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Govt maintained harsh crackdown on protests as Western states continued censure and sanctions, further sapping appetite for engagement on nuclear file, while attack targeted Isfahan military facility.
Govt continued crackdown, further straining relations with West. Govt 7 Jan executed two individuals linked to protests, convicted as part of campaign that UN human rights chief described as tantamount “to state sanctioned killing”. Govt 14 Jan executed dual UK-Iranian national accused of espionage, prompting UK to temporarily recall its ambassador and blacklist prosecutor general. European Union (EU) continued diplomatic rebuke and preparing new sanctions. Notably, calls grew in UK and EU to label Islamic Republic Guard Corps (IRGC) as “terrorist organisation”, which Tehran threatened would evoke strong response; European Parliament 19 Jan passed non-binding resolution calling for designation. In first sanctions of 2023, U.S. 6 Jan targeted six individuals linked to Iranian company said to be engaged in drone proliferation, as well as director of organisation that is “responsible for overseeing Iran’s ballistic missile programs”. EU 23 Jan approved sanctions against 37 Ira-nian individuals and entities over human rights concerns; UK same day blacklisted seven individuals and entities and U.S. in parallel designated 11.
Nuclear talks remained moribund. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi 12 Jan asserted that nuclear negotiations “have broken down”, adding “the Agency – and I personally – do not want to leave this political vacuum around such a volatile and dangerous issue”; Grossi asserted willingness to meet Iranian officials but no meetings have been confirmed to resume discussions on outstanding safeguards concerns. Grossi 24 Jan called nuclear deal “an empty shell” as “every limit that existed [in deal] has been violated several times”.
Isfahan military facility targeted in drone attack. Govt 28 Jan confirmed bomb-laden drones struck defence facility in Isfahan but maintained damage was minimal; attack widely attributed in media to Israel. Earlier, U.S. Central Command 6 Jan intercepted 2,000 assault rifles aboard sailboat transiting “from Iran to Yemen”. Azerbaijan withdrew staff from Tehran embassy following 27 Jan attack that killed one and injured two.
Govt faced global condemnation for crackdown on protesters and drone supply to Russia as nuclear talks remained deadlocked, while tensions persisted in maritime domain.
International censure continued over govt’s harsh crackdown and drone provision to Russia. Amid ongoing protests across country, international NGO Amnesty International 16 Dec reported that at least 26 people were at risk of execution in Iran for alleged role in nationwide unrest; NGO Human Rights Activists News Agency 29 Dec estimated at least 500 protesters killed and 19,000 arrested, with real numbers likely higher. U.S. 9 Dec announced sanctions and/or travel bans against more than dozen Iranian officials over human rights abuses and 21 Dec blacklisted prosecutor general among additional six designees, while European Union 12 Dec approved sanctions against 21 Iranian persons and entities over human rights concerns, and further eight over govt’s provision of drones to Russia. U.S.-initiated resolution at UN Economic and Social Council 14 Dec passed to remove Iran from UN Commission on the Status of Women. U.S. and E3 (France, Germany and UK) 19 Dec voiced concern over both Iran’s nuclear escalation and provision of UAVs to Russia, with U.S. warning that Russia may consider “importing complete ballistic missiles from Iran”.
Prospects of nuclear talks progress remained dim as govt expanded enrichment. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief early Dec said Iran had informed agency it was “tripling [its] capacity to enrich at 60 per cent, which is very close to military level… This is not banal”. IAEA 18-19 Dec visited capital Tehran in latest effort to make progress on longstanding investigation into past activities at undeclared nuclear sites, with little indication of success. Throughout Dec, U.S. repeatedly dismissed Iran’s suggestions of possible progress in nuclear negotiations.
Maritime tensions persisted. U.S. military 3 Dec announced that its naval forces had two days earlier uncovered 50-ton arms shipment, including ammunition and rocketry components, aboard ship in Gulf of Oman, blaming Iran. U.S. Central Command 6 Dec reported that Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Navy patrol boat had previous day harassed two U.S. Navy ships in Strait of Hormuz, marking first reported instance of unsafe/unprofessional encounter since June.
Nationwide protests continued as Revolutionary Guards attacked Iranian Kurdish groups in Iraq, while govt stepped up nuclear activity in response to international censure for its nuclear intransigence.
Nationwide protests continued into their third month. Protesters held commemoration ceremonies for those killed by security forces and events marking mid-Nov anniversary of 2019 protests, as security forces maintained heavy-handed crackdowns, with reports late month indicating greater coercive force in Kurdish-majority regions. Human rights groups mid-month estimated that fatalities to date may exceed 400, including 50 children; senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander 20 Nov indicated around 60 fatalities among security personnel. Authorities continued to blame unrest on foreign agitation: notably, IRGC 14, 20-21 and 22 Nov resumed cross-border missile and drone attacks into northern Iraq on Iranian Kurdish outfits, while bolstering military presence in border regions (see Iraq).
Tehran expanded nuclear activity in response to atomic watchdog’s censure vote. At International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s quarterly Board of Governors meeting, Director General Rafael Grossi 16 Nov shared “serious concern” over lack of progress in resolving safeguards concerns related to past activities at undeclared nuclear sites; board 17 Nov passed censure resolution deeming Iranian cooperation “essential and urgent”, as Russia and China voted against. In response, govt 22 Nov began enriching uranium to 60% as its fortified Fordow facility and promised to install more advanced centrifuges there and at Natanz site. Earlier, IAEA’s 10 Nov survey showed growing stockpile of 60% enriched uranium reached 62.3kg.
U.S. and its Western allies imposed sanctions. In sign of concerted diplomatic pressure, U.S. 16 Nov blacklisted half dozen employees of Iran’s state media and 23 Nov designated three officials over crackdown; European Union and UK 14 Nov sanctioned individuals and entities for govt crackdown and drone provision to Russia. U.S. 15 Nov sanctioned three Iranian entities implicated in drone transfer to Russia. UN Human Rights Council 24 Nov voted to establish investigation into human rights violations; foreign ministry 28 Nov rejected cooperation. U.S. 16 Nov said Iran “likely” behind attack on Liberian-flagged Israeli-owned tanker off Oman’s coast previous day. Saudi Arabia warned of Iranian attacks (see Saudi Arabia).
Nationwide protests surpassed forty-day milestone despite ongoing repression, Western powers voiced concern over Iran’s military as-sistance to Russia, and Islamic State claimed deadly attack.
Anti-govt protests continued amid crackdown, as West imposed sanctions. Widespread unrest following death on 16 Sept of Mahsa Amini persisted as deeply-rooted discontent against govt, particularly among youth and university students, fueled nationwide protests that 26 Oct reached fortieth day. NGO Amnesty International 6 Oct reported security forces killed at least 66 people, including children, during violent crackdown after Friday prayers on 30 Sept in Zahedan, Sistan and Baluchistan provinces home to Baluchi ethnic minority, labelling it “deadliest day on record since protests started”; total death toll during month likely surpassed 200, alongside 14,000 arrests. Western govts widely condemned govt’s crackdown. Notably, U.S. 6 and 26 Oct, Canada 3, 11, 19 and 31 Oct, UK 10 Oct, and EU 17 Oct blacklisted various officials; U.S. White House 26 Oct raised concern over Moscow “advising Tehran on best practices” of demonstration suppression.
Nuclear talks faded into background. Nuclear talks, already at impasse before protests erupted, appeared during month as afterthought for parties. UN’s nucle-ar watchdog IAEA 10 Oct informed member states that Iran had completed installing, but not yet activated, seven cascades of advanced centrifuges at Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant, with work underway on two of three additional cascades. IAEA chief 28 Oct described Iran’s nuclear activities as “an even more relevant problem every day”.
Concerns grew over Tehran-Moscow military cooperation. Ukraine and Western powers grew increasingly concerned over transfers of Iranian drones to Russia: Kyiv 17 Oct estimated that Russia had used “more than a hundred Iranian kamikaze drones” in Ukraine war within past week, which Iranian officials continued to deny; U.S., UK and France asserted such transfers would violate UN Security Council resolution 2231, which in 2015 endorsed nuclear agreement.
