Tag Archive: Iran


Chief IAEA inspector Herman Nackaerts talks to reporters at Vienna airport on 20 February 2012
Chief IAEA inspector Herman Nackaerts said he hoped for “some concrete results” from the trip

UN nuclear inspectors have arrived in Tehran for the second time in a month to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme.

Chief inspector Herman Nackaerts said his team’s “highest priority” was to clarify the “possible military dimensions” of the nuclear programme.

But he cautioned that progress “may take a while”.

Iran insists its uranium enrichment work is peaceful in purpose, but Western nations believe the programme is geared towards making weapons.

Tensions have risen over speculation that Israel may carry out a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

US National Security Adviser Tom Donilon arrived in Israel at the weekend for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior officials.

But the head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, warned on Sunday that it was still unclear whether Iran was at a stage to assemble a nuclear bomb.

“On that basis, I think it would be premature to exclusively decide that the time for a military option was upon us,” Gen Dempsey said.

‘New developments’

Last week Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took part in an elaborate ceremony to unveil new developments in his country’s nuclear programme.

Tehran said it had used domestically-made nuclear fuel in a reactor for the first time, as well as developing faster, more efficient uranium enrichment centrifuges.

State TV showed the president inspecting the fuel rods as they were loaded into a reactor.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (R) during a tour of Tehran's research reactor (February 15, 2012)Iranian media showed President Ahmadinejad (at right) at a ceremony to unveil “new developments” in Tehran’s nuclear programme

The IAEA inspectors described their last visit, in January, as positive, and said Iran was “committed” to “resolving all outstanding issues”.

Mr Nackaerts said on Sunday that he hoped to have a “couple of good and constructive days in Tehran”.

“Importantly we hope for some concrete results from the trip. The highest priority remains of course the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programme, but we want to tackle all outstanding issues,” he said.

“This is of course a very complex issue that may take a while. But we hope it can be constructive”.

The inspectors’ evaluation of their visits may form part of the next written report on Iran’s nuclear programme, expected later in February.

Tehran says its nuclear activities are simply for electricity generation.

But last November, the IAEA said it had information suggesting Iran had carried out tests “relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device”.

That information led to a decision by the US and the European Union to tighten sanctions against Iran, including measures targeting the country’s lucrative oil industry.

Iran said on Sunday it had halted oil sales to British and French companies, ahead of a European Union oil embargo set to begin on 1 July. Analysts say this gesture of retaliation is largely symbolic, as neither the UK nor France import a large proportion of their oil from Iran.

Olivier Douliery / Getty Images

Olivier Douliery / Getty Images
President Barack Obama (C) speaks during a cabinet meeting as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta listen in the Cabinet Room at the White House January 31, 2012 in Washington, DC.

Nobody likely envies the challenge President Barack Obama faces getting his “messaging” right on Iran. He must meet the demands of election-year politics and continue to press Tehran’s back to the wall over its nuclear program, all the while avoiding the eruption of a major new Middle East war.

In an NBC interview that aired Sunday, Obama sought to apply a cold compress to the fever of war hysteria that broke out in the media last week over a report that his own Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, believes Israel will start a war with Iran by launching air strikes on its nuclear facilities before June. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius reported the views attributed to Panetta, and the media frenzy intensified when Panetta pointedly declined to confirm or deny the report.

Obama, by contrast, told NBC’s Matt Lauer he didn’t believe that “Israel has made a decision over what they need to do” on the Iran issue, and vowed that “we are going to make sure that we work in lockstep as we proceed to try and solve this, hopefully diplomatically” – although he added that “all options” remain on the proverbial table.

(PHOTOS: Israel Drills for a Missile Strike)

But the picture remains ambiguous since Israel has long insisted that it retains the right to make its own decisions over whether to take military action – as Obama acknowledged – and it is not directly involved in any diplomatic negotiations with Iran. Israel’s primary contribution to such diplomacy, as currently exists, has been to play the “bad cop” role of threatening military strikes. Its hope is that this would either intimidate Iran into backing down (it hasn’t, despite Israel continuously reiterating the threat of military action over the past five years) or at least press the Europeans into adopting harsher sanctions against Iran in order to restrain Israel from launching a war they’re desperate to avoid. (On that front, Israel has been remarkably successful.)

