A primer: Iran facing internal, external crisis

By MICHAEL MUSKAL | LOS ANGELES TIMES Published: February 11, 2010

LOS ANGELES — Thirty-one years after the founding of the Islamic Republic, Iran is facing an internal crisis and an external confrontation. Here is a guide to understanding the issues.

What is the internal crisis?

On July 12, 2009, Iran held an election won by incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Opposition figures, led by former presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, immediately labeled the elections a fraud. Iran has been wracked by violent demonstrations since.

On Thursday, Iranians will celebrate the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979 — and both the government and protesters collectively known as the green movement are bracing for a new round of violence.

How serious is the crisis of legitimacy in Iran?

It is serious enough for the government in recent days to have stepped up its campaign against dissidents as a way of preventing a large number of people from taking to the streets. According to reports from watchdog groups such as the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, at least 1,000 people have been arrested. Journalists and women's rights advocates in particular have been targeted.

What is the external confrontation?

Iran has a nuclear program, which the government says is for peaceful uses, that the United States believes could lead to the development of nuclear weapons. The U.S., along with the United Nations, opposes such a spread of nuclear weapons.

This issue has been a sore point among Iran, the U.S. and the United Nations for a while, but the friction has recently escalated. The U.S. had said it wanted to see action by Iran by the end of 2009, but that deadline came and went. Now the Obama administration has begun to step up its rhetoric and action in preparation for seeking more sanctions.

What have the United States and its allies done?

They have offered to swap Iran's low-enriched uranium for higher-grade enriched uranium that could be used for medical research. Without its own fuel enrichment program, Iran can't create the nuclear material for a weapon.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Treasury Department added four subsidiaries and one official, all connected to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to its sanctions list. The move was a minor expansion of the existing sanctions, so the effect was limited, but it nonetheless was designed to send yet another signal to Iran.

The U.S. also has been sending diplomatic signals by warning Iran against committing more human rights abuses in connection with the anniversary of the Islamic Republic's founding.

And perhaps the biggest trial balloon was when President Barack Obama said Tuesday that he was moving fairly quickly to seek broader sanctions against Iran unless it forgoes its nuclear ambitions.

Are the two crises, internal and external, linked?

In theory no, but in practice, somewhat. If the Iranian government is under internal pressure, the motives for its actions in the foreign arena increasingly come under scrutiny — and vice versa.

"One of the difficulties in dealing with Iran over the last several months is it's not always clear who's speaking on behalf of the government, and we get a lot of different, mixed signals," Obama told reporters.

How likely are more sanctions?

"We are confident right now that the international community is unified around Iran's misbehavior in this area," Obama said, adding that it was unclear how China and Russia, other permanent members of the Security Council, would react.

How "China operates at the Security Council as we pursue sanctions is something that we're going to have to see," the president said. "One thing I'm pleased about is to see how forward-leaning the Russians have been on this issue. I think they clearly have seen that Iran hasn't been serious about solving what is a solvable dispute between Iran and the international community."

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