A decade of diplomacy, sanctions and nuclear brinkmanship involving Iran and the UN Security Council’s five permanent members (plus Germany) led to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This accord 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 that country’s reintegration into the global economy. Despite the JCPOA’s successful first years, the U.S. withdrew from the deal in 2018, putting it at risk of collapse while raising the danger of conflict between Tehran, Washington and their respective allies. Through field research and high-level advocacy, Crisis Group focuses on salvaging the JCPOA and preventing regional tensions from boiling over.
In mid-August, Washington notified the UN Security Council that it was launching a 30-day process to “snap back” UN sanctions against Iran. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts Richard Gowan, Ashish Pradhan and Naysan Rafati explain what this step implies for the 2015 nuclear agreement.
Crisis Group's Interactive Iran-U.S. Trigger List
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.
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.
Today’s standoff between the U.S. and Iran is reminiscent of tensions on the eve of World War I. A small incident could blow up into region-spanning conflict. Third-party mediation is urgently needed to begin de-escalation that could lead to renewing broader talks.
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.
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.
Originally published in The Interpreter
Washington and Tehran could use the public health emergency to show goodwill, dial down tensions while saving face, and avoid a dangerous confrontation.
Originally published in Foreign Policy
To help justify its coercive measures against the Islamic Republic, Washington often evokes Iranian women’s struggles for inclusion and equality. But evidence from today’s Iran shows that U.S. policies are instead contributing to holding women back.