Iran Update: Number 161

  • Nations cling to talks
  • Additional sanctions bear down on Iran
  • Military tensions intensify
  • U.S. leaders pay multiple visits to Israel to offer reassurance
  • Former British spymaster estimates when Iran could have bomb; Controversy around alleged cover-up at Parchin facility
  • Israel and Iran accuse each other of targeting Israeli citizens abroad
  • Saeed Jalili meets with President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus

Nations cling to talks

Tensions between Iran and Western powers appear to be escalating. Recent additional EU and U.S. economic sanctions have apparently been taking a heavier toll on Iran’s economy, and do not appear to have brought the two sides any closer to reaching a deal.

Deputies representing Iran and the E3+3/P5+1 group (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany) held a low-level technical meeting on July 3 in Istanbul, in an effort to keep talks alive. However, the meeting ended early the following day with no real signs of progress. EU and Iranian deputies, Helga Schmid and Ali Bagheri, met again on July 24, but this second meeting appeared equally deadlocked and plans for a higher level meeting between EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian chief negotiator Saeed Jalili have also been postponed until the end of August.

 

Additional sanctions bear down on Iran

Exemptions for EU sanctions against Iran ended on July 1. These exemptions had permitted the continuation of contracts that had been agreed before January 23 on Iranian oil imports, and also for insurers that were providing third-party and environmental liability insurance for the transport of Iranian oil. The U.S. Treasury Department announced further incremental measures on July 12 that would eradicate loopholes in the oil embargo. Under these sanctions, the assets of companies and individuals suspected of links to Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs were frozen and banned from doing business with the United States. The U.S. Treasury has also moved to identify Iran’s use of front companies to carry out transactions on behalf of its oil industry. Over a dozen companies and four individuals have been blacklisted under this action, with twenty Iranian financial institutions on a watch list. Nevertheless, Iranian ships have apparently continued to use other countries’ flags and false vessel registrations.

In addition, a bipartisan group in the U.S. Congress has worked on global measures to prevent Iranian companies from buying insurance, export goods and procure financial assistance from abroad, resulting in the passage of a new sanctions bill the first week of August. The new sanctions expand penalties on US and foreign companies doing business with Iran’s national oil company and tanker fleet to make it more difficult for Iran to extract payment for any petroleum it sells. At the end of July, the White House had announced new penalties on the purchase of Iranian petrochemical products such as methanol and xylene and also on one Chinese bank and one Iraqi bank for allegedly acting as surrogates for Iranian financial institutions.

Iranian officials have responded by framing this as an issue of principle and national pride. Even before this most recent round of U.S. penalties, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke out against the tightening of sanctions, reaffirming Iran’s refusal to concede defeat by stating that “the government will not retreat one iota from their rights, values and principles against weakening materialistic powers”. He added that Iran could use this as a means to sever its dependence on oil revenues, that currently constitute 80% of the national budget. Furthermore, Iran launched its first domestically-produced aframax oil tanker in an effort to skirt mounting sanctions.

An opinion poll that appeared on IRINN’s website at the beginning of July suggested that 63% of online respondents prefer the halting of uranium enrichment in return for the lifting of sanctions. The Iranian government hastily removed the survey, and accused the BBC of having hacked the website to change the polls results (which the BBC has denied). Iranian TV later reported that only 24% of respondents were actually of this opinion.

In mid-July, thousands of Iranians in the north-eastern city of Neishabour protested rising food prices. On August 6, the Iranian rial dropped to its lowest level ever against the U.S. dollar in street trading, continuing a trend that began in late 2011.

The London based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) said in a recent report that economic measures against Iran "could yet deal a knock-out blow to the country's development of long-range ballistic missiles" even though the impact on the uranium enrichment program has been limited. The report points out that the mounting sanctions regime may make it increasingly difficult for Iran to obtain the kind of propellant required to field long-range ballistic missiles.

 

Military tensions intensify

Iranian officials are reported to have reiterated threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which a large supply of the world’s oil travels. The United States has reinforced its military presence at bases located near the Strait. Simultaneously, Iran launched a three-day military exercise including missiles that it claims have the capability to target American bases as well as sites in Israel. An Air Force commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps announced that he had drawn up contingency plans in which Iran could target 35 American bases within minutes should conflict arise.

General tensions in the region were blamed for an un-related tragedy when sailors aboard a U.S. Navy vessel killed an Indian fisherman on a boat off of the Dubai coast on July 16 after the boat’s passengers apparently failed to respond to warnings to move away from the naval ship. The incident was raised as a sign of how a similar scenario could happen between U.S. and Iranian ships in the region. These developments have prompted a group of eleven former U.S. intelligence officials to propose a “Persian Gulf Hotline” to prevent the breakout of war from a misunderstanding or provocation in the Strait of Hormuz.

