A decade of diplomacy, sanctions and nuclear brinkmanship involving Iran and the P5+1/E3+3 (the UN Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany), led to the 14 July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This enshrined a core compromise that Crisis Group had advocated since 2003: acceptance of a limited, tightly monitored uranium enrichment program in Iran in return for Iran’s reintegration into the global economy. Despite the JCPOA’s successful first years, tensions and risks of accidental confrontation are growing between the U.S. and Iran, as well as between Iran and U.S. regional allies. Through field research and high-level advocacy, Crisis Group focuses on preserving the JCPOA, and preventing regional tensions from boiling over and turning the nuclear accord into collateral damage.
A series of escalations in both word and deed have raised fears of U.S.-Iranian military confrontation, either direct or by proxy. It is urgent that cooler heads prevail – in European capitals as in Tehran and Washington – to head off the threat of a disastrous war.
Crisis Group's Interactive Iran-U.S. Trigger List
Tehran maintained focus on strengthening regional ties particularly with Iraq as U.S. stepped up “maximum pressure” campaign toward Iran. International Atomic Energy Agency 5 April reiterated assessment that Iran was complying with terms of 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Nevertheless, U.S. designated Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iranian security force primarily responsible for Iran’s regional policies, as Foreign Terrorist Organisation, effective 15 April; Iran promptly blacklisted U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), U.S.’s military command covering Middle East and Central Asia, and President Rouhani 9 April approved for now mostly symbolic installation of more advanced IR-6 centrifuges in Natanz. U.S. Sec State Pompeo 22 April said U.S. would not grant any more sanctions waivers allowing countries to import Iranian oil; current waivers due to expire 2 May. Iraqi PM Mahdi in Tehran 6 April met Supreme Leader Khamenei and Rouhani. Iranian FM Zarif 16 April met Syrian President Assad in Damascus, and visited Ankara 17 April. While in New York 23-28 April Zarif proposed swap of Iranians jailed in U.S. for U.S. detainees in Iran. Iran, Russia and Turkey held new round of talks on Syria in Nursultan, renamed capital of Kazakhstan (formerly Astana) 25-26 April, no significant outcome. In response to flooding that reportedly caused 80 deaths, foreign aid included donations from Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates; Pompeo 2 April expressed condolences to victims while blaming Tehran for mismanagement in urban planning and emergency preparedness; govt blamed U.S. sanctions for impeding humanitarian relief.
Remarkably, the Iran nuclear deal has survived the Trump administration’s withdrawal. Now it must weather 2019, its year of greatest peril, as mounting U.S. pressure tests Iranian patience. With Europe’s help, Tehran must keep sticking to the agreement in anticipation of sunnier times ahead.
The Trump administration believes that ratcheting up economic pressure on Iran will compel the Islamic Republic to curtail its disruptive Middle East policies. History suggests otherwise. Both Washington and Tehran should step off their current escalatory path.
Saudi Arabia has been forging links to Iraq since reopening its Baghdad embassy in 2016. Its adversary Iran has strong Iraqi ties. If Riyadh avoids antagonising Tehran, invests wisely and quiets anti-Shiite rhetoric, Iraq can be a bridge between the rival powers - not a battleground.
The U.S. is threatening to withdraw from the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program if no one “fixes” it by President Donald Trump’s deadline of 12 May. The danger of deeper Middle East turmoil is great. Europe should salvage the deal no matter what Trump decides.
Divergent views of Iran’s ambitions are driving proxy wars from Syria to Yemen. To stop disastrous direct confrontation, it is crucial to close the perception gap and that Iran and its adversaries take mutual steps toward de-escalating tensions.
Facts on the ground in Syria are defining the contours of the country’s political future and also the geography of a looming clash between Israel, Hizbollah and other Iran-allied militias. Russia should broker understandings to prevent a new front from opening.
Riyadh may not want war with Iran, but there are risks to this strategy of rhetorical confrontation.
[Iran has] plenty of options. The problem is, given that there are no off-ramps, and no channels of communication between [Iran and the U.S.], the risks of a confrontation quickly spiraling out of control are quite high.
My sense is that [Iran is] going to break out of some of the [JCPOA's] limits on research and development. It’s an escalation, but an incremental and reversible one.
The designation of the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] as a terrorist group actually has more impact in the countries neighbouring Iran than Iran itself.
The problem with this administration in the U.S. is that it is all about money and boots on the ground, but that is not how it works in the [Middle East]. It is all about relationships.
Washington's approach is systematic as well as binary: allies must be supported, rivals must be curbed. But how effective it is in bringing Iran back to the table on US terms still very much uncertain.
A New Trade Vehicle Could Preserve the Nuclear Deal’s Core Bargain
Originally published in Foreign Affairs
Originally published in Axios
The one thing Tehran would find more intolerable than the crushing impact of sanctions is raising the white flag because of them.
Originally published in The Atlantic
Responding to the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure”, Iran has announced it will no longer respect all the limits placed on its nuclear research activities by its 2015 deal with world powers. With Washington having renounced the deal, the remaining signatories should hasten to save it.
The Islamic Republic faces a mix of challenges and opportunities. While its rivalry with the United States and its allies in the Middle East is increasingly harsh, Tehran’s regional influence is unprecedented in recent history
Originally published in World Energy