Worsening domestic discord – not nuclear ambitions – is pushing Iran closer to
brinkmanship with Israel, while Arab leaders sit on the sidelines hoping that
any containment of Iran does not result in war, analysts say.
analysts observe that Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear energy – and according
to critics, nuclear weapons – barely registers as a threat to Arab countries.
Instead, Iran’s internal strife could prove its undoing.
Ehsan Ahrari, a
Middle East analyst and chief executive officer of Strategic Paradigms- a
defense and foreign affairs consultancy agency based in Alexandra, Virginia-
told The Media Line that Iran’s primary concern is to shore up the crumbling
faith of its people.
“There is a huge rift inside Iran and the government
is looking more vulnerable than ever,” Ahrari said. “It’s not necessarily the
sanctions that are hurting Iran, but the political legitimacy of the regime that
is in tatters.”
A foreign affairs official for the United Arab Emirates
(UAE) told The Media Line that Iran’s nuclear capabilities are vastly overstated
and Iran’s “posturing” has more do to with maintaining its regional
“Iran is more interested in maintaining its influence in Syria and
Iraq, and making a nuisance of itself by promoting insurgency in Bahrain and
among the Shiites in Saudi Arabia,” said the official who asked not to be
identified because he was not authorized to speak.
The 2009 Green
Revolution, spearheaded by thousands of middle class and educated Iranians, badly
shook the regime led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei. Although the Iranian government violently crushed a burgeoning
uprising, it did nothing to quell the growing dissatisfaction among young people
with the country’s elders.
Amnesty International reported last month that
Iran executed twice as many people in 2011 as it did in 2010, during which 253 official
executions were held. The executions “may be a strategy to spread fear among the
population and to deter protests,” the human rights organization said. Since
their 2009 election triumph, Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have been engaged in a
bitter power struggle, dividing the leadership.
By exploiting tensions
with Israel and the leadership role taken by US President Barack Obama and the
European Union in issuing tough sanctions, Iran hopes to rally its people behind
the government and strengthen its political leadership, Ahrari said.
Iranian new year on Tuesday, Khamenei turned to the theme of defiance in an
address to the nation. “If the Iranian nation resorts to its determination,
awareness and planning it will overcome challenges that the enemy has provided,”
said Khamenei, who has the final say on all matter of state. If Iran’s domestic
economy flourishes, the country’s enemies would lose hope and their “plotting”
would come to an end.
Ahrari said that despite Obama’s talk of combining
sanctions with diplomacy, the US president is not laying out a complete game
“We have not seen Obama’s real colors in dealing with Iran,” Ahrari
said. “And we probably won’t see it until his second term if he wins it. He is
playing his cards closely.”
Whether the sanctions against Iran are really
working remains uncertain. Obama tightened them in December and the EU followed
with a ban on Iranian oil imports. Washington hopes the sanctions’ ripple effect
will weaken Iranian consumer confidence and further alienate the population from
The latest blow came last week when the international
banking clearing house SWIFT cut off Iranian banks
’ access to its funds-transfer
system. Excluding Iran from SWIFT, which serves nearly 10,000 banking
organizations, forces Iranian businesses to go outside the country to pay
suppliers. The move makes it tougher for Iranian businesses to get suppliers to
import goods and may result in shortages and higher prices of foreign goods.
Earlier this week, Iran’s central bank eased its strict foreign exchange policy,
allowing money traders there to sell dollars for rials at the unofficial market
rate, rather than the artificially fixed official rate. While the move should
ease pressure on the currency, which has lost half its value against the dollar
in the past year, it risks setting off capital flight, economists
The banking sanctions, coupled with a European ban on Iranian oil
imports by the summer, puts greater pressure on the Iranian government, which is
already dealing with massive budget deficits and a 40 percent inflation rate, to cope with domestic discontent.
Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy
Agency (IAEA) reported last month it has yet to gain access to Iran’s Parchin
site, which is where Iranian scientists allegedly have conducted high-explosive
research that could be used to develop nuclear weapons. Israeli Defense Minister
Ehud Barak told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday that
international opinion has “evolved” as countries recognize Iran’s behavior is
destabilizing the Middle East. The Jerusalem Post
reported that Barak referred
to the international community realizing that Iran’s nuclear weapons program is
reaching the so-called “zone of immunity,”
after which enough of Iran’s nuclear
facilities have been moved so far underground that they are protected from
Ahrari is skeptical. He noted that Arab leaders want
Iran contained, but not war.
“The international community is not
evolving,” he said. “Look at the Gulf. Is Israel really willing to go to the
extreme of bombing Iran? I’m not sure the Arab autocrats are willing to go that
far. With the Arab Awakening, they know their days are numbered. The Arabs will
play it moderately and not promote war.”
The UAE foreign affairs
specialist said Arab countries would never endorse an Israeli attack. “It has
nothing to do with Arab animosity against Israel and everything to do with a war
that will kill thousands and leave economies in ruin,” he said.