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 has shifted gears in recent months.
Tensions rose dramatically in May and June, after a series of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman that Washington blamed on Iran prompted the U.S. to send additional troops to the region. Soon thereafter, Iranian forces shot down a pilotless U.S. drone it claims was operating in its airspace. Iran also announced a series of breaches of its obligations under the nuclear deal, exceeding limits on its stockpile of enriched uranium and the level to which it is enriched. Most recently, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have accused Iran of being directly or indirectly responsible for a drone and cruise missile attack on Saudi oil facilities.
The re imposed 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.
Meanwhile, any possibility for a diplomatic off ramp have been complicated by the mixed messages coming out of the Trump administration. John Bolton, until recently Trump’s national security adviser, and 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 take 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.
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 undermine the regime’s domestic control? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.
If Iran is in fact responsible for the recent attack on Saudi oil facilities, directly or through its proxies in Yemen, it suggests that Iranian cruise missiles and drones are getting more sophisticated. Unlike its ballistic missile program, Iran’s cruise missile capabilities have long stayed under the radar.
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.
Why the attack on the Saudi oil facilities points to flaws in the U.S. approach to Iran and the region, in The Saudi Oil attacks reveal the flows in America’s Middle East Strategy.
How the Iranians are trying to exploit Trump’s aversion to a costly Middle East war, in Iran knows Trump does not want a war and trying to wait him out.
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. 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.
How Hezbollah’s role as Iran’s strongest regional proxy is raising the risk of war with Israel, in Thought strengthened in Syria Hezbollah faces unprecedented dangerous within.
Why Iraq is the latest arena for the Saudi-Iran rivalry, in How Saudi Arabia trying to counter Iranian influence in Iraq.
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 re imposed U.S. sanctions. Devastating floods earlier this year have also created a humanitarian crisis in some parts of the country and deepened dissatisfaction with President Hassan Rouhani’s administration.
Why the regime’s recent welcoming of proxy militias could actually be an effort to ensure its survival, in how the Iranian backed militias from Syria complicates US strategy.
How the Rouhani administration oversold the benefits of the nuclear deal to the Iranian people, in the nuclear deals raised Iranian hopes. Now they are focused on survival.
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