Iran confirmed that it is in negotiations to sell North Korea oil. This may be just to grab some media attention, but the North Koreans may also be looking for some potential alternative source if their only current oil supplier (China) cuts them off or reduces shipments. The Chinese are not happy with North Korea’s self-destructive policies, especially their nuclear and ballistic missile programs. This oil import deal would never be allowed (by the West) to go forward because the North Koreans are broke and the one thing they do have to sell is a workable atomic bomb design. That could pay for a lot of oil, if Iran could deliver it.
The Iranian people are unhappy with shortages, unemployment, and inflation and are more willing to risk the wrath of the security forces to protest openly. A recent example occurred at a government organized political event held in a sports stadium. To stage these events the government orders many government employees to attend and attracts others by offering some free food for those who will show up and applaud a few times for the cameras. In a recent such event the people were not happy with all the political speeches and just before the keynote speaker, president Ahmadinejad, was to appear, some in the audience began to chant insults and demand their free food now. Things went downhill from there. Some of this was caught on cell phone cameras and got to the outside world.
The resumption of tourist flights to Egypt has not worked out well. The arrival of Shia pilgrims last month caused local Sunni religious radicals to riot and the tourist flights were stopped. Negotiations are underway with the Egyptians about how to assure the safety of Iranian visitors. This is all a side-effect of the growing animosity between Shia Iran and the Sunni Arabs in the region. Iran wants to gain control of the most sacred Islamic holy places in Saudi Arabia and become the leader of a more radicalized Islamic world. The Sunni majority (about 80 percent) oppose this plan. Sunni Egypt is sucking up to Iran to get some badly needed loans. The new Sunni radical dominated Egyptian government has made a mess of the economy and is running out of cash.
As if Iran didn’t have enough problems, it has caused some more when some senior officials called for annexing neighbor Azerbaijan. Iran shares a land border with Azerbaijan and has a historical claim on Azerbaijan. In the 19th century Azerbaijan (as in the area occupied by the Azeris, a Turkic people) was divided by Russia and Iran. Currently about a quarter of the Iranian population is Azeri, but the Azeris of Azerbaijan believe all Azeris should be part of an independent Azerbaijan. This was how it was for centuries before Turkey, Russia, and Iran began seeking to conquer the Caucasus (where Azerbaijan is). Some Iranian Azeris like this idea and Iran is always looking for ways to make Azerbaijan back off. Iran is responding to this separatist talk by demanding that Iran absorb Azerbaijan. Russia and Turkey would never allow this.
Iranian officials like to talk about how ready they are for war. But Iran has been involved in a war for over a decade, one Iranian leaders don’t like to talk about. This is the battle against the growing list of sanctions. This one is fought in courts, corporate headquarters, ports, and on Iran’s borders. It’s a war Iran is losing at the moment, which may explain why Iranian officials are generally silent on the matter. The latest round of sanctions, imposed last year, made it very difficult for Iran to export oil and import a lot of stuff it needs for industry, the military, and consumer happiness. Iran still believes it can eventually get around these new sanctions, but so far that has not been the case.
Unemployment, shortages, and inflation are increasing inside Iran and the government is having a hard time putting a positive spin on that. Another American move, one that the Iranians did not expect, is also hurting. This is the growing production of gas and oil from shale deposits in the United States. Americans quietly perfected the technology to make this work and now oil and gas importers worldwide have vast new local sources. This is driving down the price of oil and adding to the hurt felt inside Iran. Despite the effectiveness of the sanctions, the Iranian government believes that they can get through this without having to give up their nukes or risk a major uprising.
April 20, 2013: The military continues its propaganda campaign by announcing three more breakthroughs which are merely locally made prototypes of decades old weapons designs. The latest bunch of breakthroughs include a frequency-hopping encrypted military radio, a mobile anti-aircraft system using a quad launcher for shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles, and a computerized T-72 tank simulator. This sort of thing only works with Iranians who do not know how to get access to the Internet outside Iran and people who can read English. In other words, the supporters of the religious dictatorship in Iran are the prime audience for these deceptive announcements about military technology because these people don’t know any better and are impressed. While these announcements seem pathetic to outsiders, they serve a purpose inside Iran.
A group of senior Iranian officials arrived in Syria for talks on the situation there. For two years now the pro-Iran Assad government has been fighting and losing against a popular Sunni rebellion. Iran loses a lot if the Sunni rebels win. Some Iranian military experts believe the Assads will lose, but some Iranians believe that it might be possible to wear the rebels down and achieve some kind of peace deal that would leave the Assads in control of at least part of Syria. To this end Iran has been training and equipping an elite urban combat force for the Assads. So far these troops have scored some successes but they are not numerous enough to deal with the dozens of different rebel groups attacking all over the country. Meanwhile, NATO and the Gulf Arabs are increasing their aid for the rebels. Iran will support the Assads to the end and beyond, that may be a topic of these new discussions as well.
April 19, 2013: The U.S. announced $10 billion in arms sales to Israel, the UAE (United Arab Emirates), and Saudi Arabia. Much of the stuff is high-tech warplanes and missiles and is mainly in response to the increasingly aggressive behavior of Iran.
April 18, 2013: The government has agreed to meet with UN officials next month to discuss UN accusations that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. This is all theater and standard Iran practice to try and calm down the UN a bit and avoid more sanctions. UN atomic energy experts believe that Iran has greatly increased its ability to enrich uranium. Last July the government announced the installation of more efficient centrifuges, for producing nuclear fuel (or more highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb). The government also announced that it was moving its uranium enrichment operation to underground (and bomb-proof) facilities. This has been completed and production has as much as tripled. The UN is concerned about this.
April 16, 2013: The head of the Israeli military pointed out that Israel could carry out an attack on Iranian missile and nuclear weapons targets without help from any other nation (like the United States).
April 15, 2013: President Ahmadinejad is now saying publicly that Iran does not need a nuclear weapon. This is seen as an effort to tone down anger in the West and head off even more sanctions.
April 7, 2013: Saudi Arabia has called in dozens of local Shia clerics and civic leaders for questioning. Iran has already denied that 18 people arrested for spying in Saudi Arabia last month worked for them. That may be true but so many Iranian agents have been caught by Arab police in the last few years that it is generally accepted that the Iranian espionage efforts continue in Arab countries. Arabs see Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons as aimed primarily at them. Iran has dominated the region for thousands of years and many Iranians believe that a new Iranian empire would be possible if Iran controlled all the oil in the region. Iran accuses the Saudis of inventing these espionage plots as a way to create more anti-Shia sentiment inside Saudi Arabia. That is certainly happening whether intended or not. In this particular case Iran has made a big deal over the recent arrest of a Saudi diplomat in Iran. This all began with a traffic accident that apparently involved the Saudi diplomat driving while intoxicated. All Saudi government employees are expected to be good Moslems and not drink, but alcoholic beverages are more easily obtained in Iran than Saudi Arabia and the Iranian government tends to look the other way when fellow Moslems from outside the country have a few drinks. But this time the Iranians want to persuade the Saudis to tone down their anti-Shia spy campaign.