In other important developments. Govt 26 Oct reported terrorist attack against shrine in Shiraz city, killing at least fifteen and injuring dozens, which Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for. Security officials 25 Oct reported “120 heavy cyber-attacks” targeting infrastructure over course of 20 days.
Authorities violently repressed nationwide protests ignited by death of young woman in police custody; talks to revive nuclear deal faltered once more.Security forces’ crackdown on mass protests killed dozens. Morality police mid-month detained 22-year-old woman Mahsa Amini for failing to properly wear hijab (compulsory under Iranian law); Amini later died in hospital, allegedly out of severe injuries from police beating in custody. Death sparked widespread outrage and protests involving thousands in dozens of cities across country; security forces immediately responded with force, reportedly killing at least 40 protesters (and possibly dozens more), arresting hundreds and throttling nationwide internet access. Revolutionary Guards launched attacks against Kurdish dissident groups in northern Iraq, alleging role in unrest (see Iraq).Nuclear negotiations appeared to stumble short of finish line, dashing hopes of imminent breakthrough. U.S. assessed Iran’s 1 Sept response following series of back-and-forth exchanges as “moving backwards”. EU High Representative Josep Borrell 14 Sept acknowledged “a kind of stalemate... I don’t have anything more to propose”; looming U.S. midterm elections could keep talks in holding pattern for foreseeable future, while Tehran’s demands to close International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards probe and have guarantees on sanctions relief likely to remain sticking points. Addressing IAEA Board of Governors on 12 Sept, Director General Rafael Grossi noted challenges in conducting oversight given curtailed access and reported no progress in clarifying safeguards concerns; 23 of board’s 25 members 14 Sept urged Tehran to “resolve all outstanding safeguards issues”.Tensions persisted between U.S. and Iran. Albania 7 Sept severed diplomatic ties with Iran over 15 July cyberattack; U.S. National Security Council same day blamed Iran for “reckless and irresponsible” act. U.S. 8 Sept blacklisted several Iranian individuals and companies engaged in development of drones and their transfer to Russia and 14 Sept designated dozen persons and entities linked to Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, citing “malicious cyber attacks”. In response to crackdown of protests, U.S. 22 Sept sanctioned Morality Police and seven officials. U.S. Navy 2 Sept announced Iranian Navy ship seized and subsequently released pair of U.S. unmanned surface vessels, following similar incident late Aug.
U.S. and Iran returned to EU-brokered talks in most substantive engagement to restore nuclear accord since March, leading to back-and-forth exchanges as prospects for final deal remained uncertain. After EU’s High Representative Josep Borrell late July said he had shared text for parties’ consideration that was “the best possible deal”, Borrell’s deputy Enrique Mora 3 Aug announced deliberations between U.S., Iran and other signatories of 2015 deal would resume next day in Austrian capital Vienna for first in-person talks since March. Borrell 8 Aug asserted “Behind every technical issue and every paragraph lies a political decision that needs to be taken in the capitals”. Iran’s lead negotiator, Ali Bagheri-Kani, 15 Aug briefed Supreme National Security Council in advance of Tehran communicating its response to Brussels. U.S. 24 Aug conveyed counter-proposal, which as of late Aug remained under review by Iranians. Meanwhile, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) 3 Aug informed member states that Iran had installed three cascades of IR-6 centrifuges at Natanz nuclear facility, and notified agency of its intent to install further six IR-2m centrifuge cascades. In fourth set of U.S. energy-related sanctions since late May, U.S. 1 Aug sanctioned six companies engaged in petroleum and petrochemical sales to East Asia. Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran same day said it would “launch and inject gas into hundreds of centrifuge machines, including advanced machines”; FM Hossein Amir-Abdollahian framed move as direct reaction to U.S. designations. U.S. forces and “Iran-backed militia groups” conducted tit-for-tat attacks in Syria (see Syria). U.S. Department of Justice 10 Aug charged Iranian national, identified as member of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), over plot to kill former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton; White House warned of “severe consequences” in event of attack against U.S. citizens, while Iran’s foreign ministry denounced accusations as “threadbare and baseless myths”. U.S. Sec of State Antony Blinken 14 Aug denounced Iranian govt’s incitement of violence against Salman Rushdie as “despicable” following 12 Aug attack against author, who was subject of 1989 fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini. Both incidents could fuel political opposition in U.S. to negotiating with Tehran.
U.S. and Iran made no progress to resolve remaining issues necessary to revive 2015 nuclear deal, while Tehran continued to expand its nuclear activities. Prospects for reviving 2015 nuclear accord appeared moribund as neither Washington nor Tehran appeared willing or able during month to overcome remaining hurdles, which include International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) safeguards probe, scope of sanctions relief and U.S. guarantees to remain committed to deal; lack of progress underscores possibility that deal may now be unsalvageable. EU deal coordinator 26 July asserted “space for additional significant compromises has been exhausted”, urging U.S. and Iran to accept proposed text. Meanwhile, IAEA 9 July confirmed that Iran had brought online cascade of IR-6 centrifuges at Fordow facility enriching up to 20%. Senior adviser to Supreme Leader 16 July said “Iran has the capability to build [a] nuclear bomb but it has [taken] no decision”. During U.S. President Biden’s visit to Jerusalem (see Israel-Palestine), he and Israeli PM Yair Lapid voiced shared concern over Iran’s nuclear advancements; their 14 July joint declaration underscored U.S. “commitment never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon”, but while Biden maintained that “diplomacy is the best way to achieve this outcome”, Lapid posited that “the only way to stop them is to put a credible military threat on the table”. U.S. 11 July reported Iran arranging “to provide Russia with up to several hundred UAVs, including weapons-capable UAVs”. Iran 19 July hosted presidents of Russia and Tü-rkiye; coinciding with meeting was announcement of memorandum of understanding between Russian Gazprom and National Iranian Oil Company on developing oil and gas infrastructure. U.S. Treasury Dept 6 July blacklisted ten entities and individuals involved in Iran’s petroleum and petrochemical trade with East Asia; U.S. State Dept simultaneously sanctioned seven entities and vessels linked to Iran’s oil export. Iran’s foreign ministry 16 July blacklisted 61 U.S. officials and lawmakers, past and current, citing their support for Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), dissident group seeking regime change. Iran 23 July announced arrest of what it claimed was Mossad-linked group allegedly intending to sabotage “sensitive” centre in Isfahan city.
Govt ramped up nuclear activity and scaled down external monitoring, while resumption of indirect U.S.-Iran talks offered faint glimmer of hope in salvaging 2015 deal and tensions with Israel rose. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi 6 June told agency’s board that Iran had failed to provide adequate explanations regarding traces of uranium found at undeclared sites. Board by vote of 30 to two (Russia and China) 8 June passed resolution expressing “profound concern” over lack of progress and called on govt to address queries. Govt next day condemned censure, adopting measures to ramp up nuclear activity and restrict transparency: ahead of vote, govt began installing cascade of advanced IR-6 centrifuges at Natanz plant with plans for further two cascades, and took pair of IAEA cameras offline; govt 8 June began dismantling 27 IAEA cameras, which IAEA following day characterised as potential “fatal blow” to restore 2015 nuclear deal. Govt 14 June pointed to possible “external elements” that may be responsible for uranium traces at undeclared sites. In positive step, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell 25 June announced EU would mediate resumed indirect U.S.-Iran negotiations in Qatar; talks late June ended according to U.S. with “no progress”. Meanwhile, shadow hostilities with Israel grew more visible. News 3 June surfaced of death of Ali Esmailzadeh, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) colonel who, Iranian media asserted, “died after falling from a terrace in his house”; two other individuals – engineer at military aerospace facility and geologist – died on 31 May and 2 June in suspected poisoning. In sign of rising tensions that underscore growing risks of escalation, Israeli PM Naftali Bennett 8 June said “we’ve created a new equation by going for the head [of the octopus]”, referring to shift away from only targeting Iran’s tentacles, meaning regional proxies. Israel 13 June issued travel alert for Israelis to avoid visiting Türkiye, citing alleged Iranian threats. U.S. 16 June sanctioned Iranian companies and individuals allegedly supporting sale of oil to China and East Asia. U.S. reported IRGC vessels 20 June approached U.S. navy ships in “unsafe and unprofessional” manner, second such incident since March.
