Related Quarterly Updates

The growing regional rift between the Saudi-led Sunni axis, on the one hand, and Iran and its allies, on the other, put the Palestinians in an increasingly precarious position this quarter, placing a strain on their relationship with Tehran.

Early in the quarter, Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League targeted Iranian and Palestinian ally Hezbollah, designating it a terrorist organization (3/2 and 3/11, respectively). An Egyptian official clarified (3/6) that Cairo would bar entry to Hezbollah leaders, as well as to Palestinians from Gaza with connections to Hezbollah. In response, reps. of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the PA signed (3/8) a declaration in support of the Lebanese group, without, however, embracing Iranian policy. Earlier, Hamas had indicated (2/21) that it was ready for a reset in relations with Iran, and on 3/16 a Hamas source revealed that a delegation had met in secret with the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, which had urged Hamas to stay neutral in the Iran-Saudi conflict. The Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership, meanwhile, had a more public spat with Iran. On 2/24, Iran’s amb. to Lebanon announced that Tehran planned to offer financial compensation to Palestinian victims of Israeli violence (the equivalent to $7,000 would go to families of Palestinians killed in the recent habba and some $30,000 to those whose homes had been punitively demolished (see “The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict” and “Occupation Data and Trends” above). While the Palestinians initially welcomed the announcement, an Iranian official’s statement (2/27) that experience had shown the PA not to be “reliable”—leading Tehran to decide that it would “send the money in its own way.” Bristling at the criticism, the PA accused Iran of interference in internal Palestinian affairs. The 2 incidents—unrequited outreach from Hamas and explicit disregard for the PA—left the Palestinian factions in limbo between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Iran was largely uninvolved in the IsraeliPalestinian sphere this quarter. After an Islamic Jihad delegation’s visit to Tehran in 4/2016, Asharq Al Awsat reported (5/25) that Iran intended to resume supporting the group and end 2 years of strained relations. There were no follow-up reports this quarter indicating whether, or how, Iranian support for the group had resumed.

Meanwhile, in the context of the 1st anniversary of Iran’s nuclear agreement with the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, UK, U.S., and Germany), the Associated Press reported (7/18) on a leaked document connected to the deal, apparently the only relevant text that had not been made public. According to a diplomat involved in the leak, the document, depicted as an “add-on” rather than an explicit part of the deal, outlined a process by which Iran would be allowed to cut its nuclear breakout time to 6 mos., starting in 1/2027, by replacing its old centrifuges with thousands of newer models. Since the U.S.’s signature demand in the talks had been for Iran to have at least a 1-year breakout time (see JPS 45 [1]), the leaked document sparked renewed criticism by opponents of the deal, particularly U.S. congressional Republicans.

Even before U.S. pres. Trump took office on 1/20, his allies in Israel and the U.S. Congress were preparing for a major shift in U.S. policy on Iran, threatening to upend the fragile rapprochement established as a result of the P5+1’s (China, France, Russia, the UK, U.S., and Germany) 7/14/2015 nuclear deal with Iran (see JPS 45 [1]).

The U.S. Senate voted (12/1) unanimously to extend the Iran Sanctions Act for 10 years, sending the legislation to then Pres. Obama for his approval. Supporters of the move argued that this preserved U.S. ability to restore sanctions should Iran violate the 7/14 deal, although the Obama admin. found (12/1) that it was “not necessary.” Iranian pres. Hassan Rouhani forced the issue, however, saying Iran would (12/4)“firmly respond” if Obama did not veto the bill. In a procedural protest, Obama opted not to sign the bill, allowing it to become law (12/15). According to Russian and Iranian officials, Iran backed down after meeting (1/10) with reps. of the P5+1.

As Obama defended his signature foreign policy achievement, uncertainties grew over his successor’s position on Iran. On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly pledged to cancel the 7/14 deal in favor of a more aggressive posture toward Iran, but it was unclear if his allies concurred. The week after the election, a senior Israeli official said (11/ 17) that Israeli PM Netanyahu was working on a plan to expand U.S. sanctions against Iran. Netanyahu did not intend to push for the 7/14 deal to be scrapped, the official said, explaining that “the PM will argue, first and foremost, that the U.S. should work to diminish the partnership between Russia and Iran in the [Middle East].” Netanyahu himself told (12/11) 60 Minutes that he planned to suggest “various ways” that Trump could undo the agreement.

It was also unclear whether the incoming pres. could actually undo the deal. As Iran’s FM Mohammad Javad Zarif noted on 1/19, “It’s an international agreement,” meaning that the U.S. alone could not cancel it. Zarif also said, “We believe it’s in the interest of everybody to stick to the deal.” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini concurred (1/16), saying that the EU planned to stand by the deal regardless of Trump’s actions.

