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.
Crisis Group's Interactive Iran-U.S. Trigger List
Iran-U.S. tensions soared early Jan as U.S.’s killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani provoked Iran to strike U.S. military installations in Iraq, and in response to Iran’s further breach of nuclear deal, three European states triggered dispute resolution mechanism, which could potentially lead to deal’s collapse. In Iraq, U.S. drone strike at Baghdad airport 3 Jan killed Major General Soleimani, leader of Iran’s Quds Force, expeditionary wing of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC); strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, commander of Iran-backed Iraqi militia Kataib Hizbollah. Iranian missile strikes 7 Jan hit U.S. bases at Ain al-Assad and Erbil in Iraq but killed no personnel; Pentagon said 64 U.S. soldiers injured. Iran 5 Jan for fifth time breached Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by announcing it would no longer observe deal’s limits on number of centrifuges Iran may operate. In response, UK, France and Germany 14 Jan activated deal’s dispute resolution mechanism, which could eventually result in restoration of pre-JCPOA EU and UN sanctions on Iran. U.S. 30 Jan extended by 60 days four waivers for Iran civil nuclear cooperation projects and sanctioned Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) and its head. U.S. 10 Jan imposed further sanctions on Iran’s heavy industries and blacklisted over two dozen firms and ships linked to its metals trade; U.S. 17 Jan imposed sanctions against IRGC general for human rights violations during violent suppression of Nov 2019 protests. Hundreds of thousands joined Soleimani’s funeral procession in provincial capital Kerman 8 Jan, stampede left 56 dead. Anti-govt protests re-erupted nationwide when IRGC, after initial attempts to cover up its involvement, 11 Jan admitted that it had unintentionally shot down Ukrainian airliner near capital Tehran 8 Jan, killing all 176 civilian passengers. Authorities 12 Jan used live ammunition to disperse protesters in Tehran. Guardian Council 12 Jan published initial list of approved candidates for 21 Feb parliamentary elections; council approved 5,000 of 14,000 would-be candidates.
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.
The Trump administration believes that ratcheting up economic pressure on Iran will compel the Islamic Republic to curtail its disruptive Middle East policies. History suggests otherwise. Both Washington and Tehran should step off their current escalatory path.
Saudi Arabia has been forging links to Iraq since reopening its Baghdad embassy in 2016. Its adversary Iran has strong Iraqi ties. If Riyadh avoids antagonising Tehran, invests wisely and quiets anti-Shiite rhetoric, Iraq can be a bridge between the rival powers - not a battleground.
The [Iranian] government sees itself under siege from all sides right now and is not going to allow any protest to snowball into a nationwide movement.
The game will return to Iran’s comfort zone: indirect attacks against the United States and its allies in ways that would allow plausible deniability and minimal risks of reprisal.
There is no way that... Rouhani would meet with [Trump] who ordered Soleimani’s assassination. And without the pageantry of a summit, Trump seems uninterested in dealing with Tehran.
The outpouring of grief for Qassim Suleimani is the country’s first act of retaliation.
[The assassination of Iranian General Suleimani] is precisely the sort of deus ex machina the organization [ISIS] needed, to give it room to operate and to allow it to break out of its current marginality.
Netanyahu fears this incident lacks a broader U.S. strategy and would either merely escalate dynamics without restraining Iran’s nuclear program and regional activities.
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.
November’s protests show that the Islamic Republic is not as secure as it thinks. But neither, as their swift suppression demonstrates, is it as vulnerable as its foes hope. Iran should halt crackdowns and start serious reform, and Tehran and Washington should de-escalate tensions.
Eighteen months after Washington quit the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, Tehran is proceeding with staggered steps away from its own compliance. The deal is unravelling against the backdrop of high regional tensions. A de-escalation along the lines developed by France provides an off-ramp.
Crisis Group's hand-illustrated video draws out the story of rising tensions between Iran and the U.S.
Iran Briefing Notes, of which this is the last of a series of 15 that began on 20 June 2019, highlight and provide context for major events featured on International Crisis Group’s Iran-U.S. Trigger List. This infographic resource tracks key flashpoints between Iran, the U.S. and their respective allies in the Middle East.