Given the alarm signals issuing from Israel in recent weeks, U.S. and other Western officials have reportedly been seeking to persuade the Israelis to desist from launching a military attack. While speculating that Israel might attack by the summer, Panetta also said publicly that “we have indicated our concerns” over that prospect. And in a CBS interview last month, he stated that the Pentagon’s priority, in the event of an Israeli strike, would be to protect U.S. troops from any Iranian backlash. One report even alleged that Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had told the Israelis on a recent visit that they should not expect the U.S. to fall in behind them if they choose to initiate a war with Iran without coordinating such a step with U.S.

“The administration appears to favor staying out of the conflict unless Iran hits U.S. assets, which would trigger a strong U.S. response,” Ignatius wrote, although he notes that if Israeli cities came under attack, the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security would oblige it to come to Israel’s defense.

(VIDEO: One-Time Nomads in the West Bank Face Eviction)

While Israeli leaders publicly insist that the country must make its own decisions on a matter deemed so vital to its security, Israel’s limited tactical ability to mount the sort of sustained air assault required to inflict serious damage on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure means that it needs a plausible end-game scenario that won’t make things worse. A surprise air strike that did some damage but brought a backlash in which the U.S. stayed largely on the sidelines could be a strategic disaster for Israel. It could leave Israel more isolated, cause international efforts to squeeze Iran to come to an end, and very likely – as Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned last December – prompt Iran to go ahead and build nuclear weapons, which it has not yet decided to do.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has often argued that the only way to get Iran to back down is to present it with a credible threat of military action for failing to do so. But a threat is only credible if both sides believe it will be acted upon, and the danger is that if Iran chooses to ignore the threat, options are considerably narrow for those making it.

(PHOTOS: Heartbreak in the Middle East)

The din created by Israeli saber-rattling, and its echo in the U.S. domestic political arena, has helped shape the Administration’s narrative on Iran – that under President Obama, the U.S. has managed to impose the most punishing sanctions ever imposed on Iran, and garnered the widest support yet for punitive action against the Islamic Republic. Those sanctions are beginning to hurt, and right now the focus should be on strengthening the measures in the hope they force Iran to relent on its nuclear work. In other words, Administration officials argue, sanctions could well succeed and render military action unnecessary. As if to underscore his commitment to tightening the squeeze on Iran economically, President Obama on Monday signed a new executive order impounding all assets of Iran’s central bank traded or held in the U.S.

Toughening sanctions may placate Israel for a time and allow President Obama to demonstrate concrete action to pressure Iran as distinct from the campaign-trail saber-rattling of his Republican challengers. But the prospects are, at best, uncertain that tougher sanctions combined with the threat of military action will force Iran to back down from developing a nuclear program that would put strategic weapons within reach, even if it stopped short of building and testing a bomb. Many Iran analysts doubt that the leadership in Tehran would allow itself to be seen as buckling under pressure, and some Israeli analysts fear that if Iran’s leaders believe an attack is inevitable and imminent, they may choose to strike first and start a war on terrain of their choosing.

(PHOTOS: This is what a stealth drone looks like.)

The least-developed aspect of the Obama Administration’s strategy may be the diplomacy. Currently, the primary public channel for communicating with Iran is via the European Union-led “Permanent Five + 1″ talks, involving the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany. Until now, that forum has been used largely to test Iran’s readiness to accept previous demands that have been backed by ever-escalating sanctions.

If Iran were to cry uncle, it would easily find channels through which to concede defeat in the nuclear standoff. And if Tehran shows no interest in engagement, then the question of diplomatic channels is moot. But if Iran doesn’t cave, yet indicates a willingness to engage in a search for a compromise designed to strengthen guarantees against the militarization of its nuclear program, that would present new political and diplomatic challenges for the Administration. Those range from potentially differing bottom lines between the U.S. and its “lockstep” partner Israel on acceptable outcomes (particularly on the question of whether Iran retains the capacity to enrich uranium under international monitoring), fear of Iranian time-wasting balanced against the reality that diplomacy requires patience and sustained engagement and, inevitably, election-year political considerations that necessitate not appearing “soft” on Iran.

