Amid Iran's tests, signs of weakness

Evidence mounts that international sanctions are having an impact.

Lawrence Jackson/AP
Pentagon response: Defense Secretary Robert Gates (l.) said Wednesday that Iran's missile tests bolster the US argument that Tehran is a threat.

With Iran reporting a second day of missile tests this week, it appears to be intent upon signaling to its adversaries – primarily the United States and Israel – that it is prepared to meet and match both provocations and any eventual attack.

But the show of force, which Thursday reportedly included missiles test-fired from ships in the strategically sensitive Persian Gulf, may also be part of an attempt to cover over Iran's weaknesses and to draw attention away from signs that the international community's efforts to curtail Iran's nuclear program are having an impact.

Almost lost in an aggressive verbal exchange that continued Thursday – with a reminder to Tehran from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the US will defend its interests and allies – was an announcement by French energy corporation Total. It said it was canceling plans to invest in Iran's energy sector by developing one of Iran's natural gas fields.

European companies like Total and banks working with Iranian business interests have come under increasing pressure to conform to international efforts, including United Nations sanctions and separate US and European Union sanctions, aimed at halting Iran's uranium-enrichment program.

On Wednesday, a top US diplomat told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the international community is making headway in slowing Iran's nuclear program. The program includes efforts to perfect the process for delivering highly enriched uranium – which can be used as fuel for nuclear weapons.

"While deeply troubling, Iran's real nuclear progress has been less than the sum of its boasts," said Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns.

Some of Iran's missile testing is a piece of annual military exercises that are designed, in part, to show the US – which maintains large numbers of troops next door in Iraq and Afghanistan – that Iran has its ways of causing America pain, some Iran experts say.

But they say that this year, the Iranians may be more focused on sending signals about Israel, which over recent months has seemed to supplant the US as the likeliest deliverer of any eventual military strike against Iranian nuclear installations. Iran's military exercises, which included test-firing a missile with the ability to reach Israel, follow last month's Israeli war games over the Mediterranean Sea, which some US officials saw as a dry run for a possible attack on Iran.

"Iran doesn't have the hope of pressuring Israel directly, so one thing they are trying to accomplish is to convince the rest of the international community that the blowback from any attack on them would be severe," says Ilan Berman, vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington.

For other analysts, the Iranian regime has at least one eye on the domestic front. "For the Iranian leadership not to react to Israeli moves or threats – for them to appear to do nothing about it – would be risky for them at home," says Alex Vatanka, an Iran analyst with Jane's consulting services in Alexandria, Va. "This may be a semidictatorship, but they are sensitive to domestic public opinion."

It's important to remember that the controversial Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is "not just a populist leader," Mr. Vatanka says. "He's a nationalist, and his supporters want to see that if they are to maintain their support."

Iran may be experiencing high inflation and unemployment, and thus deteriorating living conditions, as Undersecretary Burns noted in his Senate testimony Wednesday. But, Vatanka says, both Mr. Ahmadinejad and the ruling religious leaders can use the heightened security tensions to draw attention away from the souring domestic environment.

"The argument is that more Iranians will stop and say, 'The mullahs aren't that useless. They can show muscle and come to our defense,' " Vatanka says.

Beyond that, he says, the tough talk from the regime – especially about using force if pushed to it – is a signal to the panoply of domestic opponents that the powers in charge are not weakened.

"This is a regime that knows it would not be in power without its willingness to use force at home," he says. "They are saying, 'This trouble with the US and the Israelis doesn't mean we aren't going to be able to deal with you.' "

One risk for Iran, analysts say, is that it could overplay its hand and take its belligerence too far. "The Iranians have been pretty good recently at playing things down the middle," says Mr. Berman, noting the Iranians have managed to sound open to diplomacy as they continue to press their right to nuclear power.

Most recently, Iranian officials offered an encouraging response to the repackaging of Western incentives for Iran to give up uranium enrichment.

"But there's always a risk to escalation if it makes them look intransigent on the diplomatic front.... At some point," Berman adds, the tough talk on military capabilities, coupled with an adamant holding on to the nuclear program, gets "people to the point where they no longer believe there is any point to the diplomatic track."

In many ways, the conflict between Iran and the international community is a heated image and public-opinion war – Iran vehemently defending its right to nuclear power and at least envisioning itself championing the world's technological have-nots on one side, Western powers defending international security and battling the proliferation of massively dangerous and destabilizing weapons on the other.

By going too far, Iran risks losing what claim it still has to "rightness" in that image battle. "If they get it wrong," Vatanka says, "if public opinion around the world looks at these missile launches in isolation, without the context of what the Iranians feel they are up against, they could end up with world opinion concluding: This really is a regime, a threat that has to be dealt with."

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