Election campaign built on terrorism? Welcome to Iran

Iranian nuclear threats and bomb plots might win popularity in Tehran, but they will backfire.

In two weeks’ time, millions of Iranians will cast their votes to elect a new parliament. So we should hardly be surprised that the final stages of the election contest have been marked by a sudden surge in anti-Western hostility from Tehran.
Over the past few months, Iran has tried to murder a Saudi diplomat in Washington, threatened to close the all-important Strait of Hormuz shipping lane through the Gulf, and warned the EU that it is going to impose its own oil embargo. And now it has unleashed a series of terrorist attacks against Israel’s diplomatic missions around the world.
As is their custom, the Iranians have denied any involvement in this week’s spate of attacks, which has seen Israeli diplomats targeted in Georgia, India and, most recently, Thailand. The Iranians are, of course, past masters at covering their tracks. Despite the enormous amount of intelligence-based evidence that pointed to Iran’s complicity for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, there was never sufficient material to build a convincing prosecution case.
I suspect Tehran will have a far more difficult job persuading the Thai authorities that it had nothing to do with the attempted assassination of two Israeli diplomats in Bangkok this week. Even if you ignore the fact that the detained bombers, one of whom managed to blow off his own legs in the failed attack, were clearly Iranian, the Thais have also uncovered a mountain of evidence – including 4.5 tons of home-made explosives – to suggest that Iran was planning a far larger terrorist campaign in a tourist destination popular with young Israelis.
Similarly, Iran’s elaborate attempts to cover its tracks during last year’s failed plot to murder Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington, as he dined at a Georgetown restaurant, have badly backfired. The Iranians hired a Mexican drug cartel to do their dirty work, only for their efforts to be exposed by an American double agent. Iran’s Islamic revolutionaries are getting careless in their old age.
Since the 1979 revolution, Iran’s political classes have had a strange way of conducting their elections. Rather than bickering among themselves as we do over the major domestic issues of the day, such as the dire state of the economy or the pressing need for wholesale social reform, they find it infinitely preferable to use the West as a whipping boy to blame for all their nation’s ills.
Thus the reason, or so Iran’s politicians contend, that the value of their currency has fallen by 20 per cent and interest rates have risen to an alarming 21 per cent this year is not their incompetent mismanagement, but the iniquitous sanctions the West has imposed on Iran to turn it into a Third World country. Similarly, they claim that Western objections to their nuclear programme are motivated by a desire to prevent them from developing sophisticated technology rather than concerns that they are trying to build an atom bomb, which, of course, they bluntly deny.
In the violent world of Iranian politics, the candidates who adopt the most uncompromising approach towards the West are the ones most likely to succeed. And, in a country that is no stranger to intimidation, a sure-fire way to win a few extra votes is to threaten the West.
Many of the recent plots have been commissioned by the Quds Force, the elite Revolutionary Guards unit which reports directly to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, who is charged with safeguarding the principles of the Islamic revolution. For the past year, Mr Khamenei has been at odds with the country’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom he has accused of corruption and undermining the revolution’s founding principles. Relations between the two men have deteriorated to such an extent that they are now engaged in a bitter struggle to ensure their supporters emerge victorious in next month’s elections.
Security officials tell me that, to strengthen his appeal with Iran’s voting public, Mr Khamenei has authorised the Quds force to conduct a new campaign of high-profile assassinations and other terrorist attacks. The authorities might not be prepared to acknowledge responsibility for the attacks in public, but back in Tehran Mr Khamenei would be more than happy to take the plaudits if one of the plots actually came off.
For his part, Mr Ahmadinejad, who is said to favour a less antagonistic approach to the West, has confined his electioneering to some rather empty boasts about recent advances his scientists have made on the nuclear front which, on closer examination, are nothing of the sort. When, amid much fanfare, it was announced this week that Iran had installed a new generation of centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium, Washington quickly refuted the claims, dismissing it as “hype” for the domestic audience.
Iran’s politicians might think it fair game to bait the West in the run-up to the elections, but they should also be aware that, by using terrorism to win votes, they are playing with fire. After nearly a decade of fruitless negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme, the West’s patience is rapidly wearing thin. Even the more dovish countries, such as Germany, who were once ready to give Tehran the benefit of the doubt, are no longer prepared to accept the protestations of innocence.
This is, in part, due to the more robust approach the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has taken since the departure of Mohamed ElBaradei as its director-general. During Mr ElBaradei’s tenure the IAEA was disinclined to confront Iran over glaring discrepancies in its nuclear declarations, such as the time when UN inspectors found traces of highly enriched uranium – which is only used for making nuclear weapons – at one of its research facilities.
But things have changed since Yukiya Amano, a Japanese diplomat, took control. At the end of last year, the IAEA accused Iran of conducting secret research that was only relevant to the development of a nuclear weapon – the first time the body has accused Tehran of having a clandestine weapons programme.
A new IAEA report is due next month, and if further evidence is produced that Iran has resumed its work on nuclear weapons – Iran suspended its original weapons programme in 2003 – then the clamour for international action will grow.
And all this could play into the hands of Israel, which regards Iran’s nuclear programme as an existential threat to the Jewish state. Israel makes no secret of the fact that it is prepared to launch military action if Iran persists with its nuclear programme, and the only reason it has not done so is because of pressure from Washington. But if one of Iran’s plots to murder Israeli diplomats were to succeed, then nothing would stop the Israelis from exacting a terrible revenge.