demands outlined in the Times article "irrational."
But Abbasi also struck a note of compromise (or, at the very least, flexibility) -- suggesting that Iran might consider returning uranium enrichment to the lower levels required for power generation once it had amassed enough 20 percent material to produce medical isotopes for cancer treatment and other research.
Iran meter: The Times report hasn't just provoked a strong reaction in Iran. In the United States, former CIA officer Paul Pillar is dismayed by America's reported negotiating position -- particularly the part about dismantling the Fordo nuclear facility.
"The Western message to Tehran seems pretty clear: we might be willing to tolerate some sort of Iranian nuclear program, but only one consisting of facilities that would suffer significant damage if we, or the Israelis, later decide to bomb it," he writes. "Not the sort of formula that inspires trust among Iranian leaders and gives them much incentive to move toward an agreement."
Here at Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt homes in on the same demand, and is equally concerned that the United States is formulating fatally flawed opening bids. "It would be an extraordinarily humiliating climb-down for [the Iranians] to agree to shut the facility down at this point and then dismantle it," he notes.
If Pillar and Walt are right, is there any reason for optimism about the upcoming talks? In fact, there are hints that while the Fordo demand may be a non-starter, uranium enrichment could offer more fertile ground for negotiations -- and that both sides recognize this reality. Take this passage from the Times article:
While opening bids in international negotiations are often designed to set a high bar, as a political matter American and European officials say they cannot imagine agreeing to any outcome that leaves Iran with a stockpile of fuel, enriched to 20 percent purity, that could be converted to bomb grade in a matter of months.
Or this report today from the Associated Press on the buzz in Iran:
What could get traction -- suggested the hardline newspaper Kayhan -- is a so-called "enrichment level stabilization." That means halting the 20 percent enrichment, the highest level acknowledged by Iran, and continuing with lower levels of about 3.5 percent needed for ordinary reactors....
Mehdi Sanaei, a moderate lawmaker, said a possible bargaining position could be an agreement to temporarily stop 20 percent enrichment in exchange for lifting some economic sanctions.
In other words, there's still hope for a diplomatic breakthrough, though it's difficult to stay optimistic when these reports mingle with the news that the United States is dispatching a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf.
Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images
The "Pareto Principle" posits that, for many phenomena, 80 percent of output comes from 20 percent of input (you can apply this "80/20 rule" to everything from the large share of business a company derives from its small base of dedicated customers to, more depressingly, the short period of time you spend getting most of your work done at the office).
As the world's top powers prepare for nuclear talks with Iran in mid-April (today's over-heated sideshow: Iran is dithering about whether to hold the summit in Turkey, Iraq, or China), we should keep the 80/20 rule in mind. Particularly the fact that much of the initial disagreement between negotiators may stem from one thorny number: 20 percent.
On Wednesday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak revealed that Israel is asking its allies to pressure Iran at the talks -- wherever they take place -- to transfer all uranium enriched to 20 percent to another country. "Israel is prepared to wait for the negotiations' results before it decides on a course of action," he explained. "It's not a matter of weeks, but not of years either."
Iran meter: Barak may not have a difficult time convincing Western powers to pursue his goal. Greg Thielmann of the Arms Control Association recently told Reuters that the White House may focus "on halting 20 percent enrichment of uranium as a first-step confidence-building measure." (Other experts predict Washington's opening salvo will also include an attempt to suspend work at the Fordow enrichment facility.)
Why 20 percent in particular? "Nuclear bombs," Reuters explains, "require uranium enriched to 90 percent, but much of the effort required to get there is already achieved once it reaches 20 percent concentration, shortening the time needed for any nuclear weapons 'break-out.'"
But the 20 percent goal may be a hard sell. Iran began enriching uranium to 20 percent in 2010 -- after previously enriching it to the 3.5 percent level required to fuel nuclear power plants -- and it's been doing so in earnest. Tehran now has roughly 250 pounds of 20 percent enriched uranium and has nearly tripled the number of devices producing the higher grade uranium in the past three months, according to the Associated Press.
And while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suggested in September that Tehran would stop refining uranium to 20 percent if it received fuel for a medical research reactor (which requires higher-level enrichment than power plants), there are signs that Iranian negotiators may be less amenable to such a fuel swap this time around. In March, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei boasted that Iran's 20 percent enrichment had "surprised the enemies," while the Iranian lawmaker Aladin Borujerdi declared that "the parliament will never allow the government to go back even one step in its nuclear policy."
Sure, it could all be bluster. But we shouldn't underestimate the power of that 20 percent figure to cause big problems -- and undercut confidence before it has a chance to take root.
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Ron Prosor, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, may have told reporters on Friday that international sanctions have been "more effective than people think." But his prime minister -- a longtime sanctions skeptic -- struck a different tone today. The "sanctions are painful," Benjamin Netanyahu conceded, but they haven't yet produced a "halt or retreat in the Iranian nuclear program" or loosened the regime's "political grip."
The comments came shortly after a report by Israel's Channel 10 on an Israeli military assessment that a three-week-long Iranian-led missile attack on Israel would produce fewer than 300 civilian casualities -- a lower estimate than Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak's suggestion in November that fewer than 500 people would be killed in such an assault. Here's more from the Jerusalem Post:
According to the estimates, described as a worst-case scenario, thousands of missiles would be launched toward Israel from Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza as part of the Iranian attack. The scenario took into account Israel's defenses as of 2012, with the Iron Dome rocket-defense system not yet at its full deployment.
Missiles would also be launched at Israel from Iran, according to defense experts briefing the ministers, however, they added, Tehran's conventional missile capabilities are limited.
To coincide with Netanyahu's press conference on Tuesday, the prime minister's office released an animated Passover-themed video touting his achievements, including the development of the Iron Dome (see 0:40, where a smiling Israel fends off scowling rockets with an umbrella):
Iran meter: In criticizing sanctions, Netanyahu may be emphasizing that Israel has not abandoned the military option -- particularly ahead of nuclear talks between Iran and the world's top powers this month. And Anshel Pfeffer at Haaretz thinks the military's casualty estimate may have become public for similar reasons.
"It would seem that the leaked briefing was put out by someone in the cabinet who is interested in allaying the Israeli public's fears of the repercussions of a military strike on Iran," he writes.
If so, it's by no means certain that Israelis will take the bait. In the most recent monthly Peace Index poll by The Israel Democracy Instititute and Tel Aviv University, nearly 60 percent of respondents said they thought a retaliatory assault by Iran would cause more casualities than Barak's estimate of 500 civilians. (Israel's shortage of gas masks and bomb shelters surely hasn't bolstered confidence.)
As tensions mount, so too have suspicions that Iran-related leaks by government officials -- whether via Bloomberg's report on Iran's elusive centrifuge "workshops" or the New York Times' report on a U.S. simulation of an Israeli strike -- are politically motivated. In leaking information to the media, Ron Ben-Yishai at Yedioth Ahronoth charged last week, the Obama administration has "shifted from persuasion efforts vis-à-vis decision-makers and Israel's public opinion to a practical, targeted assassination of potential Israeli operations in Iran."
Whether or not these allegations have merit, one hopes that all the speculation about political posturing doesn't blunt the impact of legitimate risk assessments about the fallout from a conflict over Iran's nuclear program.
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With all the talk about an April 13 date being set for nuclear talks between Iran and the world's top powers, another important milestone got lost in the shuffle: today, March 30, when President Obama is required by a U.S. sanctions law to determine whether, as Reuters puts it, "the price and supply of non-Iranian oil are sufficient to allow consumers to 'significantly' cut their purchases from Iran." If the answer to that question is yes, then, beginning in June, the United States can proceed with its effort to isolate Tehran by sanctioning foreign banks that continue to purchase Iranian oil.
Obama's conclusion? There may not be oil, oil everywhere, but there's enough of it to greenlight sanctions. The Associated Press has more:
The president said he based his determination on global economic conditions, the level of spare oil capacity, and increased production by some countries, among other factors. He said he would keep monitoring the global market closely to ensure it can handle a reduction of oil purchases from Iran.
With oil prices already rising this year amid rising tensions over the nuclear dispute between Iran and the West, U.S. officials have sought assurances that pushing countries to stop buying from Iran would not cause a further spike in prices.
