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Soleimani’s Successor Is Failing

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As I have earlier indicated (January 7th) under the headline “How Iran Can Checkmate Trump”, the way that Iran could easily have checkmated Trump would have been 

Iran’s leaders have promised retaliation for what Trump did. But they haven’t said when it will be done, or what it will entail. If they just stand back and wait while the world-at-large (other than American billionaires’ core foreign allies the aristocracies of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and UK) gradually abandon their alliances with the U.S. regime, then not only Iran but also the U.S. regime’s other main targets — Russia and China — will naturally rise in the international order, and this could become the way that the world’s most dangerous imperialistic regime, the United States Government (since 1948 the serial perpetrator of coups and invasions), will finally be able to be defeated peacefully, and defanged gradually thereafter.

That would be Iran’s retaliation — none.

(I detailed there the follow-up, but that passage in the presentation is the core of the presentation.)

Iran has already violated it: on the night of January 7th, they rocket-attacked some U.S. facilities in Iraq.

One of the features of Soleimani’s greatness as a general was his understanding of the strategic uses of restraint, and of waiting-the-enemy-out, so as to enable the sheer evilness, of his opponent’s provocation, to become more publicly displayed, to which he was responding, by his retaliation against it. When he did retaliate, he did it only in ways which weren’t immediately clear and which therefore were deniable for long-enough a time so that if and when they did finally become clear, the evilness of what had provoked the response had already become vastly more clear to the entire world than what his response to the provocation was. Strategically, Soleimani was a master of this technique, and it couldn’t have been used, at all, if Iran’s Government had been in the wrong on the particular matter to which it was being applied. In order for this technique to be able to succeed, the enemy against which it is being targeted has to be really evil — that is, the ruler of the enemy (in this case, Trump) needs to be evil and widely known or suspected to be evil (and suspected even amongst the target’s — Trump’s —  international allies: in this case, the EU), in order for this technique to succeed (by alienating the target’s allies away from the target — weakening the support that the target will be receiving from his allies).

The longer that Iran would have waited before responding, the more pressure would be upon Trump now, to terminate his sanctions against Iran, after Trump’s having illegally — not just in U.S. but in international law — assassinated Iran’s #2 leader. 

Instead, Iran did quickly retaliate. A retaliation is a onetime event; even a small retaliation, such as Iran did here, is the only retaliation that the public will recognize as being a “response” to the attack to which it was responding. The retaliator doesn’t get a second chance to retaliate for Trump’s having assassinated Iran’s #2 leader. On January 8th, Iran launched, according to MarketWatch, “about a dozen” missiles at two U.S. military bases in Iraq, and no injuries or deaths were reported to result. 

The extraordinarily reliable IntelliNews site (which is EU-based) had the real story on January 8th, “Analysis: Theory Iran’s strikes on US Iraq bases were ‘for show’ firming up”, and they opened:

The theory that Iran went out of its way to avoid causing US casualties during its late January 7 missile strikes on military bases in Iraq has been boosted by a statement from Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s spokesman that the PM received word from Tehran that its response to the US assassination of its top general was either imminent or under way.

Although Iranian officials have told the home audience via official and semi-official news agencies that 80 US personnel were killed and around 200 injured in the attack, no casualties have been reported by Washington or Baghdad despite 17 missiles fired from Iran raining down on Al-Asad airbase in Iraq’s Anbar province and five targeted at a base in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil around 01:30 local time. The bases house US troops. US President Donald Trump had warned Iran that a move to revenge the January 3 drone missile killing of Qasem Soleimani — who was Iran’s second most important official — might trigger a “disproportionate” US response.

“Shortly after midnight on Wednesday we received a verbal message from the Islamic Republic of Iran that the Iranian response to the assassination of the martyr Qasem Soleimani had started or was about to start,” Abdul Mahdi’s spokesman said.

It is unclear whether it was a tip-off from Abdul Mahdi that enabled the US and allies to get all military personnel out of harm’s way, such as by moving soldiers to shelters, or whether the commanders of the troops responded to early warning systems that detected the ballistic missiles. The latter scenario seems more likely, but the fact that Tehran contacted Abdul Mahdi in the way that it did shows that it was not counting with any big element of surprise. …

Clearly, then, Iran’s top leaders weren’t even thinking of not issuing a quick ‘retaliation’, but were instead solely focused on making it a ‘retaliation’ that would not provoke a full-scale and prompt destruction of Iran by the United States. Their strategic incompetency without Soleimani was simply stunning.

Soleimani was indispensable to Iran’s military success, and now he was gone — Trump had assassinated him, and (because Soleimani was gone) Trump was going to get away with having done so.

