A few weeks ago, Iran captured eight sailors of the British Royal Navy in the Shatt al-Arab ("Stream of the Arabs"), claiming they had crossed into Iranian waters. The Shatt al-Arab, Avrand Rud in Persian, is actually the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. These historic waterways converge for their final 120 miles (200 kilometers) en route to the Persian Gulf. The rivers' strategic value to both Iran and Iraq is enormous.
Disputes over the boundary between the two countries go back centuries, with the first major treaty to resolve the matter signed in 1639. The agreed upon border was a snakelike line that followed ancient tribal customs and loyalties. But even then, the land on both sides of the waterway just above the Gulf belonged to people from the same tribe, the Marsh Arabs.
Wars over the boundary erupted sporadically through the centuries until shortly after World War I, when the middle of the river was set as the borderline.
The bitter and bloody eight-year war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s was fought over this floating boundary.
Most media reports about the conflict involving the British sailors say they were on a training mission, showing Iraqis how to patrol against oil smugglers and smugglers of foreign insurgents. Both are serious problems. Reports suggested that Iran's seizing of the sailors was a trumped-up reaction to the British (as well as French and German) accusation that Iran was not complying with the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections of its nuclear program.
But most reports seem to miss the implications of the fact that no Iraqis were detained when Iranian forces arrested the Brits. It stands to reason that there would be Iraqis involved if the British were training them at the time.
U.S. foreign policy and Middle Eastern affairs expert Michael Ledeen suggests a totally different scenario: "The Brits were laying down a network of sensors to detect the movement of ships toward major Iraqi oil terminals" ("Ready for $60-a-Barrel Oil?" June 23, 2004).
Sabotage in Shatt al-Arab
He theorizes the Iranians or their surrogates are likely to attempt to sabotage the Iraqi oil facilities along the Shatt al-Arab, principally Basra. If this were to happen, the Iraqis could have great difficulty loading their oil onto ships at Basra, which is critical to the survival of the new Iraq. When a sabotaged oil pipeline shut down operations a few weeks ago, Iraq lost $65 million every day it was unable to load tankers at Basra.
But Iran has a joint venture with Iraq, a 6.2-mile (10-kilometer) pipeline across the Shatt al-Arab that transports crude directly to Iranian terminals. Why would it want to sabotage Basra's facilities? Iran's mullahs are urgently intent on causing the democratizing of Iraq to fail. Not only would shutting the ports at Basra choke off Iraq's much-needed revenues, it would also provoke a spike in the price of crude oil on the world market—hence the title of Mr. Ledeen's article: "Ready for $60-a-Barrel Oil?" The high price for crude would bring a significant windfall to Iran, which is in great need of cash.
According to such speculation, high-priced oil would create such havoc in the U.S. economy that it would likely throw the presidential election to the Iranian-favored candidate, Senator John Kerry.
The Shia clerics in Iran fear that the transformation of Iraq will incite Iranians to demand a more democratic government for their country; the mullahs do not want a democratic Iraq next door.
Tangled web of bureaucracy
Jomhuri-ye Eslami-ye Iran (the Islamic Republic of Iran) came into being on April 1, 1979, when the Ayatollah Khomeini won his long struggle to overthrow the shah. He continued as supreme leader until his death a decade later. The government structure is a puzzle by Western standards. Iran has elections, which may be a surprise to many. The public elects 86 clerics to the Assembly of Experts, which in turn selects one of its number to be the supreme leader for life.
Obviously, the Assembly of Experts didn't select Ayatollah Khomeini to be supreme leader, because it didn't exist when he took power. But the Iranian citizens did choose the Assembly of Experts that elected Khomeini's successor, Ayatollah Ali Hoseini-Khamenei.
That has a democratic sound to it, until you learn that the public isn't free to nominate whoever it wishes to run for the Assembly of Experts. Eligibility is decided by a quasi-judicial body of 12 jurists, called the Council of Guardians. Half of its members are chosen by the supreme leader and the other half are nominated by the head of the judiciary and approved by the Iranian parliament. More on the parliament in a moment, but first, take note of the tremendous power that the Council of Guardians has. In reality, it largely controls the government. These 12 men are all conservative clerics.
The country votes directly for its president. The first president chosen was the conservative Hashemi Rafsanjani. But he was routed in the presidential election of 1997, which brought in a reformer, Ali Mohammad Khatami-Ardakani, who is still in office. While he does not have the latitude to make sweeping changes in the country, his selection was unsettling to the conservative clerics and encouraging to an increasingly disillusioned and oppressed people.
Even more unsettling to the mullahs was the parliamentary election of 2000, which swept a majority of reformers into the country's legislature. But the clerics maintained such tight control that there has been little true reform. The parliament numbers 290 and is chosen by direct elections, but again, the Council of Guardians has full authority to approve or disapprove candidates.
Iran held a parliamentary election in February this year, but the results are still not known! The Council of Guardians unilaterally disqualified some 2,500 candidates—most of whom were members of the reform party and therefore seen as a threat to the conservative hold on the country.
Claims of election fraud
Further, the regime had 10,000 "mobile voting booths" driving around to gather votes. In the city of Malekan, for example, there are 45,000 eligible voters, but reports say the election tally showed 50,000 votes were cast! There were also reports that high school students were threatened with refusal when they apply to university if they did not vote—and vote the party line. In spite of this, only 12 percent of the eligible nationwide electorate participated in the balloting. The populace is clearly disillusioned with Iran's version of participatory government.
