Iran File

The Iran File is a weekly intelligence summary that synthesizes events from the past week and forecasts what to expect in the future. {{authorBox.message}}

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Khamenei Prepares for the JCPOA’s Potential Collapse

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

Key Takeaway: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed reservations about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iranian nuclear deal, to distance himself from the potential failure of the agreement and to direct blame toward the Rouhani administration.

Khamenei stated on May 22 that he lacked faith in the JCPOA based on its implementation and that he had repeatedly said this to President Hassan Rouhani. Khamenei’s remarks come after the Iranian regime, likely at his command, reneged on some of its JCPOA commitments to pressure Europe to offer Iran economic deliverables. The regime also quadrupled its low-enriched uranium (LEU) production rate, indicating that it may violate the deal’s limitation on LEU stockpiles in the near future. Khamenei may be increasingly inclined to abandon the JCPOA and could decide to do so after July 7, which marks the end of Iran’s 60-day deadline to Europe to provide Iran economic guarantees.

 


NUCLEAR DEAL DEVELOPMENTS

Supreme Leader Khamenei distances himself from the JCPOA. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei *stated on May 22 that he did not have much faith in the JCPOA based on its implementation. Khamenei noted that he frequently expressed his lack of confidence to President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Khamenei added that as supreme leader, he should not intervene in executive affairs unless it relates to the Islamic Revolution movement.


DOMESTIC POLITICS

President Rouhani seeks expanded executive powers to combat US economic pressure. President Hassan Rouhani *stated on May 20 that he needs greater executive power to combat US economic pressure. Rouhani referenced the creation of the Supreme War Support Council during the Iran-Iraq War, which wielded expanded powers to address the conflict. Rouhani emphasized that Iran is currently in an economic war with the US as justification for granting him additional powers. Hardliners, including Guardian Council Spokesperson Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei and Kayhan Managing Editor *Hossein Shariatmadari, criticized Rouhani in response.

Second Iranian cleric in slightly over a month is murdered. An unidentified assailant stabbed and killed Hojjat ol Eslam Mohammad Khorsand in Kazeroun, Fars Province, on May 29. Khorsand was the Kazeroun Friday prayer leader. Kazeroun previously experienced deadly and massive anti-regime protests in April and May 2018. Khorsand’s killing also comes after an Iranian man in Hamedan, Hamedan Province, shot and killed Hojjat ol Eslam Mostafa Ghassemi on April 27. It is not clear whether the murders are linked.

Larijani reelected as parliament speaker. Parliamentarians reelected Ali Larijani as parliament speaker on May 26. Larijani will serve in this position for the 12th straight year. Larijani received 155 votes, reformist-leaning Omid faction representative Mohammad Reza Aref received 105, and hardliner Seyyed Mohammad Javad Abtahi received nine votes.


REGIONAL DEVELOPMENTS & DIPLOMACY

President Rouhani suggests talks with US are possible if Washington lifts sanctions. President Hassan Rouhani suggested that Iran may negotiate with the US if Washington “lift[s] the unjust sanctions and fulfills [its] commitments” to the JCPOA on May 29. Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have stated that Iran will not negotiate with the US.

Foreign Minister Zarif visits Iraq to discuss regional developments amid US-Iran tension. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif led a senior political delegation to Baghdad, Iraq, on May 25 and met with senior Iraqi officials to discuss regional developments. Zarif met separately with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul al Mehdi, President Barham Salih, Foreign Minister Ali al Hakim, and Parliament Speaker Mohammad al Halbousi. Al Hakim noted during a joint press conference that Iraq could serve as a mediator between Iran and the US to “reach a satisfactory solution.” Zarif’s visit follows the US announcement to deploy 1,500 troops and additional defense assets to the Middle East. Zarif’s visit also follows an increase in political and military tensions in the region including a rocket attack on May 19 near the US Embassy in Baghdad.


ECONOMY

Iranian oil exports drop to 400,000 barrels per day. Iran’s oil exports fell to 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) in late May 2019. The significant reduction in Iranian oil exports follows the Trump administration’s decision to not reissue sanctions waivers to buyers of Iranian oil. India and Turkey, two of the eight original waiver recipients, have ceased their importation of Iranian oil in compliance with US sanctions. Iran exported around 1 million bpd in April 2019. Iranian officials reportedly told Europe that Iran must sell 1.5 million bpd to ensure its continued commitment to the JCPOA.

