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Iran Crises Escalates

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Update from AIJAC

March 26, 2007

Number 03/07 #09

The UN Security Council passed Resolution 1747 on the weekend, imposing additional sanctions on Iran after it failed to comply with a previous resolution, passed in December, demanding Iran halt uranium enrichment which is widely viewed as part of Iran's program to illegally build nuclear weapons. Perhaps as part of its response, Iran captured 15 British sailors in the Persian Gulf just before the UN vote, claiming they were in Iranian territorial waters. However, most sources agree this is untrue.

This Update opens with a detailed backgrounder on the Resolution and the crisis from the British Israel Communications and Research Centre, BICOM. It makes the case that a serious confrontation may be brewing, reports on the Resolution and the overall Iranian response, including apparent threats to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, and deals with the  capture of the British sailors and the reaction from Britain and other players. For this good outline of all that has occurred, CLICK HERE.

Next up is an editorial summarising evidence that the capture of the British sailors may have been a pre-meditated Iranian plan, and speculating on the various reasons Teheran might have for such an Wall Street Journal, and can be read HERE.

Finally, Israel's Deputy Defence Minister Ephraim Sneh, a general turned Labor politician, explains why Iran's nuclear program is such an overwhelming worry to Israeli leaders - from the messianism of Ahmadinejad, to its support for Palestinian and other terrorism, to its involvement in Lebanon. He also has some suggestions about the importance of sanctions as part of the solution. To read his view, CLICK HERE.


Iran on the brink

26 March 2007

BICOM Notes

Events over the weekend ensured that Iran remains the focus of international attention. With Teheran refusing to suspend its uranium enrichment activity, all fifteen members of the UN Security Council voted to strengthen the sanctions regime it imposed last December. Iran now has 60 days to change course.1  But the signs are not promising. Before the Security Council met, Iran forces seized fifteen British service personnel performing routine security patrols along the Iranian-Iraqi maritime border. Following the decision in New York, Iranian leaders pledged to suspend cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and to press ahead with their nuclear programme. Is Iran on the brink of major confrontation with the UN, Britain and other western powers?

As had been widely expected, the UN Security Council approved a resolution that broadened the sanctions on Iran originally imposed last December. Resolution 1747 reaffirms Iran’s obligations to comply with the demands of the International Atomic Energy Agency for a full and sustained suspension of enrichment and reprocessing activities, a ban on the movement of 28 designated individuals associated with the nuclear programme and bans Iran from importing and exporting weapons. "This resolution sends an unambiguous signal to the government and people of Iran ... that the path of nuclear proliferation by Iran is not one that the international community can accept," said British Ambassador to the UN, Sir Emyr Jones Parry.2

The resolution met with angry Iranian response. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki described Iran’s bid for nuclear capability as an “inalienable right," dismissing calls for suspending activity as “a gross violation" of the UN Charter.3 President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad criticized US and British attitudes to Iran as illegal.4 In other statements, Ahmedinejad promised that Iran would not stop its nuclear work "even for one second". His spokesman, Gholamhossein Elham, announced that Iran would partially suspend cooperation with IAEA inspectors.5

The incident on Friday morning in which fifteen British service personnel were taken hostage by the naval force of the Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) should be seen as another dimension of the same political stand-off between Iran and western governments determined to contain the very real threat from Teheran.

It appears that the seizure of the British troops – eight Royal Navy sailors and seven Royal Marines – was linked to Iran’s bid for influence in Iraq. Earlier this year, US forces captured five IRGC members in Irbil, apparently supporting the Shi’ite-led insurgency. According to Al-Sharq al-Awsat, a Saudi-owned newspaper based in London, Iranian military sources have said that Iran hopes to trade the British detainees for the IRGC members.6

British and American commanders have repeatedly warned of creeping Iranian influence in Iraq. Indeed, earlier in the morning before the personnel were taken captive, the British commander in Basra said that Iran was involved in arming and funding local Iraqis to attack British forces. In Basra, where British troops are deployed, the Iranian toman has replaced the Iraqi dinar as the main currency. Indeed, the Iranians no longer even deny their intentions of extending their influence amongst Iraqi Shi’a.

Yet official statements were initially wary, falling short of accusing Teheran of a deliberate provocation, and suggested that the incident may have been a genuine misunderstanding. Speaking in Berlin at celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the European Union, Prime Minister Blair said he wanted the incident to be resolved in "as easy and diplomatic a way as possible". Foreign Office Minister Lord Triesman stressed that the seizure of the troops was a “technical” dispute over the exact border between Iraqi and Iranian territorial waters.7 A similar incident in June 2004, in which a group of eight marines and sailors were held for three days after being seized by the Iranians in the Shatt al-Arab waterway, was resolved through quiet, diplomatic channels.

