Tehran began enriching uranium up to 20 percent and seized a South Korean tanker in Gulf waters this week – two steps that threaten to put them on a path of conflict with the West. The increase – from around four percent – is a further breach of a 2015 agreement with world powers and brings Iran closer to being able to produce weapons-grade uranium, which requires 90 percent purity. The actions were seen as a warning to the incoming US administration as Tehran seeks to revive the nuclear deal that Washington scrapped in 2018 under the Trump administration.
But experts now fear the US President could take “reckless” military action against Iran during his final days in the White House before Joe Biden is inaugurated on January 20.
The US flew B-52 bombers over the Gulf three times in the past month, in what was called a “deterrence measure” ahead of the first anniversary of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani’s assassination on January 3.
According to the assistant director of the Centre for International and Area Studies at Northwestern University, Danny Postel, Mr Trump is now under pressure from key allies in the Middle East to take action.
He added: “Trump is a very wounded and very cornered animal in an end-game scenario.”
Mr Postel said Mr Trump is “capable of extremely erratic behaviour” and warned his “most erratic and most reckless” may be yet to come.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy seized the South Korean vessel yesterday for “environmental pollution” in the Persian Gulf.
The oil tanker, which was led to Bandar Abbas after being seized, was said to be carrying 7,200 tonnes of ethanol, according to the IRGC Navy.
Seoul demanded for its immediate release after confirming it had been captured by Iranian authorities in waters off Oman.
There is tension between the two countries after US sanctions led to Iranian funds being frozen in South Korean banks.
The timing appears impeccable, as South Korea’s deputy foreign minister is due to visit Tehran in the coming days, and this will strengthen Iran’s hand in negotiations.
Meanwhile, the US State Department accused Iran of pursuing a “campaign of nuclear extortion” after it was confirmed uranium enrichment up to 20 percent had begun in Fordo.
Tehran has said it is retaliating to US economic sanctions that were reinstated in 2018 by Mr Trump when he abandoned the nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said he ordered the move because he was “bound” by a new law requiring the production and storage of at least 120kg of 20 percent enriched uranium annually for peaceful purposes.
While some have warned about the potential for conflict to escalate under Mr Trump, experts see the moves this week as an attempt to mount pressure on Mr Biden.
Most are unconvinced that Tehran would give the Trump administration an excuse to launch a military confrontation right now as Mr Biden intends to restart diplomatic engagement.
The former Vice President has said he plans to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal which was signed by President Barack Obama and saw Iran limit its nuclear enrichment in exchange for a lifting of international sanctions.
Mr Trump withdrew the US from the agreement as part of his administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran, which also saw Washington impose harsh sanctions on several key Iranian industries.