There is still more to the web of government upon government. In 1988 there were so many conflicts between the parliament and the Council of Guardians that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini created yet another governing body to resolve those disputes. This is the Expediency Council. It evolved into an advisory body to the supreme leader, making it a powerful—and unelected—arm of government. The president of the Expediency Council is none other than former national President Hashemi Rafsanjani.
In January 2002, President Bush called Iran one of a three-part "axis of evil." He mentioned the Expediency Council in that speech, too, calling for reforms in Iran that would prevent "the unelected few" from thwarting the interests of the democratic majority.
In withdrawing from Western influence, the Islamic Republic of Iran also lost much-needed investment capital from the West. Thousands of young people are out of work. Twenty-five years ago, the students of the country supported Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution that toppled the shah and severed ties with the West. Interestingly, it could well be the students of today who spark the movement that throws off the conservative Islamic restraints and causes Iran to look westward again.
Terror and the nuclear threat
True to President Bush's description of the Iranian regime being evil, Iran is a blatant subsidizer of terrorism. It is no secret that Iran sponsors Hezbollah ("Party of God"), "the world's most successful, and perhaps most dangerous, terrorist organization," said The New Yorker Online's Jeffrey Goldberg ("Party of God," Oct. 7, 2002). Before 9/11, Goldberg notes, Hezbollah killed more Americans than any terrorist group, including 241 marines slain in their Beirut barracks, and about 60 other Americans in other attacks.
Backing Hezbollah puts Iran hand-in-hand with Syria, another of the terrorists' patrons. As yet unexplained is Syria's association with the terrorists who nearly pulled off the worst terrorist attack in history in Jordan recently. Some of the criminals came from Syria, as well as some, if not all, of the weapons of mass destruction with which they were caught.
Iran has feverishly poured insurgents into Iraq, before and after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government, to try to destroy it and then to manipulate control of the country. If the mullahs cannot control Iraq, they want it in chaos, so it will not threaten their rule in Iran. We reported the Iranian regime's plain backing of the troublesome Moqtada al-Sadr in our last issue.
Another rather startling development has been under reported by the world's press: A Saudi newspaper, Al-Sharq al-Awsat, says that Iran has massed four battalions on the Iran-Iraq border, presumably ready to enter the country in the event that the new Iraqi government crumbles and the Coalition pulls out.
Reminiscent of the "Saddam two-step" with the IAEA, Iran is resisting having UN inspectors monitor its nuclear facilities. The regime huffed indignantly at the suggestion its nuclear power program cloaked a weapons program. So, for a while, the world turned a blind eye toward Iran's nuclear activities, in spite of plain evidence from U.S. spy satellites. Removing all pretenses to the contrary in late June, Iran defiantly announced that it would resume production of uranium centrifuges, the only use of which is the production of nuclear weapons.
Sex slavery and drug addiction
Although Western nations are in no position to cast any stones in the arena of sexual misconduct, some aspects of life within Iran are particularly horrendous. Donna M. Hughes writes for Insight on the News magazine that Iranian women and girls are sold as sex slaves by the thousands. She reports that the sex slave trade is one of the most profitable activities in the country. The victims are sold throughout the Persian Gulf region, as well as to Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Drug addiction is a huge problem in the poverty-stricken country, and some parents are even selling their daughters for drugs. After the Bam earthquake, slave traders kidnapped many orphaned girls and took them to a sex slave market in Tehran.
One might think that the strict conservative mullahs would prevent such a horror, but some "government officials themselves are involved in buying, selling and sexually abusing women and girls" ("Iran's Sex Slaves Suffer Hideously Under Mullahs," May 28, 2004). There are reports of girls who have run away from the rural areas to cities to take refuge in shelters, only to have government officials force them into prostitution and then run the prostitution rings. Women have reported that in order to get a judge (who is a religious authority) to grant a divorce, they are required to have sex with him.
The social conditions—unemployment, drug addiction, exploitation of women—make for tremendous unrest. In response the mullahs are tightening their grip. The Council of Guardians and the Expediency Council effectively ended the reform party by excluding its candidates from the parliamentary elections in February. But rather than capping the nation's unrest, the mullahs may be forcing a situation that can only explode.
It seems American foreign policy is betting on that to happen. (Undoubtedly, the United States is working behind the scenes to encourage opposition groups.) Europe has left Iran to its own ways, largely because of the EU's dependence upon Iranian oil.
What will happen next?
Will Iran metamorphose into a stable Islamic democracy? That's highly unlikely. Or will it succeed in ruining a democratic Iraq and create a twin of itself, an Islamic republic under Shia control? It will likely try to accomplish this.
Will it stand down from its entrance into the nuclear club? Iran's leaders are answering with a defiant "No!" Or will it develop nuclear warheads for its missiles capable of striking Israel and all other nations in the region? As frightening as this scenario is, it's the logical progression of having a nuclear weapons program.
Will it terminate its sponsorship of Hezbollah and rogue terrorist groups? That's not likely. Or will it succeed in installing an Islamic republic in Lebanon? This is one of the main objectives of Hezbollah, along with wounding Israel at every opportunity.
What happens next in Iran clearly portends major consequences for the Middle East and for the world. Watch Iran, which stands in the shadow of the once mighty Persian Empire, spoken of by Daniel the prophet. Be sure to use our free booklet, The Middle East in Bible Prophecy, to analyze developments in the light of Bible prophecy. WNP