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.
Naval incidents in the Gulf have spotlighted the danger that a U.S.-Iranian skirmish could blow up into war. The two sides have little ability to communicate at present. They should hasten to design a military-to-military channel to lower the chances of inadvertent conflagration.
Originally published in POMEPS Studies
Originally published in Foreign Policy
Crisis Group's Interactive Iran-U.S. Trigger List
Elevated tensions with the U.S. continued in Iraq and the Gulf, while govt remained in breach of 2015 nuclear deal although it did not intensify nuclear-related activities during month. President Trump 1 April tweeted that Iran and proxies plan to attack U.S troops or assets in Iraq, warning “Iran will pay a very heavy price”. Iranian naval forces 14 April boarded Hong Kong-flagged tanker in Sea of Oman and briefly detained vessel in Iranian waters. U.S. military next day said eleven Iranian ships “repeatedly conducted dangerous and harassing approaches” toward six U.S. vessels in international waters; Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) 19 April dismissed claims, accused U.S. forces of “illegal, unprofessional, dangerous and adventurist” manoeuvres. Trump 22 April tweeted that he has instructed U.S. navy to “destroy any and all Iranian gunboats that harass our ships”. IRGC 22 April launched military satellite Noor; U.S. 25 April urged extension of UN embargo and sanctions against missile program. U.S. 26 April extended by 30 days Iraq sanction waiver for Iranian electricity imports. Govt continued nuclear-related activities at same tempo as in March, and International Atomic Energy Agency continued inspections of nuclear facilities. Chief of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran 5 April announced intention to install new centrifuges at Natanz fuel enrichment plant. During 20 April meeting with Syrian President Assad in Damascus, FM Zarif criticised U.S. for maintaining sanctions on Iran and Syria throughout COVID-19 crisis. Govt continued to await official response from International Monetary Fund for March request for $5bn emergency loan to tackle COVID-19; U.S. Sec State Pompeo 14 April said Iran should not receive financial assistance “which will be used to fund its proxy wars”. President Rouhani 5 April announced gradual lifting of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions; 19 April extended furlough for prisoners temporarily released in March to 20 May.
COVID-19 is ravaging Iran, due to government mismanagement exacerbated by the effects of U.S. sanctions. Instead of pointing fingers at each other, and again risking heightened military confrontation, Tehran and Washington should pursue humanitarian diplomacy aimed at containing the virus and releasing detainees.
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.
Depriving Tehran from having access to the arms market will compel Iran to double down on its support for proxies and its ballistic missiles program.
The Iranians are keen on demonstrating to the U.S. that the COVID crisis has neither debilitated them nor has altered their strategic calculus.
[The Trump administration] think[s] that the timeline for bringing Iran to its knees has shortened because of the coronavirus.
[The sanctions] are a testament to this administration's doctrinal belief in the effectiveness of sanctions to bring Iran to its knees.
The Iranian leadership knows that if it curbs the [International Atomic Energy Agency’s] inspections, it will lose the support of all the remaining parties to the JCPOA.
The coronavirus has basically done what the Trump administration’s sanctions failed to do: effectively completely isolated Iran.
To help justify its coercive measures against the Islamic Republic, Washington often evokes Iranian women’s struggles for inclusion and equality. But evidence from today’s Iran shows that U.S. policies are instead contributing to holding women back.
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.
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.
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.