Negotiations with the UN and Western governments over the sanctions and Iran’s nuclear programs continues and Iranian officials believe a deal will be struck before the end of the month. Meanwhile the sanctions continue to do a lot of damage, which shortages, inflation and unemployment all raising. But unrest inside Iran is on hold until the sanctions negotiations are completed. The government announced that inflation in the last twelve months was 35 percent. The government claims it has reduced inflation slightly but many Iranians believe the official statistics are misleading and that real inflation is more like 50 percent or more. The Iranian nuclear weapon program moves forward, and is very popular with nearly all Iranians who feel they are a great and powerful people who need nukes to convince everyone else. The government is waging an Information War campaign in support of the negotiations. In addition to the usual media propaganda members of parliament have proposed a law that would accelerate nuclear research and development if the negotiations (to end the sanctions) fail. This is expected to motivate the Western nations to accept Iranian proposals (to agree to terms that reduce sanctions without forcing Iran to actually slow down its nuclear program). This would be done by not insisting on unfettered access for nuclear inspectors. Iran also boasted that it had a new generation of centrifuges (used to turn uranium into nuclear fuel or nuclear bomb material) but would not put these new devices to work if the current sanctions talks were concluded satisfactorily for Iran.
The nukes are important because Iran has been increasingly vocal about how Iran should be the leader of the Islamic world and the guardian of the major Islamic shrines (Mecca and Medina) in Saudi Arabia. Iranians believe that having nukes would motivate the Arabs to bow down. The Arabs have been kicked around by the Iranians for thousands of years and take this latest threat very seriously. Despite being about to spend ten times more than Iran on defense the Arabs are still worried about this Iranian aggressiveness.
While most Iranians would like real democracy rather than the decades old religious dictatorship, the minority that keeps the ruling clerics in power is quite fanatic. Some of these guys, including several Revolutionary Guard (the clerics’ private army) commanders oppose negotiations over the sanctions. These men want to just go ahead and build the nukes and use these weapons to end the sanctions.
The government sees their expensive efforts in Syrian paying off. In 2013 over 70,000 died in Syria, about a third of them civilians. The anti-Hezbollah feelings in Lebanon are becoming more violent and that is also a direct threat to Iran. Saudi Arabia recently gave the largely Sunni and Christian military $3 billion to upgrade their capabilities. Hezbollah has long feared an army attempt to disarm the Shia (and very pro-Iran) militia. The Saudis are willing to sacrifice much to damage Iranian interests in Syria and Lebanon. The Hezbollah militia is the main source of mercenaries to prop up the Assad government in Syria so any effort that hurts Hezbollah endangers Iranian and Assad victory in Syria.
The stubborn Assad dictatorship now has a chance to win, something some Western nations see as preferable to Islamic terrorists taking over and requiring a Western invasion to remove such a threat. Russia and Iran are quite pleased with the way they have played the situation, especially the deal to remove Syrian chemical weapons (which the Syrians can rebuild later). This removal will drag on for as long as it takes to defeat the rebels and as long as the removal is in progress the rebels will not get Western air support, no matter how many atrocities the Assads commit against pro-rebel civilians.
Both Israel and the Arabs see Iran as very dangerous and accuse the Americans of being naïve in their treatment of Iran. To people living nearby Iran is not some new terrorist threat but an ancient problem. The neighbors see Iran as aggressive, dangerous and deceptive, as it has been for thousands of years. They point out that Iran was seen as a regional threat even before the Islamic clerics overthrew the monarchy in 1979. It should also be noted that Iran never really adjusted to democracy and has been run by ambitious and militant tyrants for thousands of year and especially in the last century.
