Though the first anniversary of Qassem Soleimani’s death passed without Iran exacting the “hard revenge” it had vowed, the United States and its allies in the Gulf flexed their military muscle in anticipation of possible Iranian attacks. The United States dispatched an aircraft carrier group and its heavy bombers to the Gulf, while an Israeli attack submarine simultaneously crossed the Suez Canal into the Red Sea, sparking Iran’s rage. These military movements coincided with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani signing the nuclear bill that would lead to Tehran increasing its uranium enrichment to 20 percent in contravention of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The IAEA was duly informed of the nuclear bill, prompting its director general to sound the alarm about the urgency to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal “within weeks and not months.”
The limits of Tehran’s double-edged strategy were exposed when it attempted to strike a delicate balance between belligerence and amenability. The ongoing Iranian mixed signaling is nothing new. However, this strategy of sending mixed messages has been employed more fully in anticipation of the incoming Biden-Harris administration which is set to take office on January 20. As a result, it is not likely that Tehran will rush to raise its uranium enrichment purity levels immediately. It is apparent that the nuclear bill intends to pressure the United States to rejoin the JCPOA and lift the harsh sanctions imposed on Tehran.
Across the Atlantic, a different kind of storm is brewing. Trump seems to have been deserted by key Republican lawmakers (10 voting for impeachment and four abstaining) as the Democratic Party initiates its second impeachment process. Whatever the outcome, the storming of Capitol Hill has brought the Democrats and Republicans closer together in opposition to Trump’s policies. The fissures among the Republican National Committee will not only help Biden to confirm his cabinet nominees, they will also help in forcing a compromise in dealing with the Iranian quagmire.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was spotted dining with Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen at Cafe Milano in Washington DC on Monday. The Israeli spy chief’s visit to the United States at the very tail-end of Trump’s presidency would no doubt have sent an unsettling signal to Iran as well as to other JCPOA members, which have done their best to avert any preemptive military action against Tehran. It is believed that the intensive Israeli midnight air raids in Syria against Iran’s proxy militias on January 12 are linked to the duo’s meeting.
Tel Aviv’s constant pressure creates a dilemma for Tehran as it cannot overlook a threat while desperately seeking to appease the incumbent government in Washington. The likelihood of Trump launching an attack against Iran has lessened because of the many internal issues facing the United States at this moment in time. Senate Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi was in direct contact with the US military chief after the storming of Capitol Hill and raised the issue of Trump potentially launching an attack against a foreign nation.
Amidst the United States sending military reinforcements to the Gulf, Iran unveiled a new “underground missile city” on January 8, which “is one of several bases housing the Guards’ Navy’s strategic missiles,” according to IRGC Commander Major General Hossein Salami. While the strategic community believes such underground bases to be near the Gulf’s coastal waters, there are no specific details about their location as well as no information about the capability of the weapons systems deployed at these bases. Nonetheless, such bases not only provide Iran with credible deterrence but also offer it offensive capabilities. Iran’s continuing quest for a smarter sub-system for its weapons and its involvement in money laundering led to the arrest of two Iranian nationals in Ontario, Canada.
On January 15, Iran initiated an unannounced drill of fighter jets, missiles, drones and air defense systems. Later, the IRGC chief announced that the drill will continue for five days, concluding the day Biden is inaugurated as the 46th US president. Meanwhile, one of Iran’s test-fired missiles hit the Arabian Sea, dangerously close to a merchant ship and about 150 kilometers from the US supercarrier USS Nimitz. Iran also claimed to have warned an enemy submarine to stay clear of the area as its own submerged ship fired a torpedo on a “target” in the Gulf waters.
Another noteworthy dimension of Iran’s belligerence is its policing of the Gulf waters. Ahead of Biden’s inauguration on January 20, Iran is putting pressure on South Korea over its seized tanker MT Hankuk Chemi. Iran claims that the tanker was seized for causing pollution in Gulf waters. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated that the tanker’s seizure was a technical issue and must not be politicized. However, he called on South Korea to unfreeze $7 billion in oil payments during a meeting with the South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun. Despite this Iranian attempt to pressure South Korea, Seoul can wait for a few more weeks instead of giving into Tehran’s blackmail.
While Trump is facing many internal challenges, Iran seems unlikely to go beyond defiant posturing and refrains from taking matters into its own hands. Prudence seems to triumph amid the ongoing tensions between Washington and Tehran. There is no doubt the storming of Capitol Hill has reduced the pressure on Iran. Hence, Tehran is raising the stakes for the Biden administration to start early talks and rejoin the JCPOA.