by: Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update
The year 2020 has been a tragic and challenging year for the world—from the coronavirus pandemic to protests to political battles. But it’s been an especially difficult year for Iran. The economy has struggled under sanctions imposed by the US, the leader of Iran’s top terrorist spy agency was assassinated and then mysterious explosions hit Iran’s missile and nuclear programs. And the year isn’t even over yet. Here are some key ways 2020 has been a year Iran would rather forget—and why that may be some much-needed good news for the rest of the world.
One of the most impactful incidents in 2020 for Iran occurred just three days into the new year, as General Qassem Soleimani was assassinated by the US. Soleimani was the elusive head of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard, Iran’s main group tasked with international attacks. The US State Department quoted a senior US official in February calling Soleimani “a genius at scrambling our operations” in Syria and Iraq. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Soleimani an “arch-terrorist.”
Dr. Jonathan Spyer, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and a Middle East Forum fellow, said the impact of the loss of Soleimani has been mingled with other setbacks for Iran, especially economic problems. As a result, Iran has had “a loss of forward motion, to some degree” in the region. Spyer added that Iran’s campaign in Iraq has been “most keenly” impacted by the loss of Soleimani and his deputy in Iraq, who was killed with Soleimani. Iraq, Iran’s neighbor and a key piece of the regime’s efforts to build an empire spanning the Middle East, has a blend of diverse proxy groups that require an Iranian liaison with a special touch. According to Spyer, Soleimani had that special touch, and the death of his deputy in Iraq makes the loss worse.
Spyer also highlighted the importance of the former Quds Force leader’s role more broadly across the Middle East. “Soleimani was the key strategic mind that was holding that sort-of ‘militia-proxy empire’ together, and I think there is evidence that his replacement, Esmail Ghaani, is not necessarily a mind of similar caliber, or at least his in-depth knowledge of the Arab world and of Israel and of the Middle East is not on the same par.”
According to Spyer, it’s “very feasible that it will take a while” for the Quds Force to recover.
The US-led sanctions on Iran—including oil sanctions—didn’t start in 2020, but their impact has been profound this year, exacerbated by plunging oil prices and the coronavirus economic impact. In July, Iran’s currency, the rial, hit an all-time low—and then just kept falling, dropping below 250,000 rials to the dollar, according to Iran’s Press TV.
On July 5, Meir Javendafar, Iranian analyst and editor of the Iran–Israel Observer blog, translated an Iranian newspaper headline in his comments on the economic concerns: “‘Experts have suggested: #Iran on its way to [becoming] #Venezuela,’ says the front page of the Aftab-e Eghtesad economic daily today. With the Iranian currency tanking, massive corruption, sanctions, oil based econ & inflation expected to rise, many in Iran are clearly concerned.”
While heartbreaking for individual Iranians, the economic setbacks in Iran have also drained Tehran of resources to attack Israel and others. “In all countries [where they are engaged], Iran is struggling to some degree,” said Spyer.
Sanctions and COVID-19 have left Iran with less funds, Spyer added, “and therefore that’s creating problems and tensions regarding its relations with its ’proxy empire,’ if one can put it that way.”
The shortage of money, he surmised, in both Iran and places like Lebanon and Syria, is having “probably a greater impact right now than the loss of Soleimani.”
At the time of writing this article, it remains unclear if the suspicious explosions in Iran over the summer were officially sabotage or accidents. However, their timing and locations—including nuclear and missile sites—make sabotage likely for at least some of them. The blast occurring at the Iran Centrifuge Assembly Center (ICAC) at Natanz was especially devastating.
According to David Albright, the president and founder of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), the ICAC played a “unique role” in mass-producing advanced centrifuges, the machines used to make nuclear fuel. He said having thousands of such machines would have enabled Iran to “drastically shorten the time” to produce weapons-grade uranium and made it “far easier” to hide centrifuges in a secret site.
The center took around six years to build, Albright said. Replacing it will likely take at least a year. That’s a real blow to Iran’s nuclear plans. While Tehran could still “breakout” for a nuclear weapon in as little as three months, Albright holds that the blast at Natanz buys time to counter such a threat.
“Although the destruction of the ICAC does not eliminate all the risks posed by Iran’s centrifuge program, its destruction has eliminated the most dangerous threat posed by Iran’s centrifuge program in the short to medium term,” said Albright.
Spyer noted that the impact of the explosions in Iran are also more than just physical, as Tehran took pride in the idea of fighting abroad to allegedly defend the home front. “That would sometimes be the way in which the regime would explain to the people as well, the reason for money being spent in Lebanon, in Syria, in Israel, and Gaza, a long way from home, by doing this ‘we’re keeping the fire a long way away from our borders.’ There is a sense right now that’s no longer the case,” said Spyer.
“The Iranians are realizing you can do covert action against other countries for a certain period of time. After that, don’t be surprised if other countries start doing covert action against you…I think it probably is giving Iranian leaders and the Iranian public a reason to think carefully about what’s been going on in recent years.”
Going forward, if Tehran thinks twice about interfering in other countries, what could be a bad year for Iran just might be a better year for everyone else.
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