Efforts to restore 2015 nuclear deal remained stalemated as Tehran edged toward breakout capability; price hikes fuelled protests which left at least five killed. Revival of nuclear accord remained blocked over key remaining points of contention, namely 2019 U.S. designation of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as Foreign Terrorist Organization and economic guarantees on sanctions relief. EU facilitator of Vienna talks Enrique Mora sought to inject momentum into stalemated process by travelling to capital Tehran on 11 May – exactly two months after talks in Austrian capital Vienna were paused with technical text all but ready. Iranian and U.S. officials, however, still appeared to put onus on other; U.S. Biden administration 13 May maintained “Iran needs to decide whether it insists on extraneous conditions” or finalises agreement. Senior U.S. official 25 May described deal’s prospects “tenuous at best”; Treasury Dept same day sanctioned “international oil smuggling and money laundering network” linked to IRGC. Meanwhile, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi 10 May reported Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 60% stood at 42kg, up from 33.2kg tallied in IAEA’s 3 March quarterly report; Grossi also addressed agency’s ongoing safeguards probe into undeclared sites, asserting “Iran has not been forthcoming” with necessary information. President Raisi 9 May unveiled major economic reforms redirecting state subsidies from importers of basic staples, following abrupt cut on flour subsidies in late April that resulted in fivefold price increase; govt 12 May announced hikes on items including dairy products and chicken. Protests over costs erupted in Khuzestan and other provinces; as of 18 May, human rights groups had tallied five deaths, as security forces clamped down on demonstrators, with dozens detained. Police also clashed with protesters over govt handling of 23 May Abadan building collapse that killed at least 29. Unidentified assailants 22 May shot dead colonel of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force in capital Tehran. Incident at Parchin military facility 26 May caused one fatality; media reports blamed drone attack. Iran 27 May seized two Greek-flagged vessels in Gulf, possibly in retaliation for earlier U.S. confiscation of Iranian crude aboard tanker detained in April.
Talks between U.S., Iran and other world powers to revive 2015 nuclear accord reached one-year mark without breakthrough, while Iran-Saudi Arabia dialogue resumed for first time since Sept 2021. Nuclear talks remained at impasse despite technical elements of framework bringing U.S. and Iran back into compliance with deal all but agreed; as 6 April marked one year since start of talks in Austrian capital Vienna, impasse remained focused on bilateral political issue between Washington and Tehran, namely whether and under what conditions U.S. Biden administration will remove 2019 designation by Trump administration of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as Foreign Terrorist Organisation. U.S. State Dept 26 April indicated that EU coordinator “continues to convey messages back and forth”. Iranian atomic agency chief 6 April confirmed that, in line with timetable agreed with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last month, Tehran had provided IAEA with documentation related to agency’s safeguards probe into undeclared nuclear activity; he also indicated “probably the agency’s representatives will travel to Iran for further talks”. Iran 4 April transferred centrifuge part production from TESA Karaj to Natanz facility; IAEA 14 April informed member states that it had put its cameras in place at workshop (though without access to footage) and Iran had commenced activity there. Govt 25 April confirmed fifth round of Iraq-hosted talks with Saudi Arabia, described as “positive”. U.S. 8 April tallied total number of Iran-related sanction designations under Biden administration at 107, of which 86 “have specifically targeted the IRGC-related persons as well as affiliates”. World Bank 14 April issued economic update on Iran, forecasting GDP growth in 2022/2023 at 3.7%, down from 4.1% in 2021/2022, with inflation projected at 37.6%.
Tensions with Israel peaked as both sides increasingly threatened to attack the other, fuelling regional security concerns; talks between Iran, U.S. and other world powers paused following 11th-hour Russian demands. Following alleged Israeli attack on drone facility in Iran’s Kermanshah province last month, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in rare announcement 8 March revealed death of two colonels in Israeli airstrike near Syrian capital Damascus previous day. In retaliation, IRGC 13 March fired dozen ballistic missiles at Erbil in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, targeting Israeli “strategic centre” (see Iraq). Reports 13 March surfaced that authorities uncovered alleged Israel spy network in north-western Iran; IRGC next day announced arrest of members of alleged Israeli intelligence-linked group plotting sabotage acts at Fordow nuclear facility. Israel 14 March announced it suffered “broad cyber attack” on govt sites. Israeli FM 28 March asserted that Negev Summit attended by counterparts from U.S., Egypt, Bahrain, Morocco and United Arab Emirates “intimidates and deters our common enemies – first and foremost Iran and its proxies”. Govt-affiliated media 13 March reported Tehran had “unilaterally suspended” talks with Saudi officials (see Saudi Arabia). Tehran and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) 5 March resolved longstanding dispute over IAEA investigation into possible undeclared nuclear material and nuclear-related activities at four sites, jointly announcing roadmap addressing safeguards-related concerns. However, deep rift between West and Russia over latter’s invasion of Ukraine in Feb threw up hurdle in talks. Russian FM Sergei Lavrov 5 March stated Moscow expected that Western sanctions “will by no means affect our right to free and full-fledged trading, economic, investment, military and technical cooperation with Iran” if deal revived; EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell 11 March announced pause in talks “due to external factors”. Lavrov 15 March indicated much less maximalist demand related to civil nuclear cooperation projects that U.S. same day assured were part and parcel of deal. In positive move, UK govt 16 March announced UK nationals Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori detained in Iran since 2016 and 2017, respectively, were released; third UK national Morad Tahbaz arrested in 2018 was briefly furloughed but since returned to jail.
Marathon negotiations involving Iran, U.S. and other world powers reached inflection point that will determine whether 2015 nuclear deal is revived or collapses. Eighth round of talks in Austrian capital Vienna 8 Feb resumed after short hiatus beginning late Jan. Iran’s lead negotiator 16 Feb asserted that “we are closer than ever” to deal, but remarks from FM Hossein Amirabollahian published same day underscored that closer does not necessarily mean close; Iran continued emphasising U.S. guarantees against future withdrawal from nuclear deal and insistence on “total lifting” of Trump-era sanctions designations, both of which have been consistent Iranian terms since negotiations began and neither of which is likely to be attainable. Iran’s lead negotiator 23 Feb left Vienna for consultations in Tehran that could determine whether talks yield breakthrough or breakdown; while gaps between parties have narrowed, remaining areas of disagreement are significant enough to scupper breakthrough. Meanwhile, U.S. 4 Feb issued sanctions waivers, which Trump administration had issued after U.S. 2018 withdrawal from deal but revoked in 2020, on 2015 nuclear deal-linked nuclear cooperation project; U.S. asserted that decision was “designed to facilitate discussions” in Vienna and “serve U.S. non-proliferation and nuclear safety interests”; E3 (France, Germany and UK) next day welcomed announcement, while Iranian FM posited that “what happens on paper is good, but not enough”. South Korean officials 15-16 Feb held consultations with Iranian counterparts regarding Iran’s frozen assets, with Seoul noting that “sanctions-related issues, including the transfer of frozen funds, would be resolved when a deal is reached” in Vienna. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps 9 Feb revealed new solid fuel-powered ballistic missile, with purported range of 1,450km; military chief of staff asserted that missile development would proceed “quantitively and qualitatively”.
