After newsrooms started to call the US presidential election in early November and Trump’s defeat seemed imminent, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and later Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East adviser, Jared Kushner, took off for the Middle East. Instead of taking stock of why the current president lost the election, the two administration members visited allies in the Gulf with one aim: how to hurt Iran before Trump leaves office.
In a barrage of tweets, Pompeo announced sanctions on Iran and its allies and attended meetings with undisclosed attendees during his trip. On November 9, Pompeo tweeted: “Today, the United States is sanctioning members of an illicit Iranian procurement network.” A day later, he sold F-35 fighter aircraft to the United Arab Emirates, one of the three leading enemies of Iran in the region, and said it was to “deter and defend against increased threats from Iran following the historic Abraham Accords.”
As Americans prepared to vote in the November presidential election, the UAE and Bahrain signed normalization of relations deals with Israel. It was seen as a historic development in a region torn with strife since Arab countries have been at loggerheads with Israel for decades over the issue of Palestinian statehood and the return of refugees. These agreements were termed as Abraham Accords and were timed to appease Israel and pro-Israel segments of the population. However, peace between a few Arab nations that were never at war with Israel and Tel Aviv, clearly, proved insufficient to secure Trump a victory.
Trump and Pompeo’s last-ditch efforts against Iran seemingly have been to safeguard an enduring understanding with the Saudis, the Emiratis, and the Israelis.
Trump and Pompeo’s last-ditch efforts against Iran seemingly have been to safeguard an enduring understanding with the Saudis, the Emiratis, and the Israelis, with an eye on the next US presidential elections in 2024. While Biden’s win was decisive, a large number of Americans voted for Trump and gave him, his supporters, and the Republican Party hope of returning to power.
The outgoing administration also sanctioned the former Foreign Minister of Lebanon Gebran Bassil, who is the head of the most prominent Christian party, called the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which is also an ally of Hezbollah, the Iran-backed political outfit and militia group. Hezbollah is Iran’s most effective proxy and has trained fighters in Syria and Iraq who are now guarding Iran’s arc of influence in the region. A political insider at the FPM told Inside Arabia that sanctions against Bassil were meant to create a rift between the Christian party and Shia Hezbollah but instead, it ended up strengthening the alliance. “The first entity Bassil looked to for support was Hezbollah, FPM’s ally,” the source said.
In a display of Trump and Pompeo’s obsession with Iran and Hezbollah, the administration had tiny Estonia declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization. “Like the actions taken by Germany, Lithuania, and Kosovo, and the commitment by Serbia earlier this year, Estonia’s decisive action recognizes that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization in its entirety and poses a significant threat in Europe and elsewhere,” Pompeo said in a statement.
The heavy lifting against Iran, however, began when Pompeo visited Saudi Arabia. In Pompeo’s presence, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) met with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the shores of the Red Sea near the futuristic city NEOM on November 22, according to Israeli and American press. Tel Aviv has not officially confirmed the meeting while Riyadh has outrightly denied hosting Netanyahu, yet in the geopolitical circles there is no doubt it happened. It is seen as a show of strength against Iran and a sign to Biden that as he tries to mend ties with Tehran and rejoin the nuclear deal, he will face staunch opposition from foreign policy hawks who are anti-Iran, and from US allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The US sent B-52H long-range, subsonic, jet-powered strategic bombers to the Middle East in late November.
In a further escalation, the US sent B-52H long-range, subsonic, jet-powered strategic bombers to the Middle East in late November. The bombers suddenly flew 7,000 miles from their air force base in North Dakota. It raised concerns among Iranians that Trump might declare war before Biden takes over on January 20, 2021. A statement from US Central Command said the bombers were meant to “deter aggression and reassure US partners and allies.”
The minutes of the meeting between Pompeo, MbS, and Netanyahu are, of course, unknown. But within a few days of the meeting, an Iranian scientist named Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated, raising suspicions that it might have been discussed.
On November 27, Fakhrizadeh – Iran’s top nuclear scientist who is credited with playing a significant role in the country’s controversial nuclear program, which Tehran insists is only for peaceful purposes – was shot dead. Iran’s Security Chief Ali Shamkali said the scientist was killed by a remote-controlled machine gun and blamed Israel and a less-known exiled group for the assassination. Israel has curiously neither confirmed nor denied its alleged role.
Iran has sought condemnation of the killing by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Yet a resolution at the UNSC can only be passed if it isn’t vetoed by any of the five permanent members, including the US, which has always protected Israel on the international stage, and in this case specifically, declined to comment.
Germany has sought restraint as Iranian hardliners cried revenge. “A few weeks before the new US administration takes office, it is important to preserve the scope for talks with Iran so that the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program can be resolved through negotiations,” Germany’s Foreign Ministry said.
While Trump and his team are trying to punish Iran as much as they can even in their last days in office, Biden has shown determination to get back to the table with Iran and rejoin the nuclear deal.
Biden has shown determination to get back to the table with Iran and rejoin the nuclear deal.
In an interview with the New York Times, the president-elect said that dealing with Iran was the best way to achieve “some stability in the region.” He added that he would also try and assuage Israeli and Saudi concerns over the expansion of Iran and its proxies in the region.
Mohamad Marandi, an Iranian political analyst perceived as close to the country’s regime, told Inside Arabia that Iran’s retaliation to Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s killing is separate from the nuclear deal. “If Biden wants Iran to comply by its nuclear commitments, he must abide by the nuclear deal in full,” said Marandi.
He added that Israel deliberately carried out the assassination at a time when Trump’s presidency is ending and Biden has not yet taken office. “Israel regularly bombs countries and carries out assassinations. Netanyahu is again hoping to get away with murder,” Marandi said.
On January 3, a United States drone strike near Baghdad International Airport targeted and killed the chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Qassem Soleimani. Iran responded in a calibrated manner, far short of provoking a direct armed conflict with the US. Its revenge for Fakhrizadeh’s killing may be as muted or it may not come at all since Iran’s prime concern at the moment is its economy. It reactivated its “strategic patience” policy during the Trump years and intends to wait it out to reassert itself in the region, at least until a deal is signed with the US and Iran can resell its oil to the world.