Huda al-Husseini

Iran Seeks to Garner the IAEA’s Sympathy as it Builds Aircraft Carriers?!

Iranian outlets have reported that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei held a meeting in his home that was attended by his son Mojtaba, Ali Larijani, Atomic Energy Organization of Iran General Director Mohammad Eslami, and Khamenei’s aide Kamal Kharazai. The Supreme Leader expressed his frustration with the Western sanctions on Iran and said that the people’s suffering has reached a tipping point. Lifting these sanctions, he told them, has become a priority that takes precedence over other programs and pursuits, which can be postponed to a later date.

To this end, he asked Mohammad Eslami to contact the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and inform it that the Islamic Republic would allow their inspectors to return and inspect facilities without Iranian restrictions or conditions. He also asked his advisers, Kamal Kharazai and Ali Larijani, to head to Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s home and inform him of the decision and impel him to cooperate fully in this regard.

When IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi received the news, he headed to Iran to meet Mohammad Eslami and discuss the developments immediately. He was surprised to hear that the meeting would include Raisi as well as Mr. Eslami, at which point Grossi realized that the Iranians were not wasting his time. On Monday, Grossi and Eslami held a joint press conference in which he praised Iran’s positive stance and announced that the Islamic Republic agreed to allow IAEA inspectors to carry out “verification and monitoring activities” that had previously been rebuffed.

An expert on Iranian affairs believes that this turnaround may have been precipitated by a recent series of events that had begun with the morality police’s murder of Mahsa Amini. The events of the popular uprising that followed, most recently Ali Reza Akbari’s execution against Khamenei’s wishes, have shaken the Supreme Leader. Along with the broad sense of despair and economic deprivation that has taken hold of the country, especially among youths, these developments have driven Khamenei to conclude that Ebrahim Raisi is not fit to run the country.

Indeed, Raisi has only met the Supreme Leader once since Akbari’s execution, as the latter believes that Raisi’s militancy and intransigence, as well as Raisi’s determination to replace him as Supreme Leader, have pushed the country downhill. Sources add that the Supreme Leader has not directly spoken to Raisi since the meeting, addressing Raisi only through his son Mojtaba and his advisors, which has taken a psychological toll on the president.

Khamenei then took a series of decisions to undo Raisi’s actions; all prisoners were released, the state of emergency in the regions where protests had been raging was lifted, and the police officers who had arrested Mahsa Amini were arrested. Allowing the inspectors to return to the country was the latest of these decisions, and Khamenei hopes that it will allow for a resumption of talks with Washington and end his country’s suffocating isolation.

However, Ali Khamenei’s actions are further and deeper than a reaction to Ebrahim Raisi’s failure to run the country properly. The Supreme Leader is aware that there is a global effort, led by the United States, to put his country under all sorts of pressure. Those behind this effort are not apprehensive about the prospect of the regime collapsing and his country, as well as Iran’s regional sphere of influence, plunging into chaos.

In fact, the United States failed to protect its faithful ally, the Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in 1979, leaving him to wander from country to country, begging for a grave to bury himself in. It certainly would not mind if the mullah regime met this unwelcome fate. The Supreme Leader understood the incitement of ethnic strife and the message behind the marches that were launched from Azerbaijan seen near the Natanz reactor last month, and he has received reports on Israel’s substantial presence in this neighboring country.

Last but not least, the Supreme Leader realized that his losing bet on the success of Russia, which the Islamic Republic has given a large number of drones, had incurred heavy losses on his country because Russian President Vladimir Putin has failed to decide the war in his favor. For all these reasons, he is trying to save the regime before he dies and ensure that it survives without him. The major question is: what will the United States demand in return for the resumption of talks?

The costs will certainly be higher than those that had been discussed in Vienna. Indeed, US State Department Spokesman Ned Price has said that only Iran claims the United States is signaling that it wants to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA): “only Iranian officials can speak to why they continue to tell these lies. Iranian officials can repeat their line as often as they want, but it doesn’t change the underlying facts. A revival of the JCPOA has not been on the agenda for months.”

Iran has announced the establishment of an underground airfield - a step that may have been taken to show that it will not change and that allowing international inspectors to access facilities does not imply that it will not continue to build its arsenal. The fact is that the new airfield is added to a long litany of transgressions and aggressive actions by Iran that includes mass prisons, the recent poisoning of female students, the violence perpetrated against the students who stood against attempts to kill the women’s revolution, and the decision to convert shipping containers into aircraft carriers. One thing the announcement certainly demonstrates is that Khamenei’s crocodile tears for his starving people are nothing but a rouse and that the prospect of his regime falling is what terrifies him.

Iranian media also mentioned that Iran had discovered the second-largest reserves of lithium anywhere in the world, but what about the shipping containers?

Several reports published between late December and early January claimed that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy had been converting two commercial container ships into its first aircraft carriers, Shahid Mahdavi and Shahid Bagheri. The process is underway in Bandar Abbas near the Strait of Hormuz, which is crucial for maritime transport. The Iranian carriers are not strategic or tactical game-changers, nor do they create strategic and operational superiority like the US Navy’s warships. They could face launch and recovery constraints, as well as constraints on maintenance and repair at sea, and the Iranian tankers may also lack the anti-ship and anti-air defenses needed to withstand attacks and direct engagement.

Nevertheless, Iran’s drone carriers are symbolically significant. They could potentially be used to challenge US initiatives in the Middle East and retaliate against Israeli attacks. They could also be useful in an asymmetric clash, and they can be utilized to launch strikes on naval assets and soft Israeli targets, as well as those of other US allies and partners in the region.

Shahid Mahdavi and Shahid Bagheri are designed to carry runway-launched helicopters and fixed-wing drones. Among the latter are the Kamikaze Drones with explosive warheads and Shahid-136, which has a range of 2,500 km. Russia has been using these drones in its war on Ukraine, mainly targeting critical infrastructure, while Iran claims to have used them in several attacks on tankers linked to Israel in the Arab Gulf.

Drone strikes launched from the sea could also allow Iran to continue to target tankers and other assets owned by its adversaries, as well as escalate its conflict with these countries by hitting further distances both within and without the Arab Gulf and the Indian Ocean.

On Tuesday night, Tabatabai University students chanted, “We will fight, we will die, we will take back Iran.” This is the only path to a solution.