By Ali Fathollah-Nejad
On 4 January, a day after the one-year anniversary of the US assassination of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, Iran took two steps as a show of force, against the fallouts from the US ‘maximum pressure’ policy of then-outgoing US president, Donald Trump. First, Iran resumed uranium enrichment to 20 per cent, hugely exceeding the 3.67 per cent level allowed by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or Iran nuclear deal), and notifying the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whose inspectors are monitoring Iran’s nuclear programme, of its decision. Second, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) seized a South Korean-flagged oil tanker in the Persian Gulf. Both actions, on the same day, were shows of force, with different rationales and intentions, but both part of an Iran counter-pressure strategy in the face of immense US-led pressure.
Iran's decision to enrich uranium to a level of 20 per cent (thus dramatically reducing the break-out time for developing a nuclear bomb, since 20 per cent enrichment constitutes nine-tenths of the enrichment work required to reach weapons-grade enrichment of about 90 per cent) represents the partial implementation of a law passed by the conservative-controlled parliament and quickly ratified by the hardline-dominated Guardian Council. The law demanded that the government of President Hassan Rouhani substantially boosts various components of the nuclear programme in order to force the USA to concede, in future negotiations, on the onerous sanctions it has imposed on Iran. On the same day, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted how Iran officially views this step: reducing its nuclear commitment as a legal response to the USA violating its JCPOA commitments, and its assurance that boosting its nuclear capacity was reversible once Washington recommits to its JCPOA obligations, and lifts re-imposed sanctions.
‘Our remedial action conforms fully with Para 36 of [the] JCPOA, after years of non-compliance by several other JCPOA participants,’ Zarif tweeted. ‘Our measures are fully reversible upon FULL compliance by ALL.’
Rouhani’s administration had, at least publicly, opposed the bill about boosting the nuclear programme, arguing that it would undermine prospects for renewed diplomacy after Joe Biden became US president on 20 January. It therefore passed a by-law to delay the implementation of the legislation. In fact, there are two layers – one primary, the other secondary – underlying Tehran’s decision to boost enrichment to 20 per cent.
First, despite factional infighting in Iran’s politics, it is important to note that Iran’s ‘maximum resistance’ strategy in response to the US ‘maximum pressure’ campaign is a product of cross-factional elite deliberations, and largely continues to be so. This strategy is centred on the core idea of resisting US pressure with counter-pressure (also referred to as ‘counter-containment’) by fortifying Iran’s deterrence strategy. This is to be achieved through a gradual (and reversible) reduction of Iran’s JCPOA commitments, and by its resistance to US policies in regional conflicts (such as in Iraq, Syria and Yemen), with concomitant shows of force and/or nuisances (such as the seizure of oil tankers since the US withdrawal from the JCPOA and displays of Iran’s ballistic missile and drone capabilities), thus signalling Tehran’s readiness for war. This calculation is also based on the assessment that Washington lacks the appetite for another large-scale Middle East war, while Iran regards war with the SA as too risky and possibly jeopardising stability amid massive domestic public dissatisfaction with the regime.
Iran’s accumulated deterrence power can then be translated, the argument goes, into bargaining leverage in eventual talks with the USA. Despite some official rhetoric to the contrary, there is no alternative for Tehran to such talks as Iran’s vital interests lie in stability-threatening sanctions being eased. Iran may, in fact, be willing in future to offer more concessions that could be proportional to the amount of US pressure. But Iranians expect that pressure to ease as Biden’s administration drops the ‘maximum pressure’ doctrine. The objective of Tehran’s current stance is to achieve a return to the position Iran had held before the 2013-2015 JCPOA negotiations when its advanced nuclear programme had offered the international community the bad choice between a rock (an Iranian nuclear bomb) and a hard place (bombing Iran). That scenario had helped – along with the Obama administration dropping its ‘zero enrichment’ demand – extract concessions from the West. Above all, it realised important sanctions relief. This was precisely the Iranian strategy preceding the JCPOA negotiations.
The secondary, yet considerably less crucial, layer underlying Tehran’s decision to boost enrichment to 20 per cent is domestic politics. The Rouhani administration (headed by a ‘lame duck’ president whose two-term limit ends in August) is pitted against more hardline rivals (whose camp is in charge of the nuclear programme and currently dominates the national security discourse) who seek to torpedo the government’s ability meaningfully to enter into talks with the USA ahead of Iran’s June presidential election. Barring a Rouhani diplomatic success with Biden, with consequent economic benefits for Iran, the June election is expected to be won by a conservative or hardline candidate. Many among the hardline establishment want to reap those economic benefits themselves after the election.