Tehran ups Pressure on Europe Further

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

Key Takeaway: The Iranian regime may violate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in the near future.

Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) spokesperson Behrouz Kamalvandi announced on May 20 that the AEOI will quadruple its low-enriched uranium (LEU) “production capacity.” This increase does not violate the JCPOA. The JCPOA mandates a 300 kilogram (kg) limit on The original publication of this Iran File incorrectly stated that the 300 kg limit applies to both Iran's LEU and heavy water stockpiles.Iranian LEU stockpiles, however, which Iran could exceed in the coming weeks or months. President Hassan Rouhani announced on May 8, 2019, one year after the US withdrew from the nuclear deal, that Iran would no longer adhere to the stockpile limits. The regime seeks to pressure Europe into providing Iran concrete economic incentives to remain party to the agreement. The move was also partly in response to a US decision on May 3 to revoke sanctions waivers relating to Iran’s civilian nuclear program that allow Iran to export its LEU and heavy water. Europe may reimpose sanctions on Iran if it violates the JCPOA.

The Iran File will resume the week of June 3, 2019.


NUCLEAR DEAL DEVELOPMENTS

AEOI quadruples LEU production rate. AEOI spokesperson Behrouz Kamalvandi *announced on May 20 that the AEOI will quadruple its LEU “production capacity.” Kamalvandi emphasized that the increase is within the framework of the JCPOA. He added that Iran could soon exceed the JCPOA-mandated 300 kg stockpile limit.


REGIONAL DEVELOPMENTS & DIPLOMACY

Iranian proxies and partners escalate against the US and partners in the region. Iran’s regional proxies and partners have attacked US and partner interests throughout the region in recent weeks. Unidentified militants fired a rocket toward the US Embassy in Baghdad on May 19. The rocket missed the embassy and caused no casualties. An Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service official claimed that the Iranian-backed proxy Kataib Hezbollah fired the rocket. Iranian-backed militias, including Kataib Hezbollah, subsequently condemned the attack. Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani recently told Iranian-backed forces in Baghdad to “prepare for proxy war” against the US. This influenced the US decision to evacuate nonessential American employees at the Baghdad Embassy and the US Consulate in Erbil on May 15.

Iran may also seek to co-opt regional proxies and partners to threaten Saudi and Emirati oil assets. Unknown perpetrators attacked four Saudi, Emirati, and Norwegian oil tankers near Fujairah Port, United Arab Emirates, on May 12. The US and a Norwegian insurer both assessed that the Iranian regime likely facilitated the attack. The Iranian-backed al Houthi movement then conducted a drone attack against two Saudi oil facilities 500 miles from the Yemeni border on May 14. The attacks may be part of an Iranian strategy to co-opt its regional proxies and partners to disrupt global energy trade, create uncertainty in the oil market, and attack Saudi Arabia and the UAE where they are vulnerable.

The US and Iran separately discuss regional affairs with Oman. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif *met with Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah in Tehran on May 20 to discuss international affairs and bilateral relations. This comes after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a phone call on May 16 with Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said to discuss regional issues, Iran, and Yemen. Oman has historically served as a diplomatic mediator between the US and Iran.


MILITARY & SECURITY

IRGC undergoes personnel and structural changes. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed four individuals to senior IRGC positions in recent weeks. Khamenei appointed IRGC Commander Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari as Baghiyatollah Social and Cultural Headquarters head on April 21. Khamenei replaced Jafari with IRGC Deputy Commander Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami. Khamenei then *appointed IRGC Coordination Deputy Brig. Gen. Ali Fadavi as IRGC deputy commander and IRGC Cultural and Social Deputy Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Naghdi as IRGC coordination deputy on May 16. Salami and Fadavi often use inflammatory and anti-American rhetoric. Salami subsequently appointed IRGC Intelligence Organization Deputy Chief Brig. Gen. *Hossein Nejat as IRGC cultural and social deputy and IRGC Brig. Gen. *Hassan Mohaghegh as IRGC Intelligence Organization deputy chief on May 18.

Khamenei also *ordered structural changes to the IRGC amid heightened tensions between the US and Iran. Iranian media *reported that the IRGC Intelligence Organization will take on a more regional focus and specifically assess the United States’ “daily pattern of behavior.” Iranian media also claimed that the organization will integrate with the Strategic Intelligence Directorate. Salami confirmed that Hojjat ol Eslam Hossein Taeb will remain IRGC Intelligence Organization chief.

