Iranian regime’s priorities for a turbulent 2021

Iranian regime’s priorities for a turbulent 2021

Iranian regime’s priorities for a turbulent 2021
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei continues to mention Qassem Soleimani in his speeches. (AFP)
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This year, with respect to the Iranian regime and its domestic and foreign policy, several major developments must be watched closely, as they will have implications for the broader Middle East.

First of all, a potential confrontation between Iran and the US in the final weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency is not off the table. If Tehran makes any military miscalculation concerning America’s bases in the Middle East (specifically Iraq), the Trump administration may launch retaliatory airstrikes against Iranian military bases or nuclear sites. Tensions between the US and Tehran regime are already heightening once again, as their respective leaders are exchanging heated statements. After indications that Iran was contemplating an attack, Trump warned in a Twitter post: “Some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over.”

Although the Iranian leaders are projecting power in the midst of these heightened tensions, they are significantly in fear of a US attack. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on Saturday urged Trump not to be “trapped” by Israel’s agenda. He even tweeted what looked like a conspiracy theory, suggesting that Israel was planning to attack Americans in Iraq in order to instigate a war between Washington and Tehran. He wrote: “New intelligence from Iraq indicate(s) that Israeli agent-provocateurs are plotting attacks against Americans — putting an outgoing Trump in a bind with a fake casus belli (an act justifying war). Be careful of a trap, @realDonaldTrump. Any fireworks will backfire badly.”

Putting aside Iran’s rhetoric, as well as its military and political posturing, the truth is that the Iranian regime cannot afford a war with the US in this volatile situation.

Another reason that Trump might order airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear sites is that any military confrontation with Tehran would make President-elect Joe Biden’s plan to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal extremely difficult, if not impossible. This would strip Biden of what he sees as a potential foreign policy accomplishment. This is particularly important if Trump plans to run for president again in four years’ time.

A second issue to watch closely is the fact that the Iranian regime still intends to take revenge for Qassem Soleimani’s killing. A year on from the Quds Force commander’s death, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei continues to mention him in his speeches. He last month warned: “Those who ordered the murder of Gen. Soleimani as well as those who carried this out should be punished. This revenge will certainly happen at the right time.”

The regime wants to show its proxies, militia groups and hard-line base that it is not weak

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Taking revenge for Soleimani’s killing is critical for the Iranian regime, partially because Tehran has never faced such a major humiliation in its four-decade rule. The regime wants to show its proxies, militia groups and hard-line base that it is not weak. Furthermore, from the perspective of the Iranian leaders, taking revenge against the US would deter Washington and other parties from targeting Iranian officials in the future. But Iran is more likely to retaliate after Trump leaves office because the regime believes Biden is going to pursue a softer policy toward Tehran and he is less likely to react or respond militarily to an Iranian attack.

A third important issue concerning Iran’s politics in 2021 is June’s presidential election. Expect that Khamenei, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Guardian Council will manipulate and orchestrate a phony election that results in victory for an ideologue and hard-liner.

Soleimani’s shadow
Qassem Soleimani left a trail of death and destruction in his wake as head of Iran’s Quds Force … until his assassination on Jan. 3, 2020. Yet still, his legacy of murderous interference continues to haunt the region

Tehran is also looking to re-enter the JCPOA this year. The regime is bankrupt and needs cash to be able to fund its loyalists, as well as its regional network of proxies and terror groups. But the theocratic establishment will still be playing hardball, such as by issuing threats aimed at pushing the Biden administration to swiftly rejoin the nuclear agreement. That is why Iran this week told the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, that it is planning to enrich uranium to 20 percent purity.

Finally, expect to witness another wave of widespread nationwide protests across Iran’s cities. The unemployment rate, inflation and poverty all continue to rise, meaning people cannot afford basic necessities. The nation’s currency has also lost most of its value and dissatisfaction with the ruling politicians is at record levels. This is a threat to the hold on power of the ruling clerics.

• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh

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