Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen have intensified attacks on international shipping, while the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran's most powerful proxy force, launched volleys of missiles against Israel over the past week.

UK maritime agencies reported on Sunday that two ships caught on fire after being hit by projectiles off Yemen's Aden, showing that Houthis controlling northern Yemen and supported by Tehran are determined to launch multiple attacks each day against international shipping.

The attacks began in mid-November after Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called on Muslim nations to blockade Israeli trade.

Hezbollah, controlling the southern region of Lebanon bordering northern Israel, has also intensified its rocket and missile attacks on Israel, prompting fears of an all-out war, as Israeli patience runs out with the worsening security situation.

Smoke rises above south Lebanon following an Israeli strike amid ongoing cross-border hostilities between Hezbollah and Israeli forces, as seen from Israel's border with Lebanon in northern Israel, May 5, 2024.

The twin flare-ups coincided with a Western initiated censure of Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors meeting in Vienna.

A resolution tabled by Britain, France and Germany, and reluctantly backed by the United States, demanded Tehran to cooperate with the UN nuclear watchdog. Such a resolution could be the prelude to a move by Western powers to refer Iran’s case back to the UN Security Council, which could lead to the reimposition of UN sanctions.

Days before the censure resolution, the three European powers had written to the Security Council detailing Iran's violations of its 2015 nuclear deal, a step diplomats said aimed to pressure Tehran to resolve the issue diplomatically and to avoid reimposing UN sanctions.

The British, French and German letter did not explicitly threaten to "snap back" United Nations sanctions, but it noted that UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which enshrined the nuclear deal and provided that power, expires on Oct. 18, 2025.

The flag of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) flutters in front of the agency's headquarters in Vienna, Austria, June 3, 2024.

Amidst Iran's snap presidential election campaign, the reaction to the Western move has been largely controlled. However, many outside the circle of ruling hardliners are concerned about the ramifications of the IAEA resolution.

Kourosh Ahmadi, a former Iranian diplomat based in New York, told Entekhab newspaper in Tehran, that the European move could be a prelude to tabling Iran’s case in the Security Council, because that will become impossible after Resolution 2231 expires in 2025. However, Ahmadi added that at this juncture he believes the West is simply applying pressure on Iran.

As Iran’s presidential campaign kicks off in earnest following the Guardian Council's announcement of approved candidates in the coming days, the elephant in the room remains the nuclear issue and the urgent need to lift US sanctions.

For the average Iranian citizen, the prolonged economic crisis has made the main question whether there will be a reduction in sanctions. This would require Iran to demonstrate real flexibility, a decision that ultimately lies with Khamenei rather than the future president. However, the outcome of the highly regime-controlled election could provide hints about his thinking.

Commentators in Tehran tell the local media that former nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, is a strong candidate because he enjoys the backing of hardliners. Two other strong candidate are Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and former Speaker Ali Larijani, both enjoying the backing of the wider conservative circle.

While Jalili is seen as a risky persona because of his staunch opposition to any deal with the West, Ghalibaf and Larijani are perceived as more ‘moderate’ figures. All three, however, are loyal to Khamenei.

If the election is managed in a way that Jalili becomes president, it would send a more negative message regarding relations with West, while the election of Ghalibaf or Larijani might be interpreted as a less provocative choice. The election of a hardliner other than Jalili is also possible, but overall, the new president must follow what is decided in Khamenei’s headquarters.

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