Iran standoff 2021 forecast: From initiative to uncertainty - analysis

The deathes of Abu Muhammad al-Masri and Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, allegedly due to Mossad, were deep blows to Iranian pride.

Residents of Qom, Iran meet Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei after US assassination of Qasem Soleimani (photo credit: KHAMENEI.IR)
Residents of Qom, Iran meet Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei after US assassination of Qasem Soleimani
(photo credit: KHAMENEI.IR)
The standoff with Iran in 2020 literally started with a “boom!”
On January 3, Iran Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani was assassinated by the US.
Obviously, this was not the beginning of the nuclear standoff. That goes back decades, and its latest chapter comes out of different views that the Islamic Republic and the Trump administration took regarding the 2015 nuclear deal.
But it absolutely captured the vibe of 2020 in relations between the US-Israel-moderate Sunni allies versus Tehran.
Basically, the US alliance had the upper hand far more in 2020 than in previous years.
Sure, the Trump administration initiated its “maximum pressure” campaign in 2018. But it was not until mid-2019 that all the important waivers from the sanctions campaign were removed.
Further, 2019 saw Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei lead Iran through a series of growing violations of the nuclear deal without the US finding any real new pressure point to slow him down.
2020 was different.
Soleimani was not the only key turning point.
International Atomic Energy Agency director-general Rafael Grossi changed the entire conversation by using intelligence gathered by the Mossad from Iran’s own nuclear archives to publicly accuse the Islamic Republic of noncompliance for the first time since 2015.
In June, the IAEA Board of Governors even voted to condemn Iran for its failure to give inspectors access to newly discovered, undeclared nuclear sites and to explain illicit and newly discovered nuclear material that was also undeclared.
As this war of words grabbed the headlines, between late June and early August, Iran experienced nearly six weeks of mysterious explosions at around a dozen facilities.
The most important was the destruction of its Natanz advanced centrifuge facility for enriching uranium on July 2. Experts said this set back its nuclear enrichment efforts by one to two years.
Though not reported until November, Iran was embarrassed on August 7 when al-Qaeda’s No. 2, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was assassinated.
Then, on November 27, Iran’s military nuclear program chief, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated, another crushing blow to its nuclear progress.
These last two were carried out by the Mossad, according to foreign sources.
All of this is without even getting into the many Abraham Accords normalization deals that have legitimized Israel and further isolated Iran in the region.
Not that Iran has been sitting on its hands.
It did not announce new nuclear violations in 2020. However, it continued to violate limits on the quantity of uranium that it can enrich at low levels. The violations reached a point where Iran has enough material, in theory, for several nuclear weapons.
But since it has not started to enrich even to the 20% medium level, which it had done prior to 2015, it has not, in practical terms, moved any closer to an actual nuclear weapon for most of 2020.
In recent days, Tehran seems to be hoping to get in some last-minute shots at US troops in Iraq and leave some blood on US President Donald Trump on his way out of the White House and to avoid angering Joe Biden when he takes office on January 20.
But in the range of Iranian military options, these attacks have been mild and of little consequence.
Perhaps the most noteworthy aggression by Iran has been its most successful cyberattacks to date against insurance giant Shirbit, Israel Aerospace Industries and others.
Still, this aggression has been much less damaging than it could have been, with Israeli cyber authorities and IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Hidai Zilberman playing it down.
Probably, the attacks were limited because the other major cyber exchange of 2020 in May saw Israel, according to foreign sources and multiple official public hints, shut down a huge Iranian port in response to Iran’s attempt in April to cyber-poison part of Israel’s water supply.
And yet, Israel goes into 2021 in a very uneasy state.
All the signs are that the Biden administration will try hard to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal and roll back pressure on Iran without sufficiently filling loopholes that address the concerns of Israel and of moderate Sunni states.
There is also uncertainty surrounding Tehran’s June 2021 elections in which a hard-liner will likely replace President Hassan Rouhani.
Some Iranian hawks may welcome this to convince the West that there is no moderate address within the regime. But they may have forgotten how many additional problems were caused by former hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinjad.
Biden has committed not to just be a third Obama term and talked tough about Iran’s missile and precision-rocket programs. Yet, this is a long way from him being ready to stare down the ayatollahs while 150 Democrats in the House of Representatives press him to simply rejoin the deal.
If Iran was not on the ropes in 2020, it was certainly on the run. But with no knockout blow delivered, 2021 could be very different.