Armed Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops stormed a South Korean tanker and forced the ship to change course and travel to Iran, the vessel’s owner said Tuesday, the latest maritime seizure by Tehran amid heightened tensions with the West over its nuclear program. The military raid on Monday on the MT Hankuk Chemi was at odds with Iranian explanations that they stopped the vessel for polluting the waters of the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. Instead, it appeared the Islamic Republic sought to increase its leverage over Seoul ahead of negotiations over billions of dollars in Iranian assets frozen in South Korean banks amid a U.S. pressure campaign targeting Iran.
U.S. tensions with Tehran ran high on Monday, a day after the first anniversary of the American drone strike that killed Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani, as U.S. officials warned of intelligence suggesting that Iran might still be preparing to retaliate. American officials said they fear a strike could be more significant than the periodic rocket attacks that Iranian-linked militias in Iraq have lobbed at bases where U.S. troops are located or at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and that the militiamen in Iraq have added new advanced weaponry to their arsenals.
A lot is not known about Iran’s newly announced move on Monday to enrich uranium up to the 20% level, but at maximum speed, a top nuclear expert has told The Jerusalem Post that its nuclear breakout time to a bomb could be cut to only six weeks. Institute for Science and International Security president David Albright said that there were many variables, such as how many IR-1, IR-2ms or even IR-4 or IR-6 centrifuges were being used.
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
A 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers is being eroded and efforts to revive the pact face a new challenge with a decision by Tehran to resume 20% uranium enrichment at an underground nuclear facility. The accord’s restrictions on Iran’s atomic work had one objective: to extend the “breakout time” for Tehran to produce enough fissile material for a bomb, if it decided to make one, to at least a year from about two to three months. Iran maintains that it has never sought nuclear weapons and never would. It says its nuclear work only has civilian aims.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
The Iranian government has passed a bill that criminalizes violence against women, including action or behavior that causes “physical or mental harm” to women. The bill was passed by the cabinet on January 3, Massoumeh Ebtekar, Iran’s vice president for women’s and family affairs, announced on Twitter, saying the bill was the result of "hundreds of hours of expertise." The bill, which has been under review since September 2019, will have to be adopted by parliament to become law.
Iran’s clerical regime on Monday temporarily released an Iranian Jewish woman who was arrested for her alleged visit to Israel. “Farahnaz Kohan, an Iranian Jewish woman was released from Evin prison. The 50-year old woman was detained for undisclosed period, due to alleged travel to Israel---a crime in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” the Alliance for Rights of All Minorities first reported in English.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
The United States criticized Iran’s statement that it had begun the process of enriching uranium to 20%, well above the limit set in the 2015 nuclear deal that Washington abandoned, as a form of “nuclear extortion.” “Iran enriching uranium to 20 percent at Fordow is a clear attempt to increase its campaign of nuclear extortion, an attempt that will continue to fail,” said a State Department spokesperson on condition of anonymity. They were responding to a query about Iran’s statement that it had resumed 20% uranium enrichment at an underground nuclear facility.
President Trump’s maximum-pressure sanctions campaign against Iran will continue until his final day in office—and so will Tehran’s escalating violations of the 2015 nuclear deal. While the facts on the ground change, Joe Biden’s policy hasn’t. Iran is now enriching uranium to 20% purity, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed Monday. This is below the 90% needed for a bomb but a big leap above the accord’s 3.67% limit. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says he was “bound” by the Iranian parliament, which passed a law mandating the escalation.
Joe Biden knows Iran better than any American President since its 1979 revolution. He has personally dealt with its top officials—a few of them for decades. “When I was Iran’s representative to the U.N., I had several meetings with Biden,” the Islamic Republic’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, acknowledged after the U.S. election, in an interview with Entekhab, a Tehran publication. The two aren’t exactly friends. Their meetings “can be described as professional relations based on mutual respect,” Zarif said.
Do Iran's latest actions represent minor trouble, as Tehran could have done so much more? Or real trouble, as the paper cuts just don't stop? Iran's persistent rhythm of half-measures, a drum beat of self-assertion, rarely lets up, leaving its adversaries -- from hawk to moderate -- able to choose from either of those options. Monday's admission that it is now enriching uranium to the 20% purity level -- a further breach of the collapsed nuclear deal (the JCPOA) and perhaps the singular most open step they've taken towards an alleged nuclear weapon -- rings some of the loudest non-proliferation alarms in the region so far.
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
Lebanese Sunni Muslims, Christians, and others are condemning recent remarks by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Air Force Commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh, who claimed that Lebanon owed its missile capabilities to Iran and that Lebanon was in the front line in Iran’s fight against Israel. Political leaders and citizens alike say the remarks raise questions about Lebanon’s sovereignty and threaten to further complicate its already-stalled Cabinet formation process.
CHINA & IRAN
China and Iran are foreign policy challenges for Joe Biden. Iran, burdened by sanctions, corruption, and a terrible coronavirus outbreak, has turned east to China over the last year for economic and military support. Despite an acute debt crisis that led Beijing to scale back its major Belt and Road Initiative, falling Iranian oil prices have enticed China to look for astute, even covert, alternatives for cheaper energy resources, undermining the United States. In fact, the Treasury Department had sanctioned Chinese firms for conducting business with Iran at least twice last year.
GULF STATES, YEMEN, & IRAN
Iran seized a South Korean-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz hours before announcing it would increase its nuclear activities, as tensions in the region mount in the final days of Donald Trump’s U.S. presidency. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said it detained the Hankuk Chemi vessel at 10 a.m. local time Monday “due to repeated violations of marine environmental laws.”