There may still be time for diplomacy. Immediately following the Security Council vote, EU foreign policy head Javier Solana indicated he planned to speak to chief Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani and assess the scope for relaunching negotiations.  "We want to get in touch with Dr. Larijani, this morning if we can, to try to find a route that would allow us to go into the negotiations," Solana told reporters on the sidelines of a European Union summit. "The door is open for negotiations, let's see if together we can go through.” 8

But the logic of 2004 is now long distant. Speaking later in the weekend, Prime Minister Blair took a more direct tone, reflecting the new realities of dealing with an Iran of unchecked radicalism. "It simply is not true that [the sailors] went into Iranian territorial waters and I hope the Iranian government understands how fundamental an issue this is for us. We have certainly sent the message back to them very clearly indeed. They should not be under any doubt at all about how seriously we regard this act, which is unjustified and wrong."9

The fact that the British servicemen were captured by the IRGC’s naval force is of some concern. Since the IRGC is both a military and an ideological projection of the Supreme Leader’s power, negotiating the release of the sailors and marines is a more complex matter than with regular Iranian forces. It also indicates the growing influence of the IRGC in Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a member of the mass Basij paramilitary movement associated with the Corps.

With Britain and the US on a war footing in the Persian Gulf, this incident requires delicate handling. The US Navy has recently reinforced its task force in the region, deploying a second aircraft carrier group. The US now has dozens of ships, hundreds of combat aircraft and thousands of sailors and marines. British naval reinforcements include HMS Cornwall, the Type 22 frigate whose men were seized in yesterday’s incident. In response, Iran has put on naval war games in the Gulf, using small attack vessels and tactical submarines in a show of defiance against the West. This is more than sabre-rattling. 10

It is time to consider the possibility that even the stronger sanctions regime approved by the Security Council over the weekend will not succeed in dampening Iranian enthusiasm for nuclear power. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei indicated last week that Iran was considering expelling the IAEA’s nuclear monitors, and perhaps withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime altogether. It appears that Teheran is now making good on that threat. With no inspectors, it will be even more difficult to establish when the Nantaz enrichment facility moves to industrial-scale production of highly enriched uranium, and when enough has been produced to build nuclear warheads for Iran’s missiles. And by the time that has happened, it may just be too late.

Notes

1 “Security Council tightens sanctions against Iran over uranium enrichment”, UN News Centre, 24/3/07

2 “Iran Hit By New Sanctions”, Sky News, 24/3/07

3 “UN backs fresh sanctions on Iran”, BBC Online, 25/3/07

4 “President: We are not worried about US attack”, Iranian Presidency website, 25/3/07

5 “Angry Iran reduces nuclear access”, BBC Online, 25/3/07

6 Ali Nourizadeh, “Tehran Wants to Swap British Sailors for Iranian Officers Detained in Iraq- Iranian Military Source”, A-Sharq Al-Awsat, 25/3/07

7 “Blair warns Iran over seizing of British sailors”, The Sunday Times, 25/3/07

8 “Solana seeks negotiations with Iran”, Jerusalem Post, 25/3/07

9 “Seizure unjustified, Iran warned”, BBC Online, 25/3/07

10 Richard Beeston, “Pawns in a deadly game of high stakes”, The Sunday Times, 25/3/07


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Editorial: Tehran's Hostages

Iran's act of war against our British allies.

Wall Street Journal, Monday, March 26, 2007

Advocates of engagement with Tehran often claim that the Islamic Republic long ago shed its revolutionary pretensions in favor of becoming a "status quo" power. They might want to share that soothing wisdom with the families of the 15 British sailors and marines kidnapped Friday in Iraqi territorial waters by the naval forces of the elite, and aptly named, Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

In an earlier day, what Iran has done would have been universally regarded as an act of war. It was a premeditated act, carried out only hours before Britain voted to stiffen sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program in a unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution. Iran captured a smaller detachment of British forces in the same waters in 2004, claiming they had strayed across the Iranian border. It beggars belief--as well as an eyewitness account of the incident reported by Reuters--that the British would make that mistake twice, assuming they made it the first time.

In 2004, the Iranians were quick to release the captured soldiers after extracting "apologies" and marching them, blindfolded, before the TV cameras. There is reason to believe that this time the Ayatollahs might be planning a longer stay for their guests.

Earlier this month, the Sunday Times of London reported that the Revolutionary Guards newspaper Subhi Sadek suggested seizing "a nice bunch of blue-eyed blond-haired officers and feed them to our fighting cocks." One possible motive: The apparent defection by Revolutionary Guards commander Ali Reza Asgari, who disappeared in Istanbul last month and is said to know a great deal about Iran's nuclear program. The Iranians may now be using their hostages as payback for General Asgari's defection--or as ransom for his return.