Negotiations aimed at restoring 2015 nuclear deal neared critical juncture, while regional tensions with U.S. continued. Eighth round of talks in Austrian capital Vienna that started on 27 Dec continued throughout month, with all participants noting some measure of progress although U.S. and European parties emphasised necessity of faster progress; negotiations 28 Jan paused for consultations with capitals and set to resume early Feb. Amid continued expansion of Iranian nuclear capabilities, U.S. Sec State Antony Blinken 13 Jan referred to “not months ahead, weeks ahead” before window for returning to mutual compliance with 2015 deal closes. Iran’s foreign ministry 17 Jan indicated that deliberations were centred around four draft texts, underscoring Tehran’s desire for deal that is “reliable and stable”. Senior South Korean diplomat early Jan visited Vienna “to explore ways to resolve the issue of frozen Iranian assets in Korea”; Seoul 23 Jan confirmed payment of outstanding Iranian UN dues using frozen funds. U.S. official 23 Jan said “very hard for us to imagine getting back into the nuclear deal” so long as four citizens remain imprisoned in Iran, as indirect talks on detainees take place. International Atomic Energy Agency 31 Jan announced Iranian notification on ceasing centrifuge parts production at Karaj facility and shifting that activity to Isfahan site. Meanwhile, around two-year anniversary of killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani in U.S. drone strike, there was marked uptick in exchanges involving U.S. forces and Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria; notably, rocket fire and armed drone struck Ain al-Asad air base in western Iraq (see Iraq and Syria). Foreign ministry 8 Jan added 51 U.S. nationals, including currently serving military commanders and members of Trump administration, to its sanctions list, citing their involvement in Soleimani’s killing; White House next day warned Iran of “severe consequences” if it should attack U.S. nationals.
Nuclear talks continued in Austria without breakthrough, while Tehran and UN nuclear watchdog struck deal on surveillance at key nuclear site. Seventh round of talks, that began late Nov in Austrian capital Vienna, 3 Dec adjourned as European participants and U.S. asserted that Tehran’s opening bids substantially widened gaps previously narrowed during earlier rounds; E3 (UK, France and Germany) 3 Dec voiced “disappointment and concern” while U.S. 4 Dec accused Iran of walking back its positions. During talks, Iran 1 Dec announced deployment of cascade of IR-6 advanced centrifuges enriching to 20% at its Fordow facility. Negotiators 9 Dec reconvened as seventh round continued, concluding 17 Dec. EU representative Enrique Mora 17 Dec said: “We now have a text that with some minor exceptions is a common ground… But that does not mean by any means that we have an agreement on any text”, while Iran’s lead negotiator same day described “good progress” and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan assessed talks as “not going well”. Eighth round 27 Dec kicked off with Mora highlighting “sense of urgency in all delegation”. Meanwhile, following weeks of stalled progress, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) 15 Dec announced agreement with Iran’s atomic energy organisation to replace its surveillance cameras at Karaj centrifuge production facility and carry out “other related technical activity” by late Dec, forestalling possibility of censure resolution by IAEA Board of Governors; other safe-guard concerns however remained unresolved. U.S. 7 Dec sanctioned 13 Iranian persons and entities for human rights abuses and 16 Dec announced action against entities for “diverting or attempting to divert U.S. items to Iran’s military programs”. Authorities 4 Dec claimed reports of explosion near Natanz nuclear facility due to missile drill. Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps 24 Dec concluded five-day drill by testing multiple ballistic missiles and drones. Iran 30 Dec launched three re-search devices into space that failed to reach orbit; operation drew criticism from Germany, France and U.S. who said launch was in breach of UN Security Council resolutions. Clashes 1 Dec erupted at border with Afghanistan, leaving multiple casualties on both sides (see Afghanistan).
Tehran and world powers resumed talks on restoring nuclear deal after five-month-long hiatus, while Iran continued to expand nuclear programme amid flurry of diplomatic activity. After months-long pause in indirect talks between U.S. and Iran in Austrian capital Vienna, EU-coordinated negotiations resumed 29 Nov with meeting of nuclear deal’s current signatories. In lead up to talks, Deputy FM Ali Bagheri during second week of Nov undertook visits to UK, France, Germany and Spain while mid-month engaging with Russia and China. In likely attempt to underscore dividends of successful talks, U.S. and Gulf Cooperation Council 17 Nov issued statement that alluded to “efforts to build effective diplomatic channels with Iran” and prospect of “deeper economic ties” in event of deal’s revival, points which were stressed again next day with endorsement of UK, France and Germany following talks in Saudi capital Riyadh. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi underscored concerns around agency’s ability to monitor and verify nuclear activities; Grossi 2 Nov likened situation to “flying in a heavily clouded sky” and 12 Nov described lack of high-level contact with Tehran as “astonishing”; Tehran subsequently extended invitation to Grossi, who 23 Nov met FM Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and nuclear chief Mohammad Eslami. Grossi described discussions as inconclusive. IAEA Board of Governors next day convened in Vienna; ahead of meeting, agency mid-month reported significant expansion of enriched uranium stockpiles at 20 and 60 per cent over last quarter and objections to “excessively invasive physical searches” of inspectors. Tehran avoided censure resolution despite growing concerns, but U.S. told IAEA 25 Nov that emergency Board session may be required by end of year if Iran continues to stymie agency. Meanwhile, U.S. 2 Nov reported “unsafe interaction” in Strait of Hormuz involving suspected Iranian drones and amphibious assault ship USS Essex; U.S. 15 Nov reported second “unsafe” incident involving Iranian helicopter and USS Essex. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps 3 Nov claimed to have thwarted U.S. attempt “to confiscate [Iran’s] oil” in Sea of Oman; U.S. called accusation “totally false”. Washington 18 Nov sanctioned seven Iranian persons and entities “for attempting to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election”.
Indirect nuclear talks with U.S. still on hold as Washington warned of contingency plans. Four months since last round of indirect talks with U.S. in Austrian capital Vienna and two-and-a-half months since President Raisi took office, deadlock persisted despite continued diplomatic activity. After expressing concern late Sept about lack of access at Iran’s Karaj nuclear site “contrary to the agreed terms”, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi 19 Oct embarked on five-day visit to U.S. where he said he was “expecting news soon” about Iran trip. FM Amirabdollahian 27 Oct said such visit was on cards but insisted “the date is not important”. Enrique Mora, chief of staff of EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, 14 Oct visited Iran to “raise the urgency to resume [nuclear deal] negotiations”; foreign ministry same day announced “the two parties agreed to continue dialogue on questions of mutual interests”; Deputy FM Ali Bagheri 27 Oct met Mora and subsequently announced that: “We agree to start negotiations before the end of November”. Mutual frustration between U.S. and Iran persisted in meantime. U.S. Sec State Antony Blinken 13 Oct reiterated U.S. view that Iran is using lull in talks to expand nuclear activity, warning: “We are prepared to turn to other options if Iran doesn’t change course”. Raisi 18 Oct noted: “We are serious in result-oriented negotiations”, saying other parties should lift “illegal and oppressive sanctions”. U.S., UK, France and Germany 30 Oct warned “continued Iranian nuclear advances and obstacles to the IAEA’s work will jeopardize the possibility of a return” to deal, while welcoming U.S. commitment to return to deal and “to stay in full compliance, so long as Iran does the same”. Tensions surfaced with Azerbaijan. Armed forces 1 Oct held military drills, prompting Azerbaijani President Aliyev to question: “Why now, and why on our border?”; Iranian defence officials cited “overt and covert presence” of Israel’s proxies as well as jihadist threat as reasons for drills (see also Azerbaijan). Cyberattack 26 Oct attributed by Iranian authorities to Israel and U.S. hampered fuel distribution across country.
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.
President Raisi took office, Vienna talks remained paused as Tehran continued nuclear activities, and international powers condemned Iran over recent maritime incident. Ebrahim Raisi sworn in 5 Aug as country’s eighth president, completing conservative takeover of centres of powers across Islamic Republic; Raisi same day indicated that “sanctions against Iran must be lifted and we will support any diplomatic plan that achieves this goal”. Indirect U.S.-Iran negotiations in Austrian capital Vienna, however, remained on hold with new administration in capital Tehran yet to set date for resumption. Meanwhile, Iran’s nuclear activities continued apace. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) 16 Aug reported that Iran’s production of enriched uranium metal had yielded 200g enriched to 20% and next day confirmed that number of centrifuge cascades enriching uranium to 60% had doubled to two; IAEA Board of Governors set to produce quarterly report on status of Iran’s nuclear activity in Sept. Amid diplomatic impasse, U.S. Treasury Dept 13 Aug blacklisted “individuals and business involved in an international oil smuggled network” linked to Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Tensions in maritime theatre continued, fuelling international opprobrium against Tehran. Following late-July deadly attack on tanker off Oman coast, Tehran 4 Aug submitted letter to UN Security Council denying involvement. U.S. military investigation 6 Aug concluded explosive-laden Iranian-made drone caused “extensive damage”; G7 same day condemned Tehran, underscoring “all available evidence clearly points to Iran”, while U.S. Sec State Antony Blinken 9 Aug told UN Security Council that “it is on all of our nations to hold accountable those responsible”. In separate incident, UK Maritime Trade Operations 3 Aug warned of “potential hijacking” of tanker off United Arab Emirates’ coast. As total COVID-19 fatalities rose, surpassing 100,000 deaths since Feb 2020 on 19 Aug, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei 11 Aug described pandemic as “country’s number one problem today”. Raisi 16 Aug said U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan (see Afghanistan) “should become opportunity to restore life, security and lasting peace”; UN during month warned in worst-case scenario as many as 150,000 Afghan refugees could flow to Iran in next six months (see Afghanistan).
