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Iran Could Activate Proxies, Up Nuclear Activities amid Coronavirus Crisis
Outraged Iraqi protesters storm the US Embassy in Baghdad, protesting Washington's attacks on armed battalions belong to Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi forces on December 31, 2019. (Murtadha Sudani/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Iran Could Activate Proxies, Up Nuclear Activities amid Coronavirus Crisis

President Trump’s hands may be tied due to upcoming November election and given scope of outbreak in US

As Iran struggles to contain one of the world’s worst outbreaks of coronavirus, some are voicing concern that the regime could use the crisis as cover to advance its nuclear program or attempt to deflect attention away from the country’s perceived dubious handling of the pandemic by ordering its proxies to wreak havoc across the Middle East.

“The Iranian regime is trying to turn [the health crisis] into an opportunity by putting [military] pressure on the Americans and at the same time gaining solidarity from the [international community] – all with the goal of getting [economic] sanctions eased,” Yossi Kuperwasser, a senior project manager at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) and former director-general of Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry, told The Media Line.

He was speaking during a virtual conference organized by the JCPA, titled “Iran in Crisis: Corona, Sanctions, Uranium – Where is it Going?”

Indeed, air defense systems in Saudi Arabia over the weekend intercepted two ballistic missiles that were allegedly fired at Riyadh and the city of Jizan by Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen. It came after a rocket on Friday was launched from the Iranian-sponsored, Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip toward southern Israel, breaking a monthlong period of relative calm following repeated low-intensity military exchanges.

That, in turn, came just 48 hours after multiple projectiles slammed into Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, where both the parliament and the US Embassy are located. It was the latest in a series of attacks targeting US assets Iraq, including one earlier this month on Camp Taji that killed an American and a British soldier, along with a foreign contractor.

Washington responded with airstrikes against a pro-Iran armed group, Kataib Hizbullah, which was accused of perpetrating the assault.

Despite the apparent uptick in asymmetrical warfare, the JCPA’s Kuperwasser insisted that the pandemic posed a significant threat to the regime, “as many Iranians are upset with the government’s response to the outbreak. … It was more important for [the mullahs] to show how close relations are with Beijing even as other countries were closing their borders to flights from China.”

He further noted that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently blamed Iranian leaders for using financial relief received in accordance with the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal – a sum estimated at upwards of $150 billion – to increase funding to its proxies rather than buy medicines and equipment.

Regarding Iran’s regional adventurism, Kuperwasser believes that, overall, the dual health and economic crises have induced the country’s leadership to assume a more defensive posture in places such as Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Moreover, he predicted that mass protests, which for months had rocked the latter two Iranian satrapies before people were forced from the streets into their homes, would, at some point, resume – thereby further diminishing Tehran’s grip over Baghdad and Beirut, in particular.

“The regime is facing setbacks in the region. A lot is falling apart and there are limited possibilities [to try to mitigate the damage], perhaps the most important being in the nuclear realm,” Kuperwasser explained.

“Iran is moving forward very quickly to accumulate enriched uranium and could begin producing it at [weapons-grade] levels. The regime – if it wants – is something like four to six months away from having enough fissile material to manufacture a first nuclear device,” he contended.

Iran has been the Mideast nation hardest hit by the coronavirus. As of Monday afternoon, authorities there had confirmed more than 41,000 cases of COVID-19 – the illness caused by the pathogen – and over 2,700 resulting deaths.

The circumstances last week prompted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to call on his US counterpart, Donald Trump, to lift sanctions that some argue are hampering Tehran’s ability to combat the virus.

Rouhani qualified that his government would not accept any humanitarian aid offered by the White House, calling the overture “the biggest lie in history.”

Tensions between the two countries have been high since President Trump in May 2018 withdrew Washington from the nuclear accord aimed at slowing Iran’s nuclear progress, and re-imposed crippling financial penalties on the mullahs.

“Analyzing President Trump’s options moving forward must be done within the context of the [November] election. He is keeping in mind his [political] base, which is divided into two groups when it comes to foreign policy,” said Dr. Michael Doran, senior fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute who previously served as a director in the National Security Council during the George W. Bush Administration.

“The first group is comprised of more traditional Republicans,” he told The Media Line, “who believe in a strong America both at home and abroad – in countering the US’s enemies while supporting allies. It is not ‘neoconservatism,’ [whose proponents] advocate remaking the world by democratizing the Middle East. Trump himself has a strong instinct to just sort of ‘get the hell out’ of the region.

“Then there is the libertarian wing,” Doran continued, “which basically does not understand at all what the US is doing in the Middle East and is opposed to any military activity.”

According to Doran, who participated in the JCPA’s virtual conference, President Trump has thus hesitated to act in any manner that could be construed by political opponents as “march to war,” something the Iranians have internalized.

“They have developed a strategy of escalating tensions through their proxies while [simultaneously] working with the Europeans and Democrats in the US to present the White House’s policy [as dangerous],” he said.

Whereas Doran thinks that President Trump has concluded that making concessions to Tehran would constitute a “defeat,” he nonetheless highlighted a seeming contradiction in the administration’s approach.

“With respect to deterrence, some officials held this idea that by [eliminating Iranian Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani in a January drone strike in Baghdad] there would be no need to engage in day-to-day operations [against Iran and its underlings] such as those that Israel must [undertake] vis-à-vis Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

“But as we saw earlier this month, an Iranian-aligned group killed two Americans [on a military base in Iraq],” Doran emphasized.

Prior to the pandemic, the Islamic Republic also appeared headed for a clash with the European parties to the nuclear accord, as well as with the new head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Britain, France and Germany in January triggered the nuclear agreement’s dispute resolution mechanism in response to Iranian violations. The reconciliation process had only started when the full picture of the devastating ramifications of the coronavirus began to crystallize, leading to the postponement of negotiations.

Additionally, the IAEA had been pressuring Iran to answer questions about a controversial warehouse in the capital, where traces of uranium were found. It is the same facility from which Israeli Mossad agents in early 2018 stole a treasure trove of documents allegedly proving that the Islamic Republic had conducted military research and tests geared toward developing a nuclear bomb.

The IAEA had also complained that its inspectors were being barred from accessing two additional sites where the mullahs have been accused of advancing the military dimensions of their atomic program.

Due to coronavirus-related restrictions in Iran, some fear that the IAEA will, at least in the short-term, have less oversight over Tehran’s actions.

In this respect, Iran already last summer began openly, and defiantly, expanding its nuclear activities, with some experts postulating that the country currently has enough low-enriched uranium to build a weapon.

Though the stockpile would first need to be refined to 90% purity, the pandemic has caused nations to temporarily close their doors to Iran.

And, as a corollary, perhaps windows into the Islamic Republic’s nuclear-related machinations.

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