TIME Iran

One Result of the Gaza Conflict: Iran and Hamas Are Back Together

Iran's Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaking to Iranian ambassadors abroad during a ceremony in Tehran, Aug. 13, 2014.
Iran's Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaking to Iranian ambassadors abroad during a ceremony in Tehran, Aug. 13, 2014. EPA

Iran and Hamas were once tightly allied, but the Syrian war drove them apart. Now, after the Gaza conflict, the two sides are making up

Correction appended, 8/19/14

Long considered to be the biggest sponsor of Islamic militants battling Israel and designated as terrorist groups by the United States, Iran’s relationship with the Palestinian group Hamas was once touted as among its strongest. Not only had Iran brought Hamas on board the so-called Axis of Resistance, alongside its other regional allies Syria and the Lebanese Hezbollah, but the Islamic Republic had always publicly boasted of its wide ranging support for the group, from providing financial backing to shipping weapons.

However, when the Arab Spring spread into Syria in 2011, the majority Shiite Iran’s long-standing alliance with Hamas deteriorated significantly when the militant group opted to break step with Tehran and support the mainly Sunni rebels against Syria’s Bashar Assad. The falling-out came to a head when the political leaders of Hamas moved their base from Syria to Qatar, a regional rival of Iran.

In retaliation Iran, Syria and Hezbollah reportedly ended their support for Hamas in all fields, effectively ousting it from their Axis of Resistance and cutting off one of Hamas’ most vital lifelines. “The Iranians are not happy with our position on Syria, and when they are not happy, they don’t deal with you in the same old way,” the deputy political leader of Hamas Moussa Abu Marzouk in February 2012, according to the Associated Press.

When the latest battle between Hamas and Israel, called the Zionist Regime in Tehran, flared up in early July, Iran initially remained relatively quiet, though it denounced Israel for the loss of life among civilians. But the number of Palestinian casualties grew, including many children and women, attracting significant international attention and sympathy. (As of Aug. 10 nearly 2,000 Palestinians had been killed according to the UN, along with 66 Israelis.) For Iran, the Gaza conflict was seen as an opportunity to improve its standing in the Islamic world, which had suffered—especially among Sunnis—thanks to its steadfast support of Assad.

Seeking to take advantage of this opportunity and to regain its position as the foremost supporter of the Palestinian militant groups battling Israel—and to reconcile with Sunni Muslims throughout the Middle East—a significant number of Iranian officials have now gone on the record to voice their support for Hamas, the main militant group in Gaza, over its latest battle with Israel. “We are prepared to support the Palestinian resistance in different ways,” said the commander of the revolutionary guards, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafaria, during a speech on Aug. 4, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency. “Just as until now any show of strength in Palestine which caused the defeat of Zionists has its roots in the support of the Islamic Revolution [of Iran].”

The first sign of this shift came on July 29, when Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, praised the resistance against Israel in a speech, calling on the Islamic world to equip Palestinians according to his official website Khamenei.ir. Two days later Khamenei was echoed by one of Iran’s top military officers, Major General of the Guards Qasem Soleimani, who commands the elite Quds Force of the Islamic Revolution Guardians Corps. Soleimani published a rare public letter to the “Political leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and all the resistance,” lauding their continued efforts against Israel. The letter promised that Iran “will continue to perform our religious duty to support and help the resistance till the moment of victory when the resistance will turn the earth, the air and the sea into hell for Zionists,” according to the official IRNA news agency.

That was followed by numerous officials, MPs and military figures, all issuing statements in support of Hamas, and echoing Khamenei’s call for unity among Muslims. “In our defence of Muslims we see no difference between Sunni and Shiite,” said General Jafari, the commander of the guards, in an Aug. 4 speech. Some even promised a supply of weapons to Hamas, which has been officially designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. “You will get the weapons and ammunition you need no matter how hard it might be to do so,” said Mohsen Rezaei, the former wartime commander of the revolutionary guards in a public letter to the commander of the military wing of Hamas Mohammed Deif, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

With Iran already deeply involving in shoring up the Iraqi and Syrian governments against militant Sunni groups, it is doubtful that these promises of support and weapons for Hamas could be fulfilled anytime soon, and while the Islamic Republic is also striving to break the impasse in its nuclear negotiations with the U.S. and other powers, arming militant groups against Israel, America’s main ally in the region, could be potentially disruptive for those talks. But in his letter to Deif, Rezaei tried to address that doubt, writing that “Israel is mistaken in its belief that the instabilities in Syria, Iraq and Egypt, and the pressure on Iran from the United States’ economic blockade has given them an opportunity.”