The ball then was, of course, in Trump’s court, and the international pressure upon him to terminate his anti-Iran sanctions was now gone, or nearly so, because the provocation (Trump’s assassination of Soleimani) was already responded to (by this paltry missile-attack). Iran blew its enormous international PR-opportunity, to weaken its self-declared enemy, which is Iran’s most powerful enemy (far more powerful than Saudi Arabia or Israel), the U.S. regime. The likelihood, now, of Europe’s separating itself from U.S. on Iran and of increasing its resistance against America’s anti-Iran sanctions, is vastly less than would have been the case if Iran had simply “waited” and not responded at all, but only continued threatening to respond, by saying that it will retaliate (so as to satisfy the Iranian public). If Iran had not retaliated, at all, then the growing pressure upon Trump (from Europeans) to capitulate on his sanctions would have been vastly greater, and strategically far more significant, than any growing pressure upon Iran’s Government (internally) to actually retaliate against the U.S. would have been.

Had Iran instead continued to wait, the real retaliation against Trump would then have come from Europeans, who would be becoming now increasingly anti-American on account of his blatantly evil and international-law-breaking assassination of Iran’s #2 leader. Now, they won’t abandon the U.S. regime. There will be little, if any, pressure upon Trump to relent and to end his sanctions against Iran.

Iranians would have been delighted to see Trump squirming against increasing condemnation from Europeans — strategically crucial U.S. allies. Thus, there would have been little to no disappointment among the Iranian public urging “Attack! Attack!” The world-at-large would be increasingly Trump’s opponent on the Iran-issue. Everyone would have come to recognize that Trump was the real loser in this encounter between U.S. v. Iran. It would have grown to become a humiliation of Trump, and of his aggressions. It would have done more to end U.S. sanctions against Iran than any living Soleimani — great a general though he was — would have been able to achieve. It would have been as if Soleimani’s successor had been of Soleimani’s stature.

But that was not to be.

On January 8th, Reuters headlined “After close brush with Iran, Trump finds an off-ramp – for now” and reported that, “Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had said overnight the strikes ‘concluded’ Tehran’s response to the Soleimani’s killing.” What did Tehran win, what did they achieve, by this “response” — this retaliation? Of course, Iran’s Government recognized that this paltry response was puny compared to what had precipitated it, but they were right that “the strikes concluded” their response. They knew that they had lost to Trump. And this failure was the result of disastrous incompetence at the very top of the Iranian Government. Trump had just made a grossly incompetent strategic decision, to murder Soleimani, but Soleimani’s successor, whomever it was, was strategically at least as incompetent as Trump here. Soleimani would never have done anything like this, responded this way, had he still been — as he had been — virtually Iran’s Commander-in-Chief (not the President, not the Supreme Leader, Khamenei, the cleric who is really the very top official there). Of course, if Khamenei took over the C-i-C role in Soleimani’s absence, then he is responsible for this enormous strategic blunder. But, in that case, the man whom he had just selected to be Soleimani’s successor should have simply refused the appointment, since it then would be merely a title without the power, a hollow shell.

The blunder — whomever did it — is exacerbated because even Republican U.S. Senators, behind closed doors with the President’s team on January 8th, were shocked that Trump’s team had no evidence they could offer that corroborated Trump’s alleged reason to justify assassinating Soleimani. Apparently, the atrocity had been based only on lies. Some of the Senators seem to have felt insulted by this — that they hadn’t even been consulted in advance, about an invasion (assassination of Iran’s #2 leader, on Iraqi soil) that was ‘justifiable’ only on the basis of dubious ‘evidence’.

As the Reuters article said:

“Five days into this and you still haven’t heard anything about ‘imminent danger,’” said a former senior administration official. “That means they’ve got a problem.”

CNN reported that, “Senate Democrats — and two key GOP senators — slammed a classified briefing Wednesday on the strike that killed Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani, charging that administration officials failed to provide evidence to show the attack [which Trump alleged that Soleimani was planning] was imminent and dismissed the role Congress should play in deciding to take military action.”

Trump was just another George W. Bush, another Barack Obama, another international aggressor on the basis of lies. And yet, Iran simply caved to him, immediately, no contest. They had been handed the golden opportunity which they had always dreamed of having (to drive the Europeans to reject Trump’s anti-Iran sanctions and then to counter-sanction against the United States), and simply blew it. Who did this enormous strategic blunder? How did it happen?

On January 3rd, Professor Narges Barjoghli, of Johns Hopkins’s prestigious School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) reported “Soleimani’s replacement announced by Khamenei: Brigadier General Ismail Ghani, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, active in the Quds Force for years, including in fighting against ISIS in Syria.” It’s already obvious that Soleimani’s successor is not nearly as skilled as was Soleimani. If Ghani is actually Soleimani’s successor, then Khamenei needs to select another. Otherwise, Khamenei needs to depart the Commander-in-Chief role immediately.

On January 9th, Russia’s RT bannered “‘Harsher revenge’: Revolutionary Guards commander vows it’s not over after Iranian missile strikes on US forces in Iraq” and reported that “A senior Iranian military commander has promised further action against the United States, a day after Tehran launched missiles at two bases housing US troops in Iraq.” Iran’s Foreign Minister, Zarif, having admitted that the missile-strikes had “concluded” the matter (which was tragically a truthful statement), outraged the Guards’ Commander: “Abdollah Araghi said that Iran would take ‘harsher revenge soon’.” Whether Araghi was correct or not about his prediction-threat, any such additional ‘retaliation’ would be labelled by the global public not as a retaliation, but instead as an aggression, by Iran, against the United States. The fact was beginning to sink in, to Iranians, that someone, at or near the very top, of Iran’s Government, was incompetent. Not only did Iran’s Government not checkmate Trump for his Soleimani-assassination move, but it weakened itself internally by its catastrophic counter-move. Increased unrest within Iran will result.

