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Iran and the P5+1: Solving the Nuclear Rubik’s Cube
Iran and the P5+1: Solving the Nuclear Rubik’s Cube
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Iran’s Ahvaz Attack Worsens Gulf Tensions
Iran’s Ahvaz Attack Worsens Gulf Tensions

Iran and the P5+1: Solving the Nuclear Rubik’s Cube

A comprehensive nuclear accord may be in reach if both sides – Iran and the Security Council permanent members plus Germany – show determination to settle on a technical agreement and isolate the deal from its complex regional context.

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Executive Summary

In a region of troubles, the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program stand out. The first-step agreement, signed in November 2013, broke a decade of futile diplomatic forays punctuated by mutual escalation. The product of a rare confluence of political calendars and actors, it set a framework for a balanced arms-control agreement that could form the basis of a comprehensive nuclear accord. But reasons for caution abound. It is easier to pause than to reverse the escalation pitting centrifuges against sanctions. Mistrust remains deep, time is short, and the process remains vulnerable to pressure from domestic and regional detractors. In bringing the sides together, the accord revealed the chasm that separates them. Success is possible only with political will to isolate the deal – at least for now – from its complex regional context. It will ultimately be sustainable only if the parties, building on its momentum, recognise that their rival’s legitimate interests need to be respected. But a far-reaching resolution of differences will be possible only after a relatively narrow, technical nuclear agreement.

Iran's Nuclear Crisis: A Real Breakthrough

Senior Analyst Ali Vaez explains the recent progress in nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. CRISIS GROUP

The main objective of the P5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany) is to constrain Iran’s nuclear program. In Geneva, where the agreement – officially known as the Joint Plan of Action – was signed, the group for the first time agreed to Iran maintaining some enrichment capacity. But it has demanded that Tehran significantly roll back its enrichment capabilities, close the bunkered enrichment facility in Fordow and heavy-water plant in Arak; and demonstrate the peaceful nature of its nuclear program by detailing past activities and allowing, for an extended period, intrusive monitoring. Fearing that it would be easier for Iran to reverse its nuclear concessions than for the West to renew its isolation, the group insists on retaining sanctions leverage, even through implementation of the final step of a comprehensive agreement.

Iran's Nuclear Crisis: How Sanctions Work

Senior Analyst Ali Vaez explains the real power behind sanctions. Crisis Group

Iran believes that the P5+1’s objective is to contain not simply its nuclear program, but also the Islamic Republic itself. It contends that it has been singled out, uniquely among signatories of the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), to prove a negative, that its nuclear program does not aim at weaponisation. Tehran insists on preserving a substantial part of its nuclear infrastructure, in view of the enormous cost it has paid for it. While willing to accept heightened verification measures in order to enable the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to establish the peaceful nature of its program, it insists that they be temporary and respectful of its national security requirements. It also demands significant and immediate Western reciprocation of any nuclear concession.

From these starting points, it would appear that the P5+1’s maximum – in terms of both what it considers a tolerable residual Iranian nuclear capability and the sanctions relief it is willing to provide – falls short of Iran’s minimum. Nevertheless, it is still possible to reach a comprehensive agreement on a limited nuclear program – though an uncomfortable one for sceptics like Saudi Arabia and Israel that object on principle to Iran retaining any enrichment capacity. Negotiators will not get far, however, by trying to define Iran’s “practical needs” for enriched uranium (an approach endorsed in Geneva), since needs are a matter of interpretation about which Iran and the P5+1 differ. Focusing on “breakout time” – the time required to enrich enough uranium for one weapon – will not stand them in better stead, as it is based on theoretical, unpredictable and plastic calculations.

Iran's Nuclear Crisis: The Way Forward

Senior Analyst Ali Vaez looks at the way forward in the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. SHOW MORE CRISIS GROUP

What is needed, rather, is a compromise that satisfies both sides’ irreducible, bottom-line requirements: for Iran a meaningful enrichment program, continued scientific advancement and tangible sanctions relief; and for the P5+1, a firewall between Iran’s civilian and potential military nuclear capabilities, airtight monitoring mechanisms and sufficient time and Iranian cooperation to establish trust in the exclusively peaceful nature of the country’s nuclear program. Such a solution would enable them to sell the deal at home and serve as a springboard for developing a different kind of relationship.

