Between Iran, Pakistan, Riyadh and Syria: Defining the terrorists

Westward of Iran, we see Tehran and the P5+1 holding expert-level talks in Vienna this week, the Austrian president accepting an invitation to the country, and continuing all-around diplomatic engagement.

But to the east, towards Balochistan, on the Pakistani border, events are unfolding that are a far cry from the smile-filled diplomacy that has characterized Iranian-Western relations in recent months.

It all began on February 6, when five Iranian guards were kidnapped on the border by an Iranian terrorist group accused of having sanctuaries in Pakistani Balochistan. When the group announced that it had killed one of the guards, Iran retaliated by deploying (IRGC) troops to secure the border, executing 16 “rebels” and warning of a “crushing response” – in Pakistani territory, implicitly – if additional guards are harmed. Pakistan, meanwhile, vehemently denied that the guards were being held on Pakistani soil at all.

The power struggle between Iran and Pakistan over the matter has played out mostly over local media – the semi-governmental Press TV in Iran, and in Pakistan, newspapers such as Dawn, Tribune and The Nation.

In Iran, the debacle was presented as a Pakistani security failure and as a catalyst for an Iranian military strike on terrorism in the area. Press TV boasted that Iran had even suggested the creation of an anti-terrorism front comprised of Iran, Pakistan and others – even as Iran continues to funnel funds to terrorists the world over.

In fact, Iran’s selective definition of “terrorism” could spell trouble for Pakistan: Islamabad recently received a $1.5 billion grant from Saudi Arabia, ostensibly due to “dire need,” but really – according to analysts of The National and Christian Science Monitor – Riyadh wants to arm the Free Syrian Army with Pakistani weapons. Herein lies the paradox: to much of the world, it is the Iranian proxies fighting for Assad in Syria – particularly Hezbollah – who are the terrorists. But to Iran, the terrorist threat to be rid of is the moderate Syrian Opposition Coalition.

How, then, will Pakistan, which depends on Iran for gas, fare with Riyadh encouraging it to enter the Syrian war, and the IRGC poised to strike with any sign of “terrorism” on the eastern border?

Iranian Victory Leap (As Syria Festers)

The upcoming Geneva II conference on Syria is providing an interesting media opportunity to watch the western rush to court Iran as a potential partner in Middle East stabilization efforts.

In a New York Times op-ed titled ‘Obama’s Losing Bet on Iran,’ Michael Doran and Max Boot (who usually stars in less liberal media outlets) asserted that the Obama administration’s attempts to shift its foreign policy in Tehran’s favor was “breathtakingly ambitious” and “destined to fail.”

Meanwhile, David Keyes in The Daily Beast used even harsher language, saying “Iran, Putin and Assad” had “outwitted America.” which would henceforth be remembered for its “breathtaking naiveté” in letting “a brutal theocracy undermine Western interests throughout the Middle East” at a time when Tehran was at its weakest rather than its most powerful.

Alongside this scathing criticism, most media coverage of Iran this week took a less critical tone, focusing on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif’s tour – or “victory leap,” as Keyes termed it with more than a hint of sarcasm – of the region (and Russia).

On the fringes, Hillary Mann Leverett – pro-Tehran going back  to the Ahmadinejad period – said in an interview with RT that Saudi Arabia and other “so-called” US allies were the ones preventing Iran from patching Syria up because “they don’t want Assad to be able to consolidate his authority in his country.”

So there you have it: as Geneva II nears, some news sources are keen to remind readers of the potential dangers of intentionally increasing Iran’s influence in Syria (and the Middle East at large), while others see it as the region’s panacea. Considering Iran’s track record on the Middle Eastern front, we know whose advice we would rather heed.

Meanwhile, Keeping Track of Iran’s ME Fingerprints

As we’ve reported in the last two weeks, Tehran has been making fervent attempts to woo Europe since signing a nuclear deal in Geneva in November, making gains on both the economic and political fronts.