Unless Iran promptly replaces its new top general by one that has Soleimani’s stature, the world could now easily slide quickly into, first, much of the Middle East becoming a vast pool of blood (since Trump still retains the support of Europe’s leaders — even after that assassination), and then, as a likely result from that massive bloodshed, either a capitulation of all countries that the U.S. regime has been trying to take over (starting with Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Venezuela — the first resisting ones that might be taken now), or else an outright World War III if Russia (militarily the strongest holdout against the U.S. empire) were to resist such a finalization of the U.S. regime’s grab for total global power.

The worst-case scenario would be either a dictatorial and militarily imposed global U.S. empire, or else a nuclear war that pits the world’s two nuclear super-powers (U.S. and Russia) against each other.

By contrast, if the method that I had proposed on January 7th (no response — other than mere verbal threats to respond — as constituting Iran’s retaliation against that assassination) can, somehow, still be implemented (i.e., if it’s not already too late — as I think it is — for this situation to be able to be salvaged), then the sheer repulsiveness of today’s America’s cravenous and insatiable fascist imperialism will rise and break up and end the NATO alliance; and then Europe, instead of continuing to be allied westward across the Atlantic, with the United States, will fundamentally re-orient itself toward the east and unification with the rest of the EurAsian land-mass (which is by far the world’s largest), so that, instead of the EU, there will be a much larger, and globally dominant, EurAsian federation of nations, which would ultimately come to lead even at the U.N. The U.N. itself would then become freed from its present dictatorial host, the U.S. regime, which won’t even allow to enter the United States (to attend there) foreign leaders of whatever nations that the U.S. regime happens to be trying, at the time, to conquer. Consequently, the result would be that, instead of U.S. dictat constituting whatever ‘international law’ exists in actual practice, the international law that emanates from the U.N. itself might come ultimately to be applied as actually ruling and being applied over international relations. It certainly isn’t now — especially not after Iran’s blunder.

The world’s future will be either a global U.S. international dictatorship imposed by force (the U.S.), or else a global international democratic federation of nations that is ruled under the U.N.’s existing and evolving body of international law. In the latter instance, the question of whether or not any given nation is a democracy would be strictly a matter determined by and within that given nation; and, whereas international human-rights law will have a bearing in the global body (the U.N.), it will never bear in such a way as to override the primary sovereignty of any nation’s Government within that nation’s boundaries. This is ultimately the only way that global peace will be able to become established and maintained (if that still remains possible). It entails the handover, to the U.N., of all nuclear weapons, of all countries. This entire arrangement was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vision, and it ended when he did, but it conceivably could become established in the real world, if and when the U.S. Government gives up on its dream and intention (ever since 26 July 1945) of conquering and ruling the entire world. But who is there now who can bring that about?

Iran’s January 8th missiles fired into Iraq probably foreclosed any such optimistic outcome.

On January 9th, Reuters headlined “At U.N., U.S. justifies killing Iranian commander as self-defense”, and reported:

The United States told the United Nations on Wednesday that the killing of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani last week was self-defense and vowed to take additional action “as necessary” in the Middle East to protect U.S. personnel and interests. …

The killing of Soleimani in Baghdad on Friday was justified under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, wrote Craft in the letter seen by Reuters, adding “the United States is prepared to take additional actions in the region as necessary to continue to protect U.S. personnel and interests.”

Under Article 51, countries are required to “immediately report” to the 15-member Security Council any measures taken in exercising the right of self-defense. …

Also on January 9th, RT headlined “Trump confirms more sanctions against Iran” and reported his saying, with evident pride: “It’s already been done. … They were very severe, but now it’s increased substantially.” He was taking full advantage of his win, to increase it, and to increase the stakes for Iran, doing all he could to force an attack from Iran which would be destructive enough to ‘justify’ the U.S. (plus any of its attacked allies such as Israel) destroying Iran. Like Hitler, he’ll grab all he can get, and he’s happy to destroy whatever he labels an ‘enemy’.

The supplicant will get from Emperor Trump nothing but a swift, very hard and bloody, kick in the teeth. Obviously, at this stage, to resist in any way would be suicidal.

Has the U.S. regime now, already, conquered both Iran and the U.N. — and  the EU? (Europe still holds the cards here. Otherwise put: the ball is still theirs to play, and what they do with it will determine the world’s future.)

In a subsequent report, I shall suggest a way for the Europeans to force the U.S. regime to accept peacefully the end of the trans-Atlantic alliance and the re-orientation of the European nations toward the east — toward ultimately a United States of EurAsia (by whatever name). The first step will be forcing Trump to end his secondary sanctions regarding Iran. European leaders still have the capacity to save the world, if they want to do so. Trump right now is not just exceedingly powerful; he is also exceedingly vulnerable, because this is America’s Presidential-election year. I don’t expect European leaders — or any leaders — to protect the world’s future (for example, the Paris Climate Agreement was just for show), but some might have a sincere interest in doing that. Things aren’t yet entirely hopeless.

Investigative historian Eric Zuesse is the author, most recently, of They’re Not Even Close: The Democratic vs. Republican Economic Records, 1910-2010

Middle East

Netanyahu-Pompeo secret meeting with MBS: A clear message to Joe Biden and Iran

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Israeli media reported on Monday, November 24, 2020, that Netanyahu had secretly traveled to Saudi Arabia on Sunday to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. According to some media reports, the meeting took place in the city of Neom on the Red Sea coast, and was attended by Yossi Cohen, the head of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence and security service, but Benny Gantz, the Minister of Defense, and Gabi Ashkenazi, the Israeli Foreign Minister, They were not during this trip. Although some claim that Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Salman have met before, this secret trip is very important in this sensitive situation. That means less than two months before the end of the Trump administration, the US move could have far-reaching implications for Middle East countries, regional security policies and the future of their relations with Israel.

On the other hand, the Donald Trump administration has helped mediate an Israel’s peace agreement with neighboring Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Bahrain. The normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, as one of the most important Muslim countries in the Middle East, has always been on the agenda of the administration of US President Donald Trump and he hopes to lead Saudi Arabia and Israel to an agreement. About two months ago, the UAE and Bahrain signed a joint statement in Washington on a commitment to peace called the “Ibrahim Agreement” with Israel. The agreement has been described as a turning point in the official relations between the Arab states and Israel in recent decades. Following the announcement of the agreement, Mohammed bin Salman welcomed Saudi Arabia’s efforts to improve Israel’s relations with the Arab world, but stressed that his country wanted a permanent solution to the Palestinian question.Therefore, in this text, by examining the reasons for this secret trip, the possible consequences for the future security of the Middle East region as well as regional coalitions towards Iran have been explained.

The normalization of Arab countries’ relations with Israel has been largely due to their shared concerns about Iran. However, the interesting thing about this secret trip is that the Saudi authorities deny it. This means that Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin FarhanAl-Saud tweeted: “I have seen press reports about a purported meeting between HRH the Crown Prince and Israeli officials during the recent visit by @SecPompeo. No such meeting occurred. The only officials present were American and Saudi”.However, Saudi Arabia does not talk about this trip for various reasons, which could include the following: 1) Saudi Arabia is the cradle of the Islamic world and is not yet internally ready to establish open relations with Israel. However, Saudi Arabia is the most important country in the Arab world, and the normalization of relations with Israel will allow other Arab countries in the region to follow the path of other countries to establish relations with Israel. 2) Saudi Arabia stated in the Arab League that it does not allow direct flights to Israel and does not even allow Israeli planes to cross the skies of Riyadh, and if it does so and establishes a relationship with Israel, its credibility will be reduced. Saudi Arabia has said in the past that it will only recognize Israel if the Palestinians achieve an independent state. Israelis also usually travel to Saudi Arabia with a special permit or with foreign passports, most of whom are Muslims, a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

Send a clear message to Joe Biden’s government

After the Trump administration came to power in 2016, the Israeli and Saudi sides were very happy. This means that the foreign policy of the Obama administration (2008-2016) in the Middle East was not very satisfactory for Saudi Arabia and Israel. That is why the actions of the Trump administration, and especially the efforts of Jared Kushner and Pompeo to improve relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia and other countries, have improved their regional situation. For Examples can mentioned US-Saudi military agreements and the withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, maximum pressure on Iran, the Century Deal Plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and normalization Israel’s relations with Arab countries such as the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan. However, with the end of the Trump administration’s presidency in less than two months, concerns have grown for Joe Biden as the next US president for Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries.

Therefore, one of the main points of this trip is to send a clear message to the Biden administration to show that Israel and Saudi Arabia are in the same direction on regional issues, especially confronting Iran, and that the Biden administration must continue the path of the Trump administration. Although it should be noted that Israel’s relationship with the Democratic Party has warmed over the past half century, it is imperative that any government that wants to rule in the United States must pay special attention to Israel’s interests and security. Perhaps one of the levers of pressure on the US government is the powerful Zionist lobbies in the United States, which play a special role in US security strategy and foreign policy. Thus, the secret meeting between Mohammed bin Salman, Netanyahu and Pompeo means that Saudi Arabia considers the US presence in the Middle East necessary and to maintain security in the region.

Maintaining a regional coalition against Iran

Another reason for this trip is the issue of Iran. This means that during the four years of the Trump administration, the toughest measures were taken against Iran, which was acceptable to Saudi Arabia and Israel. These include the unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018, maximum pressure on Iran and further economic sanctions, the assassination of Qasem Soleimani in Iraq, the formation of a regional coalition against Iran, and attacks on Iranian forces in Syria and Iraq. Israel considers Iran its greatest enemy, and Saudi Arabia, which cut ties with Iran four years ago, sees the Islamic Republic as a serious rival and threat.

