This coming weekend is expected to see Iran scaling back a number of COVID-19 related restrictions. Even though the virus is still a major threat to Iranians, and a second wave is infections is feared, the health of an already ill economy is taking precedence over the health of the general population. At least for the moment. Before COVID-19 came to Iran, economic collapse had been the driving force behind much of the Iranian government’s policy decisions, and actions both at home and abroad. The nation’s economy was already in a desperate position because of US-imposed economic sanctions. The coming of COVID-19 to Iran, and the global pandemic it touched off have only exacerbated matters. Now, saving the economy is the priority and on Saturday businesses in Tehran will reopen.
Iran has been going back to work in other areas as well. On Wednesday, Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) boats harassed US Navy and US Coast Guard vessels in the Persian Gulf. US officials claim the IRGC boats crossed the bows and sterns of US warships at dangerously high speeds and angles. Warnings broadcast on ship-to-ship radio, and via the ships’ horns were ignored for an hour. At that time, the Iranian boats departed the area. The incident came 24 hours after IRGC personnel boarded a Hong Kong-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman and redirected it into Iranian territorial waters. It was released later that same day.
The incidents in the Persian Gulf likely mark the end of the lull brought on between the United States and Iran as the global pandemic has spread and affected both nations. Iran is also moving to influence international opinion on the US economic sanctions in place, claiming they are having a detrimental effect on Iran’s ability to fight the COVID-19 virus. This is generally an attempt by the Iranian government to blame the US for its inability to contain the outbreak of the virus. Iran has been one of the nations hardest-hit by COVID-19. For the regime it is important to lay the blame at the feet of the ‘Great Satan’ to demonstrate to its people that the government is not at fault.
In a previous article I spoke a bit about how preserving one’s honor, aka saving face, is so significant in Middle Eastern politics. Given all of the troubles already facing it, the Iranian government probably does not want to spark a major war right now. Yet it could not simply allow the Soleimani killing to go unpunished. Tehran had to find an action that would allow it to save face with its allies and Iranian-supported proxy forces around the world, and satisfying internal elements such as the IRGC without inviting major US military action. The missile attacks against Irbil and Al Asad yesterday give the appearance of a compromise. The number of ballistic missiles used was limited, and the target selection demonstrates Iran’s desire not to inflict US casualties. Damage was caused against facilities used by US forces in Iraq, hopefully satisfying the desire for revenge among IRGC officers and troops loyal to Soleimani.
On the heels of the missile attacks are rumors that the IRGC intelligence organization arrested upwards of 50 IRGC commanders who were the most fervent followers of Qasem Soleimani. If true, this demonstrates the regime’s desire to control escalation, and prevent Soleimani’s faction from making unauthorized attacks against US targets in the Persian Gulf region. It also highlights the Iranian government’s main priority at the present time: Survival.
Then there is the Ukrainian airliner crash on the outskirts of the airport in Tehran last night. That will be discussed later, though at the moment it would appear to be a tragic accident at the wrong time.
More updates will come later in the day as time allows.
The economic sanctions placed on Iran by the Trump administration are working almost flawlessly. I’ve talked about this in recent blog posts and hope to get into it deeper in the coming week. For the moment, however, its important to understand the amount of pressure Iran is facing domestically, and beyond its borders because of the sanctions imposed by the US. The sanctions have severely restricted the monetary, material, and military resources Iran can invest in its proxies around the Middle East. Within Iranian borders, the sanctions have brought on a budget crisis, and rising fuel costs which themselves have resulted in riots, and internal unrest. Lebanon, and Iraq are also experiencing violent riots as citizens protest economic conditions, as well as Iranian influence in their national politics. Iran is reeling at the moment. Diplomats, general officers, and analysts around the Middle East, Europe, and North America are attempting to create an accurate picture of what will come next. How will Iran respond? Does Tehran understand that time is no longer their ally? If so, what steps will the Iranian government take to reverse its fortunes without surrendering its nuclear program?
I have not had as much time to write in these past weeks, but I will attempt to answer these questions and discuss Iran in detail over the upcoming Thanksgiving week.
The Iranian position continues to deteriorate. The nation is voluntarily backing itself into a corner as its leaders push forward with a quasi-brinkmanship strategy which holds little prospect of bearing fruit anytime soon. Tehran’s diplomatic missteps and excitable rhetoric are adding fuel to a fire that is on the verge of becoming an out of control conflagration.
Iran’s military vows retaliation against the British for the seizure of an Iranian oil tanker off Gibraltar by British forces last week. The tanker was transporting the oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions in place against the Assad regime. British Petroleum (BP) is holding one of its oil tankers inside of the Persian Gulf amid fears that Iran could attempt to seize the tanker as it passes through the Strait of Hormuz. The prospect of this, as well as worries that Iran will move forward with plans to charge foreign ships a toll for passage through the Strait of Hormuz, are prompting concerns that a military confrontation between Iran and the West is imminent.
Iran’s premeditated violation of the 2015 nuclear agreement is not helping matters. The foreign ministers from Germany, France, Great Britain, and the European Union have officially acknowledged that Iran is pursuing activities in direct contradiction to its compliance responsibilities under the agreement. A commission of the signatories is expected to be convened in the near future and could lead to international sanctions being placed back on Iran. However, given that China, and Russia are also signatories of the nuclear agreement, a snapback of sanctions is not guaranteed.
With US sanctions crushing Iran’s economy, the expectation was that Iran would give a little leeway by now. The hardliners in Tehran, have seen fit not to budge an inch though, and continue to move the crisis in a dangerous direction.
Apologies for being out of the loop over an extended holiday weekend, but I’m gradually getting back up to speed now. I will post more tomorrow, and in the coming days.
Tehran appears set to honor the 7 July deadline it put in place regarding increased uranium enrichment. The Iranian government has said repeatedly it will no longer honor the enrichment restrictions in the 2015 nuclear deal unless European nations can provide relief from the stringent US economic sanctions now in place. It is becoming apparent that the European effort has failed and come Sunday Iran will begin enriching uranium in any amount it sees fit. Iran has stated the enrichment level will be below the 90-percent purity necessary for uranium to be considered weapons grade. Given Iran’s penchant for misleading statements and outright lies in the past, this claim is circumspect to say the least.
The United States is not taking chances. The Trump administration regards Iran’s statements as threats and has made subtle hints about possible retaliation. Given the fact that President Trump cancelled retaliatory strikes on Iran after a US drone was shot down by Iranian forces last month, Tehran is probably not too concerned by Washington’s rhetoric.
Disregarding the Trump administration’s warnings would be a monumental mistake. The US had made it clear it will not stand by and allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. This position is nothing short of a red line and the US is not going to budge.
We’ll discuss this more after the deadline passes on Sunday.