4 January 2021   Leave a comment

Iran has announced that it will begin to restart its program of enriching Uranium to 20%. The number is significant because it is higher than the typical 4% enrichment necessary for peaceful nuclear reactors (but still far below the necessary enrichment of 95% necessary to build a nuclear bomb). Additionally, Iran has seized a South Korean oil tanker, accusing it of releasing pollution into the Persian Gulf. Both of these actions have heightened tensions between Iran and the US.

But the treatment of the enrichment issue has been handled poorly by the US media. For example, The Washington Post ran a story with the headline “Iran begins enriching uranium to 20 percent in new breach of nuclear deal”. The nuclear deal is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action which was signed in 2015 during the Obama Administration and included France, Great Britain, the US, China, Russia, and Germany. That deal included:

The JCPOA was carefully monitored, not only by the US, but also by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The consensus was that Iran had adhered to the terms of the agreement. President Trump, however, believed that the agreement was flawed because it did not include any terms over ballistic missile development nor over Iran’s support for groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah which continue to resist Israeli control over Palestine. The Arms Control Association was clear: “Despite Iran’s verified compliance with the deal, the United States unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA on May 8, 2018, and subsequently re-imposed all U.S. sanctions on Iran lifted by the accord.”

We should be clear: the US was the first state to violate the JCPOA. Iran held off on chipping away at many of the conditions of the agreement for a full year, and increased those violations marginally only in 2019. The decision to enrich Uranium to 20% represents the first major violation of the agreement and represents the first major departure from the agreement by Iran. On the other hand, the US not only refused to lift the sanctions promised in the JCPOA but substantially increased sanctions and forced other states to the agreement to follow those sanctions. There is no question that the sanctions have seriously damaged the Iranian economy and Iran has indicated that it would return to the terms of the JCPOA “within an hour” if the US decides to return to it as well. We do not know what President-elect Biden intends to do about the JCPOA, but The Guardian reports that “So far Biden has said he wants at first to focus on the narrow issue of lifting sanctions, and the US rejoining the deal in return for Iran fully complying with its obligations to restrain its nuclear programme.”

Given President Trump’s hostility toward Iran, buttressed by the Israeli conviction that Iran represents an “existential threat”, many are concerned that he might think that the US has only two weeks to assure the complete collapse of the agreement and, perhaps, to eliminate the threat perceived by Israel. Such actions would likely include a military strike on the nuclear facilities in Iran. I worry that such a strike would seem attractive to Mr. Trump as a way of distracting the US population from his other problems. The release of the tapes of Mr. Trump’s telephone conversation with Georgia’s Secretary of State only amplifies this fear. I have little doubts that Mr. Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu both believe that a military strike on Iran would completely ruin the possibility of a revived JCPOA.

There has been a lot of military moves recently. The US has sent B-52 bombers to the Middle East as a signal to Iran. The Hill reports:

“The U.S. military flew two B-52H bombers over the Persian Gulf on Wednesday in an effort to deter Iran amid ongoing tensions, according to U.S. Central Command.

“The two Air Force ‘Stratofortresses’ flew from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to deliver ‘a clear deterrent message to anyone who intends to do harm to Americans or American interests,’ the command said in a statement.

“The deployment marks the third such mission into the region in the last 45 days”

“‘The United States continues to deploy combat-ready capabilities into the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility to deter any potential adversary, and make clear that we are ready and able to respond to any aggression directed at Americans or our interests,’ Centcom head Gen. Frank McKenzie, said in the statement. ‘We do not seek conflict, but no one should underestimate our ability to defend our forces or to act decisively in response to any attack.'”

There has also been some interesting developments concerning the USS Nimitz, an aircraft carrier that has been patrolling the Persian Gulf since last November. Last Friday, Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller announced that the Nimitz would return to its home base in Washington state. The move was described as a de-escalatory move. The New York Times reported: “Officials said on Friday that Mr. Miller ordered the redeployment of the Nimitz in part as a ‘de-escalatory’ signal to Tehran to avoid stumbling into a crisis at the end of Mr. Trump’s administration that would land in Mr. Biden’s lap as he took office.” But CNN reports that Mr. Trump ordered that the decision be reversed.

None of the explanations about the Nimitz make sense. Why de-escalate when the US is also sending B-52s to the Middle East? More likely is the fear that, if a war occurred, the Nimitz would be highly vulnerable in the constricted space of the Persian Gulf. The Iranian missile attack on the Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq after the assassination of Iranian General Soleimani last January confirmed that Iranian missiles are formidable. They were not detected before they struck and they were remarkably precise. Parts of the base were destroyed, but no US troops were killed and it seems as if the Iranians carefully calibrated the attack in order to reduce the chances of retaliation. If the Iranian missile capabilities are so sophisticated, then the Nimitz might have been highly vulnerable.

There is, however, a more insidious explanation. Perhaps the Nimitz was ordered to stay in the Persian Gulf in order to be an attractive target for the Iranian. An attack on the Nimitz would be considered an act of war, justifying a massive retaliatory strike. Obviously I have no idea why the decision was made and I have learned that is a mistake to overthink any of Mr. Trump’s decisions. But all these military moves are deeply troubling. Mr. Trump has only two weeks to make good on his promise to scuttle the JCPOA permanently and I worry that given the deeply unsettling situation in the US, that anything is possible.

Posted January 4, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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