But in his remarks, Biden said a return to a nuclear deal with Iran had raised concerns in Saudi Arabia and Israel. Saudi Arabia and Israel have openly sent a message to Biden that Riyadh and Tel Aviv will continue the Trump-formed coalition against Iran, and that Biden must follow Trump’s lead, keep up the pressure on Iran, and respond to Iran’s regional presence, ballistic missiles, nuclear deal, and tensions in regional crises such as Iraq and Syria. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and Israel, in order to maintain their security, want the United States to be present in the region and, as the leader of the region, to be able to reduce the growing influence of Iran and Russia. Therefore, the main demand of Saudi Arabia and Israel from the Biden government is that Iran must abide by all its obligations.

Netanyahu also met with Mohammed bin Salman and Mike Pompeo after the media reported about two weeks ago that the Trump administration was planning a series of new sanctions against Iran in the final weeks of its work, in coordination with Israel and several Gulf Arab states. The reason for such a move is the increase in non-nuclear sanctions and the increasing pressure on Iran to make it harder for the Biden administration to return to the nuclear deal. Both the United States and Saudi Arabia and Israel are waiting for the next government in Iran. It is unlikely that the Biden government will consider the Iran issue as one of its priorities in the next year. Economic problems and the Corona crisis will be the most important issues for the Biden government.

Changing the security balance in the Middle East

Less than two months after the end of the Trump administration, some believe that there is a possibility of changing the regional balance. This means that there is a possibility of a limited military attack and covert operation by the US-Israel-Saudi Arabia against Iran and the government of Bashar al-Assad. A claim that may be different from reality. Although some see, the transfers of the B-53 bomber to the region as an important reason for this, Israel and Saudi Arabia themselves know that entering into a limited war with Iran could make things difficult for them. Saudi Arabia and Tel Aviv believe that with the advent of the Biden government and its multilateral policy on regional issues and the possible return to a nuclear deal with Iran, crises in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen may continue, with the threat of Iran and its influence. Security will change the region to the detriment of Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Therefore, before the end of Trump’s presidency, they are trying to form a US-Israel-Saudi regional alliance to maintain the balance of power so that it can somehow intensify it during Biden. With Biden in office, the Middle East regional order appears to be moving toward security, and tensions between key regional actors such as Saudi Arabia and Israel and Iran are spreading. Finally, Russia’s mediating role should be mentioned. As an important regional player, it has been able to maintain the balance of power between the countries of the region and has been recognized as an important winner in regional crises. Russia’s relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel are going well, which is why Riyadh and Tel Aviv want US support to counter Iran. Although Russia is also pursuing its own national interests, it will try to take advantage of the tensions between these actors and undermine the US unilateral presence.The trip is for reasons such as sending a clear message to the next US administration and Joe Biden to cooperate fully with Riyadh and Tel Aviv, and on the other hand, to continue to put maximum pressure on Iran and balance regional powers in favor of Saudi Arabia and Israel.

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Middle East

Iranian nuclear problem again: The storm clouds are gathering

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The nuclear problem of Iran is once again becoming the focus of global media attention, and there are several reasons for this.

First, US President-elect Joe Biden (although no official results of the November 3 vote have been announced yet), who generally rejects the foreign policy of the current President Donald Trump, said that he will make  America’s return to the landmark Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, one of his administration’s main priorities. The announcement was certainly not lost on political scientists, analysts and journalists, who started actively discussing the new situation around the Iranian nuclear problem.

Second, this renewed interest in the future of the 2015 accord is also explained by the “persistence” of the Trump administration, which, 60 days now left  before it will be moving out of the White House, is ramping up its  traditional “maximum pressure” on Iran by introducing a new set of sanctions…

Third, this is the internal political struggle in Iran, now that President Hassan Rouhani – one of the main authors of the JCPOA – is due to step down when his second term in office expires in 2021.

Rouhani’s upcoming departure has been a boost to the conservative radicals predominant in the government, who are all set to step up their fight against the JCPOA. Indeed, their discontent was directed not so much at Washington, as at President Rouhani, who in their opinion, which has been gaining popularity at home, made a mistake by joining President Barack Obama in creating the JCPOA. This means that Rouhani’s successor may be less open to communication with the West, and, to a certain extent, unwilling to abide by the terms of the agreement.

Throughout Donald Trump’s four years in the White House, President Rouhani has been trying hard to keep the JCPOA alive and give diplomacy a chance even though Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has increasingly warned against contacts with Washington, especially since President Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear accord in 2018.

However, mindful of the Trump administration’s aggressive policy towards the Islamic Republic, exactly a year after the US pullout from the JCPOA, the Iranian leadership began to gradually scale back its commitments under the nuclear deal.

Meanwhile, the “nuclear situation” in Iran now looks rather alarming and even dangerous.

