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.
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.
Originally published in POMEPS Studies
Crisis Group's Interactive Iran-U.S. Trigger List
U.S. continued to expand its sanctions designations against Iran and Iran-linked targets and warned of reimposing pre-nuclear deal sanctions, while regional tensions with both U.S. and Israel persisted. President Rouhani 6 May said govt “will give a crushing response if the arms embargo on Tehran is extended” beyond Oct expiry date. U.S. special representative for Iran 13 May confirmed plans to reinstate all pre-Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action sanctions if UN Security Council votes against upcoming U.S. resolution to extend arms embargo; Chinese and Russian UN missions next day separately voiced opposition to planned resolution. U.S. govt 27 May announced termination in 60 days of sanctions waivers for civil nuclear projects but extended waiver for Bushehr plant by 90 days; Iran next day said decision “will not in practice have any effect on Iran’s work” while UK, France and Germany 30 May said they “deeply regret the U.S. decision”. U.S. govt imposed series of sanctions, including: 19 May on Chinese company Shanghai Saint Logistics Limited for acting as general sales assistant for U.S. blacklisted airline Mahan Air; 20 May on Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli over alleged role in human rights abuses during Nov 2019 anti-govt protests; and 27 May on two Iranian nuclear officials. Israeli military 9 May reportedly launched cyberattack on Iran’s largest port facility at Bandar Abbas in retaliation to alleged 24-25 April cyberattack on Israeli water infrastructure. Supreme Leader Khamenei 17 May insisted that “Americans cannot stay for long in Iraq or Syria, and they will be expelled”; outgoing Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett next day claimed Israeli airstrikes on Iranian-backed forces were forcing Iran to begin withdrawing from Syria (see also Israel and Syria). Tanker Fortune 25 May arrived in Venezuela; first of reported five tankers delivering gasoline from Iran. Authorities 16 May sentenced French-Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah to six years imprisonment on national security charges; French govt same day condemned arrest as politically motivated and called for Adelkhah’s release. New parliament inaugurated 27 May; Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf next day elected to speakership.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
U.S.-Iranian clashes have pushed the JCPOA to the brink of collapse. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to use their economic and diplomatic power to keep Iran in compliance with the JCPOA and prevent Iraq from being sucked further into the conflict.
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.