Iran has been busy on this first Monday of the new year. The Iranian government announced it has started enriching uranium up to twenty percent at an underground facility at Fordo, a town situated south of the holy city of Qom. According to the announcement, orders for the enrichment were given personally by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. As the announcement was being made, news broke that Iran had seized a South Korean-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. The tanker, named Hankuk Chemi, was stopped by IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) naval forces for violating ‘environmental protocols’ and led to the port of Bandar Abbas. A short while later, the South Korean foreign ministry demanded the immediate release of the tanker, adding that South Korean forces stationed in the Strait of Hormuz were dispatched to the area. Tehran admitted to the seizure, yet hours earlier had said a South Korean envoy was expected to visit Iran in the coming days to negotiate the release of roughly $7 bn in Iranian assets now frozen in South Korea. The Iranian government is claiming it is seeking the release of the funds to use as payment for COVAX, a COVID-19 vaccine effort being headed-up by the World Health Organization.
The two events have come to the forefront in a time of already heightened tensions between the United States and Iran. Of the two, the uranium enrichment is the more consequential. A decade ago, Iran’s decision to enrich up to 20% nearly brought on an Israeli attack against Iranian nuclear facilities. Now, returning to that same enrichment level brings on the risk of a US strike on Iranian nuclear sites. Added to this are the very recent threats Iran has been making against the US as the 1 year mark of Qassem Soleimani’s assassination. Last week, US B-52 bombers made a show-of-force demonstration in the Persian Gulf area as Tehran vowed attacks against US interests in the region. Last night, the Pentagon ordered the USS Nimitz carrier strike group to remain on station in the region. This came three days after the group had been ordered to leave.
Thursday’s agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to normalize relations is attracting its fair share of backlash in the Middle East. Predictably, Iran is not too thrilled with the deal. On Saturday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivered a speech in which he called the move an act of betrayal by the UAE. “They [the UAE] better be mindful. They have committed a huge mistake, a treacherous act,” he said. The remarks caused the UAE government to summon the Iran’s charge d’affaires in Abu Dhabi. The UAE foreign ministry called Rouhani’s speech “unacceptable and inflammatory and had serious implications for security and stability in the Gulf region”. Iran was also reminded of its obligation to protect the UAE diplomatic mission in Tehran. Considering Iran’s history of encouraging protests in front of the embassies and missions of its neighbors in Tehran when their policies go against Iranian interests, the move was smart.
Iran has had a difficult August. The Israel-UAE deal is only the latest heartburn for the regime. Tehran was already dealing with an uncertain future for Hezbollah in Lebanon following the Beirut explosion, a still unsolved string of fires and explosions at energy and nuclear sites inside of Iran, the worsening COVID-19 situation in the country, and the prospect of deeper economic sanctions looming in the future. After a US resolution to extend the arms embargo on Iran was defeated at the UN on Friday President Trump has vowed there will be snapback sanctions. The exact mechanism for bringing the snapback into play is being contested. The European Union claims since the US unilaterally removed itself from the JCPOA it does not have the power to bring about snapback sanctions. Washington claims otherwise. Either way, the Trump administration does have the power to levy even stricter sanctions on Iran, and pressure friendly nations to do the same.
Iran will be on the radar for the next couple of weeks at least so I suggest keeping an eye on news coming out of the Persian Gulf region.
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.
Some things never change. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, animosity between Iran and the United States continue on. Now it appears as if tension between the two nations is on the rise again after President Trump’s warnings on Wednesday. Trump warned Iran and its proxies against attacking US troops in Iraq. The president spoke of receiving information which suggested a sneak attack against US forces could be in the works. On Twitter, Trump posted the following: “Upon information and belief, Iran or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on US troops and/or assets in Iraq. If this happens, Iran will pay a very heavy price, indeed!” The president did not elaborate further on the information mentioned in his post.
Hours before Trump’s tweet, Iran had earlier warned the US about taking provocative actions in Iraq. General Yahya Rahim Safavi made the statement and concluded with, “Any US action will mark an even larger strategic failure in the current president’s record.” Given the context of the statements coming out of Tehran and Washington it is safe to assume that some type of action against US troops in Iraq has at least been considered by Iran’s leadership.
Meanwhile, Iran continues to suffer tremendously from the COVID-19 pandemic. 3,000 Iranians have died from the virus, and nearly 50,000 are confirmed to be infected. The situation has grown so bad inside of Iran that the UN, and China have asked the US to ease sanctions on Iran for the time being. The Trump administration did offer humanitarian aid to Iran in order to help the nation contend with the coronavirus outbreak but Tehran rejected the offer.
With the multitude of problems facing Iran right now its difficult to believe the government could be looking for trouble. Yet if Iran’s leaders view the United States as being overly distracted by the pandemic, it could sense an opportunity developing to inflict damage upon US forces in Iraq and possibly get away with it.
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.