Conflict Alerts # 208, 7 January 2021
In the news
On 1 January, Iran organized an event that kick-started ten days of commemoration to mark the first anniversary of the US drone strike in Baghdad that killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader and the deputy chief of the Iran-aligned Popular Mobilisation Forces, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. At the event, Soleimani's successor vowed that the "path of resistance won't change". Senior officials from Iran-aligned organizations from Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad also spoke at the event.
Later, on 4 January, Tehran announced its decision to resume enriching its uranium stock to 20 per cent at the Fordo facility.
Meanwhile, Iraq marked the first anniversary of the US drone strike in Baghdad that killed Soleimani and Muhandis. Thousands of mourners marched in the mock funeral procession leading to the Baghdad airport where the strike had taken place. The head of Hashd al-Shaabi, Faleh al-Fayyad, vowed retaliation against the attackers and demanded that the US troops leave Iraq.
Issues at large
First, the rising US-Iran tensions. Ever since the attack that brought Tehran and Washington to the brink of war, bilateral tensions have been rising. In its letter to the United Nations Security Council on 31 December, Iran condemned the US "military adventurism" in the Sea of Oman and the Gulf, and Washington's dispensing of "fake information, baseless accusations and threatening rhetoric" against Tehran. While Khomeini renewed his revenge vow, the US flew two nuclear-capable B-52 bombers over the Gulf to send a deterrence message to Tehran.
Second, the attack ratcheted up regional tensions. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard's elite Quds Force, was responsible for Iran's foreign operations requiring him to shuttle between Lebanon, Iraq and Syria frequently. The killing of the two men undoubtedly worsened the Saudi-Iran schism in the Middle East.
Third, Iran's uranium enrichment is its most significant breach of 2015 deal to end nuclear sanctions. Enriched uranium is used for making reactor fuel and nuclear bombs. Although Tehran has previously insisted that its nuclear programme is peaceful, it has rolled back on various commitments as a retaliation to the crumbling US economic sanctions reinstated by President Donald Trump in 2018 following his exit from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Three issues need to be looked into - Iran's actions/strategies, regional developments either triggering or following the first, the US response under the new President. Joe Biden has said he would consider reviving the JCPOA provided Iran returns to complete compliance and adheres to further negotiations. Any extreme or erratic US move could significantly dent Middle Eastern politics. Meanwhile, domestic concerns regarding potential escalation or security deterioration are rife in Iran and Iraq.