COVID-19 is ravaging Iran, due to government mismanagement exacerbated by the effects of U.S. sanctions. Instead of pointing fingers at each other, and again risking heightened military confrontation, Tehran and Washington should pursue humanitarian diplomacy aimed at containing the virus and releasing detainees.
Originally published in Foreign Policy
Crisis Group's Interactive Iran-U.S. Trigger List
New tensions between govt and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over possible undeclared nuclear sites fuelled U.S.-Iran antagonism, attacks escalated between Iran-backed militia and U.S. in Iraq, and COVID-19 spread rapidly with serious humanitarian and economic consequences. IAEA’s 3 March quarterly report on implementation of Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action said Iran had trebled its stockpile of enriched uranium between Nov and Feb. IAEA Director General 3 March circulated separate report identifying three sites potentially used for undeclared nuclear-related activity and requesting access to two; govt denied requests and refused to clarify situation. U.S. 16 March imposed sanctions on five Iranian nuclear scientists due to “unacceptable nuclear escalations”; 18 March put sanctions on twelve entities and individuals involved in transporting Iranian petrochemicals; next day U.S. Treasury levied sanctions on five other companies. U.S. 26 March announced additional sanctions against twenty companies and individuals in Iran and Iraq. In Iraq, rocket attack on Taji military camp hosting anti-Islamic State (ISIS) coalition personnel 11 March killed two Americans and one British soldier; U.S. next day accused “Iranian-backed Shia militia groups”. U.S. 12 March launched retaliatory strikes targeting five weapons depots used by Iranian-backed militia Kataib Hizbollah. Second rocket attack on Taji camp 14 March wounded coalition and Iraqi soldiers. In 12 March letter to UN Sec-Gen, FM Zarif called for lifting of U.S. sanctions in light of COVID-19 outbreak; U.S. 26 March extended sanctions waiver for Iraqi imports of Iranian electricity, but did not lift sanctions. COVID-19 had killed over 2,900 by 31 March, university study concluded outbreak had not yet peaked, and health ministry said it urgently needed medical supplies and equipment. Media reported significant declines in domestic business including complete collapse in tourism and official reported 18% drop in trade. Govt 9 March released 70,000 prisoners to reduce COVID-19 spread in prisons; 17 March announced temporary release of further 85,000 detainees including political prisoners; 29 March furlough of 100,000 prisoners confirmed up to 19 April.
Prospects for the 2015 nuclear deal’s survival are dimming, as Washington tightens its sanctions, Tehran loosens its compliance, U.S.-Iranian clashes pick up in intensity and European powers crack down on agreement breaches. Third-party mediation is likely required to stave off the accord’s demise.
Should U.S.-Iranian tensions escalate to a shooting war, Iraq would likely be the first battleground. Washington and Tehran should stop trying to drag Baghdad into their fight. The Iraqi government should redouble its efforts to remain neutral and safeguard the country’s post-ISIS recovery.
Today’s standoff between the U.S. and Iran is reminiscent of tensions on the eve of World War I. A small incident could blow up into region-spanning conflict. Third-party mediation is urgently needed to begin de-escalation that could lead to renewing broader talks.
Remarkably, the Iran nuclear deal has survived the Trump administration’s withdrawal. Now it must weather 2019, its year of greatest peril, as mounting U.S. pressure tests Iranian patience. With Europe’s help, Tehran must keep sticking to the agreement in anticipation of sunnier times ahead.
The Trump administration believes that ratcheting up economic pressure on Iran will compel the Islamic Republic to curtail its disruptive Middle East policies. History suggests otherwise. Both Washington and Tehran should step off their current escalatory path.
[The Trump administration] think[s] that the timeline for bringing Iran to its knees has shortened because of the coronavirus.
[The sanctions] are a testament to this administration's doctrinal belief in the effectiveness of sanctions to bring Iran to its knees.
The Iranian leadership knows that if it curbs the [International Atomic Energy Agency’s] inspections, it will lose the support of all the remaining parties to the JCPOA.
The coronavirus has basically done what the Trump administration’s sanctions failed to do: effectively completely isolated Iran.
If you’re Iran right now, the tools you have in your arsenal are an ability to expand your nuclear arsenal, roil markets or threaten regional countries and the U.S. presence within them.
If past is prelude, engagement with Iran’s hardliners is much harder for the West. The new parliament is bound to adopt a much more militant approach to foreign and nuclear policies.
Since 1979, Iran has been subjected to a steady stream of sanctions. Under the Trump administration, their depth and breadth have dramatically increased in the U.S. campaign of "maximum pressure". This interactive infographic illustrates all the major unilateral U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran since 2017 by year, type and location.
With the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, the U.S.-Iran standoff has shifted from attrition toward open conflict. Tehran will retaliate – the only question is how – prompting another response from Washington. Allies of both should intercede to stop the exchange from spinning out of control.
November’s protests show that the Islamic Republic is not as secure as it thinks. But neither, as their swift suppression demonstrates, is it as vulnerable as its foes hope. Iran should halt crackdowns and start serious reform, and Tehran and Washington should de-escalate tensions.
Eighteen months after Washington quit the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, Tehran is proceeding with staggered steps away from its own compliance. The deal is unravelling against the backdrop of high regional tensions. A de-escalation along the lines developed by France provides an off-ramp.