A defiant Iran picked fights around the world Monday, flouting its promises under an international nuclear deal, seizing a South Korean oil tanker for dubious reasons, and announcing a major military drone exercise that is likely to further inflame tensions with the U.S. during President Trump’s final days in office.
The trio of provocations coincided with the one-year anniversary of the American airstrike that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a figure Tehran considered a “martyr” in its battle with the West and as someone whose death will be avenged with blood.
In a striking about-face, the Pentagon late Sunday announced that the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier and some 5,000 sailors and Marines would remain in the Middle East, countermanding an order last week to return home as part of what U.S. officials said at the time was a move to “de-escalate” tensions in the region.
In connection with the Soleimani anniversary, U.S. officials have been preparing for a fresh wave of Iranian attacks against American military and diplomatic targets, most likely in Iraq, where pro-Iran Shiite militias are a powerful force.
Major violence between the U.S. and Iran has not materialized so far, but Tehran has found other ways to stir up tension. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif announced early Monday that Iran would once again enrich uranium up to 20% at its underground Fordo facility, putting the country’s nuclear program a few technical steps closer to the levels needed for a nuclear bomb.
The 20% threshold is explicitly banned under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal struck with the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. Mr. Trump pulled the U.S. from that deal in 2018, but the remaining nations have tried to hold the pact together and have pleaded with Tehran to act within its limits. Iran argues that U.S. violations of the deal since 2018, including the reimposition of punishing economic sanctions, justify its moves.
“We resumed 20% enrichment, as legislated by our Parliament,” Mr. Zarif said in a Twitter message. “Our measures are fully reversible upon FULL compliance by ALL.”
His comments strongly suggest that Iran is banking on a resumption of nuclear negotiations with the U.S. once President-elect Joseph R. Biden assumes office on Jan. 20. Mr. Biden has expressed support for reviving the deal, which offered Iran relief from economic sanctions in exchange for limits on its nuclear program.
But even a short-term rise in enrichment levels will spark fears of war and could create a messy geopolitical situation ahead of Mr. Biden’s inauguration.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that the announcement proves Iran remains intent on acquiring nuclear weapons, a development he said Israel will never accept.
“Israel will not allow Iran to manufacture a nuclear weapon,” Mr. Netanyahu said.
Iran in recent days has accused Israel of seeking to fabricate a justification for Israeli or U.S. military strikes on Iran. The U.S. and Israel have denied those claims.
Meanwhile, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on Monday seized a South Korean oil tanker for “violating the environmental protocols” near the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz. The waterway has been ground zero for confrontations between Iran and other nations for the past several years, and the U.S. Navy last week sailed a nuclear-powered submarine through the strait as a warning to Tehran.
The seizure of the MT Hankuk Chemi — which had on board crew members from South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and Myanmar — offered Iran a way to reassert its control over the area and to flex its own naval muscles. Iranian officials contended the ship was detained for violating rules on pollution and dumping.
In response, South Korean officials struck a measured tone. They emphasized that the ship and its crew must be released but tried to avoid a situation in which lives would be lost or property seriously damaged.
“The Foreign Ministry and the South Korean Embassy in Iran have learned that the crews are safe, and are requesting the early release of the ship,” the South Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
But South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported that the nation’s anti-piracy Cheonghae Unit and other military assets were on their way to the Strait of Hormuz, suggesting that Seoul was taking precautions in the event Iran attempted similar seizures or refused to release the ship.
Behind the scenes, Iran was pressuring South Korea to free up roughly $7 billion in assets from oil sales that were frozen by the Trump administration’s sanctions. Seizing South Korean ships may be an effort by Tehran to expedite that process.
Such a path, however, carries serious risks for Iran and raises the temperature in a volatile part of the world.
The Iranian military in the summer of 2019 seized several ships, including a British-flagged tanker, in the Strait of Hormuz. Those seizures were part of a series of escalations that nearly brought the U.S. and Iran to all-out war in January after the Soleimani airstrike and a retaliatory missile attack by Tehran against American troops based in Iraq.
Attacks by Iran-backed militias against U.S. personnel have continued since then.
Last month, an Iran-linked militia group launched a rocket attack on the U.S. diplomatic complex in Baghdad’s Green Zone. One Iraqi civilian was killed.
The incident sparked a war of words between Mr. Trump and top Iranian officials, including Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who suggested late last week that Mr. Trump’s life would end soon after he leaves office.
“In a few days, the life of this criminal will end and he will go to the dustbin of history,” Mr. Rouhani said.
Pentagon officials seemed to credit those comments with the decision to keep the Nimitz in the Persian Gulf. The Defense Department had just announced that the ship and its crew would be returning after 10 months at sea.
“Due to the recent threats issued by Iranian leaders against President Trump and other U.S. government officials, I have ordered the USS Nimitz to halt its routine redeployment,” acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller said in a statement late Sunday evening. “The USS Nimitz will now remain on station in the U.S. Central Command area of operations. No one should doubt the resolve of the United States of America.”
Mr. Trump reportedly had a hand in the decision, though Pentagon officials did not publicly confirm his involvement.
Hours after the Pentagon announcement, Iranian officials confirmed a major military drone exercise. Such Iranian drills are not uncommon, but the timing was clearly meant to serve as a demonstration of the nation’s air prowess.
The two-day exercise will include “hundreds of operational drones of the army’s ground, air and navy forces in the general area of Semnan” province and other areas of the country, Agence France-Presse reported Monday, citing Iranian media reports.
The Iranian drones reportedly will undertake “combat, surveillance, reconnaissance and electronic warfare” missions.