Trump gave supporters of the deal a boost when he asked Treasury Undersecy. Adam Szubin to stay on in his admin. to “ensure the continuity of the govt.,” according to incoming press secy. Spicer (1/19). Szubin was among high-ranking officials involved in the negotiations that led to the deal, and his continued tenure was interpreted as signaling that Trump intended to build his Iran policy around the deal instead of in place of it. The incoming pres. reinforced the impression when he pledged to “rigorously” enforce the deal in a phone call with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz on 1/29.

Meanwhile, the Iranian govt. conducted (1/29) an unsuccessful medium-range missile test. Although it had conducted several similar tests since the 7/14 deal, the Western press speculated that Iran was perhaps testing the waters of the new Trump era. In an attempt to halt the speculation, Iranian DM Hossein Dehghan declared (2/1) that the 1/29 operation “was in line with our ongoing [missile testing] program,” adding that Iran would continue carrying out planned production of “defense items meant for our national interests and objectives.” However, incoming National Security Advisor Michael Flynn said (2/1) that the U.S. would take “appropriate action” against Iranian efforts to “threaten U.S. friends and allies,” and Trump himself tweeted (2/2): “Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile. Should have been thankful for the terrible deal the U.S. made with them!” The Treasury Dept. then imposed (2/3) sanctions on 13 Iranian individuals and 12 entities allegedly involved in Iran’s missile program, and a Trump admin. official said (2/3) that more steps were to come. In response, Iran’s Foreign Ministry threatened (2/3) reciprocal actions in the form of “legal limitations for some American individuals and companies that have had a role in the creation and support of extreme terrorist groups in the region.”

As the quarter came to a close, the Trump admin.’s Iran plans remained unclear. Some admin. officials as well as congressional Republicans said the 7/14 deal would be upheld, but tensions ratcheted up when Iran test-fired (2/8) another a short-range Mersad missile. White House officials issued a statement indicating (2/8) that Trump was considering placing Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps on the list of designated foreign terror organizations, but there was nothing more on the matter by 2/15 at the quarter’s close.

Amid shifting regional dynamics, internal Iranian politics fluctuated throughout the quarter. Iranian pres. Hassan Rouhani was in the final year of his 4-year term, and the upcoming presidential elections were seen as a referendum on his reformist platform, including the 7/14/2015 nuclear deal reached with the P5+1. The new and more hostile U.S. admin. threatened to undermine Rouhani’s achievements and bolster his conservative rivals ahead of the 5/19 election.

At the height of campaign season in Iran, the U.S. imposed (3/24) new sanctions on 11 companies and individuals from China, North Korea, and the UAE for transferring technology to Iran that could allegedly be used to help its missile program. Rouhani responded in kind, imposing sanctions on 15 U.S. companies for alleged human rights violations and for cooperating with Israel, according to Iran’s state news agency IRNA on 3/26. A mo. later, the Trump admin. demonstrated a new willingness to abide by the nuclear deal, rather than undo it immediately, as Trump had promised on the campaign trail in 2016. In a letter addressed to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, U.S. secy. of state Tillerson confirmed (4/18) that Iran was compliant with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). However, Tillerson also expressed the Trump admin.’s concerns about Iran’s alleged sponsorship of terrorism, and indicated that the U.S. pres. had directed an “inter-agency” review of the deal to “evaluate whether suspension of sanctions . . . pursuant to the [deal] is vital to the national security interests of the U.S.” Trump claimed (4/20) that Iran was not adhering to the “spirit” of the deal: “I can tell you that, and we’re analyzing it very, very carefully, and we’ll have something to say about it in the not too distant future.”

As the quarter came to a close, the Trump admin. had nothing more to say about the nuclear deal, and Rouhani was poised to win the presidential race. On 5/15, fellow reformist and chief opponent of Rouhani, Mostafa Hashemitaba, endorsed the Iranian president’s candidacy, pledging to “vote for the current president to help [extend] this govt.’s constructive approach” (IRNA, 5/15).

Iranian pres. Hassan Rouhani was elected to a second term on 5/19, winning 58.6% of the vote in what many saw as a referendum on his reformist platform and Iran’s 7/14/2015 nuclear deal with the P5+1 (the U.S., UK, China, Russia, France, and Germany). Before and after the election, however, Trump put the deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), under increasing scrutiny, straining U.S.-Iranian relations and reversing the diplomatic advances made by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Instead of abandoning the JCPOA, as he promised on many occasions during his 2016 campaign, Trump put forth a new, contradictory posture, imposing new sanctions on Iran while affirming Tehran’s compliance with the JCPOA. On 5/17, the Trump admin. formally extended the U.S. sanctions relief provided under the deal and, at the same time, the Treasury Dept. announced new sanctions on 2 senior Iranian defense officials, an Iranian company, a Chinese individual, and 3 Chinese companies for allegedly supporting Iran’s ballistic missile program. An Iranian spokesperson denounced (5/17) the new sanctions, argued that they undermined the JCPOA, and said Iran would “continue its missile program with power and authority.”

