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.
Terrible as the Gaza war’s toll has already been, it would get worse if sustained fighting were to erupt between the U.S. and Iran or its Middle East allies. Crisis Group experts Brian Finucane, Lahib Higel, Naysan Rafati and Ali Vaez lay out the dangers.
Hostilities between Iran-backed groups and U.S. forces across region underscored risk of escalation amid Israel’s onslaught in Gaza, while UN’s nuclear watchdog voiced concern over Tehran’s nuclear activities.
Tit-for-tat attacks between Iran-backed groups and U.S. continued across region. String of attacks since mid-Oct attributed to Iran-linked factions against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria continued during Nov amid Israel’s onslaught in Gaza (see Israel-Palestine), further eroding relative quiet stemming from informal diplomatic understandings between Tehran and Washington; as of 29 Nov, U.S. tallied approximately 74 incidents and around five dozen casualties, though pace of attacks fell as Gaza truce took effect late Nov. Notably, U.S. 8 and 12 Nov launched retaliatory airstrikes in eastern Syria against facilities allegedly linked to Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) (see Syria), and 20-21 Nov launched first deadly retaliatory strikes on Iran-backed targets in Iraq (see Iraq). FM Hossein Amir-Abdollahian 15 Nov maintained perpetrators were making “own decisions”; attacks seem intended to dissuade Israel from deepening campaign in Gaza and to signal to Washington risks of association with Israel but any attack claiming significant casualties could trigger escalatory spiral. Meanwhile, Iranian officials sought to push for Israel’s diplomatic isolation, including during President Raisi’s attendance at summits 11 Nov (see Saudi Arabia).
Concerns over Iran’s uranium enrichment resurged. International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) quarterly report 15 Nov showed further growth of Iran’s enriched uranium stockpiles and continued impasse over safeguards concerns and transparency; Iran has amassed total enriched uranium stockpile of almost 4.5 tonnes, including 6.7kg enriched to 60%, closest to weapons grade. IAEA at 22 Nov board meeting reiterated criticism of Iran’s 16 Sept decision to bar top inspectors and reported no progress in investigations into past activities at undeclared sites.
U.S. sanctioned Iran-affiliated militias and military financial networks. Washington and UK 14 Nov blacklisted Gaza- and Lebanon-based entities linked to Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas. U.S. 17 Nov sanctioned six individuals linked to Kata’ib Hizbollah militia in Iraq and another group linked to IRGC. U.S. 29 Nov designated more than twenty persons/entities part of “financial facilitation networks” benefitting Iranian military.
There is a limit to how far Iran and Saudi Arabia can go in de-escalating tensions between themselves if the entire region is ablaze because of the war in Gaza.
For nearly four decades, Iran’s forward defense policy has protected its own soil against foreign attacks. The conflict in Gaza is [now] testing the limits of that policy...
The Iranians seem reluctant to give away most of their leverage to restore the nuclear deal not knowing who the next U.S. president will be.
Saudi-Iran rapprochement is still in its early phases, and it’s still very unclear how the two sides will address their many points of friction.
[US President Joe] Biden is in an election cycle, and the types of sanctions relief Iran is seeking won’t pass muster with the Congress.
Many experts still assume that whoever is in the White House will guide Saudi policy on Iran, but that simply isn’t true today.
This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard is joined by Crisis Group’s Iran Project Director Ali Vaez, to discuss how Iran sees the Gaza war, the danger of a region-wide confrontation and Tehran’s nuclear calculations.
Washington and Tehran have reached an accord bringing U.S. hostages home from Iran and unfreezing Iranian assets. The agreement has much to recommend it, despite what critics say.
Episodes of unrest in Iran often unfold similarly: the government nods to public concerns, but then resorts to repression, setting the stage for another confrontation between state and society. The pattern is clearest in peripheral provinces like Khuzestan, where a pressing grievance is water scarcity.
Tehran’s crackdown on anti-government protests and deepening military cooperation with Russia have put relations between Iran and Europe in a downward spiral. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2023 – Spring Update, Crisis Group urges the EU to reinvigorate its efforts to de-escalate tensions.
A Regional Agreement Could Succeed Where Washington Failed
On 10 March, Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to restore diplomatic relations as part of a Chinese-sponsored initiative that appears aimed at reducing tensions across the Middle East. Crisis Group experts offer a 360-degree view of the implications for the region’s many flashpoints.
Dr. Abdulaziz Sager, Founder of the Gulf Research Center and member of Crisis Group’s Board of Trustees, talks about the revival of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia in a deal brokered by China.
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