In the meantime Iran has continued its charm offensive on Sunni Muslims. The head of the influential State Expediency Council, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, met with Iran’s top Sunni clerics and activists recently, and called for unity among all Muslims. Promising them that Iran intended to support and defend all Abrahamic religions and sects—Rafsanjani condemned any act that could cause divisions among Muslims. Backing up that position, the Iranian Intelligence Ministry announced on Aug. 3 that it had shut down the offices and arrested the staff of four extremist Shiite satellite channels that regularly incite intolerance and hatred against other Islamic sects, especially Sunnis.

Hamas—which has been politically isolated since its last remaining backer, former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, was removed from power—has welcomed reconciliation with its old ally and benefactor. Hamas’ official representative to Iran, Khalid al-Qoddoumi, reportedly said on Aug. 9 that Iranians “have always been the first in line to help and support our people.” Reports from the semiofficial ISNA news agency also indicate that a long postponed visit to Iran by the head of Hamas, Khaled Mashal, is set to happen soon. For Israel, the ongoing conflict in Gaza has had one more unexpected and unwelcome outcome: Iran and Hamas are together again.

Correction: Because of an editing error, the date of the Iranian Intelligence Ministry’s announcement that it had shut down the offices and arrested the staff of four extremist Shiite satellite channels was misstated. It was Aug. 3.

TIME Iran

Iran’s YouTube Message to Obama: Don’t Bully Us

Tehran takes a hard line as a July 20 nuclear deadline nears

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Iran’s foreign minister posted a defiant YouTube message on Wednesday, just as high-stakes talks over Iran’s nuclear program are resuming amid dim hopes for a breakthrough by a mid-July deadline.

“Iranians are allergic to pressure,” Mohammad Javad Zarif says in the English-language video. “Let’s try mutual respect.”

Zarif’s digital salvo came the day before the formal resumption of talks between Iran, the U.S., and five other major powers—and less than three weeks before the July 20 expiration of November’s interim nuclear agreement, which froze the progress of Iran’s nuclear program in return for relaxed international sanctions.

Experts call the video a clear message to the West and an effort to gain a public relations advantage as the final round of nuclear talks get underway. “Given that the video is in English, Zarif is clearly speaking to a foreign rather than a domestic audience,” says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “His message to Washington is that a failure to reach an agreement today will only result in a more advanced Iranian nuclear program tomorrow. His message to the world is that a failure to reach an agreement will be America’s fault.”

In talks that began last fall, the Obama administration hopes to reach a long-term agreement trading sanctions relief for limits on Iran’s ability to build a nuclear bomb. Such a deal might be Barack Obama’s last chance for an enduring foreign policy triumph in a star-crossed second term.

Zarif’s defiant tone, however, reinforces pessimism about the prospects for such a comprehensive deal, at least this summer.

“This probably isn’t going to get done by July 20,” says George Perkovich, also of the Carnegie Endowment, who recently returned from meetings in Tehran with people informed about the negotiations.

November’s interim deal allowed for a six-month extension, until January 2015, and many experts predict that outcome. Earlier this year Obama officials seemed to raise expectations for a more comprehensive deal, one that could last for a decade or more, but have recently struck a much more pessimistic tone. Even so, most close observers expect that the talks will continue rather than collapse entirely.

“I don’t think either side can afford to take the blame for walking away from the table if the other side is prepared to continue,” said Gary Samore, who formerly handled the Iran nuclear issue for the Obama White House, said in recent public remarks.

In latest example of Iran’s canny digital diplomacy, Zarif’s new video presents a soothing tone, opening with a shot of the diplomat strolling past a trickling fountain. A piano gently plays. But Zarif’s tone is stern. Speaking in fluent English, Iran’s western-educated negotiator denounces U.S.-led efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program over the past decade, including “the murder of our nuclear scientists, the sabotage of our facilities” and “military threats” from Washington.

Zarif may have been responding, in part, to a Wednesday Washington Post op-ed by Secretary of State John Kerry, warning Tehran not to “squander a historic opportunity to end Iran’s economic and diplomatic isolation,” and to accept limits that would allow for a peaceful nuclear program.

Obama officials in Vienna are pressing Iran to dismantle several thousand of its roughly 10,000 centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium into a more fissile form, and to accept other limits on its nuclear facilities and research programs. Their goal is to extend the “break out” time required for Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium to make one nuclear bomb, to as long as one year, thereby giving the international community time to detect and respond to the move. In return, Iran would get relief from harsh economic sanctions against its banking, energy and other key sectors.

Congressional Republicans and some Democrats are skeptical of such a deal, and argue for cranking up economic sanctions until Tehran, in effect, cries uncle and dismantles its nuclear program entirely.

Zarif insists that won’t happen. “To those who continue to believe that sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table, I can only say that pressure has only been tried for the past eight years…. It didn’t bring the Iranian people to kneel in submission and it will not now, nor in the future,” he says in his message.

