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. triggered mechanism under UN Security Council Resolution 2231 endorsing 2015 nuclear deal to reimpose all pre-agreement UN sanctions on Iran, raising prospect that tensions could escalate in Sept. UN Security Council 14 Aug resoundingly rejected U.S. resolution aimed at indefinitely extending UN arms embargo on Iran set to expire in Oct; U.S. 20 Aug triggered “snapback” mechanism of Resolution 2231 to reinstate within 30 days all UN sanctions in place prior to Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at midnight GMT 20 September; all remaining JCPOA parties and majority of Security Council members disputed U.S.’s legal standing to invoke “snapback”, citing U.S. withdrawal from deal in 2018. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran 26 Aug announced “agreement on the resolution of the safeguards implementation issues specified by the IAEA”; deal facilitates IAEA access to two sites following months-long standoff. U.S. 14 Aug announced that it had seized Iranian petroleum of four tankers bound for Venezuela; in apparent attempt to retrieve seized fuel, Iranian security forces two days earlier had briefly boarded Liberian-flagged tanker near Strait of Hormuz. U.S. 19 Aug sanctioned two United Arab Emirates (UAE)-based companies and one UAE-based Iranian national for links to U.S. blacklisted Iranian airliner. Regional tensions with both U.S. and its allies remained high: Iran 7 Aug called on UN to hold U.S. accountable for intercepting Iranian airliner in Syrian airspace in July; Israel’s army chief of staff 7 Aug said Israel had “thwarted a squad sent by Iran” during 2 Aug incident at Israel-Syria border that prompted retaliatory airstrikes. President Rouhani 15 Aug described normalisation of Israel-UAE relations as “a big mistake”; in response to Rouhani’s “inflammatory” remarks, UAE next day summoned Iranian envoy to Abu Dhabi; Emirati coast guard 17 Aug opened fire on Iranian fishermen, killing two; Iran same day seized Emirati vessel for “illegally entering Iranian waters” and 18 Aug summoned UAE’s envoy to Tehran over fishermen’s killing. Atomic Energy Organization of Iran 23 Aug said July explosion at Natanz nuclear facility was result of “sabotage”. Guardian Council 24 Aug scheduled presidential elections for June 2021.
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.