By Majid Rafizadeh
January 23, 2021
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei surprisingly ordered all factions of Iraqi armed groups to stop attacking US interests in Iraq late last year. A senior commander of an Iranian-backed armed group involved in such attacks told Middle East Eye: “Khamenei’s orders were straightforward and clear. All attacks targeting US interests in Iraq must stop.”
This was not a strategic shift but a tactical one. The regime was fearful that the Trump administration would attack Iran if US entities were targeted. Some Iranian leaders thought the White House was looking for an excuse to attack. As a result, the theocratic establishment halted its provocations in order to avoid giving Donald Trump a political victory and risk its own hold on power.
Now, however, with the Biden administration in power, the Tehran regime is tactically shifting gears again. It has already ratcheted up its military adventurism and threats. Just five days before President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) conducted a military drill that involved “suicide drones” hitting targets and exploding. The drones reportedly strongly resembled those used in the attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil installations at Abqaiq and Khurais in 2019. It also fired long-range ballistic missiles into the Indian Ocean on the second day of its military exercise. IRGC commander Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami boasted that the objective was to “use long-range ballistic missiles against enemy warships, including aircraft carriers,” according to state media.
Iran possesses the largest and most diverse ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East, and no other country has ever acquired long-range ballistic missiles before obtaining nuclear weapons. Tehran’s ballistic missile capability is one of the most critical pillars of the regime’s national security policy. They can be used for offensive or defensive purposes, but sophisticated missiles are mainly developed as delivery vehicles for nuclear weapons. The regime’s expansion of its ballistic missile program poses a threat to the stability of the region and the national interests of other countries too.
Such military tests create a sense of insecurity and inevitably lead to further destabilization, militarization and an arms race in the region. In addition, while the Iranian leaders argue that they are not breaching any international laws by test-firing ballistic missiles, Tehran is clearly violating UN Security Council Resolution 2231.
This calls on Tehran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.” The resolution adds that Iran should not undertake any ballistic missile activity “until the date eight years after the JCPOA Adoption Day (Oct. 18, 2015) or until the date on which the IAEA submits a report confirming the broader conclusion, whichever is earlier.”
The Iranian leaders are also demanding the release of $7 billion in funds frozen in South Korean banks in order to release a South Korean-flagged ship, which it recently seized in the Gulf.
The Iranian leaders are emboldened partially because they have learned in their four-decade history that US Democratic administrations do not want a war with Iran. And this is not any new Democratic administration — it is one that Iran is familiar and comfortable with, as Biden was vice president at the time the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal was reached.
Unfortunately, Biden’s announcements concerning his intention to return to the nuclear deal have already made the Iranian regime more emboldened to pursue its hegemonic ambitions. If Biden had not stated that he wants to rejoin the nuclear deal, Tehran would have been more cautious.
Biden has also appointed Wendy Sherman, a professor and director at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, as undersecretary of state. She was a key negotiator in the talks that led to the nuclear deal. Biden even pointed to this issue in his statement announcing her nomination: “She has successfully rallied the world to strengthen democracy and confront some of the biggest national security challenges of our time, including leading the US negotiating team for the Iran deal.” This further sends a strong message to Tehran that the US wants to return to the nuclear deal.
Expect more aggression, belligerence and military adventurism from the Iranian regime under the Biden administration.