The seemingly dormant conflict between Tehran and Washington returned to the fore again this week when U.S. President Trump implicitly confirmed reports that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps was planning the assassination of American officials in retaliation for the killing of former IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani. Meanwhile, Tehran has been active on both the nuclear and regional fronts, even as it appears to be losing ground in both to Washington’s allies.
AN EXCHANGE OF THREATS
Earlier this week, U.S. President Trump declared over Twitter that “according to press reports, Iran may be planning an assassination, or other attack, against the United States in retaliation for the killing of terrorist leader Soleimani, which was carried out for his planning a future attack, murdering U.S. Troops, and the death & suffering caused over so many years.” President Trump warned against such an Iranian bid in the strongest possible terms: “Any attack by Iran, in any form, against the United States will be met with an attack on Iran that will be 1,000 times greater in magnitude!”
Trump was most likely referring to developments originally reported in Politico. According to senior American intelligence officials familiar with the issue and briefed on the intelligence,“[t]he Iranian government is weighing an assassination attempt against the American ambassador to South Africa.” The officials added that “the intelligence community isn’t exactly sure why Iranians would target Marks, who has few, if any, known links to Iran, [however i]t’s possible the Iranians took her long friendship with Trump into consideration.”
Tehran has long maintained an extensive network of operatives in South Africa. In 2015, Al-Jazeera released segments of a document titled "Operational Target Analysis," purportedly authored by South African intelligence agents, which profiled dozens of such alleged Iranian operatives, along with their names, cover stories, and contact information. Though primarily intended as a conduit for evading Western sanctions, it is no great feat of imagination, given Iran’s track record in other nations, how such a network could be repurposed for more kinetic ends.
IRANIAN MOVEMENT ON NUCLEAR, REGIONAL FRONTS
At the same time, Tehran has been moving to systematically reduce its commitments to the 2015 nuclear deal. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's atomic agency, told the Iranian parliament's news agency ICANA that there are “currently 1,044 centrifuges enriching at Fordow." Salehi added, ”We were committed in the JCPOA that these 1,044 machines do not carry out enrichment, but it is being done per dropped commitments as much as needed and we will stockpile the enriched material, too.” Britain, France, and Germany released a joint statement in January saying that Iran's actions to reignite nuclear activity at Fordaw “are inconsistent with the provisions of the nuclear agreement and have increasingly severe and non-reversible proliferation implications."
Even as the U.S. is moving to initiate snapback sanctions — with their likely devastating effect on the Iranian economy and Iran’s commitment to what remains of the JCPOA — Iranian and American legal teams are preparing to contest the move before the UN’s top court in the Hague. Next week, the two will argue whether or not the ICJ has legal jurisdiction in a case that, in the most favorable outcome for Tehran, will require several months to run its course.
Tehran has been down this road before. In October 2018, it scored a minor victory over the Trump administration by persuading the ICJ that the U.S. was in breach of the 1955 Iranian-American "Treaty of Amity" and to order sanctions on humanitarian goods to be eased as an emergency measure. The triumph proved short-lived however, as Washington responded by formally terminating its participation in that treaty as a relic of the Shah’s long-defunct regime and accusing Iran of manipulating the ICJ for propaganda purposes. This bid is unlikely to fair any better.