That's particularly important for Obama in an election year that has seen an increasing focus on gas prices.
Iran meter: Obama's decision clears a path for the administration's aggressive sanctions strategy, which it favors over military conflict.
But there's a wrinkle. Globalization has proven a double-edged sword for sanctions regimes. As scholars Steve Smith, Amelia Hadfield, and Tim Dunne note, an interdependent world economy can make countries more vulnerable to international sanctions. Yet globalization also means that countries facing sanctions can seek out alternative markets and suppliers.
This reality has been on vivid display recently. Bloomberg takes a look today at how China and India are evading U.S. and EU financial sanctions by buying Iranian oil in exchange for local currencies or goods such as wheat, soybean meal, and consumer products. During a meeting in New Delhi this week, the BRICS group of emerging world powers -- Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa -- declared that they would continue trading with Iran in defiance of U.S. sanctions.
This doesn't necessarily mean Western sanctions are doomed. Turkey, the fifth largest buyer of Iranian oil, announced today that it would cut imports of oil from Iran by a tenth in the face of U.S. pressure. And the Congressional Research Service's Kenneth Katzman tells Bloomberg that Iran's "junk-for-oil" program with countries such as China and India is economically unsustainable. "Iran cannot stabilize the value of its currency with such unorthodox payment methods," he explains.
But the big question is whether, come June, the United States will actually sanction Chinese and Indian banks -- an action fraught with political landmines. Obama's announcement today doesn't get us much closer to answering that question.
For more support for keeping the Iran meter at Natanz to Worry About, check out Amir Oren's argument for why Israel may be postponing an attack on Iran and Karl Vick's report on Israel's intelligence services scaling back covert operations inside Iran. (And for a gripping account of how an Israeli strike might play out, read Gary Sick.)
Note to readers: Earlier this month, I dismissed the importance of Azerbaijan's pledge to prevent any country from using its territory as a launching pad for an attack on Iran, arguing that Israel probably wouldn't strike Iran through its neighbor to the north anyway.
This week, Mark Perry reported at Foreign Policy that Azerbaijan has granted Israel access to airbases near its border with Iran, which could heighten the prospect of an Israeli strike. Authorities in Azerbaijan have denied the allegations, and some others have expressed doubt that Israel would actually use Azeri airbases as part of an attack. But the report does raise the question of whether my headline -- "You can stop worrying about Azerbaijan" -- needs revising.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Iran suspended accreditation for Reuters today, but not, as one might expect, over reporters prying into the country's nuclear activities or besmirching the good name of the Supreme Leader. Instead, Reuters is reportedly being sued by a group of female Iranian ninjas, like the one pictured above.
A video produced by Reuters about the thousands of women learning ninjutsu was unfortunately titled, "Thousands of female Ninjas train as Iran's assassins." The inference that the women -- whose interest in the ancient martial art is primarily motivated by "staying fit," according to one participant -- are violent marauders offended the athletes, who are overseen by the Ministry of Sports' Martial Arts Federation. In case it wasn't obvious, you don't want to offend a highly-trained cadre of Iranian ninjas. Anger these black-belted beauties and they'll ... take their legitimate complaint to the appropriate authorities who will suspend your press credentials. Hiiiii-yah!
Reuters released a statement about the gaffe, saying, "We acknowledge this error occurred and regard it as a very serious matter. It was promptly corrected the same day it came to our attention." The agency is currently in negotiations with Iran to regain accreditation (There are 11 accredited Reuters employees in Iran). However, the ninjas argue that the damage has already been done.
"It can harm our chances to travel to other countries to take part in global tournaments and international championships because Reuters is considered by many to be a reliable source," Raheleh Davoudzadeh told PressTV, Iran's semi-official news agency.
While the assassins line might not seem like the highest order of business for a country facing sanctions and potentially an armed attack, glibly labeling a group in a way that plays into stereotypes about violence is no laughing matter. As poll after poll shows, language matters tremendously when people are asked to consider military action.
Don't believe us? Why don't you tell her that.
Sanctions-saddled Iran may be importing fewer BMWs than it used to, but recent reports suggest that it's voraciously raking in wheat. Today, Bloomberg highlights a pending deal to buy as much as 3 million metric tons of wheat from India, which is engaged in the high-wire act of trying to do business with Iran while maintaining good relations with the United States and Israel.
Some 120,000 tons of hard red winter wheat grown in the Plains is on its way to the Islamic Republic, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The sale of another 60,000 tons has been finalized, according to trade sources, and Iran may ultimately buy some 400,000 tons of U.S. wheat this year.
Iran can import wheat from the United States and other countries because sanctions don't cover agricultural products. But why is Iran on a wheat shopping spree in the first place? After all, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has dubbed the new Iranian year the "Year of National Production" and argued that Iran can overcome sanctions by consuming domestic products. What's Iran up to with all the wheat?
Iran meter: The short answer is we're not exactly sure. Iran may be stockpiling grain for reasons unrelated to sanctions to the specter of conflict (such as concerns about dry weather and the quality of the domestic wheat crop), but sanctions are most likely influencing the decision. And the aggressive purchases would seem to enhance Iran's ability to withstand the international isolation that President Obama is betting on to head off a military confrontation.
Christopher Gadd of the Macquarie Group, for example, has noted that wheat imports may help Iran keep high food prices -- and especially bread prices -- from fueling Arab Spring-style unrest. The purchases also highlight the fact that Iran still has trading partners -- even if these relationships are increasingly predicated on complex barter deals such as sending Pakistan iron ore and fertilizer in exchange for wheat.
But while sanctions don't technically apply to grain, they are making it difficult for Iran to finance imports of raw materials such as wheat, since many banks are reluctant to offer Iranian traders letters of credit (Turkish banks, among others, are stepping in to fill the void). Gadd tells Bloomberg that around 400,000 tons of mostly Russian and Ukrainian grain are currently idling outside Iranian ports for this very reason.
Plus, the sanctions drumbeat continues, with the U.S. Senate now eyeing Iran's oil revenues. And while a report by Iran's Press TV today suggests that the energy sector is doing just fine -- the country's oil minister boasts of a world record in making "62 percent physical progress [in building a gas refinery] in 20 months" -- it's going to take a more momentous (and comprehensible) milestone to make a convincing case that Iran can weather a seemingly relentless barrage of sanctions.
Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama often talks about all options being on the table when it comes to confronting Iran over its nuclear program, but what's going on underneath this most mysterious of tables? The United States is preparing for a possible military conflict with Iran, among other things.
The Hill reports that top Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee are spearheading an effort to divert defense dollars in the upcoming fiscal 2013 budget toward weapons systems and programs that could be used in a confrontation with Tehran.
Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) has previously said he will seek "things like powerful bunker-busting munitions, countermeasures for mines, and appropriate sensor and intelligence platforms." Earlier this month, an Air Force general declared that a new 30,000-pound bunker-buster bomb that can penetrate 200 feet of concrete would be a "great weapon" again Iran. The fearsome and appropriate name of the beast? The Massive Ordnance Penetrator bomb.
Iran meter: The congressional funding effort isn't the only indication that the U.S. military is preparing for a potential showdown with Iran. The U.S. Navy has doubled the number of mine-hunting vessels in the Persian Gulf and equipped its warships with Gatling guns, according to The Hill.
Earlier this week, Bloomberg reported that U.S. Central Command is beefing up its military capabilities against Iran by "fielding new laser target-trackers for machine guns, enhanced sensors for underwater vehicles, improved protection against drone attacks, and upgrades of U-2 spy planes" through "reprogramming" requests. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the Pentagon is exploring several military options.
Sure, it's not particularly surprising that the U.S. military is engaging in contingency planning. But Obama has emphatically dismissed the idea of containing a nuclear Iran, and a U.S. war game this month highlighted what U.S. officials already knew all too well -- that a unilitaral Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities could spark a regional war. If the United States concludes that sanctions have failed to blunt the Iranian nuclear threat and that an Israeli strike is too dangerous, we could be hearing a lot more about that Massive Ordnance Penetrator.
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The United States is betting that increasingly biting sanctions against Tehran -- including new penalties for foreign institutions that continue to buy Iranian oil through its central bank -- can compel Iranian leaders to make concessions on their nuclear program and avert a military confrontation.
