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Great Expectations: Iran’s New President and the Nuclear Talks
Great Expectations: Iran’s New President and the Nuclear Talks
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Iran Sanctions under the Trump Administration
Iran Sanctions under the Trump Administration

Great Expectations: Iran’s New President and the Nuclear Talks

In the midst of dispiriting events sweeping the region, Hassan Rouhani’s 4 August swearing in as Iran’s president offers a rare and welcome glimmer of hope.

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I. Overview

In a region that recently has produced virtually nothing but bad news, Hassan Rouhani’s 4 August swearing in as Iran’s president offers a rare and welcome glimmer of hope. There are still far more questions than answers: about the extent of his authority; his views on his country’s nuclear program, with which he long has been associated; and the West’s ability to display requisite flexibility and patience. But, although both sides can be expected to show caution, now is the time to put more ambitious proposals on the table, complement the multilateral talks with a bilateral U.S.-Iranian channel and expand the dialogue to encompass regional security issues.

Given his blunt criticism of the country’s trajectory, notably on the nuclear file, Rouhani’s election stunned almost all observers, and so one ought to be modest in offering retrospective interpretations of his victory. His promise of change arguably appealed to an electorate that traditionally has seized on presidential contests to try to turn the page; his more conservative rivals were deeply divided and burdened with former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s desultory record; and the leadership’s quest for renewed legitimacy after the hit suffered in the controversial 2009 elections possibly led it to accept the triumph of a strong critic. Too, one could speculate that Rouhani’s success ultimately serves Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s interests, helping both to restore domestic faith in elections, one of the Islamic Republic’s political linchpins, and to reduce international pressure at a time when sanctions are inflicting unprecedented economic pain.

Questions about how Iran got to this place are overshadowed, however, by speculation regarding where it might go from here. Some, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, see Rouhani as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”, the gentle façade of a regime whose nuclear ambitions have not changed one iota; others would like to view him as the saviour charged with extricating Iran from its predicament, agreeing to far-reaching nuclear concessions in exchange for commensurate sanctions relief. In this respect as well, a healthy dose of humility is required given the opaqueness of the Islamic Republic’s decision-making.

Several elements nonetheless can be of utility in seeking to make predictions. The first has to do with the nature of Iranian politics. Presidents are far from all-powerful, having to contend with myriad competing centres of authority and influence, overt and covert, of which the Supreme Leader is only the most obvious. Fundamentals have not changed: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei retains final say; friction between him and the president is all but inevitable; and factionalism will remain both a fact of life and a means of constraining Rouhani. At the same time, presidents are not mere figureheads; witness the differences in style and substance between Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami and Ahmadinejad.

Secondly, Rouhani is far from an unknown. He has been a fixture of the Islamic Republic since its beginnings, a consummate insider with a track record and voluminous writings. Those offer some clues regarding his preferred approach. He brought about the first and only nuclear agreement with the West, a significant achievement given the depths of mutual mistrust, yet he also openly justified the accord as allowing Iran to complete its nuclear infrastructure even while negotiating. He has bluntly criticised his successors, yet has focused more on their bluster and reckless negotiating style than on their ultimate goals. His negotiating experience also carries mixed messages: that he feels the West let him down, causing him to suffer bitter criticism at home, may well prompt him to greater caution. In particular, at a time when the U.S. and EU are intent on limiting the extent of Iran’s uranium enrichment program, Rouhani could be more inclined to offer concessions regarding that program’s transparency than its scope.

That suggests a third point. The change in presidents will usher in important changes in style and negotiating tactics but certainly will not bring about significant changes in Iran’s bottom line demands: recognition of its right to enrich and meaningful sanctions relief. A deal today is thus harder to imagine than when Rouhani last was in charge of the nuclear dossier. Positions have hardened; trust has diminished; the nuclear program has substantially advanced; and sanctions have proliferated. Western doubts about Rouhani’s ability to deliver are matched by Tehran’s scepticism that the U.S. in particular can accept a modus vivendi with the Islamic Republic or that President Barak Obama has the political muscle to lift sanctions.

Such misgivings are unavoidable but should not be paralysing. Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany) have become stale; now is as promising a time as is likely to occur to refresh them. This could be achieved in three interlocking ways: altering the substance of a possible deal, combining a confidence-building agreement on Iran’s 20 per cent enrichment with presentation of the contours of a possible nuclear endgame, as Crisis Group has proposed; modifying modalities of the negotiations by complementing multilateral discussions with confidential, bilateral U.S.-Iranian engagement; and expanding the scope of those talks to include regional security matters.

