CrisisWatch

Tracking Conflict Worldwide

CrisisWatch is our global conflict tracker, an early warning tool designed to help prevent deadly violence. It keeps decision-makers up-to-date with developments in over 70 conflicts and crises every month, identifying trends and alerting them to risks of escalation and opportunities to advance peace. In addition, CrisisWatch monitors over 50 situations (“standby monitoring”) to offer timely information if developments indicate a drift toward violence or instability. Entries dating back to 2003 provide easily searchable conflict histories.

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January 2024

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

Islamic State (ISIS) killed 80 in deadliest bombing in decades, while Iran struck Syria, Iraq and Pakistan in sign of increasingly assertive regional posture amid escalation on multiple fronts fuelled by Gaza war.

ISIS killed scores at ceremony for slain commander. ISIS 3 Jan conducted dual bombings at commemoration ceremony for Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in Kerman city (south east), which killed over 80 and injured more than 200, marking deadliest terrorist attack in Iran since 1979 revolution. 

Tehran struck out at foes both east and west. IRGC 15 Jan announced it had launched ballistic missiles into Syria’s Idlib purportedly aimed at ISIS, and northern Iraq at sites it claimed were linked to Israeli intelligence. Iranian forces next day launched strikes on village in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, claiming to target “strongholds” of Jaish al-Adl – anti-Iranian Baloch militant group that 15 Dec conducted deadly attack in Iran’s Balochistan province; Pakistan condemned strike and claimed it killed two children. Pakistan 18 Jan launched strikes on village near Iranian border city of Saravan (south east), claiming to target Pakistani Baloch militants; pair took steps to de-escalate late Jan (see Pakistan). Unidentified gunmen 27 Jan killed nine Pakistani workers in Saravan.

Iran-aligned groups continued attacks across region amid Gaza war. Amid Houthi attacks in Red Sea and U.S.-UK retaliatory airstrikes (see Yemen), Iran 15 Jan disavowed involvement. Iran 21 Jan confirmed deaths of five IRGC members in alleged Israeli strikes in Syrian capital Damascus, as President Raisi pledged revenge. Attacks against U.S. and allied forces in Iraq and Syria by Iran-aligned groups continued, exceeding 160 incidents from mid Oct to late Jan (see Iraq and Syria). In significant escalation, drone strike 28 Jan, attributed by U.S. to Iran-backed militants, killed three U.S. service members in Jordan; U.S. pledged retaliation (see Jordan).

Iran expanded nuclear activities. After International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) late Dec announced Iran increased three-fold its production of uranium enriched up to 60%, IAEA chief Rafael Grossi 18 Jan stressed need for urgent diplomacy; nuclear expansion, hampered cooperation with IAEA and limited diplomacy with West bode ill for swift resolution of simmering nuclear crisis. 

December 2023

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

War in Gaza reverberated across region as Iran-backed groups engaged in hostilities with U.S. forces and Israel, spotlighting risks of escalation; West imposed series of sanctions against Iran.

Iran-backed groups maintained regional pressure amid ongoing Gaza onslaught. Iran-backed groups continued engagement in hostilities with Israel and/or U.S. throughout Dec as Israel continued war in Gaza (see Israel-Palestine): hostilities between Hizbollah and Israel continued to expand in frequency and intensity, “Axis of Resistance” attacks on U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq reached 113 as of 31 Dec as Iran 25 Dec vowed retaliation for killing of senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps official by alleged Israeli strike in Syria, and U.S. Navy killed Houthi militants in Red Sea amid threats against commercial vessels (see Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen). Iran disavowed direct engagement, but White House official 22 Dec accused Tehran of being “deeply involved in planning” Houthi attacks in Red Sea, and Israeli PM Netanyahu 30 Dec contended Iran was leading “aggression against us on various fronts”.

Western sanctions continued to mount on Iran-linked entities. U.S. Commerce Department 5 Dec added eleven companies linked with “Iranian-Russian efforts to develop unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) facility” to its Entity list. U.S. 7 Dec sanctioned another thirteen persons and companies said to be financing Houthis. U.S. 8 Dec blacklisted two Iranians for various operations, notably plots against U.S. officials. UK same day sanctioned five Iranian officials over human rights concerns. EU 11 Dec announced sanctions against eleven persons and entities involved in development of UAVs used in Russia-Ukraine war. U.S., UK 14 Dec designated several Iranian officials and Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad representatives to Iran.