This pattern repeated later in the quarter. A day after Tillerson certified (7/17) to Congress, for a 2d time, that although Iran was “unquestionably in default of the spirit” of the JCPOA, it was abiding by the terms of the deal (see JPS 46 [4] for his 1st formal certification), the Treasury Dept. again announced (7/18) new sanctions, this time targeting 18 Iranian individuals and groups allegedly involved in the ballistic missile program. According to the Associated Press (7/17), the Trump admin.’s position reflected internal disagreements. Trump himself was eager to declare Iran in breach of the JCPOA and reimpose sanctions, but his aides reportedly convinced him to stick with the agreement and increase pressure on Iran in other ways. At the same time, senior admin. officials said (7/17) that it was highly unlikely that Trump would recertify Iran’s compliance when the next deadline came up in 10/2017. According to senior admin. officials on 7/27, Trump wanted to push for inspections at certain Iranian military sites, which Tehran would likely refuse, thereby giving the U.S. grounds to abandon the deal and blame Iran. U.S. officials reportedly informed their European counterparts that they should prepare to reopen talks with Iran as well (New York Times, 7/30).

Meanwhile, hard-liners in both Iran and the U.S. prepared new initiatives that threatened to undermine the deal even before Trump had a chance to abandon it. After the 7/18 announcement of new U.S. sanctions, 211 of the 290 mbrs. of Iran’s parliament backed the outline of a bill addressing “adventurist and terrorist” U.S. actions in the Middle East by increasing the funding for the IRGC and the ballistic missile program. In the same vein, Rouhani said (7/19) Tehran would respond to the new sanctions “appropriately,” although he did not elaborate. In the U.S., the House of Representatives (7/25) and the Senate (7/27) overwhelmingly passed a bill directing the president to impose new sanctions against Iran’s ballistic missile program, the sale of arms or related technical assistance to Iran, and the IRGC (see H.R. 3364 of 7/24/2017 at for details). Trump signed the bill into law on 8/2.

The same day the Senate was passing the sanctions bill, Iranian forces conducted (7/27) a test launch of a satellite-carrying rocket. The U.S. Treasury promptly announced (7/28) new sanctions on 6 Iranian entities involved in the launch, all subsidiaries of the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group, allegedly “central” to Iran’s ballistic missile program. A spokesperson for Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded by saying (7/29) that Tehran would continue full-tilt with its missile program despite the sanctions and the “hostile, reprehensible, and unacceptable” U.S. legislative measure. On 8/13 Iran’s parliament passed its own bill increasing funding for the IRGC and the ballistic missile program with each program slated to receive approximately $260 m. in new funding.

Rebuilding Relations with Hamas

Iran was a key patron of Hamas until 2011, when the relationship fell apart over the civil war in Syria. Now, with the Saudi-led bloc boycotting Qatar for its support for Hamas, the group renewed efforts courting the support of its former allies in Tehran. According to the Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat on 5/30, representatives of Hamas and Iran had agreed to resume diplomatic relations, including Iranian financial support, during talks in Lebanon earlier in the mo. In a key concession, the Iranians reportedly gave up their demand for Hamas to publicly declare its support for Iran against Saudi Arabia. Later in the quarter, Iranian FM Mohammad Javad Zarif welcomed (8/7) a delegation of Hamas officials to Tehran. “[Iran is] ready to put aside all disagreements for the sake of supporting Palestine and the Palestinian people as well as the unity of the Muslim world,” he said. In a statement, Hamas said that the visit “opened a new page in bilateral relations with Iran aimed at confronting the common enemy and supporting Palestine.” No further details of their meeting were made available.

After mos. of prevarication on the fate of the 7/14/2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Trump took his first major step to abandon the Iran nuclear deal this quarter. The Iranian govt., for its part, continued to fulfill its obligations under the JCPOA while exploring new strategies to counter Trump’s saber rattling.

Under U.S. law passed during the negotiations to the JCPOA, the president was required to certify to Congress every 3 mos. that Iran was upholding its commitments. Not doing so would trigger a 60-day congressional review period, during which lawmakers would have to decide whether or not to reimpose sanctions on Iran, a move with the potential to significantly increase tensions in the Middle East and internationally. (Despite Trump’s frequent promises on the campaign trail in 2016 to dismantle the deal, U.S. secy. of state Rex Tillerson made the required certifications to Congress on 4/18 and 7/17—see JPS 46 [4] and 47 [1]). As the quarter opened, however, Trump was increasingly dissatisfied with his admin.’s approach and it remained unclear how he would play his hand ahead of the next certification deadline on 10/15.

In the opening weeks of the quarter, Trump and his deputies tested out some new lines of attack to undermine the JCPOA. Ahead of a meeting with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials on 8/23, U.S. amb. to the UN Nikki Haley said (8/22) that the Trump admin. was interested in inspections being carried out at specific Iranian military sites. “There were already issues in those locations, so are they including that in what they look at to make sure that those issues no longer remain?” she said. No details of the 8/23 meeting were made public, but an Iranian spokesperson dismissed U.S. “dreams” of increased inspections on 8/29: “We will not accept anything outside [the JCPOA] from the Americans—especially visits to military sites.”

