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Iran is misjudging Biden’s regional policy

Jan 05,2021 - Last updated at Jan 05,2021

Tensions are brewing between Washington and Tehran like never before as Donald Trump’s presidency winds down with less than three weeks remaining before Joe Biden is sown in. The US has warned Iran against carrying out attacks against its troops and interests in the region, as Iran and its proxies mark the first anniversary of the assassination of Iran’s top general Qassem Soliemani near Baghdad airport.

On Sunday acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller instructed the USS Nimitz to remain in the Gulf in reaction to Iranian threats. Last week, the US dispatched additional B-52 strategic bombers to the region as a warning to Tehran. And on Saturday Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Tehran had new intelligence from Iraqi sources showing that “Israeli agent-provocateurs” were staging attacks on US targets, laying a “trap” for President Trump to start a conflict that could damage Biden’s plans to salvage the 2015 nuclear accord.

While Iranian leaders had threatened to avenge the death of Soliemani, it is inconceivable that they would risk provoking the Trump administration a few weeks before Biden’s inauguration. Iraq fears that rogue pro-Iran militias could launch an attack on the US embassy in Baghdad or military bases where US soldiers are deployed. The Iraqi government had increased security around the Green Zone and sent messages to Tehran asking it to keep its proxies under control.

Restraint and patience are now Tehran’s key strategies although the possibility of an incident taking place where US interests are threatened remains high. Even more worrying is Iran’s plans to increase its uranium enrichment capacity to 20 percent purity, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA said earlier this week that Iran plans to substantially increase enrichment levels at its underground Fordow nuclear site in violation of the 2015 nuclear deal. Following Trump’s 2018 decision to withdraw from the deal, Tehran resumed enrichment but at a low 4.5 per cent rate.

The move is believed to put pressure on the Europeans and the incoming Biden administration to speed up re-engagement on the nuclear deal. Tehran hopes that the new US administration will rejoin the deal and lift biting US economic sanctions. But that would be a gross miscalculation.

While Trump’s actions against Tehran have failed to pressure it into renegotiating a new deal, they did underline the need to review Iran’s medium and long range missile program as well as its meddling in the internal affairs of neighboring countries. Much has changed since 2015 and it would be wrong to assume that Biden would rejoin the nuclear agreement unconditionally. Biden would have the support of key European partners, like France, in seeking to expand the scope of the agreement. President Hassan Rouhani and Zarif have repeatedly rejected any suggestion to negotiate a new deal.

While Israel continues to reject the nuclear agreement and is seeking to ban Iran from any nuclear activity, the reality is that Tehran’s nuclear program needs to be checked and restrained. But that is only one side of the region’s problem with Tehran. Iran has supplied its proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen with missile capabilities. Iran has been directly accused of carrying out missile attacks against targets in Saudi Arabia. Iran’s missile programme is a strategic threat to the region’s security and stability.

In the midst of threats exchange this week, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ Corp  Aerospace Force stated that the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has given the green light for Tehran-backed proxies in Lebanon and Gaza Strip to level two of Israel’s three largest cities. “All the missile capabilities of Gaza and Lebanon have been supported by Iran, and they are the front line for confrontation,” he added. This irresponsible statement has angered the Lebanese public and deepened the chasm between Lebanon’s key political players and Hizbollah. So brazen was the statement that it prompted Hizbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, to declare that Iran “doesn’t need help” from its allies and will take revenge “when it decides so”, adding that Tehran will not ask any other country or body to conduct a retaliatory strike on its behalf.

Iran cannot expect to have the sanctions lifted and to be treated like a normal country when it is creating havoc in Iraq, meddling in the internal affairs of Lebanon and Syria and backing a terror group in Yemen. The nuclear deal is only part of a bigger problem that the region has with a belligerent Iran. Any new agreement must check Iran’s missile capabilities as well as retrain its proxies across the region. Biden must listen to America’s allies and send a stern message to Iranian leaders that it will not be rewarded for its disruptive policies.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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