In other important developments. Sunni militant group Jaish al-Adl claimed responsibility for 15 Dec attack against police station in Balochestan (south east), which killed eleven. International Atomic Energy Agency 26 Dec informed member states that Iran increased production rate of 60% enriched uranium since Nov; U.S., UK, France and Germany 28 Dec jointly condemned Iran’s action.

November 2023

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

Hostilities between Iran-backed groups and U.S. forces across region underscored risk of escalation amid Israel’s onslaught in Gaza, while UN’s nuclear watchdog voiced concern over Tehran’s nuclear activities.

Tit-for-tat attacks between Iran-backed groups and U.S. continued across region. String of attacks since mid-Oct attributed to Iran-linked factions against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria continued during Nov amid Israel’s onslaught in Gaza (see Israel-Palestine), further eroding relative quiet stemming from informal diplomatic understandings between Tehran and Washington; as of 29 Nov, U.S. tallied approximately 74 incidents and around five dozen casualties, though pace of attacks fell as Gaza truce took effect late Nov. Notably, U.S. 8 and 12 Nov launched retaliatory airstrikes in eastern Syria against facilities allegedly linked to Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) (see Syria), and 20-21 Nov launched first deadly retaliatory strikes on Iran-backed targets in Iraq (see Iraq). FM Hossein Amir-Abdollahian 15 Nov maintained perpetrators were making “own decisions”; attacks seem intended to dissuade Israel from deepening campaign in Gaza and to signal to Washington risks of association with Israel but any attack claiming significant casualties could trigger escalatory spiral. Meanwhile, Iranian officials sought to push for Israel’s diplomatic isolation, including during President Raisi’s attendance at summits 11 Nov (see Saudi Arabia).

Concerns over Iran’s uranium enrichment resurged. International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) quarterly report 15 Nov showed further growth of Iran’s enriched uranium stockpiles and continued impasse over safeguards concerns and transparency; Iran has amassed total enriched uranium stockpile of almost 4.5 tonnes, including 6.7kg enriched to 60%, closest to weapons grade. IAEA at 22 Nov board meeting reiterated criticism of Iran’s 16 Sept decision to bar top inspectors and reported no progress in investigations into past activities at undeclared sites.

U.S. sanctioned Iran-affiliated militias and military financial networks. Washington and UK 14 Nov blacklisted Gaza- and Lebanon-based entities linked to Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas. U.S. 17 Nov sanctioned six individuals linked to Kata’ib Hizbollah militia in Iraq and another group linked to IRGC. U.S. 29 Nov designated more than twenty persons/entities part of “financial facilitation networks” benefitting Iranian military.

October 2023

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

Tehran warned of regional conflagration if Israel expands its military campaign in Gaza, while EU and UK maintained sanctions due to be lifted under 2015 deal, triggering Iran’s ire.

Hamas-Israel war placed spotlight on Iran’s role and future intentions. Following outbreak of war between Hamas and Israel on 7 Oct (see Israel-Palestine), Tehran endorsed Hamas’s actions and warned of regional conflict should situation in Israel-Palestine escalate, while accusing U.S. of “managing” Israel’s assault against Gaza. U.S. and Israeli officials during Oct noted extensive support Iran has provided Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad over years, although U.S. President Biden 12 Oct asserted “no evidence” so far that Tehran had foreknowledge of attack. U.S. 18 and 27 Oct imposed two sets of Hamas-related sanctions; latter included Tehran-based “liaison between Hamas and the Iranian govt” and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officials said to help train Hamas and other groups. Against backdrop of looming Israeli ground offensive into Gaza, frequent deadly exchanges occurred along Israel-Lebanon border (see Lebanon), in addition to more than 25 drone and rocket attacks by Iran-backed proxies against U.S. forces in region (see Iraq and Syria); in retaliation, U.S. 26 Oct struck Syrian sites used by “IRGC and affiliated group”. U.S. and allies warned Iran of dangers of regional escalation publicly, privately and by significant U.S. military deployments to region. In case of expanded Israeli ground incursion into Gaza, Iran could support or prod its proxies to escalate attacks against Israel and U.S. in calibrated manner, raising risks of miscalculation and tensions spinning out of control.

