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Without new talks, U.S.–Iran tensions continue to escalate

spokesman for Iran's atomic energy agency in front of microphones at a press conference
Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesperson for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, at a press conference in July 2018. Photo: Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

With its announcement Monday that it will exceed limits on the amount of low-enriched uranium allowed under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran is signaling the death of the landmark nuclear agreement reached with world powers in 2015.

Why it matters: Even if initial infringements are modest, the combination of rising tensions in the Persian Gulf, a near-total U.S. embargo on Iranian energy exports and Europe’s failure to operationalize a reliable means of trading with Iran is increasingly unstable.

Background: The Trump administration delivered the first major blow to the JCPOA when it withdrew unilaterally in May 2018; the coup de grace came this April with the announcement that it would permit no more Iranian oil exports.

  • Iran initially tried to exert strategic patience and wait out the administration. But it began signaling in April that it could not remain in compliance without receiving the economic benefits promised in return for verifiable curbs on its nuclear program.
  • The Iranian public has paid a steep price, watching the economy tank as the government takes greater risks to amass leverage.

What's next: After recent incidents in the Persian Gulf, the Iranians appear to have calculated that the Trump administration is too risk-averse to resort to military action and potentially touch off a regional conflagration.

  • President Trump has made it clear he does not want another war in the Middle East, however prepared some of his advisers may be for escalation.
  • Yet the U.S. remains isolated on Iranian issues. Despite evidence that Iran was behind attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman last week and earlier incidents, many U.S. allies distrust the Trump administration and worry that accepting its conclusion could be seen as justifying a military response. (The U.K. and Saudi Arabia concur with the U.S. assessment.)

The bottom line: Longer-term nuclear restrictions will likely require the U.S. to negotiate a new agreement that provides more durable sanctions relief. In the meantime, tensions could keep rising, pushing up oil prices and further straining an already dysfunctional Middle East.

Barbara Slavin directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.