By Ahmad Rafat
In a meeting on December 12 with the families of Iranian servicemen killed in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) and the Syria conflict, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that the country had successfully defeated a U.S. plot to topple the Islamic Republic, which he code-named “Hot Summer.” He warned, however, that Washington could resume its efforts to undermine the regime next year.
Mr. Khamenei was presumably referring to the nationwide protests last summer which he and other senior officials have repeatedly claimed to have been instigated and fueled by “foreign enemies” of Iran. Mr. Khamenei’s remarks betray the regime’s existential fear for its survival, particularly in the coming months.
“Double your efforts in preventing the enemy, who we just kicked out of our front door, from entering through a rear window,” Khamenei warned the country’s officials.
Many senior military commanders share Khamenei’s views. The head of Iran’s Civil Defense Organization, Brigadier-General Gholamreza Jalali, recently said: “Our country is facing a special threat as it is getting ready to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.”
The real threat to the regime is, however, not posed by any foreign power but by ordinary Iranian citizens who hold the Islamic Republic and the Iranian government responsible for failing to manage the country’s economy, domestic affairs, and international relations. According to the Education and Research Committee of the Majlis (Iranian Parliament), 53 percent of the country’s population lives under the poverty level. The data also indicate that the poverty level rose by 11 percent between spring and summer of the current Iranian calendar.
The real enemies of the regime are the teachers, workers, truckers, pensioners and ordinary Iranians who have taken to the streets since January to protest the government’s failure to tackle unemployment, double-digit inflation and the high cost of living. We cannot, however, ignore international pressure on the Iranian regime. American sanctions have crippled the country’s economy and politically isolated the Islamic Republic.
Many European and Asian companies have severed their economic and trade ties with Iran in the past few months, including but not limited to the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), which halted Phase 11 of its operations in the South Pars Gas/ North Dome field in the Persian Gulf. The CNPC earlier replaced the French energy giant Total SA which stopped its operations in Iran after the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), better known as the Iran nuclear deal, in May.
Meanwhile, Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, has failed to keep the JCPOA alive and to find a mechanism to bypass the U.S. sanctions. The EU’s Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV), designed to shield the European companies from the United States’ economic sanctions against Iran, has not been implemented by any of the European governments so far.
Many governments, notably Germany and France, are becoming increasingly concerned with Tehran’s regional ambitions, ballistic missile program, and recent terrorist activities in Europe. The European Council discussed Iran’s regional activities during its December 10 session in Brussels.
At a news conference, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said: “We must hold talks with Iran about its actions in Syria, ballistic missile program and intelligence operations in Europe. We cannot accept Tehran’s policies and behavior. Although Iran might find it uncomfortable to discuss these issues, we must pressure Tehran into changing its policies and behavior.”
European intelligence agencies are extremely concerned about Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests. According to a recent intelligence report, Iran has conducted eight missile tests so far this year. At least two of its missiles are reportedly capable of carrying nuclear warheads and can reach southeastern parts of Europe. Iran has, in recent days, confirmed that it carried out the tests.
Brigadier-General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of the Aerospace Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), has said that the military conducts between 20 to 50 missile tests a year. Although the figure seems somewhat exaggerated, it raises concerns. “Our missiles have no range limits,” Commander Hajizadeh said. His remarks confirm indications by U.S. officials as to the capabilities of Iran’s ballistic missiles.
In his annual lecture, General Sir Nicholas Patrick Carter, the British Chief of the Defense Staff (CDS), warned: “Ambitious states such as Russia, China and Iran are asserting themselves regionally and globally in ways that challenge our security, stability and of course prosperity.”
In his biannual report to the Security Council earlier this month, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: “The Secretariat has learned that the two anti-tank guided missile launchers found in Yemen recently have characteristics of Iranian manufacture and that their markings indicated production dates in 2016 and 2017.” Mr. Guterres added: “The Secretariat also examined a partly disassembled surface-to-air missile seized by the Saudi-led coalition and observed that its features appeared to be consistent with those of an Iranian missile.”
The discovery of the units in Yemen could constitute a violation of the 2016 UN resolution that prohibits Iran from importing and exporting arms or related material without explicit approval from the Security Council.
Meanwhile, Afghan officials have, for the first time, confirmed that Iran has been supporting the Taliban in that country. Afghan police discovered a large cache of Iranian-made anti-tank rockets during an attack on a Taliban hideout in the southern city of Ghazni.
According to Ghazni’s chief of police, the bulk of the weapons and ammunition seized in the attack were made in Iran. The Islamic Republic Embassy in Kabul, however, denied the report, saying that it was “the enemy’s plot aimed at undermining the friendly ties between the two countries.”
The IRGC is not the only organ of the regime to use confrontational rhetoric against the West. Tehran hosted a second inter-parliamentary summit on “The Challenges of Terrorism and Inter-Regional Connectivity” in early December, attended by senior officials from Afghanistan, Russia, China, Turkey, and Pakistan. In his opening address, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said: “The West must know that sanctions will harm our ability to battle drugs and terrorism. They will not survive the flood of drugs, refugees, terrorism, and bombs if the sanctions diminish our capability to tackle these issues.”
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Mr. Rouhani is not entirely wrong. Italian authorities seized 268 kilograms of heroin in the Port of Genoa on a ship that had sailed from Bandar Abbas in the Persian Gulf. The Italian counternarcotic police commander in charge of the operation, known only by the alias Bike, told Italian media: “Operation of this magnitude could not have been carried out without the full knowledge of the Iranian immigration and customs.”
Iran’s Minister of Interior Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, who has been more blatant in his warning to the West, recently said: “One million refugees would head to Europe if we were to close our eyes for 24 hours.” According to a report by the UN High Commission for Refugees, the number of Iranians and Afghans seeking asylum in Europe have risen significantly in recent years.
Meanwhile, six European countries are currently investigating two terrorist incidents allegedly sponsored by the Islamic Republic. In early October, France accused Iran’s intelligence services of plotting a terrorist attack against the People’s Mojahedin of Iran (MKO) group in Paris. Belgium, France, and Germany are currently investigating this case. One of the suspects arrested was a diplomat at the Iranian Embassy in Vienna.
A couple of weeks later, Denmark accused Iran of planning to assassinate three Arab-Iranian political activists on its soil. The main suspect in the case is an Iranian-Norwegian who was arrested by the police in Sweden a few days after returning from a trip to Iran.
On December 5, Bulgarian police seized a large cache of weapons and ammunition and arrested two Iranian citizens during a raid in the capital Sofia and the village of Gabarevo, in the southcentral part of the country. According to Deputy Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev, the weapons were of exceptionally high quality which included 65 Kalashnikov automatic assault rifles, 37 Scorpion sub-guns, 43 Makarov pistols, grenade launchers, and more than 40,000 bullets. Mr. Geshev said that typically terrorists and special forces used those types of weapons. The police also seized a large number of forged Canadian, European, Israeli and Iranian passports.
The head of Iran’s Judiciary Sadegh Larijani has attributed the recent wave of “yellow-vest” protests in France to Mr. Khamenei’s message to Western youth and the “Islamic awakening in Europe.” Nationwide protests in Paris and other French cities in recent weeks are a grassroots movement against fuel tax hikes and are named after the yellow high-visibility jackets that the protesters have been wearing and that French drivers must carry in their vehicles.
Translated from Persian by Fardine Hamidi