Zarif’s tone reflects a bargaining gulf that remains over everything from the number of centrifuges Iran will retain to the operation of a heavy water plutonium reactor at Arak, whose fuel can easily be fashioned into bombs. The U.S. also wants more transparency about any military dimension to Iran’s nuclear program. Iran maintains that the world has no right to dictate its use of nuclear technology for what it says are peaceful energy and medical purposes.

Complicating matters are renewed concerns that Iran could might try to build a bomb in secret after striking a deal that covers its known nuclear sites. A new report from Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs warns against the potential false comfort of a “nuclear Maginot line.”

Meeting with the Iranians in Vienna are the U.S., Great Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia—a group known as the P5+1, because, along with the U.S., it includes the five permanent members of the United Nations security council, plus Germany.

Casting a long shadow, meanwhile, is Israel, which sent a delegation to Washington on Sunday to repeat their government’s view that Iran should surrender its nuclear infrastructure entirely. In an interview after his arrival here, Israeli intelligence minister Yuval Steinitz cited the success of the deal that forced Syrian president Bashar Assad to give up his declared chemical arsenal, which has now been removed from the country. Only “total dismantlement” can ensure that Iran doesn’t test the international community’s will in the future.

Zarif wants the world to believe that Iran has no such intention. “We still have time to put an end to the myth that Iran is seeking to build a bomb,” he says. “My government remains committed to ending this unnecessary crisis by July 20. I hope my counterparts are, too.”

Even if both sides are genuinely committed to a deal, however, that doesn’t mean they can agree on one.

TIME Global Security

We’re Not Prepared for a Nuclear Heist

How did an 82-year-old nun come so close to getting her hands on highly enriched uranium?

In September 2009, a group of masked men armed with automatic weapons and explosives arrived on the roof of a cash depot in Vastberg, Sweden in a helicopter. The men blasted their way through a skylight and hoisted millions of dollars up to the hovering aircraft — the operation took less than 20 minutes. When police rushed to respond they discovered a bag with the word “bomb” at their heliport — a diversion planted by the thieves — and caltrops (road spikes) near the depot to slow down their response on the ground. While many of the thieves were caught after an investigation, most of the money was never recovered.

The Vastberg heist was not a nuclear event, but a new report from my colleagues at Harvard University makes the case that the incident should have deeply troubling implications for the leaders from over 50 countries convening in the Netherlands on March 24-25 for a summit on nuclear security. The stark truth is that many locations around the world that store highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium — the essential ingredients of nuclear weapons — would not be able to repel an attack from adversaries using tactics and weapons as sophisticated as those used by the Vastberg thieves. An amount of plutonium that would fit in a soda can would be enough for terrorists to construct a crude nuclear bomb capable of reducing the heart of a major city to rubble (it wouldn’t require much HEU, either). Today, there are approximately 1440 tons of HEU and 500 tons of separated plutonium in hundreds of buildings in dozens of countries around the world; the theft of only .001 percent of this stockpile could lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Categorizing nuclear terrorism as the gravest global security threat, President Obama convened the first biennial Nuclear Security Summit in 2010 as part of a four-year goal to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials worldwide. By elevating the issue of nuclear security to the level of presidents and prime ministers, the summit process resulted in indisputable successes. Four years later, the report by Harvard points out, many countries have strengthened their rules and procedures for securing nuclear materials, and 13 countries eliminated all the HEU or separate plutonium on their soil entirely, including, thank god, Ukraine (you really don’t want HEU hanging around in a country on the verge of war). For these and other reasons, the summits have made the world a safer place.

Nonetheless, every country that still has nuclear weapons, plutonium or HEU has more to do to ensure these items are effectively and lastingly secured — including the United States. Some facilities still require physical enhancements, such as more armed guards, physical barriers, and so on. Others have only minimal protections against insiders stealing nuclear material or sabotaging facilities. In most cases, the biggest obstacle remains security culture. All the bells, whistles and hair-trigger seismic detectors in the world won’t make a difference if security personnel are not vigilant. The Harvard report quotes Eugene Habiger, former security czar at the U.S. Department of Energy: “good security is 20% hardware and 80% culture.”

In the U.S. in 2012, an 82-year old nun and two other peace protestors broke into Y-12, a facility in Tennessee that contains the world’s largest repository of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in metal form and until the incident was colloquially known as “the Fort Knox of HEU” for its state-of-the-art security equipment. The nun bypassed multiple intrusion-detection systems because faulty cameras had not been replaced and guards at the central alarm station had grown weary of manually validating sensors that produced frequent false alarms. When the protestors started hammering on the side of a building that contains enough HEU for hundreds of weapons, the guards inside assumed the noise was coming from construction workers that they had not been told were coming. She and her fellow protestors were eventually challenged by a single guard.