Back in the Middle East, however, things aren’t as clear-cut; rather than publishing op-eds in leading newspapers and meeting with parliamentarians, as it has done with Europe, Iran has been exerting its influence in the region in more underhanded – not to mention destructive — ways.

Though the press has to a large extent turned a blind eye on Iran’s less agreeable activities of late, they haven’t escaped everyone’s notice: for example, David Ignatius of The Washington Post devoted an entire op-ed last week to Iran’s activities in Iraq, which have both exacerbated sectarian tensions and empowered al-Qaeda in the war-torn country, after its presence was crushed by the US military.

According to Ignatius, Iran’s alliance with Iraq’s US-backed Shi’ite government has undermined the gains made by Washington against al-Qaeda in the years following its invasion of the country. It has also led to radicalization among Iraqi Sunnis whose concern that their country is in cahoots with Tehran — with which Baghdad fought a drawn-out war in the 80s — has led them to turn back towards sectarianism in the aftermath of the US pullout.

Meanwhile in Syria, Iraqi militias under Iran’s “covert direction” were being sent to join the ongoing civil conflict and fight against Sunni rebel groups.

The conclusion, according to Ignatius? Iran is “playing the Iraqi game” with great acumen. Apropos, perhaps the media would like to take an interest in which other games the Islamic republic is winning at under the radar.

Or perhaps it should just continue basking in the Geneva deal rays…

Media Cold-Shoulders Saudi on Iran

Saudi Arabia’s opposition to what it views as the P5+1′s lax attitude toward Tehran makes the headlines about once a week (best-case scenario). It’s our impression they’re actually boiling over on a daily basis, just that the media can’t handle that much intensity.

Facing a spirit of international over-optimism, in recent weeks the Saudis have launched a media blitz. The highlight, picked up by everybody: the op-ed ‘Saudi Arabia Will Go It Alone’ that appeared in The New York Times last month.

Saudi ambassador to the UK, Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz al Saud, warned in the op-ed that the close ties between his country and the West “have been tested – principally because of differences over Iran and Syria.” His main question:

This year’s talks with Iran may dilute the West’s determination to deal with both governments. What price is “peace” though, when it is made with such regimes?

He added:

This year, for all their talk of “red lines,” when it counted, our partners have seemed all too ready to concede our safety and risk our region’s stability.

Meanwhile over at The Wall Street Journal, a Saudi royal slammed Washington for holding secret talks with Iran and demanded a place for Riyadh at the negotiating table.

What does this all mean? Yoel Guzansky of Ha’aretz suggested that while the kingdom won’t be able to confront threats on its own, it might try to diversify its diplomatic ties and possibly acquire a nuclear weapon, which Guzansky said it has “both the strategic motivation and financial capability to strive for.”

This all sounds like really heavy stuff. Much more serious than a weekly nod and yawn from the media.

Confidence on Iran After Geneva

Just because all media eyes continue to focus on the interim deal doesn’t mean that Iran, too, is solely focused on resolving the nuclear crisis. To see this, however, you need to connect the dots – and apparently not everyone wants to do that.

The Geneva signatories certainly view the deal as a means to improve stability and security in the volatile Middle East. Ironically, Tehran’s push for more sophisticated weaponry – which according to Forbes “rapidly advances unchecked” – seems to threaten that very objective by undermining Western disarmament efforts.

As if that weren’t enough, Forbes updated that Iran is joining forces with North Korea to develop and test larger and more sophisticated missile systems. Furthermore, citing a statement by the Iranian defense minister the Associated Press reported that Iran has “dramatically” improved the accuracy of its ballistic missiles by using laser systems. The missiles are now said to be able to strike within two meters of their targets, compared to 200 meters previously.

To what end? Well, a July report by the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) estimated that Iran could develop a missile system “capable of reaching the United States by 2015,” possibly under the guise of a space program. Not exactly in the spirit of Geneva.

Apropos Geneva: according to Reuters Tehran is also moving ahead with its nuclear program and testing more efficient uranium enrichment technology such as a new generation of more sophisticated centrifuges.

