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Amateur Hour In Iran?

Iran’s nuclear program is struggling: First it was the Stuxnet computer virus and now it’s inadequate machinery. The Washington Post has the story:

Although Iran continues to stockpile enriched uranium in defiance of U.N. resolutions, two new reports portray the country’s nuclear program as riddled with problems as scientists struggle to keep older equipment working.

At Iran’s largest nuclear complex, near the city of Natanz, fast-spinning machines called centrifuges churn out enriched uranium. But the average output is steadily declining as the equipment breaks down, according to an analysis of data collected by U.N. nuclear officials.

Add to that several geopolitical setbacks – allegations of a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the US (though there are doubts about the accusations), serious trouble in Syria, and the Hamas-Israel deal (negotiated without help from Tehran) – and Iran’s mullahs are looking insecure.

The western press is full of comments on how Iran is “besieged” by its neighbors, how “desperate” Tehran is becoming, how “frustrated and angered” the mullahs are, how sanctions are biting deep, etc etc. Sure enough, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei spoke to thousands of Iranians in the western city of Paveh yesterday, saying Iran “will not retreat an inch under pressure”.

But an isolated and defensive Iran is not necessarily good news. If the mullahs are feeling threatened, as it seems they are, the likelihood of desperate and rash actions increases. Tehran could escalate and prolong the conflict in Syria, drawing Saudi Arabia and Lebanon into a sectarian mess. Also, the Washington Post downplayed an important part of the latest info on Iran’s nuclear program: the Iranians continue to stockpile enriched uranium and despite various setbacks, there could well be enough on hand to build not one but two bombs, and possibly more, should the mullahs give the order.  And as Jeffrey Goldberg noted in an important recent column, Iran continues to harass shipping in the Persian Gulf in ways that could explode into an armed confrontation.

Life is not good for the mullahs these days, and the tide of events is not running their way.  That could lead the leadership, or low level free-lancers, to lash out in frustration — or it could lead to a healthy rethink that could bring Iran back into the regional picture in a more constructive way.  The US needs to be ready to respond either way.

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