EU and UK retained sanctions set to be lifted under 2015 deal. EU and UK 17-18 Oct confirmed they would keep in place non-proliferation sanctions due to expire as part of 2015 nuclear deal’s “Transition Day”, citing Iran’s non-compliance with agreement. Iran 18 Oct labelled decision “unilateral, illegal and politically unjustifiable”. U.S., EU, UK alongside dozens of other states 18 Oct asserted “it is imperative that all States continue to take steps to counter Iran’s destabilising ballistic missile-related activities”. In parallel, U.S. unveiled sanctions against 26 persons, entities and vessel linked to ballistic missile and UAV programs.

September 2023

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

Ties soured between Iran and nuclear watchdog amid safeguards concerns; govt implemented humanitarian deal with U.S., potentially clearing atmosphere for engagement on regional and nuclear files.

In “unprecedented” move, govt scaled back cooperation with nuclear inspectors. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi 11 Sept opened Board of Governors meeting by noting “no further progress” in resolving outstanding safeguards concerns and voiced worry over “decrease in interest” among IAEA members; while confirmed decrease in Iran’s rate of stockpiling uranium at highest end of enrichment likely forestalled formal censure resolution, 63 countries – including U.S. and E3 (France, Germany and UK) – urged Iran to “immediately” resolve safeguards concerns. U.S. and E3 13 Sept warned of possible censure resolution without Iran’s “urgent actions”. In move he described as “disproportionate and unprecedented”, Grossi 16 Sept announced Iran had “effectively removed about one third of the core group of the Agency's most experienced inspectors”; U.S. and E3 18 Sept demanded Tehran “immediately reverse” decision.

In positive step toward de-escalation, U.S. and Iran concluded humanitarian deal. Five U.S. nationals detained in Iran, along with two family members, 18 Sept departed for Qatar en route to U.S.; Washington in turn released five imprisoned Iranian nationals and, in parallel, approximately $6bn in Iranian assets held in South Korea were transferred to Qatari banks to be accessible for humanitarian purposes. Deal could serve as platform for more concerted diplomatic efforts to contain nuclear concerns and maintain momentum on regional engagement.

West continued sanctions. Citing Iran’s non-compliance with 2015 nuclear deal, E3 14 Sept announced intent “to maintain nuclear proliferation-related measures and arms and missile embargoes” due to expire in Oct; Iran pledged to respond. To mark anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death on 15 Sept, U.S. blacklisted 29 Iranian persons and entities and imposed visa restrictions on thirteen individuals, while UK, Canada and EU issued designations. U.S. 18 Sept sanctioned Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security as well as former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, citing their role in hostage-taking and human rights violations. U.S. 19 and 27 Sep sanctioned total of eighteen entities and individuals linked to Iran’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) program.

August 2023

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

De-escalatory understandings between U.S. and Iran began to take shape, underscoring potential for sustained mutual restraint on nuclear and regional fronts, but maritime tensions remained elevated.

First evidence emerged of U.S.-Iran de-escalation. U.S. 10 Aug confirmed Iran’s release of five U.S. nationals from prison to house arrest. Iran’s deputy FM same day indicated that frozen Iranian assets in South Korea were in process of being released, along with “several Iranians who were illegally detained in America”; assets, estimated at around $6bn, will be held in Qatar, where they be available for non-sanctionable humanitarian trade. Additionally, U.S. media reports mid-Aug indicated Tehran had tapered growth of its enriched uranium stockpiling at highest end, while major attacks on U.S. and allied forces by Iranian/Iran-backed groups in Iraq and Syria appeared to be in lull.

Tensions in maritime domain persisted. After U.S. throughout July announced series of military deployments to Gulf region, various media outlets 3 Aug reported Washington was in advanced deliberations about possibility of dispatching U.S. forces aboard commercial vessels that request it. U.S. 6 Aug announced arrival of 3,000 forces in region facilitating “greater flexibility and maritime capability”; next day Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps warned Iran would “respond in kind to any U.S. action and mischief, including the seizure of ships”. U.S., EU and UK naval authorities 12 Aug alerted commercial vessels of unspecified threat and advised distance from Iranian waters.

Normalisation with Saudi Arabia continued. After Iranian officials 13 Aug reported reopening of Saudi consulate in Mashhad, FM Hossein Amir-Abdollahian 17-18 Aug travelled to Saudi Arabia for meetings with his Saudi counterpart and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman; Amir-Abdollahian described meetings as “frank, beneficial and productive” (see Saudi Arabia).

Western sanctions mounted. Canada 8 Aug sanctioned seven Iranian individuals, including secretary of Supreme National Security Council, citing their involvement “in activities that gravely threaten international peace and security or that constitute gross and systemic violations of human rights”. UK same day blacklisted nearly dozen Iranian persons and organisations as part of set of 25 designations of foreign entities giving military support to Russia.