A few weeks later, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano again verified (9/11) that Iran was adhering to the JCPOA, and Reuters reported (9/12) that Trump was considering a new, more aggressive strategy for dealing with Iran. Defense Secy. James Mattis, Tillerson, and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster reportedly formulated a package of measures, including plans to counter alleged Iranian cyberattacks, as well as Iran’s support for so-called terrorist groups, and purported nuclear proliferation, and presented it to the pres. on 9/8. Trump deflected and revisited the “waive and slap” approach he had used several times earlier in 2017. On 9/14, his admin. extended the suspension of nuclearrelated sanctions on Iran in compliance with the JCPOA, and had the Treasury Dept. announce (9/14) new sanctions on 11 individuals and other entities alleged to be supporting the IRGC, or cyberattacks against the U.S.

While Trump deliberated, Netanyahu reportedly presented a different proposal during a meeting with the U.S. pres. on the sidelines of the UNGA on 9/18. While details were not made public, Netanyahu had said in Buenos Aires on 9/12, “Our position is straightforward. This is a bad deal. Either fix it or cancel it.” Netanyahu found particularly problematic the JCPOA’s sunset clause, which he said (9/17) would “soon” allow Tehran access to “uranium enrichment on an industrial scale for an arsenal of atom bombs.” Three days after the Netanyahu-Trump meeting, Tillerson said (9/20) that the U.S. pres. had come to a decision about the 10/15 certification deadline.

With the U.S. on a certain, yet undisclosed, path, the Iranians opted for a show of force. In his address to the UNGA, Pres. Hassan Rouhani called (9/20) Trump’s rhetoric “ignorant, absurd, and hateful” and said it would be a “great pity” if the JCPOA was “destroyed by rogue newcomers to the world of politics.” Two days later, in a speech at a military parade, Rouhani pledged to strengthen Iran’s ballistic missile program. “We will increase our military power as a deterrent,” he said, as Iranian forces were showing off (9/22) a new ballistic missile with a purported range of 2,000 km, far enough to reach Israel. The next day, the Iranian press reported that Iranian forces had conducted a successful test firing of the missile. In response, Israeli DM Lieberman called (9/23) the test a “provocation and a slap in the face for the U.S. and its allies,” and Trump tweeted (9/23), “Iran just test-fired a Ballistic Missile capable of reaching Israel. They are also working with North Korea. Not much of an agreement we have!”

After the Washington Post reported (10/5) that Trump was finally planning to “decertify” the deal, there were signs that Tehran was interested in de-escalating the situation. According to Western and Iranian officials, the Iranian govt. was open to talks on its ballistic missile program (Reuters, 10/6). “During their meeting on the sidelines of the UNGA last month, Iran told members of the [international community] that it could discuss the missile program to remove concerns,” an Iranian official said. A former U.S. Defense Dept. official said, “Iran has put feelers out saying it is willing to discuss its ballistic missile program and is using contacts . . . officials who were ‘holdovers’ from the Obama admin.” Later, an Iranian spokesperson dismissed (10/6) the story and insisted the missile program was “nonnegotiable.”

The following week, after the IAEA’s Amano again confirmed (10/9) that Iran was complying with the JCPOA and UK PM Theresa May implored (10/9) Trump to defend it, Trump announced (10/13) that he would not certify the deal by 10/15, triggering the abovementioned congressional review period. “I am directing my admin. to work closely with Congress and our allies to address the deal’s many serious flaws so that the Iranian regime can never threaten the world with nuclear weapons,” he said. Trump also announced (10/13) “tough” new sanctions on the IRGC and urged U.S. allies to “join us in taking strong actions against Iran’s dangerous behavior, including sanctions outside the [JCPOA] that target their ballistic missile program.”

Congress was largely occupied by other issues through the end of the quarter, but a high-profile debate over the future of the JCPOA was expected before the end of the 60-day review period. Meanwhile, Rouhani threatened (10/13) to expand Iran’s ballistic missile program. Netanyahu said (10/15) that Trump’s decision presented an opportunity to “fix” the JCPOA. May, Macron, and German chancellor Angela Merkel issued a statement saying that they “stand committed” to the JCPOA (10/13). And finally, the IAEA published (11/13) its quarterly assessment of Iranian adherence to the JCPOA, finding again that Tehran remained in compliance.

Rebuilding Relations with Hamas

Following talks on a potential rapprochement last quarter, leader of Hamas in Gaza Sinwar announced (8/23) that the group had restored relations with Iran. “The relationship today is developing and returning to what it was in the old days,” he said, referring to Iran’s patronage of Hamas before differences over the civil war in Syria caused their estrangement in 2011. Neither Sinwar nor Iranian officials offered any details on the nature of Iranian support for Hamas. Later in the quarter, after Israel conditioned its participation in any new negotiations with the Palestinians on Hamas giving up its ties with Iran (see “The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict” above), a Hamas delegation arrived (10/20) in Iran. One Hamas delegate said (10/20) that the group hoped to increase cooperation with Tehran and to “secure Iranian financial and logistical support.”

