Iran's troubles grow

Reports that weapons are being smuggled into Tehran from Iraq suggest the turmoil created by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election could become much more severe.

STRATFOR has learned that Iranian police are detecting a major increase in illegal small-arms shipments into Tehran that are being smuggled in through the Iraqi border. One such shipment was allegedly intercepted in the city of Zanjan in north-western Iran.

This information has not been corroborated and details are scarce, but if weapons are indeed being smuggled into Tehran from Iraq, Iran’s domestic turmoil in the wake of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election could become much more severe.

Weapons shipments from Iraq to Tehran could imply that a third actor, possibly the United States or Saudi Arabia, is taking advantage of Iran’s post-election crisis to arm the opposition and destabilize the regime further. Such a covert move would be rife with complications, however.

With Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s blessing, Ahmadinejad has used his clout with Iran’s security apparatus to crack down on protesters on the streets and on his more powerful political opponents within the regime. Reformist figures like defeated presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi and former President Mohammad Khatami have used the abuses against the street protesters as a useful stick to poke the regime with. But these reformists only pose a significant threat to the regime as long as they have the support of critical players within the clerical establishment like Assembly of Experts chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Rafsanjani is vehemently opposed to Ahmadinejad, and has even elevated his protest against the president to a veiled stand-off with Khamenei. Other powerful anti-Ahmadinejad figures, like Majlis speaker Ali Larijani, have treaded more carefully, making clear that they remain loyal to the supreme leader, but will work within the system to keep Ahmadinejad contained.

Not wanting the protest fire to die out, Karroubi and his reformist clan drafted a letter alleging that male and female protesters were raped in prison and sent the document to Rafsanjani to take up with the supreme leader. This was Rafsanjani’s litmus test: Either he could defy the regime’s leader and exploit the rape allegations to undercut Ahmadinejad’s presidency, or he could bend to the pressure and silence dissent according to the supreme leader’s wishes. Thus far, Rafsanjani has only sent the letter to the country’s judiciary chief, who promptly dismissed it. With Rafsanjani apparently playing it safe, it appeared as though the supreme leader would regain the upper hand in bringing the regime back in line.

A covert foreign-backed operation to arm the Iranian opposition would certainly escalate matters, but even the rumour of such an operation could end up playing to the interests of the regime. Ahmadinejad’s allies have subtly warned Rafsanjani that his involvement with the more radical reformists could potentially brand him as an enemy of the state and put his personal wealth and political prestige on the line. Mousavi, Karroubi and Khatami are already facing threats of being put on trial from various quarters in parliament as well as the security forces. A purge of Iran’s security apparatus is also allegedly under way as Iranian army and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps generals have warned of dissenters within their ranks.

If Ahmadinejad can demonstrate that his opponents are going so far as to accept foreign assistance to arm protesters, the resulting crackdown would be fierce. Those walking the middle line like Rafsanjani would be under pressure to silence dissent and demonstrate their solidarity with the regime. At this point, however, STRATFOR does not have any further details on these rumoured arms shipments. There is also strong potential for the regime to be spreading disinformation to paint the opposition as violent and as proxies of Iran’s foreign adversaries.

Stratfor provides intelligence services for individuals, global corporations, and divisions of the US and foreign governments around the world.

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