This week in US-Iran relations
The Senate quietly passed legislation Thursday implementing tough new sanctions against Iran that advocacy groups say will cause more pain for the citizens of the country than for the government it's intended to cripple.
The sanctions would target gasoline companies and Iranian imports of refined petroleum products. In addition, the bill includes provisions to ban imports to the US and exports to Iran, with the exception of food, medicine and other humanitarian aid goods. Assets of certain Iranian individuals could also be frozen. ("Frozen," where have I heard that before?)
Aside from these direct sanctions, the bill, passed in a voice vote after only five minutes of debate, would also force the US to ban trade with foreign companies which continue to do business with Iran that is subject to sanctions. (So, basically an act of war)
Thursday's passage came as a surprise to many, as Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) had implied Tuesday that the bill would not reemerge for weeks.
"We have all watched the Iranian regime oppress its own people on the streets of Iran and continue to defy the international community on nuclear issues," Sen. Reid said in a statement. "That is why it is so important that we move this legislation forward quickly."
The US is also supplying Iran's neighbors with weapons.
In addition to imposing new sanctions on the Tehran government, the US has reportedly begun beefing up its military presence and war paraphernalia off the Iranian coast.
US military officials told AP on condition of anonymity that Washington has taken silent steps to increase the capability of land-based Patriot missiles on the territory of some of its Arab allies in the Persian Gulf region.
Patriot missile systems were originally deployed to the Persian Gulf region to target aircrafts and shoot down missiles before they reach their target.
According to the officials, who were expounding on the classified information in a Sunday interview, the US Navy is also upgrading the presence of ships capable of intercepting missiles.
The officials claimed that details are kept secret, because a number of Arab states fear Iran's military capabilities, but at the same time, are cautious about acknowledging their cooperation with the US.
Arab states have a long history of housing US military bases and combat equipments. Kuwait plays host to US Patriots, while the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are home to the US Navy's 5th Fleet headquarters.
Qatar is also known to have a modernized US air operations center that has played a central role in the US wars on Iraq and Afghanistan.
Central Command Chief David Petraeus, who is responsible for US military operations across the Middle East, in early January warned of a series of 'contingency plans' in dealing with Iran's refusal to accept Western demands over its nuclear program.
"It would be almost literally irresponsible if CENTCOM were not to have been thinking about the various 'what ifs' and to make plans for a whole variety of different contingencies," said Petraeus in a break from the Obama administration's oft-stated claims of diplomacy with Tehran.
Petraeus has repeatedly asserted in his recent public speeches that the refurbishment of Patriot missiles is directly linked to US plans about Iran.
"Other countries have certainly increased their Patriots, a whole host of different systems; Aegis ballistic missile cruisers are in the Gulf at all times now," Petraeus added.
Equipped with advanced radar systems, the Aegis ships features a missile known as the SM-3, which came to the fore in February 2008 when it was used to shoot down a defective US satellite in space.
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has spoken fervently of a new approach to missile systems, both in Europe and the Persian Gulf.
"I don't want to get into it in too much detail," Gates had said earlier in September, "but the reality is we are working both on a bilateral and a multilateral basis in the Gulf to establish the same kind of regional missile defense that would protect our facilities out there as well as our friends and allies."
The buildup comes at a critical time in Tehran-Washington affairs. On Thursday, the US Senate passed a bill advocating tough sanctions on any entity, individual, company or even country, which deals in refined petroleum with Iran.
Washington accuses Iran of developing nuclear weapons and has for years applied sanctions as a prime strategy to force the Tehran government into halting its nuclear activities.
This is while Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and unlike some of its regional neighbors has opened its enrichment plants to UN inspection.
Under the Bush administration, Washington had strived to portray Iran's uranium enrichment program and missile development as threats to regional stability in what analysts believe to be an attempt to justify the increased US military presence in the Middle East.
We're also building up friendly nations near Iran.
The Obama administration is quietly working with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf allies to speed up arms sales and rapidly upgrade defenses for oil terminals and other key infrastructure in a bid to thwart future military attacks by Iran, according to former and current U.S. and Middle Eastern government officials.
The initiatives, including a U.S.-backed plan to triple the size of a 10,000-man protection force in Saudi Arabia, are part of a broader push that includes unprecedented coordination of air defenses and expanded joint exercises between the U.S. and Arab militaries, the officials said. All appear to be aimed at increasing pressure on Tehran.
The efforts build on commitments by the George W. Bush administration to sell warplanes and antimissile systems to friendly Arab states to counter Iran's growing conventional arsenal. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are leading a regionwide military buildup that has resulted in more than $25 billion in U.S. arms purchases in the past two years alone.
How does Iran react?
Iran said on Tuesday it was ready to send its uranium abroad for further enrichment as requested by the UN.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced the decision in an interview with state Iranian television.
He said Iran will have "no problem" giving the West its low enriched uranium and taking it back several months later when it is enriched by 20 percent.
The decision is a major shift in the Iranian position on the issue.
For months, Iranian officials have used the media to criticize the plan and offer alternatives to one of its main conditions — shipping the uranium abroad for enrichment.
How does the international community react to this?
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Iran’s acceptance of the deal, something France his repeatedly demanded, amounted to “buying time” and said he was “perplexed and even a bit pessimistic.” His German counterpart Guido Westerwelle said the acceptance was meaningless and called for UN sanctions against Iran for “its refusal to negotiate.”