Tehran announced pause of nuclear talks in Vienna as it continued to expand its nuclear activities, while protests over water access erupted in south west. After sixth round of indirect U.S.-Iran negotiations in Austrian capital Vienna concluded 20 June, reportedly making notable progress, Deputy FM Seyed Abbas Araghchi 17 July said talks must “await our new administration” when President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office on 5 August, putting talks on hiatus for at least six weeks. Iran continued its nuclear activities, further straining fraught relations with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and international powers. IAEA 6 July received and conveyed to Board of Governors Iran’s notification of its intent to move ahead with production of uranium metal enriched to 20 per cent, which is banned until 2031 under 2015 nuclear deal; E3 (UK, France and Germany) same day called moved “serious violation of Iran’s commitments” under deal, while U.S. same day described it as “unfortunate step backward”. Meanwhile, U.S. Treasury Dept 2 July delisted three Iranians allegedly linked with Iran’s missile programme sanctioned in Sept 2020, underscoring that move is unrelated to nuclear talks; Commerce Dept 9 July blacklisted eight entities “for facilitating the export of U.S. items to Iran” in violation of sanctions; federal court 13 July indicted four Iranians on charges of planning kidnapping of U.S. citizen; Tehran next day called allegations “baseless and ridiculous”. Following late June U.S. airstrikes in Syria and Iraq that allegedly targeted Iran-linked militias, Iran’s UN envoy 3 July in letter to UN Security Council president condemned operation “in strongest terms” and denied Iranian involvement in attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq. Armed drone 29 July attacked tanker in Arabian Sea, killing two crew members; Israel, U.S. and UK 1 Aug blamed Iran, which denied responsibility. Protests over access to water 15 July broke out in south-western Khuzestan province; at least three deaths reported and UN human rights chief 23 July described situation as “catastrophic”.
Sixth round of nuclear talks made progress while UN temporary inspections agreement into nuclear sites expired with unclear next steps; Ebrahim Raisi elected president. Following sixth round of indirect U.S.-Iran negotiations in Austrian capital Vienna held 12-20 June, Iran’s lead negotiator Abbas Araghchi 20 June announced “we are closer to an agreement than ever” while U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan same day remarked there remained “a fair distance to travel”; it remains to be seen if agreement will emerge in remaining five weeks of Rouhani administration. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi 7 June briefed board of governors, emphasising Iran’s lack of cooperation on addressing safeguards concerns at four undeclared nuclear sites. Arrangement concluded in Feb on facilitating continued IAEA monitoring of Iranian nuclear activity expired 24 June; IAEA next day called for “immediate response” on status of technical understanding, but Tehran had yet to agree on extension by end of month. Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant 21 June underwent electricity shutdown due to “technical problem”; Iranian media 23 June reported “an act of sabotage” against building owned by the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran. Regarding sanctions, U.S. Treasury 10 June blacklisted “members of smuggling network” allegedly linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards-Quds Force and Huthis in Yemen and same day removed sanctions on five individuals and entities, citing “verified change in behaviour or status”. Treasury 17 June published COVID-19-related general licenses clarifying scope of humanitarian transactions with Iran. U.S. Justice Dept 22 June announced seizure of 33 websites linked to Iranian media. Following passage of two Iranian vessels late May suspectedly bound for Venezuela, U.S. State Dept 10 June warned Tehran against transfering weapons or illicit materials to Caracas. Meanwhile, ahead of presidential election 18 June, three of seven candidates pulled out of race; electoral authorities 19 June announced victory for judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi who won 61.9% of vote, with voter turnout at 48.8% - lowest in Islamic Republic’s history; Raisi will take office as Iran’s eighth president 3 August.
Indirect U.S.-Iran talks to revive nuclear deal continued as Tehran advanced its nuclear activities and regional maritime tensions with U.S. persisted. U.S. and Iran continued to participate in international negotiations in Austrian capital Vienna aimed at reviving Iran nuclear deal, as gaps between two sides narrowed but significant hurdles, including scope of sanctions relief, remained; fifth round of talks in Vienna 25 May began with meeting of Joint Commission of nuclear deal. With roadmap toward mutual U.S. and Iranian compliance with deal emerging but still elusive, Tehran continued to advance its nuclear capacities. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) 11 May informed member states of “an enrichment level of up to 63 per cent”. Separately, IAEA and Tehran reportedly held further discussions on resolving outstanding safeguards concerns; IAEA 24 May announced one-month extension of deal reached in Feb for monitoring and verification of nuclear sites; IAEA 31 May said Tehran yet to explain traces of uranium found at undeclared sites. Amid deadly fighting in Israel and Gaza (see Israel-Palestine), U.S. criticism of Biden administration’s diplomatic efforts to engage with Iran on nuclear deal rose as 44 Senate Republicans 12 May signed letter calling on Washington to immediately end talks with Iran, accusing Tehran of “supporting terrorist activity” against Israel; letter portends bitter domestic debate if and when nuclear deal is revived. Meanwhile, Iran-U.S. maritime tensions continued. Over dozen Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps speedboats 10 May approached six U.S. navy vessels accompanying U.S. submarine through Strait of Hormuz, leading U.S. vessels to fire warning shots; encounter follows similar incidents last month, potentially signalling shift toward increased sabre-rattling which raises risk of miscalculation at sea. Ahead of presidential election scheduled for 18 June, over 590 candidates 11-15 May registered to enter race; Guardian Council, an oversight body, 25 May disqualified many – including First VP Eshagh Jahangiri, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former parliament speaker Ali Larijani – and approved seven candidates, five of whom are conservatives, most notably judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi. Foreign ministry 31 May said talks with Saudi Arabia are continuing, aimed at reaching “common understanding”.
U.S. and Iran participated in expert-level negotiations as sabotage attack targeted nuclear facility, prompting Tehran to ramp up enrichment activities. New diplomatic process commenced as Iran and P4+1 (UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) 2 April held virtual session of nuclear deal’s Joint Commission, which concluded with commitment to continue discussions in person in Austria’s capital Vienna in P4+1/EU format; U.S. same day confirmed it would send diplomats there. Talks 15 April held in Vienna and third round of negotiations 27 April began with parallel working groups discussing nuclear steps, sanctions relief and sequencing. President Rouhani 20 April suggested that “talks have progressed about 60, 70 per cent”. Complicating diplomatic efforts, Iran’s atomic energy organisation 11 April reported “incident” at Natanz nuclear facility that knocked “a number” of centrifuges offline, subsequently describing it as “sabotage”; Iranian FM Javad Zarif next day called attack “nuclear terrorism” and suggested Israel as likely suspect. In response, Tehran 13 April announced expansion of enrichment rates at Natanz from 20% (on par with pre-deal levels) to 60% using IR-4 and IR-6 centrifuges. UK, France and Germany next day expressed “grave concern” over decision while U.S. Sec of State Antony Blinken called it “provocative”. Meanwhile, IAEA 21 April verified installation of six cascades of IR-2m and two cascades of IR-4 centrifuges; IAEA 19 April confirmed parallel talks with Iran on clarifying safeguards concerns. Regional tensions continued with U.S. and Israel. Foreign ministry 7 April acknowledged reports that Iranian ship Saviz had been hit by explosion in Red Sea; U.S. official, according to New York Times, confirmed Israel carried out operation. Israeli-owned vessel 13 April reportedly struck by missile in Gulf of Oman. U.S. navy reported 2 and 26 April Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy’s “unsafe and unprofessional” manoeuvres near U.S. vessels, raising “risk of miscalculation and/or collision”; incidents are first reported cases of U.S.-Iran naval tension since April 2020. EU 12 April sanctioned eight individuals and three entities for “violent response” to Nov 2019 demonstrations. Iranian and Saudi officials 9 April commenced talks in Iraqi capital Baghdad (see Saudi Arabia).
Tehran continued to ramp up its nuclear activity and regional tensions stayed high as U.S. and Iran remained at odds over how to return to mutual compliance with 2015 nuclear deal. Efforts to jumpstart nuclear negotiations with U.S. fell flat as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei 21 March reaffirmed that Iran would return to its nuclear commitments only after effective lifting of sanctions. Iran continued to expand nuclear activity. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)Director General Rafael Grossi 1 March said Tehran was still not satisfactorily answering questions on safeguards concerns at four separate undeclared sites, visits to three of which had revealed man-made uranium particles. IAEA’s quarterly report 4 March revealed Tehran’s stockpile of enriched uranium stands at 14 times nuclear deal limit. IAEA 8 March confirmed operationalisation of new IR-2 centrifuge cascade at Natanz site – third such cascade, with another three in works – and cascade of IR-4s. Iran’s atomic energy organisation 19 March announced plan to “cold test” Arak nuclear reactor. Meanwhile, U.S. Biden administration 9 March unveiled first Iran-specific sanctions, designating two individuals identified as Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps interrogators for human rights abuses during 2019-2020 protests. U.S. National Intelligence Council 15 March issued report asserting that Iran conducted “multi-pronged covert influence campaign intended to undercut former President Trump’s re-election prospects” during 2020 elections. Regional tensions remained fraught. Iran’s UN envoy 14 March condemned U.S. 25 Feb strikes in Syria on sites U.S. said linked to “Iranian-backed militant groups”, denied Iranian involvement in attacks on U.S. interests in Iraq. U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley 17 March observed: “It’s not really helping the climate in the U.S. to have Iranian allies take shots at Americans in Iraq or elsewhere”. Following late Feb explosion on Israeli-owned ship in Gulf of Oman, for which Israel blamed Tehran, Israeli PM Netanyahu 1 March said: “We are striking at [Iran] all over the region”. Iranian cargo ship in Mediterranean Sea 10 March reportedly suffered explosion that Iranian shipping official 12 March called “terrorist attack”; incidents could signal maritime domain becoming new front where Israel and Iran engage in tit-for-tat attacks.
Tehran expanded nuclear activity and edged closer to reducing international monitoring of nuclear sites despite diplomatic efforts to resurrect nuclear deal. Authorities continued to expand nuclear activity in violation of 2015 deal: Iran’s envoy to International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) 2 Feb announced operationalisation of two centrifuge cascades, or sets of centrifuges, at Natanz facility, with work under way on centrifuge cascades at Fordow facility; IAEA 8 Feb reported production of 3.6g of uranium metal, banned for 15 years under 2015 deal, at Isfahan site; IAEA 17 Feb said Iran informed it of intention to set up two centrifuge cascades at Natanz site; E3 (UK, France and Germany) 12 Feb expressed “grave concern”. In indication of Tehran’s willingness to move beyond restrictions solely aimed at nuclear capabilities, IAEA 15 Feb announced Iran will limit agency inspection access to nuclear sites from 23 Feb; IAEA chief Rafael Grossi 20 Feb visited capital Tehran and next day reached temporary measures to ensure “necessary degree of monitoring and verification”. On diplomatic front, U.S. and Iran expressed support for resurrecting 2015 nuclear deal but both called on other to move first: U.S. Sec of State Antony Blinken 16 Feb said “first step would be Iran returning to compliance” and then “we would do the same” while Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei next day said “if we see action on the part of the other side, we will take action, too”. Incoming U.S. ambassador to UN 18 Feb informed presidency of Security Council that U.S. was rescinding Trump administration’s contention of having snapped back all pre-nuclear deal UN sanctions on Iran; Biden administration also relaxed Trump-era restrictions on Iranian diplomats in New York. FM Javad Zarif next day reaffirmed U.S. must first “unconditionally and effectively lift all sanctions”. Iran and U.S. expressed support for EU diplomatic role: Zarif 14 Feb said EU could “choreograph” next steps while U.S. 18 Feb indicated it would attend EU-proposed meeting of nuclear deal parties; Iranian Foreign Ministry 28 Feb said “time isn’t ripe” for informal meeting. U.S. 25 Feb launched airstrikes in Syria on Iran-linked targets (see Syria).
Tehran continued to violate 2015 nuclear deal and tensions with outgoing Trump administration ran high; new U.S. administration could take steps to re-enter nuclear deal in Feb. Iran 4 Jan began enriching uranium at 20 per cent – major increase from current 4.5 per cent cap and on par with pre-nuclear deal levels; FM Javad Zarif same day underscored that move and Iran’s other violations “are fully reversible upon full compliance by all”. U.S. 4 Jan called move “nuclear extortion” while UK, France and Germany (E3) 6 Jan said it “carries very significant proliferation-related risks”. International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi 11 Jan underscored that “we have weeks” to salvage nuclear deal. IAEA 13 Jan reported Iran was working on components for production of uranium metal at Isfahan plant, banned by nuclear deal until 2031; E3 16 Jan said move “has potentially grave military implications”. Meanwhile, outgoing Trump administration continued to impose unilateral sanctions, including 13 Jan on two Iranian foundations, and 15 Jan on Iranian shipping and metals with potential military application, as well as on three Iranian organisations. Regional tensions persisted: FM Zarif 2 Jan claimed that “Israeli agent provocateurs are plotting attacks against Americans” in Iraq; Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) same day described Lebanon as “front line of confrontation” (see Lebanon) and 4 Jan detained South Korean-flagged tanker along with its crew. U.S. 8, 17 and 27 Jan dispatched B-52 bombers to region. U.S. Sec State Mike Pompeo 12 Jan alleged existence of “Iran-al-Qaeda Axis”; FM Zarif same day called accusation “warmongering lies”. Iran launched multiple military drills, including 15 Jan test firing ballistic missiles and drones. As U.S. President Biden’s new administration 20 Jan entered office, hopes rose of U.S. taking steps to re-enter nuclear deal in Feb in case of Iran’s full compliance, as Biden previously pledged; FM Zarif 22 Jan suggested that U.S. had to take initiative, while warning that window of opportunity “will not be open forever”; U.S. 29 Jan appointed Robert Malley, Obama-era official previously involved in negotiations on 2015 nuclear agreement, as special envoy for Iran.
Parliament passed law mandating further steps away from 2015 nuclear deal, while U.S. continued to roll out unilateral sanctions. In response to killing of senior Iranian nuclear scientist in Nov, parliament 2 Dec approved law described as “strategic action to lift sanctions” mandating govt to immediately expand uranium enrichment rates to 20 per cent – major increase from current 4.5 per cent and on par with pre-nuclear deal levels – and suspend enhanced International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access if sanctions relief fails to materialise by Feb 2021; President Rouhani same day said legislation is “detrimental to the process of diplomatic activities”. UK, France and Germany 7 Dec expressed “great concern” over envisioned steps and denounced Iranian moves to deploy advanced centrifuges at Natanz facility in violation of nuclear deal. After U.S. President-elect Biden 1 Dec expressed willingness to rapidly re-enter nuclear deal once in office, Rouhani 14 Dec remarked “if the P5+1 returns to all its commitments, we will immediately return to all our commitments”. Joint Commission of nuclear deal 16 Dec met at political director level and 21 Dec at ministerial level; joint statement underscored “commitment to preserve the agreement” and noted “prospect of a return of the U.S.” to deal. Iran 31 Dec informed IAEA of intent to enrich at 20 per cent at Fordow facility. Meanwhile, U.S. administration throughout month continued to expand unilateral sanctions designations, including: 8 Dec sanctioning Tehran’s envoy to Huthis in Yemen; 14 Dec designating two Iranian intelligence officials implicated in 2007 disappearance of U.S. citizen; and 16 Dec sanctioning five companies and one individual for involvement in Iranian energy exports. Following 20 Dec rocket attack against embassy in Iraq’s capital Baghdad blamed on “Iranian-backed rogue militia group”, U.S. President Trump 23 Dec warned U.S. would “hold Iran responsible” if U.S. citizen killed; U.S. dispatched B-52 bombers to Persian Gulf and submarine to Middle-East region ahead of first anniversary on 3 Jan of U.S. killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. Govt 12 Dec executed Ruhollah Zam, manager of popular social media platform critical of govt during 2017 protests, prompting international condemnation.
Iran remained in breach of 2015 nuclear deal, while U.S. administration maintained maximum pressure policy on Tehran. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director general 18 Nov informed agency’s Board of Governors that traces of uranium “at a location in Iran not declared to the Agency still needs to be fully and promptly explained by Iran”. IAEA next day derestricted latest report on Iranian compliance with Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA); report concluded that Iran continued to exceed limitations on uranium stockpile, which as of 2 Nov stood at 12 times JCPOA’s cap. Tensions with U.S. continued. The New York Times 16 Nov reported President Trump 12 Nov had considered military action against Iran’s main nuclear site; reporting underscored risk of growing friction between Iran and U.S./U.S. allies during Trump’s final months in office. Iran 27 Nov confirmed death of senior nuclear scientist in ambush east of capital Tehran; FM Zarif claimed “serious indications of Israeli role”. Meanwhile, U.S. continued to roll out unilateral sanctions designations: Treasury 10 Nov sanctioned “a network of six companies and four individuals that facilitated the procurement of sensitive goods” for Iranian military company as well as intelligence minister; Treasury 18 Nov targeted Islamic Revolution Mostazafan Foundation, describing it as “a key patronage network for the Supreme Leader”; State Dept same day blacklisted two Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps officials for role in suppressing Nov 2019 protests; U.S. 25 Nov sanctioned four China and Russia-based companies “for supporting Iran’s missile program”. Following U.S. election victory of Democratic candidate Joe Biden, FM Zarif 17 Nov reiterated Iran “will resume honouring its commitments under the JCPOA” if new U.S. administration lifts sanctions in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2231. Meanwhile, third wave of COVID-19 prompted authorities 21 Nov to implement lockdown in Tehran and 150 other cities for initial two-week period; cases and fatalities continued to reach record levels throughout month, with 948,700 cases and 47,875 fatalities reported as of 29 Nov.
As country faced worsening economic crisis and enduring COVID-19 effects, Tehran hailed technical expiration of UN arms restrictions while U.S. continued to roll out unilateral sanctions. Following U.S. efforts in Aug-Sept to “snap back” pre-nuclear deal sanctions on Iran and thereby extend UN arms embargo, UN arms restrictions on Tehran technically expired 18 Oct; Iran’s MFA same day hailed expiration as “a momentous day” and assuaged fears of major weapons procurement by stating “a buying spree of conventional arms ha[s] no place in Iran’s defence doctrine”; Iranian defence officials predicted sales would outpace purchases. Meanwhile, U.S. rejected expiration of embargo; Sec State Pompeo 17 Oct said “virtually all U.N. sanctions on Iran returned” when Washington unilaterally triggered “snapback” on 19 Sept; Pompeo next day warned, “We are prepared to use domestic authorities to sanction individuals or entities contributing to these arms sales.” U.S. also continued to expand its sanctions designations against Iran and Iran-linked targets. U.S. Treasury 8 Oct blacklisted 18 Iranian banks; Iranian FM Javad Zarif same day accused Washington of wanting “to blow up our remaining channels to pay for food and medicine”. U.S. 19 Oct blacklisted eight additional companies and persons linked to Iran’s Shipping Lines company; 22 Oct sanctioned “five Iranian entities for attempting to influence U.S. elections” and Iranian ambassador in Iraq; 26 Oct blacklisted energy targets on counter-terrorism authorities; and 29 Oct sanctioned eight entities for “their involvement in the sale and purchase of Iranian petrochemical products”. Iran continued to face worsening economic hardship and rampant third wave of COVID-19 cases: national currency mid-Oct hit new historic low of 322,000 rial to U.S. dollar before regaining some ground; authorities 27 Oct announced highest single-day death toll from COVID-19 with 346 confirmed dead. Central bank governor 12 Oct announced agreement with Baghdad on release of estimated $5bn in Iranian assets held in Iraq, part of tens of billions in funds govt says are blocked worldwide. MFA 7 Oct announced it had issued letters of protest to Armenia and Azerbaijan after stray mortars and rockets fell within Iranian territory amid hostilities between two countries (see Nagorno-Karabakh).
U.S. ratcheted up pressure on Iran by unilaterally declaring restoration of all pre-nuclear deal UN sanctions on Iran, despite widespread international opposition to move. After triggering “snapback” mechanism of Resolution 2231 in Aug, U.S. 19 Sept declared “the return of virtually all previously terminated UN sanctions” on Iran that were lifted following Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), warning that it will use its “domestic authorities” if UN member states fail to implement sanctions. However, UK, German and French (E3) UN envoys 20 Sept reiterated their view that U.S. snapback notification “is incapable of having legal effect” and restoration of pre-2231 sanctions “would also be incapable of having any legal effect”. Given wide divergence between U.S. on one side and UN Security Council members and JCPOA signatories on other, President Rouhani 16 Sept said U.S. “was left alone” at UN, and hailed its failure as “great and historic victory”. U.S. rolled out sanctions throughout month: Treasury 3 Sept blacklisted six entities linked to already-sanctioned petrochemical company; Treasury 17 Sept unveiled sanctions against “Iranian cyber threat group Advanced Persistent Threat 39 (APT39)”; executive order 21 Sept accompanied by “sweeping” nuclear, missile and conventional arms designations; State Dept 24 Sept blacklisted Iranian judicial officials and entities for human rights violations. Meanwhile, Joint Commission of JCPOA 1 Sept convened with all sides underscoring continued commitment to salvaging nuclear deal; in positive sign, International Atomic Energy Agency Director General 14 Sept confirmed that agency had already visited one of two sites previously in dispute with Iran and expected to inspect second site soon. Non-nuclear tensions persisted with U.S.; President Trump 14 Sept echoed media report that Iran may be planning attack against U.S. in retaliation for killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Qassem Soleimani in Jan and vowed retaliation “1,000 times greater in magnitude!”; IRGC head 19 Sept remarked “we will target those who had an either direct or indirect role” in attack. Amid concern of third wave of COVID-19 infections, national currency 20 Sept hit a historic low of 273,000 rial to dollar.
U.S. triggered mechanism under UN Security Council Resolution 2231 endorsing 2015 nuclear deal to reimpose all pre-agreement UN sanctions on Iran, raising prospect that tensions could escalate in Sept. UN Security Council 14 Aug resoundingly rejected U.S. resolution aimed at indefinitely extending UN arms embargo on Iran set to expire in Oct; U.S. 20 Aug triggered “snapback” mechanism of Resolution 2231 to reinstate within 30 days all UN sanctions in place prior to Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at midnight GMT 20 September; all remaining JCPOA parties and majority of Security Council members disputed U.S.’s legal standing to invoke “snapback”, citing U.S. withdrawal from deal in 2018. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran 26 Aug announced “agreement on the resolution of the safeguards implementation issues specified by the IAEA”; deal facilitates IAEA access to two sites following months-long standoff. U.S. 14 Aug announced that it had seized Iranian petroleum of four tankers bound for Venezuela; in apparent attempt to retrieve seized fuel, Iranian security forces two days earlier had briefly boarded Liberian-flagged tanker near Strait of Hormuz. U.S. 19 Aug sanctioned two United Arab Emirates (UAE)-based companies and one UAE-based Iranian national for links to U.S. blacklisted Iranian airliner. Regional tensions with both U.S. and its allies remained high: Iran 7 Aug called on UN to hold U.S. accountable for intercepting Iranian airliner in Syrian airspace in July; Israel’s army chief of staff 7 Aug said Israel had “thwarted a squad sent by Iran” during 2 Aug incident at Israel-Syria border that prompted retaliatory airstrikes. President Rouhani 15 Aug described normalisation of Israel-UAE relations as “a big mistake”; in response to Rouhani’s “inflammatory” remarks, UAE next day summoned Iranian envoy to Abu Dhabi; Emirati coast guard 17 Aug opened fire on Iranian fishermen, killing two; Iran same day seized Emirati vessel for “illegally entering Iranian waters” and 18 Aug summoned UAE’s envoy to Tehran over fishermen’s killing. Atomic Energy Organization of Iran 23 Aug said July explosion at Natanz nuclear facility was result of “sabotage”. Guardian Council 24 Aug scheduled presidential elections for June 2021.
Amid ongoing U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign on Tehran, tensions over implementation of 2015 nuclear deal continued while sensitive Iranian facilities suffered spate of incidents. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell 3 July announced receipt of Iranian letter triggering Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’s (JCPOA) Dispute Resolution Mechanism; Iran foreign ministry same day said move was motivated by last month’s resolution from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) submitted by France, Germany and UK (E3) urging Iranian cooperation on agency access requests and E3’s “continued non-abidance” with their JCPOA commitments; Borrell 17 July announced extension of resolution mechanism timeline. Meanwhile, IAEA director general 15 July underscored “absolute necessity” for Iran to cooperate on agency access to two sites of concern; discussions with Tehran ongoing. Washington continued diplomatic efforts to garner support for Security Council resolution extending UN arms embargo on Iran due to expire in Oct 2020. Following late June explosions in “public area” of Parchin and at medical centre in Tehran that killed 19, Iran suffered spate of further incidents, including 2 July blast at Natanz nuclear facility, 15 July combustion of more than six ships at Bushehr shipyard and 19 July explosion at Isfahan power plant. Iranian officials confirmed Natanz incident caused “significant damage” and warned of response if foreign govt responsible, while Israel’s defence minister Benny Gantz 5 July said Israel was not “necessarily” behind every incident in Iran; while unconfirmed, incidents at sensitive sites hint at possibility of new, covert phase of “maximum pressure” campaign by U.S. and/or its regional allies. U.S. military 23 July reported “visual inspection” of Iranian airliner over Syria; Iranian officials described incident as “illegal and dangerous”. Iran continued to struggle with COVID-19 pandemic: authorities 28 July reported deadliest day to date with 235 deaths; economically, rial currency continued to lose value through most of month.
Dispute continued between Iran and UN’s nuclear watchdog and European signatories of 2015 nuclear deal over Iran’s past and present nuclear activities, while Iran and U.S. made rare diplomatic breakthrough on prisoner exchange. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) 5 June issued quarterly report on Iran’s compliance with 2015 nuclear deal, documenting Iran’s continued uranium enrichment and stockpiling beyond deal’s limits; second report same day noted “serious concern” over Iran’s lack of cooperation on access to two sites; Iran’s IAEA envoy 17 June said country had maintained “constructive engagement” with IAEA’s requests for access but cited concern about “endless process of verifying and cleaning-up of ever-continuing fabricated allegations.” IAEA Board of Governors 19 June passed resolution, submitted by France, Germany and UK (E3) and voted against by Russia and China, urging Tehran “to fully cooperate with [IAEA] and satisfy [IAEA’s] requests without further delay”; E3 foreign ministers same day issued joint statement calling for ministerial meeting with Iran. In rare instance of constructive diplomatic engagement, U.S. and Iran 4 June exchanged prisoners: Tehran released Michael White, U.S. citizen detained in 2018, while U.S. allowed Majid Taheri, Iranian-American dual national jailed for sanctions violations, to visit Iran; in purportedly unrelated act, U.S. 2 June released Iranian national Sirous Asghari detained in 2017. U.S. Sec State Pompeo 4 June said “while we are pleased that Iran was constructive in this matter, there is more work to do”; President Trump next day tweeted “Thank you to Iran, it shows a deal is possible!”. U.S. sanctions against shipping company Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines and China-based E-Sail Shipping Company, announced in Dec 2019, came into effect 8 June. U.S. 24 June sanctioned captains of five Iranian vessels who delivered fuel to Venezuela and next day sanctioned nine companies linked to Iranian metal industry. In joint news conference 29 June, Saudi FM and U.S. Iran envoy called for extension of UN arms embargo on Iran, due to expire in Oct. Israel PM Netanyahu 25 June said Israel “taking action without respite” against Iran and Iran-allied forces in Syria (see Syria).
U.S. continued to expand its sanctions designations against Iran and Iran-linked targets and warned of reimposing pre-nuclear deal sanctions, while regional tensions with both U.S. and Israel persisted. President Rouhani 6 May said govt “will give a crushing response if the arms embargo on Tehran is extended” beyond Oct expiry date. U.S. special representative for Iran 13 May confirmed plans to reinstate all pre-Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action sanctions if UN Security Council votes against upcoming U.S. resolution to extend arms embargo; Chinese and Russian UN missions next day separately voiced opposition to planned resolution. U.S. govt 27 May announced termination in 60 days of sanctions waivers for civil nuclear projects but extended waiver for Bushehr plant by 90 days; Iran next day said decision “will not in practice have any effect on Iran’s work” while UK, France and Germany 30 May said they “deeply regret the U.S. decision”. U.S. govt imposed series of sanctions, including: 19 May on Chinese company Shanghai Saint Logistics Limited for acting as general sales assistant for U.S. blacklisted airline Mahan Air; 20 May on Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli over alleged role in human rights abuses during Nov 2019 anti-govt protests; and 27 May on two Iranian nuclear officials. Israeli military 9 May reportedly launched cyberattack on Iran’s largest port facility at Bandar Abbas in retaliation to alleged 24-25 April cyberattack on Israeli water infrastructure. Supreme Leader Khamenei 17 May insisted that “Americans cannot stay for long in Iraq or Syria, and they will be expelled”; outgoing Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett next day claimed Israeli airstrikes on Iranian-backed forces were forcing Iran to begin withdrawing from Syria (see also Israel and Syria). Tanker Fortune 25 May arrived in Venezuela; first of reported five tankers delivering gasoline from Iran. Authorities 16 May sentenced French-Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah to six years imprisonment on national security charges; French govt same day condemned arrest as politically motivated and called for Adelkhah’s release. New parliament inaugurated 27 May; Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf next day elected to speakership.
Elevated tensions with the U.S. continued in Iraq and the Gulf, while govt remained in breach of 2015 nuclear deal although it did not intensify nuclear-related activities during month. President Trump 1 April tweeted that Iran and proxies plan to attack U.S troops or assets in Iraq, warning “Iran will pay a very heavy price”. Iranian naval forces 14 April boarded Hong Kong-flagged tanker in Sea of Oman and briefly detained vessel in Iranian waters. U.S. military next day said eleven Iranian ships “repeatedly conducted dangerous and harassing approaches” toward six U.S. vessels in international waters; Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) 19 April dismissed claims, accused U.S. forces of “illegal, unprofessional, dangerous and adventurist” manoeuvres. Trump 22 April tweeted that he has instructed U.S. navy to “destroy any and all Iranian gunboats that harass our ships”. IRGC 22 April launched military satellite Noor; U.S. 25 April urged extension of UN embargo and sanctions against missile program. U.S. 26 April extended by 30 days Iraq sanction waiver for Iranian electricity imports. Govt continued nuclear-related activities at same tempo as in March, and International Atomic Energy Agency continued inspections of nuclear facilities. Chief of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran 5 April announced intention to install new centrifuges at Natanz fuel enrichment plant. During 20 April meeting with Syrian President Assad in Damascus, FM Zarif criticised U.S. for maintaining sanctions on Iran and Syria throughout COVID-19 crisis. Govt continued to await official response from International Monetary Fund for March request for $5bn emergency loan to tackle COVID-19; U.S. Sec State Pompeo 14 April said Iran should not receive financial assistance “which will be used to fund its proxy wars”. President Rouhani 5 April announced gradual lifting of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions; 19 April extended furlough for prisoners temporarily released in March to 20 May.
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.