Two Iranian nationals arrested in Kenya in June with 33 pounds of explosives are alleged to have targeted American, Israeli, British, and Saudi interests in the African country, according to an exclusive AP report quoting Kenyan officials. The news comes following the imposition of strict sanctions by the EU and America that appear -- finally -- to be severely impacting the Iranian people and economy. In response, Iranians are ratcheting up tension in the Persian Gulf by carrying out military exercises where they promise to test fire several dozen missiles, using replicas of foreign army bases as targets. The message the mullahs are sending is clear; if America attacks, they can strike one of several US military bases in the region.
The sanctions are relatively stiff to be sure. The Europeans have banned the importation of all Iranian oil and forbidden nations belonging to the EU from insuring oil tankers carrying Iranian crude. The United States, for its part, slapped severe currency and banking restrictions on Iran that have reportedly caused confusion and worry among the Iranian people.
Meanwhile, the Iranians continue to enrich uranium while stringing along the P5+1 (Russia, China, Britain, Germany, France, and the US) nations who continue fruitless negotiations with Tehran about halting their uranium enrichment activities. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu told the Knesset, "Iran is showing contempt for the whole world, and plans to enrich beyond 20%," -- a reference to a level of enrichment for which there is little commercial value and would be far easier to continue on to bomb grade levels of enrichment of 90%. Low-level technical talks with the Iranian regime are to resume on Tuesday in Istanbul with little hope that a breakthrough of any kind can be achieved.
Some experts believe that the arrest of the Iranians in Kenya and the targeting of US and Western interests is a sign that Iran will fight the battle over its nuclear program by resorting to terrorism. The AP report contains some disturbing information. Kenyan officials say that the Iranians belonged to the Quds Force -- the elite unit of the Revolutionary Guards tasked with assassination and terror attacks outside of Iranian territory. The Iranians were arrested in the coastal city of Mombassa where there are several Israeli-owned hotels. Kenyan officials told AP that "the plot appears to fit into a global pattern of attacks or attempted attacks by Iranian agents, mostly against Israeli interests."
Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5, Britain's security service, in a rare public statement, said last week that "in parallel with rising concern about Iran’s nuclear intentions, we have seen in recent months a series of attempted terrorist plots against Israeli interests in India, Azerbaijan and elsewhere." He added that "a return to state-sponsored terrorism by Iran or its associates, such as Hezbollah, cannot be ruled out as pressure on the Iranian leadership increases." In short, the more the West pushes, the more desperate Iran becomes.
This is borne out by the effect on Iran of this last round of sanctions. The ban on Iranian oil sales by the EU is a huge blow to the Iranian economy. The EU accounted for about 18% of Iranian oil exports. Iran relies on oil to generate about 80% of its public revenues, and almost all of its hard currency. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week that Iranian exports had dropped from 2.5 million bbl to 1.5 million bbl in less than a year. The heavy subsidies that the Iranian government doles out for basic foodstuffs and fuel to ordinary Iranians have already been cut once, and may be cut again. Inflation is running rampant with the prices of bread, milk and meat having risen around 20 percent, while the price of chicken has jumped 80 percent.
After years of claiming the sanctions were ineffective, the hardship has been recognized by the Iranian government. “Today, we are facing the heaviest of sanctions, and we ask people to help officials in this battle,” Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi was quoted as saying on the state television’s website. So far, the people appear to be swallowing the Iranian government's line about "dastardly sanctions," but Iran's recent election saw many allies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated because of his government's inability to deal with the economic problems of the country.
Faced with the prospect of additional sanctions, and a possible US or Israeli military strike, Iran has escalated both its rhetoric and actions. “If they [Israel] take any action, they will hand us an excuse to wipe them off the face of the earth,” said General Amir Ali Hajizadeh of the Revolutionary Guards. Hajizadeh said that the military exercises by the Guards over the next several days will send a message “that the Islamic Republic of Iran is resolute in standing up to … bullying, and will respond to any possible evil decisively and strongly.”
Most worrisome is the plan by the Guards to fire dozens of surface-to-surface missiles -- including the medium-range Shabab 3 ballistic missile that has a reported range of 1,200 miles -- at replica targets of foreign military bases. It is a highly provocative act, but the message the mullahs are sending cannot be misinterpreted: Any attack on its soil will be met with a missile barrage -- if not at Israel then at the several US bases that are in range of Iranian weapons.
The centrifuges at Nantanz continue to whir away, enriching uranium to levels that are unnecessarily high for commercial reactors. Other sites that are undeclared by Iran that could be carrying out nuclear research, may or may not be churning out weapons-grade uranium suitable for bomb making. US intelligence dismisses that possibility, although the Israeli Mossad does not. And even though the sanctions are finally beginning to undermine the Iranian leadership and the people grow restless, the process of forcing the Iranians to give in and make a deal on their nuclear program still appears too slow to prevent Iran from constructing an actual weapon if they desire. Both the US and Israel claim the military option is still "on the table" but President Obama has all but said he wouldn't stop the Iranians until we see the mushroom cloud of a nuclear test.
For his part, Prime Minister Netanyahu may also be backing off the idea of a military strike. There is a faction in Israel's defense establishment that, according to this article in the Atlantic, doesn't believe bombing would have the desired effect of setting back Iran's nuclear program very far, and the risks of Iranian retaliation wouldn't make it worth Israel's while. Netanyahu himself has argued persuasively against this, but the risk of general war in the Middle East with Israel in range of thousands of rockets from Hezballah, Hamas, and Iran should make any responsible leader hesitate.
The question of whether the threat of a military attack is credible with the Iranians, given President Obama's statements and Israel's growing reluctance, becomes more pressing by the month. With Iran poised to acquire the capability to build a weapon, while perhaps stopping short of actually constructing one, sanctions are still a vital part of the strategy to rein in Tehran's nuclear ambitions. Whether they will be enough is unknown.
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