In Other News: Potential Lifting of Sanctions on Iran, China Flexing Maritime Muscle & More – April 9, 2021

April 9, 2021

The U.S. has announced that it is prepared to lift some sanctions on Iran in coordination with steps by Tehran to come back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal’s stipulations on uranium enrichment. The announcements are the result of bilateral communications, carried out via intermediaries, at meetings this week in Vienna between Iran and the UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China, with a U.S. delegation working nearby. The Biden administration has publicly committed to reengaging in the nuclear deal, which promised Iran economic benefits in exchange for limitations on further development of its nuclear program. With the U.S. departure from the deal in 2018 – and the imposition of hundreds of punitive economic sanctions on Iran – other signatories, including the EU, were unable to deliver on their economic commitments, and Iran embarked on highly visible efforts to violate its own commitments on uranium enrichment. The U.S. has estimated that at this point, Iran is only a few months away from having sufficient enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon. While these announcements hint at progress on a revived nuclear deal, the two sides remain far from agreement on a number of issues, including which comes first – the U.S. lifting sanctions or Iran putting the brakes on uranium enrichment. Tehran has proved over and over again that it is a tough and demanding negotiator and may seek to exploit the U.S.’s commitment to returning to the nuclear deal as a means to extract greater concessions. However, its regime should bear in mind that the U.S. is not the only country that will take issue with a nuclear-armed Iran – concern about Tehran as a source of regional instability has created some strange bedfellows, helping to spur the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and some of its long-hostile neighbors. Iran has more to lose by going nuclear and triggering a forceful, multilateral response than by reengaging with the international community and reestablishing its trade links.

Hundreds of Chinese commercial fishing boats dropped anchor off the Spratly Islands in late March, ostensibly to shelter from a coming storm, but in what is a transparent ploy to press its claims to South China Sea territory that both Vietnam and the Philippines also claim as their own. While many of the boats departed, roughly 40 remained in the area. This overt display of maritime muscle – it is the largest fleet of nominally civilian boats that Beijing has used thus far to intimidate its neighbors in the region –puts the U.S. and its Asian and Western allies under pressure to craft a response, and may have been intended partly as a test for the Biden administration. The administration has publicly criticized China’s actions and affirmed that the U.S.’s bilateral defense treaty with the Philippines includes attacks in the South China Sea, and the U.S. (and allies like the UK and Australia) will likely ratchet up freedom-of-navigation operations in the area as it has done in the past. However, its options beyond these are otherwise limited. While too sedate a response sends a signal to Beijing that its regional aggressions will be met with little more than harsh words, too strong a response risks maritime escalation in the South China Sea involving the world’s two largest navies. None of the major players in the South China Sea has an interest in escalation – on the contrary, the U.S. and its allies’ responses to each new incident are carefully calibrated to avoid such an outcome. However, future aggressions by Beijing (which are a near-certainty) and continued failure of these careful responses to elicit a change in behavior will elevate the risk that a misstep by one party will trigger a larger confrontation.

Jordanian Prince Hamzeh, the younger half-brother of Jordanian King Abdullah, was detained along with more than a dozen others in what has been widely described as a coup attempt backed by foreign interests. Without going into specifics, Jordan’s foreign minister publicly accused Prince Hamzeh of working with a former finance minister and another royal family member to damage the country’s security and stability. Prince Hamzeh has since released a letter affirming his allegiance to the king, though not before making a public statement that appeared to hold him responsible for governmental incompetence and corruption. Also making the rounds on social media is a recording of the head of the Jordanian Army warning Prince Hamzeh to cease social media use that criticizes the king (criticizing the king is illegal in Jordan). The events in Jordan would appear to be strictly an internal, albeit dishy matter. However, the threat of disruption would have broader implications. Jordan is a U.S. ally – the U.S. has troops and aircraft stationed there – and a partner in combating terrorism. Amman provided U.S. forces overland access to Iraq during the Iraq War, provided support to the U.S. in its campaign against ISIS, has long-established diplomatic ties with Israel, and stands in alignment with other Sunni-majority neighbors in opposition to Iran. The crisis appears to have passed, and that is good news. Jordan is a bastion of stability in a volatile region, and powers with strong interests there – such as the U.S. and Israel – want to make sure that remains the case.