Iran: The Head-Butting Contest

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April 20, 2012: The government continues to use its tactics of deceive and delay to protect its nuclear weapons program. There are international talks going on over the weapons program (which the government denies exists, although the average Iranian you meet on the street thinks otherwise and is very enthusiastic of belonging to a nuclear weapons nation). The talks go nowhere, as there is no real incentive for Iran to halt the effort. The economic sanctions are seen as a challenge, not an obstacle. In response to the latest sanctions more Iranian oil is being sold on the black market and delivered by Iranian-owned tankers that travel with their electronic trackers turned off (a violation of international law but what's another violation to a nation that has lost count in this department). While there is growing unrest in Iran, the nuclear program and much talk of nationalism (which has always played well in this regional superpower) enable Iran's rulers to manipulate public opinion in their favor. This was demonstrated recently when the subject of disputed islands near the Straits of Hormuz was raised once more. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) persists in disputing possession of three islands (Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb, and Abu Musa) in the Persian Gulf, which Iran seized by force in 1971, and refuses to give back. Iran ignores the fact that Arabs live on the islands and would rather be ruled by Arabs. A few percent of Iranians are Arabs and they are not treated well. This annoys Arabs in general but also makes it clear that Iran does not fear Arabs and continues to strive for domination of the Moslem world. This most Arabs see as blasphemous because Iran is run by Shia, a Moslem sect considered heretical by many Sunni clerics. Thus by making some provocative statements about the disputed islands a media storm is generated in the Arab world, blocking out discussion of anything else Iran is doing, for a while anyway.  

Long-term, the religious dictatorship in Iran is in big trouble. Mismanagement of the economy and sanctions has led to cash shortages and cuts in maintaining infrastructure. Roads, bridges, and power plants are falling apart and the economy is less and less competitive internationally, or even very productive at home. Iranians know they are losing ground economically, while the government continues to persecute journalists and anyone who points out the problems and openly complains. Shortages, rising unemployment, and an annual inflation rate of over 20 percent provide lots to complain about. In the long run this will bring down the current religious dictatorship. But it's going to be an unpleasant journey.

A major, but little discussed, economic problem is the looming loss of insurance coverage on Iranian oil shipments. This forces the Iranian government to provide insurance, a move that could prove catastrophic if there were a major spill involving Iranian oil. That would mean paying billions in cleanup costs. Not doing so would bar Iranian oil from most of the world's ports. Iran seems intent on just absorbing this new obligation and moving on.

In Syria Iranian advisors play an increasingly important role as Syrian leaders scramble to retain power. The Syrian rulers have been persuaded to ease up on the killing and play for time. Use only as much force as necessary to force the rebels to keep their heads down. That means keeping protestors off the streets with gunfire while terrorizing opposition towns and neighborhoods with artillery, mortar, and shell fire. The Iranian advisors speak from experience, and the Assad family has no other allies. The Lebanese Hezbollah is also dependent on Iranian generosity to survive and helps out of self-interest. Iranian cash keeps the Syrian government running in the face of economic sanctions. Iran smuggles in weapons and other security equipment by air (via Iraq) and sea (despite NATO efforts to halt Iranian shipments). Iran also established communications with some leaders in the Syrian opposition, just in case some kind of compromise opportunities develop.

Iran loses a lot if the pro-democracy rebellion in Syria succeeds. At that point a loyal ally turns into another bitter Arab enemy. The Sunni majority in Syria has decades of bad memories of Assad family atrocities and mistreatment. Worse, it becomes much harder to support the Hezbollah militia that runs southern Lebanon. Hezbollah, armed with over 40,000 Iranian rockets, is the only weapon Iran has to use against Israel if Israel tries to bomb Iranian nuclear weapons facilities. While Hezbollah would lose another war with Israel (like they did in 2006 when they accidentally started one), Hezbollah would also lose most of its rockets and other Iranian weapons. Without Syria replacing all those rockets would take a long time and might be impossible. For this reason Hezbollah is supplying men (as trainers, technicians, and, in a few cases, fighters) and weapons to Syria. Throughout all this Syrian and Hezbollah personnel in Syria are under orders to keep their heads down. The Lebanese and Iranians wear Syrian uniforms as needed, unobtrusive civilian clothes otherwise. Foreign media are kept at a distance. But a growing number of Syrians fleeing the country have seen the foreigners in action and recognized where they were from and what they were doing.

Iran is having a spat with one of its major allies, China. For over a decade now China has used its diplomatic clout for Iran in the UN and elsewhere, as well as helping evade numerous trade embargoes. Now China wants much lower prices for Iranian oil. This cash-strapped Iran is refusing to do (at least not to the extent China is demanding). So China is cutting back on oil purchases and cooperation in smuggling goods to Iran. It's a head-butting contest between two major bullies and the smart money is on China.

April 18, 2012: The government announced that it had arrested 15 people (Iranians and foreigners) and accused them of being spies and saboteurs for Israel. This sort of thing has been done before, and the accused were often innocent. The government needs some arrests in this area, as Israel's covert war against Iranian nuclear weapons development continues unabated.

April 14, 2012: Another round of talks between Iran and major powers over Iranian nuclear weapons began in Turkey, with another round of talks scheduled for next month in Iraq. These talks have been going on for years and never accomplish anything (except to give diplomats something to do).

 

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