Iran Announces 20% Uranium Enrichment and Seizes South Korean Tanker In The Strait of Hormuz

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.

30 December Update: Iranian Action Against US Interests Appears Probable

Indications from the Persian Gulf region point towards a growing likelihood of Iranian action as the one-year anniversary of Qassem Soleimani’s assassination approaches. Tension between the US and Iran have been on the rise in recent weeks, as we have discussed recently. Over the last few days, however, signs of Iranian military preparations have become known. Air defenses, naval units, and security forces inside of Iran have increased their alert levels. The air defense revisions, curiously enough, include more combat air patrols over Natanz and other nuclear facilities in central Iran. Add to that the recent reports from the intelligence community advancing the theory that construction at the Natanz facility is presently ramping up.

In short, Iranian action is expected on or around 3 January. If it materializes, the United States has stated a military response will be forthcoming. Some critics of the US have wasted little time in branding potential military action against Iran a last gasp by the Trump administration. Others have warned that the administration is determined to leave US-Iran relations severely damaged so the incoming Biden administration will be unable to resurrect US involvement in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCOPA).

On Wednesday US B-52 bombers undertook another show-of-force mission in the region. For the third time since late November, B-52s have flown within 50-70 miles of Iranian airspace. The latest mission was a 36-hour sortie that saw the -52s take off from Minot AFB in North Dakota, fly to the Persian Gulf region and then return home. The purpose of these missions is to showcase US airpower to both allies and adversaries. In this instance, there are assuredly many men watching carefully from Tehran.

Iran Denies Reports About Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Ill Health

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.

US Reducing Its Embassy Staff In Iraq

The United States is in the process of downsizing the staff of its embassy in Baghdad and other diplomatic facilities around Iraq. The Trump administration is taking the action in light of rising tensions with Iran. The recent death of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and the approaching one-year anniversary of Qasem Soleimani’s death are the catalysts for the spike in tensions.  According to a State Department official, the reduction will not be permanent. The number of diplomats and staff members expected to depart Iraq has not been released, nor have any other specifics. U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Matthew Tueller will remain at his post for the time being.

The US embassy in Baghdad was targeted by Iranian-aligned militias earlier in the year, prompting a threat by President Trump to close the embassy indefinitely. The closure never came about, yet the threat was real enough to worry Iraq’s leadership, which has been striving to maintain profitable relationships with both Iran, and the United States.

The Trump administration continues to place sanctions on Iran for the purpose of undermining Tehran’s efforts to further progress on its nuclear program. As an added incentive, the administration is hoping further sanctions will make it increasingly difficult for an incoming Biden administration to return the US to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCOPA). Even though Biden’s foreign policy advisers seem to be giving the impression that a Biden administration’s first challenge will be China, recent moves by Tehran make it clear that Iran and its nuclear ambitions could demand the new administration’s full attention very early on.

The Fakhrizadeh Assassination

The Iranian government is certain Friday’s assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was undertaken on orders issued by the Israeli government. Tehran’s suspicions immediately keyed on Israel and with good reason. The chances of this operation being an Israeli undertaking are high. After all, Fakhrizadeh was a senior scientist and an integral contributor to the Iranian nuclear program. Targeting Iran’s nuclear scientists would be a logical next step for Israeli intelligence following a summer campaign that saw Iranian nuclear sites targeted by sabotage,  unexplained explosions and fires.

Outside of the Israeli possibility, there are two competing theories emerging among Western geopolitical analysts, and journalists. The first is that Farkhrizadeh’s killing was a political act intended to sour US-Iranian relations before the Biden administration has an opportunity to settle in. For this theory, the party responsible for the killing does not necessarily have to belong to a foreign intelligence agency. With US economic sanctions, and COVID-19 placing significant pressure on Iran’s economy, hardliners in Tehran have been demanding action against the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. The death of Farkhrizadeh certainly fits the bill as being an act worthy of retribution. The second theory is that the Trump administration is the responsible party, with its motivation being steeped in a deep desire to push Iran’s nuclear ambitions as far back as possible before 20 January, 2021. A third, less likely prospect is Saudi Arabia. Although the motivation is present, Riyadh’s General Intelligence Presidency does not have the ability to execute an operation as intricately planned as the Fakhrizadeh assassination apparently was.

Israel’s capabilities and motives are far more evident. The Mossad is more than capable of pulling off an operation such as this one. Given the present situation in the region, Tel Aviv has ample justification for ordering it. The Fakhrizadeh assassination might very well be a hedge against a future change in US policy regarding Iran. A Biden administration will be considerably less hawkish when it comes to Iran. Biden unveiled his foreign policy team last week and as expected, it appears weak. As we’ve seen in the past, a US willingness to engage in diplomacy to ease tensions with Iran encourages the Tehran regime to push ahead with its nuclear program, albeit in more inconspicuous fashion. Next month Israel could find its Iran policies and goals strikingly different from those of its US ally. Knocking off a senior Iranian scientist now deals a blow to the Iranian nuclear program, and as an added bonus informs the incoming Biden administration that its policies and stance towards Iran will not affect Israel’s own.