Iran's hi-tech claims loud but not clear
In years past, keeping track of Iran's claims of military and technological advances was relatively easy: Wait until early February and watch the parades and announcements in the buildup to celebrations marking the Islamic Revolution. Now, with the strategic stakes ever higher, Iranian officials are boasting louder, pressing harder and leaving questions about how much is real.
The reasons for the flood of self-described achievements touch on the various pressures bearing down on Iran, including Western sanctions and the threats of possible military action if diplomacy cannot solve the standoff over Tehran's nuclear program. It also highlights the learning curve of Internet-age showmanship from a country that acknowledges the economic pain inflicted by sanctions — which could tighten further on Wednesday — but claims it has the tools to bounce back stronger.
Since January alone, Iran has showcased a steady stream of purported advances that have been met with varying degrees of scepticism.
They include another domestically made surveillance drone, claims of a monkey sent into space on a successful roundtrip mission, a supersonic air tunnel and a compact, single-seat warplane described as a radar-evading jet fighter. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the aircraft shows Iran can "conquer scientific peaks."
As if those headlines weren't enough, Ahmadinejad on Monday volunteered himself to be country's first astronaut aboard an Iranian-launched rocket if its space program eventually moves to manned flight. The reaction included a mocking quip by U.S. Sen. John McCain.
Meanwhile, aerospace experts and others, including the State Department, have raised doubts about last week's claim of the monkey flight because of apparent inconsistencies in the Iranian photos of the animal before and after flight.
Despite the questions, there are elements of serious statecraft behind the increasing scope and speed of the Iranian announcements of progress in science and defence.
In Tehran's view, each unveiling serves as a counterpunch to Western sanctions over Iran's nuclear programme. The broad message from Iran is that the economic pressures may be hitting hard at the moment, but it cannot slow the priority projects of the ruling system such as aerospace, military technology and uranium enrichment.
"Whenever Iran introduces new technological developments, it's intended to show the failure of Western sanctions," said Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, a political affairs professor at Tehran's Allameh University. "It's like an official announcement that the sanctions can only go so far."
That's because the pinch is already too much for officials to ignore. Iranian authorities — at first reluctant to put any figures on the economic hit — have acknowledged that revenue from oil and gas exports have dropped by 45 per cent due to the sanctions, which also strike at Iran's ability to access international banking networks. Iran's currency, the rial, lost nearly 40 per cent of its value in 2012 alone, putting its decline over three years at 350 per cent.
New U.S. measures expected to take effect Wednesday asks buyers of Iranian oil — now mostly big Asian economies such as China and India — not to pay Iran directly, depriving Tehran of badly needed foreign currency. The oil money would instead remain in the countries for Iran to purchase local products for import.
Still, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and others have stood steadfast to their claims that Iran can ride it out, which also suggests the country will bring the same tough-minded negotiating positions to the table later this month when nuclear talks with world powers resume.
Iranian officials have even tried to portray sanctions as an indirect bonus that has driven domestic innovation and industrial self-sufficiency. It's part of Iran's wider goals to be seen as the Islamic world's hub for technology and political independence — a theme promoted heavily last year when Iran took the helm of the Non-Aligned Movement, a Cold War holdover that Tehran seeks to turn into a counterweight to Western power.
"We are conveying the message that technology is not just the property of the West," said Ismali Kowsari, a member of the Iranian parliament's influential Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy. "We're telling other countries they can stand on their feet and achieve things as well."
And unlike even a few years ago, Iran now has more than a dozen official and semiofficial media outlets — including English and Arabic language services — to release reports on purported breakthroughs or advances.
Yet the new policy also leaves many questions open about whether Iran's claims can be backed up.
Experts in cyber-technology have raised serious doubts about Iran's plans to create its own Internet that would be independent of the one the rest of the world uses. There have also been no independent reviews or shared war games that would permit examination of the purported new, domestically produced additions to its arsenal, which include submarines, sophisticated drones and the "stealth" fighter displayed on Sunday.
"A hoax intended for the Iranian people," concluded Tal Inbar, head of Space and UAV research at The Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, an institute founded by the Israel Air Force Association.
"It is a mock up and a very crude and unrealistic one," he said after examining images from Iranian media. "You can clearly see that is made out of fibre glass and that it lacks any logic in the aerodynamics design ... It lacks any modern avionics and instruments found in a real aircraft."
Dubai-based security analyst Theodore Karasik sees a "Potemkin Village" aspect to Iran's military and technology claims, but he said dismissing Iran's expanding know-how is a mistake.
Iran has shown it has the foundations for spacefaring expertise by putting satellites into orbit, and its longtime connections with countries such as North Korea and Russia have given it the backbone for a formidable missile programme capable of reaching Israel and U.S. bases in the region.
Iranian naval power also appears on the rise, with recent drills near the Strait of Hormuz — the tanker route for one-fifth of the world's crude oil. Warships have travelled into the Mediterranean twice since 2011 in a clear signal to Israel that Iran's military is not just confined to its own neighborhood.
"What Iran parades out as advances is mostly to reinforce the public idea they have an indigenous programme and are capable of protecting the Islamic Republic," said Karasik, a regional security expert at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. "But it's not all just a show and Iran does have some credible power. It's just really hard to tell which is which."
Observers should expect more claims in the week ahead, as Iranian officials build up toward the February 11, anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution with a so-called "10 Days of Dawn."
On Monday, as part of the ceremonies, military officials unveiled an upgraded version of Iran's Zolfaqar tank that is billed as a rival to Russia's T-72s, one of the mainstays of Moscow's army.
Increasingly, though, the patriotic themes and claims of advancements must compete with the hardship and uncertainty generated by the West's economic squeeze.
"To the people of Iran, much like everywhere else, economic problems take priority," said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born analyst based in Israel. "How can the people of Iran be impressed when there are reports the Iranian government has not allocated sufficient funds to import medicine?"
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