July 2023

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

Purported diplomatic momentum toward U.S.-Iran de-escalatory understanding showed no sign of progress, while maritime tensions picked up.

Amid stalled diplomacy, U.S. criticised Iran’s weapons transfers to Russia. UN Security Council 6 July convened its semi-annual meeting on implementation of Resolution 2231 during which U.S. placed marked emphasis on Iran’s military cooperation with Russia, describing transfer of UAVs used in Ukraine as “a flagrant violation” of 2231’s restrictions, while UK, France and Germany underscored their joint concerns over continued expansion of Iranian nuclear activity. News late June reported U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley is on leave reportedly pending investigation into handling of classified information, which could deepen already-fraught political debate in Washington over diplomatic engagement of Iran.

Maritime incidents continued as U.S. bolstered regional military posture. U.S. military 5 July reported disrupting “two attempted commercial tanker seizures by the Iranian navy” in international waters, one of which involved “multiple, long bursts from both small arms and crew-served weapons” by Iranian ship against Bahamian-flagged Richmond Voyager. Iranian sources claimed that Richmond Voyager had struck Iranian ship, injuring five, and was subject to “a court order to seize it”; Chevron denied any such incident. U.S. Navy next day reported that Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps forces had detained tanker, assessing that incident may have been smuggling-related. Indonesian authorities 11 July confirmed seizure of Iran-flagged tanker on suspicion of unauthorised ship-to-ship transfer in North Natuna Sea. U.S. defence official 14 July announced deployment of F-16 fighters as part of effort “to deter Iran from going after oil tankers”, while U.S. guided-missile destroyer and F-35 fighters entered region mid-July; Pentagon 20 July additionally announced deployment of Amphibious Readiness Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit to region.

In other important developments. U.S. 18 July approved 120-day sanctions waiver allowing Iraq’s payments for Iranian electricity supplies to be carried out through third-party banks, with qualification that funds be used for humanitarian purposes (see Iraq).

June 2023

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

Reports of indirect talks between U.S. and Iran suggested diplomatic momentum toward limited de-escalation understanding, while Tehran avoided censure at nuclear watchdog meeting.

U.S.-Iran engagement raised spectre of de-escalation. Iranian and U.S. officials mid-month confirmed in media reports that sides had held indirect talks in May in Oman likely aimed at de-escalatory understandings that could see prisoner swap and measure of nuclear restraint by Tehran in return for release of some frozen assets for humanitarian transactions; U.S. 13 June confirmed recent allocation of $2.7bn from Iraq-held Iranian funds but otherwise tempered expectations of major breakthrough.

Tehran avoided censure at nuclear watchdog meeting. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi 5 June told IAEA’s Board of Governors that Iran’s enriched uranium stockpiles had “risen by over a quarter in three months”; Grossi said Tehran had “provided a possible explanation” for presence of depleted uranium particles at ‘Marivan’” – one of three locations subject to agency probe into past nuclear activities at undeclared sites – and declared “the agency has no further questions” regarding origin of particles enriched up to 83.7 per cent. Consequently, U.S. and/or European allies did not introduce censure motion but nonetheless criticised Iran. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei 11 June backed engagement on safeguards with IAEA while emphasising that nuclear “infrastructures [should] remain untouched”.

West continued steady stream of sanctions. U.S. 1 June sanctioned six individuals/entities linked to “terrorist plots” targeting “former U.S. government officials”, among others. U.S. next day designated four persons/entities linked to “censorship of the Internet”. U.S. Treasury Department 6 June blacklisted 13 persons and entities linked to “Iran's ballistic missile development”. EU 23 June sanctioned four Iranian entities linked to “manufacturing of UAVs and their provision to Russia” and 26 June designated seven Iranian officials over human rights concerns.

Maritime tensions persisted amid Iranian-Saudi normalisation. U.S. and UK naval forces 4 June reported “Iranian fast attack boats harassed [a] commercial ship” transiting Strait of Hormuz. Iran 6 June reopened its embassy in Saudi Arabia (see Saudi Arabia). FM Amirabdollahian 19-22 June discussed idea of “regional cooperation forum” touring Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and UAE.

May 2023

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

Govt sought to avoid censure vote ahead of nuclear watchdog meeting in June, while maritime tensions continued and West condemned govt’s support for Russia and execution of dual national.