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PHOTOS: TIME’s Pictures of the Week

Read more: http://globalspin.blogs.time.com/2012/02/07/obama-seeks-to-cool-war-fever-while-keeping-up-pressure-on-iran/?hpt=hp_c2#ixzz1lidSk2AY


  • Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attends Friday prayers at Tehran University …
  • U.S. President Barack Obama discusses about the economy at Fire Station Number Five in Arlington, Virginia February 3, 2012.     REUTERS/Larry Downing
    U.S. President Barack Obama discusses about the economy at Fire Station Number Five …

WASHINGTON/TEHRAN (Reuters) – President Barack Obama said on Sunday there were important risks to consider before any military strike against Iran and made clear he does not want to see more conflict in the oil-producing Gulf region.

In a television interview, Obama also said he did not believe Tehran had the “intentions or capabilities” to attack the United States, playing down the threats from Tehran and saying he wanted a diplomatic end to the nuclear standoff.

“Any kind of additional military activity inside the Gulf is disruptive and has a big effect on us. It could have a big effect on oil prices. We’ve still got troops in Afghanistan, which borders Iran. And so our preferred solution here is diplomatic,” Obama said.

His comments echoed concerns expressed by earlier by Iran’s neighbor Turkey that an attack on Iran would be disastrous.

Obama, who is up for re-election in November, has ended the U.S. war in Iraq and is winding down combat in Afghanistan amid growing public discontent about American war spending at a time when the economy remains shaky.

He said Israel had not yet decided what to do in response to the escalating tension but was “rightly” concerned about Tehran’s plans.

“My number one priority continues to be the security of the United States, but also the security of Israel, and we are going to make sure that we work in lockstep as we proceed to try to solve this, hopefully diplomatically,” he told NBC.

Iranian leaders have responded sharply to speculation that Israel could bomb Iran within months to stop it from assembling nuclear weapons, threatening to retaliate against any country that launches an attack against the Islamic Republic.

Iran says its nuclear program is meant to produce energy, not weapons.

But its recent shift of uranium enrichment to a mountain bunker – possibly impervious to conventional bombing – and refusal to negotiate peaceful guarantees for the program or open up to U.N. inspectors have raised fears about Iran’s ambitions as well as concerns about Gulf oil supplies.

‘DISASTER’

Although tough sanctions from the United States and Europe have begun to inflict economic pain in Iran, its oil minister asserted on Saturday it would make no nuclear retreat even if its energy exports ground to a halt.

Betraying nervousness about the possibility of a military strike on Iran, two of its neighbors – Qatar and Turkey – urged Western powers on Sunday to make greater efforts to negotiate a solution to the nuclear dispute.

Speaking at a security conference in Munich, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said an attack would be a disaster and suggested the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program could be ended very rapidly.

“If there is strong political will and mutual confidence being established, this issue could be resolved in a few days,” he said. “The technical disputes are not so big. The problem is mutual confidence and strong political will.”

He added: “A military option will create a disaster in our region. So before that disaster, everybody must be serious in negotiations. We hope soon both sides will meet again but this time there will be a complete result.”

Qatari Deputy Foreign Minister Khalid Mohamed al-Attiyah said an attack “is not a solution.”

“I believe that with our allies and friends in the West we should open a serious dialogue with the Iranians to get out of this dilemma. This is what we feel in our region,” he said.

Turkey hosted talks between Western powers and Iran a year ago that ended in stalemate because the participants could not agree on an agenda.

VOLATILE REGION

Despite Obama’s stated preference for a diplomatic solution, he said from the White House on Sunday he would not take options off the table to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

“We’re going to do everything we can to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and creating an arms race – a nuclear arms race – in a volatile region,” he said in the interview.

Any military strike on Iran, which might include an attack on the oilfields of No. 1 exporter Saudi Arabia, could send oil prices soaring, which could seriously harm the global economy.

Tehran has warned its response to any such strike would be “painful,” threatening to target Israel and U.S. bases in the Gulf, and warning it may close the Strait of Hormuz used by one third of the world’s seaborne oil traffic.

The elite Revolutionary Guards began two days of military maneuvers in southern Iran on Saturday in a show of force for Iran’s adversaries. On Sunday, the deputy of that unit said Iran was ready to attack any country whose territory is used by “enemies” to launch a military strike against it.

“Any spot used by the enemy for hostile operations against Iran will be subjected to retaliatory aggression by our armed forces,” Hossein Salami told the semi-official Fars news agency. The Gulf states that host U.S. military facilities are Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait.

Experts currently estimate the longest range of an Iranian missile to be 1,500 miles, capable of reaching Israel and Europe. Las week, Israeli Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon said Iran had been working on a missile that could strike the United States, with a range of 6,000 miles.