In a confidential report circulated to member states on November 10, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that, as of November 2, Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium had reached 2,442.9 kilograms, which is 12 times the amount allowed under the JCPOA. Under the agreement, Iran is only allowed to produce up to 300kg of enriched uranium in a particular compound form (UF6), which is the equivalent of 202.8kg of uranium.

The IAEA added that Iran was continuing to enrich uranium to a purity of up to 4.5% – in violation of the 3.67% threshold agreed under the 2015 deal.

According to the UN nuclear watchdog’s latest quarterly report, Iran has completed the deployment of the first set of advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges at an underground facility in Natanz. Tehran had earlier informed the IAEA of its intention to transfer three cascades of advanced centrifuges to Natanz. The first cascade of IR-2m centrifuges, has already been installed and connected, but is not yet operational, since gaseous uranium hexafluoride, the feedstock for the production of enriched uranium, is not yet supplied to the system. The Iranians are also installing a second cascade of more efficient IR-4 centrifuges. A third cascade of IR-6 centrifuges is now in the pipeline.

Moving underground equipment previously located on the surface, and using more advanced centrifuges than the first generation IR-1 units is a violation of Tehran’s obligations under the JCPOA.

The Natanz nuclear facility, located about 200 kilometers south of Tehran, is an advanced complex, consisting of two main facilities – the Experimental Plant, commissioned in 2003, and the Industrial Plant, commissioned in 2007. The latter consists of two underground reinforced concrete buildings, each divided into eight workshops. The plant is well protected against air strikes with an almost eight-meter-thick high-strength concrete roof, covered with a 22-meter layer of earth.

In late October, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi confirmed that Iran is also building an underground facility in Natanz to assemble centrifuges of a new generation, more productive and efficient. This is equally at variance with the terms of the JCPOA accord, which has suffered erosion and destabilization since the US withdrawal.

Just as Academician Alexey Arbatov very aptly noted in his article “Iranian Nuclear Perspective”: “There is no reason for such underground structures and, accordingly, for colossal additional costs if, as Tehran says, they are for peaceful nuclear energy generation. References to the threat of an Israeli air strike are equally unconvincing, since what we are talking about is ‘peaceful atom.’ Indeed, all other elements of the nuclear industry are not protected from an airstrike and can be destroyed if the enemy seeks to prevent the development of peaceful, rather than military, nuclear energy in Iran. History knows only two examples of similar underground nuclear power projects: an underground nuclear power plant (Atomgrad) built by the Soviet Union near Krasnoyarsk to produce weapons-grade plutonium, and a uranium enrichment complex, apparently being built in the mountains of North Korea. Both of a military nature, of course, meant to produce weapons-grade nuclear materials even during the war, despite air strikes.”

Judging by the latest IAEA report, the agency is also unsatisfied with Tehran’s explanations about the presence of nuclear materials at an undeclared facility in the village of Turkuzabad (about 20 km south of Tehran), where man-made uranium particles were found last year, and continues to consider the Iranian response “technically unreliable.”

In his November 13, 2020 report about the agency’s work to the UN General Assembly, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said that the IAEA continues to verify the non-proliferation of nuclear materials pledged by Iran in keeping with the terms of its Safeguards Agreement. In August, Grossi visited Tehran and met with President Rouhani and other senior Iranian officials. During the visit, the sides agreed to settle certain issues pertaining to the implementation of safeguards, including IAEA inspectors’ access to two facilities in Iran. Inspections have since been carried out at both locations and environmental samples taken by inspectors are being analyzed.

“I welcome the agreement between the agency and Iran, which I hope will reinforce cooperation and enhance mutual trust,” Rafael Grossi summed up.

Even though Iran is formally de jure involved in the nuclear deal, the hardline conservative majority in the country’s political elite opposed to the JCPOA has taken a new step towards Iran’s withdrawal from the NPT.

In a statement issued on November 11, 2020, Khojat-ol-eslam Mojtaba Zonnour, chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of the Mejlis (Iranian parliament), said that the MPs had approved (but not yet passed as law) a “Strategic Plan for Countering Anti-Iranian Sanctions.”

According to the “Plan,” upon its approval in parliament, the government shall suspend within the next two months any access by IAEA inspectors outside the provisions of the Additional Protocol.  And also, if Iran’s banking relations with Europe and Iranian oil sales do not return to normal within three months after the adoption of the law, the government is to stop voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol.

The Iranians insist that the level of cooperation that has in recent years been going on between Tehran and the IAEA in monitoring the country’s nuclear program was even higher than what is envisaged by the Additional Protocol, including their introduction of a special checkup regime for IAEA inspectors. Moreover, Tehran never misses a chance to remind that before the JCPOA, Europe was buying between 700,000 and one million barrels of Iranian oil a day, and that economic and banking relations were normal.

Mojtaba Zonnour emphasized that the United States walked out of the JCPOA in order to impose new sanctions on the Islamic Republic, adding that the Europeans had failed to meet their obligations under the JCPOA and had been cheating Iran for several years. He also noted that in keeping with the “Strategic Plan for Countering Anti-Iranian Sanctions” the IAEA will only be allowed to monitor the implementation of the Safeguards Agreement and the NPT requirements.

