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On 40thanniversary of the hostage crisis, US-Iran frictions continue to escalate

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By Guido Lanfranchi.

Forty years after the 1979 hostage crisis, tensions between the United States and Iran are once again escalating. On November 4th, the US administration imposed new sanctions on Iranian individuals close to the country’s Supreme Leader. On the same day, Iran announced it would walk back from another of its commitment under the Nuclear Deal – citing Washington’s lack of compliance as the move’s rationale.

In early November 1979, a diplomatic standoff emerged when 52 United States’ diplomats were taken hostage by supporters of the Iranian Revolution in Tehran. In early November 2019, forty years after the hostage crisis, tensions between the two countries are again on the rise – with the US administration imposing sanctions on Tehran, and the Iranian government re-starting nuclear-related activities in its Fordow facility.

The new US Treasury Department’s sanctions – a Senior US Administration Official explained – are set to target a range of high-level individuals involved in policy-making in Tehran. The targets include a number of individuals deemed close to the country’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, such as his second son Mojtaba, his chief of staff Mr. Golpayegani, as well as Mr. Haghanian, identified by the US as Mr. