With 2020 now history and President Donald Trump’s administration less than two weeks away from that status, Iran’s leaders seem eager to announce that they are back in business.
Their principal line of business is extortion and hostage-taking, particularly with the country’s oil industry moribund in the face of U.S.-led sanctions. They hung the “open” sign on the door last week by seizing a South Korean-flagged tanker in the Persian Gulf while it was traveling between Saudi and Emirati ports. Armed Revolutionary Guard boats escorted the tanker and its multinational crew of 20 to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.
Officially, the seizure was to investigate the ship’s alleged dumping of pollutants. In the world that exists apart from Iranian fabrication, the tanker is a bargaining chip, taken immediately ahead of a planned visit by a high-ranking South Korean diplomat. Iran was not shy about signaling its real motivation, which is to pry loose $7 billion in funds frozen by Seoul in response to U.S. sanctions. The Iranians understandably want to be paid for products they have delivered. From their perspective, this act of piracy is a form of debt collection.
Almost simultaneously, Iran announced that it has stepped up uranium enrichment at an underground nuclear complex. Bringing uranium to a 20% concentration, which Iran said it is doing, takes the country far outside the commitments it made in the 2015 nuclear agreement negotiated with Barack Obama’s administration and other major powers. (Trump withdrew the United States from the deal in 2018.) Tehran intends the uranium enrichment, like the high seas strong-arming of commercial shipping, to create another bargaining chip. In this case, it’s one with which the regime can greet the incoming Joe Biden administration.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted of the stepped up uranium enrichment: “Our measures are fully reversible upon FULL compliance by ALL.” It is unlikely anyone missed his meaning.
Biden has said he wants to return to the 2015 nuclear agreement. It remains to be seen whether he will choose to spend the political capital to do so, and what return on that investment he will demand if he does. He has said Iran must return to compliance before the agreement resumes, while Iran insists the U.S. must lift sanctions first. After the disastrous year the Iranians experienced in 2020 under Trump’s pressure, Biden and his fellow Democrats also would be taking considerable political risk if concessions to Tehran were followed by further Iranian aggression, either directly or through their regional proxies.
The state of the Middle East stands as arguably the Trump administration's greatest success, particularly after the pandemic unwound many of its domestic economic gains. U.S.-brokered peace agreements between Israel and four Arab states (Sudan, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain), along with what amounts to a working arrangement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, left Iran and its regional clients in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza isolated; Lebanon also endured a devastating explosion at the port of Beirut, controlled by Iran’s Hezbollah allies. Financial sanctions and the killing a year ago of a top Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander left the Tehran regime enfeebled. The remote-controlled killing of a leading and closely guarded Iranian atomic scientist, widely presumed to be Israel’s work, was a blow to the country’s prestige as much as to its nuclear capability.
The military-clerical complex that governs Iran had many reasons to greet the new year as an opportunity to turn a new page. Once they turned it, the rest of the world could see that it holds the same old story.