Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad tours an Iranian centrifuge facility.
On the eve of Iran’s celebration of the 31st anniversary of the country’s Islamic Revolution, tensions between the West and the Islamic Republic could hardly be greater. Over the last year, Iran and the United States have been playing a game of cat-and-mouse diplomacy over Tehran’s plan to enrich uranium to higher levels. In April 2009, the United Nations’ permanent five members of the Security Council and Germany (P5+1) proposed a new agreement whereby Iran would ship its uranium out of the country for enrichment (both France and Russia were possible locations). Iran responded to the agreement in September 2009 with a counterproposal involving a number of issues that had been on the table from past negotiations. A month later, Iran accepted the plan to ship its uranium to Russia, but then reneged on the deal after the Obama administration’s Dec. 31 deadline.
In January 2010 the United States and her allies began the process of pushing for tougher sanctions at the United Nations. Last weekend, however, President Ahmadinejad accepted the West’s proposal to send its uranium out of the country. Many in the West, including US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, viewed the renewed acceptance of the deal as mere political posturing. Gates went so far as to say “the only path that is left to us at this point” was to exert greater pressure on the Iranian authorities.
In response to the West’s perceived rejection of the deal, President Ahmadinejad announced that Iran would now move forward with enriching uranium to 20 percent, enough to fuel its medical reactor in Tehran. Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s chief diplomat to the IAEA, filed paperwork with the UN over the weekend announcing the new enrichment efforts. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini also chimed in on the events scheduled for the anniversary celebration, saying, “The Iranian nation, with its unity and God’s grace, will punch the arrogance (Western powers) on the 22nd of Bahman (February 11) in a way that will leave them stunned.”
The story that did not make headlines was Iran’s decision to press ahead with new weapons platforms, including two lines of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) capable of reconnaissance and bombing missions. Plans to construct the Ra’d (Thunder) and Nazir (Harbinger) began last spring when the Islamic Republic started construction on a production plant for UAVs in the province of Mazandaran.
The UAV production comes on top of news that Tehran successfully tested a new research rocket titled the Kavoshgar-3 (explorer). This rocket carried a mouse, two turtles, and some worms into space and is believed to be a stepping stone toward sending Iranian astronauts into outer space.
Other defense developments in the last week include production of a new anti-armor missile, Toufan 5 (hurricane), and an anti-chopper missile, Qaem. Both systems were inaugurated last weekend under the supervision of Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi. The Islamic Republic is also rumored to have successfully tested the preliminary model of the Sofreh Mahi (Flat fish)-an Iranian-produced stealth aircraft. Vahidi also announced that Iran is ready to share this weapons technology with allied states in the region, saying “We have declared to all regional countries that we are ready to provide them with Iran’s defense capabilities.”
The timing of these developments should not come as a surprise to outside observers. Many of these programs, including the nuclear program, are sources of nationalist fervor for the Iranians. They probably also constitute an attempt by the current regime to muster domestic support for the fledgling Ahmadinejad government. One question to consider in the midst of these developments is: How will the Green Movement respond to Tehran’s brinkmanship? We know that the pragmatists in the opposition (Rafsanjani), and the reformists (Mousavi and Karroubi) support nuclear enrichment to one degree or another. One element that they are all opposed to, however, is the weaponization of enriched uranium. Nonetheless, although both Mousavi and Karroubi have called for opposition protests during the anniversary celebration, it is unlikely that any of these protests will focus on the country’s nuclear program.
On the international stage, the United States and her allies will need to muster considerable global support to introduce new sanctions. For the past year, the Chinese have been dragging their feet on sanctions, claiming that the United States and Europe aren’t giving the Iranians enough time to cooperate. The Russians have delayed their sale of the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system, but the defense establishment in Iran is confident that this sale will go through in the coming months. And finally, while the Europeans are in support of extended sanctions, they have too much to lose in terms of trade and energy supplies to back any new sanctions that have teeth.
Considering the factors listed above, it is more and more likely that relations between the West and Iran will resemble brinkmanship instead of detente.
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