Iran-U.S. tension is currently under control to some extent, but it will not ease in the short term due to Iran's nuclear activities, according to an expert.
“The Centre For Iranian Studies IRAM was using the concept of 'controlled escalation of tension' to describe the Iran-U.S. relations, but now the tension seems a little out of control,” Hakki Uygur, the deputy head of the center in Ankara, told Anadolu Agency in an exclusive interview.
Rising Iran-US tension
U.S.-Iran relations have been tense since May 2019 due to the substantial fall in Iran's oil sales, Uygur said.
The expert recalled that Iranian officials since then have made threatening statements calling on other countries: “Nobody can sell oil if we can't.”
Tensions ratcheted up between the U.S. and Iran after two oil tankers were attacked in June 2019 in the Strait of Hormuz.
The U.S. held Iran responsible for the attacks and accused Tehran of destroying navigation devices. Both accusations were denied by Iran.
Following the tankers attack, Washington created an international military coalition to safeguard the Strait of Hormuz.
Also, the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran has mounted recently following attacks on two oil facilities of Aramco, for which Riyadh and Washington held Tehran responsible, while the Islamic republic denied.
“All these have shown that we were slowly moving towards military conflict,” Uygur highlighted.
Tension in the region have further escalated early this month after the U.S. killed Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) elite Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of Iraq's Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Forces in an airstrike on Jan. 3 in Baghdad, triggering tensions and retaliatory attacks by Iran on the U.S. bases in Iraq.
Uygur stressed that, with these latest developments, the U.S. President Donald Trump's maximum pressure policy has also moved to a military stage, while it was previously applied mostly in economic and political levels.
Nobody expected the U.S. to react so seriously, said Uygur, referring to the killing of two commanders, adding: “The U.S. gave a very clear message to Iran that it has changed the rules of the game.”
“It is not an exaggeration to say that Iran-U.S. relations have entered a new stage,” he stressed.
The fact that Iran's retaliation attack on U.S. bases in Iraq was carried out in a moderate way and with prior notice prevented the tension from rising suddenly, according to Uygur.
Iran’s reaction to US attack on two commanders
Iran is on the horns of a dilemma, Uygur said, adding that the Persian country had a preliminary assumption that the U.S. cannot carry out a military attack against them as they have a regional deterrence.
Stressing that Iran's attacks on U.S. bases were the result of this “confidence”, Uygur said the U.S. airstrike on Jan. 3 in Baghdad overrode Iran’s claim.
The attacks caused a great shock when heard in Iran, he added.
Referring to the killing of Soleimani and al-Muhandis as the “9/11 of Iran”, Uygur said: “Soleimani was one of the most important symbols of Iran.”
Soleimani and al-Muhandis were the two most important commanders of the Iran’s militia network in Iraq and Iran, said the expert.
Although Iran claimed that the U.S. killing of Soleimani was an “act of war”, after all, in practice we have seen a restrained answer, Uygur said.
“I don't think the two sides are at war today, but there is always a possibility of war at the region as the level of tension has risen significantly amid recent developments,” he opined.
Underlining that Iran is trying to resist and gain time as much as possible, Uygur said: “We will see how Iran will respond.”
Uygur also added he does not expect Iran to carry out new attacks on U.S. bases in the short term.
He, however, suggested that in the medium and long term, Iran will increase the number of its anti-U.S. political and military activities.
Although Lt. Gen. Esmail Qaani, appointed new leader of the Quds Force, said he would follow his successor Soleimani's path, in practice, he will be more cautious towards the U.S. compared to Soleimani, at least in the short term, said Uygur.
Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative to Iran, threatened to kill Qaani in a published interview with Saudi-owned daily Asharq Al-Awsat.
Hook said: “If [Qaani] follows a similar path of killing Americans, he will meet the same fate, because the President has made clear for years that any attacks against American personnel or interests in the region will be met with a decisive response, and the President demonstrated that on January 2nd. So this is not a new threat.”
2015 Iran nuclear deal in “coma”
“A new area of tension is emerging between Europe and Iran due to Iran's nuclear activities,” according to Uygur.
The U.K., Germany, and France announced Tuesday they would activate the dispute mechanism of 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), due to Tehran’s continuous violations of the accord.
Iran announced, following the death of Soleimani, that it would no longer comply with any commitments under the 2015 deal signed with several world powers.
The 2015 Iran nuclear deal is currently in “coma”, Uygur said, adding: "If Iran quits the treaty, international community will consider a possible intervention against Iran."
The landmark deal between Iran and the P5+1 group of nations -- the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany -- imposed strict curbs on Tehran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of longstanding U.S. sanctions.
Trump pulled Washington out of the deal last year.
Iran is racing to go nuclear, Uygur said, and added: “I don't think the world and the U.S. administration will accept a 'nuclear Iran'."
If Iran becomes a nuclear-armed state, Americans would hit the previously-announced 52 targets in Iran, the expert stressed.
Trump threatened on Jan. 5, 2020 to hit Iranian targets in response to any retaliatory attacks on U.S. citizens and assets.
Reflections of US-Iran tension on Iranian domestic politics
Referring to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s recent statement that U.S. sanctions caused a $200-billion loss in the Iranian economy within two years, Uygur said Iranian economy is in a very difficult situation.
This situation is not sustainable for Iran as an economic crisis aggravates masses to take to streets and protest against the Iranian regime, he added.
Underlining that Soleimani was considered a presidential bid for the new term after Rouhani, Uygur said: “The killing of Soleimani may also have some consequences on Iran's domestic politics.”
Considering the fact that Soleimani was one of the commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Uygur said we can suppose that there was a very small section among the Iranian society who are satisfied with getting rid of Soleimani.
Effect of Iran-US standoff in Afghanistan
If the current conflict between Iran and the U.S. escalates more, it may also destabilize Afghanistan, said Uygur, pointing out the U.S. military bases in Afghanistan as potential targets for Iran.
Referring to Iran’s relationship with Taliban, Uygur said the proxies used by Iran are not only limited to Shia groups.
“Iran can very easily cooperate with any anti-U.S. organization or professional group anywhere in the world.”
The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 before being ousted by U.S.-led forces following the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington.
The raging Afghan conflict is in its 19th year, with thousands of lives lost and millions forced to flee their homes. The UN repeatedly calls for urgent need to seize opportunities for peace in the region.
Iran’s strategic interests in region
The protests in Lebanon and Iraq are part of the regional challenges Iran currently faces, Uygur said, adding: “I do not think these protests will reach a conclusion in favor of the protesters.”
There will be no movement that will challenge Hezbollah in Lebanon, as it has a strong dominance in the country, he emphasized.
Protests in Iraq pose a greater threat to Iran's interests in the region compared to protests in Lebanon, Uygur said, adding there is a large mass of young people who oppose the Iranian interventions in their country.
However, he said, the pro-Iran groups have also a strong presence in Iraq given the recent anti-U.S. rally in the country staged by supporters of Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Thousands of Iraqis gathered in the Baghdad city center on Friday taking part in a rally against the presence of the U.S. troops in their country.