Asked about that risk, Obama said there was little sign of a pending Iranian attack on U.S. soil. “We don’t see any evidence they have those intentions or capabilities right now,” he said.

(Additional reporting by William Maclean in Munich, Michael Holden in London and Aruna Viswanatha in Washington; Writing by Laura MacInnis; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (left) meets Saudi Arabia's Prince Nayef in Riyadh on 14 January 2012
Chinese Premier Wen Jianbao is currently visited Gulf oil-producing nations including Saudi Arabia

China has criticised sanctions imposed by the US on a Chinese firm for selling refined petroleum products to Iran.

China’s foreign ministry said imposing unilateral sanctions on Zhuhai Zhenrong based on US law was “unreasonable”.

The US said on Thursday Zhuhai Zhenrong was one of three international firms to be punished for dealing with Iran.

It comes as Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visits Arab oil-producing nations amid fears of major sanctions-related disruption to Iranian oil exports.

Mr Wen visited Saudi Arabia – China’s biggest source of imported oil – on Saturday.

He told Saudi Prince Nayef both countries are “in important stages of development and there are broad prospects for enhancing cooperation,” China’s state-run news agency Xinhua reports.

“Both sides must strive together to expand trade and co-operation, upstream and downstream, in crude oil and natural gas,” Mr Wen added.

During his visit, state-run Saudi oil giant Aramco and China’s Sinopec finalised an initial agreement to build an oil refinery in the Red Sea city of Yanbu to deal with 400,000 barrels per day.

Sanctions biting

Later on Saturday, Beijing denounced Washington’s decision to punish Zhuhai Zhenrong.

“Imposing sanctions on a Chinese company based on a domestic (US) law is totally unreasonable and does not conform to the spirit or content of the UN Security Council resolutions about the Iran nuclear issue,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said.

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If the oil producing nations on the Persian Gulf decide to substitute Iran’s oil, then they will be held responsible for what happens”

Mohammad Ali Khatibi Iran’s Opec representative

“China expressed its strong dissatisfaction and adamant opposition,” he added.

Washington has accused Zhuhai Zhenrong of being the largest supplier of refined petroleum products to Iran.

The US state department said the sanctions – preventing the firms from receiving US export licences, US Export Import Bank financing or any loans over $10m from US financial institutions – were part of efforts to persuade Iran to rein in its nuclear ambitions.

The European Union has also agreed to follow the US by freezing Iranian central bank assets and impose an embargo on oil imports.

The sanctions on Iranian oil exports are of particular concern to China, which is under pressure to secure enough energy supplies to keep its economy going.

Iran is currently China’s third largest supplier of oil, followed by Angola and Saudi Arabia.

Tehran has warned its Gulf neighbours against making up the shortfall in oil exports as the US and EU sanctions start to bite.

“We would not consider these actions to be friendly,” Tehran’s Opec representative, Mohammad Ali Khatibi, was quoted as saying on Sunday.

“If the oil producing nations on the Persian Gulf decide to substitute Iran’s oil, then they will be held responsible for what happens,” he added, in the Sharq newspaper’s report.

Related Stories

BBC’s Mohsen Asgari: “It seems a motor cyclist pasted a bomb to his car which he was in with two other passengers

A university lecturer and nuclear scientist has been killed in a car explosion in north Tehran.

Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, an academic who also worked at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, and the driver of the car were killed in the attack.

The blast happened after a motorcyclist stuck an apparent bomb to the car.

Several Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated in recent years, with Iran blaming Israel and the US. Both countries deny the accusations.

Analysis

image of Frank Gardner Frank Gardner BBC security correspondent

The assassination on Wednesday of another Iranian nuclear scientist may now prompt Iran to try to respond in kind.

The murder in Tehran of Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan comes on top of a sophisticated cyber sabotage programme and two mysterious explosions at Iranian military bases, one of which in November killed the general known as ‘the godfather’ of Iran’s ballistic missile programme.

No-one is claiming responsibility for these attacks but Iran blames its longstanding enemy, Israel, and occasionally the US.

Whoever is behind them, Iran is clearly being subjected to an undeclared campaign to slow down its nuclear programme.

The US state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters she did not have “any information to share one way or the other” on the latest attack.

Iran’s Vice-President Mohammad Reza Rahimi told state television that the attack against Mr Ahmadi-Roshan would not stop “progress” in the country’s nuclear programme.

