July 19, 2024

Even before the announcement on Sunday of the crash of a helicopter believed to be carrying Iran’s president, relations between Tehran and the United States had come perilously close to open conflict. What unfolds in the next few days — whether President Ebrahim Raisi and other leaders survive, and what Iran declares was the cause of the crash — could well determine whether the two countries are able to grope their way out of several simultaneous crises.

Over the long term, the struggle that matters most is the one that centers on Iran’s nuclear program. The program had largely been contained after the Obama administration negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015. But President Donald J. Trump denounced and abandoned the deal six years ago, and eventually Iran resumed production of nuclear fuel — enriched to a level just short of what would be needed to produce several bombs.

Exactly what role Mr. Raisi has played in critical decision-making in Tehran about Iran’s nuclear strategy was always a matter of dispute; the program is under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in Iran, a power center unto itself. But American officials say that after nearly reaching an agreement with Iran through European intermediaries two years ago, efforts to negotiate have all but collapsed.

Just last week, the Iranian foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, who is also believed to have been on the helicopter, met with the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, who was demanding better access to Iran’s sprawling nuclear facilities.

The nuclear program, and the question of whether Iran will seek a weapon or leverage its status as a threshold power that could produce one quickly, looms over other, more regional confrontations. When Iran shot 300 missiles and drones at Israel last month, the United States coordinated with Israeli and other regional forces to take them down. But the whole exchange, which calmed after a relatively modest Israeli response, was a reminder that the country has sharply expanded its missile program, and its reach, under Mr. Raisi — and is turning to techniques meant to overwhelm Israeli defenses, likely a lesson of the war in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Iran is arming the Houthis — Shiite militants who have taken over most of northern Yemen and attacked shipping in the Red Sea — and providing them with intelligence from at least one Iranian ship. It is providing arms and technology to Hamas and Hezbollah, efforts that also expanded under Mr. Raisi’s rule. And U.S. officials warned recently that as the presidential election approaches, they expect an increase in Iranian hacking attempts.

“Iran is becoming increasingly aggressive in their efforts,” Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Intelligence Committee last week. It seeks “to stoke discord and undermine confidence in our democratic institutions, as we have seen them do in prior election cycles.”

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