Dec 15,2020 – JORDAN TIMES – OSAMA AL SHARIF
Iran is bracing itself with five weeks to go before the Trump administration is finally ousted and as tensions rise in the region following last month’s assassination of a top Iranian nuclear scientist in the outskirts of Tehran. Iran blamed Israel for the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who is believed to be the leading figure in developing Iran’s nuclear program and who has been targeted by the Israeli Mossad for years.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is said to have received the green light by Trump to escalate against Iran short of starting World War III, according to US media. Pompeo lashed out at Iran last week after the Iranian parliament passed a bill vowing to raise the uranium enrichment levels in response to Fakhrizadeh’s killing. “The international community must not reward Iranian nuclear gamesmanship. The steps passed by Iran’s Majles, if implemented, would bring Iran to the dangerous 20 per cent uranium enrichment level with no credible rationale for any peaceful purpose,” the US secretary wrote on Twitter last Friday.
But Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani expressed his opposition last week to the bill approved by Iran’s parliament last Tuesday to suspend UN inspections and boost uranium enrichment, saying it would be “harmful” to diplomatic efforts aimed at restoring the 2015 nuclear deal and easing US sanctions. The tug of war has been raging between hardliners and so-called reformists in Iran ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on 20 January. Iran will hold presidential elections in June 2021 in which Rouhani will be challenged by a close aide to the country’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei.
Even before his election as president, Donald Trump had vowed to withdraw the US from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which his predecessor Barack Obama had adopted. Trump did walk away from the deal, officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in 2018 and applied a policy of “maximum pressure” on Tehran with the hope of renegotiating the deal. Tough US sanctions had hurt the Iranian economy badly but failed to bring the Iranians back to the negotiations table. The US policy had divided the Europeans while Russia and China took Tehran’s side.
Biden had promised to consult America’s European partners and seek ways to revive the nuclear deal but not before adding some new conditions on Iran with regard to its controversial long range missile programme and its regional agenda. Last week, Rouhani called for Biden to reenter the Iranian nuclear deal by reversing US sanctions. Last month, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif asked the incoming Biden administration to revoke “only three executive orders” that imposed sanctions on Iran, adding that there is no need for “preconditions or negotiations”.
Israel, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had opposed the deal with Iran, and last month, in an apparent message to Biden, the Israeli premier said that “there must be no return to the previous nuclear agreement. We must stick to an uncompromising policy to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons”. Netanyahu is not alone in objecting to the nuclear deal with Iran. A number of Gulf countries, now with normalised ties with Israel, also see Iran’s nuclear programme as a regional menace.
The feeling in Washington now is that Trump may be ready to sabotage Biden’s efforts to reconnect with Iran. The killing of Fakhrizadeh, which was denounced by a number of Gulf states, was meant to provoke Iran into responding. Khamenei had vowed to avenge the killing, just as he did when Al Quds Brigade commander Qassem Soliemani was assassinated in Baghdad last January, but top military aides had stressed that Iran will choose the right time to respond.
Even the most extreme figures in Iran know that any provocative move against US targets in the region now will trigger a sweeping American response. Last month, the US dispatched B-52 bombers to the region and deployed aircraft carrier USS Nimitz to the Gulf, days before Fakhrizadeh’s assassination. The US Navy said then that the deployment was unrelated to specific threats. The Israeli military was also put on high alert last month, while news sources said this week that pro-Iranian militias in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon were informed by Tehran to be ready for more Israeli hits in the waning days of the Trump administration.
With his failure to reverse the election outcome at home, Trump may resort to trigger a crisis abroad thus leaving the new president with a foreign policy challenge ahead of his inauguration. And with the first anniversary of Soliemani’s killing approaching Tehran must find ways to restrain its militias in the region. The coming few weeks will be critical to the region as any serious provocation may lead to a bloody confrontation.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman