The future of the Iran nuclear deal remains uncertain and the new Iranian president has stalled the already slow negotiations. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2021 – Autumn Update, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to support the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’s (JCPOA) full restoration, encourage efforts for regional dialogue and prepare contingency plans in case of a breakdown with Tehran.
Originally published in World Politics Review
Originally published in The New York Times
Crisis Group's Interactive Iran-U.S. Trigger List
Tehran struck last-minute understanding with UN nuclear watchdog regarding access to surveillance equipment, deferring diplomatic showdown with U.S. and European powers. Iranian nuclear activity continued as indirect U.S.-Iran talks on mutual compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal remained deadlocked, marking three months since last round in June. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) quarterly report 7 Sept noted continued growth in Iranian uranium stockpiles enriched to 20% and 60%, shrinking breakout period to perhaps as little as one month. Concerns over nuclear activity raised prospect during month of possible censure resolution against Tehran by U.S. and/or European signatories of nuclear deal at IAEA Board of Governors’ meeting held mid-Sept; President Raisi 8 Sept warned that “non-constructive actions” at IAEA “naturally disrupt the negotiation process”. Amid flurry in diplomatic activity, IAEA chief Rafael Grossi 11 Sept visited Tehran and secured stop-gap three-point agreement granting agency access to its monitoring equipment, forestalling risk of censure resolution. At IAEA Board of Governors meeting, Grossi 13 Sept nonetheless raised concern over Iran’s cooperation, saying verification and monitoring activities were severely inhibited and Tehran had done little to address probe into past activities at four undeclared sites. IAEA 26 Sept indicated that Iran had denied UN body access at Karaj facility, “contrary to the agreed terms”; Iran’s IAEA representative 27 Sept insisted site was “under security and judicial investigations” to justify exclusion. U.S. Treasury Dept 3 Sept sanctioned four Iranians indicted in July 2021 for plotting kidnapping of U.S.-based journalist. U.S. 17 Sept unveiled tranche of designations against “members of an international network of financial facilitators” linked to Iran’s Islamic Rev-olutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Meanwhile, IRGC fired missiles at targets inside Iraq’s Kurdistan region (see Iraq). Raisi 16-17 Sept attended Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, where he announced Iran would join organisation as full member after receiving observer status in 2005.
Iran has a new president, consolidating the hardliners’ control over the centres of power. What will he do about the country’s numerous crises? One answer is clear: the 2015 nuclear deal’s fate remains the most pressing issue for Tehran and its foreign interlocutors.
The 2015 nuclear deal enters 2021 clinging to life, having survived the Trump administration’s withdrawal and Iran’s breaches of its commitments. When the Biden administration takes office, Washington and Tehran should move quickly and in parallel to revive the agreement on its original terms.
The Trump administration continues its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, now with an attempt to restore pre-2015 UN sanctions, a right reserved for signatories to the nuclear deal it abandoned. Other UN Security Council members should disregard this gambit and urge Tehran not to overreact.
Naval incidents in the Gulf have spotlighted the danger that a U.S.-Iranian skirmish could blow up into war. The two sides have little ability to communicate at present. They should hasten to design a military-to-military channel to lower the chances of inadvertent conflagration.
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.
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.
[Iranian President] Raisi’s harsh denunciation of the United States doesn’t suggest that Iran is prepared to demonstrate the kind of flexibility that is needed to restore the JCPOA.
So the majority of the [Iranian] population is either disillusioned with the system or, at this point, completely alienated, and we have huge parts of the society that almost have nothing to lose.
I’m afraid if the deal is not restored by August, [...] a return to the JCPOA might become a moot question. At that point the parties would probably have to negotiate a new nuclear deal.
[Restoring the Iran nuclear deal is] a fragile process. If a single American is killed [by Iran’s rocket attacks in Iraq], the whole process is derailed.
It’s very clear there is an organized onslaught by opponents of the JCPOA in Iran, against reviving the deal under the Rouhani administration.
I think [the new Iran-China deal] will make Europe and the U.S. a little more nervous because it looks like Iran may have a way out of economic strangulation.
Every year Crisis Group publishes two additional Watch List updates that complement its annual Watch List for the EU, most recently published in January 2021. These publications identify major crises and conflict situations where the European Union and its member states can generate stronger prospects for peace. The Autumn Update of the Watch List 2021 includes entries on Afghanistan, Burundi, Iran, Nagorno-Karabakh and Nicaragua.
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Originally published in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, represents the hardliners within the Islamic Republic. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts Ali Vaez and Naysan Rafati explain why the U.S. should nevertheless persist in working to restore the 2015 nuclear deal to its full promise.