Fueled by pent-up economic and political dissatisfaction, a wave of popular protests swept Iran at the end of 2017. After a few days of peaceful demonstrations, Iranian forces cracked down, leading to deadly clashes in several cities and providing a new source of tension between the Iranian government and the United States.

The first mass protests began on 12/28 in Mashhad, a city of 2 million and a strong base of support for presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi in the 5/2017 election won by current incumbent Hassan Rouhani. While defending the predominantly young protesters’ rights to demonstrate peacefully, Rouhani called on them to avoid violence, and argued that the unrest was about aging elites and their hold on power as much as it was about the sluggish economy. “It would be a misrepresentation and also an insult to the Iranian people to say they only had economic demands,” Rouhani was reported as saying (Reuters, 1/8), adding that people also had “political and social demands.” At the same time, he oversaw an expansive crackdown. By 1/1, some 450 protesters had been arrested in Tehran alone. Within a week, Iranian forces had violently dispersed demonstrations in more than eighty cities, leading to the deaths of at least 22 people.

The protests were immediately used by both U.S. president Trump and Israeli prime minister Netanyahu to skewer Iran. In a tweet on 12/31, Trump thundered, “Iran, the Number One State of Sponsored Terror with numerous violations of Human Rights occurring on an hourly basis, has now closed down the Internet so that peaceful demonstrators cannot communicate. Not good!” Netanyahu, for his part, praised the “heroic” protesters. “Iran’s cruel regime wastes tens of billions of dollars spreading hate,” he said in a YouTube video uploaded on 1/1. “This money could have built schools and hospitals. No wonder mothers and fathers are marching in the streets.”

Days later, as the protests were winding down, U.S. ambassador to the UN Haley called a meeting of the UNSC to discuss the protests. Russian diplomats opposed the effort, but allowed the meeting to proceed. The Chinese and several nonpermanent members of the UNSC expressed similar anti-interventionist reservations, and the UNSC ultimately took no action. “Majority [of the UNSC] emphasized the need to fully implement the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action of 7/14/2015 known as the Iran nuclear deal] and to refrain from interfering in internal affairs of others. Another F[oreign] P[olicy] blunder for the Trump administration,” tweeted Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (1/6).

JCPOA under Threat

After announcing (10/13) that he would no longer certify that Iran was upholding its commitments under the JCPOA (see JPS 47 [2]), Trump took another step to undermine the agreement this quarter. His efforts exacerbated tensions between the United States and Iran and drove a wedge between the United States and its allies, except for Israel.

On 1/4, the U.S. Department of the Treasury imposed sanctions on five entities allegedly involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program, and eight days later Trump announced (1/12) that he was extending the JCPOA-mandated waivers on nuclear-related sanctions against Iran one last time. This final waiver, he said, would give the United States time to negotiate with its European allies a “follow-on” agreement before the next deadline for extending sanctions relief, in 120 days. “In the absence of such an agreement, the U.S. will not again waive sanctions in order to stay in the Iran nuclear deal,” he said. “And if at any time I judge that such an agreement is not within reach, I will withdraw from the deal immediately.” Trump reportedly wanted the new agreement to address his long-standing complaints about Iran’s ballistic missile program and human rights record, and make permanent the deal’s limitations on Iranian uranium enrichment. At the same time, the Treasury announced (1/12) more new sanctions, targeting fourteen Iranian individuals, including Iran’s chief justice, Sadeq Larijani.

The Iranian government, which international regulators have consistently found to be in compliance with the JCPOA, was predictably upset. Zarif accused (1/12) the U.S. president of making a “desperate attempt” to undermine a “solid” deal, and the Foreign Ministry stated (1/13) that Tehran would not accept any amendments to the JCPOA “now or in the future” or allow any other issues, such as the ballistic missile program, to be built into the deal. A senior Iranian official confirmed (1/13) that Tehran intended to continue work on its ballistic missile program, despite Trump’s threats and sanctions.

The reaction from the three European states needed for Trump’s “follow-on” strategy to work—Germany, France, and the United Kingdom—was mixed. The three, along with Russia, China, and the United States, comprise the so-called P5+1, the international group that negotiated the JCPOA with Iran in the first place. Their consent to a follow-on deal and their willingness to reimpose sanctions were deemed necessary leverage for Trump to get Iran back to the negotiating table. Prior to Trump’s 1/12 announcement, UK prime minister Theresa May had urged the U.S. president to stick to the deal. A German spokesperson said (1/12) that Berlin would “continue to campaign for the full implementation of the nuclear agreement” and consult with Paris and London on a “common way forward.” Macron called Trump reportedly hours after the U.S. president’s announcement, and urged “the strict application of the deal and the importance of all the signatories to respect it” (BBC, 1/13).

