Iran Democracy Monitor No. 45, June 11, 2007

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The Reasons Behind Iran’s Afghan Clampdown

Iran’s recent decision to expel thousands of Afghan migrants is part of a larger strategy to prevent separatist unrest and simultaneously spur an uptick in the insurgency next door, a prominent regional foreign affairs analyst has charged. “When Iran announced in February that it was undertaking a thorough regularization of aliens on its soil, ears in the West pricked up, but not much was read into it,” writes Syed Saleem Shahzad in the Asia Times. “However, the subsequent expulsion of thousands of Afghan refugees indicates the twofold motive behind the move. First, Iran wanted to weaken Sunni-led insurgents in its bordering areas, and second, it believed that the return of the refugees would fuel the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan.”

Iran’s strategy, moreover, seems to be meeting with considerable success. Already, according to Shahzad, the Islamic Republic has created a virtual “‘no go’ zone for ‘foreigners'” in the Sunni-dominated Zabol-Zahedan region of Sistan-Baluchistan province. Meanwhile, observers have expressed concerns that Iran’s forced repatriation of Afghans “will fuel the Taliban insurgency” in the war-torn country. (Hong Kong Asia Times, June 8, 2007)

Iran’s Zero-Sum Energy Game

The Islamic Republic is mapping out an ambitious energy plan intended to undermine U.S. pipeline efforts in the “post-Soviet space.” According to the director of Caspian affairs at the Iranian Oil Ministry, Mahmoud Khaghani, the Islamic Republic is interested in building a pipeline link to the Central Asian republics of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan – as well as dramatically expanding its energy ties with those countries. “Whatever volume [of natural gas] Turkmenistan can afford to produce, we are ready to buy it,” Khaghani has announced. Observers say that the energy plan is overwhelmingly driven by geopolitics, rather than economics; “Perhaps Iran wants some gas, but in the bigger picture they want to irritate the U.S. and Europe,” according to Kim Iskyan of the UralSib Financial Corporation in Moscow. (Tehran Fars, June 8, 2007)

Divestment Measures Move Forward

The private sector effort to defund Iran’s nuclear drive has just received a major shot in the arm. On June 5th, the California State Assembly voted unanimously to approve a bill mandating that the state’s mammoth pension funds divest from companies doing business with Iran. Under the measure, both the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS), which have a combined market value of over $400 billion, will remove companies with energy and defense ties to Iran from their portfolios. California, moreover, is not alone; a similar provision – mandating that Ohio’s five state-owned pension systems divest from Iran – has just been muscled through that state’s legislature. (San Francisco Chronicle, June 6, 2007; Columbus Dispatch, June 7, 2007)

Cozying Up to Cairo

After years of strained relations, Iran and Egypt are trying once again to bury the diplomatic hatchet. In coming days, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit is slated to meet with his Iranian counterpart, Manoucher Mottaki, to discuss the possibility of reopening formal diplomatic channels between the two countries. The move comes following a diplomatic overture by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who indicated publicly that “should Egypt signal that it wants to restore relations, we would be willing to open an embassy in Cairo the very next day.”

Such a diplomatic thaw has been attempted at least twice before, in 2000 and again in 2004, with little lasting success. This time, however, things might be different. “We never followed through because of American pressure,” according to one Egyptian observer. “But now the U.S. is itself engaging in direct contact with the Iranians, so no one can argue now that renewing relations is an anti-American motion.” (Tel Aviv Ha’aretz, June 4, 2007)