October 24, 2013:
President Hasan Rouhani
allowed negotiations regarding the Iranian nuclear program and the UN sanctions meant to halt it.
Rouhani, as expected, refused to consider halting nuclear research or allowing nuclear inspectors freedom to search wherever they want in Iran for evidence of this program Iran officially insists does not exist but unofficially does (and any Iranian will agree with that). Rouhani is willing to make all sorts of symbolic concessions in order to
end the severe economic sanctions imposed in 2012. The sanctions are doing major damage to the Iranian economy and
has dropped the official line that Iran was coping. Iran is not coping and that is no secret. Despite that, the Iranians have made it clear that the secrecy of their nuclear program is not negotiable.
Since the sanctions began in June 2012, the prices of imported consumer goods has increased 40 percent. There is rising unemployment and general anger at the continuing economic problems. While the government blames it all on sanctions, most Iranians know that government corruption and mismanagement also play a major role and have done so long before the severe sanctions were imposed in mid-2012. The new
government is trying to address that but there is not much that can be done because many of the senior clerics who control the country are corrupt (or, more often, their families are). Meanwhile, the sanctions, which have cut oil exports by more than half, have also crippled the oil industry by blocking the import of essential replacement parts and oil industry maintenance equipment and services. This means even when sanctions are lifted, there will be years of work needed to restore productivity to the oil and gas industry.
Most countries pressuring Iran to halt its nuclear program don’t believe
is really willing to make any real concessions (like admit they have a nuclear weapons program and allow inspectors to monitor dismantling of that program) but will show up to talk anyway, just in case. This is exactly what happened.
has to do something, because the usually clever Iranians have not been able to find their way around the 2012 sanctions and losing more than half their usual oil income has been a major problem.
Oil accounts for 80 percent of exports (the source of foreign currency to buy foreign goods) and half the government budget. Before the new sanctions Iran allowed imports to climb from $39.1 billion to over $60 billion in the last 7 years, in order to keep unrest (against the corrupt religious dictatorship) down.
Rouhani’s conciliatory gestures towards America and the West has made many Iranian Islamic radicals angry and crowds of them have gathered to publicly denounce a government effort to ban the use of the chant “Death to America” in public. Most Iranians would like to move to America (and many have already done so) not destroy it. But for Iranian religious radicals, the phrase has special meaning and they refuse to give it up. Beyond that, the senior clerics who control the security forces and courts are backing Rouhani, whose kinder and gentler approach to diplomacy is seen as the best way to get the sanctions lifted.
Iran does have some good news. For one thing their effort to support the Assad government of Syria is succeeding.
This is largely due to the Russian effort to turn the Assad use of nerve gas against civilians last month into immunity from Western air attack. This was done via some adroit diplomacy in which Russian got Syria to agree to admit they had chemical weapons and allow the UN to supervise the destruction of this nasty stuff. Of course the West would not risk air strikes against Assad with all those UN people on the ground. As expected, the UN is having a hard time getting some rebel factions to allow UN chemical weapons destruction teams to reach bases where some of these weapons are stored. Syria appears to have 700 tons of nerve gas (sarin, first used in combat during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war) and 300 tons of mustard gas (first used in World War I). The Syrian chemical weapons are stored at 20 bases, including 4 manufacturing plants, and UN inspectors have not been able to visit all the storage sites yet. The UN has authorized a force of 100 chemical weapons inspectors and most are now in Syria. The UN plan is to destroy the production plants and chemical warheads and bombs (that have not been filled with chemicals yet) by November 1st. This will be done using tools and bulldozers to literally pull apart and smash stuff. The UN has authorized a plan that is supposed to destroy all Syrian chemical weapons within 9 months. This is theoretically possible but subject to interference by the Assad forces or even the rebels (who have some of the chemical weapons storage sites under siege). While getting rid of the chemical weapons is a good idea, it does not mean Syria will no longer have chemical weapons. The Assads know that once they defeat the rebels they can rebuild the plants that manufacture the nerve and mustard gas and rebuild their pre-rebellion stocks in a few years. This deal, and its successful blocking of Western air support for the rebels, has greatly angered many senior Saudi Arabian officials, who are now openly calling for dropping the U.S. as an ally and trying to replace that with Chinese backing. That would be difficult because China is a long-time ally and trading partner with Iran. If nothing else, this stalls Saudi efforts to keep up the diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran. The two countries are locked in a political and religious struggle over who should control the Islamic holy sites and whether Sunni (as in the Saudis) or Shia (as in Iran) forms of Islam should be dominant. This struggle makes little sense to non-Moslems but it is a big deal with Saudi Arabia (and the other Arab Sunnis) and Iran. The Saudis fear that Iran wants to get nukes so they can bully and intimidate their way into control of all Persian Gulf oil and evict the Saudi family from power in the process. The senior clerics who control Iran make no secret of their desire to make Shia Islam dominant but are vague on the details of exactly how they would make that happen. The Saudis have filled in the blanks, and to them it all means the Arab oil states becoming subjects of a new Iranian Empire.
Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies and neighbors are making preparations to foil these Iranian plans. Over the last three years annual arms exports to Arabia have averaged over $60 billion a year and most of it has gone to the 6 oil-rich members of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council). Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait are the big buyers, and the main reason for that is fear of Iran. On the face of it all those purchases appear to be overkill because Iran must smuggle in its arms imports, as legitimate purchases are banned by international embargoes. Iranian military procurement is less than 10 percent what their Arab neighbors are spending. But the Iranians have a long tradition of doing much with little when it comes to military equipment. In addition, the Arabs have a much less impressive combat record, especially in the last century. So the oil-rich Arabs are trying to equip their troops with a lot of the best stuff available and hope for the best.
