My July 3 National Interest piece argued that Iran stands to waste a huge pile of money if they attempt to develop nuclear submarines. Iran is clearly using the subs as an excuse to lawfully boost enrichment above the current 19.75% level. They have also suggested that problems fueling their ships abroad may lead them to develop nuclear powered commercial vessels . . . I have not done the math but I am suspecting these would carry enormous opportunity costs that would take years to pay off, if they can be paid off at all. Hints are already coming out that a higher level of enrichment could be in the cards–most recently, a Khamenei aide stated that if international pressure continues, Iran may move up to 56% enrichment. Western negotiators should latch on to this matter. Higher enrichment is not necessary for naval reactors–it’s merely preferable–and Iran does not have good reasons to develop nuclear vessels anyway. While we shouldn’t get too hasty and say this all means Iran really is going for the bomb, it does shred the common Iranian refrain that the purpose of the nuclear program is fully peaceful and aimed only at economic and scientific advancement. The current levels and rates of enrichment make this scarcely plausible (Iran claims it is making the 19.75% enriched uranium for, among other things, fuel for an array of yet-to-be-constructed research reactors). Higher enrichment makes Iran’s multiple goals quite clear.
On July 23, I weighed in for MENASAWorld on the accusations that the Secretary of State’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Huma Abedin, is a secret Muslim Brotherhood infiltrator. Since the strangeness of this claim was already exposed in depth by heftier writers than me, I took a different angle, arguing that with or without legions of Muslim secret agents, the United States would have opened up to the Muslim Brotherhood. Brotherhood secret agents, incidentally, are easily spotted: most will be in regular contact with a cleric about whether taking a cyanide pill during Ramadan would break the fast or whether it is unclean to use a shoe phone.
On July 31 I suggested in the National Interest that Western observers are mistakenly viewing the Syrian civil war as a war of national liberation in which the displacement of the regime will be welcomed by all sectors of society. In fact, I suggest, the fall of Damascus will merely mean that the rebels now have the upper hand in the conflict, and not that it is anywhere close to over. The mutual distaste that has sprung up between sects friendly with Assad and those friendly with the opposition will make reconciliation extremely difficult. If the rebels can drive him from the capital, Assad will retreat behind the mountains of the Syrian coast and hold off further advances by the Free Army.
The Russian-Chinese veto of a rather weak Security Council resolution that would have increased the international pressure on Syria has brought the international search for a diplomatic solution to an impasse. Moscow and Beijing have signaled that they have no interest in lending international legitimacy to a campaign for the end of Assad’s rule, so further actions will risk their fury. It’s likely that the next step will be stronger moves from the Arab League and the Arab Spring’s new great power, little Qatar. However, the end of the U.N. process has provoked a gush of violence around Syria that will certainly yield more calls for physical action. Calls for international support for the Free Syrian Army rebel group are becoming more common. This is an aggressive step that could lead to an all-out civil war. If the rebels win, there could be great opportunity for a regional transformation–Iranian influence in the Levant would be strangled, and a new government might change Syria’s decades-old rejection of the Arab-Israeli peace process. Lebanon might become more stable. However, a rebel victory is hardly certain. Several constituencies within Syria still want Bashar in power, and he’s being fed a steady supply of Russian arms. Providing the rebels access to similar volumes of weaponry might yield a long and bloody war. How would this affect America’s interest in the region?
Islamic Azad University, Iran’s largest academic institution, has seen a change at the helm, with its president of nearly three decades, Abdollah Jasbi, removed and replaced by Farhad Daneshjoo. Daneshjoo, according to Payvand, is an Ahmadinejad ally, and his appointment was opposed by the quasi-moderate former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s rather liberal son Hassan. In this regard, it’s a defeat for the moderates–an enemy has been placed at the helm of a massive educational institution, a position that gives him significant political leverage given the active role that Iran’s students have long played in the nation’s politics. What’s most surprising about this is not that the moderates lost a battle–for they’ve done a lot of that since the end of the Khatami presidency–but that they were even able to contest it at all. In most areas of Iranian politics, the moderates have long been squeezed out, and the real battle is now between the clerical and anticlerical conservatives.
An anonymous Free Syrian Army officer, speaking to London’s Asharq al-Awsat, said that the militia is buying weapons from a number of sources, including the Assad-sympathetizing shabiha militia. This shows the danger that Assad has put himself in with his many unsavory bedfellows. The Shabiha got their start as (to borrow a phrase from Assad’s lexicon) armed gangs that made their money through smuggling that the regime tolerated as long as they remained loyal. Now, while they help Assad wipe out his unarmed opponents by day, they aid his armed opponents by night. That’s the cost of doing business with these types.
This might be a foretaste of a future Iranian revolution, should one occur. The IRGC, like the Shabiha, is not loyal to the regime alone–they have growing interests in the economy, including in the black market. If the Islamic Republic starts to fall apart, elements of the Pasdaran might start playing both sides in much the same fashion.
This is not the only unsettling news about semi-official forces moving weapons. There have been reports in the Israeli media that Hezbollah has taken possession of some of Syria’s formidable arsenal of chemical weapons. If they can integrate these into their array of rockets, Israel will be at a new level of vulnerability. Reports indicate that perhaps 40% of the Israeli population does not have gas masks. An all-out Hezbollah rocket attack would be a disaster for Israel; a chemical attack would be even worse. This prospect could shape Israel’s strategic calculations toward Hezbollah and its allies Syria and Iran.