So the news yesterday that the Obama administration was issuing Japan and 10 European nations six-month waivers from these very sanctions seemed odd -- as if the United States was taking its foot off the gas pedal just ahead of nuclear talks with Iran next month. In fact, that's exactly how Iranian officials are spinning the news. Here's a read of the Iranian press today from the Los Angeles Times:
Fars News headlined its story on the sanctions, "U.S.A. backs down against Iran."
"Such a move is an overt retreat from their earlier stances," the head of the parliament foreign policy commission, Aladin Borujerdi, told the Iranian Students News Agency. He said it was "due to decisive stances taken by the Islamic Republic" defending its nuclear program.
Borujerdi also argued that the U.S. had exempted the countries to stop oil prices from rising further, a bid to spare "the tumbling economies of the West."
"Exempting 11 countries show that sanctions were the results of impulsive decisions," Kazam Jalali, the Iranian deputy head of national security, told ISNA.
Iran meter: If the United States is indeed watering down its sanction effort to avoid destabilizing the global oil market and alienating its allies, that could heighten the risk of a military confrontation and push our dial to the right. But Iranian officials may be misreading the situation, deliberately or not.
For one thing, the United States is granting the 11 countries exemptions because they have significantly cut their purchases of Iranian oil -- not because they refused to budge on their commercial dealings with Iran and Washington backed down. True, Japan, a top Iranian oil importer, has been vague about how far it's willing to go to wean itself off Iranian crude, but its oil imports from Iran fell 12 percent in January compared with a year earlier -- even as it struggled to recover from last year's earthquake and nuclear crisis. The ten European nations who received waivers had already agreed to stop importing Iranian oil beginning in July.
What's more, the exemptions don't apply to China and India, which, along with Japan, buy roughly half of Iran's crude exports. And while the Chinese and Indians haven't yet turned their backs on Iran, they're not embracing Tehran either. China's largest bank recently backed out of a deal to finance an Iran-to-Pakistan gas pipeline, and China's imports of Iranian oil dropped by 45 percent in February from a month earlier, though this mainly stemmed from a business dispute.
This week's exemptions also omitted Turkey and South Korea -- two U.S. allies who also happen to consume a lot of Iranian oil. "It is out of the question for us to stop buying oil from Iran unless the supply is replaced," Turkey's energy minister declared today.
In other words, if you want to get a sense of whether the sanctions regime U.S. officials are constructing will work, don't focus on the list of countries who now have exemptions. Keep your eye on those that didn't make the cut.
Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
There are times when the United States and Israel seem miles apart on the question of how to confront Iran over its nuclear program. As in when President Obama talked about wielding "crippling sanctions" and diplomacy when meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this month, while Netanyahu never mentioned sanctions and instead emphasized that Israel must remain the "master of its fate."
But over the weekend, the New York Times reported that Israeli and American intelligence officials may agree on more than we think:
Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful civilian purposes, but American intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency have picked up evidence in recent years that some Iranian research activities that may be weapons-related have continued since 2003, officials said. That information has not been significant enough for the spy agencies to alter their view that the weapons program has not been restarted.
Mossad, Israel's intelligence service, agrees with the American intelligence assessments, even while Israeli political leaders have been pushing for quick, aggressive action to block Iran from becoming what they describe as an existential threat to the Jewish state.
The Associated Press has a similar report:
Despite saber rattling from Jerusalem, Israeli officials now agree with the U.S. assessment that Tehran has not yet decided on the actual construction of a nuclear bomb, according to senior Israeli government and defense figures.
Iran meter: If Israel shares America's view that Iran hasn't yet decided to built nuclear nuclear weapons, does that decrease the likelihood of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities? Not necessarily.
In Israel, the debate over a strike is less about whether Iran has decided to build nuclear weapons and more about whether it is on the verge of having the technological capability to do so, or reaching a point where an Israeli attack couldn't meaningfully disrupt the country's (increasingly fortified and underground) nuclear program.
Just today, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned that Iran's nuclear program "is steadily approaching maturation and is verging on a 'zone of immunity' -- a position from which the Iranian regime could complete its program without effective disruption, at its convenience."
In an article for the New York Times in January, Ronen Bergman highlighted where Israel and the United States diverge on this issue:
Israel estimates that Iran's nuclear program is about nine months away from being able to withstand an Israeli attack; America, with its superior firepower, has a time frame of 15 months....
The Israelis suspect that the Obama administration has abandoned any aggressive strategy that would ensure the prevention of a nuclear Iran and is merely playing a game of words to appease them. The Israelis find evidence of this in the shift in language used by the administration, from "threshold prevention" -- meaning American resolve to stop Iran from having a nuclear-energy program that could allow for the ability to create weapons -- to "weapons prevention," which means the conditions can exist, but there is an American commitment to stop Iran from assembling an actual bomb.
Today's news, in other words, does little to muffle the drumbeats of war. But other developments large and small on Monday -- Israeli President Shimon Peres and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wishing Iranians a happy Persian new year, Iranians and Israelis engaging in an improbable love fest on Facebook, the New York Times reporting on a U.S. war game that highlighted the geopolitical dangers of an Israeli strike on Iran -- offer us some reassurance that, at least for today, we have Natanz to Worry About.
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Today's news paints a picture of an Iran increasingly hemmed in by sanctions. SWIFT, a Belgium-based organization that facilitates banking transactions, announced that it will block Iranian banks targeted by EU sanctions, effectively cutting Iran off from the global financial system. Reuters reports that Iran has been frantically stockpiling wheat to blunt the impact of sanctions, while the Obama administration is threatening to impose sanctions on India if it keeps buying Iranian oil. These developments have been accompanied by spurts of tough talk from Tehran; Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, for instance, declared that an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear sites would spell "the end of the Jewish state."
And yet, out of the headlines of isolation, comes a surprising glimmer of cooperation: Israel and Iran are actually collaborating on something. Haaretz reports:
In an extraordinary act of regional cooperation, Israel, Iran, Jordan, and Turkey are to jointly provide funds for a particle accelerator as part of their commitment to a UNESCO-sponsored scientific project, it was announced on Wednesday.
Each of the four countries has pledged $5 million toward the SESAME facility, which is being built near Amman. SESAME stands for Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East. According to the UNESCO website, the project aims to "foster scientific and technological excellence in the Middle East and neighboring countries (and prevent or reverse brain drain) by enabling world-class research," and to "build scientific and cultural bridges between neighboring countries."
If the $100 million SESAME center, which is slated to go online in 2015, succeeds, the Middle East will get its first synchrotron.
Iran meter: Could science be both central to the nuclear dispute and key to resolving it peacefully? Sadly, the SESAME project has been as much a source of tension as teamwork. Last year, the Financial Times noted that two Iranian scientists who had worked at the center -- Massoud Ali Mohammadi and Majid Shahriari -- had died under mysterious circumstances in the course of a year.
Some speculate that their involvement in SESAME "exposed the scientists to suspicion that they were complicit in sabotaging Iran's nuclear program," the FT explained. "In Tehran's political and diplomatic circles, the killing of Ali Mohammadi was seen as a possible act of revenge by the regime" (at the time of Ali Mohammadi's death, an Iranian researcher who was also involved in the project maintained that there were no direct meetings between his delegation and the Israelis). Iranian news outlets and officials blamed both deaths on Israel and the West.
Beyond particle physics, Israeli-Iranian contacts are very limited, but they're not nonexistent. Last May, Ynet reported that dozens of Israeli companies trade with Iran secretly through third parties in countries such as Dubai, Jordan, and Turkey.
Israeli exports to Iran focus on agricultural production means: Organic fertilizers, pierced irrigation pipes, hormones boosting milk productions, and seeds.
The Iranians sell the Israelis pistachio, cashew nuts, and mainly marble -- one of Iran's biggest industries.
The news today about cooperation on SESAME is heartening, of course. But we have a long way to go between particles and peace.