However, the problem with this counter-containment/counter-pressure strategy is that alarmism alienates western powers, whose domestic anti-Iran forces will be emboldened to put pressure on western capitals not to appease or engage in rapprochement with an Islamic Republic that is seen as increasingly belligerent and confrontational. This can be seen in European reactions to Iran’s 20 per cent enrichment; European governments condemned the move as a ‘considerable departure’ from Iran’s JCPOA obligations, saying this threatened the deal’s survival.
The other 4 January show of force, the seizure of the South Korean tanker, has less to do with the official explanation that its confiscation was due to the vessel polluting Persian Gulf waters with chemicals, but is, rather, related to the freezing of an estimated $7 billion worth of Iranian assets in South Korean banks since 2019. The funds are for crude oil imports from Iran. Due to US extra-territorial sanctions prohibiting bank transfers – especially in US dollars – to Iran in particular, and US pressure in general, South Korea blocked these funds. The tanker incident happened just ahead of a scheduled 10 January visit to Tehran by a South Korean delegation. That delegation then included First Vice Foreign Minister Choi, who joined in order to hold talks about the release of the tanker. South Korea, one of Iran’s top oil importers, had dramatically reduced and even halted its oil imports as a result of the pressure of US sanctions, since Washington is an indispensable ally of Seoul. Iran’s move was intended to put pressure on South Korea to release the Iranian assets amid recent talks involving the three sides over the fate of the funds. It is doubtful that the seizure will lead to Seoul releasing the Iranian funds, since Washington’s stance will ultimately be decisive. One possibility would be, as contemplated by Tehran and Seoul, that part of the frozen Iranian funds will be used to pay for Iranian imports of COVID-19 vaccines and equipment from South Korea. South Korea subsequently asked Qatar, which has relatively close relations with Iran, for ‘maximum support’ to help release its tanker, which Doha agreed to do. However, Iran’s attempts have been futile thus far. In any case, this Iranian tanker seizure has important side-effects: it undermines the image of Iran as a reliable and stability-seeking Persian Gulf power in the eyes of East Asian powers that have become increasingly important purchasers of Iranian oil over the past decade.
* Dr Ali Fathollah-Nejad is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Afro-Middle East Centre, and a former Iran expert of the Brookings Institution in Doha (BDC) and the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP)
By Ali Fathollah-Nejad and Amin Naeni
The outcome of the 3 November US presidential election will reverberate far beyond the USA, especially in Iran, where it may influence the fortunes of rival political factions as well as the results of Iran’s own presidential elections next June.
The Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign has imposed unprecedented economic sanctions against Iran and severely undercut the credibility of the reformist camp. Massive popular disillusionment with so-called moderates made it easier for hardliners to win control over the Iranian parliament in February. Now, due to the reluctance of many Iranians to participate in future elections – out of disappointment at the failure of reformists to fulfil their promises of economic progress and political reform – hardliners are hoping to gain the presidency as well.
By Mahdi Ghodsi and Ali Fathollah-Nejad
The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged Iran’s already ailing economy, but the country’s economic crisis is rooted in factors beyond the pandemic’s fallout. Since the United States’ 2018 withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA – or Iran Nuclear Deal), it has become clear that Iran’s economic woes – especially its currency devaluation – are strongly correlated with key political and geopolitical events. The volatility in the exchange rate and Iran’s currency depreciation are signs of an unhealthy economy.
Touted by its architects as the ‘deal of the century’, US president Donald Trump’s plan for Palestine and Israel has had to again be kept hidden as Israel heads back to elections after a failure by its prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, to form a government. The decision for new elections (in September) followed a vote by the newly-inaugurated 120-member Israeli Knesset (parliament), hours after Netanyahu announced he could not form a coalition government, plunging Israel into political chaos. The news was hugely disappointing for Trump, who had been waiting for Netanyahu’s government to be appointed before unveiling his plan. Instead, it now sits in limbo as Netanyahu fights for his political survival and Palestinians reject the proposal outright, based on leaks about what it contains. Trump’s administration has resorted to revelations in small doses, evidenced by the announcement that the economic part of the deal will be unveiled at a 25-26 June summit in Bahrain. This strategy postpones the grand announcement while allowing Israeli occupation to continue unabated. Israel, meanwhile, is in political turmoil, with Netanyahu fighting corruption charges, and increasing tensions between right-wing Orthodox Jews and secular right-wing groups.