The promise embodied by Rouhani’s election can grow or quickly fizzle. As he takes office and comes face to face with myriad domestic and foreign challenges, it would be a good idea for the West to encourage him to move in the right direction.

Washington/Brussels, 13 August 2013

Iran Sanctions under the Trump Administration

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.

Click here to access Crisis Group's interactive on U.S. sanctions imposed (or reimposed) on Iran since 2017.

U.S. Sanctions from 2017 to Today

President Trump ended U.S. participation in the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran in May 2018, and promised to snap back U.S. nuclear sanctions, which were suspended in January 2016 after the agreement went into effect. Scores of international companies announced that they would end or suspend their operations in Iran even before U.S. sanctions were formally re-imposed. These came in two major tranches: an initial set of non-oil sanctions on 7 August 2018, and a second more significant batch on 5 November 2018 against over 700 persons and entities, including around 300 new targets. Since then, Washington has steadily added new designations against Iran and Iran-linked individuals and companies.

Our interactive illustrates all the individuals and entities so far designated under the major unilateral U.S. sanctions imposed (or re-imposed) on Iran since 2017 and breaks them down by year, type and location.

All Sanctions

All sanctions imposed on Iran under the Trump Administration categorised by year - 2017 in blue, 2018 in green, 2019 in red, and 2020 in yellow. 

Sanctions by Year

This graphic divides all sanctions imposed on Iran under the Trump Administration by year - 2017 in blue, 2018 in green, 2019 in red, and 2020 in yellow.

Sanctions Timeline

A timeline from February 2017 to January 2020, showing all sanctions imposed on Iran under the Trump Administration and the dates on which they were implemented.

Type of Designee

All sanctions imposed on Iran under the Trump Administration categorised by designee and year (2017 in blue, 2018 in green, 2019 in red, 2020 in yellow). Designees include individuals (left), entities (2nd from left), aircraft (2nd from right) and vessels (right) linked respectively to sanctioned Iranian airlines and shipping firms.

Kind of Sanctions

The following categories break down sanctions under the Trump administration according to whether they were new designations (left), designations reimposed after having been previously suspended (2nd from left), designations reimposed and designated under additional sanctions programs (“tags”[fn]The U.S. Department of the Treasury “tags” sanctions designation targets depending on the appropriate sanctions program(s). For example, the IRAN-HR tag refers to designees under Executive Order 13553 (2010) on human rights. Hide Footnote ) (2nd from right), or existing designations targeted under additional sanctions programs (right).


All sanctions imposed on Iran under the Trump administration categorised by whether they are an Iranian Individual/Iran-based Entity (left), or not (right), and the year the sanction was implemented (2017 in blue, 2018 in green, 2019 in red, and 2020 in yellow).

Sanctions Program

All Iran sanctions under the Trump Administration categorised by “tags” - terrorism, human rights, WMD Proliferation and IRGC - and the year the sanction was implemented (2017 in blue, 2018 in green, 2019 in red and 2020 in yellow).

Sanctions Map

A map showing the location of the entities (purple), individuals (orange), aircraft (green) and vessels (red) designated under the U.S. sanctions imposed (or re-imposed) on Iran since 2017.

Since 2017, the Trump administration has continuously tightened the noose of sanctions on Iran, targeting more than 80 per cent of the country’s economy. There can be little doubt that this “maximum pressure” policy is inflicting considerable economic harm on Iran. Economic growth that followed the lifting of sanctions in 2016 has given way to an inflationary recession. The Iranian currency has lost two-thirds of its value, and oil exports, which are a crucial source of government revenue, have dropped from 2.5 million barrels/day to less than 0.5 million barrels/day. Despite exemptions for humanitarian trade, human rights groups and international aid organisations operating in Iran report the adverse impact of sanctions in areas such as medical imports, emergency relief and refugee assistance programs.

To date, however, there is no sign that either Iran’s regional policies are shifting, or that its leaders are willing to submit to the Trump administration’s demands. In the absence of any visible shift in Tehran’s political calculus, Washington is presenting the sanctions’ impact by no metric other than their quantity and severity.