Draconian sanctions, the erroneous downing of the Ukrainian civilian aircraft and the targeting of a leading commander and nuclear scientists inside Iran in daring covert operations made this year the most embarrassing one during the rule of the revolutionary regime in the Islamic Republic.
A series of intelligence setbacks signals how vulnerable the Iranian security establishment has become despite its firm grip on the country and the opposition. In 2018 Israeli intelligence stole a trove of classified documents that revealed Iran’s military nuclear program, although European countries who support the Iranian nuclear deal stayed the course and still believe that Iran halted its pursuit of military nuclear capability before the deal was signed. Iran has repeatedly denied having any military nuclear ambitions and claims its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but Israel and the West still harbor doubts and suspicions regarding the country's uranium enrichment efforts and maintain a close watch.
Furthermore, several Iran scientists were assassinated in spectacular operations inside Iran that the regime blamed on Israel but ulimately failed to arrest any of the infiltrators. And earlier this month an Al-Qaeda leader hiding in Tehran was killed, exposing Tehran’s links with the terrorist organization. The presence of Al-Qaeda members in Iran was an embarrassment to the regime which has repeatedly denied any relationship with the group.
Iran has been a thorny issue for previous US administrations since the foundation of the Islamic Republic, but the nuclear program moved the Iranian challenge into a possible all-out war and threatened global stability until a deal was signed by former US President Barack Obama despite Israeli objections. The Israeli side, whether publicly or behind the scenes, is the one side keen on setting strict red lines imposed on the Iranian nuclear programs. The incoming US national security team assembled by President-elect Joe Biden is in favor of rejoining the
Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Some of them participated in the early negotiations with Iran and are familiar with the Iranian tactics and the issues at stake.
,However, the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh will make negotiations harder and complicate any future talks with Iran. Tehran was already expected to raise its demands and request guarantees that the US would not pull out of any future agreement and Iranian officials have hinted that they would seek compensation as a result of the reimposed American sanctions. The recent assassination will make it even more difficult to amend the Iranian deal, especially the attempt by Western partners to include Iran’s ballistic program into the agreement, a long-standing Israeli demand.
Following the assassinations of its scientists and missile program leaders, Iran has failed to carry out any meaningful retaliation. Hard-liners both in the US and Israel are convinced that Tehran has lost its psychological deterrence that kept the US and Israel from hitting targets inside Iran and instead engaged Tehran in proxy wars throughout the region.
The regime that was poised to celebrate victory over the sanctions once President Donald Trump leaves the White House on Jan. 20 is now struggling to re-establish its reputation and restore its national pride. At the same time, the regime knows that any retaliatory action may alienate the Europeans and jeopardize the anticipated rapprochement with the upcoming Biden administration. Iran is realizing that it’s investment abroad may boost its influence and regional clout, but in the big picture proxy wars may not shield the Islamic Republic from its enemies, especially if its enemies decided to take the fight inside Iran and threaten the stability of the regime.
The Iranian regime has practiced restraint in the past and played the time game before picking targets at times of its own choosing, but this time the regime may find itself denied the luxury of time. The world was expecting the renewal of pre-negotiations talks with the US, and Iran doesn’t want to enter negotiations from a perceived weak position.
A promise of easing sanctions under the pretext of humanitarian assistance inflicted by the COVID-19 may represent an opportunity to the upcoming Biden administration if it wanted to reduce tensions. Diplomatic efforts traditionally lead to confidence building measures, and relaxing US sanctions may appeal to an Iranian regime trying to contain the impact of a strained economy, which has let Iranians take to the streets to express their anti-regime sentiments.
The revolutionary elements within the regime will certainly present their leadership with retaliatory scenarios, and from past experience the leadership will look for targets that can satisfy its need to restore its dignity but stop short of triggering an all-out war. Arab Gulf states that have recently established diplomatic relationships with Israel and held high level-talk with its leaders will soon find out whether such rapprochement with the Jewish state was worth.
Moufac Harb is a veteran American-Lebanese journalist based in Beirut. He's currently visiting Washington D.C.