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When will Iran stop its shenanigans?

Elie Kossaifi

Published: Updated:

Although Iran celebrated the defeat of former Republican President Donald Trump, it greeted the victory of Democratic President Joe Biden with escalations on multiple fronts, despite the fact that Iranian reformers considered Biden’s victory “a significant opportunity.”

The Iranian government is moving ahead with raising the level of uranium enrichment to 20 percent in accordance with the provisions of the law issued on the 27 of November. On Wednesday, Tehran announced its plans to install 1,000 centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear facility within 3 months and produce 17 kilograms of 20 percent-enriched uranium at the Fordow plant. Then on Friday, it revealed that its reserve of enriched uranium has reached 4,000 kilograms, compared to the previous 300-kilogram limit.

The same law also obliges the government to halt the implementation of the additional protocol stipulated in the nuclear agreement on February 20, which will inevitably lead to reduced cooperation with the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which, in turn, will consequently bring about irreversible repercussions. In his latest article released on the Foreign Affairs website, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif aimed to send a clear message to Washington and Europe that they are running out of time should they wish to fulfil their commitments to Tehran.

In parallel, Tehran resumed sending clear hostile messages through its militias in the region by launching missiles to Saudi Arabia last Saturday. Meanwhile, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) had resumed bombing the US embassy in Baghdad on December 20.

Furthermore, on January 4, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) navy seized a South Korean tanker and forced it to change course, amid an intense dispute over South Korea's decision to freeze over $9 billion of Iranian oil revenues under US sanctions.

A few days before Biden's inauguration, Iranian media outlets announced that Iranian authorities have convicted the Iranian-American businessman Emad Sharghi with vague spying charges. Sharghi has joined at least three other American citizens of Iranian origin being held in Iran, according to a list compiled by the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).

In addition to the nuclear and military escalation, Zarif is intensifying his diplomatic tours to countries that have been friendly towards Iran with the aim of urging them to support Iran’s position regarding how important it is for the US to return to the 2015 nuclear deal and lift the sanctions. Then, and only then, will Tehran return to honoring its pledges under this agreement. So far, Zarif managed to obtain the support of Russia and Turkey, which he visited Friday.

This aggressive escalation is aimed at achieving two overlapping goals; the first is to test the limits of the new US administration's patience in the face of Iranian provocations, and the second is to push Washington to place the Iranian file on top of its list of priorities. So far, President Biden has not included Iranian matters in any of the executive orders he has signed since assuming his duties. It is clear that, for the time being, the US president is sharply focused on domestic priorities, such as the coronavirus pandemic, the economic crisis, and the internal division within the US as a result of the latest elections debacle, not to mention the issue of climate change and Washington's return to the Paris Agreement.

The new administration is also interested in restoring Washington's traditional alliances with Europe, which were damaged during the Trump era, in addition to addressing Washington's two main strategic areas of importance: China and Russia, before moving to the Iranian issue.

Therefore, all these provocations and escalations by Iran are aimed at forcing the US’s hand to reassess its list of priorities, which negates the statements made by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei when he announced that his regime is in no hurry to return to the nuclear deal. However, if Iran was truly in no hurry, it would not have resorted to all these escalations to draw the new administration’s attention and set its course towards reviving the 2005 agreement, which seems to be getting increasingly complicated day by day.

The new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it in clear terms on Wednesday when he said, “Iran is out of compliance on a number of fronts and it would take some time, should it make the decision to do so, for it to come back into compliance and time for us then to assess whether it was meeting its obligations. We are not there yet, to say the least.”

Furthermore, in order to return to the deal, Washington would seek to build what Blinken called a “longer and stronger agreement” that would deal with other “deeply problematic” issues, namely Iran’s development of ballistic missiles and Iran’s regional destabilizing activities, including its support for proxy forces in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.

Those two problematic issues seem to be non-negotiable for Iran at the moment. Not only that, but Iran also seems to reject Washington’s attempts to include its allies in the region, specifically Israel and the Arab Gulf states, in the negotiation process. “It’s vitally important that we engage on the takeoff, not the landing, with our allies and partners in the region,” Blinken emphasized in his speech before the Senate prior to his appointment.

Therefore, the US State Department’s positions on Iran reflect Washington’s lack of urgency with regards to returning to the nuclear deal as agreed. The question here is, will Washington return to the agreement and then relaunch the negotiations with Iran over its missiles and expansionist agendas in the region, or will it re-negotiate a comprehensive settlement? Let alone the pressing question of who will budge and return to the agreement first, Tehran or Washington, as each side insists that the other must return first. On Friday, the White House press secretary reaffirmed the US’s declared stance on this issue.

All these unanswered questions and variables make it difficult to predict the potential outcomes of the nuclear deal, especially since the only thing both sides seem to agree on is their intention to return to the deal. Other than that, nothing seems to be established, especially since many things have changed since the signing of the original deal in 2015. Iran’s position has weakened significantly since 2015 due the stifling economic crisis that it is facing due to US sanctions.

The geopolitical situation in the region has also changed significantly since 2015, especially after the series of Arab-Israeli peace agreements. Additionally, Washington's allies seem to be in agreement regarding their refusal to return to the 2015 agreement without making the necessary modifications and without negotiating Iran's missile program and its regional expansionist activities. It is worth noting that these two issues are just as important for the countries of the region as the Iranian nuclear program, especially since these countries believe that Tehran benefited from the lifting of the sanctions in 2015 to finance its missile program and its regional militias, and therefore these countries will not allow for this to be repeated.

At this point the question that many seem to be asking is, how long can Iran continue to escalate hostilities and how far will it go? The more it continues to violate its obligations under the 2015 deal, the more Europe would turn against it. Even France, which had been more lenient towards Tehran than other European countries, seems to be hardening its stance.

President Emmanuel Macron's call on Friday to include Saudi Arabia in any future negotiations is of great significance in this context. Tehran also received a message of deterrence from the US on Wednesday through a joint training maneuvers between US and Saudi air forces. The US Department of Defense has also revealed preparations to increase the number of forces and military equipment in Saudi Arabia during the coming period.

Furthermore, the Pentagon approved a preliminary arrangement with Riyadh to use air bases and various seaports in the western regions of the country so as to face any war with Iran.

Even Robert Malley, whose appointment as special US envoy to Iran sparked widespread division and controversy in Washington, believes that Washington must take no definitive action towards the Iranian issue until June, the date of the presidential elections in Iran, and then begin negotiations for a permanent settlement. It is unlikely that Tehran would be able to maintain these escalations until then.

On Friday, US President Joe Biden's national security adviser affirmed that the president considers dealing with the Iranian nuclear program as a top priority. Would this be enough to convince Iran that it has achieved its goal of drawing Biden's attention, and would that be a chance to gradually deescalate tensions?

This article was originally published in, and translated from, Lebanese news outlet Annahar al-Arabi.

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