I just watched Talk to Al Jazeera’s latest, an interview of Iranian Oil Minister Rostam Qasemi by Teymoor Nabili. I hadn’t seen more than photographs and brief quotes from Qasemi before, so it was quite interesting to see him speaking at length. Watch a few minutes of the interview, get a feel for the man–is it just me, or is he a bit slow? It takes about ten minutes for him to say anything that, in translation at least, doesn’t sound like one of his assistants bullet-pointed a Wikipedia article on the international oil market, and the entire time his eyes are half-closed as he speaks in a monotone. (One wonders whether he’s gotten into Iran’s ample supply of opium.) Most of his answers seem to be little more than a statement of the most basic and uncontroversial facts about whatever is being discussed. His reply to a question on whether OPEC would cut production quotas now that Libyan production is coming back online provides a sample of the trivialities that dribble from his ample jowls:
Great article in Foreign Policy on Iran’s drug troubles, accompanied by a photo set. It’s interesting to note that this UNODC report on drug use in Iran, which says that 2.26% of the nation is addicted to opiates, is actually by far the most optimistic picture of Iran’s drug problem that I’ve ever seen. Mainstream figures seem to be around 5%, and the most pessimistic say 10-15%. This might be the case more in Iran’s minority-dominated peripheries, where it’s said that addiction is so common that some factories give employees a break during the workday to use drugs.
Great summary for those who haven’t been following the Iran confrontation, though it leaves out the simultaneous transformation that’s been occurring in Iran’s domestic politics.
But now the element of surprise is gone. The Iranians are digging their plants deeper underground, and enriching uranium at purities that will make it easier to race for a bomb. When Barack Obama was sworn into office, they had enough fuel on hand to produce a single weapon; today, by the I.A.E.A.’s own inventory, they have enough for at least four. And as the Quds Force has shown, sabotage and assassination is a two-way game, which may ratchet up one confrontation just as Americans have been exhausted by two others.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says that the U.S. government is “confused” by Iran’s recent behavior, and suggests that it may be turning towards a military government (full interview here):
But we have no doubt that this [the plot against the Saudi ambassador] was ordered. Now, I cannot tell you how high up the chain it went, which actually bothers me in both ways. If it went up the chain to the supreme leader, for example, that’s really troubling, right? If it didn’t, if it was a plot hatched by military personnel, that should be troubling to the leadership in Iran.
I think because of the – this is just my opinion; I am by no means an expert on Iran or on Iranian politics – but I believe there is a power struggle going on inside the regime and they can’t sort out what they really are willing to do [in negotiations with the U.S.] until they sort out who’s going to do what. And therefore I think there’s an opportunity for people within the country to try to influence how that debate turns out.
Spot on. The Islamic Republic has a two-dimensional political spectrum: reformists vs. hardliners, and clericalists vs. anti-clericalists. The 2009 crackdown showed that the regime’s core–i.e. Khamenei and his associates–wanted to dramatically weaken the reformist sides. The 2011 struggle between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei shows that the core wants to weaken the anti-clerical side. The only people left are various stripes of clericalist hardliners–still a diverse bunch, but nothing compared to the normal spectrum of Iranian politics. I think that Khamenei, if he can consolidate his faction’s position as the only acceptable venue for politics, will find his coalition fragmenting. The IRGC, a key constituency, has an enormous role in the economy. The new Iranian elite may be divided on pro- and anti-IRGC lines, and between business- and military-oriented factions (traditionalist merchants and IRGC business operators likely will not appreciate any new sanctions that result from Qods’ adventurism in Washington). Khamenei, who is normally a master at behind-the-scenes politicking, will find himself forced to take a more and more assertive role as his supporters fight each other and the anti-clericalist conservatives and reformists try to find a way back into the system.
It looks like the rumors the other day that Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud had beaten the odds to become the next Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia were false. The King has apparently decided to wait until after Sultan’s funeral today to make a decision, and the word on the street is that the Allegiance Council–the body of Al Saud bigwigs and cadet branches charged with smoothing transitions–will meet imminently. All eyes remain on Nayef bin Abdulaziz, the Interior Minister with solid conservative credentials and an authoritarian reputation. Assuming Nayef gets the nod, the Defense Ministry remains in the air (Khaled bin Sultan is a favorite, though it would be foolish to write off Bandar bin Sultan, Khaled’s younger brother). The choice of the new Second Deputy Prime Minister (Nayef’s current role) may be most telling for the Kingdom’s future direction. Salman is the most likely to take the position. His solid reputation across the royal house’s different factions could help silence any controversies about Nayef, but it would also suggest that there is an unswerving commitment to seniority as the key element in succession, which would guarantee a long string of short-lived octogenarian kings, a sure recipe for instability. Of course, that instability might be twenty years away–politics moves very slowly in the Kingdom–but it would still be a penny-wise, pound-foolish strategy. Salman could become a great king whose name echoes through the ages like that of Feisal or Abdulaziz, but his succession would fail to stop the trend. Surely there are capable and politically adept men under 50, or under 60, among Muhammad bin Saud’s many sons. If the current trend continues, we may see one such man ignore the squabbles of his decrepit uncles and seize the throne–after all, wasn’t the modern Kingdom founded in a breach of the rules of succession, with Abdulrahman bypassed by his aggressive son?