Iran claimed progress on nuclear concerns ahead of key meeting in June. With International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Board of Governors meeting set for 5 June, Iranian media 30 May reported progress between govt and UN watchdog over safeguards concerns; IAEA did not confirm claims, while its forthcoming quarterly report could determine prospect of U.S. and European states introducing censure resolution at meeting. Israeli military’s chief of staff 23 May said Iran’s uranium enrichment is more advanced than ever, warning “there are possible negative developments on the horizon that could lead to action”. Iran 25 May successfully test-launched ballistic missile with potential 2,000km range.

Maritime tensions persisted. After U.S. late April reported that Iran’s navy had seized Marshall Islands-flagged tanker in Gulf of Oman, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps 3 May detained another tanker sailing from Dubai to Fujairah in Strait of Hormuz. U.S. 12 May announced that it would increase presence of ships and aircraft with allies in Strait of Hormuz, adding that its Fifth Fleet would deepen cooperation with two parallel maritime security initiatives operating in area.

U.S. condemned Iran’s support for Russia. U.S. 15 May indicated that it would “continue to impose costs” on those involved in sending equipment to Russia and 19 May sanctioned four entities linked to Iran-Russia maritime transfers. Canada 3 May designated ten Iranian individuals and entities, four connected to drone manufacturer and six over human rights concerns. European Union (EU) 22 May adopted eighth set of designations over human rights violations since anti-govt protests began in Sept 2022.

Iran executed dual national and three citizens, sparking condemnation. Authorities 6 May executed Habib Chaab, dual Swedish-Iranian national who had been sentenced to death on charges of involvement with separatist group, triggering condemnation from Sweden, U.S. and EU. Authorities 19 May executed three men sentenced to death in connection with their alleged involvement in killing three security personnel in Isfahan city during nationwide protests in Nov 2022.

April 2023

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

Efforts to revive nuclear accord showed no sign of progress, Tehran and Arab Gulf states continued normalisation, and hostilities in Levant and underscored looming conflict risks.

Holding pattern continued on nuclear talks as Western sanctions increased. Diplomatic track in April showed little sign of progress. U.S., E3 and other G7 members 18 April noted “a diplomatic solution remains our preferred solution” and described 2015 deal as “useful reference”, which underscored that 2015 agreement is in all likelihood not revivable. Meanwhile, West continued issuing Iran-related sanctions. U.S. 19 April blacklisted seven individuals and entities allegedly part of “a sanctions evasion network” supporting Iran’s drone and military programmes. In parallel to EU and UK sanctions, U.S. 24 April designated five Iranian authorities and entities, in addition to imposing visa restrictions on eleven more officials, over human rights violations. Washington 27 April sanctioned five Iranian officials and entity for “wrongful detention of U.S. nationals”.

Momentum continued toward de-escalation in Gulf. Following 10 March Saudi-Iranian normalisation deal, sides continued to improve ties. Tehran 4 April announced appointment of Reza Ameri, foreign ministry veteran, as ambassador to United Arab Emirates – filling position that had been vacant since 2016. FM Hossein Amirabdollahian 6 April met his Saudi counterpart in Chinese capital Beijing for first bilateral meeting in seven years; sides underscored intention to reopen diplomatic facilities by 9 May and subsequently exchanged visits by delegations.

Escalation in Levant and tensions at sea spotlighted risks. Following deadly hostilities in north-eastern Syria between U.S. forces and Iran-aligned groups late March, Tehran 3 April claimed that it had “never been involved, directly or indirectly, in any attacks against the U.S. military forces in Syria and Iraq”. Meanwhile, Israeli military 2 April downed alleged Iranian drone from Syria and early April launched multiple strikes in Syria, amid multi-front escalation (see Israel-Palestine, Lebanon and Syria); hostilities underscore risk that region remains potential theatre for future multi-actor escalation involving Iran-backed forces. In maritime domain, Iran’s navy 27 April seized Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker in Gulf of Oman; U.S. reportedly had seized China-bound Iranian oil shipment.

March 2023

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

Engagement with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) forestalled international censure, govt and Saudi Arabia announced breakthrough normalisation deal, and tensions with U.S. flared in Syria.