Another long term result of the stubborn Iranian dictatorship is closer cooperation between Israel (which both Iran and most Arab nations officially want destroyed) and the Arab Gulf states. Over the last 60 years Israel has always sought to improve relations with Arab states and has made slow but steady progress. Now, with Arabs in general (and especially in Arabia) terrified of Iran, the pro-Israel attitudes are growing as is unofficial and discreet cooperation between Israel and the Arab Gulf states on matters of mutual interest (like restraining Iran). The United States has always encouraged these relationships and recently reaffirmed its commitment to the security of Israel and the Arab Gulf states. But the Arabs and Israelis want more than words from America.
In December Hamas announced that it had resumed diplomatic relations with Iran. Hamas is a radical Palestinian group that runs Gaza in much the same way that the Iranian clerics run Iran. This move annoyed the Arab donors and Hamas had to assure the Arab states that Hamas will not do anything for Iran that can be interpreted as “anti-Arab”. The cash squeeze and the severe economic problems in Gaza has led Hamas to depend more on Arab Gulf states for financial support. Hamas is also in trouble for its support for the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood, which attempted to turn Egypt into a religious dictatorship and was removed from power in July 2013 by a popular uprising and the army. Hamas feels more comfortable with the Iranian clerics, who will now resume financial aid. But it is not enough because what hurt Hamas the most was Egypt shutting down nearly all the smuggling tunnels into Gaza. These had become a major source of income for Hamas (which heavily taxed the smugglers) and there was nothing to replace the lost income. Hamas needs that cash to pay the thousands of civil supporters, people who are its most enthusiastic supporters.
In the northwest the Kurds are disappointed with the newly elected president. The Kurds tend to vote (usually over 70 percent) for the most reform minded candidates and tend to be disappointed when their guy does little for them. The new “reformist” president is no different and Kurds appear to be very low on his todo list. Meanwhile the government continues fighting Kurdish separatists (mainly PJAK) and pressuring European nations (where the exiled PJAK leadership resides) to prosecute the rebels in exile. Iran has obtained more cooperation from foreign governments (in Europe, as well as Turkey and Syria, where most Kurds live) to arrest, or at least monitor, PJAK members. Iraq pretends to cooperate, but doesn't do much. Iranian secret police agents also have informants in these other Kurdish communities, to monitor PJAK activities, and provide targets for Iranian death squads, which still stalk PJAK members who are deemed too troublesome to tolerate. Iran has to be careful with overseas "wet work" (assassinations), as without permission from the local government, this sort of thing invites diplomatic retaliation. There are no such problem inside Iran, and in northwest Iran, where most of the Kurdish minority lives, Iranian secret police and Revolutionary Guards have long maintained a reign of terror, to smoke out PJAK members and discourage Kurds from cooperating with the rebels. That kind of effort often just helps PJAK, which only has a few thousand armed members (out of 12 million Kurds in Iran).
The government continues to deny knowing the whereabouts of American Robert Levinson. In November 2013 it was revealed that the former FBI agent (Robert Levinson) who disappeared while visiting Iran in 2007 was actually working for the CIA. Well, sort of. It seems Levinson was being paid by some CIA analysts to seek out some specific information while visiting Iran. The analysts were not using Levinson as a professional spy but as a professional observer. The CIA, and most other intelligence agencies, often interview fellow citizens who have recently visited a foreign country and seek out items that may be unknown, or little known, to the intelligence professionals. China does this on a large scale and has been very successful with it. The problem with Levinson was that he had served in the FBI and was a trained observer. The Iranians apparently picked up both these items and arrested Levinson. This was done quietly and Iran has always denied any knowledge of Levinson. The U.S. kept the CIA connection (which took a while to discover) out of the news and paid the Levinson family $2.5 million to keep quiet. The family received “proof-of-life photos, audio recordings and videos in late 2010 and early 2011 via email. These were traced back to Pakistan and Afghanistan and the demands for Levinson’s release involved releasing prisoners the U.S. did not hold. Those who sent the emails never identified themselves. That left open the possibility that some Iranian secret police did grab Levinson and then sold him to smugglers or Islamic terrorists in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Meanwhile the U.S. government convinced the media to cooperate regarding the CIA connection because it was believed this would make it more likely to get Levinson out. This did not work and now the media has gone public with the incident. Several CIA analysts were punished even though most intelligence personnel insist that this sort of thing is common and generally accepted. But once something like the Levinson matter becomes a media item the rules change. Meanwhile American officials are convinced that their Iranian counterparts really do not know where Robert Levinson is, but may now suspect the entire affair is just another incidence of corruption within their security forces.