Failure forming government
The right-wing bloc, led by Netanyahu’s Likud party, secured major gains in the April election. He was elected prime minister after securing sixty-five votes from the 120-member parliament. The bloc is comprised of Likud (thirty-five seats); Kulanu (four seats); the Union of Right-wing Parties (URP) (five seats) that includes the Kahanist Jewish supremacist Jewish Power Party and Yisrael Beitenu; the ultra-orthodox Shas (eight seats) and United Torah Judaism (eight seats). It had hoped to form a coalition government similar to the one in 2015. Netanyahu, however, failed to get his partners to agree on critical issues, and to break a stand-off between the religious ultra-orthodox parties on the one hand and the racist leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman on the other. Lieberman’s disagreement with the religious parties rested mainly on his insistence on passing the Haredi draft law, a controversial document which seeks to conscript religious Jews into the army (orthodox Jews are currently largely exempt from conscription). The religious parties were unwilling to compromise on the exemption of their members from military service, despite Netanyahu’s efforts. And Lieberman refused to concede, eventually collapsing the coalition effort.
Lieberman has since used Netanyahu’s failure to form a government to garner support for his party, and lambasted the beleaguered prime minister for bowing to pressure from the religious parties. Lieberman hopes to win additional seats in the September elections, and thus wield more influence in coalition talks. If he succeeds, he could weaken Netanyahu by reducing the number of Likud seats. On the other hand, Netanyahu is also working tirelessly to shift the blame to Lieberman for forcing Israel into fresh elections. It seems, therefore, that Netanyahu’s biggest challenge for the September election will be from parties from his own right-wing bloc rather than from ‘centrist’ Blue and White party he battled against in April.
Despite the standoff between Lieberman and the religious parties, Netanyahu also faced several hurdles with other parties in his right-wing coalition. These included managing the demands of Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon who insisted on being finance minister. URP leader Belazel Smotrich also demanded key portfolios for his members, specifically the justice and education ministries. The URP remained aggrieved even after the Knesset’s dissolution because Netanyahu appointed a senior Likud leader as justice minister. Smotrich has threatened to again push for that ministry, which is key for new legislation; he hopes to use it to introduce biblical laws in Israel. If this insistence persists, it would pose a major threat to Netanyahu if he wins the September election.
Bad timing for rerun election
The decision to hold new elections in September could not have come at a worse time for Trump’s long-awaited announcement of his ‘deal of the century’, engineered by his adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt. The deal’s unveiling was to be after the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Trump and Kushner had hoped that by then a new Israeli government would be in place to receive a deal heavily biased towards Israel. With Israeli politics plunged into uncertainty, Kushner and Trump are concerned about their plan, which has already been rejected by the Palestinians.
On a recent visit to Israel, Kushner sought reassurance from Netanyahu. He had travelled to the region as preparation for the25-26 June Economic Summit in Bahrain, where he is expected to announce plans for economic incentives for the Palestinians. He will ask that the financial proposals, which are regarded as the economic part of Trump’s deal, be funded by the Gulf states that will attend the summit – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar. Kushner also met leaders in Morocco and Jordan, in an ultimately successful attempt to convince the two kingdoms to attend the summit.
Israel’s political chaos is now posing problems for Kushner, who had been looking forward to revealing the plan he and his father-in-law had been working on since 2017. Nevertheless, both of them will happily allow Israel to quietly continue expanding the occupation of Palestinian territory as contained in the deal. Leaks suggest the deal will allow Israel to build and expand its illegal settlements in the West Bank (including in Jerusalem), will entrench Israeli control of Palestinian air, land and sea borders, will subject certain Palestinians to military rule, and will deny the right of return of Palestinian refugees. In the context of the current Israeli political reality, the new Kushner strategy is to release the plan in small doses starting with the economic plan to be announced in Bahrain. It will likely focus heavily on the besieged Gaza strip, and will involve economic incentives and plans for Gaza that will be operationalised by Egypt and Qatar. For the political part of the plan, Kushner’s recent comments that ‘Palestinians have no capacity to govern themselves’ hinted at what the spirit of the ‘deal’ might be. The plan will likely cement and legitimise the status quo of Israeli control of Palestinian lives, Israeli collection of Palestinian tax revenues and continued military rule for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. Clearly, Netanyahu is on board with these aspects of the plan, but his current woes could mean he will be replaced by a prime minister who will not be as amenable to Trump and Kushner, thus raising questions about the plan’s future.
