FPI Bulletin: Iran’s Latest Provocations While Washington was on Holiday

January 6, 2014

While official Washington paused to celebrate the holiday season, the Islamic Republic of Iran has continued work to upgrade its nuclear program, destabilize the Middle East, and empower its proxies throughout the region.  These provocations are a hard reminder of the need for continued vigilance by the United States to prevent Iran from realizing its nuclear ambitions.  An important first step will be for Congress to act on legislation to enforce any nuclear deal with Tehran and warn the Islamic Republic that its dangerous provocations will be met with firm response.

Iran Improves Its Uranium Enrichment Capability

As Iran and world powers negotiate arrangements to implement the Joint Plan of Action, a six-month interim nuclear deal announced in Geneva on November 24, 2013, Iran has pushed ahead with efforts to enhance its technical capability to enrich uranium.

Iran continues not only to research and build second-generation centrifuges that can enrich uranium more efficiently, but also is testing what appear to be even more advanced third-generation centrifuges.  According to the Associated Press, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told Iranian state television, “We have two types of second-generation centrifuges,” and added, “We also have future generations [of centrifuges] which are going through their tests.”

The Geneva Joint Plan of Action, if implemented, would prohibit Iran from installing additional centrifuges in its enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow for a six-month period.  Based on data in the August 2013 report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) estimated in October 2013 that “as of August 2013, Iran had 10,190 enriching IR-1 [first-generation] centrifuges,” adding: 

“In total, Iran had [installed] a total of 18,454 IR-1 centrifuges in roughly 110 cascades. As of August 2013, Iran had also installed 1,008 IR-2m [second-generation] centrifuges and was making preparations to install an additional 2,088 machines.  So, Iran has an installed centrifuge capacity that exceeds 19,000 centrifuges (emphasis added).” 

When the IAEA releases its next report on Iran in February 2014, we will know more precisely the extent to which Iran has grown its enrichment program since agreeing to the Joint Plan of Action in November.  What is already clear is that Tehran has not yet relented in its effort to expand its nuclear program’s technical capabilities since the Geneva announcement.

Iranian-Backed Terrorists Linked to Lebanese Politician’s Assassination

On December 27, 2013, a powerful car bomb killed former Lebanese finance minister Mohamad Chatah and six others in downtown Beirut.  Chatah was a staunch critic of Hezbollah, the Iranian-proxy terrorist group based in Lebanon, as well as the Iranian-backed regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Saad Hariri, a Member of the Lebanese Parliament and son of slain former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, accused Hezbollah of killing Chatah.  “The ones who assassinated Chatah are the same ones who assassinated [former Prime Minister] Rafiq Hariri and the ones who want to assassinate Lebanon,” Hariri said.  “For us, the ones accused of this, and until further notice, are the same people who are evading international justice and refusing to appear before Special Tribunal for Lebanon.”  Hezbollah rejects the authority of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is set to begin the trial against four Hezbollah members accused of Rafiq Hariri’s February 2005 assassination in mid-January 2014.

Iran and Terrorist Proxies Smuggle Missiles into Lebanon

U.S. officials believe that members of Iranian-backed Hezbollah are smuggling, piece by piece, advanced anti-ship missiles from Syria into Lebanon, the Wall Street Journal reported on January 2, 2014.

Hezbollah, working with the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Qods Force, is using this piecemeal approach to smuggle the missile systems into Lebanon while evading Israel’s repeated airstrikes over the past year.  

The Wall Street Journal added that Hezbollah’s efforts to smuggle advanced missiles into Lebanon “appear to serve two purposes”:  “Iran wants to upgrade Hezbollah’s arsenal to deter future Israeli strikes—either on Lebanon or on Iran’s nuclear program, U.S. and Israeli officials say.  In addition, these officials said they believe the transfers were meant to induce Hezbollah to commit to protect Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as well as supply lines used by both his regime and Hezbollah.”

Iran-Backed Assad Regime Escalates Attacks in Syria

On December 15, 2013, the Iranian-backed Assad regime launched a two-week offensive using warplanes, helicopters and “barrel bombs” against opposition-controlled areas in Syria's northern Aleppo province. 

The Daily Telegraph reported that the Assad regime’s campaign “has been remarkable for the number and size of the home-made ‘barrel bombs’—crude devices made from metal tubes and containers filled with TNT—that have been deployed, mostly dropped from helicopters.”  The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) estimates that the Assad regime’s aerial assault killed over 500 people, the Associated Press reported on December 29, 2013.

The SOHR also conservatively estimates that more than 130,000 Syrians have died in the conflict, Reuters reported on December 31, 2013.  While Syrian peace talks in Geneva are scheduled to begin on January 22, 2014, it remains unclear whether they will be delayed once again.

Bahrain Interdicts Iranian-Made Weapons

Officials in Bahrain interdicted a boat smuggling Iranian-made explosives and other weapons on December 30, 2013.  As the Associated Press reported, “Included in the cache discovered onboard the boat, which was first detected in international waters off Bahrain's northeastern coast, were ‘50 Iranian made hand bombs’ and nearly 300 commercial detonators marked ‘Made in Syria,’ according to a government statement.”

Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, is a small island kingdom near Saudi Arabia’s coastline.  As the Associated Press notes, “More than 65 people have been killed in violence since protests led by the country's Shiite majority began in February 2011 calling for a greater political voice in the Sunni-ruled nation.” 

The Associated Press added, “Bahrain accuses Shiite powerhouse Iran of aiding the uprising.  Tehran denies the accusations.”

Conclusion

The Geneva interim nuclear deal’s announcement has fueled hopes among some in the United States and Europe for Iranian rapprochement.  Secretary of State John Kerry, during a stopover in Jerusalem on Sunday, told reporters that he believed Iran could play a role, at least on the sidelines, in planned Syrian peace talks in Geneva in late January 2014.  Moreover, the Obama administration continues to resist efforts by congressional lawmakers to advance legislation that would create explicit enforcement mechanisms if Iran violates the interim nuclear deal or eventually fails to conclude a comprehensive nuclear agreement with world powers.

However, the Obama administration’s hopes for Iranian rapprochement are alarming not only Israel, but also Saudi Arabia, and other U.S. allies and partners in the Middle East.  “It is striking that at the very moment when the Obama administration is pleading with Congress to be very careful in its behavior, the Iranian regime has no fears and no hesitation to engage in this subversion,” wrote Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations.  “This helps explain why the Arabs are so nervous:  they see the United States hell-bent on a nuclear deal and willing to ignore everything else the Iranian regime is doing.”

If the United States is to advance a Middle East policy that reassures its allies and partners and deters its adversaries, then it cannot continue to ignore Iran’s provocations.

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