A handout photo made available yesterday shows Iranian military officials inspecting drones on display prior to a military drone drill at an undisclosed location. - AFP

WASHINGTON: Iran has opened the new year with a gambit to pressure President-elect Joe Biden, but fears are rising that conflict could erupt instead with Donald Trump, who still commands US military might in his chaotic final stretch. Iran announced Monday it was stepping up uranium enrichment well beyond the limits in a 2015 nuclear accord negotiated with former president Barack Obama - and indicated it would reverse course if Biden lifts Trump's crippling sanctions after taking over on January 20.

Tensions have soared since Trump walked out of the accord in 2018, and have escalated further in recent days, with the United States flying B-52 bombers over the Gulf and abruptly reversing a decision to bring home an aircraft carrier. In an unusual statement that sounded more like the White House than the Pentagon, acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller said late Sunday he was keeping the USS Nimitz in the Gulf due to Iranian threats against US officials including Trump personally.

"We have a new form of deterrence now - schizophrenic deterrence. We don't know what we're doing," said Vipin Narang, an expert on nuclear strategy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Instead of looking tough by reversing the Nimitz's return, "it may send the wrong signal-which is that it's total chaos in Washington right now and if you're going to take a shot, maybe this is the time you want to do it."

Narang said the risk of the United States initiating military action remained low but warned that Trump was becoming more unpredictable as he rages and seeks to overturn his election loss. "If I were Iran right now, I would actually be thinking that it's possible that Trump is so unhinged and so angry about the election that he may overreact to any slight provocation," Narang said.

Trump had warned that he would hold Iran accountable for the killings of any Americans after the US embassy in Baghdad was hit a week ago by rockets blamed on Shiite paramilitaries allied with the clerical state. But Sunday's anniversary of the US drone attack in Baghdad that killed Iran's best-known general Qasem Soleimani passed without violence, despite angry demonstrations and Tehran's calls for vengeance.

Pressure through enrichment
Iran said it would enrich uranium at 20 percent purity, far above the 3.67 percent allowed under the nuclear accord. But experts noted that the step was quickly reversible and that higher enrichment does not in itself bring Iran much closer to building a nuclear bomb, a goal that Tehran denies. Corey Hinderstein, who focused on implementation of the 2015 deal while at the US Energy Department, said that Iran likely wanted to keep the focus squarely on its nuclear program and discourage Biden from broadening diplomacy.

Jake Sullivan, who is set to be Biden's national security advisor, said in a CNN interview Sunday that the incoming administration eventually wanted to secure limits on Iran's ballistic missile capabilities. "I think that Iran in taking this step is both signaling that they are in a position to quickly ramp up their nuclear activities, and I think they believe they're creating space to limit the negotiation once the new administration comes in," said Hinderstein, now a vice president at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. "Unfortunately, we don't have a very clear understanding of what is driving decision-making for the remainder of the Trump administration. If they so choose, they could see this as a significant escalation."

Previous standoffs
Despite hawkish threats and the imposition of sweeping sanctions on Iran, Trump had boasted in his unsuccessful campaign of starting no new wars and, in a break with top aides, called off a planned attack on Iran in 2019. Israel has fewer qualms about the use of force on Iran, which it sees as its main enemy, and was widely suspected in a brazen November attack on Tehran's outskirts that killed top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

Israeli media have reported that one of its submarines has headed to the Gulf and Defense Minister Benny Gantz recently warned of the possibility of unspecified "events". But even Trump's allies see Iran as looking ahead to Biden. Jack Keane, a retired general whose Fox News appearances are frequently watched by Trump, said in a segment Monday that the recent deployments showed "the huge capability that the US military has". "But I don't believe the Iranians are going to do anything," he said. "They don't want to do anything to interfere with the potential to have a negotiation with president Biden, who they are hoping will remove the sanctions." - AFP