On Monday the New York Times reported that last week President Trump was considering military action against Iran’s main nuclear site at Natanz. According to the Times, the president was dissuaded by senior advisers from choosing a military option. The fear of sparking a larger conflict appeared to be the main motivation. Predictably, the Times story has yet to be independently verified by other news outlets. However, its timing and subject matter have opened up discussions about Iran, the present status of its nuclear program, and what US policy will look like if Joe Biden is declared the official winner of the 2020 US Presidential Election when all is said and done.
Western media has been lax in its coverage of the Iranian nuclear program in the last two years or so. Only recently have outlets such as the New York Times and Washington Post seen it fit to report on accelerations in Iran’s nuclear program, specifically with regard to centrifuge production. However, the recent pieces have also included reports on how the Iranian government plans to offer a Biden administration options to defuse the crisis. The US has already been down that road once before with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Tehran essentially led from behind in the construction of that plan, laying out the terms it would accept, and then indirectly pressuring the Obama administration to bring the deal to life. Returning to JCPOA, or a similar agreement would be a monumental mistake, and likely impossible to do, no matter how much a Biden presidency might desire to.
Israel and Saudi Arabia have joined the US in expressing concern about Iran and the centrifuge work going on. Yesterday, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed Iran has recently begun operating 175 new centrifuges at Natanz. Tehran has blamed Israel for a series of explosions that occurred over the summer at Natanz and near other nuclear sites in Iran. Even though the true culprit was never determined, Iranian authorities continue to suspect Israel, and to a lesser degree Saudi Arabia.
The bottom line is that Iran must be watched carefully in the coming weeks. Should work on centrifuges and other aspects of the nuclear program accelerate further, and Joe Biden continue to indicate his administration will adopt a more conciliatory, and passive Iranian policy, military action could become a real possibility. The only question then will be who launches it. The US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, or a loose combination of the three.
With the prospect of a Biden presidency becoming increasingly likely after the US media projected him the winner of the 2020 US Presidential Election, it is time to begin examining how a Biden administration might approach US foreign policy and security matters. There is much on the table ranging from China and Russia, to Iran and North Korea. Tonight, we’ll take a glance at what the future could hold for US-India relations, and more specifically the security cooperation forged between the two nations in the last two years or so.
The Modi government and Trump administration have gotten along magnificently. US-India relations have been strengthened in nearly every sector. The two nations have been working closer since 2017. The 2018 pledge by President Trump to create a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ brought new life to the 2007-2008 Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Along with a new emphasis, the Quad also received a new label, now being referred to as the U.S.-Australia-India-Japan Consultations. Supporters of the Quad regard it as a growing ‘Asian NATO’ revolving around nucleus of the present four members and intended to contain China. Its detractors consider it a false start for Indo-Pacific cooperation and fated to do more harm than good. Beijing, of course, considers the Quad to be little more than an anti-China alliance, and the premise is not entirely false. China is regarded as an expanding threat to the security of region.
How a Biden administration will approach US-India relations and cooperation is unknown. The fact of the matter is that Biden has not revealed too much about his foreign policy designs. Given that he spent eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president, this could mean Biden’s own foreign policy will mirror Obama’s. His India policy will be inextricably tied to how his administration contends with an increasingly restless China. Given that India and China are embedded in their own stand-off in the Himalayas, a Biden administration might not want to appear as if it is favoring one over the other. Beijing can certainly point to the Sino-India standoff as a thorn in the side of its relations with the United States to gain concessions. The move did not work with the Trump administration but given the fact Biden will probably adopt a less confrontational stance with China, a move like that could be handsomely rewarded.
While inspecting a People’s Liberation Army installation in Chaozhou on Tuesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping told the troops to focus their minds and activities on preparing for war. Xi also pushed them to remain “absolutely loyal, absolutely pure, and absolutely reliable.” Xi’s comments appear to be a message to Taiwan and Washington that the People’s Republic is dissatisfied with the close-ties being forged between the United States and Taiwan. The Chinese leaders remarks came the day after the Trump administration said it will sell Taiwan three advanced weapons systems, ignoring angry demands by the Chinese government to void the sale. The arms package will include the HIMARS rocket artillery system, AGM-84H SLAM-ER precision guided missiles, and sensor pods for Taiwan’s F-16 fighters. This package comes only weeks after a deal was reached to sell Taiwan 66 new-model F-16s.
