What does 2021 hold for key Iranian officials and the regime?

David Patrikarakos looks at h0w the impact of last year's pressure on the regime will affect policy


2020 was not a good year for senior Iranian officials. It kicked off with the assassination of Quds Force commander, Qasem Soleimani by United States, which droned his convey as it left Baghdad airport in January.

At it drew to a close, Tehran suffered yet another blow when, on 28 November, when persons unknown (but obviously the Israelis working in concert with Iranian opposition forces) whacked Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the man who headed up the ministry of defence’s research and innovation organisation, which is an officious way of saying he was at the heart of the country’s nuclear programme.

Two very different hits, two different messages: but behind each one pretty much the same impulse. The first was US President Donald Trump saying simply: enough. Trump is a man not known for nuanced thought, words or deeds. Sometimes, though, nuance isn’t what’s needed. Soleimani was the embodiment of Iran’s Middle East adventurism and brutality. He ran Tehran’s wars abroad, notably in Syria and Iraq, where through his proxies, notably several Shia militia groups, he had the blood of many American soldiers on his hands. Barack Obama ordered that Soleimani be left untouched as he sought to conclude the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran — the so-called nuclear deal, in which Iran agreed to more onerous restrictions on its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief. He got his deal. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) got billions in sanctions relief, in return. Much of this cash went to Soleimani and enabled his Quds force to carry out more attacks, and fund their proxies to carry out more attacks, some of which probably killed yet more Americans. Thus runs the cycle of life — and death — in the Middle East.

Iran’s nuclear programme was slowed; its paths to a bomb shut down (albeit temporarily and imperfectly) but the cost was a regionally emboldened Iran. Attacks in Iraq ballooned once more, the war in Syria metastasized into a greater killing field. 2019 ended on a particularly egregious note when the Iraqi Shia paramilitary group Kataib Hezbollah fired rockets at an Iraqi military base in Kirkuk, killing a Pentagon contractor and wounding several U.S service and Iraqi personnel.

Trump was outraged. “...Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!” he tweeted.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei responded by actually quote tweeting Trump. “That guy has tweeted that we see Iran responsible for the events in Baghdad & we will respond to Iran. 1st: You can’t do anything. 2nd: If you were logical —which you’re not— you’d see that your crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan… have made nations hate you,” he replied.

Telling the US President that he “can’t do anything”, and on his favoured means of communication, to boot. Nothing demonstrated Iranian feelings of near invincibility than this. But this kind of hubris always finds its own nemesis — even if it occasionally takes a bit of time. This time is was quiak: for good and for ill, Trump is not Obama, as Khamenei should have known. 48 hours later all that was left of the Supreme Leader’s favoured geopolitical enforcer, Haji Qasem, was a charred corpse on a Baghdad highway identifiable only by the oversized red ring (possibly a red carnelian stone which some Middle East Muslims believe can bestow “blessings”) that he famously wore. DNA confirmation is still pending.

The second killing, that of Fakhrizadeh was, as I see it, born not from exasperation or anger but, rather, calculation borne from the deepest security fears of the Israeli state. It was, as I have previously written, a message, both to the Iranians and, perhaps more pressingly, the incoming Biden administration. The message was simple: administrations may change, security concerns do not.

When Joe Biden takes office on 21 January to become the 46th President of the United States, Iran must inescapably be among his most pressing geopolitical concerns. Trump always hated the JCPOA. He railed against Obama when the latter was negotiating it: chastised Obama for signing it, and then, in 2018 as President, unilaterally withdrew the US from it. The deal, which is between Iran and the P5+1 (the Five Security Council powers plus Germany) has limped on but in truth without Washington it’s a lame duck and everyone knows it.

Iran now drifts on. Since the US reinstated sanctions, Tehran has unilaterally lifted the JCPOA restrictions on enriching uranium (it clearest path to a nuclear bomb). So far, it has refrained from going all out for fear of military attack. But the sanctions are hurting. Iran’s economy, a basket case at the best of times, in now vertiginous in its collapse. The regime is now shooting people en mass in the streets. Khamenei needs a deal, and he needs it fast. If he can’t reverse the economic collapse then forget his perennial fears of US regime change, his own people might finally deliver it to him.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden knows he must deal with Iran. As I outline in my book Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State (reissued last month in an updated edition) Washington and Tehran have been locked in a dysfunctional dialectic for over 40 years now — it has to end.

Obama tried. His remedy for the “Iran Problem” may have been flawed but his diagnoses weas correct. Iran is an ancient civilizational state that straddles two of the world’s great energy resources, the Caspian Basin and the Persian Gulf. It controls the Straits of Hormuz through which 20 percent of the global oil supply passes. It is a country of over 80 million people, rich in human capital and resources. It cannot be locked out of the international order forever. You have to deal with Iran. You have to solve this problem. And only the US can do it effectively.

Biden is a foreign policy guy — he gets this. This has alarmed some in the Gulf and in Israel. They fear a return to a JCPOA-like deal, against which Netanyahu unsuccessfully campaigned for years and which he relentlessly criticised once it was signed. The Gulf monarchies, including a UAE now at peace with Israel, remain terrified of Iranian revanchism and the possible radicalisation of their own Shia communities. Under Obama, the Gulf monarchies and Israel were de facto aligned; now it’s pretty much official. Neither will accept a return to the JCPOA status quo.

Iran, meanwhile, is much weakened; if it can get sanctions relief in a deal that also allows it to save some kind of face with its own people (always a key concern of autocracies) then there might be movement. And there needs to be. Biden has almost half a century of foreign policy experience. He will need it all to finally resolve the relationship with his country’s most protracted and intense geopolitical opponent in the Middle East, and in so doing, make the world just a little bit safer for us all.



Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive