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A Perilous Turning Point in the U.S.-Iran Confrontation
A Perilous Turning Point in the U.S.-Iran Confrontation

Iran Nuclear Talks: The Fog Recedes

When twelve months of intense negotiations between Iran and the P5+1/EU3+3 ended with yet another extension, sceptics saw this as confirmation that the talks are doomed. But it would be as grave a mistake to underestimate the real progress as to overstate the chances of ultimate success. A landmark agreement is still within reach if both sides adopt more flexible postures on enrichment capacity and sanctions relief.

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I. Overview

The failure of Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, also known as EU3+3) to reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement by their self-imposed 24 November deadline was no surprise. The process had been deadlocked for months over two key issues: the size of Iran’s enrichment program and sanctions relief. For want of a last-minute breakthrough, the parties agreed to a new seven-month extension, with the goal of reaching a political agreement by 1 March 2015 and a comprehensive agreement, including an implementation plan, by 1 July 2015. A landmark agreement can still be found if both sides adopt more flexible postures. As Crisis Group has previously written and here reiterates, they can do so without violating their core principles and interests.

Though many sceptics took the extension as confirmation that the entire process is doomed, the parties made considerable progress in Vienna and narrowed their differences on a multitude of issues over the past twelve months. Talks were slowed by the cumbersome multilateral framework and an ill-advised decision to jointly tackle political and technical questions, but as the deadline loomed, negotiators tweaked the process, increased the pace and seriousness of the talks, and affirmed a heightened spirit of dialogue and trust. While an agreement proved elusive, both sides expressed their core political requirements more clearly than before. As a result, never have negotiators had a better understanding of their counterparts’ positions and constraints.

While ultimate success is far from guaranteed, negotiations, in a little more than twelve months, have achieved more than years of escalation: the P5+1 has managed nearly to double both the tempo of inspections and Tehran’s nominal breakout time, the interval required to enrich enough fissile material for one weapon; Iran has pared back sanctions and started to restore its image by honouring its commitments under the November 2013 interim accord. Yet differences remain sharp and overcoming them will grow more difficult with time, as the voices of sceptics get louder. Iran’s redlines are two-fold: first, recognition of its right to industrial-scale enrichment and, secondly, that any irreversible concessions it makes will be met with commensurate steps on sanctions – specifically their termination, not just suspension. As for the P5+1, it insists on denying Iran a breakout time of any less than a year, as well as on maintaining the sanctions architecture – even if some are suspended – for the duration of the comprehensive agreement, since they are the group’s most effective leverage.

As difficult as forging an agreement will be, there is considerable value in having clarified what stands in the way. It would be as grave a mistake to underestimate how far the negotiators have come as it would be to overestimate their chances of success. Obstacles notwithstanding, there is a credible path to an agreement. It would require for Iran to postpone its plans for industrial-scale enrichment while the P5+1 countenances controlled growth of that program and clearly defines target dates for a phased lifting of sanctions.

Now that the fog has receded, the parties should move ahead quickly. The positive momentum will soon fade, and with it, the chances for a peaceful resolution of this protracted crisis.

Istanbul/Vienna/Brussels, 10 December 2014

Iranians in Tehran protest against the killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. air strike in Iraq. 3 January 2020. AFP/Fatemeh Bahrami

A Perilous Turning Point in the U.S.-Iran Confrontation

With the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, the U.S.-Iran standoff has shifted from attrition toward open conflict. Tehran will retaliate – the only question is how – prompting another response from Washington. Allies of both should intercede to stop the exchange from spinning out of control.

The killing by the U.S. of Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force, marks a dramatic turning point. Soleimani had been in Washington’s crosshairs for many years, and successive U.S. presidents could likely have ordered his assassination in the past. That they chose not to do so suggests that they worried the costs would outweigh the benefits. With his decision, President Donald Trump is making clear that he abides by a different calculus: that, given the vast power imbalance, Iran has far more to fear from war than does the U.S. The strike that killed the Iranian general along with others – notably Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a senior commander of the pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiite militia – was, in accordance with this view, meant as a deterrent to further Iranian attacks.

It is almost certain to be anything but. Iran may fear U.S. retaliation, but it fears projecting that fear even more. From its perspective, it cannot allow what it views as a declaration of war to remain unanswered. It will respond and now must decide whether its reaction will be direct or through the array of proxies and allied forces Soleimani helped build; immediate or deferred; in Iraq or elsewhere – in the Gulf, Syria or beyond. The U.S. presence in Iraq, already shaky after the 29 December strike that killed two dozen members of a pro-Iranian Iraqi militia, is now hanging by a thread; the Trump administration may decide to depart preemptively rather than be forced to leave on Baghdad’s orders. The truce in Yemen between Saudi Arabia and Iran-backed Huthi fighters also is in greater jeopardy. Watch in particular for Iran’s announcement of its next steps on the nuclear front, taken in response to Washington’s violation of the 2015 deal. A serious step on 6 January had been predicted; in all likelihood, it just got far more serious.

A U.S. president ... has just brought war one step closer ... many across the region will pay the price.

The U.S.-Iranian game has changed. Their rivalry for the most part played out as an attritional standoff: Washington laying siege to Iran’s economy in hopes that financial duress would lead either to its government’s capitulation to U.S. demands or to its ouster; and Tehran responding with actions that maintained a veneer of plausible deniability. Targeting Soleimani is liable to mark a shift from attrition toward open confrontation.

In short, a U.S. president who repeatedly claimed that he does not wish to drag the country into another Middle East war has just brought that war one step closer. And a U.S. administration that argues it killed the Iranian general in order to avert further attacks just made those attacks more likely. Iran will retaliate; the U.S. will avenge the retaliation; and many across the region will pay the price.

Crisis Group is in the business of policy recommendations aimed at averting conflict. It is also in the business of realism. Some kind of conflict is now all but guaranteed, facilitated no doubt by a series of Iranian actions of which Soleimani was a mastermind, but rooted in President Trump’s ill-advised and reckless decision to exit the nuclear deal and embark on a policy of “maximum pressure” that led, almost inexorably and certainly predictably, to today’s crisis. The outcome is all the more tragic because the contours of a solution have been apparent for months: a tactical détente whereby Iran fully restores its compliance with the nuclear deal, and ends its regional provocations, in return for a reprieve from the crushing impact of U.S. sanctions.

One can only hope that, with encouragement and pressure from the two sides’ respective allies, this perilous tit-for-tat will be relatively contained and of relatively short duration. That, after a few rounds of attack and counter-attack, Washington’s desire to avoid getting sucked into another Middle East war and Tehran’s interest in averting devastating U.S. strikes, will drive both toward de-escalation. One can only hope. The alternative is too horrific to contemplate.