This report presents a blueprint for achieving that agreement. It is guided by four objectives: building a firewall between Iran’s civilian and potential military nuclear capabilities by constraining the most proliferation-prone aspects of its nuclear program; enhancing transparency by establishing rigorous monitoring and verification mechanisms; ensuring implementation and deterring non-compliance by establishing objective and compulsory monitoring and arbitration mechanisms, as well as by devising, in advance, potential responses to breaches by either party; and bolstering the parties’ incentives to remain faithful to the agreement by introducing positive inducements rather than purely negative ones.

A comprehensive agreement based on these principles should be implemented in three phases, the first of which would start with steps that clearly demonstrate the parties’ commitment to the process and provide them with immediate tangible benefits, while delaying the heavy lifting until their investment in the process is greater, the costs for withdrawing higher and at least some sceptics have bought into the process.

The basic elements of the approach include:

  • permitting Iran a contingency enrichment program that could be dialled up in the event of nuclear fuel denial, though constrained enough that any breakout could be promptly detected and, through a defined response, thwarted;
     
  • converting the heavy-water research reactor in Arak to diminish the amount of plutonium it produces;
     
  • transforming the bunkered facility in Fordow into a proliferation-resistant research and development centre;
     
  • introducing transparency measures that exceed Iran’s existing obligations but conform with its legitimate security and dignity concerns and that the P5+1 should acknowledge will be temporary;
     
  • providing Iran significant but reversible sanctions relief in the early stages of the comprehensive agreement, followed by escalating further relaxation, including open-ended suspension or termination of restrictions in accordance with progress on the nuclear front;
     
  • establishing positive incentives by strengthening trade ties, and increasing civilian nuclear and renewable energy cooperation between the parties; and
     
  • coordinating messages to reassure both sides’ regional allies and rivals, and to avoid inciting hardliners as leaders sell the agreement at home.

The detailed recommendations that follow lay out this path in 40 actions. It is a path that carries risks for both sides. There is no guarantee that Iran will remain faithful to its commitments after international attention shifts. Nor is there certainty that the U.S. Congress will accept the deal and provide the president with the necessary authority on sanctions.

These risks notwithstanding, the alternatives are less attractive. A series of partial, interim deals would lessen the chances of reaching a final agreement, fall short of satisfying either party and strengthen hardline critics. A return to the status quo ante, with each side ratcheting up its leverage in the hope of forcing the other to capitulate, would very possibly lay the tracks for a scenario in which Iran attains a nuclear bomb while sanctions cause it grave harm. Most dangerous would be a military strike, which could set back Iran’s nuclear march temporarily, but at the cost of spurring it to rush toward the ultimate deterrent, while retaliating in a variety of asymmetric or non-conventional ways, with unpredictable but certainly tragic regional ramifications.

If odds of the talks collapsing are high, the stakes of failure are higher. At the very least, a breakdown would reduce the possibility of success later, as it would erode trust and stiffen positions. The region and the world will be a safer place for a compromise that protects everyone’s core interests, contains Iran’s nuclear program and rehabilitates the country’s economy and international standing.

People gather in Ahvaz for the funeral of those killed during an attack on a military parade in the city, on 24 September, 2018. ATTA KENARE / AFP

Iran’s Ahvaz Attack Worsens Gulf Tensions

An attack on a military parade in Iran is raising tensions in an already volatile Gulf region. Four Crisis Group analysts give a 360-degree view of perspectives in Tehran, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Washington and warn that a single attack can trigger further escalation.

An attack on a military parade in the Iranian city of Ahvaz on 22 September, which killed 29 people, dangerously raised tensions in an already volatile Gulf region. Iran accused a local insurgent group (which claimed responsibility), but also pointed to what it said were the group’s enablers in the Gulf and in Washington. The U.S. State Department issued a muted condemnation while proceeding with its otherwise openly hostile rhetoric toward Tehran. And key Arab Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, stayed mostly silent, failing to condemn the attack or express sorrow for its victims. A tragedy can create opportunities for diplomacy and eventually a new accommodation, but instead, after Ahvaz, all sides are feeding the risk of further escalation.