By the end of the quarter, however, it appeared that the three European allies were at least engaging on the issue. Following a week-long stay in Warsaw, U.S. secretary of state Tillerson stated (1/27) that working groups comprising diplomats from all four countries had begun to meet to discuss “the scope of what we attempt to address and also how much we engage Iran on discussions to address these issues.” He also said that the working groups would identify “areas of greater cooperation [with] Europe to push back on Iran’s malign behavior” (Reuters, 1/27).

Despite personal pleas from European leaders, repeated threats of retribution from the Iranian government, and frequent assurances of Iranian compliance by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), U.S. president Trump announced (5/8) that he was pulling the United States out of the 7/14/2015 Iran nuclear deal. Fulfilling a campaign promise, he called the JCPOA a “great embarrassment to me as a citizen,” adding, “It is clear to me that we cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying, rotten structure of the current agreement.” A senior U.S. official said that in addition to reinstating all sanctions on Iran, Trump planned to impose new economic penalties, presumably in connection with Iran’s ballistic missile program and human rights record, both frequent subjects of his bellicose rhetoric.

Trump’s long-awaited decision followed months of politicking among the signatories of the agreement, with the three European parties—Germany, France, and the United Kingdom—scrambling to both preserve the deal and maintain their relationships with the belligerent new administration in Washington. Following Trump’s announcement last quarter that he intended to extend the JCPOAconnected waivers of U.S. sanctions only one last time and that he wanted to pursue a “follow-on” agreement instead to address the issues he saw in the JCPOA, British, French, and German diplomats engaged in talks to achieve such an agreement. Their U.S. interlocutors specifically wanted a deal that addressed “Iran’s development or testing [of] long-range missiles, ensures strong inspections, and fixes the flaws of the [JCPOA’s] ‘sunset clause,’” according to a diplomatic cable leaked to Reuters on 2/19.

Throughout the rest of the quarter, UK prime minister Theresa May, French president Emmanuel Macron, and German chancellor Angela Merkel each personally spoke with Trump on multiple occasions, urging him to stick with the JCPOA and increase pressure on Iran in other ways. Their deputies jointly lobbied for new EU sanctions on Iran in mid-3/2018, but they were unable to secure the necessary support from the rest of the bloc. In the lead-up to Trump’s next deadline to either waive sanctions again or abandon the deal (5/12), Macron, May, and Merkel conferred frequently with each other and Trump, but they failed to reach a compromise enticing enough for Trump to back down from his campaign promise. According to several unnamed sources, the German, French, and UK governments simultaneously began work on measures that would protect European business connections with Iran should the United States reapply sanctions (Reuters, 5/4).

On the other side of the deal, there were no indications that Iran was willing to compromise or negotiate a subsidiary or “follow-on” agreement of any kind. The only variables in the Iranian rhetoric were the scope and variety of response the United States and its allies could expect were they to allow the JCPOA to fail. On 3/16, Iranian deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi said that the European countries would be making a “big mistake” and that Iran would be forced to respond if they imposed new nonnuclear sanctions on Iran “in order to please the [U.S.] president.” A month later, on 4/21, the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said that Iran would “vigorously” resume uranium enrichment if the United States abandoned the deal. Other Iranian officials suggested that Iran could back out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which stipulates that no signatory can produce nuclear weapons. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, for his part, threatened (4/24) “serious consequences” to those who did not “live up to their commitments.”

In the days leading up to Trump’s decision, as European diplomats shuttled back and forth from meetings with Trump administration officials, Rouhani addressed the increasingly real possibility of the United States backing out of the JCPOA. Iran would likely continue meeting its obligations, he said, especially if Germany, France, and the United Kingdom could guarantee that they would not renew their own sanctions. “What we want for the deal is that it’s preserved and guaranteed by the nonAmericans,” he said (5/7). “Then the U.S. pullout will be okay.”

pullout will be okay.” The last major player in this process was Israeli prime minister Netanyahu, a longtime critic of the JCPOA. He campaigned throughout the quarter for Trump to either “fix or nix” the deal. His efforts culminated in a dramatic press conference at the headquarters of Israel’s Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on 4/30, during which he stood in front of a wall-sized screen and presented “new” evidence allegedly exposing Iranian lies about its nuclear program. A senior Israeli official later said that Netanyahu’s presentation was partially based on information derived from a trove of documents that Israeli spies smuggled out of Iran in 1/2018. While many analysts, and even the chair of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker (R-TN), said that Netanyahu presented “nothing new,” Trump praised (4/30) the presentation. “[It] showed I was 100 percent right.”

The IAEA declined (5/1) to address Netanyahu’s specific allegations and opted instead to reiterate its position that Iran’s nuclear program never went “beyond feasibility and scientific studies” after 2009. Typifying EU responses, the French Foreign Ministry put out a statement on 5/1, saying that the details Netanyahu presented should be “studied and evaluated,” but that they appeared to reinforce only the “pertinence” of the JCPOA, rather than a need to abandon it. “The inspection regime put in place by the IAEA thanks to the deal is one of the most exhaustive and the most robust in the history of nuclear non-proliferation,” the statement affirmed. In the wake of his presentation, Netanyahu shifted his position slightly. Rather than saying Trump was “about to nix” or “rip up” the JCPOA, he started saying that the deal was “in [Trump’s] hands.” Israeli diplomatic sources said that the prime minister did not want to be seen as interfering or applying any pressure on Trump in the lead-up to his 5/12 deadline (Haaretz, 5/2).

