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.
Tehran warned of regional conflagration if Israel expands its military campaign in Gaza, while EU and UK maintained sanctions due to be lifted under 2015 deal, triggering Iran’s ire.
Hamas-Israel war placed spotlight on Iran’s role and future intentions. Following outbreak of war between Hamas and Israel on 7 Oct (see Israel-Palestine), Tehran endorsed Hamas’s actions and warned of regional conflict should situation in Israel-Palestine escalate, while accusing U.S. of “managing” Israel’s assault against Gaza. U.S. and Israeli officials during Oct noted extensive support Iran has provided Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad over years, although U.S. President Biden 12 Oct asserted “no evidence” so far that Tehran had foreknowledge of attack. U.S. 18 and 27 Oct imposed two sets of Hamas-related sanctions; latter included Tehran-based “liaison between Hamas and the Iranian govt” and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officials said to help train Hamas and other groups. Against backdrop of looming Israeli ground offensive into Gaza, frequent deadly exchanges occurred along Israel-Lebanon border (see Lebanon), in addition to more than 25 drone and rocket attacks by Iran-backed proxies against U.S. forces in region (see Iraq and Syria); in retaliation, U.S. 26 Oct struck Syrian sites used by “IRGC and affiliated group”. U.S. and allies warned Iran of dangers of regional escalation publicly, privately and by significant U.S. military deployments to region. In case of expanded Israeli ground incursion into Gaza, Iran could support or prod its proxies to escalate attacks against Israel and U.S. in calibrated manner, raising risks of miscalculation and tensions spinning out of control.
EU and UK retained sanctions set to be lifted under 2015 deal. EU and UK 17-18 Oct confirmed they would keep in place non-proliferation sanctions due to expire as part of 2015 nuclear deal’s “Transition Day”, citing Iran’s non-compliance with agreement. Iran 18 Oct labelled decision “unilateral, illegal and politically unjustifiable”. U.S., EU, UK alongside dozens of other states 18 Oct asserted “it is imperative that all States continue to take steps to counter Iran’s destabilising ballistic missile-related activities”. In parallel, U.S. unveiled sanctions against 26 persons, entities and vessel linked to ballistic missile and UAV programs.
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.
Lowering the temperature with Iran is a smart way to lower tensions across the region and mitigate some of the proxy battles surrounding Saudi Arabia.
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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