by Hany Ghoraba
Special to IPT News
February 10, 2021
|Iran tested its “most powerful” solid-fuel engine last week.|
The prospect of a renewed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the formal name of the Iranian nuclear deal from which the United States withdrew under President Trump, has a number of Arab governments wary. Those states believe the original deal did little to stem Iran’s military aggression and incessant provocations in the Middle East.
In 2015, six countries – the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, and Germany – signed a deal with Iran capping uranium enrichment at 3 to 4 percent. Weapons grade uranium requires 90 percent enrichment levels. This is troubling because it is considered easier and faster to weapons grade enrichment than it is just to go from 3 percent to 20 percent. After that point, it is only a matter of time to acquire enough enriched uranium material to create a nuclear bomb.
The United States will not lift the sanctions on Iran before it halts its uranium enrichment program, President Joe Biden said in a CBS interview broadcast Sunday. That comment echoes what U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters Jan. 27: “Iran is out of compliance on a number of fronts. And it would take some time, should it make the decision to do so, for it to come back into compliance.”
Iranian Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei rejected Biden’s statement: “The side with the right to set conditions to JCPOA is Iran,” he wrote, “since it abided by all its commitments, not U.S. or 3 European countries who breached theirs,” Later Sunday, Khamenei tweeted, “The post-U.S. era has started.”
He was referring to Britain, France and Germany, which warned Iran against increasing uranium enrichment.
“Dialogue with Iran will be rigorous, and they will need to include our allies in the region for a nuclear deal, and this includes Saudi Arabia,” Macron told Saudi news network Al Arabiya. He offered to be an “honest broker” between the United States and Iran as well as between Iran from one side and Saudi Arabia and Israel from another.
Iran launched what its defense ministry called its “most powerful” solid-fuel engine to date Feb. 1. The launch was a test for “the first launch of the Zoljanah hybrid satellite carrier for sub-orbital testing.” It can carry a 500-pound payload, which is enough to shoot a satellite in low-Earth orbit. It is also considered a technological leap for Iran’s space program and could be used to carry nuclear warheads.
Last month, Iran unveiled an underground missile base on the Arabian Gulf coast. Then, on Jan. 16, Iran claimed it successfully tested long-range ballistic missiles on a hypothetical target 1,125 miles away in the Indian Ocean.
Thus far, it doesn’t appear that any new negotiations would include Iran’s advanced ballistic missile program. “We agreed from the beginning (of nuclear negotiations) that regional and missile issues will not be negotiated in the JCPOA,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. “This (missile) issue was raised but we refused to negotiate over it and we paid a price for not talking (about it).”
Fomenting Regional Violence
Aside from its increasingly advanced missile program, Iran has supported, trained and financed terrorist groups in the region for decades, including the Houthis in Yemen, Hizballah in Lebanon, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and Shiite militias in Iraq such as the Popular Mobilization Forces. Through these proxy groups Iranians believe they control the fate of several Arab countries in the region.
“We are open about the fact that Hizballah’s budget, its income, its expenses, everything it eats and drinks, its weapons and rockets, are from the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in 2016.
It would take Iran around six months to produce enough fissile material for a single nuclear weapon, Israeli Minister of Energy Yuval Steinitz said last week, telling a radio interview that the Trump administration “seriously damaged Iran’s nuclear project and entire force build-up.”
Instead of asserting pressure on the Iranian regime, the Biden administration is sending negative signals to the Saudis and Emiratis. It imposed a temporary freeze on the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE amounting to $23.37 billion, which aimed to deter threats from Iran. A similar decision was made for arms purchases by Saudi Arabia.
The UAE Foreign Ministry downplayed this decision. “As in previous transitions, the UAE anticipated a review of current policies by the new administration,” it said. “Specifically, the F-35 package is much more then (sic) selling military hardware to a partner.”
Moreover, Biden halted support for the Saudi-led war on the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen. “We’re stepping up our diplomacy to end the war in Yemen, a war which has created humanitarian and strategic catastrophe,” Biden said Thursday. That includes a halt on “relevant arms sales.”
The Houthi rebels seized power in a 2015 coup. Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies then intervened to back President Aburabbuh Mansur Hadi to stop an Iranian proxy from taking over all of Yemen. The ongoing war has killed more than 100,000 people and displaced 4 million Yemenis. Houthis have targeted Saudi Arabia by ballistic missiles and drone attacks on civilian and oil production installations. Nevertheless, the Biden administration notified Congress that it will remove the Yemeni terrorist group from the terror list.
The Houthis have been accused of stealing humanitarian aid from hunger stricken Yemenis. David Beasley, executive director of the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP), said the agency found “serious evidence” that food supplies had been diverted in the capital, Sana’a and other Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen. These actions led to an unprecedented outbreak of cholera as Houthis blocked vaccines for the disease.
“This decision [cutting off arms sales] has nothing to do with our view of the Houthis and their reprehensible conduct, including attacks against civilians and the kidnapping of American citizens,” the State Department said.
“… Our action is due entirely to the humanitarian consequences of this last-minute designation from the prior administration, which the United Nations and humanitarian organizations have since made clear would accelerate the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”
A Discouraging Appointment
Biden assigned former Robert Malley, Barack Obama’s lead negotiator in the Iran deal, as Iran envoy. This has raised concern and confusion about the Biden administration’s approach to Iran. As journalist Eli Lake wrote, “Malley’s public advocacy out of government undercuts the message of Sullivan and Blinken that they seek a stronger deal than the one Malley helped negotiate.”
Meanwhile, the Iranian navy continued its piracy in the Arabian Gulf, hijacking a South Korean vessel in the Arabian Gulf in Jan. 5. Iranian authorities demanded the release of $7 billion from South Korea as a result of U.S. sanctions on Iran. Iran released the crew members on Feb. 2, but gained no money.
Earlier in 2019, Iran seized two British oil vessels and detained their crews for months. Iran has tens of billions of dollars of frozen assets, mostly from oil and gas exports blocked in many countries worldwide as a result of international sanctions.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan accused Iran of wreaking havoc in the region, during a meeting last month with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
Gulf state media outlets are brimming with articles about the dangers that Iran represents.
“A non-nuclear Iran is dangerous enough for everyone to take a stand against its hostile behavior,” UK-based Syrian writer Bahaa al- Awam wrote in Emirati newspaper Al Ain. “Whoever is seeking to deter it from owning a nuclear weapon, should know that owning that weapon is one of the manifestations of that behavior and not its source. Meaning that the rulers of Iran seek nuclear power to empower their hostilities and escalation against the region and terrorize their people and the world.”
Iranian opposition had its say as well, as 38 opposition leaders Iran-based including known Iranian opposition leader Heshmat Tabarzadi demanded Biden not to appease the Iranian regime or lift economic sanctions. Iran “spent billions of dollars gained from the Iran nuclear deal on exporting its totalitarian ideology by providing funds to terrorists networks, developing missile technology as offensive leverage to dominate the Persian (Arabian) Gulf and beyond and causing chaos in the Middle East,” wrote the signatories.
Gulf States’ wariness over Iran’s resumption of nuclear activities is growing by the day, compounded by the Biden’s wishy-washy politics towards Iran and its terrorist allies in the region. Given the stakes of alienating America’s Arab allies and Israel over attempts to contain one of the United States’ top sworn enemies for four decades, Biden may wish to tread carefully into committing to a nuclear agreement with the Iranian regime without ironclad guarantees.
Hany Ghoraba is an Egyptian writer, political and counter-terrorism analyst at Al Ahram Weekly, author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy and a regular contributor to the BBC.
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