Iran-watchers had their work cut out last week making sense of attacks on Israeli diplomats in Asia, confusion over a ban on oil sales to EU countries, a vaunted advance in the country’s nuclear program and a cleverly formulated offer of a new round of talks on that contentious issue.
It made for a slew of mixed messages that underlined just how hard it is to understand the opaque reality of one of the most important countries in the Middle East and, some observers warn, to overcome politically loaded Western preconceptions about its behavior.
Tehran flatly denied any part in the incidents in Thailand and India. However, despite the Keystone Cops storyline of inept bombers and bungled plans, the attacks did look like retaliation for alleged Israeli killings of Iran’s nuclear scientists — and provided a glimpse of a covert dirty war that risks spiraling out of hand as tensions rise.
Publicly, there was one unambiguous signal when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unveiled new centrifuges he claimed were able to enrich uranium more quickly — to a resounding lack of interest at home or abroad. Experts agreed that this did not constitute a significant advance toward a nuclear capability that Iran insists is peaceful.
Iran’s intention, said Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, was to show it would not be impeded by sanctions, sabotage or assassinations.
“These announcements will further inflame talk of military options, which has reached feverish pitch in some quarters in Israel and the US, but even in the highly unlikely event that everything Iran has announced is true, it would still take Iran a couple of years to produce a handful of weapons,” he said.
Ahmadinejad’s news, sniffed the US Department of State, was “not terribly new, and not terribly impressive.”
However, in a year that has seen confirmation that Iran is producing 20 percent enriched uranium, stored in a bombproof mountain near Qom, US aircraft carriers sailing through the Strait of Hormuz and the imposition of painful new Western sanctions, this issue is not going away.
Israel’s warnings that it faces an “existential threat” from a nuclear-armed Iran have created an ominous sense that a decision is imminent — piling pressure on US President Barack Obama in election year. Israel, an undeclared nuclear power, is said to be recalculating its options every day. However, bluff, rhetoric and misinformation are likely to be part of this story, too. So are divisions in Israel, where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that sanctions are not working, while Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak thinks they are starting to be effective.
Complicating it all is uncertainty over who calls the shots in Tehran, where Ahmadinejad is in a power struggle with Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who controls the Revolutionary Guards and threatened in a recent sermon to punish Israel.
Wednesday’s announcement of a ban on oil sales to six EU countries is a case in point. EU sanctions banning Iranian oil imports were agreed last month, but were not due to be implemented until July. So the announcement — immediately denied — looked foolish and counter-productive.
“It’s a symptom of a headless government,” said Vahe Petrossian, an energy expert. “They are just making things up as they go along.”