Frankly, we’re starting to feel like a lone voice in the wilderness. We fail to understand the lack of any focused reporting of all these developments, which together raise questions about Iran’s desire to build confidence and foster regional stability.

Keeping Tabs on Iran’s Plutonium

As nuclear talks come and go (and come again) and media outlets grasp at straws as far as particulars are concerned, arms control experts stand out these days as a focused and informed voice in blogs and the social media. Their issue: the plutonium route.

Arms Control Wonk’s Mark Hibbs, for example, reminds Iran watchers that once completed, the IR40 facility could produce enough weapons-grade plutonium to make one nuclear weapon a year. This serves as a pertinent reminder that while Iran and the P5+1 play a tug-of-war over 20 percent enriched uranium (the production of which Iran recently denied it had halted), the second track toward a nuclear weapon – the possibility of plutonium production at Arak – still needs to be addressed.

Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), meanwhile, recently noted that “all nuclear-armed countries” have pursued both the uranium and plutonium routes toward a nuclear weapon. In his opinion, Iran could “probably” produce a plutonium nuclear device by the end of 2016.

Seems that while 46 countries operate research reactors, only four reportedly use heavy water reactors (which are more difficult to operate) – the rest purchase medical isotopes, rather than producing them independently. In this context, Fitzpatrick updates that Iran rejected a rare, private sector offer of a guaranteed supply of such isotopes – choosing instead to continue building a heavy-water reactor so large that it is comparable only to the reactors used by both India and North Korea to produce weapons-grade plutonium.

Fitzpatrick believes that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would be tipped off to the possibility of increased plutonium production by the operation schedule of the Arak reactor. Hope he’s right. Let’s also hope media coverage widens its scope of coverage of nuclear talks in the next week to include the plutonium route issue.

Syria crisis exposes Rouhani challenge

The media continues to obsess over the impressive style changes coming from Rouhani and Zarif. NBC‘s op-ed previewing the Iranian president’s upcoming visit to the UN General Assembly in New York raises some points that warrant discussion in this context.

The gist of the piece is revealed by the headline: “Is Iran coming in from the cold? Hints pile up as new president prepares for NYC trip.” The implied assumption – shared by numerous media outlets – is that Rouhani and his close associates are the new Iran, no need to listen to the others.

Really?

Let’s begin with Rouhani’s Jewish new year message: Fars News was quick to doubt its authenticity, quoting a top aide as saying the president had no official Twitter account. But as pointed out by EA World View editor Scott Lucas:

We believe this is pressure from Fars and the Revolutionary Guards to Rouhani’s team to back off from their moderate positions on Israel and especially Syria.

The Syria issue is critical to understanding the multiple layers that are the new Iran. Indeed, Reuters reported last week that Tehran had prepared a terrorist response to a possible US strike on Syria. Furthermore, merely a day after Rouhani’s benign tweet, Khamenei threatened the US – a far cry from his president’s tone.

A Huffington Post analysis  by Ali Alfoneh put it all in perspective:

for now, Rafsanjani and Rouhani seem to have lost the battle over Iran’s Syria policy to the likes of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), sworn to support Damascus “to the end.”

The bottom line: while Jewish new year greetings are nice, media declarations of a new Iran should focus on the strategic issues close to the regime’s heart – like Assad’s Syria and the nuclear crisis.

Syria – Out (for now), Iran – In (again)

President Obama’s deferring the use of force against Damascus refocuses media attention – for the moment, at least – on the wider ramifications of the Syria crisis. Despite the weekend timing, the reaction was swift and sharp.

The instinctive response naturally dwelled on the Iranian nuclear crisis. A Los Angeles Times analysis, cautions that the US might find it more difficult

in convincing America’s allies in Israel and its adversaries in Iran that Obama will live up to his vow to take swift military action, if necessary, to deny Tehran a nuclear weapon.

This motif is echoed by the AP‘s Julie Pace, who writes that:

The stunning reversal also raises questions about the president’s decisiveness and could embolden leaders in Syria, Iran, North Korea and elsewhere, leaving them with the impression of a U.S. president unwilling to back up his words with actions.