One Shock Away from Conflagration
By Joost Hiltermann

Iran’s Strategic Patience Stretched to the Breaking Point
By Ali Vaez

More Gunfire Expected Without a New Accommodation in the Gulf
By Elizabeth Dickinson

No Change to Washington’s Confrontational Approach to Iran
By Daniel Schneiderman

I. One Shock Away from Conflagration

The attack on a military parade in Ahvaz comes at a moment of heightening tensions throughout the Middle East following the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in May. A local group called the Ahvaz National Resistance Front promptly claimed responsibility, as did the Islamic State. Iran lent credence to the Front’s claim, accusing the UK, the Netherlands and Denmark of harbouring members of the group and providing them with a media platform. But it also pointed a finger at unspecified Gulf states and the U.S. for sponsoring the attack. The truth may eventually out, but well before that a dangerous escalation could occur in the Gulf on the basis of suspicions alone.

Crisis Group on the Ground This section is contributed by Joost Hiltermann, Middle East and North Africa Program Director

While even the U.S. State Department issued a condemnation of the attack – albeit a muted one – despite the Trump administration’s strong animus toward the Iranian regime, Saudi Arabia remained silent. It may be reckoning that even an expression of sympathy would not absolve it in Iranian eyes, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has barely disguised his hostility toward Tehran. But condolences could help reduce tensions. Tehran is likely to interpret silence as a tacit admission of guilt and this could raise tensions when there is also an opportunity to lower them.

In withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Trump administration made clear that it deemed the nuclear deal not only inherently flawed but also insufficient in that it failed to cover Iran’s missile program and regional activism through the use of proxy militias. In this latter concern, it found allies in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Israel, which either had mixed views about, or openly opposed, the JCPOA but adamantly opposed any accommodation with Iran as a result of signing the deal. This partly explains enthusiasm with which they greeted an American president sensitive to their primary concerns and willing to counter Iran, at least rhetorically.

The situation in the Gulf therefore is increasingly fragile: one reckless move [...] could set the region aflame.

Like his predecessor, Trump appears wary of being drawn into a war in the region. At the same time, his regional allies are becoming impatient, seeing Iran’s hand in political struggles and violent conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere. They want U.S. help in pushing back Iran’s influence in the region because they cannot confront Iran’s missiles or militias alone and walk away unscathed. So far, they have benefitted from Tehran’s decision to ignore provocations while it tries to save the JCPOA by waiting out the Trump administration. Iran has remained restrained in response to repeated Israeli attacks on its assets and personnel in Syria and continued to abide by the nuclear deal despite Washington’s withdrawal. The notoriously volatile Strait of Hormuz has been calmer than even during the Obama administration after the signing of the JCPOA.

But Iran’s patience could wear thin. Attacks on the guardians of a regime born in the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), may be too much to bear for its hardliners, now likely itching for revenge. The situation in the Gulf therefore is increasingly fragile: one reckless move borne of overconfidence, a misread signal, or a misinterpreted or misattributed event could set the region aflame.

II. Iran’s Strategic Patience Stretched to the Breaking Point

Iran’s border provinces, where the majority of the country’s ethnic and sectarian minorities reside, have been historically restive – be it the Kurds in the west, Azeris in the north east, Arabs in the south west or Balochis in the south east. Like in other frontier provinces, the Ahvazis have legitimate grievances against the central government. Sitting on Iran’s vast oil and gas richness, Khuzestan province remains impoverished and underdeveloped. Discrimination against the region’s majority-Arab population and Sunni minorities dates to the establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty in the early twentieth century. Severe environmental degradation and relentless dust storms have transformed the province from a “wetland to a wasteland”. These issues have repeatedly stirred protests over the years, including most recently in July, with locals angry about a lack of access to clean water. These local problems have fuelled more radical separatist movements and are exploited by regional and extra-regional powers hostile to the Islamic Republic.

Crisis Group on the Ground This section is contributed by Ali Vaez, Project Director, Iran

The Ahvaz National Resistance Front is an umbrella organisation for several separatist groups, one of which, Nezal ( حركة النضال العربي لتحرير الأحواز or Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Al-Ahwaz ), launched a satellite TV channel seven months ago. It broadcasts a media campaign against the central government in Tehran, inviting the locals to resist its rule through sabotaging oil pipelines and destroying public and private property. The group’s increased activism in recent months points to new resources, which Iranian authorities allege are coming from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with encouragement from Washington.

