Iran: What is it thinking?
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei listens to a speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
February 29th, 2012
07:00 AM ET

Iran: What is it thinking?

By Jamie Crawford, CNN

Throughout the course of the past year Iran has been, if anything, consistent in its delivery of provocative acts and bellicose rhetoric.

An alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States is uncovered. Threats to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz are followed by refusals to allow U.N. nuclear inspectors access to certain sites in the country.

Then there is the issue of alleged assassination attempts of Israeli diplomats at the hands of Iranian operatives in India, Georgia, Thailand and Azerbaijan. And let's also not forget the threats of pre-emptive military action against any country perceived as an imminent threat to the Iranian regime.

What is one to make of what of it all?

"When it comes to Iran, you always have to differentiate between what is bluster and what is real," Afshin Molavi, an Iran analyst with the New America Foundation, told CNN. The threats to close and mine the Strait of Hormuz, through which a high percentage of the world's oil supply passes through, were all bluster, Molavi said.

Iran has a lot to lose by closing the Strait. With 80% of their hard currency earnings, and most of their revenues coming from the oil trade, Iran would face severe economic repercussions through such an act.

Iranian external foreign policy is driven by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The remark about closing the Strait was made by an Iranian vice president, of which Iran has many, to a local audience that was then picked up by news organizations around the world following a report by an Iranian news agency.

Molavi said the remark was likely made to pander to the vice president's immediate audience in Iran, "not realizing this is going to go viral and global very fast."

The assassination attempts of Israeli diplomats however adds a wrinkle to an otherwise long running story.

"Iran and Israel have been involved in a low-grade intelligence war for roughly two decades," Molavi said. "That has now bled into taking human lives."

The deaths of five Iranian nuclear scientists and the destruction last year of an Iranian missile facility are widely believed to have been the work of Israeli intelligence. The recent attacks directed at Israeli diplomats, the wife of an Israeli diplomat in India was seriously injured in one of them, are believed to be a response to the assassinations of Iranian scientists. Both governments have denied their involvement, but have been quick to point their finger at each other.

In the past, international attacks attributed to Iran have mostly been carried out by operatives of its proxies like Hezbollah. With Iranian nationals having been arrested at the scene of some of these recent attacks, a new dimension in the low grade intelligence war may be beginning.

"This is new if it proves to be true," that Iranian nationals are conducting attacks overseas Molavi said. "We are entering new territory," he said.

When it comes to Iran's nuclear program, the picture is a bit more nuanced for Iran watchers - and U.S. officials for that matter.

In a recent interview with CNN, Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey said he believed the Iranian regime was a "rational actor" when it comes to the nuclear program. Dempsey said Iran would likely weigh the ultimate costs and benefits of building a nuclear weapon before doing so. James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, recently told a Senate panel that a decision had not yet been made by the regime in Tehran.

Michael Singh, who focused on Iran while serving on the National Security Council during the Bush administration, says Tehran will always hold firm to some parts of the program even if they never weaponize. "They want us to abandon any thoughts about getting them to stop their [uranium] enrichment program and accept as a baseline what they have already accomplished," Singh told CNN.

Iran has allowed two separate delegations of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency into the country in recent weeks to visit some nuclear sites. Both visits have ended in disappointment when Iranian officials did not allow inspectors to visit sites they felt had a military dimension to them.

But while the full effect of international sanctions aimed at Iran's oil sector and central bank are not expected to hit until June, Iran is beginning to feel some pain, and that pain may be yielding some cracks in the regime's stance.

Iran's access to international banking channels is getting squeezed, and its currency, the rial, has plummeted nearly 50% in value in recent weeks. Industrial investment is declining and factories are shutting down. Molavi, with the New America Foundation says this may help explain the recent letter by Iran's nuclear negotiator to Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy, chief seeking a return to talks about its nuclear program.

U.S. officials have cautiously welcomed the letter. "Any conversation anywhere with Iran has to begin with the disposition of their nuclear program, I mean that is the number one issue," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday. "Iran's response to her letter appears to acknowledge and accept that."

The United States is currently working with the so called P5+1 group to fashion a coordinated response to the letter from Iran.

And with parliamentary elections in Iran set for next week, the regime's bellicosity may be directed inward as much as it is towards the United States and Israel.

"The Iranian government is much more concerned with what's going on in Iran internally, it's very preoccupied with the election," Alireza Nader with RAND told CNN.

The leadership in Iran has been divided since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed the country's intelligence minister last year. The minister was reinstated by Khamenei, and the two camps have had icy relations since.

"Khamenei wants to show the Iranian population that he is in command of the country, that he knows how to deal with the United States, and that he is not going to succumb to pressure," Nader said.

Many Iranians do not view the regime as being credible Nader said, "so right now is really the worst time for the regime to face external pressure as well, and it has to show that it is strong in the face of these pressures."

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Filed under: Ahmadinejad • Dempsey • Diplomacy • Hillary Clinton • IAEA • Iran • Israel • Khamenei • Nuclear • Secretary of State
soundoff (621 Responses)
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  4. Skorpio

    Islam's MO is about hatred, violence, attacks, vengeance, resentment, discrimination and punishments. That is the main reason, Muslims clerics and leaders have been successful in exerting absolute power in their societies and eventually with the rest of the world.

