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.

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‘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

The November presidential election victory of Joe Biden against the incumbent Donald Trump raised alarm bells within the anti-Iran front in the Middle East – most notably Israel and Saudi Arabia. They reckon that the days of Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran are numbered, and fear that President-elect Biden will follow through on his campaign promise to return the USA to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or the Iran nuclear deal), which will include easing sanctions on Iran in exchange for the latter’s return to the limits and restraints imposed by the JCPOA on its nuclear programme.

With just over a month left for the Trump administration, there has been a sense of urgency among Iran’s foes not only to sustain but to increase the pressure on Tehran in this period, by creating new facts that the Biden administration would not be able to ignore, and which will complicate any smooth transition to a new US Iran policy. These new facts could be achieved through new sanctions on Iran, or through other means, such as covert operations against Iran’s nuclear programme intended to provoke an Iranian reaction. This last possibility reportedly featured prominently in a November visit to the region by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, especially in his meetings with Israeli, Saudi and UAE leaders. Given these attempts at increasing agitation by the anti-Iran front, as well as Trump’s unpredictability, concerns were raised in Tehran. Iran’s military leadership has, as expected and in its usual manner, reacted with a language of defiance and counter-threats. 

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.

By Phyllis Bennis

When US president, Donald Trump, announced his latest threats against Iran on Rush Limbaugh’s show last week, it was unclear whether he or his steroids were talking. Even this president rarely uses language like, ‘If you f**k around with us, if you do something bad to us, we are going to do things to you that have never been done before’ in announcing foreign policy.

The possibility of an ‘October Surprise’ looms over every US presidential election. This year, twenty-some days from the election they’re likely to lose, with more than 215 000 people across the United States dead from the pandemic, the White House transformed into the latest coronavirus hot spot, the economy still in free-fall, and the commander-in-chief high on drugs, the Trump administration’s latest harsh new sanctions on Iran do not look surprising at all. The political use of the term October Surprise, after all, started with the Iran hostage crisis of 1980.

But this not-so-shocking surprise is actually incredibly dangerous and reckless for the future, and incredibly cruel and heartless – even sadistic – right now. The new economic sanctions will shut down the last eighteen Iranian banks still able to finance the import of desperately-needed humanitarian goods, including medicine desperately needed during the Covid-19 crisis, and even basic foodstuffs. Earlier US sanctions had already brought massive suffering to Iranians. At the beginning of April, as the pandemic was at its height, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy acknowledged that ‘U.S. sanctions are stopping medical equipment from being sent to Iran. As a result, innocent people are dying.’

The White House claims this latest escalation of its ‘maximum economic pressure’ sanctions campaign will force Iran to the negotiating table. But years of punishing the entire population of 80 million Iranians has shown that this is almost certain to fail to achieve stated US goals, and even if it succeeded, the human price paid in hunger, lack of medicine during a raging pandemic, and the death of children and other vulnerable people is simply far too high. 

During an earlier sanctions campaign against Iran, Democratic congressperson Brad Sherman blithely noted that ‘critics also argued that these measures will hurt the Iranian people. Quite frankly, we need to do just that.’ Sherman, who is now running to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee, had the audacity to compare Washington’s brutal sanctions against Iran to the global movement against apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. In so doing, Sherman deliberately ignored a critical distinction: the vast majority of South Africans supported anti-apartheid organisations that called on the world to impose sanctions, accepting the consequences, and linking those external sanctions to their broader national strategy for liberation and freedom. In Iran, people and organisations fighting to broaden democratic rights are calling desperately for an end to sanctions – because the sanctions are killing them.

This newest punishment on Iranians will exacerbate the devastating impact of the broader sanctions regime the USA has imposed on Iran for years. While the State Department brags that it ‘continues to stand with the Iranian people’ and that ‘exceptions for humanitarian exports to Iran…remain in full force’, the reality is that existing economic sanctions, despite those exceptions, have destroyed Iran’s economy and the lives of most of the 80 million Iranians, especially the poorest and most vulnerable among them. 

The latest escalations in broad US sanctions against Iran began with Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran Nuclear Deal. Despite virtually unanimous international and US intelligence agreement that the JCPOA was working (Iran was not building nuclear weapons), and UN inspectors remained on the ground in Iran, and despite UN sanctions being stopped, Trump made it clear that abandoning ‘Obama’s deal’ was top of his agenda. In May 2018 he pulled out of the deal and imposed a host of new crippling and unilateral sanctions against Iran.

Other signatories to the JCPOA – Germany, France, Britain, China, Russia, and the European Union – all opposed the US withdrawal, as did the UN Security Council, which had endorsed the deal and established a monitoring agency to guarantee its implementation. The biggest US demand that the UNSC had accepted was what became known as ‘snap-back’, by which any signatory could report an Iranian violation, and if confirmed by UN monitors, the UN sanctions that had been lifted would automatically be restored. With the USA having abandoned the deal, and US sanctions rapidly escalating, European countries made some efforts to protect Iran from the impact of the new sanctions, but largely failed. Iran eventually responded by taking some calibrated steps in nuclear power enrichment beyond what was permitted in the JCPOA.

