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.
The ambush and murder of nine Americans in Mexico this week has highlighted the continuing trials and tribulations America’s neighbor to the south has been enduring. Put simply, Mexico is on the road to ruin right now. The drug cartels wield the same power and influence of a national government in many regions of the country. The rule of law has broken down almost entirely across large swaths of territory and the government has been unable, or unwilling to do anything to counter it. In effect, the drug cartels and organized crime syndicates are Balkanizing Mexico, stripping the nation of its sovereignty, and its citizens of their safety.
It’s not fair to say the Mexican government has not moved to take down the cartels in the past. It has. Unfortunately, just about every effort has failed miserably. Felipe Calderon, Mexico’s president from 2006-2012, targeted the leadership of the cartels and for every high-ranking criminal that was incarcerated or killed, another rapidly moved in to fill the void. Calderon’s successor Enrique Peña Nieto developed a more passive strategy. He believed political reform, and strong economic conditions would be enough to reduce criminality, and the influence of cartels in everyday life. This approach failed too.
Mexico’s current president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has fared no better. Federal and municipal authorities submit to the wishes of the cartels. The overwhelming majority of crimes committed go unpunished. The national will has been fractured and so far Obrador has found no way to repair it.
Meanwhile, in Washington DC, President Trump is starting to pay closer attention to what’s happening to the south. The deaths of nine Americans has alarmed the Trump administration and the president has offered Mexico any and all forms of support needed to bring the cartels down once and for all. The Mexican government’s response was essentially ‘Thanks but no thanks.’ Obrador is unwilling, and in many ways unable to do anything effective to curb the drug cartels.
One has to wonder how long it will be until the United States decides to do the job for him. The cartels are infiltrating Texas at an alarming rate, and now there are American citizens being massacred on Mexican soil. If Obrador cannot get his country under control, or is powerless to, the Trump administration could decide the stability of Mexico is essential to the national interests and security of the United States. At that point the gloves will come off and what happens then is anyone’s guess. But it probably won’t end well for the cartels. Or the Mexican government for that matter.
US pressure on Turkey is set to increase as Vice President Mike Pence, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prepare to depart for Turkey today. The high-profile US delegation will arrive in Ankara to hold discussions on the Turkish military operation currently underway in northeastern Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared the Turkish offensive will continue. He has also ruled out the possibility of a ceasefire even as US and international criticism continues to deepen. Erdogan had initially refused to meet with Pence but now has reversed course and agreed to meet with the vice president.
Meanwhile, on the ground in Syria US troops continue their withdrawal from the northeast. Russian troops are moving into the area in an effort to fill the void, and limit Turkish territorial gains. This new Russian presence in the former US protectorate area will open the door for Syrian government forces to make further territorial gains and bring even more parts of Syria under the control of Damascus.
The US withdrawal is raising questions among America’s allies across the Middle East, especially concerning the United States’ commitments to their security. Russia’s leadership is already moving to take advantage of the situation. Vladimir Putin was in Saudi Arabia Monday, and the United Arab Emirates yesterday, ostensibly on state visits. Timing is everything in international relations, and Putin’s visits came as US troops were leaving their bases near Manbij, and Russian forces were moving in.
As the United States military prepares to move additional forces to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf region, Iran is threatening to pursue and destroy any aggressor, and that war might be unavoidable. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif gave an interview on Face The Nation, which will be shown Sunday morning. In it, the diplomat stressed that should a conflict erupt between Iran and the United States, it will not be a limited war. Meanwhile, as the latest US troop movement prepares to get underway, the Pentagon revealed that the mission of the troops is defensive in nature and will focus on air and ballistic missile defense. Assistance was formally requested by the Saudis. Along with the deployment, the US has announced it will be providing additional military hardware to its Gulf allies. The purpose behind this move is simple. Should the current tension bring about a military confrontation, it is in Washington’s best interest for US allies in the Gulf region to be properly equipped and supplied.
On Friday, the Trump administration also raised economic pressure on Iran. A new round of sanctions will target Iran’s national bank, a move that has the potential to cut off Iran’s dwindling access to global markets. When it comes to hard currency, Iran is running short. Further US pressure will make matters worse, and likely spur Tehran to take action similar to last weekend’s attacks sometime in the near future.
The coming week will see a new realm in the US-Iran crisis open up. The UN General Assembly will be underway, and the situation in the Persian Gulf will undoubtedly be a major topic. It remains to be seen if Iran’s leadership will meet with President Trump. Another area to be watched carefully will be US efforts to build an anti-Iran coalition and how successful they are. On Monday, we’ll discuss the UN General Assembly in greater detail.
The collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was a foregone conclusion. The United States set a deadline for Russia to comply fully with the terms of the treaty. Non-compliance would result in a formal US withdrawal from INF. 2 August was the deadline date and it came without any indications of Russian compliance anywhere in sight. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement on Friday explaining the US move, as well as the reasons for it. He laid the blame squarely on Russia’s shoulders, specifically its fielding of a non-compliant ground-launched cruise missile, the SSC-X-8.
With the INF Treaty now effectively trashed, many people across Europe and the United States are raising fears of a new arms race in the making. Aside the fear, and anxiety sits the simple reality that the treaty was no longer effective. The United States had little choice but to walk away from the treaty. Russia’s development and fielding of new non-INF compliant cruise missile systems since 2014 means there has been an arms race underway since then yet only one nation has been taking part.
That changes after today. The US will test its own new non-INF compliant ground launched cruise missile in the coming weeks. It will be some time before the new missile can be fielded though, leaving the US at a distinct disadvantage for the foreseeable future. Russia has already deployed several battalions of cruise missiles that directly violate the terms of the treaty. These missiles are capable of reaching US and NATO bases across Europe with either nuclear or conventional payloads.
It will be some time before the fallout from the US withdrawal, and the death of INF, become apparent. Until then, it is evident the US-Russia relationship will enter a more adversarial phase and that is at least partly because of the INF Treaty’s demise.