Upon its approval by the Mejlis, the “Plan” envisions a radical refusal by Iran to comply with a number of key obligations under the JCPOA.

Thus, the Fordow nuclear fuel enrichment plant, redesigned in line with the JCPOA requirements into a research center, will again become a plant for the production of enriched uranium. The number of new IR-6 centrifuges there will be increased to 1,000 by the end of the Iranian calendar year (March 20, 2021) to turn out up to 120 kg of uranium enriched to 20% a year.

The Iranians are also going to expand their enrichment capacities and bring the production of uranium enriched to 5% up to at least 500 kg per month, compared to just 300 kg allowed by the JCPOA.

Within four months from the date of the Strategic Plan’s entry into force, Tehran intends to restore the 40 megawatt heavy water reactor in Arak to the level it operated at prior to the conclusion of the JCPOA accord, which had it redesigned so that it would not be able to produce weapons-grade plutonium. In January 2016, the reactor core was dismantled.

As Mojtaba Zonnour quite frankly explained in his statement, “In the above-mentioned Plan, we determined the extent to which our nuclear activities would intensify and stated that we had abandoned the measures taken in accordance with the requirements of the JCPOA. For example, we decided to increase the level of uranium enrichment, increase the amount of uranium accumulation, bring the 40 megawatt heavy-water reactor in Arak to its pre-JCPOA state, install modern centrifuges, and the like. <…> The Plan singles out two very important points: one is that if, after we enact the law on the “Strategic Plan for Countering Anti-Iranian Sanctions,” the Europeans change their behavior and resume their commitments under the JCPOA, of if the US wants to return to the JCPOA, the Iranian government will no longer have the authority to unilaterally suspend the implementation of this law. It will need permission from parliament – it is the Majlis that makes the final decision. ”

It is worth mentioning here that in its draft law the Mejlis provides for  criminal responsibility for non-compliance by individuals and legal entities with the provisions of the law on the “Strategic Plan…” with violators facing  punishment of up to 20 years behind bars.

Enactment of the law on the “Strategic Plan for Countering Anti-Iranian Sanctions” and its implementation by the government is tantamount to Iran’s withdrawal from the JCPOA. Moreover, Mojtaba Zonnour said that the government could fast-track the adoption of the law on the “Plan,” as there is an administrative and legal opportunity for it to be formally considered by the parliamentary Commission on National Security and Foreign Policy within 10 days, and subsequently adopted by an open session of the Majlis.

This means that by the time US President-elect Joe Biden takes office on January 20, 2021, the “Plan” may have already been adopted. The Iranian authorities obviously had this date very much in mind when unveiling the “Plan” to the general public. 

On the one hand, the draft law on the “Strategic Plan for Countering Anti-Iranian Sanctions” can be seen as an attempt by Tehran to “blackmail” the new US administration, as well as Britain and the European Union, in order to achieve the main goal of lifting the sanctions even by restoring in some form the JCPOA accord (or drawing up JCPO-2), but on Iranian terms. On the other – to get a bargaining chip for a future dialogue, possibly with the very same P5+1 group of world powers (Russia, US, Britain, France, China and Germany), but now a dialogue from a position of strength.

No wonder the already familiar Khojat-ol-eslam Zonnour said: “In fact, the nature of [US] arrogance is such that when they see you weak, they put more pressure on you, and if our position against the system of domination and arrogance is weak, this does not serve our interests. Consequently, the Iranian people have the right to respond to questions from a position of dignity and strength.”

As for Khojat-al-eslam Zonnour, he is a radical politician and the fiercest opponent of the JCPOA and a rapprochement with the West in parliament.  The following statement tells it all: “Unfortunately, today some of our statesmen use expressions that are contrary to the dignity of the Iranian people, our authority and self-respect. The fact that in their tweets and comments our president and first vice president say that ‘God willing, the new US administration will return to the law and fulfill its obligations’ these are not correct or noble things to say. Such words encourage the enemy to defy its commitments, and when it doesn’t see our resolve and thinks we are passive and asking for a favor, it raises the bar and tries to score more points.

Mojtaba Zonnour’s activity can certainly be viewed as an example of a tough internal political struggle, but this way or another his views resonate with the overwhelming majority of members of the current parliament. And the issues of the JCPOA and general opposition to the United States and Europe were not invented by Zonnour alone.

Thus, we can state that the future of the JCPOA is now hanging in the balance as there are powerful forces in both Iran and the US opposed to nuclear deals between the Islamic Republic and the rest of the world.  There is still hope, however, that the economic crisis and the threat of social protests will eventually force Tehran to resume contacts with the United States and the other signatories to the JCPOA accord in order to work out conditions for lifting the sanctions.

In turn, as is evident from statements coming from US President-elect Joe Biden, his administration will be ready for a dialogue with Iran on the nuclear issue, and here the positions of Russia, China, the European Union and the UK are no less important for resolving the newly emerged Iranian nuclear problem.