He called the killing “evidence of [foreign] government-sponsored terrorism”.

Local sources said Wednesday’s blast took place at a faculty of Iran’s Allameh Tabatai university.

Two others were reportedly also injured in the blast, which took place near Gol Nabi Street, in the north of the capital.

‘Magnetic bomb’

Mr Ahmadi-Roshan, 32, was a graduate of Sharif University and supervised a department at Natanz uranium enrichment facility in Isfahan province, semi-official news agency Fars reported.

“The bomb was a magnetic one and the same as the ones previously used for the assassination of the scientists, and the work of the Zionists [Israelis],” deputy Tehran governor Safarali Baratloo said.

Witnesses said they had seen two people on the motorbike fix the bomb to the car, reported to be a Peugeot 405. The driver died of his wounds after the attack though the car itself remained virtually intact.

Undated file photo of Iranian nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan  (provided by Fars news agency) Mr Ahmadi-Roshan supervised a department at an uranium enrichment facility in Isafahan

The BBC’s Mohsen Asgari, in Tehran, says that the explosion was caused by a targeted, focused device intended to kill one or two people and small enough not to be heard from far away.

The latest attack comes almost two years to the day since Massoud Ali Mohammadi, a 50-year-old university lecturer at Tehran University, was killed by a remote-controlled bomb as he left his home in Tehran on 12 January 2010.

Nuclear suspicions

Reports at the time described Dr Mohammadi as a nuclear physicist, but it later appeared that he was an expert in another branch of physics.

There was also confusion as to whether the attack had any domestic political overtones because of reports about his apparent links to an opposition presidential candidate.

However, in August 2011, an Iranian man – Majid Jamali Fashi – was sentenced to death for the killing, with state authorities saying he was paid by Israel’s Mossad spy agency. Israel does not comment on such claims.

Attacks on Iranian scientists

Jan 2012 – Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a professor at the Technical University of Tehran, died after bomb was placed on his car by a motorcyclist

Nov 2010 – Majid Shahriari, member of nuclear engineering faculty at Shahid Beheshti University, killed in Tehran after bomb attached to his car by motorcyclist in Tehran. Another scientist, Fereydoon Abbasi Davani – future head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran – is hurt in a separate attack

Jan 2010 – Massoud Ali Mohammadi, a physics professor, died when a motorcycle rigged with explosives exploded near his car

Of the latest attack, Fars reports that the bombing method appears similar to another 2010 bombing which injured former university professor Fereydun Abbasi-Davani, now the head of the country’s atomic energy organisation.

There has been much controversy over Iran’s nuclear activities.

Tehran says its nuclear programme is for peaceful energy purposes, but the US and other Western nations suspect it of seeking to build nuclear weapons.

In a statement quoted on Iranian television on Wednesday, the country’s atomic energy agency said its nuclear path was “irreversible”, despite mountinginternational pressure.

Iran nuclear crisis

Grab from Iranian state TV allegedly of Amir Mirzai Hekmati confessing to being a CIA spy, aired on 18 December 2011
Amir Mirzai Hekmati was shown on state television “confessing” to being a CIA spy

A US man of Iranian descent has been sentenced to death by a court in Tehran for spying for the CIA.

Amir Mirzai Hekmati was “sentenced to death for co-operating with a hostile nation, membership of the CIA and trying to implicate Iran in terrorism,” semi-official Fars news agency said.

The 28-year-old’s US-based family say he was in Iran visiting grandparents.

The sentence comes at a time of fresh tensions between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear programme.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Monday that further sanctions imposed by the West “will not have any impact on our nation”.

“The Islamic establishment… knows firmly what it is doing and has chosen its path and will stay the course,” he said in a speech broadcast on state television.

Televised ‘confession’

Iran says that, as a former US marine, Mr Hekmati received training at US bases in Afghanistan and Iraq before being sent to Iran for his alleged intelligence-gathering mission.


Analysis

image of James Reynolds
James Reynolds BBC
Iran correspondent.

Iran’s judicial and political systems place huge emphasis on the importance of confessions. So, for many in Iran’s establishment, Amir Hekmati’s guilt was proven beyond doubt during a televised confession broadcast on Iranian state TV in December.

In his televised statement, Mr Hekmati said he had been sent to Iran by the CIA to infiltrate Iran’s intelligence agencies and spread misinformation. So it’s little surprise that Iran’s Revolutionary Court has now sentenced him to death.

