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.
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
Crisis Group's Interactive Iran-U.S. Trigger List
Govt slowed escalation on nuclear front after E3 (France, Germany and UK) triggered 2015 nuclear deal’s dispute resolution mechanism mid-Jan and conservative coalition won a majority in parliamentary elections. President Rouhani assured EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell, who visited Tehran 3-4 Feb, that Iran would continue to comply with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring. IAEA 5 Feb assessed that Iran’s uranium production and enrichment was not at critical level. U.S. 9 Feb seized significant haul of weapons “of Iranian design and manufacture” in Arabian Sea. Following Iran’s failed satellite launch 9 Feb, U.S. Sec State Pompeo 11 Feb accused govt of using satellite launches to enhance ballistic missile technology; Iran next day rejected allegations. U.S. 13 Feb implemented 45-day sanctions waiver to allow Iraq to import gas from Iran; U.S. Senate same day passed war powers resolution aimed at preventing President Trump from engaging in military action against Iran without declaration of war or specific authorisation by Congress, Trump vowed to veto bill. Iran-Israel tensions persisted following reports by Syrian state media that missile attacks into Syria 6 and 13 Feb came from Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Israeli defence minister 8 Feb said U.S. and Israel had agreed they would counter Iran in Iraq and Syria respectively. Guardian Council 13 Feb published final list of 7,100 vetted candidates for 21 Feb parliamentary elections having disqualified over 8,000 including 75 sitting lawmakers. Rouhani 16 Feb said elections in 44 of 208 districts were not competitive and criticised mass disqualification of moderate candidates; U.S. 20 Feb sanctioned five Iranian officials for their roles in disqualifying candidates. Alliance of conservative candidates won most seats, enough to hold majority in 290-seat parliament. Turnout at 42.5% was lowest since 1979.
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.
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 sanctions] are a testament to this administration's doctrinal belief in the effectiveness of sanctions to bring Iran to its knees.
The Iranian leadership knows that if it curbs the [International Atomic Energy Agency’s] inspections, it will lose the support of all the remaining parties to the JCPOA.
The coronavirus has basically done what the Trump administration’s sanctions failed to do: effectively completely isolated Iran.
If you’re Iran right now, the tools you have in your arsenal are an ability to expand your nuclear arsenal, roil markets or threaten regional countries and the U.S. presence within them.
If past is prelude, engagement with Iran’s hardliners is much harder for the West. The new parliament is bound to adopt a much more militant approach to foreign and nuclear policies.
The [Iranian] government sees itself under siege from all sides right now and is not going to allow any protest to snowball into a nationwide movement.
Since 1979, Iran has been subjected to a steady stream of sanctions. Under the Trump administration, their depth and breadth have dramatically increased in the U.S. campaign of "maximum pressure". This interactive infographic illustrates all the major unilateral U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran since 2017 by year, type and location.
With the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, the U.S.-Iran standoff has shifted from attrition toward open conflict. Tehran will retaliate – the only question is how – prompting another response from Washington. Allies of both should intercede to stop the exchange from spinning out of control.
November’s protests show that the Islamic Republic is not as secure as it thinks. But neither, as their swift suppression demonstrates, is it as vulnerable as its foes hope. Iran should halt crackdowns and start serious reform, and Tehran and Washington should de-escalate tensions.
Eighteen months after Washington quit the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, Tehran is proceeding with staggered steps away from its own compliance. The deal is unravelling against the backdrop of high regional tensions. A de-escalation along the lines developed by France provides an off-ramp.
Crisis Group's hand-illustrated video draws out the story of rising tensions between Iran and the U.S.