Rob L. Wagner
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.
Some 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 power.
"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 when 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 U.S. 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.
Marking the 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 matters 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 U.S. president is not laying out a complete game plan.
"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 its leaders.
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 raising setting off capital flight, economists say.
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 tamp 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 Israeli bombing.
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.
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