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.
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.
With China’s standoff with India in the Himalayas occupying center stage at present, it would be helpful to examine recent Chinese moves in another area in order to place Beijing’s actions, and motivation in the proper context. For this purpose, the South China Sea provides a splendid case study. At the moment there are three US Navy carrier strike groups operating in the Philippine Sea, practically on the doorstep of the South China Sea. The USS Theodore Roosevelt, and Nimitz groups are now conducting air operations in the sea. The USS Ronald Reagan strike group is operating separately in the same general area. This marks the first time since 2017 that three US carrier groups have been at sea simultaneously in the Western Pacific. Three years ago, the purpose for the show of force was to deter North Korea from moving forward with its nuclear and ballistic missile programs at a point when tensions between Washington and Pyongyang were escalating.
This time around, deterrence, and rising tensions are again the driving force behind the move. Only now the show of force is aimed at Beijing, serving as a reminder that despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the US military remains healthy and will continue to maintain a strong presence in the Western Pacific. Washington is alarmed by recent Chinese moves in the South China Sea area. Earlier this month a Vietnamese fishing boat was rammed by a Chinese ship. Back in April a Chinese coastguard vessels sank another. A month later the Chinese coastguard was at work again harassing a Malaysian drillship near Borneo, an action that prompted the US and Australian to send warships into the area.
Competition over atolls, shoals, and reefs is nothing new in the South China Sea. It has gone on for years. Since March though, China has been taking advantage of the distraction brought on by COVID-19 and engaging in behavior that is nothing short of provocative. China has been tightening its grip on the SCS in other ways too. It created two administrative districts covering the Spratley and Parcel islands and appears to be moving closer to declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea. Beijing has wanted to establish an ADIZ here for years, and with the current distractions provided by COVID-19, and the standoff with India, the time might be approaching.