Johannes Simon/Getty Images
On Wednesday, President Obama warned that the window for resolving the dispute over Iran's nuclear program "diplomatically is shrinking." Luckily, Iran appears to be poking its head through that very window. Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili has welcomed a resumption of talks between his country and the so-called "P5+1 -- Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States. Here's Iran's Fars News Agency:
He further called for constructive, serious and prerequisite-free talks for steady cooperation, and asked the EU foreign policy chief to remain loyal to the contents of her letter in this regard.
The Iranian top negotiator also demanded the Group 5+1 to show a constructive approach towards talks based on preserving Iran's nuclear rights in accordance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and also asked for holding negotiations on a steady and progressive trend.
Iran and the G5+1 are still in discussion over the date and venue for the next round of their talks.
Iran meter: There are, of course, numerous reasons to dismiss today's development. Western powers suspect Iran is simply buying time with the talks and blame the collapse of negotiations in Istanbul in January 2011 on Iran refusing to substantively engage on the nuclear issue.
More to the point, Western powers want Iran to stop enriching uranium as a precondition to talks, while Iranian officials insist they will not negotiate on their right to enrich uranium. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton wants Iran to embrace confidence-building measures such as granting inspectors more access to its nuclear facilities, while Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency says agreeing to talk about the country's nuclear program "by itself is confidence-building."
The BBC's James Reynolds points out that the most recent talks in Geneva and Istanbul "were essentially parallel monologues," and that Iran's agreement in 2009 to export low-enriched uranium in exchange for reactor fuel was never implemented. Still, he notes that Western officials see Jalili's reference to the nuclear issue this time around as evidence that Iran may finally be serious about dialogue.
And in a grim showdown between Iran and the West that rarely produces good news, Obama making a last-ditch plea for diplomacy and Iran welcoming talks constitutes a pretty good day.
Anja Niedringhaus/AFP/Getty Images
February was not a good month for Azeri-Iranian relations. Iran accused Azerbaijan (mapped on right) of helping Israeli spies who were targeting Iranian scientists, while Azerbaijan raised hackles in Tehran by reportedly buying $1.6 billion worth of drones and anti-aircraft and missile defense systems from Israel. Earlier in the month, some Azeri lawmakers even suggested changing the country's name to Northern Azerbaijan to highlight the fact that the Azeri nation is divided between an independent state and a province in northern Iran.
So it's surprising to see reports in the Iranian press today of Azeri Defense Minister Safar Abiyev's warm reception in Tehran. Most notably, Abiyev promised to prevent any country from using Azerbaijan as a launching pad for an attack on neighboring Iran, according to Iran's Fars News Agency:
"The Republic of Azerbaijan, like always in the past, will never permit any country to take advantage of its land, or air, against the Islamic Republic of Iran, which we consider our brother and friend country," he underscored.
Iran meter: Is an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities now less likely, with Azerbaijan out of play? Not exactly. True, Azerbaijan may be a theater in a larger Israeli-Iranian shadow conflict (in February, Azerbaijan claimed to have broken up an Iranian plot against Israeli targets in the capital, Baku). But Azerbaijan doesn't figure into discussions of how Israel might strike Iran.
As the Associated Press notes this week, Israel is probably weighing three risky flight paths to Iran through Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey (for some great graphics on these scenarios, see here and here):
The shortest, most direct flight would be to cross over neighboring Jordan and through Iraq.
Neither country has the capability to stop Israeli warplanes from crossing through its airspace. But this would deeply embarrass them.
Such an operation would raise the likelihood of a diplomatic spat with Jordan, Israel's closest ally in the Arab world, and potentially expose it to Iranian retaliation. Jordanian officials refused to comment on how the government would react if Israel uses its airspace.
A second route would be to fly south and through Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have no relations with Israel, and while they feel deeply threatened by a nuclear Iran, any signs of cooperation with the Jewish state would unleash fierce criticism throughout the Arab world. The Saudis would also be an easy target for an Iranian counter-strike.
The last possibility would be crossing through Turkey, as Israel illicitly did in the 2007 airstrike in Syria. But Turkey is believed to have upgraded its radar systems since then, and Israel's relations with Turkey, once a close ally, have deteriorated.
A Turkish official said it was "out of the question" for Israel to use Turkish airspace. He said the jets would be "brought down" if Israel attempted to use the airspace without permission. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly on the matter.
In sum, the Azeri defense minister's statements do more to patch up relations with Tehran than change the calculus about an Israeli strike.
For added reassurance, see Britain's decision to join the United States in discouraging war talk and these op-eds today on why U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be bluffing with their tough rhetoric on Iran. For now, the war dial is staying exactly where it is.
Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is making headlines for declaring over the weekend that Tehran does not fear Western military action. "You say to Iran all options are on the table," he noted. "Leave them there until they rot." It's the most creative reinterpretation of the "all options are on the table" diplomatic speak since Mitt Romney's line about military options being "not just on the table" but "in our hand." Frankly, the metaphor is starting to spiral out of control.
But the behind-the-scenes storyline today involves fresh information about the effectiveness of the sanctions arrayed against Iran. Saudi Arabia announced that it will (reluctantly) fill any gap in world oil markets created by the sanctions regime, while Western powers are criticizing countries such as India, Pakistan, and Turkey for continuing to engage commercially with Iran. AFP has a good summary of India's predicament, as a major Indian trade delegation visits Tehran:
The mission sees India walking a diplomatic tightrope as it seeks more business from Iran while managing a growing partnership with the United States and maintaining good relations with Israel, a key arms supplier....
Iran is India's second-largest oil supplier after Saudi Arabia, and while India has diversified to cut its dependence on the country in recent years, New Delhi says replacement of "all Iranian oil imports" is not "a realistic option."
But the most bizarre report on the consequences of sanctions against Iran comes courtesy of USA Today, which serves up a report from Germany on the rising price of bratwurst, which is made with sheep intestines imported from Iran:
Some suggest Iran is intentionally punishing Germany with the shortage. Rainer Heimler, president of the Society for the Protection of Nuremberg Bratwurst, which defends the good name of the sausage from the low-quality imitations, said he doubts the connection between politics and bratwurst inflation.
"I cannot imagine that as revenge on Europe, Iran might refuse to deliver intestines to prevent the Germans from eating bratwurst," Heimler said.
The larger point in the bratwurst article is that sanctions are stoking destabilizing inflation in Iran. The Financial Times points out that a declining Iranian rial has dealt a substanial blow to Iranian consumer demand. "Iran, struggling to do business in dollars, now advocates a mix of barter deals and non-dollar transactions," the paper adds.
Iran meter: So, could sanctions-induced economic instablity in Iran sink the Iranian regime without the need for a military confrontation, as the Washington Post's David Ignatius suggested on Friday? We probably can't conclude that yet. Iran, after all, still has trading partners, and there are few concrete signs that a regime implosion is imminent. As the Wall Street Journal reported from Tehran over the weekend, Iranians may be struggling with economic hardship, but few "see themselves taking to the streets, even if things get much worse. 'We have to keep going,' says one merchant in a neighborhood shopping district. 'People here are boiling, but don't make a sound.'"
In the meantime, keep your eye on the price of bratwurst.
Adam Berry/Getty Images
The debate over whether Israel will strike Iran's nuclear facilities is awash in deadlines, some of which have already come and gone. On Thursday night, Benjamin Netanyahu added his voice to the mix. "We're not standing with a stopwatch in hand," the Israeli prime minister and sanctions skeptic explained in his first interviews since returning from Washington this week. "It's not a matter of days or weeks, but also not of years."
The takeaway? Netanyahu conveniently skipped over one popular unit of time: months. Hence headlines today like "Netanyahu: Strike on Iran's Nuclear Facilities Possible Within Months."
The troubling talk of months-long timelines coincided with some unsettling rhetoric from past and current U.S. officials. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta noted that the Pentagon has been preparing various military options for striking Iran "for a long time," while an Air Force general boasted of a 30,000-pound bunker-busting bomb that could be a "great weapon" in a clash with Iran. Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen darkly observed that when it comes to Iran, there's no Red Phone. Politico reports:
"I am concerned because we have had no effective communication with the Iranians since 1979," the retired Navy admiral said at the CERAWeek energy conference here. "Even in the darkest moments of the Cold War, we had several lines of communications with the Soviets. Even when we could completely disagree -- which we did on many things -- we had relationships."
