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 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.
Originally published in World Politics Review
Crisis Group's Interactive Iran-U.S. Trigger List
Parliament passed law mandating further steps away from 2015 nuclear deal, while U.S. continued to roll out unilateral sanctions. In response to killing of senior Iranian nuclear scientist in Nov, parliament 2 Dec approved law described as “strategic action to lift sanctions” mandating govt to immediately expand uranium enrichment rates to 20 per cent – major increase from current 4.5 per cent and on par with pre-nuclear deal levels – and suspend enhanced International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access if sanctions relief fails to materialise by Feb 2021; President Rouhani same day said legislation is “detrimental to the process of diplomatic activities”. UK, France and Germany 7 Dec expressed “great concern” over envisioned steps and denounced Iranian moves to deploy advanced centrifuges at Natanz facility in violation of nuclear deal. After U.S. President-elect Biden 1 Dec expressed willingness to rapidly re-enter nuclear deal once in office, Rouhani 14 Dec remarked “if the P5+1 returns to all its commitments, we will immediately return to all our commitments”. Joint Commission of nuclear deal 16 Dec met at political director level and 21 Dec at ministerial level; joint statement underscored “commitment to preserve the agreement” and noted “prospect of a return of the U.S.” to deal. Iran 31 Dec informed IAEA of intent to enrich at 20 per cent at Fordow facility. Meanwhile, U.S. administration throughout month continued to expand unilateral sanctions designations, including: 8 Dec sanctioning Tehran’s envoy to Huthis in Yemen; 14 Dec designating two Iranian intelligence officials implicated in 2007 disappearance of U.S. citizen; and 16 Dec sanctioning five companies and one individual for involvement in Iranian energy exports. Following 20 Dec rocket attack against embassy in Iraq’s capital Baghdad blamed on “Iranian-backed rogue militia group”, U.S. President Trump 23 Dec warned U.S. would “hold Iran responsible” if U.S. citizen killed; U.S. dispatched B-52 bombers to Persian Gulf and submarine to Middle-East region ahead of first anniversary on 3 Jan of U.S. killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. Govt 12 Dec executed Ruhollah Zam, manager of popular social media platform critical of govt during 2017 protests, prompting international condemnation.
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.
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
Conservatives won big in Iran’s February legislative election. Disqualification of rivals, low turnout and coordination among factions may portend their victory in the 2021 presidential contest as well. Should an opportunity arise to reduce U.S.-Iranian tensions between now and then, it should be seized.