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.
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.
Reports of indirect talks between U.S. and Iran suggested diplomatic momentum toward limited de-escalation understanding, while Tehran avoided censure at nuclear watchdog meeting.
U.S.-Iran engagement raised spectre of de-escalation. Iranian and U.S. officials mid-month confirmed in media reports that sides had held indirect talks in May in Oman likely aimed at de-escalatory understandings that could see prisoner swap and measure of nuclear restraint by Tehran in return for release of some frozen assets for humanitarian transactions; U.S. 13 June confirmed recent allocation of $2.7bn from Iraq-held Iranian funds but otherwise tempered expectations of major break-through.
Tehran avoided censure at nuclear watchdog meeting. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi 5 June told IAEA’s Board of Governors that Iran’s enriched uranium stockpiles had “risen by over a quarter in three months”; Grossi said Tehran had “provided a possible explanation” for presence of depleted uranium particles at ‘Marivan’” – one of three locations subject to agency probe into past nuclear activities at undeclared sites – and declared “the agency has no further questions” regarding origin of particles enriched up to 83.7 per cent. Consequently, U.S. and/or European allies did not introduce censure motion but nonetheless criticised Iran. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei 11 June backed engagement on safe-guards with IAEA while emphasising that nuclear “infrastructures [should] remain untouched”.
West continued steady stream of sanctions. U.S. 1 June sanctioned six individuals/entities linked to “terrorist plots” targeting “former U.S. government officials”, among others. U.S. next day designated four persons/entities linked to “censorship of the Internet”. U.S. Treasury Department 6 June blacklisted 13 persons and entities linked to “Iran's ballistic missile development”. EU 23 June sanctioned four Iranian entities linked to “manufacturing of UAVs and their provision to Russia” and 26 June designated seven Iranian officials over human rights concerns.
Maritime tensions persisted amid Iranian-Saudi normalisation. U.S. and UK naval forces 4 June reported “Iranian fast attack boats harassed [a] commercial ship” transiting Strait of Hormuz. Iran 6 June reopened its embassy in Saudi Arabia (see Saudi Arabia). FM Amirabdollahian 19-22 June discussed idea of “regional cooperation forum” touring Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and UAE.
[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.
We can see a de-escalation in the regional layer of the [Saudi-Iranian] conflict. It is a multi-layered conflict, with domestic and regional causes, not just a proxy war
The Saudi-Iran deal is a clear sign that both countries are ready to turn the page after years of turmoil.
If it wasn't because of Mahsa Amini's tragic death, there would have been another trigger. There's just so much pent up frustration within the Iranian society.
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.
On 10 March, prodded by China, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations within two months, after seven years of severed ties. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts Dina Esfandiary and Anna Jacobs look at the emerging rapprochement.
This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood is joined by Ali Vaez, Crisis Group’s Iran director, to discuss the China-brokered Saudi-Iranian deal, Iran's evolving foreign relations and its fast advancing nuclear program.
The death of Mahsa Amini has outraged citizens throughout Iran, setting off a protest wave. If it wishes for genuine stability, rather than the mirage of social control, Tehran must stop responding with brute force and start addressing the grievances driving people into the streets.
As negotiations between the U.S. and Iran oscillate between conclusion and collapse, what can be done to prevent the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) from definitively sinking? In this Twitter Space, Ali Vaez, Crisis Group’s Iran Project Director, Naysan Rafati, our Iran Senior Analyst, and Ellie Geranmayeh, the Deputy Director of ECFR’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, tackle this question.
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