Iranian and U.S. leaders face domestic pressure to further harden their positions in negotiations to revive the faltering 2015 nuclear accord. Both parties should start a three-phase synchronised process to bring them back into compliance with their nuclear deal obligations before Iran’s June presidential elections.
Crisis Group's Interactive Iran-U.S. Trigger List
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.
The 2015 nuclear deal enters 2021 clinging to life, having survived the Trump administration’s withdrawal and Iran’s breaches of its commitments. When the Biden administration takes office, Washington and Tehran should move quickly and in parallel to revive the agreement on its original terms.
The Trump administration continues its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, now with an attempt to restore pre-2015 UN sanctions, a right reserved for signatories to the nuclear deal it abandoned. Other UN Security Council members should disregard this gambit and urge Tehran not to overreact.
Naval incidents in the Gulf have spotlighted the danger that a U.S.-Iranian skirmish could blow up into war. The two sides have little ability to communicate at present. They should hasten to design a military-to-military channel to lower the chances of inadvertent conflagration.
COVID-19 is ravaging Iran, due to government mismanagement exacerbated by the effects of U.S. sanctions. Instead of pointing fingers at each other, and again risking heightened military confrontation, Tehran and Washington should pursue humanitarian diplomacy aimed at containing the virus and releasing detainees.
Prospects for the 2015 nuclear deal’s survival are dimming, as Washington tightens its sanctions, Tehran loosens its compliance, U.S.-Iranian clashes pick up in intensity and European powers crack down on agreement breaches. Third-party mediation is likely required to stave off the accord’s demise.
Should U.S.-Iranian tensions escalate to a shooting war, Iraq would likely be the first battleground. Washington and Tehran should stop trying to drag Baghdad into their fight. The Iraqi government should redouble its efforts to remain neutral and safeguard the country’s post-ISIS recovery.
The fact is that everybody at the UN believes this (resolution) is just a prelude to a US effort to trigger snapback and sink the Iranian nuclear deal.
[The U.S. has done] a poor job concealing its intention to capitalize on the arms embargo expiration to dismantle [what remains of the nuclear deal].
Depriving Tehran from having access to the arms market will compel Iran to double down on its support for proxies and its ballistic missiles program.
The Iranians are keen on demonstrating to the U.S. that the COVID crisis has neither debilitated them nor has altered their strategic calculus.
[The Trump administration] think[s] that the timeline for bringing Iran to its knees has shortened because of the coronavirus.
[The sanctions] are a testament to this administration's doctrinal belief in the effectiveness of sanctions to bring Iran to its knees.
Will the U.S. offer to roll back Trump-era sanctions in exchange for Iran complying with the JCPOA’s nuclear restrictions, and use the existing agreement as a foundation for follow-up negotiations?
Originally published in World Politics Review
This week on Hold Your Fire!, Naz Modirzadeh and Richard Atwood discuss the “maximum pressure” sanctions that the U.S. has imposed upon Iran and Venezuela. Their guests are Crisis Group’s experts on these two countries, Ali Vaez and Phil Gunson.
President-elect Joe Biden says the U.S. will rejoin the Iran nuclear deal if Tehran resumes full compliance. Iran says it will do so if Washington relaxes sanctions. Each side should use the framework that already exists rather than try to squeeze the other for concessions.
In this week’s episode of Hold Your Fire!, Crisis Group’s Libya expert Claudia Gazzini explains the militia and foreign proxy rivalries that are tearing the country apart to our President Rob Malley and co-host Naz Modirzadeh, a Harvard professor of international law and armed conflict.