Given the Iranian regime's past success with hostage-taking--whether with U.S. diplomats in Tehran in 1979 or Westerners in Beirut in the 1980s--they may also figure that Prime Minister Tony Blair is willing to pay a steep price to secure release of the sailors before he leaves office later this year. Or perhaps the Iranians want to bargain with Mr. Blair's successor, presumably Chancellor Gordon Brown, whom they might suspect would take a softer line at the U.N. They may also be trying to create a rift between the U.S. and U.K. by offering to trade the British troops for Iranians the U.S. has recently detained inside Iraq.

It's also possible, as Walid Phares of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies points out, that the Iranian leadership may be seeking to draw Britain (and the U.S.) into limited military skirmishes that they think could shore up domestic support against widening popular discontent.

Another possibility: sufficiently bloodying Coalition forces in Iraq to hasten their withdrawal. The mullahs might even hope any fighting would embolden Democrats to do Tehran's bidding by passing legislation that forbids the Administration from attacking Iran without prior Congressional permission. Such a plank was contained in the supplemental war spending bill that passed the House last week until cooler heads removed it.

As with the 1979 hostage crisis, how Britain and the rest of the civilized world respond in the early days of the crisis will determine how long it lasts. Britain has already demanded the safe and immediate return of its personnel; they will have to make clear that its foreign policy will not be held hostage to the mullahs.

That does not require a resort to military options while diplomacy still has a chance to gain the sailors's release. Saturday's unanimous vote by the U.N. Security Council was also welcome, even if the new sanctions continue to be far too weak. Serious sanctions would target the country's supply of refined gasoline, much of which is imported.

It is worth recalling, however, that Iran was at its most diplomatically pliant after the United States sank much of Tehran's navy after Iran tried to disrupt oil traffic in the Persian Gulf in the late 1980s. Regimes that resort to force the way Iran does tend to be respecters of it. It is also far from certain that Western military strikes against Revolutionary Guards would move the Iranian people to rally to their side: Iranians know only too well what their self-anointed leaders are capable of.

Most important, the world should keep in mind that Iran has undertaken this latest military aggression while it is still a conventional military power. That means that Britain and the U.S. can still respond today with the confidence that they maintain military superiority. That confidence will vanish the minute Iran achieves its goal of becoming a nuclear power. Who knows what the revolutionaries in Tehran will then be capable of.

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The Implications of a Nuclear Iran

Ephraim Sneh

Jerusalem Issue Brief

Vol. 6, No. 26    25 March 2007

  • Iranian President Ahmadinejad belongs to a school of thought which believes that the return of the Shiite messiah - the Mahdi - is supposed to happen very soon. Ahmadinejad believes he has a divine role in making this arrival concrete in our lifetime, maybe even within a few years.

  • Iran's aspiration is to build a Shiite- or Iran-dominated belt from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. Iran is meddling in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon. In addition, Iran has its eye on the oil wealth of the Persian Gulf, and the Gulf states are scared.

  • Tehran pays 100 percent of the Islamic Jihad budget and gives a bonus for every Israeli murdered. In addition, through Hizbullah Iran pays the Al Aqsa Brigade, which belongs to Fatah in name only.

  • Iran imports 40 percent of its consumption of refined oil products. An embargo on gasoline could create a very serious problem for the regime. In addition, Iran is dependent on the flow of money and credit from Europe, which could be severed.

  • While Israel may be the first victim on Iran's list, it won't be the last. The ideology of the Iranian regime despises the entire culture which Europe and Israel share.

  • The Iranian people would prefer a different regime, but they do not see a glimmer of support from outside. The international community is evasive and aversive to confrontation with the regime. The people see that the Western democracies prefer to court the regime rather than confront it.

Ahmadinejad's Messianic Challenge

Iranian President Ahmadinejad belongs to a school of thought which believes that the return of the Shiite messiah, the Vanished Imam or the Mahdi, is supposed to happen very soon. More than that, Ahmadinejad believes he has a divine role in making this arrival concrete in our lifetime, maybe even within a few years. His faith and convictions say that the messiah, the Mahdi, will come back only if there is a sort of Armageddon, a doomsday or a major global calamity, as a result of which the Shiites will govern the entire globe.

When he was mayor of Tehran, Ahmadinejad paved a broad boulevard in the city for the Mahdi to drive on. He is making concrete preparations because he is serious. His actions and declarations are a result of his messianic beliefs, and the elimination of the Jewish state is an indispensable part of the doomsday which must precede the arrival of the Mahdi. More than that, Ahmadinejad says the Mahdi actually advised him to run for president and made his election possible.

Iran considers itself to be a rising global power - not just a regional power. Ahmadinejad has said: "We are the rising sun and the United States is the setting sun."