One of the more thoughtful op-eds on the subject, appearing in the NYT, calls for both an attack against Syria and rapprochement with Iran. This line is basically followed by NYT columnist Roger Cohen, who insists that recognition of Tehran’s role should not be confused with broader strategic considerations:

Rouhani’s Iran, handled right, can help hasten a Syrian endgame. So, too, can the firm military assertion of U.S. credibility.

There are other media voices, of course. For example, Al-Monitor accentuates the Obama decision as a possible opening to a US-Iran rapprochement – with its senior correspondent, Laura Rozen, calling for a Kerry-Zarif summit on Syria.

The scorecard thus far appears to be dichotomy: while the media mainstream are generally wary of emboldening Syria, there appears to be less of a consensus about the risk of making Tehran a power broker in a crisis it’s actively fueling.

Iran on Syrian Chemical Massacre (2)

With US Secretary of State John Kerry’s confirmation that Bashar Assad gassed his civilian population, Tehran’s involvement in this crisis has been upgraded. Media coverage has been good, but we’d still like to frame the reportage more precisely.

Perhaps viewing the Syrian crisis as an opportunity to test future strategic waters, Iranian officials are increasingly flexing their verbal muscles. No lack of examples here.

Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the commander of the Republican Guards’ elite Basij force:

“[The Americans] are incapable of starting a new war in the region, because of their lacking economic capabilities and their lack of morale.”

Hossein Sheikholeslam, a member of Iran’s Islamic Consultative Assembly:

“No military attack will be waged against Syria…Yet, if such an incident takes place, which is impossible, the Zionist regime will be the first victim of a military attack on Syria.”

Which sounds a lot like this comment from Khalaf Muftah, a senior Baath Party official who used to serve as Syria’s assistant information minister:

 “We have strategic weapons and we’re capable of responding… Normally the strategic weapons are aimed at Israel.”

Clearly they prefer the crisis to focus on the repercussions of international action, rather than on Assad’s use of chemical weapons. This would also promote Iran’s attempt to centrally position itself by supporting the bad guys and offering to help the good guys.

Apropos: UN official Jeffrey Feltman, reportedly stressed the importance of cooperation with Tehran on the Syrian issue during his recent visit there. Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi supposedly also took this road a week earlier.

Which brings us back to Hassan Rouhani, who shortly after entering office reiterated his country’s support for Assad. He’s been more cautious about the chemical massacre, but hasn’t budged from this broader regime policy.

Back to Iran’s WMD

There’s a limit how much media extolling of Rouhani this blog will take. Certainly when it serves as a pretext to ignoring reports on Tehran’s growing strategic capabilities.

The ISIS has lately been quite prolific in this context. In a report on Iran’s critical nuclear capabilities, it determines that:

“Iran is expected to achieve a critical capability in mid-2014, which is defined as the technical capability to produce sufficient weapon-grade uranium from its safeguarded stocks of low enriched uranium for a nuclear explosive, without being detected. “

 In another ISIS report on Iran’s centrifuges, it states that:

“Iran’s tandem cascades appear to be well-designed for producing near 20 percent

enriched UF6; however, if Iran were to pursue weapons-grade uranium, its tandem cascades

could be important assets.”

Meanwhile, according to a new report on Iran’s missile capabilities by the U.S. National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC), Tehran could develop and test an inter-continental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States by 2015. A weighty issue, which to some may even sound like an exaggeration – which is why the United States Institute for Peace prepared a digestible summary of the issue.  Just need to read it.

Also on the missile issue, Security Council members Russia and China ironically refused to back a report by a UN panel of experts that unanimously concluded that Iran violated U.N. sanctions when it launched several ballistic missiles a year ago. This head-in-the-sand approach regarding Iran only serves to harm global peace and security.

We’ll end with a growing concern: the danger of cyber attacks. A new report from the Atlantic Council is skeptical about current Iranian capabilities in this area, but advises caution when it comes to future escalation.

The waiting period is over. Back to work.

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