January 2, 2014: Bahrain is accusing Iran of providing sanctuary for a Bahraini Shia terrorist and allowing him to smuggle explosives and weapons into Bahrain and run a terrorist operation there. Bahraini police recently caught the Shia terrorists in the act of transferring weapons, explosives, satellite phones and other terrorist gear from an Iranian ship to a Bahraini boat. Iran is also accused of training some recently arrested Bahrain Shia who confessed to terrorist activity and being trained in Iran. Sunni Arab governments have long blamed Iran for instigating Shia Arab minority unrest in Saudi Arabia and the Shia Arab majority rebellion in Bahrain. But there has been little hard evidence of Iranian instigation and lots of obvious reasons for Shia unrest. For one thing, Islamic conservatives have long preached openly against Shia Moslems, calling them heretics and worse. The Saudi government prevents the Sunni fanatics from acting on these beliefs, but does not prohibit the preaching. In Bahrain, a Sunni Arab minority has long ruled a Shia Arab majority, and this sort of thing is never popular. While the anti-Shia attitude is not nearly as prominent in Bahrain, it is still there. All Iranian media, which can be picked up by Shia in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, has to do is repeat the Shia side of this ancient conflict. Iran, the largest Shia nation on the planet, also believes that Shia Moslems should be the guardians of Mecca and Medina (the most sacred Islamic shrines, which the Saud family, and other Sunni clans, have guarded for centuries). It's this Shia-Sunni feud, and Iran's historical role as regional superpower that frightens the Sunni Arab rulers of Arabia.
In Lebanon police arrested an elderly Sunni Arab (hospitalized for age related problems) and DNA from the man linked him to earlier terrorist attacks against Iranian targets in Lebanon. The man, Majid Al Majid, is a Saudi al Qaeda leader wanted for attacks against other targets as well.
December 31, 2013: Syrian officials publically thanked Russia, Iran and China for supporting the Assad government and making eventual victory over the Sunni rebels possible.
December 28, 2013: An electricity deal with Pakistan will require Iran to spend nearly a billion dollars to build a power plant near the Pakistan border that would supply 1,000 megawatts of electricity to southwest Pakistan. Iran will finance construction of the power plant while Pakistan will sign a long-term contract to import and pay for the electricity. Corruption in Pakistan has made it difficult to build or properly maintain power plants and the electricity shortages have been getting worse.
December 26, 2013: In Turkey several senior banking and government officials have been arrested and charged with corruption involving illegal dealings with Iran. The principal scam was making it possible for Turks to finance $13 billion worth of illegal trade with Iran in 2012-13. This involved illegally buying gold in Turkey and shipping it to Iran in exchange for natural gas. There were smaller deals made for other commodities, all of which involved violating the international sanctions Turkey was bound by treaty to adhere to.
December 23, 2013: It was recently revealed that about half the oil Syria has been importing has not come from Iran but from Iraq, via Egyptian and Lebanese firms that were used to hide the fact that the Iraqi oil was going to Syria.
December 20, 2013: The government announced that it had recently tested an air-launched version of its Qader cruise missile. Introduced in 2011 as a ship and land launched missile, Qader is a longer range (200 kilometers versus 120 for the early C-802 models) variation on the 715 kg (1,500 pound) Chinese C-802 anti-ship missile that Iran builds under license.
December 18, 2013: In the southeast three soldiers were killed by a bomb apparently left by smugglers to slow down pursuers. These bombs are left on rural routes that the smugglers use to get goods into Iran and people out.