"We have none of those with the Iranians," he added. "So I worry that we don't understand each other, we will miscalculate and in through that miscalculation things could spin in a very bad direction."
Iran meter: Arguably, the key word in Netanyahu's statement last night was not "weeks" or "years" but "we're." Several reports over the last 24 hours have highlighted the fact that the Israeli prime minister isn't the only person who will decide whether to go ahead with an attack on Iran, and that reality could inhibit Israeli military action. At the Daily Beast, Eli Lake profiles the eight-man Israeli security cabinet that would need to approve of a strike -- support that is not guaranteed. Meanwhile, other influential Israelis are speaking out against a preemptive attack. In an interview posted by 60 Minutes, former Israeli intelligence chief Meir Dagan (pictured above with Bibi) suggests fomenting regime change in Tehran instead.
What's more, two new polls indicate that most Israelis oppose a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran. And, as Daniel Levy has argued at Foreign Policy, politics matters in Netanyahu's calculations. Frankly, the most worrying news today may have been Mullen's warning about a lack of communication between Washington and Tehran. If a confrontation is indeed only months away, the United States doesn't have much time to rectify that situation.
Ronen Zvulun-Pool/Getty Images
These days, news about the international crisis over Iran's nuclear program is coming at us at a rapid and often bewildering pace. In the last month alone, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called Israel a "cancer tumor" that "should be cut off," vowed to never sway from Iran's nuclear course, dismissed nuclear weapons as a "sin," and, just today, welcomed U.S. President Barack Obama's call for toning down all this war talk. It's enough to give any observer a good case of whiplash.
That's why we're taking a step back from the flurry of breaking news and introducing a regular Passport feature to track the drumbeats to war and take the temperature of the major players in the drama. For each post, we'll choose one or more data points or news stories and assign a score based on the following scale:
1. All Quiet on the Eastern Front
2. Natanz to Worry About
3. Nukes of Hazard
4. Seeing Red Lines
5. Bombs Away!
Two stories dominated the news cycle today on Iran. For starters, the United States reportedly offered to give Israel arms that could help in a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities (though the White House denied it):
In particular, it would offer bunker-busting bombs more powerful than those currently possessed by Israel, which would allow the Jewish state to target Iranian facilities even under solid rock.
An Israeli official also claimed that new satellite images provide fresh evidence that Iran is trying to conceal its development of a nuclear weapon:
On Wednesday, pictures provided by unspecified member countries to the International Atomic Energy Agency -- the U.N. nuclear agency -- appear to show trucks and earth-moving vehicles at Iran's Parchin military site. Diplomats said the images suggested the trucks could be carting away radioactive material created in nuclear testing.
Verdict: In the end, Isaac's Newton's Third Law applied today -- for every action there was an equal and opposite reaction. AFP reported that the United States had offered to supply Israel with advanced weaponry in exchange for Israel committing to not attack Iran this year. But other Israeli officials are denying that there were any conditions attached to the deal. The satellite imagery of activities at Parchin put a damper on the news that Iran had decided to let inspectors visit the military installation. And even as Israel cautiously welcomes a resumption of big-power nuclear talks with Iran, Iran's envoy to France declared that Iran will not negotiate on its right to enrich uranium -- a critical sticking point. For all these reasons, we're going with Nukes of Hazard.
Feel free to nominate any Iran Watch stories you think we should be highlighting. E-mail Uri [dot] Friedman [at] foreignpolicy.com
IIPA via Getty Images
For Iran watchers, the week or so leading up to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington has been a busy one.
First, on Friday, the latest International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards report came out on Iran's nuclear program, conveniently giving fodder for all sides of the bomb-Iran debate. The IAEA report, as an analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security describes, shows that Iran is expanding its uranium enrichment program, including in its deeply buried Fordow plant, but having trouble with next-generation centrifuge technology that could make its breakout to a nuclear weapon much faster. (See also the New York Times, which concludes, "The report is likely to inflame the debate over whether Iran is nearing what Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, calls entering a 'zone of immunity.'")
Also on Friday, the Times reported that U.S. intelligence agencies have not changed their view that "there is no hard evidence that Iran has decided to build a nuclear bomb." The Los Angeles Times ran a similar story a day earlier. (In his Friday sermon, Iran's supreme leader seemed to confirm this assessment, calling nuclear weapons a "sin.")
Then, on Monday, both the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press reported on the tense negotiations between Israel and the United States over what to do about all this. The Israelis are apparently "fuming" that Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly warned against an Israeli strike on Iran's facilities. Last week's visit to Israel by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon reportedly did not go well precisely for this reason. ("We made it clear to Donilon that all those statements and briefings only served the Iranians," one Israeli official told Haaretz, a comment sure to infuriate the White House.)
The Israelis do not plan to tell their American counterparts if they do decide to attack Iran, the AP's Kimberly Dozier reported, a move a U.S. intelligence official interpreted for her as Israel wanting to give the United States plausible deniability in the event of a strike. But another way to look at it is as one more sign that Israel and the United States simply do not trust one another.
The key issue under discussion is what the appropriate "red lines" are -- Iranian actions that would trigger a military response by Israel or the United States. For Israel, the bar is lower, but nebulous: Defense Minister Ehud Barak talks about Iran soon entering a "zone of immunity" that will make an attack impossible. For the United States, the big no-no is weaponization. The Israelis believe that waiting until Iran decides to build a weapon is too late, but it's not clear they have the capability to take out Iran's nuclear sites (read: Ferdow) on their own.
The Journal suggests that Obama is coming Netanyahu's way on this, but a story in today's Los Angeles Times says the opposite. Clearly there's a policy fight going on behind the scenes, and the president's recent claims that he and Bibi are on the same page can't be taken seriously. Haaretz reports tonight that "Netanyahu wants Obama to state unequivocally that the United States is preparing for a military operation in the event that Iran crosses certain 'red lines,'" and that the distrust between the two men only seems to be deepening. Each leader feels the other is meddling in his country's domestic politics -- Obama by seeking to turn Israeli public opinion against a strike (example), and Netanyahu by working with Republicans to attack the president as soft on Iran.
The million-dollar question is whether all this drama is really about establishing a credible threat to get the Iranians to capitulate (while terrifying European and Asian countries into boycotting Iranian oil), or whether Israel is indeed serious about attacking if the sanctions don't work, and is earnestly seeking U.S. buy-in.
I have some sympathy for the view that, by publicly warning against strikes, the Obama administration is undercutting Israel's deterrent. Bluster aside, Iran has shown a tendency to back down when frightened, as in 2003 when it is thought to have shuttered its nuclear weapons program, and more recently when it toned down its tough talk about blocking the Strait of Hormuz.
But threats have consequences, too. U.S. officials haven't clearly articulated why they believe all this war talk is unhelpful, but I suspect two reasons. One is the rising cost of gasoline, perhaps the issue that terrifies the political side of the White House most heading into November. Tensions over Iran are already adding about $10 per barrel to the price of oil, some analysts say, threatening to choke off America's nascent economic recovery and make Obama a one-term president.
But the more serious issue is that if you make such a threat, you actually may need to carry it out someday. Is that something Barack Obama, a man who has staked his presidency on winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and wants above all to do "nation-building at home," is prepared to do? He's already committed to preventing Iran from getting the bomb, taking containment off the table. He's shown little inclination for taking the big political risk of putting some sort of "grand bargain" on the table. But if sanctions don't bring Iran around -- and there's no sign yet that they will -- and sabotage and asking nicely don't do the job, what then?
AFP and Iranian news outlets are reporting this morning that Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone's son, Sean, converted to Shiism today during a ceremony in the central Iranian city of Isfahan, reciting the Islamic profession of faith and choosing the Muslim first name Ali. "The conversion to Islam is not abandoning Christianity or Judaism, which I was born with," the 27-year-old documentary filmmaker, whose father is half-Jewish and mother Christian, told AFP. "It means I have accepted Mohammad and other prophets."
Earlier this month, the Iranian press reported that Sean attended a conference on "Hollywoodism and Cinema" in Tehran, which featured an address by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and focused on "Hollywood's behind-the-scenes policies and its destructive effects on family foundation," according to the Islamic Republic News Agency.