In early August, Washington tried to convince the UNSC to extend some conventional arms’ restrictions on Iran that were set to expire. These restrictions had nothing to do with nuclear weapons, and the rest of the UNSC (with the exception of USA-dependent Dominican Republic) unanimously refused. A week later, in an effort to escalate ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran even further, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced he was invoking the ‘snap-back’ procedure, and demanded the restoration of UN sanctions against Iran. The rest of the Security Council (except the Dominican Republic) made it clear that since the USA had renounced the agreement, it no longer had standing to make such a demand. Pompeo’s response was that since the USA had originally signed the treaty, Washington still had all the rights of signatories, despite having officially withdrawn and thus ending all its obligations. He then simply announced that UN sanctions were back in force, though no other state agreed.

Then came the latest US sanctions. Along with new suffering for the Iranian people, the danger could quickly escalate if, for example, the USA decided to forcibly board and ‘inspect’ a ship that it might claim was carrying goods to or from Iran. If Iran were to resist, a serious military conflict could erupt. This threat of a deliberate US provocation, aimed at forcing Iran to respond militarily and giving hawks in Washington an excuse to use greater military force in time for pre-election boasting by Trump, could shape an incredibly dire and dangerous October surprise. Iran has not taken Washington’s bait, reacting instead to US provocations – including the assassination of powerful Iranian political and military leader General Qasem Soleimani in January – with significant caution. But Iran has its own elections scheduled in June, and there is growing pressure on the leadership for more decisive action.

Iran may also be holding back in anticipation of a change in the White House. Democratic Party presidential contender Joe Biden has not called for ending sanctions on Iran, but has made clear that he would: ‘offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy’, return to the JCPOA, end the Muslim ban on entry to the USA, and work to end the Yemen war. While his position is not nearly as strong as it needs to be to end the assault on ordinary Iranians’ lives, there is no question that it challenges some of the worst aspects of existing policy. This should not be surprising; the JCPOA represented the high point of Obama’s foreign policy achievements, and since Biden’s credibility is fundamentally bound up with Obama’s legacy, he needs to maintain the commitment to the JCPOA and the diplomacy-over-war framework that enabled it. It is public knowledge that pressure on Trump to impose new and ever-more-damaging sanctions on Iran come from Israel and the far-right Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. Just a couple of weeks before the newest sanctions were announced, the FDD head co-authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed calling for a ‘12th-round economic knockout’ in the form of a Trump move to ‘[b]lacklist the entire Iranian financial industry’.

So, beyond the expectation of a last-minute electoral bump (which is not a sure thing, given significant public opposition to wars in the Middle East), what is the US goal in provoking a military clash with Iran that could quickly escalate out of control?

In the Trump era, clear strategy is generally outside the realm of possibility. But immediate goals can sometimes be discerned. From the beginning, the Trump administration – mainly in the person of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner – has focused on building a US-backed regional anti-Iran alliance with Israel and key Arab allies Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and others. Much of that is underway, bolstered most recently by the USA-orchestrated agreements between Israel and both the UAE and Bahrain, with the blessing of Saudi Arabia. Those agreements, while leaving out any reference to ending Israel’s oppression, occupation and colonisation of Palestinians, are primarily aimed at increasing US arms sales to its Arab allies, and going public with the longstanding but formerly more-or-less hidden trade, commercial and security ties between Israel and the Gulf monarchies.

Preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons certainly remains a longstanding US goal. Part of that is rooted in the US determination to prevent further nuclear weapons proliferation in the world. However, much of it is based on a US commitment to Israel to maintain Tel Aviv’s nuclear weapons monopoly in the region; it is Israel’s Dimona nuclear plant that houses the Middle East’s only nuclear weapons arsenal. On the other hand, US intelligence agencies have for years agreed that Iran did not have a nuclear bomb, was not building a nuclear bomb, and had not even decided it wanted to build a nuclear bomb. Under the JCPOA, Iran’s nuclear capacity and its ability to obtain nuclear components anywhere else were extremely limited, and UN nuclear inspectors were on the ground. That remains the case, but could change if US ‘maximum pressure’ continues to prevent Iran’s access to international trade, purchases of food and medicine, and so forth.

Maintaining Iran’s role as enemy makes it easier for the USA to justify ever-more-massive arms sales to repressive authoritarian kingdoms, and the ten-year $38 billion gift to the Israeli military. For the preposterously wealthy but strategically dependent Gulf states, the real fears of Iranian influence (on Shi’a populations in their countries, competition for oilfields and pipeline routes, etc.) are matched or even outstripped by the value of Iran-as-bogeyman to ensure continuing US strategic support and protection. 

Reports have been floating around that Washington may close the giant US embassy in Baghdad, and pull out diplomatic and other non-military personnel. That may be in anticipation of a future Iranian response to continuing US escalation – perhaps something like a US military attack on the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces – that could lead to Iranian retaliation against US military forces in Iraq. With Israeli backing, a strike against Iranian interests by some combination of the UAE, Bahrain and/or Saudi Arabia, even without direct US participation, cannot be completely ruled out. Under such circumstances, it is not impossible that public pressure could lead the Iranian regime to make different and much more dangerous choices.

US escalations may not be over yet. There are several more weeks of October for new surprises.

* Phyllis Bennis is an advisory board member of the Afro-Middle East Centre. She is also a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Her most recent book is the seventh edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.

** This article was first published online by Common Dreams

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