The April election provided an convincing victory for Netanyahu, who had hoped to form a strong right-wing government and to become Israel’s longest serving prime minister. His celebration halted abruptly after he failed to form a coalition government and was forced to announce new elections that will place on 17 September, two weeks before Netanyahu argues his case at a pre-trial hearing that seeks to indict him for bribery, corruption and fraud charges. These new political developments have thrown a spanner in the works and postponed the announcement of substantive parts of Trump’s plan for Israel and Palestine. A delay in announcing it, however, allows many aspects of the deal to be quietly implemented by the Israeli government anyway, with annexation of large portions of the West Bank and tying Gaza in economically to Arab governments already under way. This leaves the Palestinians with no real resolution in sight, and with no possibility, in the near future, of a Palestinian state.
By Phyllis Bennis
US president Donald Trump’s plan to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and potentially to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, is not going to undermine peace efforts – because there are no peace efforts underway. Protests have already begun, and anger is rising not only among Palestinians but across the Arab and Muslim worlds, among numerous governments including key US allies, and among people across the globe. Understanding what this move represents means viewing it from two different perspectives.
Taken at face value, recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital reflects Trump’s need to placate his key Israel-backing donors, particularly the casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, and the Christian Zionist component of his right-wing evangelical base. Pro-Israel partisans in Congress orchestrated a law in 1995 mandating the embassy move, but giving the president a way out – the president could waive the requirement if national security might be at stake. Every president since has taken advantage of that waiver – including Donald Trump six months ago. Congressional Israel-backers could blame the president, the White House could lament that security threats prevented the move...everyone was happy. But Trump’s campaign commitment to move the embassy is more important to more influential supporters than was true of earlier presidents. Plus Trump’s failure to win legislative victories (until the recent potential disaster known as the ‘Republican tax scam’) meant he had more incentive to make good on his Jerusalem promise.
Trump called this move ‘the recognition of reality’. It should be noted that it has been US policy itself – support for Israel, billions of US tax dollars sent to the Israeli military every year, acceptance of Jewish settlements in occupied Arab Jerusalem, protection of Israel in the United Nations – that is largely responsible for that reality. The UN resolution partitioning Palestine into what were supposed to be [thoroughly unfairly apportioned] Jewish and Palestinian Arab states, also recognised a special status for Jerusalem – it was to belong to neither ‘state’, but rather be a corpus separatum, a separate body to remain under international control. Israel claimed West Jerusalem as its capital, and in 1967 when it illegally occupied the eastern half of the city after the Six-Day War, it announced the annexation of Arab Jerusalem and forcibly unified the city as its capital. No country in the world recognised the annexation, and since that time legally binding UN Security Council resolutions continue to reaffirm that East Jerusalem remains occupied Palestinian territory. Trump’s decision stands in direct violation of international law.
But US violations of international law regarding Israel is an old story. Decades of US actions accepting, acknowledging, allowing (even if sometimes rhetorically criticising) the expansion of illegal Jews-only colonial settlements in occupied Arab Jerusalem and across the West Bank set the stage. Decades of rewarding Israeli violations of UN resolutions and international law concerning Jerusalem with billions of dollars in economic and military support set the stage. Vetoing Security Council resolutions condemning illegal Israeli settlement building in Jerusalem set the stage. What’s new this time around is the deliberately provocative, reckless nature of the decision to placate donors whatever the risk – the risk of violent responses across the world, let alone the risk of further violation of Palestinian rights.
What is not at risk is the role of the United States as an honest broker in sponsoring peace talks. Why? Because the US never was an honest broker in Israel–Palestinian talks, it was always, as at least one long-time US negotiator admitted, playing the role of Israel’s lawyer. That hasn't changed either. There are no negotiations underway to be threatened with cancellation.
