Iran’s Mountain of Woes – Not Least Its Vanishing Nuclear Partner in Pyongyang

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s rulers are watching their currency go up in smoke, their regional strongholds slipping and their enemies – and victims – rising up against them. Their eyes are glued on three ominous dates while grappling with eight crises:

  1. President Donald Trump’s possible decision on May 12 to take the US out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the 2015 nuclear deal Iran concluded with six world powers. In any event, more sanctions appear to be inevitable.
  2. Israel on the offensive to physically crush Iranian military bastions in Syria, even at the risk of all-out war. The many years and billions of dollars invested in building an Iranian power base in Syria and propping up Bashar Assad look like going down the drain if their footholds fold.
  3. Iran’s senior proxy, Hizballah, will be involved one way or another in resisting Israel’s ongoing offensive. Any losses inflicted on that force will be to its master’s detriment. Tehran put Hizballah temporarily on a leash, so as not to spoil its run for a majority in Lebanon’s May 6 election and instalment of an Iranian puppet government in Beirut.
  4. Iran worries about its oil interests as Moscow and Riyadh play ball on the world energy markets. In the past year, Vladimir Putin and Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman (MbS) by working together pushed oil prices up to $80 the barrel. Not that Tehran objects to better prices for its oil, but the Russian-Saudi collaboration could have untoward repercussions on the Iranian-Russian partnership in Syria. Tehran is still agonizing over its loss lost year of a promised stake in the northern Iraqi oil fields of Kurdistan. The stake was snatched by the Russian Rosneft, although it was to have been Baghdad’s reward to Tehran for the pro-Iranian PMU militia’s capture of Kirkuk from the Kurds.
  5. The Houthi insurgency in Yemen is falling back under redoubled, precise Saudi-led coalition military and intelligence pressure. The rebel leaders and factions are plagued by internal squabbles, which are exacerbated by the successful penetration of their fighting units by US and Saudi agents who are stirring up mutual suspicions of betrayal. A diminished Iranian foothold in Yemen would set back the important military presence it was establishing in the strategic Red Sea region and boost the counter-drive launched by combined Saudi, Egyptian and UAE naval strength with US air and naval backing.
  6. The Iranian rial is in free fall, plunging on Tuesday, May 1, to 85,000 against the dollar. Only the privileged class close to the regime, with access to foreign currency from oil revenues, can keep its heads above water. Ordinary Iranian citizens see inflation wiping out their life’s savings and prices skyrocketing, even for such staples as bread and cooking gas. On April 10, the government tried abortively to enforce a 42,000-rial rate of exchange.
  7. Popular protest is taking unorthodox forms. “Talking banknotes” is one. In some towns, citizens are venting their ire by scrawling anti-regime slogans on paper currency. The mood of protest was sharply aggravated by the government clampdown on the popular Telegram social media platform which had more than 45 million regular users.
  1. For the hardline rulers in Tehran, the nightmare unfolding under their shocked gaze is the prospect of President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, their sole source of nuclear and ballistic missile knowhow, reaching a successful outcome. Their supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s strategy of putting their nuclear program on hold for the 2015 deal with the world powers will be shown to have misfired badly, compared with the reverse strategy practiced successfully by the brash young North Korean leader.

Kim Jong-un went for a ruthless headlong pursuit of nuclear and missile power, and so compelled the US president to come to his door and offer a high price for the denuclearization of Korea, including a guarantee not to invade the North or threaten the Pyongyang regime.

Tehran may bitterly regret signing the JCPOA. Had the Iranians gone full steam head with their nuclear bomb development and braved harsh sanctions like Kim, they might have been sitting in the same chair opposite President Trump with full honors.

  1. The corrosive what-if debate is still confined to the inner circles of the regime. But the humiliating images of the Trump-Kim summit will eventually reach every TV screen in Iran. The already disaffected population may find another reason for taking to the streets.
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