Thursday, February 15, 2007

An accident waiting to happen in Iran

As the US continues to point accusing fingers at Iran over its suspected meddling in Iraq, Tehran believes that Washington is trying to needle it into a rash response. The killing of 11 elite Iranian officers in one of Iran's restive provinces is exactly the type of provocation Iran has to guard against lest an uneasy calm turn into an "accidental" storm.

Feb 16, 2007

By Iason Athanasiadis

TEHRAN - The growing US military buildup in the Persian Gulf appears to be making Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad tone down his rhetoric while also forcing the country's leadership to adopt a more circumspect approach to dealing with Washington. But another terrorist spectacular rocked Iran's wild southeastern region on Wednesday, targeting the country's elite Revolutionary Guard and souring the newly positive atmosphere.

Ahmadinejad began his charm offensive during his February 12 speech marking the 28th anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Revolution when he remained silent on a prior pledge to make what would have been a landmark and confrontational announcement about his country's nuclear program. Analysts were widely expecting the Iranian president to announce that up to 3,000 centrifuges had been installed at the Natanz nuclear facility in central Iran. Iran faces next Wednesday a United Nations Security Council deadline to have stopped all uranium-enrichment activities, or face renewed United Nations sanctions or even a possible military strike.

Ahmadinejad flirted his way through an interview with the American Broadcasting Co's Diane Sawyers, lobbing along the way dovish statements such as that Iran opposes "any" proliferation of nuclear weapons and remains open to negotiations with the West. At the end of the interview, Ahmadinejad jokingly chastised Sawyers for asking combative questions and lectured her that "women should not be asking tough questions about war, women should ask about love, culture and family", according to the American journalist.

But regional analysts warn that Washington and Tehran are currently negotiating the most treacherous diplomatic stretch, with "accidental" war a distinct possibility. This period ahead of the UN deadline could well simply be the calm before the storm.

"My major concern at this point is the US, because we have identified Iran as our enemy and we have increased our military posture in the region, the combination of the rhetoric and the military forces could lead to an accidental escalation," said Gary Sick, a former National Security Council adviser in the Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations.

US President George W Bush continues to point an accusing finger at Iran. In his latest attack, he insisted on Wednesday that Iranian special operations forces are providing the sophisticated roadside bombs being used to kill US troops in Iraq and declared: "I intend to do something about it."

These threats echo in the upper echelons of the Islamic Republic's leadership as Washington beefs up its military presence in the Persian Gulf and deploys Patriot anti-missile systems in several Gulf Arab states where it maintains military forces. This week, Iran's first president, Abolhassan Bani Sadr, spoke to the Saudi-owed Al-Arabiyyah news portal from his Paris exile, saying it is very likely that the United States will conduct a military strike against his country soon.

Iranian diplomats believe that a series of recent US military raids targeting Iranian diplomats in neighboring Iraq are intended to needle Tehran into a rash response that could serve as a pretext to initiate military action. Iranians suspected of carrying out attacks on US and Iraqi forces have been detained over the course of three raids since the beginning of the year. Last week, another Iranian diplomat was abducted by Iraqi troops in downtown Baghdad.

"It is not appropriate to act in a foolhardy way, rather we should behave thoughtfully," said former two-times president Hashemi Rafsanjani to a gathering of foreign students in Qom. "We have to be very careful and not provoke the enemy."

Iranian Intelligence Minister Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejeie announced last week that his agents had identified 100 spies working for the US and Israel and "intending to collect political and military information" from Iran's border areas, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

Iranian officials have been claiming for years that the US supports armed groups in the country's border provinces and is seeking to sponsor ethnic separatist strife. There has been a spike in violent incidents along Iran's periphery since early 2006, which also includes much of Iran's Sunni Muslim minority. Iranian officials have privately accused Sunni Arab states of sponsoring such activities and paying Shi'ite Iranians to convert to Sunni Islam.

"I worry about an accidental explosion rather than a planned attack that we can see coming," said Sick. "Every key person in the US administration says they are not planning an attack on Iran, but a lot of people in the administration seem to think they wouldn't mind if such a thing happened. Under such circumstances, it is always possible for accidents to take place, even engineered accidents."

Bombs on the border
The question of whether Washington is engaged in provocations must also be crossing the minds of the Iranian leadership after a bomb attack against a bus carrying members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards in isolated Sistan-Balochistan province on Wednesday.

A passenger car loaded with explosives stopped in front of the bus and its passengers fled on motorcycles shortly before the bomb detonated, killing 11 officers, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency. There have been conflicting rumors that the Jundallah (Soldier of Allah) group has claimed responsibility for the action.

Jundallah, a Sunni Muslim militant group, last year conducted a series of daring raids targeting the Iranian government. In December 2005, Jundallah claimed responsibility for kidnapping seven Iranian soldiers. They were apparently released through negotiations with local tribesmen. Last April, Iranian newspapers reported that "rebels" killed two Iranian army officers and seriously wounded a senior religious official. Two months later, three small explosions injured two people in Zahedan.

Iranian officials have claimed they have seized "military-grade weapons and documents that show the group's attachment to oppressors [foreign powers] aiming to create conflict".

These recent actions appear to be separate from the ongoing, low-level drug war in Sistan-Balochistan province that has claimed the lives of about 1,700 Iranian soldiers since the 1979 revolution. They come at a time of surging Baloch nationalism and the convening of several separatist conferences in Europe and the US.
The pressure on Tehran comes amid growing regional Sunni-Shi'ite tension and reciprocal accusations that Iran and Sunni states are sponsoring proxy groups against each other inside Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Sudan and Yemen.

"Why is Iran seeking to defeat America in Lebanon?" asked Ayman al-Safadi, the editor of the Jordanian newspaper Al-Ghad. "Because Lebanon is a mere card. Let Lebanon burn. Let its cities be destroyed. Let its people be divided. This is an insignificant price in the Persian calculation. The tensions in Lebanon are an Iranian message to America that stability in the Middle East is dependent upon its decisions."

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been working together to defuse regional tensions and halt Washington's attempts to present itself as a savior of the Sunnis against an Iran-led expanding Shi'ite "crescent". Ali Larijani, head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, is currently in Riyadh for talks on how to resolve the crisis, amid warnings by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that the West is seeking to divide the Islamic ummah (community) for its own ends.

Iason Athanasiadis is an Iran-based journalist.

Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd.

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