Sowing chaos and threatening more war across the region
The second perspective has far more to do with the regional situation, and the war-driven, anti-diplomacy foreign policy of the Trump administration. Aside from donor pressure, US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the threat to move the embassy, have to be seen in the context of the effort led by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner to consolidate a powerful anti-Iran coalition across the Middle East with ostensible enemies Israel and Saudi Arabia at its core.
Trump has anointed Kushner his point man on reaching the ‘ultimate deal’ on Israel–Palestine. It’s less about any claimed interest in peace than about the collaborative regional plans being hatched by Kushner and his new BFF, Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, known as MBS. Together the two crown princes, as it were, are trying to bring Israel and Saudi Arabia together in a newly overt alliance against Tehran. To pull off that kind of normalisation of relations between these ostensible enemies and not risk losing power, or worse, requires changing the rhetoric, if not the actual circumstances. Enter the so-called ‘new Israeli–Palestinian talks’. If the ambitious young Saudi prince can convince the majority of the royal family and at least a majority of Saudi citizens that somehow new talks mean the end of the conflict and we can all stop worrying about the Palestinians, then normalisation of relations with Israel suddenly looks more acceptable. Such a partnership portends a serious rise in the threat of war – with not only the United States but Israel and Saudi Arabia, plus Jordan, the UAE, Egypt and more, openly unified against Iran.
Just a week or so before the announcement about Jerusalem, the Trump administration threatened to close the PLO office in Washington unless the Palestinians accepted Washington’s terms for new negotiations. Those US-brokered talks would be based on pro-settlement, human rights-violating conditions that no Palestinian leader could ordinarily accept. If some Palestinian leader – the current head of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas, or some other leader if the Saudis force Abbas to quit as they reportedly threatened – accepts a deal legitimising permanent Israeli control of Palestinian land, Saudi Arabia can easily slip into a cosy partnership with their erstwhile enemy.
The timing remains a question. Why would Kushner and his father-in-law make the goal of an Israeli–Saudi alliance against Iran more difficult by such a provocative move regarding Jerusalem? Part of the answer has to do with the primacy of Israel over Saudi Arabia in Kushner’s world – regardless of his recent bromance with MSB. Kushner has been a supporter of illegal Israeli settlements for years; in his role in one of his family’s foundations he helped orchestrate tens of thousands of dollars donated to Israeli settlements. According to Newsweek, ‘The foundation donated at least $38,000 between 2011 and 2013 to a fundraising group building a Jewish seminary in a West Bank settlement known as Beit El. During that period, Kushner’s foundation also donated an additional $20,000 to Jewish and educational institutions in settlements throughout the region.’
Somehow the Trump son-in-law forgot to mention those transactions when he filed financial reports required for his top-level security clearance. But it fits a pattern. In late 2016 Kushner ordered Michael Flynn, then the Trump campaign’s top foreign policy adviser, to persuade Russia to delay the imminent UN Security Council vote criticising Israeli settlements. President Obama had decided to abstain and to allow the resolution to pass; Trump wanted the Russians to delay the vote so the new administration could veto it. But Moscow refused to play along.
If you just listened to the official rhetoric from both governments, something like a Saudi–Israeli alliance appears unthinkable. But it turns out that many ‘unthinkable’ developments in the volatile Middle East are actually quite thinkable – although it usually means there’s a price to be paid. Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital has been bandied about as a threat for years despite international law. The fundamentalist Saudi government has all but publicly pined for open relations with Israel despite Tel Aviv’s continuing violations of Palestinian rights. National leaders may pay a political price for those moves. But the real price – potentially in destroyed lives, devastated cities and more – will be paid by the people of Iran, who will likely face even more crippling sanctions and a growing threat of war; by the people of Yemen, where the US-backed Saudi war continues to escalate with horrific humanitarian consequences; potentially by Lebanon, where Saudi interference is again on the rise; and as always by the Palestinians, who have paid the price for US support of Israeli occupation and apartheid for more than seventy years, and have just been sold out again.
There are no Israeli-Palestinian peace talks under way that might be threatened by US recognition of Jerusalem. But the move certainly makes peace – or justice – anywhere in the war-torn region far less likely.
Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. Her most recent book is Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror. Other books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer, Understanding the U.S.-Iran Crisis: A Primer, Ending the Iraq War: A Primer, and Ending the Us War in Afghanistan: A Primer.