By Teymour Nsouli
New York City, New York
Just weeks before the end of President Donald Trump's time in office, U.S-Iran tensions are at a boiling point. On January 3, 2020, the U.S. assassinated Iran's major general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Qasem Soleimani, which led the two countries to the brink of war. Instead, the Iranians took a calculated response to the incident by launching a volley of rockets at U.S. forces in Iraq (for more details, refer to our article on this by Sahib Ahmed al-Shukri, from Najaf, Iraq) while being sure that no soldiers would be killed, preventing a full-scale operation by the U.S. as a retaliatory measure. However, just a year later, the threat of avenging the commander's death still stands and is being taken very seriously. The threat not only comes from Iran but also from Iraq. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the commander of Al-Hashd Al-Sha'abi and Kata'ib Hezbollah (Iraqi and Iranian state sponsored militant groups) was also killed alongside Soleimani, which inevitably heightened calls for an end to the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq and created a hostile environment with frequent rocket attacks on Baghdad's green zone.
Recently, the U.S. has upped its military presence by frequently flying B-52 bombers over the Persian Gulf and stationing the U.S.S. Nimitz to the region. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has characterized these military moves as a "plot to fabricate pretext for war." Despite the severe threats made by top officials in Iran, including Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the U.S. is also at fault for causing instability in the region. President Trump wants to hinder the chances of President-elect Joe Biden renegotiating and returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal which was signed in 2015 by Iran, the U.S., and five other world powers. Launching a military strike in Trump's final days as president will indeed create obstacles in front of Joe Biden and would make it extremely difficult to renegotiate any deal. Donald Trump has been periodically imposing increasingly heavy sanctions on Iran as part of his maximum pressure campaign and has even discussed striking Iran's nuclear facilities with top advisors in the Pentagon. Trump supposedly was persuaded not to order that strike.
It's been more than a week since the one-year anniversary of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis' assassinations. As previously stated, calls for revenge have grown, which is being used to justify the increase of U.S. military presence in the region. To add to the instability, in November, a top Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated, and Iran pinned the blame (without proof) on Israel and the United States. Harsh revenge was vowed for the scientist’s killing, yet none has occurred. Many hypothesize that Iran may be serving this dish cold waiting for the right time to respond, which won't hinder the possibility of making a deal with the Biden administration. However, Iran recently announced that they would begin to enrich uranium to 20 percent purity (the Nuclear Deal restricted this number to 3.67%, and it takes 90% purity to reach “weapons grade” classification), which could be seen as a way of revenge. A spokeswoman for the Islamic Republic’s nuclear agency said that Iran could easily start enriching the nuclear fuel up to the 90% mark. Such an achievement would pose a very real threat to both the United States and Israel, to which many of Iran’s government figures have promised ‘death’.
On January 4, Iran seized a South Korean oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz (through which more than 20% of the world’s oil passes) for violating maritime rules, sending a message to the U.S. that Iran has full control of the Persian Gulf. In a recent escalatory move, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Iran (without proof) supports al-Qaeda and is a “home base for them.” This, however, was quickly denied by Iran's foreign minister and he described Pompeo's claims as “warmongering lies.”
The final stretch of Trump's term is undoubtedly creating a dangerous and volatile situation in the Middle East with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (CA-12) announcing that she discussed the danger of Trump and his ability to order a nuclear strike with a top military official. A close eye should be kept on the Middle East in the next few weeks, especially since a tiny miscalculation can make things turn south very quickly.