Iran avoided censure at IAEA’s Board of Governors, Western sanctions mounted. Ahead of first Board of Governors meeting in 2023, IAEA chief Rafael Grossi 3-4 March visited capital Tehran for meetings with senior officials and President Raisi amid heightening concerns over longstanding safeguards issues as well as recent discovery of uranium particles enriched to near-weapons grade and undeclared modifications at Fordow facility; visit produced joint statement on increased cooperation. U.S. and E3 (France, UK and Germany) did not introduce censure resolution during board meeting on 7 March, but underscored serious concern of Tehran’s nuclear activity. Meanwhile, U.S. 2 March expanded its sanctions against Iranian petroleum and petrochemical export companies. European Union 7 March sanctioned Iranian prison over human rights concerns. UK next day sanctioned govt institution The Headquarters for Enjoining Right and Forbidding Evil in Iran, as U.S. issued its tenth round of human rights-related sanctions since protests began in Sept.

Tehran and Riyadh announced breakthrough agreement. Following undisclosed talks in Chinese capital Beijing, Iran and Saudi Arabia 10 March announced deal to restore diplomatic relations seven years after they were severed, and following nearly two years of intermittent dialogue (see Saudi Arabia). Deal could mark constructive shift in de-escalating regional tensions, but may prove transitory unless Iran and West address nuclear standoff, hostages in Iran and Tehran’s military support for Russia.

Iran-U.S. tensions surged in Syria. Alleged Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-affiliated groups 23 March launched drone attack on base near Syria’s Hasakah city, killing U.S. contractor and injuring six U.S. troops; in retaliation, U.S. conducted airstrikes on alleged IRGC-affiliated groups, killing several militants (see Syria); President Biden asserted that “the U.S. does not … seek conflict with Iran” but would “forcefully” protect its people. Earlier, UK 2 March announced Royal Navy and U.S. 23 Feb interdicted vessel from Iran in Gulf of Oman carrying anti-tank guided missiles and medium-range ballistic missile components, likely intended for Huthis in Yemen.

February 2023

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

Coordinated U.S. and European efforts against govt’s crackdown and military cooperation with Russia continued apace, while nuclear standoff deepened and regional tensions remained elevated.

West continued censure amid shrinking appetite for engagement. U.S. 3 Feb sanctioned eight individuals involved with already-designated drone manufacturer as well as two Iranian navy vessels, 9 Feb targeted Iranian energy exports. New Zealand 15 Feb issued sanctions against eight persons and entities involved in drone production, and widened its travel ban against Iranian officials implicated in human rights abuses. European Union (EU) 20 Feb expanded its human rights designations by targeting additional 34 Iranian persons and entities; UK same day designated eight individuals. Marking 24 Feb anniversary of Ukraine war, UK sanctioned five individuals, U.S. announced export control measures and EU designated seven Iranian entities all related to concerns over drones. Canada 27 Feb sanctioned 12 Iranian individuals over human rights violations.

Nuclear standoff deepened ahead of nuclear watchdog meeting in March. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) 1 Feb expressed concern “that Iran implemented a substantial change in the design information of [Fordow Fuel enrichment plant] in relation to the production of high-enriched uranium without informing the Agency in advance”; Iran’s atomic energy chief maintained that there had been an error by IAEA’s inspectors. Adding to list of concerns, U.S. media 19 Feb revealed IAEA had detected uranium enriched to 84%; Iran’s atomic energy agency denied enriching over 60%. Senior IAEA officials 21 Feb visited Tehran for discussions; lack of progress before 6 March start of IAEA Board of Governors meeting could lead Western govts to introduce another censure resolution. CIA director 26 Feb assessed nuclear program expanding “at a worrisome pace”, though no indication of weaponisation.

Regional tensions remained elevated. After govt 1 Feb said early investigations in attack late Jan on Isfahan defence facility pointed to Israeli responsibility, reports 17 Feb emerged of apparent Iranian drone strike against commercial vessel linked to Israeli ownership week earlier; Israeli PM Netanyahu 19 Feb blamed Iran for attack and rocket fire against U.S. forces in north east Syria day earlier (see Syria).

January 2023

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

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.

December 2022

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

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.

November 2022

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

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).

October 2022

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

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.

September 2022

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

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 acknowledgeda 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 attacksIn 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.

August 2022

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

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.

July 2022

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

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.

June 2022

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

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.

May 2022

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

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.

April 2022

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

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%.

March 2022

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

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.

February 2022

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

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”.

January 2022

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

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.

December 2021

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

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).

November 2021

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

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”.

October 2021

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

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.

September 2021

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

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.

August 2021

Middle East & North Africa

Iran

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).

July 2021

Middle East & North Africa

Iran