An assembly of world leaders is an ideal venue for building a vigilant nuclear security regime — when it comes to culture, leadership matters. Russia and the United States — the countries with the largest stockpiles of weapons and material — bear a special responsibility for providing effective leadership at the summit. Current disagreements between the two countries in Ukraine should not prevent them from cooperating on programs that serve each country’s national interest — and nuclear security clearly fills that criterion. It is worth remembering that even at the height of the Cold War, tensions did not stop the USSR and the U.S. from cooperating to adopt the 1968 nuclear nonproliferation treaty, which remains a crucial if strained lynchpin of global security today.

Clear signals of cooperation from Russia and the United States in The Hague (or at the least, a tacit agreement not to use the summit for grandstanding or other political gain), can galvanize this crucial biennial gathering and help sustain its momentum. Leaders should take concrete steps at the summit including building and sharing a database of adversary tactics from thefts and other incidents, expanded intelligence cooperation, sharing best practices for reducing the risk of “insider” thefts, and establishing mechanisms for states to assure one another that they are providing effective security. But nothing will do more to improve global nuclear security culture than the recognition that no geopolitical dispute — not even Crimea — is more important than the goal of ensuring that the world’s most dangerous materials remain secure from even the most sophisticated attacks.

Eben Harrell (@ebenharrell) is an associate at the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. For more information, visit http://nuclearsecuritymatters.belfercenter.org.

TIME Iran

Iran’s Rouhani Blocks Missile Test, Fights Hardliners

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani
President Rouhani during interview with Swiss TV station at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Jan. 23, 2014. SIPA

As he seeks harmony with the West, Iran's president Hassan Rouhani flew in the face of conservative hardliners at home when he blocked a planned military test by pulling its funding

Two dozen conservative Iranian lawmakers are complaining that President Hassan Rouhani canceled a military missile test by withholding funding required for it. The complaint, reported by the semi-official news agency IRNA on Sunday, is the latest public display of the intense push-and-pull between the new president elected on promises to moderate Iran’s troubled international image and the fundamentalist ideologues responsible for its isolation.

So far, Rouhani has been holding his own, though the strain is evident. On Wednesday night, after a live interview with him on state television did not begin as scheduled, Rouhani turned to Twitter to blame by name the head of state broadcasting. The flap was reportedly over who would interview him–a reporter sympathetic to his moderation effort or a hardliner. When the program finally began, 90 minutes late, he ended up taking questions from both.

It was a fitting compromise. Rouhani himself has a foot in each camp, and Iran is of two minds about the potential new era heralded by the interim deal on the Iranian nuclear program that was forged in Geneva last year. The deal itself appears to enjoy broad backing. While Tehran’s most fundamentalist elements dubbed it a “nuclear holocaust,” conservative power centers including the Revolutionary Guards have praised it. “The diplomatic apparatus has met the aspirations of every single Iranian,” said a recent statement from the Guards, whose extensive economic holdings stand to benefit from an easing of the U.S.-led sanctions under the pact.

Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei made clear on Saturday that Rouhani – who served for years as his national security chief – should have room to maneuver after only “a few months” in office. “Authorities should be given the opportunity to push forward strongly,” the Leader told an audience of air force officers. “Critics should show tolerance towards the government.”

Khamenei himself has withheld comment on the interim pact, a reticence that’s actually typical. Rouhani has written that the Leader declined to weigh in even privately on the last nuclear agreement, signed with European powers in 2003 – but later interceded to discard the deal. Khamenei’s current silence may again permit him the freedom to at some point halt the talks without appearing to reverse himself. But it also reflects the realities of a new situation that, from Iran’s point of view, is complex even by the fluid standards of a government that communicates constantly via Twitter, a service it still blocks inside the country.

“We struggled during Pahlavis’ repressive times,” Khamenei said in Feb. 4 tweet, referring to the country’s American-backed monarchy that was toppled in the 1979 Revolution. “Today we struggle against bids of aberration in the world, a more complicated struggle.”

Iran is treading a thin line. On the one hand, Khamenei seeks removal of the economic sanctions that the Carnegie Endowment for Peace estimates have cost the country north of $100 billion. Yet the Leader also remains deeply skeptical of a wider rapprochement with The Great Satan. “American officials publicly say they do not seek regime change in Iran,” Khamenei also said Saturday. “That’s a lie. They would not hesitate a moment if they could do it.”

And so, the commander of Iran’s northern fleet announced Saturday that warships were headed for the U.S. coast, a symbolic if militarily inconsequential bit of gunboat diplomacy that could be framed as the reply of a proud nation to frequent U.S. naval maneuvers in the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, the Mehr news agency reports that lawmakers also complain of Rouhani’s Foreign Minister preventing foreign military advisers from helping Iran with its missile technology – potentially a significant development: Iran’s most formidable missiles are from North Korea, and would deliver the nuclear weapon its critics fear Iran is developing. Like the Leader said, “a more complicated struggle” indeed.

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