Artesh commanders plan for possible escalation with the US. Artesh Commander Maj. Gen. Abdol Rahim Mousavi *convened with Artesh Ground Forces Commander Brig. Gen. Kiomars Heydari, Artesh Air Force Commander Brig. Gen. Aziz Nasir Zadeh, Artesh Navy Commander RADM Hossein Khanzadi, and Artesh Khatam ol Anbia Air Defense Base Commander Brig. Gen. Alireza Sabahi Fard on May 18. The senior Artesh commanders discussed the strategic, operational, and tactical combat readiness and preparedness of their forces. The commanders also discussed the regional situation. *Nasir Zadeh, *Khanzadi, *Sabahi Fard, and Artesh Commander Senior Adviser Brig. Gen. *Farzad Esmaili have all separately visited Artesh facilities and bases around the Persian Gulf in recent weeks.

Nuclear Deal's Future Falls into Uncertainty 

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk(*) for the reader's awareness.]


Forecast: The Iranian regime will renege on some of its commitments to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to pressure Europe into offering Iran immediate and concrete economic benefits. The regime intends to signal its dissatisfaction with Europe’s efforts to preserve economic ties with Iran and portray strength against mounting U.S. pressure. The regime may leave or violate the JCPOA and resume its nuclear activities if Europe fails to offer Iran satisfactory economic deliverables.

The regime partially suspended its JCPOA commitments in response to mounting U.S. pressure and stalled European efforts to preserve economic ties with Iran. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made the announcement during a nationally broadcast speech on May 8, 2019, exactly one year after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the JCPOA. Rouhani *stated that Iran will no longer limit its low-enriched uranium (LEU) and heavy water stockpiles in accordance with Article 26 of the JCPOA. The article states that Iran declared that it would treat reimposed U.S. sanctions “as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part.” The announcement came after the U.S. revoked sanctions waivers relating to Iran’s civilian nuclear program, which allowed Iran to export its LEU and heavy water on May 3. Iran would need to cease its production of both if it reached the JCPOA-mandated stockpile limits and could not export the LEU and heavy water.

Regime officials emphasized that this partial suspension of commitments is not a withdrawal from the deal but rather signals discontent with Europe’s unwillingness to circumvent U.S. sanctions. Europe seeks to use a humanitarian trade mechanism, known as the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), for medicinal and food trade with Iran, but progress has been slow, and the mechanism is currently inoperative. Rouhani stated that Europe must fulfill its commitments to maintain banking ties and oil trade with Iran, implying that INSTEX and humanitarian trade are not enough. Rouhani also emphasized Iran’s willingness to continue negotiations with Europe and that Iran will return to fulfilling all its JCPOA commitments when Europe meets its economic expectations.

The regime may leave or violate the JCPOA if Europe fails to satisfy its demands. Rouhani stated on May 8 that Iran will no longer adhere to uranium enrichment limits and will resume construction at the Arak Heavy Water Reactor Facility if Europe fails to provide Iran economic deliverables in 60 days. European nations emphasized their continued support for the JCPOA in response to this announcement but also cautioned Iran against abandoning its commitments. An unidentified French official reportedly warned that any Iranian violation of the JCPOA will “oblige [Europe] to reimpose sanctions.” It is very unlikely Europe will fully satisfy the regime’s economic expectations, particularly within the 60-day deadline, making it likely that the deal will fray further if it does not collapse altogether.

The JCPOA’s collapse could significantly increase already-high tensions between the U.S. and Iran. The U.S. expedited the deployment of a carrier strike group and bomber task force to the Persian Gulf on May 5 in response to intelligence of potential Iranian threats to American forces in the region. The intelligence reportedly detailed possible attacks in Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, the Persian Gulf, and the Bab el Mandeb Strait off the Yemeni coast. The U.S. also assessed that the regime was moving short-range ballistic missiles in the Persian Gulf, possibly in preparation for an escalation near the Strait of Hormuz. The JCPOA’s collapse and resumption of the regime’s nuclear program could further exacerbate these tensions and trigger an intentional or unintentional military escalation between Iran and the United States.

TIMELINE
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May '19