Iran's concrete aspiration is to build a Shiite- or Iran-dominated belt from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. Iran is already meddling in Afghanistan, and succeeded in taking advantage of the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq in order to build a Shiite state in the south, which very clearly is under direct Iranian influence. Iran has infiltrated and captured several key positions in the central government of Baghdad, and thus has a growing influence there. Iran is also involved in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq to discourage a Kurdish national movement there and in Iran. It has succeeded in building a strategic alliance with Syria. The last step to enable Iran to reach the Mediterranean is Lebanon. A third of the Lebanese are Shiites, and Iran is trying to take over the Lebanese government by using the political power of the Shiites in Lebanon. 

Another direction of expanding Iranian influence is in the Persian Gulf. Iran is very active in Bahrain, which is 70 percent Shiite, seeking to actively undermine the government there. Most of Iran's naval exercises simulate the takeover of the Strait of Hormuz where most of the world's oil flows. Iran has its eye on the oil wealth of the Persian Gulf, and the Gulf states are scared. Iran wants to overthrow all the reasonable, moderate Arab regimes. If it succeeds, it will have the power to stifle the flow of oil to the world. 

Iran's Palestinian Connection

The Palestinian organization most active now is Islamic Jihad, which every day violates the ceasefire by launching rockets at Israel, and which plans suicide bombings inside Israel. Tehran pays 100 percent of the Islamic Jihad budget and gives a bonus for every Israeli murdered. Iran is the only member of the United Nations that pays a bonus for killing civilians.

In second place for Iranian-subsidized terrorist activity is the military wing of Fatah - the Al Aqsa Brigade - which belongs to Fatah in name only because it has been bought by Hizbullah, which is an arm of Iran. Hizbullah pays the Al Aqsa Brigade, but the orders and money come from Tehran - the tireless spoiler of Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement.

Finally there is Hamas, now heading a democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood government. Iran has promised Hamas $250 million to buy arms and pay those who use them. The weapons come from Sudan and enter Gaza through Sinai. 

The Long Arm of Iranian Terrorism

The long arm of Iranian terrorism has not only reached Israel, but was also responsible for the bombing of the Israeli embassy and of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. To illustrate the reach of Iran, in the early 1990s, a United States destroyer launched a ship-to-air missile that accidentally shot down a civilian Iranian airliner with 120 innocent casualties. Years later, the wife of the commander of the ship was assassinated in a shopping mall in Los Angeles by a bomb put under her car. Iran found her on the West Coast of the United States.

Iran has a gruesome record on human rights. In addition to suppression of the press, no opposition candidate can run for election, and terrible punishments are meted out in their religious courts, such as amputations and death by stoning.

Now imagine that this regime, this powerhouse of terrorism - with the ambition of expansion and domination over the entire region, if not beyond - would achieve the power of nuclear blackmail. How would life in this region look, not only to Israel but to other countries as well? That is why we believe everything should be done to prevent this. 

What Can Be Done?

More can be done with regard to sanctions against Iran. Iran imports 40 percent of its consumption of refined oil products, especially gasoline for cars. An embargo on gasoline could create a very serious problem for the regime. In addition, Iran is dependent on the flow of money and credit from Europe, which could be severed. These are two ideas which could make a difference. Is there a shipping company in the world that would consider it worthwhile to bring gasoline to Iranian ports and then not be able to enter any U.S. seaport?

While Israel may be the first victim on Iran's list, it won't be the last. The ideology of the Iranian regime despises the entire culture which Europe and Israel share.

The Iranian people are dissatisfied and would prefer a different regime, but they do not see a glimmer of support from outside. The international community is evasive and aversive to confrontation with the regime. The people see that the Western democracies prefer to court the regime rather than confront it.

The Iranian people have not been seriously encouraged to take their fate in their own hands, as was the case in Ukraine. The previous ruler of Ukraine was far less dangerous to the world than Ahmadinejad. He did not produce nuclear weapons or send terrorists to other countries, but there was a very clear message from the Western democracies to the Ukrainian people that if they removed him they would have Western backing. The Iranian people do not hear such a message. The Iranian people will decide when and how to change the regime, and this cannot be imposed from outside.

After the War in Lebanon

The war in Lebanon was not a smashing victory for the IDF, but we succeeded in changing the reality in southern Lebanon. For the first time in thirty years the Lebanese army is on every inch of Lebanese territory, re-enforced by an effective international force, the new UNIFIL, which is different from the old UNIFIL.

The Lebanese people now understand what happens when other countries turn its territory into a springboard against Israel. There is not a single Arab leader who wants his capital to look like south Beirut after its treatment by the Israeli air force. This is a deterrent.

 Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Ephraim Sneh was first appointed Deputy Minister of Defense in 1999 and was reappointed in 2006. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on January 15, 2007.

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