The Spice must flow!
Iran Crisis - 2019-2020
Tensions between Washington and Tehran, which have been increasing since 2018 when US President Donald Trump withdrew from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal, reached historic heights in January when the US killed Soleimani, the former commander of the Quds Force, the overseas arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
The US withdrew some staff from its embassy in Baghdad in early December 2020, temporarily reducing personnel before the first anniversary of the US air strike that killed Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, outside Baghdad’s airport on January 3. The US plans to reduce the number of troops from 3,000 to 2,500 by mid-January, before Trump is to leave office. But the frequency of rocket attacks in Iraq has frustrated the Trump administration. The aircraft carrier USS Nimitz has been patrolling Gulf waters since late November 2020, and two American B-52 bombers recently overflew the region in a demonstration of strength aimed at Iran.
Trump was joined by defense leaders at the White House on 23 December 2020 to discuss possible responses to an attack against the US embassy in Baghdad on Sunday. The meeting included Pompeo, acting US Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, national security adviser Robert O'Brien, and other top defense officials. They offered "a range of options" to Trump to deter attacks on US personnel by Iran or by militias in Iraq sympathetic to Iran.
The nuclear-power Ohio-class guided-missile submarine USS Georgia (SSGN 729) along with the guided-missile cruisers USS Port Royal (CG 73) and USS Philippine Sea (CG 58) transited the Strait of Hormuz entering the Arabian Gulf, 21 December 2020. SSGNs are equipped with the ability to carry up to 154 Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles. CG 52-73 mount 2 MK41 vertical launching systems, with a total of 127 VLS Cells. Thus, as many as 406 Tomahawk missiles have been brought within range of Iran.
A volley of rockets targeted the United States’ embassy in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone 20 December 2020, sparking fears of renewed unrest as next month’s anniversary of the US assassination of top Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, draws near. An Iraqi military statement said an “an outlawed group” launched eight rockets targeting the Green Zone, injuring one Iraqi security person manning a checkpoint and causing material damage to some cars and a residential complex, which is usually empty. The barrage of rockets launched at the US Embassy in Baghdad Sunday was the largest attack on the..Green Zone since 2010, numbering 21 missiles, the top US military commander for the Middle East said.
Having advocated a “maximum pressure” approach against Tehran at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Israel for two years, the Donald Trump administration has sought to weaken the regime and forcefully contain its regional ambitions. Tensions between Iran and the West have risen steadily in the year since US President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 international accord aimed at restraining Tehran’s nuclear weapons program and reimposed economic sanctions against Iran to curb its international oil trade.
Around a sixth of the world’s oil moves through the Strait - 17.2 million barrels per day. This includes most of the oil from Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries members Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE and Kuwait. Qatar, the world’s biggest exporter of LNG, sends most of its LNG through the strait as well.
During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, the two countries routinely menaced each other’s oil shipments. In early 2012, Iran threatened to interfere with ships traveling through the strait in retaliation for US and European sanctions targeting its oil sales.
In May 2018 Washington exited the multinational accord that lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. It also reimposed and tightened sanctions on Tehran. In July 2018, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that his country was able to disrupt oil tankers passing through the strait, after the US sought to limit Iran's petroleum revenues. The US initially vowed to reduce Iran's oil sales to "zero" under the bans, but it later backed down and granted waivers to almost all of Tehran's major crude buyers. On 21 May 2018 US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unveiled a far-reaching list of demands for any new nuclear deal with Iran, and threatened economy-crushing sanctions if Tehran does not change its behavior. The 12-point list of demands came in a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation. At the battle of Stirling Bridge, 11 September 1297, the movie Braveheart has William Wallace provoking the English to battle.
On 05 November 2018, Washington imposed fresh unilateral restrictions on Iran's energy, shipping, and financial industries, with a stated goal of reducing its oil exports to zero. On 04 December 2018, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani threatened to disrupt other countries’ oil shipments through the Gulf if Washington pressed ahead with efforts to halt Iranian oil exports. "The US should know [this] that we are selling and will continue to sell our oil and it will not be able to block Iran's oil exports. And it should also know that if it attempts to stop Iran's oil [sales] someday, no oil will be exported from the Persian Gulf," he said. Trump announced oil purchase waivers for China, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, Italy and Greece. Since then, Italy, Greece and Taiwan halted their Iranian oil imports.
On 08 May 2019 Iran's Supreme National Security Council issued a statement addressing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) member states, stating that the Islamic Republic of Iran has shown considerable restraint in the past one year after the illegal withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA. Iran will scale back more compliance with a 2015 nuclear agreement in 60 days unless they keep promises with the deal.
On 02 May 2019 the United States tightening its economic sanctions on Iran by ending a set of waivers that had allowed some of the country's largest oil buyers to continue their purchases. With the expiration of waivers for eight buyers, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States would be exerting "maximum pressure" on the Iranian government. The U.S. State Department called the move a fulfillment of the Trump administration's promise "to get Iran's oil exports to zero and deny the regime the revenue it needs to fund terrorism and violent wars abroad."
