Just over a year ago on January 3, the world was shocked by the brazen US assassination of top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The tension following the drone strike
was palpable. US-Iran relations were already at a low when the assassination of Soleimani pushed the possibility of actual conflict to the forefront. Soleimani, after all, was no simple military leader but rather a vital orchestrator of Iran's complex geostrategic policy of acting through proxies. Some commentators went so far as to say that Soleimani's importance and influence in Iran were only second to that of the Ayatollah himself. This was reflected in the mass congregation and public mourning witnessed as Soleimani was given a hero's burial. Even the Ayatollah himself openly wept as he vowed bloody vengeance in due course.
Since then, no such threat materialised if one were to discount the tragedy of the Ukrainian passenger jet that was shot down by an Iranian missile when it was mistaken to be an American aircraft. Any further acts of aggression were suddenly shelved when the ongoing pandemic attained paramount importance on the worldwide stage. Since then, setbacks to the Iranian regime continued year long. The country suffered one of the worst cases of virus outbreaks with half of the ruling cabinet being infected within a few short months of the first case. While its health systems bucked, Iran flip-flopped between claiming the US sanctions had crippled it to the point of needing urgent monetary aid to claiming that it had everything under control at a different time. At the same time, it was also clear that Iran's proxy war capabilities had been severely hampered by the assassination of Soleimani. In a further stroke of misfortune, its 'partner' Hezbollah's grasp on its power centre of Lebanon was weakened considerably not too long after as a result of the fallout from the infamous Beirut port explosion. Even Iraq seems to be on the cusp of entirely shaking-off Iranian influence as public anger against Iran-allied political parties and militias has grown considerably in recent times. Finally, there was the surprise thawing of relations between Israel and the Arab states. Brokered by the US, these series of 'peace-deals' were in part a reaction to the growing concern in the region over the actions of Iran and the need to assemble a united front against the nation. With even Israel and Saudi Arabia seeking to come to terms, the existence of a regional anti-Iran front is not far off. In such a year of setbacks, Iran has had a few 'wins so to speak such as Russia blocking the US attempt to extend the UN arms embargo which was preventing Iran from acquiring advanced weaponry from Russian and Chinese sources. In the background to all this, Iran's nuclear programme, the root cause of much of the tension is said to have continued unabated with international watchdogs warning that Iran was growing its stockpile of enriched uranium even as it demanded a return to the old nuclear deal. Then came yet another moment of shock to further make the Iran situation more explosive. In November, just days after Joe Biden was elected to be the next US President, Iran's top nuclear scientest was assassinated in broad daylight by an unknown entity. While no group came forth to accept responsibility, it was implied that Israel and Saudi Arabia may have played a part in the plot. Many have alleged that the assassination was a way of ensuring that the oncoming Biden administration would not be able to walk back into the treaty while also baiting Iran to act with aggression and further isolate itself. While there was hope that this would not stand in the way of the US return to the nuclear deal, in 2021 it is clear to see that such optimism will not pan out. Following the death of the nuclear scientist, Iran threw off all pretence in its refining efforts. Biden, meanwhile, has indicated that the Iran deal must be updated to include Arab state stakeholders, a move that will not please Iran. Tehran has already indicated that it will not accept anything but an unconditional return to the old deal. This, in effect, has put to rest any hope of a swift return to order in the region. In the more immediate context, tensions between the US and Iran rose to further heights in the leadup to the one year anniversary of Soleimani's death. The US accused Iran of attacking US facilities in the Iraqi green zone while also pre-emptively moving nuclear-armed B-52s to the region. While the bombers were recalled, the US indicated that it would be keeping its Nimitz aircraft carrier strike group in the region to respond to emergencies.
To conclude, this year of tensions is topped off by an equal helping of hope and trepidation. Iran has urged the US to not fall into a trap of aggression but there are popular calls within Iran calling for swift, bloody revenge. While it is unlikely that Trump will start a war in the last few weeks of his presidency, the buildup of anti-American rhetoric in Iran will be a real threat to the peace process if not tackled in time. Unfortunately, Biden will already have his hands full when he takes office, meaning that the issue of Iran may not be addressed in a timely fashion.