    March 5, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Reply
  5. Jim

    Keep Squeezing

    March 5, 2012 at 9:15 am | Reply
  6. chuttyfanta

    To the world Citizens, Since whole world is working on latest technology and more nuclear run submariens, power plants , medical advancement are being done . Y cant Iran get the same.The real threat to the world s US and dits allys. Its very clear that US indierectly attacks every Oil rich nation.They want to keep whole world under their control. they want conquer all nation. Its impossible for a nation to work as a slave. Check the gulf nations saudi, UAE, Bhahrain, oman who supports US. so they pump more oils to US and inturn they get US goods. Check these countries are they reallly powerful to control their own nation. do they have own scientist to work in aerospace, inventing latest technology. Never they are not allowed to do so. Inturn they buy US's advanced Fighter jets who radar system is supplied to Isreal and US vessels. they supply advanced missiles but the controls are with US forces. Since these countries have US supports, stilll now KING rule s allowed. here to protesters are thers who wants democracy.wat rubbish. No country want to be slave to others.Y US want to halt the India's nuclear powerplants, Y US provides advanced jets to pakistan. US wants to keep its military contrcts to be its top agends. how many of them knows the secret research done by US . they are not know to their own people. By the war of Iraq , wat they found . how many deadly weapons were found.is there peace now. No country is safe enough , becoz all are under US satellite control. they are keenly watched by drones, satelites...... Y US dont wish to launch advanced satellite of INDIA which can survey , take photos clearly . still lot to say ...im here to explain something to t world which goes blindly behind the superpowers. Im sorry if I hurted anyone . I welcome ur comments to accept my stand.

    March 5, 2012 at 9:03 am | Reply
    • jcheng

      "whole world is working on latest technology and more nuclear run submariens, power plants , medical advancement are being done . Y cant Iran get the same."

      For what it's worth, all nuclear technology is not equal. Uranium enrichment for medical and power reactors require ~5% enriched uranium. Even research reactors require less than the 20% enriched uranium Iran already says it's making. In addition, Russia has already offered to help Iran with nuclear power plants with pre-packaged fuel – something Iran has refused as it wants the capability to enrich uranium itself.

      March 5, 2012 at 9:29 am | Reply
      • Rash

        Is it bad for Iran to enrich its own Uranium that is the big question..... why can America allow other countries to grow? why? why?..... Nothing last forever we all know and change is constant

        March 5, 2012 at 10:43 am |
      • jcheng

        @ Rash:

        "Is it bad for Iran to enrich its own Uranium that is the big question..... why can America allow other countries to grow? why? why?..... Nothing last forever we all know and change is constant"

        If Iran had stated that they would stay with 5% enriched uranium and allow international inspectors in place to verify this, there would be no argument. Iran has not done this. Japan is an example of a country that has peacefully used nuclear power (and openly rejected nuclear weapons), but is a much more transparent country than Iran is.

        March 5, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • Uruk-hai

      Rube.

      March 5, 2012 at 9:30 am | Reply
  7. James Savik

    Iran is keeping tensions high to drive up the cost of oil. This is as destructive to western economies as any war might be.

    Keeping pressure on the US/Israel relationship and balkanizing Israel is a part of the overall strategy.

    Much of Iran's antics are for internal consumption. The sitting government is unpopular and as long as there is a theat from the Great Satan (the US) or the Little Satan (Israel), they can rally the population.

    March 4, 2012 at 10:06 pm | Reply
  8. carl

    The US/EU sanction is bound to fail. Any one who thinks that it would cause the Iranians to yield is blind to the facts that economic sanction rarely (if ever) works. Ten plus years of crippling sanction on Iraq and Saddam continued to rule his country with an iron fist. The same thing will happen in Iran.

    The only reason why this joke of a sanction is being implemented is because it is a ploy by the Obama administration to push back the inevitable attack on Iran by the Israelis (to after the November election). The plan might work for a month or two, but the Israelis are clearly at the end of their rope. One commentator on this board (who claimed he/she is from Iran) made an excellent point – why impose sanction when you believe that the Iranians have no intention of building nuclear weapon? It's all a big political game.

    The CNN article also fails to address the most important issue of all. Even if Iran is rational and has no intention of building 'the bomb', Israel simply is not. Their leaders are right wing, ultra nationalist nut jobs. Worst, the senior officers in the IDF – many of whom are veterans of the prior Arab wars – believe they can knock out the Iranian nuclear program. Even if the operation will only delay the program for 2-3 years, or the loss of thousands of Israeli citizens in the (likely) counter attack by the Hezbollah and Hamas, and even if it means the Israelis may have to resort to using 'unconventional weapons' to do the job, they can and will do it with or without US approval/help. Look at what they did at Entebbe and Osiris. Those operations were just as unthinkable as an operation to attack Iran is today.

    March 4, 2012 at 1:42 am | Reply
  9. serana

    Having being accused of developing nuclear weapons, any sensible leadership would try to disprove, not talk about its rights, and demonstrate missiles etc. Iran obviously does not want to star a war it would lose. So the only explanation is that either the media is doing this hype, or the Iranian leadership is hand in glove with the elite. It is very easy to corrupt leaders of the third world.

    March 3, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Reply
    • livinfree

      A smart leadership would play for time while developing weapons that will give them the power they crave, which
      is what they are doing. If they can get "the bomb" before any military action against them they can use it to intimidate others (like N Korea) and prevent said action.

      March 5, 2012 at 9:57 am | Reply
  10. rankno

    I wonder if they ever use their beards to tickle their wife's hoo hoo. Just wondering.

    March 3, 2012 at 8:05 am | Reply
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