Originally published in World Politics Review
Originally published in Arms Control Association
Crisis Group's Interactive Iran-U.S. Trigger List
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).
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.
I think [the new Iran-China deal] will make Europe and the U.S. a little more nervous because it looks like Iran may have a way out of economic strangulation.
The [recent] U.S. [air strikes in Syria were] aimed at a relatively insignificant target in an area where Iran's hands are somewhat tied.
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.
Originally published in The New York Times
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?
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.