Iranian Newspaper Calls For Assassination Of Israelis

The New York Times reports on a chilling threat from a “hardline” Iranian newspaper with strong ties to the regime, urging bloody retaliation for the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist:

A much stronger call for retribution came Thursday from one Iranian newspaper in particular, Kayhan, a mouthpiece for the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and for the Revolutionary Guards.

“We should retaliate against Israel for martyring of our young scientist,” Kayhan’s general director, Hossein Shariatmadari, who was appointed by the ayatollah, said in an editorial. Referring to the Israelis, he wrote, “These corrupted people are easily identifiable and readily within our reach.”

The Kayhan editorial, as translated by Agence France-Presse and other Western news services, also said, “The Islamic republic has gathered much experience in 32 years, thus assassinations of Israeli officials and military members are achievable.”

Another hard-line newspaper, Resalat, said, “The only way to finish with the enemy’s futile actions is retaliation for the assassination of Iran’s scientist.”

Ayatollah Khamenei added his voice to the condemnations from Iran, posting a condolence message on his Web site that accused the American and Israeli intelligence services of orchestrating the “cowardly murder” of the scientist, who is to be buried on Friday. “Punish the perpetrators of these crimes,” he wrote.

The Jerusalem Post notes that February is normally a period of high alert for the Israeli defense establishment, as it marks the 2008 assassination of a Hezbollah leader in Damascus.  Hezbollah is still looking for revenge.  There’s no guarantee that either Iran or Hezbollah would feel constrained to seek this revenge on Israeli soil.

Meanwhile, the Straits of Hormuz are buzzing with conflicting signals.  Iran has announced it will hold more naval drills in February.  The United States, on the other hand, just canceled a massive joint missile defense drill with Israel, known as “Austere Challenge 12.”  The Jerusalem Post reports this was ostensibly due to “technical and logistical” difficulties:

In recent weeks, Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s office has held talks with the Pentagon about the possibility of canceling the drill.

Senior military officers told The Jerusalem Post that the drill scheduled for April has been canceled, while defense officials said that it was possible that it would be held later in 2012. 

The drill, expected to involve the deployment of thousands of US troops in Israel, was scheduled to last around a week and mark the first time that a top US military commander would participate in the simulations.

The parties were scheduled to simulate missile defense scenarios with the objective of creating a high level of interoperability so that, if needed, US missile defense systems would be able to work with Israeli systems during a conflict.

The upcoming drill was said to be causing “tensions in the region.”  It might have been canceled to relieve those tensions, it could be a victim of budget cuts… or maybe the U.S. and Israeli commanders thought there was a good chance their forces would be busy doing something else this spring.  The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, is still en route to Tel Aviv for his first official visit this week, and a second U.S. carrier group is on its way to the region.

On the non-military front, there is some dispute over whether the current sanctions leveled against Iran are having the desired effect.  As Ynet News reports, last week Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “For the first time, I see Iran wobble under the sanctions that have been adopted, and especially under the threat of strong sanctions on their central bank,” but this week he sounds a lot less enthusiastic:

Speaking at the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Netanyahu said: “The sanctions employed thus far are ineffective, they have no impact on the nuclear program. We need tough sanctions against the central bank and oil industry. These things are not happening yet and that is why it has no effect on the nuclear program.”

The prime minister also warned against Iran’s growing infiltration into Iraq after the US withdrawal. “There’s a lack of stability. The seats of power and defense against air raids and ground attacks must be strengthened.”

The Chicago Tribune reports that Israel’s vice prime minister spoke even more bluntly, and blamed the Obama Administration for failing to press sanctions with the same gusto as France and Britain:

Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s vice prime minister, contrasted the administration’s posture to that of France and Britain, which he said “are taking a very firm stand and understand sanctions must be imposed immediately.”

“In the United States, the Senate passed a resolution, by a majority of 100-to-one, to impose these sanctions, and in the U.S. administration there is hesitation for fear of oil prices rising this year, out of election-year considerations,” Yaalon told Israel Radio.

“In that regard, this is certainly a disappointment, for now.”

(Emphasis mine.)  Reuters reports on the sanctions imposed thus far:

The United States on Thursday imposed sanctions on China’s state-run Zhuhai Zhenrong, Corp, which it said was Iran’s largest supplier of refined petroleum products.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also imposed sanctions on Singapore’s Kuo Oil Pte Ltdand FAL Oil Company Ltd, an energy trader based in the United Arab Emirates, as part of what the State Department called a broadening international effort to target Iran’s energy sector and persuade Tehran to curb its nuclear ambitions.

Since President Barack Obama signed laws on New Year’s Eve that, by denying buyers access to U.S. dollars, aim to cripple Iran’s oil sales until it gives ground on the nuclear issue, major importers have been taking positions, torn between keeping in with Washington and quenching their thirst for Iranian oil.

Japan is also supporting the effort by reducing Iranian oil imports, even though it gets 10 percent of its oil from Iran, and it’s still reeling from last year’s tsunami.  The South Koreans, another heavy Iranian oil importer, have not made up their minds about such a move.  China, which is Iran’s biggest customer, has already cut back on their imports due to an unrelated dispute over prices.  India said it “would continue to do business with Iran.”

The crux of the Iranian dilemma is that every string has been pulled to the point of breaking.  Tighter U.S. sanctions could threaten our already weakened economy.  Whether or not the Israeli vice prime minister is correct that such considerations have already factored into the Administration’s thinking, it seems highly unlike that the President wants to roll into the election with five-dollar gasoline at the pumps.  Further economic pressure might also change Iran’s calculation about whether or not it wants to call the West’s bluff and shut down the Straits of Hormuz.

It sounds to me as if the Israelis were hoping sanctions would destabilize the Iranian government, rather than merely persuading them to give up on their nuclear weapons program.  Evidently Netanyahu has seen some intelligence that the Iranian regime is not as “wobbly” as he hoped.

A serious Iranian retaliation against Israel or the United States for the death of its nuclear scientist could also escalate the situation into a military confrontation, particularly if it’s the kind of messy “assassination” that decorates the streets with civilian corpses.  And while everyone tries to figure out exactly where the “red line” into armed conflict is located, the nuclear clock is ticking: U.N. authorities believe Iran is now less than one year away from having enough enriched uranium to build a bomb.