What's perhaps as interesting as the conversion, however, is the backstory. Last fall, Sean, pictured above in Tehran, traveled to Iran to work on a film about the mystic poet Rumi and to help "introduce Persian culture and civilization to the West," according to the Tehran Times. After his visit, he told The Wrap that Iran had a right to nuclear weapons and defended Ahmadinejad. "Iran is ruled by law," he explained. "People don't like Ahmadinejad, but that doesn't warrant a war or an uprising."
Oliver Stone -- who has courted controversy in the past by interviewing Cuba's Raúl Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez for his 2009 documentary South of the Border -- has a more complicated relationship with Iran. Some Iranians were angered by Stone's 2004 biopic about Alexander the Great (the Tehran Times claims the film depicted "ancient Persians as idiots and buffoons"), and Iranian authorities have repeatedly rebuffed Stone's requests to make a documentary about Ahmadinejad. In 2007, Ahmadinejad's media advisor, Mehdi Kalhor, explained the decision by calling Stone "part of the Great Satan." Stone, in turn, issued a statement declaring that he wished "the Iranian people well, and only hope their experience with an inept, rigid ideologue president goes better than ours" (this was the Bush era).
In an explosive 2010 interview with London's Sunday Times, Stone softened his tone somewhat, noting that U.S. policy toward Iran was "horrible." Iran "isn't necessary the good guy," he conceded. "But we don't know the full story." Now, it seems, Iran is much more than that -- a spiritual destination for his son. We wonder if Stone will get permission for that Ahmadinejad documentary after all.
Mehdi Hasani/AFP/Getty Images
Israel isn't having much luck with commercials these days. First there was the government-sponsored ad campaign late last year to persuade Israelis living in the United States to return home, which was yanked when it caused an uproar in the American Jewish community. Now, Iranian lawmaker Arsalan Fat'hipour is telling Iran's PressTV that the country may impose a ban on products from South Korean electronics manufacturer Samsung over a commercial depicting Israelis accidentally destroying an Iranian nuclear facility.
The ad couldn't come at a tenser time. Iranian leaders are accusing the Israeli spy agency Mossad of killing an Iranian nuclear scientist in January, and using increasingly heated rhetoric (just today, Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called Israel a "cancerous tumor" that must be "cut"). Meanwhile, the media is abuzz with reports that an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities could be imminent.
In the commercial for the Israeli cable company HOT, four characters from the HOT television series Asfur, all (poorly) disguised as Iranian women, meet a Mossad agent in Iran who's watching the show on his Samsung tablet. In checking out the device's features, one of the characters accidentally presses a button that blows up a nearby nuclear plant.
Here's the commercial:
PressTV has expressed outrage not only with the ad but also with its underlying assumptions -- that Iran is a "primitive society" and that "Israel is powerful enough to easily destroy Iran's nuclear facilities or assassinate the country's nuclear scientists." Fat'hipour, the Iranian lawmaker, argues that Samsung produced the commercial to cozy up with Israel. But a Samsung spokesperson in Iran tells PressTV that HOT -- not Samsung -- produced the ad, which promotes a cable deal offering subscribers free Samsung tablets. HOT has informed CNN that it has no comment on the controversy.
Of course, in the Middle East, any ad that veers toward the political is likely to be controversial. In 2009, for example, the Israel cell phone company Cellcom aired a commercial in which a soccer ball kicked by unseen Palestinians hits an Israeli military jeep patrolling the security barrier with the West Bank. The soldiers kick it back over the fence, only for the ball to return, sparking an impromptu soccer game among Israeli soldiers. "The ad has caused outrage among Palestinians and left-wing Israelis who accuse it of whitewashing the negative effects of the wall," ABC News noted at the time, adding that the ad agency that produced the commercial claimed that the spot was intended to show "how people can overcome obstacles between them to build friendship."
Iran's tough words for Samsung, however, may be about more than just HOT's incendiary ad. Last month, the Korea Herald reported that the Iranian government had retaliated against South Korea's support for Western sanctions of Iranian oil imports by demanding that Korean companies remove their billboards in the capital. One of the targets of Tehran's wrath? Good old Samsung.
The news gods have apparently decided it's time for yet another round of Washington's favorite parlor game: "Will Israel attack Iran?"
The latest round of speculation was kicked off by a mammoth New York Times magazine article by Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, who concluded, "After speaking with many senior Israeli leaders and chiefs of the military and the intelligence, I have come to believe that Israel will indeed strike Iran in 2012."
Veteran Iran hand Gary Sick ably dispensed with Bergman's argument here, noting that his reporting actually points toward the opposite conclusion:
Like virtually all other commentators on this issue, Bergman slides over the fact that the IAEA consistently reports that Iran has diverted none of its uranium to military purposes. Like others, he focuses on the recent IAEA report, which was the most detailed to date in discussing Iran’s suspected experiments with military implications; but like others, he fails to mention that almost all of the suspect activity took place seven or more years ago and there is no reliable evidence that it has resumed. A problem, yes; an imminent threat, no.
Bergman also overlooks the fact that Iran has almost certainly NOT made a decision to actually build a bomb and that we are very likely to know if they should make such a decision. How would we know? Simply because those pesky IAEA inspectors are there on site and Iran would have to kick them out and break the seals on their stored uranium in order to produce the high enriched uranium needed for a bomb.
Would Israel actually attack while these international inspectors are at work? No, they would need to give them warning, thereby giving Iran warning that something was coming. The IAEA presence is a trip wire that works both ways. It is an invaluable resource. Risking its loss would be not only foolhardy but self-destructive to Israel and everyone else.
But Bergman's article isn't the only recent bite at this apple. Foreign Affairs hosted a debate between former Defense Department officials Matthew Kroenig and Colin Kahl on whether the United States should bomb Iran itself; Foreign Policy's Steve Walt went several rounds with Kroenig; defense analysts Edridge Colby and Austin Long joined the discussion in the National Interest. Many others weighed in.
Today, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius threw another log on the fire when he reported that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta "believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June" and that the Obama administration is "conducting intense discussions about what an Israeli attack would mean for the United States." He added: "U.S. officials don’t think that Netanyahu has made a final decision to attack, and they note that top Israeli intelligence officials remain skeptical of the project." (Reuters notes archly that Ignatius was "writing from Brussels where Panetta was attending a NATO defense ministers' meeting.")
There have also been a number of items in recent days about Iran's murky ties to al Qaeda, including this Foreign Affairs article by Rand analyst Seth Jones and what appeared to be a follow-up report in the Wall Street Journal (never mind that the information was nearly two years old), as well as a steady drumbeat of alarmist quotes from top Israeli officials -- all reminiscent of the run up to the Iraq war. Add to this mix Iran's threat to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, an ongoing congresssional push for tougher sanctions, and the heated rhetoric coming from Obama's Republican challengers, and you have a recipe for a media feeding frenzy.
Most likely, the real drivers of this latest round are the Western attempts to persuade Iran's Asian customers -- China, India, Japan, South Korea -- to stop buying Iranian oil by persuading them that the only alternative is war. Those efforts are probably doomed, despite Israel's increasingly convincing ambiguity about its ultimate intentions. Asian countries simply don't care all that much about the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon -- they care about their own prosperity above all.
So, is Israel going to attack Iran, despite all of the doubts many have raised? There are only two people who know the answer to that question -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Defense Minister Ehud Barak -- and I don't think they'll announce their decision in the New York Times. The smart money's still betting against an Israeli strike, but the odds do seem to be getting shorter.
In a bombshell revelation sure to reverberate around the world, the Washington Post quotes a senior U.S. intelligence official seeming to suggest that the United States' goal in Iran is now the collapse of the regime. The story's headline: "Goal of Iran sanctions is regime collapse, U.S. official says."
I say "suggest" because the Post never directly quotes the official saying outright that regime change is the policy. Here's the key passage:
The goal of U.S. and other sanctions against Iran is regime collapse, a senior U.S. intelligence official said, offering the clearest indication yet that the Obama administration is at least as intent on unseating Iran's government as it is on engaging with it.
The official, speaking this week on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said the administration hopes that sanctions "create enough hate and discontent at the street level" that Iranians will turn against their government.
