Iran update: number 131


  • United States consults Arab representatives on Iran’s nuclear program
  • Condoleezza Rice asserts that U.S.-backed sanctions are having an effect
  • Iran tests new missile during naval exercises in Sea of Oman
  • Uncertainty over delivery of S-300 air defense system to Iran
  • President-elect Barack Obama announces his diplomatic approach to Iran
  • Iran’s government does not expect significant policy changes from Washington
  • The United States may directly back Israel with a nuclear guarantee


On December 16, the United States, along with the other members of the United Nations Security Council, agreed to consult with the diplomatic representatives of several Arab states on Iran’s nuclear program. Representatives of Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, after speaking with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, announced their commitment to discussions on “Iran’s nuclear policies and its regional ambitions.” Rice did not comment on whether she had discussed further sanctions with the gathered Arab diplomats, but Iran’s growing influence has been of concern to many in the region in recent years.

Iran did not have representatives in attendance at the Arab diplomats’ meeting, and attacked the United States both for misrepresenting the purpose of its nuclear program and for attempting to minimize its constructive role in the region. The Iranian mission to the United Nations assailed the United States’ divisive influence in the region as the real threat, rather than Iran’s nuclear program. It remains unclear to what degree meetings between Arab representatives and the United States government will influence the latter’s policies toward Iran.

Secretary of State Rice recently stated in an interview her belief that the multiple rounds of sanctions levied against Iran over its nuclear program are having at least some effect. Rice is quoted on the behavior-changing effects of the sanctions: “It hasn’t yet convinced them that they have to change their course, but there are plenty of voices being heard inside the government that are talking about the costs and about whether or not they’ve made a mistake in getting themselves so deeply isolated.”

The United States has not managed to achieve sanctions as stringent as many in the Bush administration would have preferred. They have had no visible effect on Iranian policy; Iran’s increased enrichment activities directly contravene the spirit of the most recent round of sanctions designed to walk Iran back from nuclear enrichment. Noting recent declines in the price of oil, Iran’s major trading commodity, Rice insisted that the international sanctions are having an effect: “Sooner or later they are going to have to deal with the fact — particularly with declining oil prices — that these costs are going to become pretty acute.”

Iranian state media reported on December 7 that Iran has successfully tested a new surface-to-surface missile which it deployed from a warship during recent naval exercises. The Nasr-2 missile, fired from an Iranian warship, scored a direct hit on a target nineteen miles distant, and destroyed it, according to the IRNA news service. The announcement, coming at the end of nearly weeklong naval war games in the Sea of Oman, was designed to buttress Iran’s claim to be able to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz, in the event that Israel or the US attempt to forcefully halt Iran’s nuclear program. Approximately forty percent of the world’s supply of crude oil passes through the Strait.

There remained some confusion over the status of an agreement between Russia and Iran for the delivery of the S-300 surface-to-air defence system. Isolated reports suggested that Iran has concluded the agreement and is to take delivery imminently, but these claims have been explicitly denied. Israeli spokespersons have wrongly claimed that this system could be used to attack Israel (they would in fact be a threat to Israeli aircraft attacking iran), and are appealing to Moscow to refrain from delivery.

In remarkably candid comments, the recent commander of US forces in the Middle East Admiral Fallon told the Jerusalem Post that Israel should stop giving in to the ‘fear factor’ when talking about a nuclear armed Iran. (See for example Netanyahu’s statement in Paris) He said that Israel would retain superiority and would be able to deter any possible attack from Iran, and that such talk simply played into the hands of the Iranians. He said that appropriate responses to Iran are more than just military ones.

President-elect Obama is set to appoint a senior career diplomat to coordinate the outreach to Iran. He announced that he will pursue incentives-based diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear program. This approach would likely include economic incentives — the relaxation of sanctions, for example — if Iran halts its nuclear program and allows inspections of its facilities. Sanctions could be toughened, however, if Iran refuses to cooperate with Western authorities: “We are willing to talk to them directly and give them a clear choice and ultimately let them make a determination in terms of whether they want to do this the hard way or the easy way,” said Obama.

Iran has stressed that it does not expect Washington’s policy toward Iran to change, in the wake of Obama’s recent rhetoric on the subject. Although some in Iran are withholding judgment on his policies until Obama is inaugurated in January, officials have accused the President-elect of “deception and fraud” tactics, focusing in particular on the “carrot and stick” approach as evidence of business as usual. Obama has promised to work with international partners, including the IAEA, and the P5+1 group of nations attempting to coax Iran away from its nuclear commitments, and this is probably the biggest fear of many within Iran – that he will be more successful in this tactic than his predecessor.

In a move that may have implications for Iran’s nuclear program, sources close to President-elect Obama have suggested he will seek a strategic partnership between the United States and Israel to blunt any attack upon the latter. According to the source, the United States will likely construe an attack on Israel by Iran as a pretext for a military, and almost certainly, nuclear response. Obama’s nuclear guarantee would be supported by a new anti-ballistic missile system to be deployed by Israel, coupled with a new early-warning radar system in the Negev desert designed to detect incoming Iranian missiles.


Stories and links

Six powers consult Arabs on Iran’s nuclear plans, Claudia Parsons, Reuters, 12/16/08

AP Interview: Rice says sanctions affecting Iran, Associated Press Interview, 12/16/08;_ylt=Aok5aEOe9doOGJxIY83N76YLewgF

Iran cleric says Obama adopting old US tactics, Edmund Blair, Reuters, 12/12/08;_ylt=AiiOMosnxV4CB0T.N6xmYOgLewgF

Obama’s atomic umbrella: US nuclear strike if Iran nukes Israel, Aluf Benn, Haaretz, 12/11/08

Iran’s Rafsanjani says Obama mimicking Bush, Agence France-Presse, 12/9/08;_ylt=AnMqRyyJCm0.J7aRBqx0BGQLewgF

Iran tests new missile from warship: reports, Hashem Kalantari, Reuters, 12/7/08

Obama says will pursue carrot/stick Iran policy, Mohammad Zargham (editing), Reuters, 12/7/08;_ylt=AnX88FcsCKKX1fpphxf4GqULewgF

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