Last year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman threatened that “we won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran”. Such declarations play into the Iranian narrative and fears. So does a 2017 memo by John Bolton, currently the U.S. national security advisor, that advocated “providing assistance” to Khuzestan Arabs and other minorities in Iran as a means of building pressure on the country and containing its regional influence. That neither Riyadh, Abu Dhabi or the White House condemned the attack in Ahvaz (the U.S. State Department did, however) further confirms Iran’s suspicions. These are compounded by commentary from prominent Emiratis that “moving the battle to the Iranian side is a declared option” and that attacks of this kind “will increase during the next phase”.

Regardless of who instigated it – if this wasn’t an independent operation by the Ahvaz National Resistance Front – the attack demonstrates Iran’s vulnerability to the same pathologies that have torn the region apart. Iranian grievances caused by internal mismanagement and shortsightedness could be exploited by regional actors and exacerbated by global powers, further deepening internal fault lines and fuelling tensions. Iran has been largely shielded from this plague so far; if that changes, regional turmoil will doubtless escalate further.

The attack demonstrates Iran’s vulnerability to the same pathologies that have torn the region apart.

The Ahvaz attack, however, could also play in the Iranian leaders’ favour. They have been warning for a while that the hostile administration in the U.S. is not targeting the Islamic Republic, but Iran as a polity. The discourse revolves around the concept of Iran’s “Syria-cisation” – an alleged ploy by the U.S. and its allies to fragment Iran along its ethnic and sectarian fault lines. Propagating a siege mentality could help change the subject domestically from complaints over mounting economic troubles to a nationalistic rallying around the flag to preserve the country’s territorial integrity, which requires a strong central government.

The attack could also play into the hands of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which despite a series of recent missteps (failing to foil ISIS’s twin strikes in Tehran last year, Israel’s January 2018 coup in removing the country’s nuclear secrets from the heart of the capital and now the targeting of the Ahvaz parade on the Iranian equivalent of Memorial Day in the U.S.) is likely to receive more government support to crack down on separatist groups and fix security breaches. It is also likely to have more manoeuvring space to flex its muscles in the region, either by pushing back against Iranian armed dissidents – as the recent missile attacks on the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran in Iraqi Kurdistan demonstrated – or imposing a cost on the U.S. and its allies by indirectly targeting their assets.

There will be tensions between the urge to retaliate and the imperative of sticking to Iran’s “strategic patience” strategy, which the leadership deems expedient for surviving a rough patch. Iran’s response ultimately depends on a broad range of elements, from dynamics within the region to what the remaining parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) can do to preserve some of its economic dividends for Tehran.

III. More Gunfire Expected Without a New Accommodation in the Gulf

The attack in Ahvaz is likely to ratchet up regional tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia while reinforcing widely held, if questionable, suspicions among many in Riyadh and its Gulf allies that the Iranian regime is on the verge of crumbling from within. Calmer actors on both sides would see this moment as a sign that détente between Riyadh and Tehran is more necessary than ever. More likely, however, the incident will embolden those in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Manama and Washington who argue for ever-stronger economic sanctions and more direct military pressure against Iran. To at least some of these hawks, the goal is not just to roll back Iran’s regional footprint but to encourage political change in Tehran.

Crisis Group on the Ground This section is contributed by Elizabeth Dickinson, Senior Analyst, Arabian Peninsula

There was a deafening silence from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies in the hours after the assault. Neither Riyadh, nor Abu Dhabi nor Manama issued statements. The Qatari and Kuwaiti foreign ministries decried the incident in statements that only further deepened splits within the Gulf Cooperation Council. Among Saudi grievances with Qatar is Doha’s warmer relationship with Tehran. (After the United Arab Emirates (UAE)’s chargé was summoned in Tehran the day after the attack, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted a denial of UAE support for the Ahvaz militants.)

