Iran: How Much Pain?

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May 27, 2012: Iran is at war and has been for decades. But their weapons are not the conventional tanks, warplanes, and ships. Instead Iran uses cash to buy allies (especially in Lebanon and Syria), a special force (Quds) to advise friendly dictators how to remain in power, or pro-Iran rebels (as in Bahrain, Yemen, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere) on how to smash the state. At home Iran practices what it preaches, using secret police and a pro-government militia (Basij) to terrorize opponents. Iran also funds pro-Iran media support wherever it can, via pro-Iran media outlets or simply by bribing journalists. Cash is an all-purpose weapon. In Syria, Iran is willing to provide up to a billion dollars a month to finance imports that are essential to keeping the pro-Iran government in power. The Iranian government budget is $453 billion a year, so that billion a month is a major sacrifice for cash-strapped Iran. Because the Iranian currency is rapidly losing value against foreign currencies, the government budget's buying power outside the country is closer to $300 billion.

What annoys most Iranians the most is that all this talent and cash is being wasted on keeping a corrupt religious dictatorship going. Iranians have always been the most economically and militarily successful group in the region, but those talents were often wasted to keep corrupt Iranian despots in power. Iranians, who leave the motherland, especially for the West, do very well for themselves. But at home opportunities are much more limited, and enterprise and free-thinking is discouraged. Most Iranians would like a less corrupt and restrictive government but that will take time. In the past the corrupt and inefficient tyrannies eventually fall apart but it can take a long time. After all, the tyrants are Iranians, and even the evil ones are a clever and resourceful bunch. Few Iranians want to start a civil war over this and that helps prolong the misrule.

The economic sanctions have blocked the importation of a lot of basic goods, Iran has been able to depend on China to prevent any shortages. Chinese goods are cheaper but often of lower quality than Iranians are used to. But the worst part of allowing China to export whatever it can sell in Iran is the disruption it causes. In the past Iran has restricted Chinese imports, to protect local retailers and manufacturers. But now Iran is desperate for someone able to ignore the sanctions, and the only major supplier willing to do that is China. In return China wants no restrictions. That means thousands of Chinese are coming to Iran to set up their own retail operations. This puts Iranians out of work, and the Chinese migrants are not popular.

The Western economic sanctions are hurting but not enough for Iran to consider shutting down its officially non-existent nuclear weapons program. Most Iranians are willing to make some, but not a lot, of personal sacrifices to keep the nuclear program going. How much pain will the public endure?  That is a question that keeps Iranian leaders up nights. No one really knows.

One reason the clerics stay in power is that they don't spend a lot on the military. Most of the money goes to keeping their core supporters (about a quarter of the population who are Islamic conservatives or just willing to be bought and stay bought) happy and providing just enough economic benefits for the rest to avoid a popular uprising. The Iranian military is presented as a mighty force, even though it is equipped largely with worn out or obsolete equipment. Propaganda makes up for some of this, as the military is constantly announcing wonderful new weapons designed and built in Iran. But most of this stuff is crap, and little of the new gear is actually built in quantity. Besides, there are two armed forces. One is the usual army, navy, and air force. The other, the Revolutionary Guard (and their reserve force, the Basij) are better equipped and trained. The regular armed forces are there to scare hostile neighbors, the Revolutionary Guard is there to scare hostile Iranians.  

Bahrain will no longer use Arabsat communications satellites to send Bahraini TV news out to the Arab world. This is done to protest the refusal of Arabsat to censor Iranian propaganda broadcasts, urging Shia Arabs to overthrow Sunni Arab governments. While Arabsat is owned and operated by Arabs, it wants to maintain good relations with Iran and convince the Iranians to halt the jamming of some Arabsat broadcasts into Iran.

Inside Iran the government continues to jail and punish any journalists that oppose, or just offend, the government. The secret police pursue and punish real or suspected reformers. There is fear upon the land, and that's what the religious dictatorship wants.

May 26, 2012: A senior general in the Revolutionary Guard reminded the world that Iran's ballistic missiles could strike anywhere in the Middle East (at least as far west as Egypt). What the general did not discuss was the reliability of all those missiles, which is believed to be low. Iran has put the emphasis on building lots of missiles, not quality control.

May 25, 2012: The UN IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) issued a report that recent inspections in Iran had found traces of uranium that had been enriched more than needed for power plant fuel. Natural uranium is only about one percent fissile (explosive) material. It must be enriched to 20-40 percent to be used in a nuclear power plant and up to 85 percent for nuclear weapons. You can still build a low-power nuclear weapon with uranium enriched to lower levels (down to 20-30 percent). Iran denied that it was producing weapons grade uranium and claimed that the IAEA team found traces of uranium that was accidentally enriched just a bit too much.

Last January an inspection team arrived but was not allowed to inspect nuclear weapons facilities (which Iran insists do not exist but which IAEA has a list of). Seven months ago IAEA issued a report accusing Iran of having a nuclear weapons program, they provided lots of details. It appears that the IAEA had help from more than just the few inspectors it was allowed to put inside Iran. The report described a nuclear weapons research facility outside Tehran and the use of computer simulation to guide the nuclear weapon design process. IAEA believes Iran now has enough enriched uranium for at least three nuclear weapons but is still encountering technical problems in producing a workable weapon. While Iran officially denies, to foreigners, that it has a nuclear weapons program, inside Iran there is general agreement that the program exists and that it is a great thing for Iran.

Iranian hacker groups are claiming to have gotten into U.S. government networks (like NASA) and stolen data. No proof was provided and this was dismissed as more Iranian propaganda.

May 16, 2012:  The UN accuses Iran of continuing to ship weapons to the dictatorship in Syria, despite the sanctions. Iran denies that it is misbehaving.

Iran executed, by hanging, an Iranian man it accused of being an Israeli agent and murdering an Iranian scientist two years. The accused man confessed but not very convincingly. In Iran you can get a confession by threatening severe punishment of someone's family. It's an ancient tactic that still works.

May 15, 2012:  An Iranian cleric has offered $100,000 for anyone who will kill an Iranian living in Germany, who upset Iranian clerics by composing and performing a rap song the clerics found offensive and blasphemous.

May 14, 2012: The government has banned banks, insurance, and telecommunications companies from accepting customer email that is not managed by an Iranian provider. That means no foreign email providers (like Gmail or Hotmail). Less use of foreign email providers makes it easier for Iran to eavesdrop on local email and shut down email in an emergency.

 

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