March 14, 2010

Out of Iran: Tentacles of the new shahs

Iran's repressive Islamist leadership is pursuing an empire of deadly influence from the Mediterranean to Pakistan, and Israel is itching to respond as Australia watches and warns

AN intriguing diplomatic exercise is under way in Israel at the moment. It's a series of private presentations to small groups of selected guests. They feature names, figures and maps that boil down to one thing: the case against Iran.

The performers are key figures in Israel's military establishment. The audience consists of hand-picked members of the international community.

While newspapers across the world this week are focusing on whether agents from Israel's Mossad assassinated a Hamas leader in Dubai using fake foreign passports, inside Israel the case against Iran is proceeding apace.

If what the military leaders are saying at these briefings is true, then the international community including Australia faces a bigger crisis than it realises with Iran and its proxies in six places in the Middle East and Central Asia.
If what they are saying is untrue, then their use of intelligence will be regarded with as much contempt as the use of intelligence by Western countries before the Iraq war. Put bluntly, Israel is preparing the case for a new war that could hardly not affect Australia.

The theme of the recent Israeli military briefings is that clear evidence of Iran's influence can be seen in six places: Lebanon, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian territory of Gaza.

The audience is presented with what is claimed to be evidence to link Islamic militants in all six places; for example, that many fighters are from the same training camps in Iran.

The military briefers claim to have evidence that fighters in these disparate locations have the same written material preaching against the West and Israel. They argue they have found similar improvised explosive devices in all six theatres. Most important, however, is the claim that in all six places Iran is supplying weapons.

As a diplomat who attended one of the briefings tells Inquirer: "Israel now sees Iran as an octopus. At the head of the octopus is a nuclear weapon and the tentacles include Hamas and Hezbollah."

The sense of urgency in Israel was echoed this week by the head of the US Central Command, General David Petraeus, who said the US sees the need to ratchet up pressure on Iran by moving to "a pressure track".

Kevin Rudd warned Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2008 that Australia could seek to have him prosecuted for genocide over his attacks on Israel, and The Australian revealed earlier this month the federal government had secretly blocked four Australian shipments to Iran due to fears the cargo was destined for a weapons-of-mass-destruction program.

Israel's heightened alert comes as Iran's regime struggles to survive and presumably welcomes external enemies as an internal uniting influence. Thirty-one years after the Islamic ayatollahs seized power, they are facing a similar backlash to that felt by the shah (king) when he was deposed in the revolution of 1979.

The primary aim of the masses was to rid themselves of the shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, after years of intimidation and repression and grandiose allusions to the first Persian empire.

Islamic revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini tapped into the public's anger at the excesses of the shah when he declared: "Islam came in order to destroy these palaces of tyranny."

But many of those masses are now rallying behind the political opposition led by Mir Hossein Mousavi.

More than 2500 years after the beginning of the first Persian empire, what is now called Iran is facing more bloodshed.

In the riots after the disputed re-election last June of Ahmadinejad, millions took to the streets. Many did something that for the previous 31 years would have been unthinkable: they trampled on pictures ofKhomeini's successor as Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who from the start was accused by some of lacking the religious credentials for the post.

Its fair to say Khamenei is no Khomeini -- the first ayatollah is still a revered figure -- but his successor is now widely seen in Iran as a politician fighting for survival who himself lives in luxury and has allowed corruption among the Islamic elite to flourish; a kind of religious shah.

As long-time observer of Iran David Menashri puts it: "Khomeini took great care to be above the factions, whereas Khamenei is now closely identified with Ahmadinejad's faction."

The Iranian-born Menashri adds: "The mass movement achieving change could take two months or 20 years. But I think the seeds of the problem are there: disenchantment of the people of Iran with lack of sufficient answers to their hopes of 31 years ago."

The ayatollahs of Iran -- high-ranking Shi'ite religious leaders -- are under siege on three fronts, from their own people, the international community moving to tougher sanctions and a possible attack from Israel to head off the development of nuclear weapons.

Any Israeli attack would require many strikes on many targets, some of which are underground. Suggestions that this could be a single, surgical strike such as the one Israel carried out in Syria two years ago are not realistic.

Israel has been thinking seriously about a strike for more than a year, and so concerned was the US last year that it dispatched CIA director Leon Panetta to Israel to seek assurances Israel was not about to launch an attack.

Concern in Israel has escalated since last week's report by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Contained in the report were six words that reverberated in Israel, "a nuclear payload for a missile".

Citing information from a variety of sources that was "broadly consistent and credible", the IAEA said: "Altogether, this raises concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.

"These alleged activities consist of a number of projects and sub-projects, covering nuclear and missile related aspects, run by military-related organisations."

US Vice-President Joe Biden is due in Israel soon.

Last July he was asked how the US would respond if Israel attacked Iran: "Israel can determine for itself -- it's a sovereign nation -- what's in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else."

Israel's war footing was on display this week as it unveiled new unmanned drone aircraft that it pointed out were capable of long-term missions, as far as Iran, for example. The Israeli Air Force has been carrying out exercises over the Mediterranean. They've been flying the same distance as for a return trip to Iran.

The military briefers say the Middle East's cold war is moving towards a real war between Israel, which has long had nuclear weapons, and Iran. The assassination in Dubai this month of a Hamas man responsible for moving weapons from Iran into Gaza, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, was widely portrayed in Israel as part of that cold war.

The effect for Israel of a nuclear Iran would be that two neighbouring political-militant organisations with which it is effectively at war, Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, would have a nuclear power behind them. That alters the balance of power -- or of terror -- dramatically.