What's more, the story's authors -- Karen DeYoung and Scott Wilson, two very seasoned and careful reporters -- also spoke with a "senior administration official" who contradicted that line:
A senior administration official, speaking separately, acknowledged that public discontent was a likely result of more punitive sanctions against Iran's already faltering economy. But this official said it was not the administration's intent to press the Iranian people toward an attempt to oust their government.
"The notion that we've crossed into sanctions being about regime collapse is incorrect," the administration official said. "We still very much have a policy that is rooted in the notion that you need to supply sufficient pressure to compel [the government] to change behavior as it's related to their nuclear program."
Dennis Ross, a top Middle East advisor who recently left the White House, also told De Young and Wilson that regime change was not the goal of the sanctions. And he should know, because he helped design them.
So what's going on? I suspect that the first source, the "senior U.S. intelligence official," may have misspoken, or been somehow misinterpreted. Pursuing regime change in a well-armed country of 78 million is no small matter, nor is it the sort of thing that can be ascertained from a blind quote that's immediately contradicted by other sources. (It's also very much worth noting that the harshest sanctions -- on Iran's central bank -- were imposed by Congress over the White House's objections.)
Still, as my colleague Dan Drezner noted yesterday, the Obama team may be hoping that sanctions can open up fissures within the Iranian regime and provoke internal political strife -- thus giving the United States and its allies more leverage. That's not quite the same thing as regime change, however.
It's important to remember that Iranians themselves haven't called en masse for regime change. The protests that broke out over the stolen 2009 presidential election were mainly about calling for a recount or a revote, not about bringing down the entire clerical system. More Iranians may eventually conclude that "everything must go," but as far as we can tell they aren't there yet.
There is a certain political appeal in calling for regime change in Iran, I'll admit. Obama is being pilloried daily by the Republican presidential hopefuls for not doing enough to stop Iran's nuclear program, and he seems highly unlikely to agree to a bombing campaign that may or may not succeed in doing the job. But if he can say that he's trying to overthrow the mullahs rather than negotiate with them, he might be able to neutralize that line of attack. That's probably a bad idea, and it's no way to make foreign policy, but it wouldn't be the first time an American politician behaved like, well, a politician.
UPDATE: The Post has now changed its headline, substantially revised the top of the story, and appended a correction. The new headline reads: "Public ire one goal of Iran sanctions, U.S. official says." That's more like it.
Word came out yesterday that confidential war plans were stolen from the British embassy in Tehran. Fortunately for London, the plans were 70 years old, and were designed to invade Northern France in 1945, instead of Tehran in 2011.
Guardian reported that a copy of Operation Overlord, a plan to send over a
hundred thousand troops into France during World War II, was stolen from the British
embassy in Tehran after the embassy attacks last week. The embassy attack on November 29th was perpetrated by Iran's volunteer Basij militia, who raided the British embassy,vandalized its interior, and severely escalated tensions between Iran and the West. Soon after, the U.K began cutting its diplomatic ties by recalling its mission in Tehran, and expelling Iranian officials from London.
The premises for Operation Overlord were agreed upon at the 1943 Tehran conference by the leaders of World War 2's Allied powers. A copy of the plan was located in a safe in the British ambassador's office, but was taken out the night prior to the embassy attack for a dinner commemorating the 68th anniversary of the Tehran conference.
Unfortunately for the thieves, the plans will probably yield a little less than they could find watching the History Channel, or playing Medal of Honor for a couple hours. That's probably why they took a Pulp Fiction movie poster as an insurance policy.
ABOLFAZL NESAEI/AFP/Getty Images
When an unknown entity, most likely some combination of Western and Israeli intelligence agencies, created Stuxnet, the mysterious computer worm widely thought to be targeted at Iran's nuclear program, cybersecurity experts warned that a new digital threat had been unleashed, with potentially dangerous and wideranging consequences.
David Hoffman wrote about Stuxnet for FP back in March:
The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), which has closely monitored the Iranian nuclear effort, reported that in late 2009 or early 2010, Iran decommissioned and replaced about 1,000 centrifuges in its uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz. If the goal of Stuxnet was to "set back Iran's progress" while making detection of the malware difficult, an ISIS report stated, "it may have succeeded, at least for a while."
But there are risks of blowback. Langner warns that such malware can proliferate in unexpected ways: "Stuxnet's attack code, available on the Internet, provides an excellent blueprint and jump-start for developing a new generation of cyber warfare weapons." He added, "Unlike bombs, missiles, and guns, cyber weapons can be copied. The proliferation of cyber weapons cannot be controlled. Stuxnet-inspired weapons and weapon technology will soon be in the hands of rogue nation states, terrorists, organized crime, and legions of leisure hackers."
Industrial control systems that were the target of Stuxnet are spread throughout the world and vulnerable to such attacks. In one 11-year-old Australian case, a disenchanted employee of the company that set up the control system at a sewage plant later decided to sabotage it. From his laptop, the worker ordered it to spill 211,337 gallons of raw sewage, and the control system obeyed -- polluting parks, rivers, and the grounds of a hotel, killing marine life and turning a creek's water black.
According to Symantec, "Duqu's purpose is to gather intelligence data and assets from entities, such as industrial control system manufacturers, in order to more easily conduct a future attack against another third party. The attackers are looking for information such as design documents that could help them mount a future attack on an industrial control facility."
Nobody knows who created Duqu, or why. (Says F-Secure: "Was Duqu written by US Government? Or by Israel? We don't know. Was the target Iran? We don't know.")
But Symantec reports that "the threat was highly targeted toward a limited number of organizations for their specific assets. ... The creators of Duqu had access to the source code of Stuxnet, not just the Stuxnet binaries. The attackers intend to use this capability to gather intelligence from a private entity to aid future attacks on a third party."
So are we seeing another attempt by the same crowd that brought us Stuxnet in the first place? Or disturbing evidence that the predictions of Langner and others are coming true -- that a tool intended to cripple Iran's nuclear enrichment efforts has now been repurposed, possibly by another foreign government or a criminal syndicate?
We may find out in short order. F-Secure's Mikko Hypponen, who has adopted the hashtag #Stuxnet2, warns on his Twitter feed: "If Duqu was indeed an information gathering operation, we should expect the real attack soon."
Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, two American hikers captured along the Iranian border with Iraqi Kurdistan in July 2009, were sentenced Sunday by Iran's Revolutionary Court to eight years in prison. The verdict drew sharp criticism from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said the United States was "deeply disappointed" in Iranian judicial authorities and that "it is time for [Bauer and Fattal] to return home and be reunited with their families." The announcement came as a surprise because senior Iranian officials had previously indicated that the pair might be pardoned during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Analysts remain hopeful that Bauer and Fattal, who have 20 days to file an appeal, could still be headed home, however. "There have been cases in the past where the courts issue a shockingly high verdict in the beginning. Then, by pardoning, they try to come across as showing leniency," said Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council. "It is possible that this is what is happening."
Parsi emphasized that the hikers' case has been mired in the diplomatic tensions between Tehran and Washington. "They are pawns in a larger game being played by Iran and the United States," he said, noting that the duo's predicament has more to do with Iran's nuclear ambitions than the dubious spying charges trumped up by Iranian authorities.
Alireza Nader, an Iran expert at the RAND Corporation agreed. Every diplomatic maneuver "should be seen through the prism of the nuclear program," he told Foreign Policy. "Iran wants to present [the two hikers] as bargaining chips."
Tehran is also under a tremendous amount of pressure as a result of international sanctions, according to Nader. "So the hikers are part of the leverage that Iran has in that game," he said.
But the jailed hikers are not just fueling animosity between countries. "They are also an internal football," said Parsi, who believes that the Iranian government is split on what to do with Bauer and Fattal. "There are elements especially in the judiciary that don't want to give them up for political reasons, but there other factions that realize that this is costing Iran more than they are gaining."
In particular, Iran's foreign ministry appears ready allow the hikers to return to the United States. Perhaps, as the New York Times has suggested, this is because it gets to deal with the international ramifications of the debacle. The judiciary, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with currying favor with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomenei and is therefore taking a harder line.
Despite Clinton's pledge to "continue to call and work for [the hikers'] immediate release," there is not much the U.S. can do at this point, according to analysts. Massoud Shafei, the hikers' lawyer, remains hopeful that they will be pardoned as a gesture of goodwill during Ramadan. Praying for a Ramadan gift appears to be the State Department's strategy, too.
