It’s a question very much on people’s minds these days: What is Iran’s game plan?
The country is allegedly still engaged in a nuclear weapons program, although it denies this. It continues to prop up allies and militant groups throughout the Middle East, including Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. And they’ve been detaining and releasing a number of top Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban leaders since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001.
What possible use might Iran have for a bunch of elderly Islamists under house arrest?
Leah Farrall, writing for The Atlantic magazine, met one of the Taliban’s foremost advisers, the Egyptian-born journalist Mustafa Hamid, recently at a cafe in Alexandria, Egypt. They discussed his years in detention and his own theories about Iran’s ambitions in the Middle East. Mr. Hamid says he is at a loss to understand why Iran held onto him so long, but he believes the Islamic Republic had more than compassion on its mind when they released him two months ago.
"Iran only kept those who it could use as playing cards," Hamid says. "Because the Americans say I am important, they thought that they had caught a big fish." Hamid believes that those who remain in Iran – which reportedly include senior al Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad leaders as well as a number of other militants of significant stature or experience – are being held as bargaining chips. "The others who remain, they are being treated as playing cards," he said. "Iran wants to use them to make a deal, and so I don't feel that they are going to release them for this reason."
If, as Hamid believes, Iran is playing a game in the Middle East, it is not the only nation to do so.
A number of strange accidents
Scott Peterson, in yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor, writes a well-researched piece tracing a string of assassinations against Iran’s nuclear scientists and weapons experts. The latest to die, on Saturday at a mysterious blast at a weapons depot outside of Tehran, was Maj. Gen. Hassan Moghaddam, the proclaimed “father” of Iran’s missile program.
Iran claims that the blast was an accident. Regional experts note that Iran has had a number of strange accidents lately, including a computer virus that accidentally shut down 1,000 of its 8,000 uranium-enrichment centrifuges; and two nuclear scientists who accidently drove past motorcycles who accidently placed “sticky bombs” to the side of their cars. One of those scientists accidentally died.
There’s another theory, of course: that Iran’s arch-enemy, Israel, carried out a coordinated string of attacks to shut down or slow down Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. Israel denies any role in the attacks, which is fair enough, since Iran denies having a nuclear weapons program to shut down. Mr. Peterson explores the evidence that exists and teases out a few plausible theories on what’s happening behind the scenes.
And then there’s Qatar.
That tiny peninsula in the Persian Gulf, home to some of the largest natural-gas reserves in the world (outside of Congress), and sponsor of the newest international news channel on the block, Al Jazeera, has long punched above its weight on the global stage.
Qatar has been quite up front in promoting the democratic wave that has swept the North African region, and that is now shaking the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. And yet it also has close ties to Islamists, which makes the West wary about its intentions.
In The New York Times today, veteran reporter and Pulitzer Prizewinner Anthony Shadid writes a careful study of the Qatari regime and the modernizing emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, whom other Arab leaders either love or fear.
In the 'shouldn't miss this' department
And now for something completely different.
In the jungles of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a region just emerging from years of civil war, near a giant Lake Kivu that is so filled with bubbling natural gas that some scientists worry it might explode someday, there’s a volcano named Nyamulagira spewing lava.
For some tourists, the combination of militant fighters and exploding lakes and belching volcanoes would be a definite turnoff, but the Guardian’s David Smith writes that the Democratic Republic of Congo is experiencing a tourist boom. After all, the Kivus region is also home to mountain gorillas.
From a standing start of zero in 2008, when war was still raging, Virunga national park's visitor numbers climbed to 550 in 2009, then 1,800 in 2010 with an expected 3,800 due for 2011. As a result, this year the oldest national park in Africa expects to raise more than $1m (£629,000) for the first time in its history.