Recently, Iranian officials have been quoted as saying that they do not see the Islamic State as a threat to Tehran, although the Revolutionary Guards have already been heavily involved in the fight against the Sunni organization, presumably for fear of Iran losing its hold over the Baghdad government.
Zarif’s comments may suggest that Tehran does not currently fear that loss, now that Western powers have begun to involve themselves in the conflict. Some have also suggested that the new Iraqi Prime Minister-designate, Haider al-Abadi, was Iran’s own choice for the job and will defer to Iranian leadership much as his predecessor had, but without the same Western scrutiny.
Alternatively, Zarif’s insistence upon the lifting of “all of the sanctions that are associated with Iran’s nuclear program” may simply be another instance of Iran overstating its own leverage in negotiations with the West, and its military capability in conflicts involving the United States.
Iranian officials frequently do overstate Iranian military capabilities, as with the infamous and widely disregarded boast in May that the navy would be capable of sinking an American aircraft carrier in less than a minute. However, this is not to say that the Islamic Republic’s military capabilities have not undergone genuine recent expansions. A Pentagon report that was summarized on Thursday by Bloomberg acknowledges as much.
The report also points out that Iran’s stated defensive strategy is defensive, leading Bloomberg to conclude that its leadership is “speaking more softly” while simultaneously “building bigger sticks.” Their military stance and buildup could be seen as mirroring the overall foreign policy approach that has been taken during nuclear negotiations, with figures like President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif maintaining a “charm offensive” at the same time that Supreme Leader Khamenei sets combative policies and refuses to compromise on nuclear enrichment and weapons stockpiles.
The Pentagon report also reflects the current American diplomatic stance toward Iran, giving it more credit than US agencies had tended to do in the past, while still acknowledging that Iran is engaged in an arguably aggressive buildup of its military, and is heavily interfering in conflicts elsewhere in the Middle East region.
The US Congress has been recognizably nervous about this soft stance towards Iran, and has been making efforts to compel the Obama administration to give the legislature a more active role in the process. But an article in Just Security points out that these congressional efforts may in fact be self-defeating, as the text of a recent bill appears to actually give the president a strong case for being able to conclude the deal on his own before seeking congressional approval after the fact. Short-sighted legislation may actually limit Congress’s ability to intercede even if the executive fails to acknowledge concerns that the Pentagon has illustrated.
Hispanic Business points to a current example of the military buildup identified by the Pentagon, reporting that Iran has begun mass production on energy density batteries that can be used to significantly increase the functionality of its missiles’ electronic systems.
Meanwhile, the Turkish news source, Today’s Zaman provides new potential grounds for suspicion about Iran’s illicit buildup in the nuclear sphere. The article indicates that one of the founding members of the Turkish ruling Justice and Development Party, Faruk Koca formerly spearheaded arrangements to sell boron to Iran, presumably for use in nuclear reactors, rockets, and other components.
Focusing on another part of the world, Star Africa provides some insight into the apparent motives for the recent signing of a memorandum of understanding regarding trade between Iran and Kenya. The document urges expansion of trade relations that reportedly already favor Iran. Star Africa reports that the Kenyan Foreign Affairs Secretary pleaded with Iran on Thursday to bring an end to delays in payment for extensive Kenyan exports of tea to Iran. These two stories give the impression that Iran may be interfering with current transactions in order to extort more extensive commitments from its smaller trading partner.
Retail and Labor Exploitation
The travel and culture journal Roads and Kingdoms has published an article that explains how similar such trade exploitation takes place in the domestic sphere, as well. The article focuses on the case of cigarette smuggling and explains that that illicit activity has deliberately been allowed to continue in spite of the Iranian regime having the power and means to stop it.
According to the author, such permissiveness serves the regime in multiple ways. It earns money for the nation as a whole insofar as illegal economic activity evades Western sanctions to bring foreign goods to market. At the same time, individual regime officials profit from these exchanges by collecting bribes in order to allow illicit goods to pass “undetected.” Furthermore, this arrangement causes bazaar merchants, who have traditionally been powerful figures in Iranian society, to be dependent upon the whims of the state for much of their income. It is a situation that weakens those merchants and prevents the bazaars from serving as the gathering place for political dissent that they had once been.
Along these same lines, the Iranian regime has largely prevented the formation of professional organizations and trade unions, which might otherwise have served as organizing forces for political dissent among laborers and lower classes. This has not prevented Iranians from organizing protests for their labor rights, but such actions face an uphill battle.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran reports on the aftermath of a 40-day strike that took place in May among workers from the Bafq iron ore mine. Although the strike elicited promises from management, the strikers’ demands were never actually met, and management instead asked security forces to arrest eighteen individuals who had been involved in the strike. However, after two of these individuals were arrested, 5,000 mine workers took to the streets on Tuesday to initiate a new strike.
Western Activities and Freedoms
The Roads and Kingdoms article about cigarettes, in addition to highlighting the economic abuses of the Iranian regime, also hints at the fact that the Iranian people are eager to remain connected to Western culture in spite of the regime’s efforts to keep the nation
isolated and confined to a vision of pure Islam. The article points out that Western cigarette brands are consistently the most popular in Iran, regardless of their higher price tag, because of their association with the modernity and intellectualism that are anathema to the regime.
The Yakima Herald on Thursday re-posted an article from Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, which points to another example of Iranian taste for aspects of Western culture. The article profiles the 500-or-so Iranians who have formed leagues in which they play baseball, a sport that most citizens of the Islamic Republic have not even heard of.
Perhaps unintentionally, this article re-introduces questions about the arrest of its author in Tehran last month. His baseball essay is reportedly representative of his work as a correspondent in Iran, which is to say that it did not discuss the regime or politically sensitive topics. Rather, it detailed the everyday experience of Iranians and attempted to bridge the gap between Iranian and Western cultures. This is how television personality Anthony Bourdain portrayed Rezaian’s work in an editorial published in the Washington Post in the first week of August.
Now, the New York Times has reported that one of the three individuals arrested alongside Rezaian has been freed. The unnamed woman is a photojournalist whose husband was released within days of the July 22 arrest and was apparently not a member of the media. Rezaian and his wife, the journalist Yeganeh Salehi remain in custody in an undisclosed location. Their conditions are not known and no formal charges have been announced after a month of imprisonment and interrogation. However, officials have recently implied that they were working to build a case against them on vague national security charges.
Such charges are typical in the case of Iranian repression of journalists, as are charges of propaganda, insulting regime officials, and conspiring with foreigners. “Propaganda against the regime” is the charge being faced by Saba Azarpiek, a reformist journalist who was arrested on May 28 as part of an ongoing crackdown on Iranian media. On Thursday, Azarpiek was finally released on bail of 65,000 dollars, according to NDTV.
Although the media is widely repressed in Iran, there are frequent examples of Iranian citizens defying the regime’s attempts to curtail access. This is certainly the case with the widespread usage of banned social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. It is also on display in the case of access to banned satellite television broadcasts such as the opposition-run Images of Freedom network.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran has announced that that network will be conducting a four-day telethon to secure funding between August 22 and August 25. A similar telethon last August raised 4.55 million dollars from tens of thousands of Iranians and prompted the regime to seize 16,000 satellite dishes in a crackdown spanning 19 cities.