Many believe the west is overplaying the influence and nuclear potential that a divided, and increasingly reckless, Tehran wields
Iran-watchers have had their work cut out this week making sense of the attacks on Israeli diplomats in Asia, confusion over a ban on oil sales to EU countries, a vaunted advance in the country’s nuclear programme and a cleverly formulated offer of a new round of talks on that hot and contentious issue.
It all made for a slew of mixed messages that underlined just how hard it is to understand the opaque reality of one of the most important countries in the Middle East, and, some observers warn, to overcome politically loaded western preconceptions about its behaviour.
Tehran flatly denied any part in the incidents in Thailand and India. But despite the Keystone Cops storyline of inept bombers and bungled plans, the attacks did look like retaliation for alleged Israeli killings of Iran’s nuclear scientists – and provided a glimpse of a covert dirty war that risks spiralling out of hand as tensions rise.
Publicly, though, there was one unambiguous signal when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unveiled new centrifuges he claimed were able to enrich uranium more quickly – to a resounding lack of interest either at home or abroad. Experts agreed that this did not constitute a significant advance towards a nuclear capability that Iran insists is purely peaceful.
Iran’s intention, argued Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, was to show it would not be impeded by sanctions, sabotage or assassinations. “These announcements will further inflame talk of military options, which has reached feverish pitch in some quarters in Israel and the US,” he said. “But even in the highly unlikely event that everything Iran has announced is true, it would still take Iran a couple of years to produce a handful of weapons.” Ahmadinejad’s news, sniffed the US state department spokesman, was “not terribly new, and not terribly impressive”.
But in a year that has seen confirmation that Iran is producing 20% enriched uranium, stored in a bombproof mountain near Qom, US aircraft carriers sailing through the strait of Hormuz and the imposition of painful new western sanctions, this issue is not going away.
Israel’s warnings that it faces an “existential threat” from a nuclear-armed Iran have created an ominous sense that a decision is imminent – piling the pressure on Barack Obama in election year. Israel, an undeclared nuclear power, is said by those in the know to be recalculating its options every day. But bluff, rhetoric and deliberate misinformation are likely to be part of this story, too. So are internal divisions in Israel, where Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, insists that sanctions are not working, while Ehud Barak, his defence minister, says he thinks they are starting to be effective.
Complicating it all is uncertainty over who calls the shots in Tehran, where Ahmadinejad is locked in a power struggle with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who controls the Revolutionary Guards and threatened in a recent Friday sermon to punish Israel. “Everything suggests disarray,” says Ali Ansari of St Andrews University.
Wednesday’s announcement of a ban on oil sales to six EU countries is a case in point. EU sanctions banning Iranian oil imports were agreed in January but were not due to be implemented until July. So the announcement – immediately denied – looked foolish and counter-productive. “It’s a symptom of a headless government,” said Vahe Petrossian, an Iran energy expert. “They are just making things up as they go along.”
Fears of a low turnout in next month’s parliamentary election (being boycotted by an opposition that has never accepted the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad’s “stolen” second term in 2009) is a factor. Another is the deteriorating economic situation, with sanctions imposed by many countries now biting hard.
“There is a real malaise about the whole system,” says Ansari. “Some of my friends think it is terminal. People either don’t care any more or they are just too busy trying to make ends meet.”
Hardliners are said to find the sanctions a useful way of reinforcing their view of unremitting hostility from the west and Israel. “Israel is a convenient bogeyman for Iran’s own right-wing,” argues the political scientist Arshin Adib-Moghaddam. “Cyclical, confined confrontation with Israel is politically useful in order to foster support for the country’s policies, both domestically and in the wider Arab and Islamic world.”
Yet the risks are obvious. “Some of the things that have happened are signs of desperation and recklessness,” said a western diplomat who follows Iran closely. “They are feeling pretty beleaguered.” Another Tehran-watcher sees an alarming combination of “belligerence and schizophrenia”.
Nor is all well in the region. True, Iran has been influential in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and is a big player in Afghanistan as well. But it now risks losing Syria, its only Arab ally and link to Hezbollah, its partner in Lebanon. “Iran’s internal problems are far greater than they seem and beyond the region its external power is marginal,” argues analyst Baqer Moin.
Emile Hokayem, of the Institute of Strategic Studies, sees only bombast, risk-taking and incompetence in recent Tehran’s latest moves: “The Iranians may win something in terms of perception, but all in all they are on the losing side.”
On paper, Iran’s conventional military capabilities are no match for its enemies. But its forces are tough, battle-hardened and highly motivated: the naval arm of the Revolutionary Guard corps has experience in “assymetric warfare” using swarm tactics that combine small fast boats, missiles and mines that could play havoc in the strait of Hormuz.
“The fundamental problem is that Iran’s friends and enemies both overestimate its power and influence,” says Hokayem. “The west believes its own perceptions. Israel’s officially endorsed existential concern about Iran makes Israelis feel more vulnerable and more nervous … than warranted, which is massively counterproductive. In Washington, the hawks exaggerate to create a sense of urgency. The Gulf states hype things, too. But if you look at the substance, Iran doesn’t come across as a particularly powerful country. It’s trying to find its place in the international system and it’s failing. We need to rightsize the Iranian challenge.”
from Ian Black