April 25, 2009:
So far this year, Iran has executed 68 people for various crimes, including terrorism. Earlier this month, three students were executed for bombing a mosque in southern Iran (Shiraz) a year ago. But terrorism is a minor problem. Most of the 140,000 prisoners in Iranian jails are there for drug related charges. Most of these prisoners are male and the average age is 28. Heroin and opium from neighboring Afghanistan are a growing curse, causing rising crime and reduced productivity.
The government continues to announce new weapons developed inside Iran. These latest wonders include modern jet fighters and large submarines. If you go back and look at the many Iranian announcements of newly developed, high tech, weapons, all you find is a photo op for a prototype. Production versions of these weapons rarely show up. Iranians know that, while the clerics and politicians talk a tough game, they rarely do anything. Even Iranian support of Islamic terrorism has been far less effective than the rhetoric. The Iranians have always been cautious, which is one reason Arabs fear them. When the Iranians do make their move, it tends to be decisive. But at the moment, the Iranians have no means to make a decisive move. Their military is mostly myth, having been run down by decades of sanctions, and the disruptions of the 1980s war with Iraq. Their most effective weapon is bluster, and, so far, it appears to be working.
But the Iranians know that nuclear weapons would make their bluff and bluster even more muscular. Even the suspicion that they had nukes would be beneficial. And that appears to be the current plan. One new weapon the Iranians do put a lot of money and effort into are ballistic missiles. They are building an extended range (from 1,300 to 1,800 kilometer) version of their Shahab 3 ballistic missile. The new version puts all of Israel within range, even if fired from deep inside Iran. Chemical warheads (with nerve gas) are thought to be available for these missiles. But Israel has threatened to reply with nuclear weapons if the Iranians attack this way. Iran would probably get the worst of such an exchange, and the Iranians are aware of it.
The government complained to Russia when Russia recently announced that it was buying $50 million worth of Israeli UAVs. The Russians told the Iranians that the main reason for this purchase was to steal Israeli technology, and that Iran would eventually benefit from that.
An Iranian-American graduate student, Roxana Saberi, in the country do research on women's rights, was arrested for a traffic offense last January. The government has since charged her with espionage, then tried and convicted her. She has been sentenced to eight years in prison. But the government has also announced that the conviction is being appealed. The way this works, the government will use Saberi as diplomatic trade bait, letting it be known if the U.S. does Iran some kind of favor, Roxana Saberi will get favorable treatment during her appeal. If no goodies are forthcoming, Roxana Saberi stays in jail. In effect, she is being held for ransom. In the past, Iranian expatriates have been arrested and beaten to death, apparently while being interrogated. They are never released without some form of ransom being paid. The government believes that, as an additional bonus, the threat of being victimized like this, causes expatriates coming back to Iran are more likely to behave.
The country is in big trouble with the price of oil under $50 (down from over $140 last year.) Last year, government officials said that if the price of oil fell below $60 a barrel and stayed there (which it has, for nearly a year now), the nation will not be able to finance foreign trade (which is already having problems with increasingly effective U.S. moves to deny Iran access to the international banking system), or even the Iranian economy itself. The latter problem is largely self-inflicted, as president Ahmadinejad desperately borrows money to placate his few (heavily armed and fanatical) followers (about 20 percent of the population). The rest of the population has been in recession for years, and is getting increasingly angry over Ahmadinejad's mismanagement. Some 80 percent of Iran's exports are oil. Ahmadinejad is being openly blamed for squandering oil revenue when the price of oil was high. This created high inflation (nearly 30 percent) and unemployment (over 20 percent). Now, the falling price of oil will make things worse. Ahmadinejad is trying to pressure OPEC into cutting production so that the price of oil goes over $70. OPEC, which is dominated by Sunni Arab producers, refuses to help Iran out, mainly because of Iran's increasingly hostile attitude towards the Sunni majority in general, and Arabs in particular.
Iranian leaders are alarmed at the growing ties between Israel and the Gulf Arabs. An example of this recently occurred when a shipment of oranges recently arrived from Dubai (the major transit point for goods headed for Iran). The boxes identified the oranges as coming from China. But the individual oranges had a small label on them identifying the fruit as Jaffa Oranges (a very popular brand, worldwide). It's no secret that Israel has long exported fruit to the Persian Gulf. For years, the stuff was labeled as Palestinian, Jordanian or Chinese. But increasingly, the fruit, and other products, are labeled as Israeli. That's because some Gulf governments have publicly admitted the trade (including Saudi Arabia). While the Gulf Arabs officially back the Palestinians against Israel, the Arab world has generally given up on the Palestinians. Seen as corrupt, unable to unite in their own interests, and supporters of terrorism, the Palestinians have been told to shape up (which no one expects to happen) or face sharp cuts in the cash contributions the Gulf Arabs have long made to their cause. The cash is already drying up, and Iran is taking up some of the slack. Seeing Hamas become an agent of Iran was the last straw for most Gulf Arabs (and Arabs in general.) And when the Jaffa oranges showed up in Iranian markets, shoppers were delighted to finally get access to this rare delicacy (which turned out to be a Chinese counterfeit). While the government goes on constantly about the need to destroy Israel, most Iranians don't care. Which is why the government welcomes the long rumored Israeli air attack on Iranian nuclear weapons development facilities. This might set back development of the Iranian nukes by a year or two, but it would enrage many Iranians, and provide the government with some badly needed popular support.
April 24, 2009: Iranian and Afghan officials have signed an agreement on procedures to avoid battles between each countries border police. This came as a result of a recent clash between an Iranian patrol, which had, apparently accidentally, moved 500 meters into Afghanistan, and Afghan troops. The Iranians ran into Afghan border police, shooting ensured and one of the Iranians was killed and two others captured. The two countries also pledged to cooperate more to halt the Afghan drug smugglers. That is unlikely, since the smugglers bribe the Afghan police to allow free passage.
April 10, 2009: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran have agreed to share information on smugglers, drug gangs and terrorists. The three nations have political and religious differences, but all recognize that the heroin trade and Sunni religious fanatics (the Taliban and al Qaeda) threaten all of them.
April 9, 2009: Egypt announced the presence of a Hezbollah backed terrorist organization in Sinai, which was planning attacks in this part of Egypt, and elsewhere, including on the Israeli border. In Egypt, Hezbollah is generally considered to be an agent of Iran. There has been bad blood between Iran and Egypt for thousands of years, so we're dealing with a deeply ingrained grudge. Currently, Iran claims to be the leader of the Islamic world, even though Iran belongs to a minority sect (Shiism) of Islam. Egypt also claims that honor, and backs it up by belonging to the majority Sunni sect and hosting the largest and oldest Islamic religious schools. Egypt believes that Hezbollah is also recruiting spies for Iran, and this makes Iran even less popular inside Egypt. And then there is Iranian support for Hamas, the Palestinian group that has established a religious dictatorship in the Gaza Strip. Egypt is not happy with that either.