China’s patience has been wearing thin lately, however, it is difficult to determine how far Beijing is willing to go to keep Taiwan in check. During Taiwan’s National holiday on Saturday, Chinese forces conducted a large-scale island invasion exercise. China’s state-run media covered the exercise, and reported on it extensively. Ironically enough, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has called for ‘equal dialogue’ with China as peers.
It’s difficult to envision that China would undertake military action against Taiwan, or in another area such as India or the South China Sea with the US presidential election right around the corner. Doing so would be inherently risky from a geopolitical perspective. Having said that, however, China’s timeline and considerations are starkly different from the rest of the world.
A conflict involving China and the United States might not be coming in the near future, but the war clouds are definitely on the horizon. Sooner or later it will come to blows.
On Monday the Trump administration announced a new series of sanctions against Iran, the latest phase in the US campaign to exert maximum pressure on Tehran. The latest batch of sanctions will target Iran’s weapons manufacturing industry. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the action today at a joint press conference with the principal members of the Trump administration’s national security team. President Trump had earlier signed an executive order related to the sanctions.
“Today, I will take the first action under this new executive order by sanctioning the Iranian Ministry of Defense and armed forces logistics and Iran’s defense industries organization and its director,” Pompeo said.
The announcement comes as the UN General Assembly kicks off in New York City. This year, the gathering will be like no other in the UN’s history due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the diplomatic interaction and speeches will come through digital means. The renewal of UN-sponsored sanctions against Iran was expected to be a topic for discussion at the General Assembly but under the circumstances it no longer appears probable.
Iran’s currency reacted to a previous US announcements earlier in the weekend that all UN sanctions against Iran had been restored. The rial hit a record low on Sunday owing largely to Iranian-US tensions. The rial has lost roughly half of its value in 2020.
Adding to the tense atmosphere is the appearance of the USS Nimitz carrier strike group in the Persian Gulf to conduct operations in close proximity to the Iranian coast. Nimitz and her escorts transited the Strait of Hormuz late last week, and is the first US aircraft carrier to operate within the Gulf since November, 2019.
This weekend Iran came out and fiercely condemned Bahrain’s intention to normalize relations with Israel. On Friday Bahrain announced a deal along similar lines to last month’s deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates at the behest of the United States. That makes two Gulf State Arab nations set to establish full relations with Israel. Yesterday Iran called the move shameful and ignominious. The Iranian Foreign Ministry said Bahrain’s normalization “will remain in the historical memory of the oppressed and downtrodden people of Palestine and the world’s free nations forever.” If that were not enough, the Iranian Republican Guards labeled the move a betrayal of the Palestinian people, and a “threat to security in West Asia and the Muslim world.”
Iran is not only outraged, but also significantly worried about the direction of events in the Persian Gulf region. Two neighboring nation-states are on the road to making peace with Israel. Right now, Iranian leaders are no doubt wondering what nation will be next, fervently hoping it will not be Saudi Arabia, its regional rival. It would appear, however, that negotiations between Israel and the Saudis are underway. It would not be unrealistic to see them normalize relations by the beginning of 2021. The Kuwaitis, also in discussions with Israel, could be ready to announce a deal next month. Qatar’s position at present is unknown, but the Trump administration is likely making inroads there.
Make no mistake about it, the Trump administration’s goal here is to place Iran in a box that it cannot escape from. US pressure has been increasing on a number of fronts since 2017 and the Iranian regime knows the walls are closing in. Now, with neighboring Arab states making peace with Israel, Iran’s position in Syria will become more precarious. That affects its position in Beirut, which at the moment is not as secure as it was twelve months ago.
Iran’s reaction to the UAE and Bahrain will not be limited to words. At some point in the coming weeks expect to see tensions rise in the Persian Gulf. Another tanker hijacking incident off the Emirates is probable, or a renewed Iranian threat to close off the Strait of Hormuz. It is no likely, however, that these or any similar moves will derail the prospect of US-backed peace breaking out in the Persian Gulf.