Trump’s announcement came at the end of the quarter, so it was unclear what new longterm strategies the major players would adopt. In the immediate aftermath, however, there was a burst of activity. A preemptive Israeli strike on Iranian forces in Syria prompted two days of cross-border violence (see “Syria” above). As that was playing out, Zarif tweeted Iran’s intentions to pursue a “diplomatic effort to examine whether remaining JCPOA participants can ensure its full benefits for Iran. Outcome will determine our response.” Meanwhile, U.S. treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin said (5/9) that Trump intended to impose new sanctions that would pressure Iran into accepting a tougher replacement agreement. May, Merkel, and Macron released a joint statement urging Iran to “continue to meet its own obligations under the deal” and pledging to meet their own commitments as well. China and Russia, the final two signatories to the JCPOA, also pledged to abide by the deal.

After U.S. president Trump announced (5/8) that he was pulling the U.S. out of the 7/14/2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, attention shifted to its three European signatories—the UK, France, and Germany. The remaining two signatories—Russia and China—were expected to maintain their postagreement trade ties with Iran, but the Europeans were in a more difficult position. It was unclear if the U.S. planned to impose secondary sanctions on European companies doing business with Iran, thereby rendering continued European adherence to the agreement costly, or if the Europeans were willing to accept sanctions in exchange for continued Iranian adherence. The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, put it differently after meeting with EU energy commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete in Tehran on 5/19: “The ball is in the court of the EU.”

Several European companies, however, were not willing to wait for the politicians to sort matters out, and a number of them, including France’s Total and the Dutch shipping firm Maersk, stated that they would likely pull out of Iran if the U.S. imposed sanctions. Access to the Iranian market, where inflation and unemployment were growing, was not worth risking in light of the much larger and more lucrative U.S. market, analysts explained. “For sure there are clear difficulties with sanctions,” Cañete said after meeting with Salehi on 5/19. “We will have to ask [the U.S.] for waivers, for carve-outs for the companies that make investments [in Iran].” The Iranian government was still in favor of maintaining the agreement, but according to FM Mohammad Javad Zarif (5/20), “European political support for the [agreement] is not sufficient.”

As the Trump administration was preparing to reimpose sanctions on Iran, the remaining signatories of the 7/14/2015 JCPOA convened at Iran’s request in Vienna on 5/25. “We are negotiating . . . to see if they can provide us with a package which can give Iran the benefits of sanctions lifting,” said Iran’s Deputy FM Abbas Araghchi (5/25). “The next step is to find guarantees for that package.” After that first round of talks, France, Germany, the UK, and the EU sent (6/6) a formal request to the U.S. requesting that European companies be exempted from any new sanctions. “As allies, we expect that the U.S. will refrain from taking action to harm Europe’s security interests,” the request read.

The Trump administration had other plans, however. According to a 6/18 report in Haaretz, the U.S. and Israel had formed a joint task force to help oversee and enforce sanctions on Iran. On 6/26, a senior U.S. State Department official said that the Trump administration expected global imports of Iranian oil to cease when the U.S. reimposed sanctions on Iran’s energy sector, set to go into effect on 11/4/2018. Although most of the rhetoric from the Trump administration was consistent with that position, another senior State Department official speculated (7/2) that some exceptions might be made. “We are prepared to work with countries that are reducing their imports on a case-by-case basis,” the official said (7/2), reportedly in an effort to ease fluctuations in the international oil market. “Our policy is to get to zero [imports of Iranian oil] as soon as possible.”

Following several days of talks in Vienna, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani deemed (7/5) the latest European offer of economic incentives insufficient. The world’s third-largest shipping company, CMA CGM, then announced (7/7) that it was halting service to Iran in direct response to the threat of U.S. sanctions, and U.S. president Trump saw an opening to reengage. “I know they’re having a lot of problems and their economy is collapsing,” Trump said at a press conference in Brussels on 7/12. “But I will tell you this—at a certain point they’re going to call me and they’re going to say, ‘let’s make a deal.’ And we’ll make a deal.” Rouhani then called (7/22) on Trump to adopt less aggressive policies toward Iran and alluded to the possibility of armed conflict. In response, Trump tweeted (7/22), “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE U.S. AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”