The US state department says Mr Hekmati has been falsely accused, and his family say he had simply gone to Iran to visit his grandmothers.

Mr Hekmati is now expected to lodge an appeal against his sentence with Iran’s Supreme Court.

It’s difficult to predict how the case against him will now proceed. Mr Hekmati has a high profile and holds an American passport. A decision to go ahead with his execution may have an impact on tensions between Iran and the West – which have got worse in recent weeks.

Iranian officials said his cover was blown even before he had arrived in the country, because he had been spotted by Iranian agents at the US-run Bagram military air base in neighbouring Afghanistan.

On 18 December, Mr Hekmati was shown on Iranian state television allegedly confessing to being part of a plot to infiltrate Iran’s intelligence services for the CIA.

Televised confessions form a central part of Iran’s political and judicial system, the BBC’s Iran correspondent James Reynolds says. But human rights organisations strongly question their validity.

During his trial later in December, according to Fars, Mr Hekmati admitted he did have links to the CIA, but had never intended to harm Iran.

“I was deceived by the CIA… Although I was appointed to break into Iran’s intelligence systems and act as a new source for the CIA, I had no intention of undermining the country,” Fars quoted him as saying.

Mr Hekmati’s family, who live in Arizona, say the charges against him are fabricated and that he was in Iran to visit his grandmothers – and they had “struggled to provide Amir with an attorney in Iran”.

His father, Ali Hekmati, a college professor in Flint, Michigan, said his son joined the US military in 2001 and served in the Marines, where he was an Arabic translator.

Dual-nationality arrests in Iran

  • May 2007: Four Iranian-American academics – including Haleh Esfandiari -detained for some three to four months on suspicion of spying
  • June 2009: Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari detained for four months for being a spy after covering post-election unrest
  • Jailed 2009: Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi detained for four months on spying charges

At the time of his visit to Iran and subsequent arrest, Amir Hekmati was working in Qatar as a contractor for a company “that served the Marines”, Mr Hekmati was quoted by the Associated Press as saying.

The US has demanded his release, saying he has been “falsely accused”.

The state department said Swiss diplomats in Iran – who handle Washington’s interests because of an absence of US-Iran diplomatic relations – were not allowed to see Mr Hekmati before his trial.

Mr Hekmati has 20 days to appeal against the sentence.

‘Red line’

The sentence further heightens the tensions which rose after the US said it would impose new sanctions on Iran’s central bank and the European Union would impose an embargo on Iran’s oil exports.

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The West believes Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, although Tehran has always insisted its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes only.

In response to the sanctions threat, Tehran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz – a key route from the Gulf through which 20% of the world’s traded oil passes.

US defence chiefs on Sunday warned that they would take action if Iran closed the strait.

Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said such a move would cross a “red line” and “we would take action and reopen the strait.”

A sailor assigned to the USS Kidd greets a crew member of the Iranian-flagged fishing dhow Al Molai after the US team apparently freed the fishermen from Somali pirates holding them in the Arabian Sea. Image supplied by US Navy
A US reporter was on hand to witness the gratitude
the fishermen expressed to their US liberators.

Iran has described the US Navy’s rescue of 13 Iranian fishermen held by Somali pirates as a “humanitarian gesture”.

Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said his country had also rescued foreign sailors from pirates on occasion.

But he said such acts did not affect overall relations between countries.

The Americans say they freed the Iranian fishermen in the Arabian Sea after more than a month in captivity, and provided fuel and food for them to return home.

The rescue was carried out by forces assigned to the John C Stennis aircraft carrier group, which recently left the Gulf to assist US military operations in Afghanistan.

According to a New York Times reporter who boarded the captured Al Molai with the US forces, the Iranian fishermen expressed great gratitude for their rescue, with one saying: “It is like you were sent by God.”

But Iran’s Fars news agency expressed suspicion about the operation, saying it was “like a Hollywood film” which “seems to have been pre-organised”.

Earlier in the week, the US rejected an Iranian warning to keep its forces out of Gulf waters after Western powers unveiled new sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme.

Tensions between the United States and Iran have spiked once again. Last week, responding to planned U.S. sanctions against Iran’s central bank, Tehran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, the shipping gateway for one-fifth of the world’s oil. U.S. President Barack Obama, pressed by Congress’ near-universal support for tough new measures to force Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, decided to go ahead with the sanctions and signed them into law on Saturday. Fully enforced, they would slash one of Iran’s foremost state revenue streams and virtually excise one of the world’s leading oil exporters from the marketplace.

