Monday’s attack on a Singapore-flagged oil tanker docked at the Saudi Arabian port of Jeddah is raising fears of more attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure as US-Iranian tensions continue to mount. Although no nation, or group has yet taken responsibility for the attack on the BW Rhine, Iran is viewed as the instigator as the attack was likely carried out by the Yemen-based Houthi rebels, an Iranian proxy group. The tanker was struck by a small boat carrying explosives causing blast damage and a fire on board. The attack has temporarily closed the Saudi port and brought on concern about the safety of oil tankers in the Red Sea.
Iran is thought to have played a role in the attack. The recent assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, coupled with the declining health of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and other regional setbacks are forcing Iran to demonstrate it is capable of striking back at US and Saudi interests in the region. The above-mentioned events supply Iran with motive while the Houthis provided means. It is by no means a clear cut indication of guilt, however, all signs do seem to be pointing towards Iran.
Over the weekend unconfirmed reports emerged from inside of Iran concerning the health of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. On Saturday, London-based journalist Momahad Ahwaze tweeted that Khamenei’s health was rapidly deteriorating and there was growing concern about it in government circles. Ahwaze also reported that sources inside of Tehran had confirmed to him that Khamenei’s duties and powers had been transferred to his son Mojtaba Khamenei, who is in charge of Iran’s security and intelligence services. Separate reports were also published claiming a meeting of the Assembly of Experts on Leadership, an 88-strong body of elected clerics responsible for appointing and monitoring the supreme leader, had taken place. Some unconfirmed reports even surfaced claiming Khamenei had died.
Today, the Iranian government responded. Government spokesmen, and state-run media denied reports of the meeting, and claim Khamenei is alive and healthy. “By the grace of God and with the good prayers of devotees, the gentleman (Ayatollah Khamenei) is in good health and is busy vigorously carrying out his plans according to his routine,” Iranian government official Mehdi Fazaeli, said on Twitter. The Assembly of Experts even released a statement denying an emergency meeting had taken place.
Against the press releases and statements of the Iranian government is the fact Khamenei’s last public appearance was on 24 November. It is also well known that the Supreme Leader underwent surgery for prostate cancer in 2014 and is now 81 years old. It’s quite possible he is in ill health at the moment and the government is attempting to keep the news from becoming know.
Given what all has been happening lately with regards to Iran, and its nuclear program, the reports about Khamenei’s health add a wildcard to the situation. If it turns out his health is failing, Tehran might find itself facing a leadership crisis at the worst possible moment.
COVID-19 cases in Iran have been rising dramatically, prompting health care and government officials to sound the alarm. Restrictions are being implemented now as it becomes apparent that a third wave of COVID-19 is upon Iran. The majority of Iranian provinces are classified as red on the national severity scale. 3,362 additional infections were recorded on Sunday and it seems that Tehran is experiencing the most cases. Iran has been hard hit by COVID-19. As of this morning there have been 446,448 confirmed cases since the beginning of the pandemic. Iranians have not been following public health restrictions as well as the government would like. I fact both Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani have issued warnings to the public about adhering to restrictions better. The Iranian government also blames continuing US sanctions for creating conditions where COVID-19 thrives. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accused the US of inflicting $150 billion worth of damage on the Iranian economy through sanctions.
International health experts are suspicious of the case count numbers in Iran. The death toll could be twice as high as the official figures. Undercounting, and selective testing methods have been cited as possible causes for a miscount. O
Despite the pandemic Iran’s uranium enrichment continues. In a confidential document distributed earlier in September the International Atomic Energy Agency reported the Iranian stockpile of low-enriched uranium increased by 523.8 kilograms between May and August.
With most doors on the international front now closed to Iran, it was only a matter of time before the Tehran regime turned to China for a lifeline. A major partnership between China and Iran has been discussed by the two governments for well over a decade. A diplomatic track aimed at bringing such a partnership into reality has been active since around the time of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tenure as the Iranian president.
Now it would appear that the deal has become a near-certainty. A strategic partnership proposal between China and Iran is on the table awaiting approval from the Iranian legislature . The deal binds the two nations together through the next 25 years with economic and military cooperation making up a large part of the new arrangement. Under the terms of the deal Iran will provide crude oil to China for 25 years, giving Tehran a sorely needed long term, secure market for Iranian oil. The two nations will cooperate deeply in many areas from energy, to tourism, and cybersecurity. China will be granted ‘unprecedented privileges.’ It will assume control of Iran’s telecommunications infrastructure, and ease the introduction of 5G technology to the nation. China will also invest billions of dollars in Iran as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.
At first glance the partnership seems to offer Iran a lucrative lifeline back into the world, and a way to circumvent the crippling effect US sanctions have had on it in the past two years. But there is a considerable amount of internal opposition to the deal. Probably not enough to derail it since it had the official support of Ayatollah Khameini, but perhaps enough opposition to make the regime’s hold on power less assured. A number of prominent Iranians have stated their opposition to the deal, and with good reason. In effect, Iran will be the junior partner in the new relationship, similar to the role Pakistan plays in the Sino-Pakistani partnership. In return for practically handing China the keys to the kingdom, Iran will receive the benefit of becoming a Chinese colony. Power will transfer, albeit gradually, and surreptitiously from Teheran to Beijing. Iranian sovereignty will be degraded.
All of this to defy the United States, and stubbornly hold firmly to the dream of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. If the Iranian government was more moderate perhaps a happy medium could be reached with Washington. Unfortunately, events have gone in another direction and now Iran stands on the verge of selling its soul to the Chinese.
Speaking for the first time since protests began in Iran last Thursday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused Iran’s enemies for instigating the internal strife. He was quoted with the following statement: “In recent days, enemies of Iran used different tools including cash, weapons, politics and intelligence services to create troubles for the Islamic Republic.”
Although Khamenei did not specifically mention the enemies by name, his comment was designed to be a swipe at Iran’s traditional adversaries, namely Israel, the United States, and Saudi Arabia. President Trump has been especially vocal with his support of Iranian protesters, tweeting his views as well as reminders that the United States is watching events in Iran closely. So is the rest of the world, for that matter. Khamenei had to release a statement of some sort in response to Trump’s comments. It comes as no surprise that his first public comment on the crisis was to blame the riots on Iran’s enemies. The statement was generic. When faced with internal unrest, Iran has a history of blaming its enemies for inciting it.
At least twenty Iranians have died in the protests and over 500 were arrested thus far. Those numbers will continue to rise as long as the unrest continues. This round of protests and riots is significantly smaller than those which took place in 2009. Back then, millions protested the results of the presidential election that gave Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term in office. Security forces eventually crushed the Green Movement following weeks of violent protests.
The current demonstrations are being fueled by economic hardship though and this reality is leaving Iran’s leadership somewhat unnerved. Economic problems have a way of spiraling into political chaos. Inflation and unemployment are rising, yet the government has been unable to do anything substantial to reverse economic conditions. Iranians are feeling the pinch and their frustrations have blossomed into anger against the government. Where it goes from here is anyone’s guess.