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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri during an army parade in Tehran. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, listens to Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri during an army parade just outside Tehran, Iran, April 18, 2019 (Office of the Iranian Presidency photo via AP Images).

What Comes Next in the Standoff Between the U.S. and Iran?

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

In May 2018, when U.S. President Donald Trump followed through on a campaign promise to withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 multilateral deal limiting Iran’s uranium enrichment program, Tehran initially reacted by adopting a posture of strategic patience. But after European attempts to keep the deal afloat failed to deliver any respite from the U.S. campaign of “maximum pressure,” and amid increasingly bellicose rhetoric out of Washington, Iran shifted gears.

Beginning in early 2019, Iran gradually announced a series of what it called reversible breaches of its obligations under the nuclear deal, exceeding limits on its stockpile of enriched uranium and the level to which it is enriched. By this March, the International Atomic Energy Agency, responsible for documenting Tehran’s compliance with the agreement, reported that Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium had reached 1,000 kilograms—an amount that, if further enriched to much higher levels, provides enough fissile material for a nuclear warhead. The nuclear deal placed a verifiable cap of 300 kilograms on Iran’s enriched uranium stockpiles.

Parallel to these moves to pressure the Trump administration over the nuclear deal, Iran began to dramatically ratchet up military tensions with the U.S. beginning in mid-2019. Washington blamed Iran for a series of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, prompting the U.S. to send additional troops to the region. Soon thereafter, Iranian forces shot down a pilotless U.S. drone they claimed was operating in Iran’s airspace. And in September, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia accused Iran of being responsible for a drone and cruise missile attack on Saudi oil facilities.

Against that backdrop of heightened tensions, things came to a head in early January. After a series of violent incidents in Iraq pitting Iranian-backed Shiite militias against U.S. forces, Trump authorized a drone strike that killed Iran’s top military leader, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, as he arrived in Baghdad. Fears of an all-out war were averted when Iran limited its riposte to a barrage of ballistic missiles that, while targeting U.S. troops based in Iraq, caused no further deaths. Both sides backed away from escalation, but without fundamentally addressing their differences.

The reimposed U.S. sanctions have forced governments and companies from Europe to Asia to end their economic engagement with Iran, with a particularly severe impact on Iran’s oil exports. The resulting domestic economic tailspin has heightened social and political tensions within Iran. But rather than moderating the regime’s behavior, the heightened pressure from Washington seems to have strengthened the hand of hardliners in Tehran, who emerged as the big winners from parliamentary elections in February.

Meanwhile, any possibility for a diplomatic offramp have been complicated by the mixed messages coming out of the Trump administration. Trump’s close advisers, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have vocally advocated for regime change in Iran, while Trump himself has declared that he is open to talks in the hopes of reaching what he claims would be a better nuclear deal.

The deterioration in U.S.-Iran relations takes place against the backdrop of a battle for regional influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia, including proxy wars in Yemen and Syria, as well as strategic competition in Lebanon and more recently Iraq. Amid it all, the Iranian population is increasingly caught between the pressure of sanctions from Washington and the authoritarian repression of the regime in Tehran. And the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the hardships they face, while doing nothing to reduce tensions with Washington.

WPR has covered Iran in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. Is there a viable way out of the crisis in U.S.-Iran relations? Will Iran strengthen its ties with Russia or China to counter American actions, and what role will Europe play? Will outside pressure, combined with the impact of the pandemic, undermine the regime’s domestic control? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

Our Most Recent Coverage

A Global Pandemic Is No Time to Maintain Punishing Economic Sanctions

Iran is one of the countries hit hardest by the coronavirus. Yet President Donald Trump is continuing his “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran with crippling U.S. sanctions. Whatever one thinks of the arguments for and against sanctions on Iran, the coronavirus pandemic changes everything.

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Domestic Politics

Iran, under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is projecting unity in the face of U.S. saber rattling, but that is far from the reality on the ground. U.S. provocation may be strengthening hardliners within the regime, but members of the public are frustrated by ongoing domestic repression and the economic privation caused by the reimposed U.S. sanctions. The accidental downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet by the Iranian military at the height of the January stand-off with the U.S., as well as the regime’s attempt to cover up its responsibility, also caused public outrage. And the government’s botched handling of the Covid-19 outbreak has done nothing to restore its credibility in the eyes of the Iranian population.

U.S.-Iran Relations

The Trump administration has still not made it clear exactly what it is looking for from Tehran, a fact that is helping to fuel the current crisis. While some in his administration have pushed for regime change, Trump himself has said he is willing to open negotiations with Tehran without any conditions. That window appears to be rapidly closing, though, as Tehran’s recent actions indicate that it is shifting to war footing—or, at least, trying to give the impression that it is. And so far the Trump administration has rejected calls to loosen sanctions on humanitarian grounds during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Regional Picture

Iran’s escalating conflict with Saudi Arabia has actually been more devastating in recent years than the mounting tensions with Washington. The competition between the two Middle East rivals has fueled proxy conflicts in Syria and Yemen, leading to humanitarian crises in both countries. More recently, Iran was widely believed to be responsible for the pinpoint drone and cruise missile attacks on Saudi oil installations. As the war rhetoric between Washington and Tehran heats up, though, much of the region has responded cautiously to the possibility of an American intervention in Iran.

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2019 and is regularly updated.

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