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.
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.
Nationwide protests continued as Revolutionary Guards attacked Iranian Kurdish groups in Iraq, while govt stepped up nuclear activity in response to international censure for its nuclear intransigence.
Nationwide protests continued into their third month. Protesters held commemoration ceremonies for those killed by security forces and events marking mid-Nov anniversary of 2019 protests, as security forces maintained heavy-handed crackdowns, with reports late month indicating greater coercive force in Kurdish-majority regions. Human rights groups mid-month estimated that fatalities to date may exceed 400, including 50 children; senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander 20 Nov indicated around 60 fatalities among security personnel. Authorities continued to blame unrest on foreign agitation: notably, IRGC 14, 20-21 and 22 Nov resumed cross-border missile and drone attacks into northern Iraq on Iranian Kurdish outfits, while bolstering military presence in border regions (see Iraq).
Tehran expanded nuclear activity in response to atomic watchdog’s censure vote. At International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s quarterly Board of Governors meeting, Director General Rafael Grossi 16 Nov shared “serious concern” over lack of progress in resolving safeguards concerns related to past activities at undeclared nuclear sites; board 17 Nov passed censure resolution deeming Iranian cooperation “essential and urgent”, as Russia and China voted against. In response, govt 22 Nov began enriching uranium to 60% as its fortified Fordow facility and promised to install more advanced centrifuges there and at Natanz site. Earlier, IAEA’s 10 Nov survey showed growing stockpile of 60% enriched uranium reached 62.3kg.
U.S. and its Western allies imposed sanctions. In sign of concerted diplomatic pressure, U.S. 16 Nov blacklisted half dozen employees of Iran’s state media and 23 Nov designated three officials over crackdown; European Union and UK 14 Nov sanctioned individuals and entities for govt crackdown and drone provision to Russia. U.S. 15 Nov sanctioned three Iranian entities implicated in drone transfer to Russia. UN Human Rights Council 24 Nov voted to establish investigation into human rights violations; foreign ministry 28 Nov rejected cooperation. U.S. 16 Nov said Iran “likely” behind attack on Liberian-flagged Israeli-owned tanker off Oman’s coast previous day. Saudi Arabia warned of Iranian attacks (see Saudi Arabia).
It is clear that in the emerging cold war between the U.S., on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other, the Iranians have clearly chosen their camp.
The protests [in Iran] transcend social sectarian boundaries, bringing together a much broader strata of Iranian society than we have seen in years.
The train has already left the station. No matter what this government [in Iran] gives, it probably won’t be enough to assuage protesters’ grievances at this point.
Russia and Iran are showing that they are not afraid to work together when it's in their interest.
The negotiations [on the Iran nuclear deal] in the past few weeks could be summarized as one step forward, one step back.
Those who have argued that no deal is better than the restored JCPOA have in practice unleashed Iran's nuclear program and failed to produce a better alternative.
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.
In this week’s Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood is joined by Crisis Group’s Iran expert Naysan Rafati and Venezuela expert Phil Gunson to discuss the Ukraine war’s global repercussions.
Iran is closer than ever to being able to develop a nuclear weapon. This timeline of the Iran nuclear deal explains how we got to this point by highlighting key flashpoints from the deal's implementation in 2016 to now.
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