Friday, February 18, 2011

Iran Ups its Anti-Israeli Ante

by Stephen Brown

With protests gathering steam in Bahrain, demonstrations reported in Libya, and clashes between pro- and anti-government movements in Yemen, Iran has exacerbated Middle Eastern tensions even further with its reported plan to send two warships through the Suez Canal. Israeli government officials and the Israeli Navy are closely monitoring two Iranian warships, which are anticipated to make a rare crossing of the Suez Canal. This would be the first time since 1979 the Iranian Navy has used the canal, and it is believed the ships’ destination is Syria. The Iranians, it was reported, are planning to send a “fleet” to the Mediterranean for a year.

With Mubarak having stepped down only days ago, the vessels’ appearance in the canal and in the Mediterranean is obviously meant to provoke and challenge Israel, which first alerted the world to the Iranian design. In this, the Iranians have succeeded. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the ships’ movements would be closely followed and “friendly states updated,” while Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called the Iranian move “a provocation that proves Iranians’ overconfidence.” Lieberman also castigated the international community for allowing “the recurring Iranian provocations,” indicating Israel’s patience may be coming to an end.

“The international community must understand that Israel cannot forever ignore these provocations,” said Lieberman.

The ships themselves appear to oppose [sic] no real danger to Israel’s military. They are described as a British-built frigate dating from the 1960s and a supply ship. The arms embargo the United States imposed on the Iranian regime after the 1979 revolution has left the Iranian military, three decades later, outfitted with mostly aged equipment from the shah’s time. Attempts have been made to smuggle in spare parts, modern weaponry and technology, but this has met with limited success. Many of the smugglers have also simply wound up in Western prisons.

China enjoys friendly relations with Iran and has sold it some modern arms, principally because the Persian Gulf country is a major source of oil for its expanding economy. Russia was also going to sell its modern S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to the Iranians to upgrade their 1970s-era air defense system but backed off due to the anger the proposed sale aroused in Israel and among Western states. The new, home-built weapons systems the Iranians announce from time to time also never seem to make it into production after the initial photo-op and are probably meant solely for propaganda purposes. This may include the new warship the Iranians unveiled a year ago, the Jamaran.

But while the two Iranian ships currently making their way to the Mediterranean may be museum pieces, their possible cargo could be another, and more deadly, story. War materials for Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, have been discovered on other Syria-bound ships in the past. In 2009, US soldiers found containers of ammunition for Kalashnikov rifles on a German-owned cargo ship in the Gulf of Suez that was heading for Syria. The ship had been leased to Iran. The same year, Israeli forces boarded another freighter, allegedly outbound from Iran, and came upon an arsenal of weapons, bombs, artillery shells and rockets destined for Hezbollah. Much of the weaponry Hezbollah now possesses, including UAVs used over Israeli territory, originated in Iran.

Although in a coalition government with other parties, Hezbollah now essentially rules Lebanon. After its 34-day war with Israel in 2006, the United Nations adopted a resolution calling for the Shiite militia to disarm. Instead, Hezbollah has made Lebanon a client state of Iran, which is rearming its proxy with even deadlier weapons, preparing it for the next round of war with the Jewish State.

Iran’s latest ploy to challenge Israel, however, may contain a more sinister element than that of supplying arms to Hezbollah. Since Hosni Mubarak stepped down last Friday, protesters have reappeared on the streets of Tehran in numbers not seen since the Green Movement in 2009. The unrest continued on Wednesday, as pro- and anti-government demonstrators clashed at the funeral for one of the protesters killed two days ago.

But there were two things about this latest round of disturbances that have unsettled the Iranian leadership. According to columnist Pepe Escobar, the first is that the demonstrators were demanding the resignation of Supreme Leader Ali Khomeini and not President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The most popular chant, Escobar writes, was: “Mubarak, Ben Ali [of Tunisia]! Now it is Seyed Ali [Khameniei’s] turn!”

The second element references the fact that some demonstrators were from Tehran’s working class neighbourhoods, the traditional areas of support for Iran’s theocratic regime. With drastic rises in food prices and living costs, some workers appear to have had enough of the Iranian Revolution, since it now can’t meet even their basic needs. These price hikes, in which the opposition to the mullahs among the workers has it roots, is largely due to the government having abolished food and fuel subsidies, amounting to $100 billion a year. Escobar states Iran’s economic situation is so bad, “Iranian banks such as Meli, Saderat and Melat Sepah are very short on cash.”

As much as Ahmadinejad tries to portray the current unrest as the work of hostile foreign elements, the mullahs know they are ruling a deeply divided country and that their time may soon run out. The demographic situation in Iran is also in a perilous state, especially for a government that has pretensions to some day rule the Islamic world. The birthrate of Iranian women has fallen below replacement levels and Iran will not have the young men to go to war with in 20 years. This demographic implosion, one columnist believes, is what will eventually cause Iran to launch a war in the near future rather than just go quietly into the night.

The unknown quantity in all this is how badly the Stuxnet computer virus attack against Iran’s nuclear weapons program, believed to have been carried out by Israel and the United States, set the program back. The Iranian regime wanted nuclear arms as leverage against, and possibly to destroy, Israel, and to establish Iran as the regional power. Now, the Stuxnet attack, combined with the country’s current political and economic troubles, may not allow time for this plan to come to fruition, causing the mullah regime to seek another avenue to prosecute its jihad.

And that avenue appears to lie in provoking an attack by Israel. The one thing that would now unite Iranians and get them behind their leaders again would be an attack by Israel or the United States. The two warships are probably just the start of a campaign to provoke the Jewish State into making such a move, since Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the previous reason for possible US-Israeli military action against Iran, may now be nothing but a shambles. With an Israeli attack, not only would the Iranian people, who have for decades drunk deep draughts of anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism, forget their difficulties and support the jihad, but so would other Muslim peoples of a rapidly changing and unstable Middle East.

Launching foreign military adventures to distract people’s attention from problems at home is nothing new. Both Hitler and the military junta in Argentina that attacked the Falkland Islands were facing similar disastrous economic situations as the mullahs before they launched their military adventures. Shortly after Munich, Hitler said Germany had only one year remaining before it faced bankruptcy, so he had to start war soon. After occupying the Falklands, the Argentinean generals were greeted by cheering crowds who only days earlier had been demonstrating against economic hardships. For the same reasons and out of the same criminal spirit, Iran is now sending its warships through the Suez Canal in the hope of incrementally reaching its goal of war with Israel, but without appearing to be the aggressor.

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Stephen Brown

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