The presidential election is tomorrow, but all the candidates were approved by the senior clerics and there is not much drama because whoever is elected will do what they are told. Just to be sure, the senior clerics apparently ordered a Cyber War campaign on email accounts of Gmail users. In the last month there were over 20,000 detected attempts to obtain email account passwords so that email by many politically active Iranians could be monitored. It’s unlikely this was just another Internet gang seeking to steal money from Internet users since Iranians are not particularly affluent and don’t do much shopping on the net. The Iranian clerics are apparently nervous about growing political unrest in the country and this is one way to monitor the opposition. What the clerics fear most are not the traditional pro-reform groups (who tend to be well educated and better off economically) but the majority of Iranians who have been patient and supportive (or at least tolerant) of the government. More of these people are being seen making anti-government noises and that’s usually because they are unemployed and feel they have nothing left to lose. If these people join forces with pro-reform groups there could be some serious unrest.
The opposition has been much weakened by heavy use of police state tactics in the last four years. The 2009 protests against rigged elections scared the senior clerics and they went after opposition groups with a ruthlessness that is all too common in Iranian history. The clerics also know how to play on popular attitudes. The nuclear weapons program is backed by most Iranians, who see this as natural for a regional superpower (which Iran has been for thousands of years). The reformers and democrats are a minority, and now they are a terrified (of jail, assassination, and poverty) minority. Pro-reform media has been shut down and Internet censorship has become more effective. As Russian communists demonstrated nearly a century ago, you can create a police state that suppresses dissent and keeps it suppressed indefinitely. But the Iranian clerics are also aware of that what brought the Soviet Union down was economic decline and growing corruption. What the reformers take away from this view is that the fall of the Soviet Union did not make corruption and political violence disappear, it just made it less organized and more widespread. Whatever comes after the clerics will not be pretty.
Whoever becomes the next president will face an increasingly unhappy population. While most Iranians support the nuclear weapons program, the sanctions against Iranian oil sales have been successful and the economy has taken a major hit. The economy was not in good shape in the first place because decades of corruption (the families of the senior clerics got their way) hobbled entrepreneurs and economic growth. The police state atmosphere (especially for any who opposed the religious dictatorship) drove many of the more capable and innovative people out of the country. Growing inflation and unemployment is leading to more popular anger and the government wants to keep the lid on it until they get nuclear weapons. This, it is believed, will enable the clerics to terrorize the world into eliminating the sanctions. That is not a sure thing, but at the moment that’s the plan.
Israeli intelligence believes that Iran is on track to enrich uranium to nuclear weapons levels and produce enough of this material for 20-30 bombs a year. Four years ago Iran claimed the ability to enrich uranium to 20 percent and was building facilities (which it has now done) to mass produce enriched uranium. A 1,000 Megawatt nuclear fuel plant requires 25 tons of enriched uranium (in the form of pellets, inside fuel rods) each year. That 25 tons is the end result of processing 200 tons of uranium ore from a mine. A nuclear weapon requires about 20 kg (44 pounds) of highly enriched (eight times the level of fuel for power plants) material.
Currently, Iran has enriched its nuclear material to about five percent and some of it to 20 percent. For weapons, you need to increase the content of Uranium 235 in uranium ore to at least 54 percent (producing uranium that contains that percentage of the more volatile U-235 form of the nuclear material). This is far above the 5-10 percent minimum needed for nuclear power plants. Normally, Uranium ore is only about .7 percent U-235. Anything over 20 percent enriched can be used for a nuclear bomb. But the most effective and reliable nuclear weapons use 80 percent enriched nuclear material. Iran has long believed that the UN would not be able to implement seriously effective sanctions because China is an Iranian ally that would veto any such move. The United States and Western nations got around this and have succeeded in cutting Iranian oil exports in half. Now it’s a race to see what happens first, an economic and political collapse or working Iranian nukes ready for use (and a world inclined to be terrified into submission by that threat).
In Syria the rebels are loudly protesting an “Iranian invasion.” This comes after thousands of Hezbollah gunmen crossed the border and began operating with the Syrian Army against the rebels. In the last month
Hezbollah has become increasingly vocal about its support for the Assad government in Syria. Iran then ordered its protégé Hezbollah (a Shia militia in Lebanon) to openly side with the Assad government in Syria. Thousands of Hezbollah gunmen were moved to the Syrian border and ordered to cross. The rebels have been reporting increasing Hezbollah involvement for months, but until this month Hezbollah officially denied any such involvement. That was because the Arab world is largely united in its opposition to the Assads. Not so much because they are Shia but because they are bloody tyrants and toadies to the hated (by most Arabs) Iranians. For over two decades Hezbollah has made a reputation in the Arab world as someone who would stand up to Israel. Hating Israel has been a popular activity in the Arab world since the 1940s, but the popularity is beginning to wane. While Hezbollah got respect for its anti-Israel stance, that is all at risk now, as Hezbollah openly sides with the Assads. To make matters worse, this move increases anti-Hezbollah sentiment inside Lebanon. Hezbollah has always represented the minority Shia of Lebanon and done so with increasing brutality (in order to bully the majority non-Shia population into submission). Now the non-Shia are becoming more aggressive against Hezbollah. The main reason for making this move in Syria is the fact that Iran bankrolls Hezbollah (and the Assads) and has promised to give Hezbollah modern Russian anti-ship, anti-tank, and anti-aircraft missile systems currently in Syria or soon to arrive from Russia. Iran denies having any troops in Syria, but there is considerable evidence of several hundred advisors and instructors, many apparently from the Quds Force (an elite outfit that provides aid to pro-Iran terrorists and rebels worldwide). Iran has apparently decided that Syria is too valuable to lose and extreme measures will be taken to keep the Assads in power.