On 09 May 2019 the U.S. Maritime Administration warned of what it called the " increased possibility that Iran and/or its regional proxies could take action against U.S. and partner interests, including oil production infrastructure, after recently threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz. Iran or its proxies could respond by targeting commercial vessels, including oil tankers, or U.S. military vessels in the Red Sea, Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, or the Persian Gulf."
Six oil tankers, belonging to Japan, Norway, UAE, and Saudi Arabia, were attacked in two separate incidents in May and June 2019 in the Persian Gulf, while Iran’s Sabiti was assaulted in the Red Sea in October. The right side of the tanker was significantly damaged, with the holes leading to a brief oil leak that was soon stopped. The ship's operator, the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC), said in a statement that the damage was likely the result of a missile attack.
While the US attributed the May and June attacks to Iran, despite the latter vehemently denying any involvement and Washington presenting no hard evidence of this, the UAE, which investigated the May incident, concluded that the attack had happened at the hands of a state actor, but failed to name the culprit. Regarding the Sabiti incident, the US didn't issue comments on the possible culprits, while Iranian President Hassan Rouhani pledged a thorough investigation into the case, assuming one or multiple state actors were behind it.
However, in September, the US found fault with Iran over a drone attack on a Saudi Aramco oil refinery that forced the national oil company to temporarily shut down a couple of its oil fields. In response, Tehran accused the US and its allies of switching from a policy of “maximum pressure” to that of “maximum deceit".
By mid-September 2019, two new factors had altered the American posture and world perceptions of the American posture. First, with the departure of hardliner John Bolton, the White House was deprived of ideological focus. Second, after the fiasco of the aborted Taliban visit to Camp David, it had become blindingly obvious that Trump's personal interest in foreign affairs was largely driven by photo opportunity meetings with foreign dignitaries, without reference to the actual policy content, if any, of the meeting.
Satellite images released on 03 October 2019 showed that a once-detained Iranian-flagged oil tanker sitting off the coast of Syria has been approached by a smaller Iranian tanker, an indication the ship could be preparing to transfer its cargo. Images released by Maxar Technologies show the Jasmine alongside the Adrian Darya 1, with mooring lines between them and a crane deployed on the larger vessel. The Adrian Darya 1, formerly named the Grace 1, was detained off the British overseas territory of Gibraltar in July while carrying $130 million in crude oil, on suspicion of breaking European Union sanctions by taking the oil to Syria. Gibraltar later released the tanker, after it said Iran promised the ship wouldn’t go to Syria. The ship later sailed toward the Syrian coast, angering Britain.
The oil shipment website TankerTrackers.com said on Twitter on Tuesday that the Adrian Darya 1 was “postured in an STS (Ship-to-Ship) formation with a smaller Iranian-flagged Handymax (350K barrel capacity) tanker,” the Jasmine. It noted this was “not a confirmation of any oil transfer just yet. We’ll compare imagery later.” The image it posted showed the two vessels off the coast of Syria.
French Defence Minister Florence Parly on 23 November 2019 criticized the “deliberate gradual US disengagement” in the Middle East, accusing it of failing to respond to Gulf provocations blamed on Iran. “When the mining of ships went unanswered, the drone got shot. When that in turn went unanswered, major oil facilities were bombed. Where does it stop? Where are the stabilisers?” Parly queried taking the floor at the annual Manama Dialogue on regional security in Bahrain. She added it had been “on the cards for a while” but had become much more apparent in light of recent events.
“The region is accustomed to the ebb and flow of US involvement. But this time it seemed more serious", the French defence chief pointed out. She noted that the US disengagement is a “slow process”, acknowledging that the only recent indicator of Washington’s “commitment” was the US aircraft carrier strike group Abraham Lincoln, which sailed through the Strait of Hormuz to demonstrate the freedom of navigation, as the Pentagon stated a few days earlier.
Ariane Tabatabai, a Middle East Fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund, and her colleague, Colin P. Clarke, a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center, argued that the deadly pandemic had forced the US to reduce its military presence in the Middle East, leaving countries like Saudi Arabia and Iraq, a Shia majority country, to deal with Iran directly in the absence of American support. “This has presented Iran with a unique opportunity to expand and consolidate its control in Iraq and push the US entirely out. And the country’s leaders aren’t going to squander their chance,” the two authors wrote.