Israel's Mossad intelligence agency carried out the assassinations of several Iranian nuclear scientists in recent months, which has led to "the virtual decimation of the Islamic republic's elite physicists," according to Germany's Der Spiegel. The latest victim -- 35-year-old physicist Darioush Rezaei -- was shot in the throat in front of his daughter's kindergarten in Tehran on July 23. The attackers fled on motorcycle. Iran said Rezaei was a student, not a nuclear weapons expert, but the Associated Press reported last week that international sources confirmed he was indeed involved with the country's nuclear weapons program, working specifically on a key component for detonating a nuclear bomb -- high-voltage switches.
According to Der Spiegel, Rezaei is the third scientist to die in the past year and a half (and the fourth to be targeted). The others were:
- In January 2010, the nuclear physicist Masoud Ali Mohammadi died when a remotely detonated bomb rigged to a motorcycle exploded next to his car. Western experts considered Mohammadi to be one of Iran's top nuclear scientists.
- On Nov. 29, 2010, unknown perpetrators committed two attacks which involved motorcyclists attaching explosive devices to their victims' cars while driving. Majid Shahriari, a professor of nuclear physics who specialized in neutron transport, which is relevant for making bombs, was killed when his car exploded. His wife was seriously injured in the attack.
- Fereidoun Abbasi was targeted in a simultaneous attack. Abbasi, an expert in nuclear isotope separation, noticed the suspicious motorcyclist, however, and he and his wife jumped out of the car. They were both injured in the explosion. After Abbasi recovered, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appointed him as one of Iran's vice presidents as well as head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization.
Iran's reaction to the deaths has been somewhat confused, say analysts. Perhaps due to embarrassment, some leaders have downplayed the accusations of outside countries being involved in past deaths. But after Rezaei's murder, Iran squarely blamed Israel, the United States, and their allies. The United States has denied any involvement. Israel has been somewhat coyer, according to Der Spiegel.
‘Israel is not responding,' Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said earlier this week when asked if his country had been involved in the latest slaying of an Iranian nuclear scientist. It didn't exactly sound like a denial, and the smile on his face suggested Israel isn't too bothered by suspicions that it is responsible...
Der Spiegel based its report on "sources in Israeli intelligence," who told the German magazine that the deaths are part of a campaign to sabotage Iran's nuclear program. In the past, analysts have speculated that the Stuxnet computer virus, which harmed computer systems that were part of Iran's nuclear program, was developed and deployed by Israel (and possibly the United States). The virus reportedly shut down the country's main nuclear reactor at Bushehr last year, before Iran was able to get the damage under control.
Tehran, July 20, IRNA -- Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei on Wednesday urged the cultural institutes to spare no efforts to promote culture of reading books and encourage the youth to make optimum use of libraries....
The Supreme Leader said that reading is the best means to propagate modern ideas and enlighten the society and nothing else than replace the merits of books, a reference to the prevalence of audio-visual media posing threat to the role of books as the major means of communication in the society.
The Teheran [sic] radio quoted Ayatollah Khomeini as asking ''all the Muslims to execute them,'' referring to Mr. [Salman] Rushdie [author of The Satanic Verses], who lives in London, and the publishers of the book, Viking Penguin, ''wherever they find them.'' He said that anyone killed carrying out his order would be considered a martyr.
In 2007, Iran's ultra-conservative daily Kayhan called Harry Potter "a billion-dollar Zionist project" and a "destructive bomb" for children's minds. It alleged that the author J.K. Rowling had links to Zionists and that was how she became so well known.
But hey, anything that gets kids to read.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
Even by Iranian political standards, the last few days have been dramatic. A dozen people close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his cabinet have reportedly been arrested since last week on "financial charges." Then on Wednesday, the embattled president came out swinging more directly and forcefully than he has done before -- warning his enemies to back off.
"I consider defending the cabinet as my duty," he told reporters. "The cabinet is a red line and if they want to touch the cabinet, then defending it is my duty.... From our point of view these moves and pressures are political...to put pressure on the government."
Ahmadinejad is in fact getting pressure from seemingly all corners, including the judiciary, the parliament, and most troubling for sure, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei -- the very man who so publicly placed his eggs in the Ahmadinejad basket two years ago.
The pressure is so bad that the summer of 2011 may make Ahmadinejad wistful for the halcyon days of 2009, when all he had to worry about were a few hundred thousand reformists marching in Tehran, demanding his removal.
Below is a guide to Ahmadinejad's many headaches.
The Supreme Leader
Ahmadinejad is Khamanei's golden boy no longer. The Supreme Leader sent a major signal to the president back in April when a dispute over the sacking of the intelligence minister played out in public. Ahmadinejad forced the minister to resign. Khamanei objected and insisted that he stay on. Ahmadinejad responded by staging a mini-boycott, refusing to come to work for 11 days.
All hell broke loose, said Abbas Milani, an Iran scholar at Stanford's Hoover Institution.
"Khamanei unleashed all his forces, so to speak," he said. "There was a ferocious attack on Ahmadinejad in parliament." Talk of impeachment intensified, Milani said. Eventually Ahmadinejad came back to work, chastened.
His enemies took notice -- sensing he no longer enjoyed the unwavering support of the Supreme Leader.
There have even been public indications of a thaw between Khamanei and two other prominent but controversial figures in Iranian society -- former presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Seyyed Ahmad Khatami.
Just yesterday, a site close to the Revolutionary Guards and the Supreme Leader did something it hasn't in the past two years since the disputed election -- it referred to Rafsanjani using his honorific, Ayatollah, according to Milani.
Recently, Khatami spoke about the need for forgiveness on all sides in the 2009 presidential dispute, saying both sides have committed mistakes but that they should put it behind them.
The man being left out of this new warmth? Ahmadinejad.
"Khamanei feels isolated," Milani said. If he decided to get rid of Ahmadinejad and bring Rafsanjani back into the fold, he'd get a new boost of clerical support from the men aligned with Rafsanjani.
The Parliament and Judiciary
It's hard to envy the position Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was in these last few weeks: There just aren't many good answers available to despots who are faced with popular uprisings. Still, he should have known better than to settle on Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's 1978-1979 playbook for quelling incipient revolutions.
Indeed, Ben Ali seemed intent on compressing the shah's yearlong series vacillations into a tidy one-week time frame. First, a show of denial: The shah started 1978 by denouncing street protests as conspiracies directed from abroad, while Ben Ali started this week by declaring mass demonstrations to be "terrorist acts." Next a halfhearted show of force to restore law and order: In the autumn of 1978, the shah declared martial law and organized a military government; Ben Ali, for his part, imposed a nationwide curfew this week and presumably instructed security forces to use deadly force against continued protests. Then a hasty series of concessions that are inevitably interpreted as too little, too late: Late in the game, each leader tried to shuffle his cabinet into a more liberal arrangement. That's followed by a transparently cynical, and frankly depressing, declaration of sympathy for the protests: The shah went on television in November to announce, "I have heard the voice of your revolution"; Ben Ali went on television on Thursday to tell his restive populace, "I have understood you." Finally, there's the retreat into exile -- the shah fled to Egypt in January 1979, while Ben Ali is now reported to be in Malta, France, or Saudi Arabia. (The aftermath is unlikely to get any rosier for Ben Ali, judging from the shah's experience: He shuttled around the world -- from Morocco, to Mexico, to the Bahamas, to the United States to Switzerland -- in search of an offer of residence that was more than temporary, until he finally died in 1980.)
The shah's unsteady strategy was already discredited in the eyes of the current regime in Iran, which came into power after his departure -- hence, the Iranian leadership's unremitting hard-line crackdown when it was faced with mass protests in the wake of the country's 2009 presidential election. Tunisia's current revolution may well be seen in Tehran, and perhaps in other regional capitals, less as a reminder of the power of popular action than as confirmation of Ben Ali's personal weakness in refusing to pick a position and stick with it. If any other governments threaten to collapse in the wake of Tunisia's successful revolution, you can expect that the protests will be met with either an outstretched hand or a clenched fist, but certainly not both.
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