Just how this negotiation process will be carried out and on what conditions is hard to say now, but there is absolutely no doubt that it is going to be extremely difficult, dramatic, contradictory and protracted. The stakes are too high, it is too important for Iran, its neighbors, the entire Near and Middle East, as well as for preserving the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

 From our partner International Affairs

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Middle East

World Powers Must Address the Nexus of Iran’s Terrorism and Diplomacy

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On coming Friday, a high-ranking Iranian diplomat will stand trial in Belgium along with three co-conspirators in a terrorist plot. The prosecution is an opportunity to hold these four individuals accountable for activities that could have harmed hundreds of advocates for democracy in the Middle East. More than that, it is also an opportunity for Western powers to reconsider their overall approach to the regime that enables and actively promotes such terrorist plots.

The trial concerns the attempted bombing of an international gathering, organized annually near Paris by the coalition of Iranian opposition groups and personalities, National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). Collateral damage of the June 2018 plot could have easily included any number of the high-profile dignitaries who had traveled to the event from throughout Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. Among these were many members of parliament from across Europe, former US Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson, former PM and Foreign Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper and John Baird, former Foreign Ministers of France and Italy, Bernard Kouchner and Giulio Terzi, and President Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.

This list of potential victims stands alongside the French venue as a reason why it is especially important for Western governments to offer an assertive reaction to the terror plot. Ideally, that reaction could have happened very soon after the plot’s details were revealed, particularly after it was announced that the third counsellor at Iran’s embassy in Vienna had been arrested in connection with it. But the trial of that terrorist-diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, represents another opportunity for a unified Western coalition to send a strong message to his handlers in Tehran.

Make no mistake, those handlers were guiding Assadi through the entire process. An initial, months-long investigation into the terror plot led to an announcement from the French Government which stated unequivocally that the plot had been approved at the highest levels of the Iranian regime. This finding has been corroborated every step of the way by the two-year Belgian investigation. Throughout that time, Tehran has explicitly stood behind its agent, as by trying to obstruct his extradition after he was arrested in Germany, just outside the bounds of his Austrian diplomatic immunity.

Despite those efforts to help him escape accountability, an alternative account of the terror plot has gradually emerged which suggests that Assadi was acting as a rogue agent, without the knowledge or consent of his own government. This is nonsense, and it has been appropriately and repeatedly debunked by persons with knowledge of the case, as well as by persons with a solid understanding of how the Iranian regime operates in general.

“The plan for the attack was conceived in the name of Iran and under its leadership,” wrote Jaak Raes, the head of Belgian state security services in recent communications with the media. “It was not a matter of Assadi’s personal initiative.”

It is not even clear why anyone would think otherwise, unless it is because the direct involvement of such a high-ranking diplomat doesn’t seem to be part of Iran’s usual modus operandi. This is a valid point, but the change in tactics should raise more questions about the perceived value of the target in 2018 than it does about who is ultimately responsible for setting that target. In fact, the Iranian regime’s attempted attack on the opposition gathering was predictable because Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had personally acknowledged, that January, that the NCRI coalition was responsible for an ongoing, nationwide upsurge in unrest.

The January uprising inspired countless protests that carried the same anti-government message through the rest of the year, during which time Tehran became fixated on stamping out dissent both at home and abroad. That fixation called for more carefully managed terrorist activity than is usually channeled through the regime’s various terrorist proxies, such as Hezbollah. In essence, the 2018 terror plot only brought the role of Assadi and other Iranian diplomats into the foreground, putting him in a leadership position whereas once he might have simply channeled the regime’s instructions, financial and logistical assistance into the hands of third-party militants.

Now that the curtain has been drawn back on the regime’s existing terrorist infrastructure, the international community must carefully consider how to assure that it is never activated in this or any other way again. It will not be sufficient to just secure conviction for the 2018 conspirators, although this is certainly a step in the right direction. Major world powers should amplify the message of that conviction so the Iranian regime will have no doubts about the consequence of other such terror plots being thwarted in the future.

Many of those who attended the 2018 gathering have recently outlined some of the ways in which this message might be conveyed. In a number of online conferences they used the opportunity to advocate for enhanced economic sanctions on regime authorities, further diplomatic isolation for the regime as a whole and the application of formal terrorist designation of entities like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security.

Diplomatic isolation seems to be an especially contentious topic, especially when advocates raise the prospect of shuttering Iranian embassies and consulates altogether. But details of the Assadi case should receive a broader public airing next Friday and then it should become much easier for policymakers throughout the world to sign onto a foreign policy strategy that acknowledges the Islamic Republic is the furthest thing from an ordinary diplomatic partner.

Far from closing off a pathway for promoting moderation within the Iranian regime, embassy closures would actually limit the regime’s ability to convey terrorist extremism beyond its borders, sometimes even into the heart of Europe. In partnership with other assertive Western policies, this sort of diplomatic isolation can be expected to force the regime into a position where it must either fundamentally transform its behavior in order to survive or else focus exclusively on domestic affairs and risk overthrow by an increasingly restive population.

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