As Trump and other U.S. officials vacillated between threats and offers to negotiate, the U.S. reimposed (8/7) sanctions on Iran, excluding the energy sector. The move worsened relations between the U.S. and its European allies and increased the pressure on negotiators at the European-Iranian talks in Vienna. “These are the most biting sanctions ever imposed,” Trump tweeted (8/7).“In [11/2018] they ratchet up to yet another level. Anyone doing business with Iran will NOT be doing business with the U.S. I am asking for WORLD PEACE, nothing less!” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, along with the FMs of the UK, France, and Germany, issued a statement (8/7) expressing “deep” regret over the reimposition of sanctions. “The remaining parties to the JCPOA have committed to work on, inter alia, the preservation and maintenance of effective financial channels with Iran, and the continuation of Iran’s export of oil and gas,” their statement read. “These efforts will be intensified and reviewed at ministerial level in the coming weeks.” Mogherini also encouraged European companies to continue doing business with Iran, despite the sanctions. “We are doing our best to keep Iran in the deal, to keep Iran benefiting from the economic benefits that the agreement brings to the people of Iran because we believe this is in the security interests of not only our region, but also of the world,” she said (8/7).

              After January’s Israeli strikes on Iranian positions in Syria, the Iranian secretary of the National Security Council Ali Shamkhani said, “If these actions continue, we will activate some calculated measures as a deterrent and as a firm and appropriate response to teach a lesson to the criminal and lying rulers of Israel” (for more on the Israeli strikes on Iranian positions in Syria, see Israel).

               In May, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran would increase its uranium enrichment after 60 days since the signatories of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) had not fulfilled their duties relating to the plan. The announcement came on the 1-year anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA. U.S. president Donald Trump responded by putting additional sanctions on Iran. The International Atomic Energy Agency director general Yukiya Amano said on 10 June that Iran had begun accelerating its uranium enrichment but would not say by how much.

               In the immediate aftermath of President Rouhani’s announcement, the U.S. blamed Iran for attacks on 2 Saudi oil tankers on 12 May and 2 Saudi oil-pumping stations on 14 May. The U.S. also blamed Iran for a rocket that landed in the vicinity of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad on 19 May. President Trump tweeted after the rocket landing that “[if] Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!” The Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif responded to Trump’s tweet, calling it a “genocidal taunt,” telling Trump to “Try respect—it works!” The U.S. also blamed Iran for 2 additional attacks on Norwegian and Japanese oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz on 13 June, allegations that Iran denied. By the end of the quarter, it remained unclear who committed the above attacks.

               The conflict between Iran and the U.S. further escalated on 20 June when Iran shot down a U.S. drone claiming that it was in Iranian air space; U.S. officials claimed that it was in international air space. President Trump subsequently tweeted that the U.S. was 10 minutes away from bombing Iranian targets in Iran, but that he had ordered the strike off because he was told that 150 people would probably be killed.

               The U.S. designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organization on 15 April after President Trump said in a statement on 8 April that his administration would do so. President Rouhani called the designation a calculated boost to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election campaign, saying, “[t]he leader of the Zionist regime made it clear that this step was taken at his request.”

               For Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Syria, see Israel.

United Kingdom-Iran Rift

               Iran and the United Kingdom (UK) relations started on rocky ground this quarter as the UK stopped an Iranian oil tanker in the Strait of Gibraltar, believing it was delivering oil to Syria, which is under sanction by the European Union. The UK then shortly after complained that Iran had obstructed passage for 1 British tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. The UK said that Iranian vessels left the area only after a verbal warning from a UK navy vessel in the area. Iran denied the allegations that the country had sought to block the ship. Then, 2 weeks later on 7/19, Iranian special forces seized a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran said it seized the ship because it had been involved in an accident, but the UK called the seizure an act of hostility and denied the Iranian claims. 7 of the crew members were released from the tanker in early September and the remaining 16 members remained on the ship until it was released shortly before the end of the quarter.


Enriching Uranium

               Iran had last quarter stated it would start enriching uranium beyond what was agreed to in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) because of the United States (U.S.) leaving the deal. On 7/8, Iran announced it had exceeded the purity limitations set forward by the JCPOA by enriching uranium to 4.5 percent. The JCPOA signatories urged Iran to adhere to the deal although the U.S. administration had broken away from it. On 9/3, the spokesperson for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran told Fars News that Iran could obtain 20 percent purity of uranium in 2 days if they wanted. Days before, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani said that he would not talk to the U.S. unless they lift all sanctions, in response to U.S. president Donald Trump saying that he would meet with President Rouhani. Rouhani also said that Iran would continue to scale back its compliance with the JCPOA deal until the sanctions were lifted and that Iran does not want nuclear weapons. The U.S. had earlier this quarter imposed sanctions on Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif for acting on behalf of the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Foreign Minister Zarif thanked the U.S. in a tweet for “considering me such a huge threat to your agenda.”

For Israeli strikes on Iranian allies, see Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.

Quarterly Updates for (1 Jan 1970 — 1 Jan 1970)

Iran was largely uninvolved in the IsraeliPalestinian sphere this quarter. After an Islamic Jihad delegation’s visit to Tehran in 4/2016, Asharq Al Awsat reported (5/25) that Iran intended to resume supporting the group and end 2 years of strained relations. There were no follow-up reports this quarter indicating whether, or how, Iranian support for the group had resumed.