Tensions rise with Tehran

Manal Lotfy , Tuesday 31 May 2022

Multiple crises are increasing the tensions between Iran and the West and making a revival of the 2015 nuclear deal increasingly unlikely, writes Manal Lotfy

Tensions rise with Tehran
The Liberian-flagged oil tanker Ice Energy (L) transfers crude oil from the Iranian-flagged oil tanker Lana (R) (former Pegas), off the shore of Karystos, on the Island of Evia, Greece (photo: AFP)


Tensions are running high between Iran and the West after Greece warned its oil tankers and other vessels flying the country’s flag to avoid “sea waters under Iran’s jurisdiction” following the seizure of two Greek-flagged oil tankers by Iranian forces in an action called “piracy” by Athens.

The incident comes after the US confiscated Iranian oil held on a Russian-operated ship near Greece. The cargo has been transferred to another ship and will be sent to the US, according to Greek officials.

The growing tension with Greece and the US seizure of Iranian oil shipments reinforce the pessimism about the prospect of a nuclear deal between Tehran and the West anytime soon. This pessimism was reinforced on Tuesday after Iran described a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on undeclared nuclear material found at three sites in Iran as “not fair”.

“Unfortunately, this report does not reflect the reality of the negotiations between Iran and the IAEA,” Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh told reporters. “It is feared that the pressure exerted by the Zionist regime and some other actors has caused the normal path of agency reports to change from technical to political,” Khatibzadeh said.

The IAEA said it had questions that were “not clarified” regarding undeclared nuclear material previously found at three sites in Iran – Marivan, Varamin, and Turquzabad. It said long-running efforts to get Iranian officials to explain the presence of nuclear material there had failed to provide the answers it sought.

The UN nuclear watchdog also said that it estimated Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium had grown to more than 18 times the limit laid down in Tehran’s 2015 deal with the West. A European diplomat familiar with the nuclear negotiations with Iran told Al-Ahram Weekly that “no one is holding his breath expecting an agreement soon. Compared to where we were last March, we are moving backwards, not forwards.”

“The blame game will not help anyone, but there is no progress in the negotiations,” he added.

Tensions have also risen between Iran and Israel, amid Israeli warnings of an Iranian response to the assassination of Hassan Sayed Khodayari, a senior officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, in Tehran last week, which Iran attributed to Israel.

The Israeli authorities have warned their citizens to avoid travelling to Turkey for fear of possible Iranian reprisals abroad.

In recent days, the US and Israel have intensified contacts to discuss security and to arrange for US President Joe Biden’s visit to the region in June. With the faltering of the nuclear negotiations, Biden’s position on Iran has hardened, and the administration is keeping the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Al-Quds Force on the US list of terrorist organisations, an indication of the failure of efforts to find a compromise.

Washington has also begun to tighten the noose around Iran with a view to preventing the circumvention of the sanctions against it. The US seizure of the Iranian oil shipment last week is a secondary confrontation that indicates a deterioration in the level of trust between Tehran and the Biden administration.

Tehran has indicated that its seizure of the Greek tankers was designed to discourage other countries from helping the US to seize its oil, under sanction by Washington since the US left the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018.

“Our ties [with Greece] must not be hampered by deeply short-sighted miscalculations, including highway robbery on the command of a third party,” said Khatibzadeh in a post on Twitter.

The statement came after Iran’s Tasnim News Agency, affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, said that 17 other Greek tankers were in Gulf waters and that these could be seized by the elite force “if Greece continues its games.”

The latest guidance from Greece, a shipping powerhouse, to avoid Iranian waters could further destabilise already unstable markets at a time when oil prices are at their highest level in a decade.

Greece’s Foreign Ministry complained to the Iranian ambassador in Athens over the “violent taking over of two Greek-flagged ships” in the Gulf. It called for the immediate release of the vessels and their crews and warned that the seizures would have “particularly negative consequences” on bilateral relations between Greece and Iran and on Tehran’s relations with the European Union.

Meanwhile, Israeli security officials warned more than 100 Israeli citizens in Turkey that they are in “Iran’s crosshairs” and asked them to return to Israel, according to local media. The report came after Israel’s National Security Council issued a travel warning for Turkey, saying that there was a “concrete threat” to Israelis from “Iranian terrorist operatives” there and in nearby countries.

“For several weeks now, and even more so since Iran blames Israel for the death of the Revolutionary Guards officer last week, there has been growing concern in the defence establishment about Iranian attempts to harm Israeli targets around the world,” a statement from the Israeli Council said on Monday.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett accused Iran of targeting Israeli interests and warned that Iranian “immunity” was over. Tehran would not go unpunished for instigating attacks through its proxies, he said.

Bennett’s office, which oversees the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, has declined to comment on Khodayari’s assassination.

The escalation comes amid intense diplomatic coordination between the US and Israel. Earlier in the week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid discussed security challenges ahead of an anticipated visit to Washington this week by Israeli national security advisor Eyal Hulata.

The two men “spoke of common efforts to confront global challenges, including those posed by Iran and its proxies,” the US State Department said. Blinken and Lapid also spoke of Biden’s upcoming trip to Israel and possibly other countries in the region.

Lapid tweeted after the call that “we discussed @POTUS’s expected visit to Israel, and the possibilities for regional progress the president’s visit could bring in the fields of security, the economy, and ties between the people of the Middle East.”

No date has been set for Biden’s visit, but it is widely believed that it will take place at the end of June. Biden has yet to visit the Middle East since taking office in January 2021.

Two top US envoys, Amos Hochstein and Brett McGurk, visited Saudi Arabia last week, a week after Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Khaled bin Salman was in Washington to meet US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, McGurk, and US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin.

Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz was in Washington at the same time, where he also met with Austin.

Hulata is expected to arrive in Washington this week with a delegation from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Mossad, and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) for a meeting of a joint working group on Iran known as the Leshem Forum.

The visit comes on the heels of Biden’s decision to retain Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on its foreign terror list, a move understood to be a stumbling block in reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

In a message to its local audience and external foes that Iran’s military capabilities are being strengthened despite recent setbacks, Iran has shown off an underground drone base, though not its location, state media reported.

Iranian state TV said 100 drones were being kept in the heart of the Zagros Mountains, including Ababil-5 drones that it said were fitted with Qaem-9 missiles, an Iranian-made version of the US Hellfire missiles.

“No doubt the drones of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s armed forces are the region’s most powerful,” army commander Abdolrahim Mousavi said. “Our capability to upgrade drones is unstoppable.”

The Iranian state TV correspondent said he had made the 45-minute helicopter flight on Thursday from Kermanshah in western Iran to a secret underground drone site. He was allowed to take off his blindfold only upon arrival at the base, he said.

TV footage showed rows of drones fitted with missiles in a tunnel that it said was several hundred metres underground.

The latest crises on multiple fronts will only strengthen the conviction that the chances of successful nuclear talks with Iran are diminishing. This is reinforced by regional and international dynamics that are leading to a reconsideration of the costs and benefits of reviving the nuclear deal with Iran, especially with both Washington and Tehran dragging their feet in making the concessions required.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.


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