Iran is finding that Hezbollah is not eager to sacrifice its reputation in the Arab world just to please its patron. To get around this Iran is offering cash bonuses to Hezbollah men who agree to fight in Syria. More Iranian cash is being provided to giver Syrian soldiers a 50 percent raise. Most of the Syrian Army has deserted or joined the rebels and those left are not terribly enthusiastic or effective. The Iranian trained Hezbollah militiamen have the more capable infantry and that bothers the rebels a great deal. Iran does not want ethnic Iranians (who are Indo-European and much hated by the Arabs, a Semitic people long abused by the Iranians) fighting in Syria, so cash and other forms of persuasion are being used to get Arabs to help out.
The war between Arabs and Iranians is heating up, no matter what the Iranian leadership does. In Iraq Sunni Arab terrorists are targeting Iranian pilgrims (most Shia religious shrines are in southern Iraq) and dozens have been killed this year. In Egypt Iranian tourists are welcomed again. Despite the need for more tourists there, Iranian visitors often run into hostility simply because they are Iranian.
June 10, 2013: A recent opinion survey in Iran found that 83 percent of the population would like to see Islamic (sharia) law applied, but only 37 percent felt the government was actually doing so (even though it is official government policy to use sharia law). Some 45 percent of Iranians believe the government is trying to follow sharia. Corruption has long been a problem with the clerical dictatorship in Iran, where families of senior clerics can get away with a lot of economic crimes. A recent international survey found that most nations (Moslem or otherwise) had a low opinion of Iran. Only in Pakistan and Indonesia did most people have a favorable attitude towards Iran. Iran is disliked by most Moslems because of militant Iranian support for Shia Islam. Only ten percent of Moslems are Shia while over 80 percent as Sunni (and Saudi Arabia backs a particularly strict form of Sunni Islam that considers Shia heretics).
June 4, 2013: Video got out of anti-government chants at the funeral of a pro-reform cleric. Many clerics oppose the corruption and mismanagement of the religious dictatorship that has run Iran since the 1980s. But these clerics are a minority and are barely tolerated by their less-ethical colleagues.
The U.S. blacklisted another 37 companies found to have assisted in smuggling illegal goods (needed by the nuclear development program) to Iran. Companies like these are essential for the Iranian smuggling operations, which are under increasing attack.
June 3, 2013: The U.S. authorized new sanctions against the use of Iranian currency in international trade. The new rules enable the U.S. and its allies to more quickly block new Iranian ploys to get around the currency sanctions. These rules have made it very difficult to sell Iranian oil or buy foreign goods.
June 1, 2013: Iranian oil shipments hit a new low in May, running at 700,000 barrels a day. Six months ago oil exports hit 1.4 million barrels a day. The new sanctions came into force last July and for August and September oil shipments fell from 2.6 million barrels a day to one million a day. But by last October the aggressive efforts to arrange illegal sales increased shipments to 1.3 million barrels a day. These sales yield much less income since the customers have to be offered lower prices and there are additional expenses in shipping some of the oil. The West, especially the United States, reacted quickly and effectively and blocked many sales of Iranian oil. The U.S. is also going after firms that help Iran smuggle in equipment needed by their oil industry.
May 31, 2013: The U.S. loosened sanctions on Iranians buying consumer electronics, especially smart phones and personal computers. These devices are among the most powerful tools pro-reform Iranians have in opposing the police state they live in.
May 30, 2013: Iran has cut most economic assistance to Hamas. This was not unexpected because Hamas has become more vocal in its support for the Sunni rebels in Syria. Radical Palestinians praise Iran for supplying Hamas with the rockets used in Gaza to fire into Israel. Arab states that provide economic aid to Hamas refuse to supply weapons but Iran does. Unfortunately cash and weapons is not all Iran provides. Iran also tried to convert the largely Sunni Palestinians to Shia Islam and encouraged Hamas to impose strict life-style rules on Gazans. Unfortunately for Iran, Sunni Islamic conservatism includes regarding Shia as heretics. To maintain relations with Hamas Iran has had to back off on trying to convert Palestinians to the Shia form of Islam that dominates Iran. At the same time, Hamas quietly discourages Sunni Islamic radicals from coming down too hard on Gaza Shia. The split with Hamas arose from the fact that Hamas would not remain quiet about what was happening to Palestinians in Syria. There a half million Palestinians are split over support for the Iran backed Assad dictatorship. For decades the Assads had provided sanctuary for Palestinian refugees and terrorists. But many of these Palestinians backed the rebels and this caused a civil war within the Palestinian community. Iran has said little about this, even when Syria sent aircraft to bomb Palestinian refugee camps. All this merely illustrates that Shia Iran supports Sunni Palestinians, only if they will be allies in the Iranian campaign to keep the Syrian Assad government in power. Hamas has refused to do this and now expects its Sunni Arab backers (the wealthy Arab Gulf states) to make up for the lost Iranian charity. This is believed to be about two million dollars a month, which helped pay the salaries of civil servants and security personnel (who are the core of Hamas support in Gaza).
May 29, 2013: The U.S. issued a report detailing the sudden increase in Iranian support for international terrorism. This Iranian shift was largely the result of the more effective economic sanctions employed against Iran last year. The Iranians responded by trying to carry out more terrorist attacks against Western targets. Few of these succeeded and many of the failures were found to have Iranian backing.