Iran is also taking advantage of the continued support by many (mainly Saudi) wealthy Arabs for Sunni Islamic radicals (including al Qaeda). Although officially at war with al Qaeda and similar groups, many Saudis still have a visceral affinity for these Islamic radicals. Iran is quite the opposite, mainly because Sunni Islamic radicals believe that Shia are heretics and must be forced to convert to Sunni Islam or be killed. Iran uses its sincere opposition to Sunni Islamic radicals, and their prominence among the Syrian rebels, to make Iran look like an ally of the West, while portraying the Saudis as secret supporters of Islamic terrorists. In reality Iran has supported al Qaeda when it served Iranian goals (like attacking American troops or carrying out terror attacks in the West) and has its own force of Islamic terrorists who, as far as the West is concerned, is as much of a threat as al Qaeda. But at the moment Iran is doing more to fight Islamic terrorists in Syria than is Saudi Arabia and that wins some points in the West. The only thing Iran and Saudi Arabia can agree on is the destruction of Israel, and even here the Saudis are at a disadvantage because they depend on Israel as an unofficial ally against Iran.
Another “victory” for Iran was the recent accusations that Turkey cooperated with Iranian counterintelligence by revealing the names of ten Iranians in Turkey who had been seen (by Turkish intelligence agents) meeting with Israeli intelligence officials. For a decade now the Islamic government of Turkey has been battling Turkish secularists and trying to improve relations with other Islamic countries (including ancient rival Iran). This new policy meant adopting an anti-Israel attitude after decades of close relations with the Jewish state. The Turkish betrayal occurred several years ago but was kept quiet until now by all concerned (including the Americans). But the Turkish cooperation with Iran was an open secret among senior government officials in the U.S. and Israel that eventually got to the media. In June 2012, American displeasure at the Turkish betrayal led to the cancellation of 10 Predator UAVs Turkey was buying from the U.S. At this point Turkey officially denies the cooperation with Iranian intelligence and is embarrassed because other, admitted, concessions to Iran have failed to improve relations with Iran. The 2 countries have been rivals for nearly a thousand years and have often been at war with each other. For many Turks and Iranians that is not irrelevant ancient history but a fact of life. Turkey won most of those wars, but with this intel scandal Iran feels it has a rare victory. Turkey does not want Iran to get nukes but has also made hostility to Israel part of their foreign policy (in order to gain alliances with Arab states). That strategy is not working out so well and the Iranians are delighted.
Turkey and Iran have other areas of disagreement. For example, despite transit agreements, Iran is delaying or prohibiting Turkish trucks from travelling through Iran to Afghanistan.
October 18, 2013: In the northwest Kurdish children playing outside an unused Revolutionary Guards base set off a landmine, wounding 7 children (age 8-10). The Kurds accused the government of not clearing all the mines that used to surround the base (that was abandoned in the 1990s).
October 16, 2013: In the northwest Iranian soldiers shot and wounded Kurdish men near the Iraq border. Kurds in the area accuse police and soldiers of killing at least 17 Kurds in the last 2 months.
October 15, 2013: Iranian officials met with their counterparts from the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany to begin discussions of how to end the heavy sanctions on Iran. The 2 days of talks produced nothing except Iranian refusal to consider what the West wants (the end to Iranian nuclear weapons research). Another round of talks will take place in November. Everyone issued upbeat press releases. The Saudis and Israelis are unhappy with all this theater.
October 14, 2013: The main Syrian rebel group, the SNC (Syrian National Coalition), has refused an invitation by the United States and Russia to attend peace talks. Many individual groups in the SNC do not want to negotiate with the Assad government while the Assad forces are killing Syrians and chasing them out of their homes and out of the country. Many rebels do not believe that Assad will negotiate seriously. For many Syrians the Assads cannot be trusted. The Iranians also refuse to participate in any peace talks.
October 11, 2013: In neighboring Azerbaijan, a court sentenced an Iranian man to 15 years in prison for espionage and participating in a plot to attack the Israeli embassy.
October 10, 2013: President Rouhani has cancelled the annual anti-Zionism conference. This was basically an opportunity for people from all over Iran and the world to meet and have a public forum for their shared wish to destroy Israel. The cancellation angered Iranian hardliners but gained Rouhani some good will internationally.
In the northwest 6 Iranian soldiers were killed in a clash with Kurdish separatists. This was the first serious clash with the rebel Kurds since early 2012.
October 8, 2013: Iraq signed a deal to build a 270 kilometer pipeline to carry Iranian natural gas to electrical power plants in southern Iraq. This will bring Iran $3.7 billion a year in revenue. The pipeline is being built by Iran and will be operational in about a year. In the previous week Iran and Iraq also signed at least 2 military cooperation agreements. These involved joint training and Iran providing training for Iraqi specialists. The 2 countries will also allow trade between the 2 countries in locally made military equipment. Mainly that means Iraq buying Iranian weapons. There has long been informal cooperation of the same sort that is now part of the formal agreements. The new agreements also settle some disputes between Iranian and Iraqi naval forces over how to handle smugglers.