But according to Bulovali, the showdown has not begun yet. “Iran still does not do much because there is an internal power struggle between moderate forces in the foreign ministry and radicals in the country’s Revolutionary Guards,” he said. “While the Guards defend an aggressive approach by immediately escalating tensions in the Middle East, the foreign ministry advocates a wait-and-see policy until the US elections to see whether Trump will stay or leave,”
Iran announced in late June that it had issued arrest warrants for 36 officials of the US and other countries who have been involved in the assassination of the martyred General Soleimani. "36 individuals who have been involved or ordered the assassination of Hajj Qassem, including the political and military officials of the US and other governments, have been identified and arrest warrants have been issued for them by the judiciary officials and red alerts have also been issued for them via the Interpol," Prosecutor-General of Tehran Ali Alqasi Mehr said. He said that the prosecuted individuals are accused of murder and terrorist action, adding that US President Donald Trump stands at the top of the list and will be prosecuted as soon as he stands down presidency after his term ends.
Lieutenant Commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi warned that any US move to inspect the Iranian vessels in international waters will be faced with not only defensive, but also offensive moves by Iran. “Iran will not just retaliate any US attempt to inspect the Iranian ships in international waters, but also give a decisive response to such moves in sensitive places,” Rear Admiral Fadavi told Yemen's Arabic-language al-Masirah news website on 23 September 2020. “We will give a powerful response to any US folly; a power that the enemy can't imagine. They will face our massive fire,” he added.
The Trump administration officially requested the United Nations to extend the international arms embargo on Iran, which was due to expire in mid-October 2020. This embargo, which is part of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, aims to prevent Iran from obtaining new shipments of advanced conventional weapons. The Trump administration hasdworked hard in recent months to build an international coalition that supports the move, and was able to garner some support ( including from the Gulf Cooperation Council ). But the measure, namely the extension of the embargo, faced strong opposition in the United Nations, most notably from Russia and China, and the administration ultimately failed to pass it.
In the wake of the diplomatic defeat, the United States invoked the "snapback" clause of Resolution 2231, which calls for the reinstatement of all UN sanctions that were rolled back as a result of the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. This move sparked a fierce legal debate. The other parties to the agreement (Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany) rejected America's right to call for the implementation of the "Snapback" or "back-to-back" clause, after the Trump administration officially decided in May 2018 to withdraw from the nuclear deal. Yet, as the experts convincingly argued , the actual language of Security Council Resolution 2231 still gave the United States the right to enforce the provisions of the agreement. The debate is currently raging over whether the United Nations will ultimately act, and what Washington might do unilaterally if the United Nations does not act.
As the assassination of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani at the beginning of this year had shown, the Trump administration is very much prepared to use kinetic action against Iran and provoke a crisis for political gain. Providing it does not go as far as an outright war, Washington has very little to lose by doing this. Iran can strike US bases nearby, but it cannot harm the US itself. Netanyahu recognized that he would never have it as good with the US as he had at this moment. The Trump administration had been devoutly pro-Israel, the Obama administration was not, and thus with Biden, it might be only downhill from here. Given this, Tel Aviv may be looking for some permanent crippling of Iran’s capabilities, which sanctions alone cannot deliver.
Trump had 2 months left to attack Iran. Trump’s appointment of National Counterterrorism Center Director Christopher Miller as acting secretary of defense, replacing Esper for the two months before Biden will likely replace him in turn with his own choice, suggests a rush to accomplish something in what appear to be the final days of his administration. Trump had repeatedly said that he wanted to bring the troops home and end America’s overseas wars. Miller can hardly be described as anti-war. When Trump announced US troop withdrawal from Syria, Miller advocated against it. If Trump wanted one last run at Iran, he might be hard-pressed to pick someone better… unless one counts General Anthony Tata, who Trump has just tasked with the duties of undersecretary for defense policy. Tata has previously defended the war crime of bombing Iranian cultural sites by arguing that Iran is hiding secret nuclear weapons at those sites.
The chances of a last gasp confrontation between the US and Iran seemed high. A trigger-happy Trump might see attacking Tehran as the solution to all his problems. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stated today that Tehran had enriched uranium up to 12 times the amount capped by its nuclear agreement. The Islamic Republic has steadily backtracked on its commitments to the deal as a means of leverage, but has denied it is seeking to develop a nuclear weapon.
With two months left in office, Donald Trump asked top aides about options to strike Iran's nuclear facilities, media reports said. During an Oval Office meeting on November 12, Trump asked several top aides, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, "whether he had options to take action against Iran's main nuclear site in the coming weeks," The New York Times reported on 16 November 2020. The senior officials "dissuaded the president from moving ahead with a military strike," warning him that the move could ignite a broader conflict in the last weeks of his presidency, The Times wrote.
Vice Adm. Sam Paparo, commander of US Navy 5th Fleet based in Bahrain, told the annual Manama Dialogue hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies 06 December 2020 “We have achieved an uneasy deterrence. That uneasy deterrence is exacerbated by world events and by events along the way... But I have found Iranian activity at sea to be cautious and circumspect and respectful, to not risk unnecessary miscalculation or escalation at sea.”
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