Recent statements from within Iran point towards a showdown with the US, but one that hopes to sway domestic politics too.
With just two weeks left of Donald Trump’s term as the president of the United States, the hardline establishment in Iran is doing its utmost to make good its threats of revenge not just for the killing of one of its top military commanders, Qasem Soleimani, but also for four years of 'maximum pressure' and devastating sanctions which have ruined the oil-based economy.
A complex package of revenge plans has been rolling out this week, including arrest warrants for the Trump team, increasing uranium enrichment, the seizure of a South Korean chemical tanker in the Persian Gulf, and a series of fiery speeches by commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) threatening to target those responsible.
There is also a Middle East angle incorporating a parliamentary motion obliging the government to undertake wide-ranging cultural, humanitarian and military campaigns in support of Palestinian resistance leading to the “annihilation” of Israel within 20 years. The full text of the motion was released on Sunday.
Yet none of these appear likely to lead anywhere, least to any positive results for Iran. They are stale, tried-and-failed methods lacking vision and strategy. If anything, they would deter the US President-elect Joe Biden from his planned approach of diplomacy and talks.
It could be argued that indeed that is part of the double-edged motive of Iran's hardline ruling elite which dominates all power centres outside of the presidency. They want to make it hard for the more moderate President Hassan Rouhani – who is keen to negotiate with the US – during his last months in office.
Instead they prefer to win Iran’s presidential elections, in June, and enable the new (most probably) hardline president to hold the fort on any negotiations with the Biden team.
Their logic is based on their style of politics, always accompanied by threats and intimidation. It has worked in forcefully keeping them in power in Iran for over forty years but never worked on the international scene. Even internally it has lost them millions of supporters.
Iran’s Judiciary Chief Sayyed Ebrahim Raisi reminded the outgoing US President that he “cannot escape punishment”. A list of 48 names “accused of complicity” was given to six countries with warrants from Iran’s Judiciary for their arrest.
The chief of judiciary must surely be aware that this is an almost impossible task, yet he is using it as a weak ploy to highlight American injustice. Interpol has rejected the request already.
At the same time, the vessel was held hostage to put pressure on South Korea for the repayment of over $8.5 billion dollars of Iranian assets held over the sanctions.
Iran’s move to increase uranium enrichment to 20 percent was also given far more attention in the media than it deserved. It was the latest in a series of escalations that have followed President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from a 2015 nuclear deal (JCPOA) that had limited Iran to enrichment levels of 4 to 5 percent.
The decision was approved by Iran’s parliament coupled with the expulsion of international nuclear inspectors if American sanctions are not lifted by early February, posing a direct challenge to President-elect Biden.
Again the move was two-pronged, registering Iran’s anger at the killing of its top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
The actual implementation of the nuclear enrichment is questionable. Ali-Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Nuclear Energy Organisation said on Tuesday that Iran was prepared to increase “the production of yellow cake to 35-40 tonnes over the year”. Yet he said in another interview last month quoted by National Iranian American Council (NIAC), that Iran does not have the necessary funds for enrichment.
Salehi whose politics oscillates between the hardliners and president Rouhani criticised the parliament and the Guardian Council for approving the bill without allocating the funds.
“For example, they say build 1,000 IR-6 centrifuges. We have this capability. We will build them. But they didn’t say with what money,” Salehi said.
Perhaps for those reasons Foreign Minister Javad Zarif clarified the position by saying the measures “would be fully reversible once there was full compliance by all” JCPOA signatories.
President Trump’s forsaking of JCPOA in 2018 lies at the heart of this reversal of Iran to its absolutist position of 2006 when the former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, forged ahead with the country’s nuclear project and then in 2013 when he boasted about Iran’s yellow cake.
Iran might have been a very different place if all signatories of the JCPOA had played their part. It is now an uphill task for the incoming Biden administration to untangle this intricate web of assassinations, threats and counter-terrors.
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