The Israeli briefings are certainly not the first that Israel has given about Iran. But there is a sense of urgency to them as far as Israel is concerned, a sense that a looming confrontation with Iran is now almost inevitable.

Ahmadinejad may simply be taunting "the Zionist regime" when he declares that Iran almost could make a bomb now if it wanted to; he clearly enjoys taunting Israel when he threatens to "wipe them off the map" and denies the Holocaust.

Iran's ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah, is using similar language. It claims it has three times the weaponry as when it fought Israel in 2006 and its leader Hassan Nasrallah talked recently about "redrawing the map" in any new war with Israel.

Israel is doing taunting of its own. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said recently not only would Syria be crushed in any war with Israel but the Syrian leader's family would lose as well.

Australian Middle East analyst Anthony Bubalo put into perspective the fear felt by many in Israel when he was asked this week whether he thought Iran would use nuclear weapons against Israel. "I don't think it is likely, but if I lived in Tel Aviv rather than Sydney I wouldn't necessarily be reassured by such rational analysis," he says.

Inquirer this week sought the views of leading analysts to assess thinking on Iran.

Oussama Safa, from the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies in Beirut, says Iran's end game is "to impose itself as a major player in the region".

It is also unclear, he says, what will be the result of the internal unrest in Iran. He adds, however, that if the Tehran regime is besieged by new sanctions, as the US is threatening, it is "bound to crack down and crush the resistance, which might cause some bloodletting". The Ahmadinejad government has been using instruments including the Basij civilian militia to intimidate opponents. Safa says Lebanon does not see Iran's program as a threat.

Interestingly, when asked if he expects there will be a war between Iran and Israel, Safa mentions how this could ignite unrest in five of the six theatres on the Israeli military's list. An imminent attack is not likely, he says, "but things might change any minute".

"However, an attack by Israel right now will give the Iranian regime a great pretext to crush the opposition and ignite unrest in the region: Lebanon, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen."

Bubalo believes Iran is trying to place itself within "technical reach" of a nuclear weapon largely via a civil nuclear program. "The question is what will happen once they reach that technical threshold, if they have not already," says Bubalo, director of the West Asia program at the Lowy Institute.

"Will they cross it or will it be enough for them to have reached it, while maintaining a certain level of ambiguity about their capabilities? I am not sure the regime has decided on this yet itself, though its decision will also depend on how the international community responds in coming months and years."

Iran expert Menashri says the uprising in Iran has "shaken the pillars" of the Islamic revolution but what happens next is totally unpredictable. Menashri, director of the Centre of Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, describes the possibility of an Israeli strike as "a very extreme scenario".

"I don't think this is on the cards in the near future," he says. "There is much more likelihood that the West would be able to pressure Iran to rethink its policies.

"Saudi Arabia can help much more by opening an embassy in Israel than by opening air space to Israel," he says. "Resolving the Israeli-Syrian problem and the Israeli-Palestinian problem would weaken Iran significantly. But the nuclear train [in Iran] is running much faster than the train for political change."

Another Tel Aviv academic, Jonathan Spyer, predicts the hardline conservative and Revolutionary Guard forces in Iran are likely to rise in power despite the well-publicised dissent. Spyer, senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Centre, believes the Ahmadinejad government increasingly will rule by "naked force" and without the pretence of popular consent.

Iran, he says, clearly has decided to go to "the very edge of weaponisation".

"I don't believe that Iran intends to use a nuclear weapon, so the difference between having one and remaining on the threshold, with the capability of producing one, is not that great.

"Iran wants to use its nuclear capability as an umbrella beneath which it can safely and invulnerably pursue region subversion in order to build its influence across the Middle East."

The rising temperature between Iran and Israel is having all sorts of knock-on effects.

Robert Dann, a senior political adviser at the office of the UN Special Co-ordinator for the Middle East peace process in Jerusalem, says the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is "an open sore that must be healed, and the stakes are very high".

"An Israeli-Palestinian agreement would be a major boost to regional moderates and would also transform Israel's regional position," Dann says. "If peace also extended to Syria, the implications would be even more far-reaching. On the other hand, continuing stalemate or another failure would play into the hands of both Palestinian and regional radicals who wish to heat up the atmosphere by confronting Israel and undermining the Palestinian Authority."

Spyer is another who sees a military strike by Israel as possible but a long way off. "And it won't happen without a tacit green light from the US, so the diplomatic effort has to be exhausted first, and that will take a while yet."

Iran's response, he says, would include activation of proxies, possible attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets worldwide and a possible missile strike on Israel. "In other words, Iran's response would be manageable by Israel, which increases the possibility of a strike, but not until we are much further down the line."

The UN's Dann stresses the Israeli-Palestinian issue cannot be downplayed. "Israeli Defence Minister [Ehud] Barak recently described the Palestinian issue as the most important existential issue for Israel, surpassing even concerns about Iran," Dann says.

"Every government since [that of Yitzhak] Rabin has come to accept that a two-state solution is essential for Israel's long-term character and security.

"Despite his past opposition, and some mixed signals from within his government, Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu has now stated that he, too, is committed to two states."

For Israelis the Palestinian issue is a much lower priority than for foreign governments.

Since the second intifada, which began in 2000, contact between Israelis and Palestinians has largely disappeared.

With the exception of places such as hospitals, Israelis and Palestinians go about their daily lives separately.

It is clear from the mood in Israel today that Israel regards the case against Iran as far more important than the case for the Palestinians.

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