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.
On 10 March, prodded by China, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations within two months, after seven years of severed ties. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts Dina Esfandiary and Anna Jacobs look at the emerging rapprochement.
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).
We can see a de-escalation in the regional layer of the [Saudi-Iranian] conflict. It is a multi-layered conflict, with domestic and regional causes, not just a proxy war
If it wasn't because of Mahsa Amini's tragic death, there would have been another trigger. There's just so much pent up frustration within the Iranian society.
These protests [in Iran] are primarily driven by a broadly shared sense of nationalism, not separatism.
The [Iranian] hardliners seem to differ only in how harsh a crackdown they seek. But there are no cracks in the edifice around the supreme leader.
The main risk is that if the theocracy [in Iran] proves incapable of reining in the protests, the Revolutionary Guards might push the clerics aside and take over.
As far as the U.S. and Europeans are concerned, Tehran’s positions on a couple of issues pretty much closed the door on JCPOA [Iran nuclear deal] negotiations in early Se...
This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood is joined by Ali Vaez, Crisis Group’s Iran director, to discuss the China-brokered Saudi-Iranian deal, Iran's evolving foreign relations and its fast advancing nuclear program.
The death of Mahsa Amini has outraged citizens throughout Iran, setting off a protest wave. If it wishes for genuine stability, rather than the mirage of social control, Tehran must stop responding with brute force and start addressing the grievances driving people into the streets.
As negotiations between the U.S. and Iran oscillate between conclusion and collapse, what can be done to prevent the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) from definitively sinking? In this Twitter Space, Ali Vaez, Crisis Group’s Iran Project Director, Naysan Rafati, our Iran Senior Analyst, and Ellie Geranmayeh, the Deputy Director of ECFR’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, tackle this question.
Though hope is fading, the U.S. and Iran may still be able to revitalise the 2015 accord on Tehran’s nuclear program. Should they falter, they should pursue more modest interim goals rather than allow the risk of confrontation to grow.
Repeated attacks on oil tankers have worsened Iran’s relations with the U.S. and Gulf states since 2019. Washington should rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal so Tehran can normalise its oil trade, while Western states should push for greater multilateral action to protect international shipping.
Negotiating parties are now within touching distance of reinstating the JCPOA, but a period of stasis threatens to undo the progress made. In this open letter, over 40 former top European officials urge the U.S. and Iranian leadership to see the negotiations through to a successful outcome.
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