While nations are currently focused on the domestic crisis wrought by a global pandemic, it’s worth noticing that Iran is now in a position of unprecedented vulnerability. The rapid spread of the coronavirus there, with the latest death toll at more than 2,200, including many high-ranking officials, is only one of a long series of setbacks for the Islamic regime.
Many in Iran blame the regime for the severe outbreak of the disease as it was very late in halting air traffic from China and in taking preventive measures. There is widespread criticism over the enormous expenditures that have gone to supporting Iran’s surrogates around the Middle East while the health care system remained underfunded.
The regime’s efforts to mobilize the plague to convince the US to ease sanctions, claiming that sanctions are preventing access to adequate medical supplies were roundly refuted by the US administration, and meanwhile the rest of the world is too busy to come to Iran’s rescue. The woes of the regime were intensified by the harsh decline in the price of oil.
But as grave as the pandemic crisis is, it’s only the latest in a long series of setbacks for the Islamic regime that began with President Donald Trump’s decisions to leave the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) in 2018 and to tighten the sanctions on Iran in May 2019.
Since then, the Iranian regime suffered the consequences of the elimination of Qasem Soleimani, the decision of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to activate sanctions against Iran’s financial system following its refusal to take necessary steps to be removed from its black list, the European decision to put in effect the Dispute Resolution Mechanism of the JCPOA following the Iranian breaches of the plan, the problematic way the regime handled the interception of the Ukrainian plane by its air defense forces, the weak showing of the public to the parliamentary elections and finally the warning to Iran by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) following Tehran’s refusal to allow the IAEA access to suspected nuclear sites and the decisive American attack on forces loyal to Iran in Iraq that culminated in killing at least 18 of them including some key Iranian officers, in retaliation to an attack on American and British forces that killed 2 American and one British soldiers.
In recent months this has led to a sharp decline in foreign currency income, which caused a devaluation of the Iranian Rial, and forced the government to adopt in November 2019 painful economic measures that were followed by a wide range disturbing unrest inside Iran, during which a growing part of the population showed readiness to openly demonstrate, calling for regime change. Simultaneously a serious challenge evolved to the Iranian control of two major “colonies” – Iraq and Lebanon. The public in both countries, including many Shiites, went to the streets demanding “Iran, out! Out!” In Iraq the use of brute force against the demonstrators by Iranian controlled militias proved to be counter-productive and Lebanon had to default on its huge external debt. It was the coronavirus crisis that eventually sent the demonstrators back home.
Free of the JCPOA, Tehran may step up nuclear enrichment
The situation was exacerbated due to Iran’s failure to outsmart the US militarily by attacking its allies and its interests and moving away from the JCPOA, and in this way convince the Americans to either ease the sanctions or enter a costly and bloody war of attrition with Iran. Uninformed spectators read it for a while as a manifestation of American weakness, but the Iranians were frustrated with this failure, and Khamanei allowed the Iran-sponsored militias in Iraq to hit American targets. In doing so, he went one step too far and gave Trump just cause to take severe measures against high-value Iranian target Qasem Soleimani, who symbolized and operated the main mission of the regime, the export of the Islamic revolution. This entire confrontation exposed the limitations of the Iranian capabilities when it comes to a military confrontation with the US, limitations the regime was fully aware of from the start. When Trump threatened to hit 52 top quality targets in Iran if Tehran caused American casualties in its retaliation to Soleimani’s elimination, the message was well received in Tehran and the Iranians have been much more cautious ever since.
The regime’s distress is also fed by the failure of ongoing Iranian efforts to turn Syria, Lebanon and Iraq into bases that can be used to launch attacks against Israel with some impunity, due to the Israeli intelligence and air dominance in these arenas.
Fortunately for Iran, the ongoing accumulation of uranium enriched to 3.67-4.5% (around 1,020 kg according to the IAEA report compared with 300 kg of uranium enriched to 3.67% that are allowed by the JCPOA) and Iran’s denial of access to the facilities requested by IAEA have not yet caused any concrete steps against it by the IAEA or the European partners to the JCPOA who activated the Dispute Resolution Mechanism of the JCPOA but have not followed this step with any sanctions.
Out of good options
The main problem facing the regime is that there seems to be almost no safe way to extract itself from this perfect storm. The main option is to accept the open invitation to come to the table with the US under president Trump and discuss a new nuclear deal, but Tehran views such a capituation on the heels of the Soleimani assassination and from a position of unprecedented weakness as humiliating and dangerous. It’s likely that President Rouhani considered this to be the best option before things started to rapidly deteriorate, but now it appears to be too late.
Another option is to accelerate the efforts to force the US out of Iraq using Iranian control of the Iraqi political system. The Iraqi Parliament did adopt — albeit under a questionable process — a resolution demanding that the government expel the US forces, but there was no real follow up to that resolution, and American conditions and sanctions as well as local opposition in Iraq undermine this initiative, which, in any case, would be of limited effect. In recent weeks the Iranian controlled militias resumed the launching of mortars and rockets to the area of the American embassy in Baghdad and at other American targets indicating that this policy is tested by Iran, but so far, as mentioned above, it backfired on the Iranians and their surrogates.
Another option is to try again to harm American allies in the region such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. One attempt was foiled by the IDF in the Golan heights some weeks ago and Israel should remain ready to face more attempts in the future.
Finally, there is the option of speeding up the progress towards accumulating enough fissile material for a first nuclear device. Iran has used the 4 years of the JCPOA to gain some new enrichment capabilities and because the agreement was so favorable to Tehran it maintained the enrichment facilities in Fordow and Natanz, which may be used for that purpose. Now that it freed itself from the limitations of the JCPOA Iran may try to increase enrichment, using the wide variety of advanced centrifuges it has developed. It is a very dangerous path but has the best chance of turning the tables if the Iranians succeed to reach that target before they are stopped.
The regime is trying to use the coronavirus crisis to unite the Iranian people behind it, but if the suffering of the population grows again because of harsher measures taken by the governments, the popular unrest may resume with greater impetus. If this happens, the regime may have to use force against the protestors to prevent chaos and loss of control that may endanger the survival of the regime. At the same time such an eventuality may force the regime to reconsider the option of opening negotiations with the US.
The US should continue to offer Iran medical assistance (which the Iranians deny so far) but keep the “maximum pressure” on the regime to convince it to”drink the poisoned chalice” and enter negotiations or face the consequences on its survival. It has to be ready to deny the Islamic regime any achievements in Iraq, to deter it from harming its people who thrive for freedom and normalcy and above all to make sure that it is not able to gain the capability to produce a nuclear weapon. One way to do it is to use the snapback option included in the JCPOA to force an end to its implementation before the deadline on the arms acquisition embargo is due in October 2020. So far the US administration does not show any appetite for doing it, and right now with the coronavirus pandemic it may be worried that it is not the most appropriate timing, but it has to bear in mind that Iran continues to escalate the pace with which it accumulates enriched Uranium and therefore this decision should be considered.