Since Friday, February 26, several incidents have taken place in the Middle East showing that the situation with Iran still points towards drama rather than reconciliation with the new administration.
Actions Iran took vis-à-vis the nuclear deal and Israel point to another tumultuous process in which the regime in Tehran will do its best to flex its muscles towards the U.S. That’s a signal the clerics are not bowing down to the U.S., which they continue to refer to as the “Great Satan.”
A Mysterious Attack on a Ship in the Persian Gulf
The Associated Press reported Friday that a missile hit a ship, the MV Helios Ray, carrying automobiles from Saudi Arabia to the Far East. The ship flies a Bahamian-flag and regularly navigates between Saudi ports and Singapore, always rolling on and rolling off vehicles. The unique thing about the ship is its owner is an Israeli businessman. The crew was unharmed, but the explosion resulted in two holes on the port side and two on the starboard side and the ship had to return to port for emergency repairs.
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran of orchestrating the attack. This accusation was quickly denied by Iran. The response by the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh included that Iran “strongly rejected” the Israeli claim. He also added that Netanyahu is “suffering from an obsession with Iran” and called the Israeli allegations “fear mongering.”
What do the Iranians hope to achieve by this attack? Two goals — one aimed at Israel and the other at the U.S. As far as Israel is concerned, this attack was retaliation for the killing of an Iranian official who was a key part to Iran’s nuclear program. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was shot dead in Tehran, was a nuclear engineer working for the Revolutionary Guards. His assassination — which foreign media deemed an operation by the Israeli Mossad — was met with promises of revenge.
The attack can be seen as retaliation but not large enough to lead to a stronger strike by Israel. Indeed, the Israeli response was limited. On Sunday, the Israeli Air Force hit targets in the Damascus area. According to reports in Israeli press, the targets were the offices of Iranian companies linked to the Revolutionary Guards near the Damascus airport. This attack was also limited in scope leaving all sides with the opportunity to save face.
Iran Declines Offer to Return to Talks with the US for a Nuclear Deal
On Sunday The Wall Street Journal reported “Iran rejected a European Union offer to hold direct nuclear talks with the U.S. in the coming days, risking renewed tension between Tehran and Western capitals.”
This refusal is a result of the Iranian need to show a power move via-a-vis the United States after the decades of tensions that culminated in the harsh rhetoric and pressure of the Trump era. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Khatibzadeh said the “time is not right” and insisted that sanctions should be removed before any talks could begin between the parties.
The regime in Iran needs to show some level of confrontation with the White House after the years of the Trump administration. Tehran did push back in recent years by continuing to enrich uranium, seizing ships going through the Persian Gulf, and attacking the Saudi oil fields.
After the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani, Iran vowed vengeance when clerics, political leaders and even singers promised to avenge the blood of Soleimani. This refusal to open new talks is a way to signal to the regional players and anti-clerical forces in Iran that the regime is standing fast.
The expectation is that the talks will soon re-commence, perhaps with a symbolic act from the White House. It is in the interest of the regime to return to the nuclear agreement and to have the U.S. sanctions lifted. That would allow the crippled Iranian economy to receive some oxygen after years of sanctions and the effects of Covid-19.
In an interview with an Israeli newspaper, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Obama administration, Dan Shapiro, predicted the talks would resume quickly. Israeli officials have voiced the concerns about the Iranian nuclear program and the need to adjust the old agreement to the Biden administration.
Shapiro, who is now a scholar in residence at Tel Aviv University, said he believes there are open channels on this issue and that the Biden administration is aware of Jerusalem’s concerns and that the talks would be beneficial to the region.
The new administration’s focus in the Middle East is Iran at the moment. That is far from a surprise when we remember what role the Iran deal had in the Obama administration’s legacy, which Biden was part of.
The events of the past few days do not mean Iran is not interested in talking. All they mean is that the regime in Tehran is not interested in looking weak and is committed to continue its opposition to the U.S., which it calls Islam’s biggest enemy. Israel is referred to as “the little devil” to distinguish it from the U.S., the “big devil.” Israel has changed the power relations with Iran in the past four years, ever since Iran began establishing a growing presence in Syria.
This altered relationship makes it clear to Tehran that force will be met with force. And since the regime is not interested in an escalation in the region, Iran will continue to denigrate the big and little devil while negotiating a revamped nuclear deal with the help of the European Union. Any overseas terrorist action by Iranian operatives will carry with it the very real danger of a direct clash with the regime. A clash Iran is not ready for.