The chain of events fueled concerns that Washington might be stumbling into a third war in the Middle East. But a more fundamental problem underlies these developments. The Obama administration’s new sanctions signal the demise of the paradigm that had guided U.S. Iran policymaking since the 1979 revolution: the combination of pressure and persuasion. Moreover, the decision to outlaw contact with Iran’s central bank puts the United States’ tactics and its long-standing objective — a negotiated end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions — fundamentally at odds. Indeed, the United States cannot hope to bargain with a country whose economy it is trying to disrupt and destroy. As severe sanctions devastate Iran’s economy, Tehran will surely be encouraged to double down on its quest for the ultimate deterrent. So, the White House’s embrace of open-ended pressure means that it has backed itself into a policy of regime change, something Washington has little ability to influence.

For the moment, at least, the central bank sanctions remain a work in progress. The text of the law provides the executive branch with reasonable flexibility, including a national security waiver. It also appears to condition enforcement on world oil supply considerations and offers foreign governments a six-month amnesty period, during which they may figure out where else to buy crude, or, presumably, develop workarounds to continue buying from Tehran. Obama hedged, too, by appending a signing statement to the bill, asserting his right to disregard any measures that impinge on his authority to set U.S. foreign policy. To be sure, perfect enforcement of this sanctions regime would drive up the price of oil. And election-year concerns about the economy could ultimately trump Obama’s determination to penalize Iran. Still, Congress may have other ideas.

Senior U.S. officials are bullish on the prospective impact of sanctioning Tehran’s central bank. Allies such as Japan and South Korea, which together account for approximately one-third of Iran’s crude exports, will follow Washington’s lead. U.S. officials also point to Tehran’s announcement that it is once again ready to meet with the P5 plus 1 (the multilateral group that has spearheaded Iranian nuclear talks, albeit with little success) as evidence that increasing pressure is focusing the minds of Iranian leaders.

Lest Washington forgets, the Islamic Republic has endured more draconian economic pressures in the past.

Such optimism, however, is premature. Tehran has a penchant for signaling just enough interest in negotiations to retain a measure of goodwill among some segments of the international community — particularly countries in Asia that are increasingly vital for Iran’s economic stability. Tehran also might calculate that a show of receptivity could undermine the fragile consensus between the hawkish Americans and the Europeans, who are moving forward with their own ban on Iranian crude, and their more sanctions-averse partners in Moscow and Beijing. There is also, of course, Iran’s well-honed capacity for sanctions-busting and evasion, which will blunt the impact of these new sanctions.

Lest Washington forgets, the Islamic Republic has endured more draconian economic pressures in the past. Despite its phenomenal petroleum resources, rarely in its 32-year history has the Islamic Republic been flush. During the height of its war with Iraq, Iran’s annual oil revenues fell under $6 billion — less than ten percent of its 2010 take. Skyrocketing income from oil sales over the last decade has been a welcome anomaly for Iran’s revolutionaries, but it is hardly certain that constricting that spigot will doom the regime, much less force it to capitulate on the nuclear issue. Tehran remains confident in its ability to adopt austerity as needed. In fact, blaming an international bogeyman will offer convenient cover for the regime’s own economic mismanagement.

The Obama administration has argued that “pressure works,” pointing to past reversals by the Islamic Republic, including the grudging and belated acceptance of a cease-fire to end its eight-year war with Iraq. Yet this formula disregards two critical points: first, Tehran has been under tremendous pressure to change its security policy throughout its entire post-revolutionary history, yet that policy has proved remarkably durable. Second, Iran’s major concessions have come not simply as a product of pressure but because of the declining utility of the original objective. In this instance, however, the tables are turned. The more Washington corners Tehran, the higher the value of a nuclear deterrent becomes in the eyes of the leadership.

Although this suggests more friction ahead, it does not mean that a military clash is absolutely on the horizon. Neither side wants war: not Washington, which has worked assiduously to meet the president’s timetable for winding down the two other military engagements in the broader Middle East, and not Tehran, which prefers the more familiar (and lower-risk) options availed through proxies and terrorist activities. A prolonged low-intensity struggle — with plenty of blustery rhetoric and diplomatic hardball — is now the new normal.

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