 

U.S. leaders pay multiple visits to Israel to offer reassurance

Talk of an Israeli military attack on Iran has increased with the lack of diplomatic progress. It was apparent that the United States was feeling the pressure as U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon travelled to Israel on July 14 to reassure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of U.S. commitments. Haaretz reported that during his visit, Donilon had shown Israeli officials U.S. plans for a military attack against Iran, but Israeli officials denied the report. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited two days later, even though she had previously vowed not to return whilst the Middle East peace process was at a standstill. She reiterated the US commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Two weeks later, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta also visited Israel to echo this assurance and urge for patience and further diplomacy, but received a cold response from Prime Minister Netanyahu who said that Iran is not convinced that the United States is “serious about stopping them”. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said during his visit to Israel at the end of July that he would “honor” whatever Israel decided to do about Iran’s nuclear programme, including a unilateral military strike.

 

Former British spymaster estimates when Iran could have bomb; Controversy around alleged cover-up at Parchin facility

Head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, has predicted that, if left undisturbed, Iran will be able to develop a nuclear bomb within two years. He added that progress has only been delayed until now due to interference through covert operations carried out by Western intelligence. He did not elaborate on these operations, such as whether they included the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists or cyber attacks through viruses such as Stuxnet. However, with no substantive evidence that Iran has indeed entered into a decision to create a nuclear bomb, Sawer’s statement has been controversial.

Controversy over apparent cover up operations at the Parchin military facility where some have suggested that Iran utilized an explosive test chamber have deepened accusations that Iran is pursuing a weapons programme. The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) first reported clean up activity at Parchin in May 2012 including water flows that could indicate cleaning of a hydrodynamic explosive test chamber. Iran reported this to have been routine construction work. However, more recent analysis by ISIS concluded that as of July 25, extensive demolition has taken place at Parchin, with entire buildings bulldozed and roads and security fences removed, which has served to further raise suspicions about Iran’s prior work at the site.

However, a Truth-Out report that cites interviews with Robert Kelley, a former senior IAEA inspector and three former U.S. intelligence officers has contended that “evidence” of an explosive test cylinder at the Parchin facility was foisted on the media by a state interested in isolating Iran. Kelley claims the whole story of the Parchin test chamber is technically implausible, saying that the chamber at Parchin would have to be seven times bigger and far more advanced than the world’s biggest explosive chamber at Los Alamos. He points out that the IAEA report on Parchin talks of the possibility of Iran engaging in the use of “multipoint initiation” testing (that does not require uranium nor any such chamber) whereas the media has wrongly followed up by suggesting there had been “hydrodynamic testing”. ISIS argued that the chamber may simply be there to hide illicit activity from satellite imagery, whereas Kelley counters that if this were the purpose such a test could be effectively covered up by a tent.

 

Israel and Iran accuse each other of targeting Israeli citizens abroad

Israel has accused Iran of being behind the fatal attacks on Israelis in Bulgaria on July 18 - blaming on Hezbollah. Prime Minister Netanyahu has proclaimed, "Iran must be exposed by the international community as the premier terrorist support state that it is, and everything should be done to prevent Iran, the world's most dangerous regime, from developing the world's most dangerous weapons". The Prime Minister has warned that this may lead to a great ‘shadow war’. These accusations were in part fuelled by Hezbollah’s vow to avenge the killing of one of their leaders in Damascus four years ago.

Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, responded by claiming that only Israel’s “state terrorism” could have managed such an operation and accused Israel of killing its own citizens for “narrow political gain”. This adds to accusations of an Israeli assassination campaign and the launching of a cyber war against Iran. During the first week of August, Iranian media aired apparent confessions by suspects who had been arrested for their alleged participation in a series of killings of Iranian nuclear scientists since 2010. Iran has accused Israel and the United States of spear-heading the assassinations. The United States has denied any involvement, while Israel has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility.

 

Jalili Meets with President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus

Saeed Jalili, Iran’s top negotiator and secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, travelled to Damascus on August 7 to discuss the release of a group of 48 Iranian citizens who were kidnapped several days earlier by Syrian rebels. The rebels have accused the group of being part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards on a mission to aid the Syrian government to stop the uprising; however, Iran has denied this and asserts that they were religious pilgrims, consisting of students and now retired government and army officials, who were on their way to visit the Sayyida Zainab shrine in the south of Damascus. The rebels have threatened to execute the hostages, although their demands are unclear, and Iran is now also seeking help from Turkey and Qatar as well as the United Nations in securing the group’s safe return. Three of the captives have already been killed during a heavy shelling by pro-government forces, reported on Sunday by the Captain of the Free Syrian Army's al-Bara Brigade, Abdul Nasser Shumayr.

During the meeting in Damascus, Jalili committed to supporting Assad’s government against “foreign interference” and also urged Assad to push for a internal resolution of the ongoing civil war “based on national dialogue among all Syrian groups to settle the country's issues”, while simultaneously reassuring Iranian opposition to foreign “approaches”. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, is scheduled to visit Ankara next week to discuss the Syrian conflict and the hostage situation with his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu.

 

Shivani Handa and Cormac Mc Garry, BASIC

 

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