Their silence is illustrative of an increasingly mainstream view in the Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini security apparatuses that the region’s ills all link to Iran. While not new, this reading has taken on a new intensity and urgency. Gulf powers sense a regional power vacuum and are engaged in a zero-sum competition to fill space. And unrest is moving ever closer to home, as Yemen’s Iranian-allied Huthi rebels fire ballistic missiles at the kingdom. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are also keen to keep the Trump administration’s attention focused on Iran, realising they may not always have a sympathetic ear in the White House.

There was a deafening silence from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies in the hours after the assault.

In this context, it is tempting for Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular to wish for and even anticipate regime change in Tehran. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi viewed economic protests in Iran earlier this year as the first crack in stability. To some Saudi and Emirati commentators, the Ahvaz attack is further evidence of an Islamic Republic whose citizens are losing patience. While they do not expect a full-scale popular uprising tomorrow, they see change on the horizon, provided sanctions can continue squeezing the Iranian economy.

Ahvaz is a particularly sensitive area for the Gulf’s relations with Iran. Home to an Arab minority as well as an important military base, Khuzestan province, of which Ahvaz is the capital, has long been a point of contention between them. It was the area of Iran which Iraqi forces invaded in 1980, hoping to be welcomed by the local population and push on from there to Tehran in a swift motion. Sunnis in the Gulf have often pointed to Iran’s treatment of its Arab Sunni minority (a subset of Khuzestan’s Arab population) as evidence of a sectarian regime that deserves censure. Solidarity with Iran’s Sunni community, in particular, is widespread in the Saudi media and society. Saudi and Emirati commentators pointed to Saturday’s attack as a sign that Iran’s beleaguered minorities are finally fed up.  Tehran is in fact to blame, they argue; Sunnis and other minorities have faced repression for too long. Ahvaz is the inevitable explosion from keeping the lid on a boiling kettle.

In the coming days, some in the Gulf expect that the events in Ahvaz could give Iran an “excuse” to play the regional victim – and offer justification for both a further crackdown on its Sunni minority and an attempt to retaliate in the region. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) “may try to do anything anywhere” in response to the attack, a Saudi analyst close to the government told Crisis Group. 

All this bodes terribly for Iran-Saudi tensions, and in turn, stability in the half-dozen countries where the two powers are competing by proxy. Saudi Arabia and Iran may trade insults, but in Yemen, Iraq and even distant theatres from Afghanistan to West Africa, their respective allies will trade gunfire until the two states find a new accommodation in the Gulf.

IV. No Change to Washington’s Confrontational Approach to Iran

Heading into the coming “high level week” of the UN General Assembly, any U.S. counterpart hoping to see a more dovish side of the U.S. when it comes to Iran policy is likely to be disappointed.

Crisis Group on the Ground This section is contributed by Daniel Schneiderman, Deputy U.S. Program Director

True, the State Department condemned the attack, saying: “We stand with the Iranian people against the scourge of radical Islamic terrorism and express our sympathy to them at this terrible time”. In another context, a statement like this might be seen as a subtle olive branch to Iran. After all, last year the administration blamed Iran’s government for a series of jihadist attacks that took place on a single day in June 2017 against Iran’s Parliament building and Khomeini’s tomb. That yesterday’s milder statement was made under the watch of the highly hawkish current National Security Adviser John Bolton (a lead architect of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran deal) rather than his more measured predecessor, H.R. McMaster, made the discrepancy all the more interesting.

Yet there is no reason to believe U.S. policy is diverting from its confrontational track. The U.S. has made clear since May (when it pulled out of the Iran deal) that it would pressure the Iranian regime to end its destabilising regional activities and reinstate a tough sanctions regime. It followed up by creating the Iran Action Group at State, led by new Special Representative Brian Hook, charged with implementing that policy. More than the Ahvaz statement, the correct bellwether of U.S. posture toward Iran is likely what U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on 21 September (in an interview with CNN’s Elise Labott): “We have told the Islamic Republic of Iran that using a proxy force to attack an American interest will not prevent us from responding against the prime actor”. This referred to the U.S. perception that Iranian proxy forces in Iraq are responsible for attacks against the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the Consulate in Basra – and was a none too subtle hint that such proxy action could trigger a direct U.S. attack on Iran itself.