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Iran, Sending Warships Into the Mediterranean, Wastes No Time Exploiting Turmoil in the Arab World

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Iran is wasting no time exploiting the dizzying sea changes roiling the Middle East and North Africa in order to solidify its power and expand its influence. Iranian warships armed with Chinese-made missiles are heading into the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal to Syria. Iran is sending a powerful message to the United States, Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and Israel that the current turmoil in the region has emboldened it. Tehran is not changing course.

The world must not lose sight of the tremendous danger an Iran with nuclear weapons would bring to the new equation.

While many around the world hope that the changes in the Middle East will bring a new and friendlier government in Tehran, events there point to the regime using repression to consolidate its power at home.

Meanwhile, Iran's relentless regional hegemonic aims are unlikely to be checked by new governments emerging across the Arab world, which will focus on domestic issues. And Iran continues its destabilizing actions in Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza -- arming and training radical, fundamentalist groups whose goals are installing strong regimes that implement Islam as a total social and political way of life.

But Iran's ambitions go even farther. In January, Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in a meeting with the staff of the Islamic Republic News Agency, declared: "The day will come that seven billion people around the world are speaking Persian." Sending warships into the Mediterranean is a step in that direction. So are the numerous meetings of Iranian leaders with Turkish and Venezuelan leaders.

All this is occurring while Iran hypocritically hails the overthrow of the Arab regimes at the same time that it brutality employs the same violent repressive techniques against peaceful protestors that the world saw in the aftermath of Iran's fraudulent elections in 2009.

Many world leaders have become spectators as Iran continues on its path toward gaining nuclear weapons, which the new American National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) will reportedly indicate, and the means to deliver them. Action is required; not viewing.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) consistently finds that Iran fails to fully cooperate with the IAEA, indicating a military dimension to Iran's nuclear program. As the IAEA November 2010 report made clear, Iran has more low-enriched uranium than is needed to build one bomb. Similar findings are expected to be announced at the IAEA meeting in March.

A nuclear Iran will surely cause countries like Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others to develop their own nuclear weapons capability, spurring a Mideast arms race in an increasingly volatile and unstable part of the world that is vital to the interests of the world's economic powers.

The prospect of nuclear-tipped Iranian missiles with the capability to strike Europe or even the United States paints an even grimmer picture. According to recently released Wikileaks documents, US intelligence believes Iran now has missiles capable of hitting Western Europe and Russia. The US Defense Department reports that, with the right support from foreign countries, Iran could likely develop and test an Interballistic missile capable of reaching the United States by 2015. That technology, coupled with nuclear capability, presents a nightmare strategic scenario for the West.

This outcome must be prevented. This is not the time simply to watch events unfold and wait.

The powerful, non-military strategy of economic sanctions on Iran is proving its efficacy. Many of the world's leading companies are ending their operations in Iran. International banks are ceasing their cooperation with Iran. Insurers are declining to renew policies on Iranian shipping. Iran is finding it increasingly difficult to trade with other countries. Some Iranians are beginning to question the cost of their leaders' defiance on the nuclear issue.

Unfortunately, some nations continue to trade with Iran even as they publicly decry Tehran's nuclear program. Trade between Iran and the European Union -- led by Germany, Italy and Spain -- rose by 10 percent in 2010 despite EU and UN sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic in opposition to its nuclear activities. China and Russia are on record as calling against further economic sanctions, even as they acknowledge that an emboldened nuclear Iran would be against their national security interests.

Every economic power can and must do more to impose peaceful sanctions on Iran -- before it's too late. Iran is not waiting.

Laura Kam is Executive Director, Global Affairs, of The Israel Project, a non-profit educational organization headquartered in Washington, DC, that provides factual information about Israel and the Middle East to the press, policy makers and the public.