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.
Originally published in Arms Control Association
Crisis Group's Interactive Iran-U.S. Trigger List
Tehran continued to ramp up its nuclear activity and regional tensions stayed high as U.S. and Iran remained at odds over how to return to mutual compliance with 2015 nuclear deal. Efforts to jumpstart nuclear negotiations with U.S. fell flat as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei 21 March reaffirmed that Iran would return to its nuclear commitments only after effective lifting of sanctions. Iran continued to expand nuclear activity. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)Director General Rafael Grossi 1 March said Tehran was still not satisfactorily answering questions on safeguards concerns at four separate undeclared sites, visits to three of which had revealed man-made uranium particles. IAEA’s quarterly report 4 March revealed Tehran’s stockpile of enriched uranium stands at 14 times nuclear deal limit. IAEA 8 March confirmed operationalisation of new IR-2 centrifuge cascade at Natanz site – third such cascade, with another three in works – and cascade of IR-4s. Iran’s atomic energy organisation 19 March announced plan to “cold test” Arak nuclear reactor. Meanwhile, U.S. Biden administration 9 March unveiled first Iran-specific sanctions, designating two individuals identified as Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps interrogators for human rights abuses during 2019-2020 protests. U.S. National Intelligence Council 15 March issued report asserting that Iran conducted “multi-pronged covert influence campaign intended to undercut former President Trump’s re-election prospects” during 2020 elections. Regional tensions remained fraught. Iran’s UN envoy 14 March condemned U.S. 25 Feb strikes in Syria on sites U.S. said linked to “Iranian-backed militant groups”, denied Iranian involvement in attacks on U.S. interests in Iraq. U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley 17 March observed: “It’s not really helping the climate in the U.S. to have Iranian allies take shots at Americans in Iraq or elsewhere”. Following late Feb explosion on Israeli-owned ship in Gulf of Oman, for which Israel blamed Tehran, Israeli PM Netanyahu 1 March said: “We are striking at [Iran] all over the region”. Iranian cargo ship in Mediterranean Sea 10 March reportedly suffered explosion that Iranian shipping official 12 March called “terrorist attack”; incidents could signal maritime domain becoming new front where Israel and Iran engage in tit-for-tat attacks.
The 2015 nuclear deal enters 2021 clinging to life, having survived the Trump administration’s withdrawal and Iran’s breaches of its commitments. When the Biden administration takes office, Washington and Tehran should move quickly and in parallel to revive the agreement on its original terms.
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.
I think [the new Iran-China deal] will make Europe and the U.S. a little more nervous because it looks like Iran may have a way out of economic strangulation.
The [recent] U.S. [air strikes in Syria were] aimed at a relatively insignificant target in an area where Iran's hands are somewhat tied.
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.
Will the U.S. offer to roll back Trump-era sanctions in exchange for Iran complying with the JCPOA’s nuclear restrictions, and use the existing agreement as a foundation for follow-up negotiations?
Originally published in World Politics Review
This week on Hold Your Fire!, Naz Modirzadeh and Richard Atwood discuss the “maximum pressure” sanctions that the U.S. has imposed upon Iran and Venezuela. Their guests are Crisis Group’s experts on these two countries, Ali Vaez and Phil Gunson.
President-elect Joe Biden says the U.S. will rejoin the Iran nuclear deal if Tehran resumes full compliance. Iran says it will do so if Washington relaxes sanctions. Each side should use the framework that already exists rather than try to squeeze the other for concessions.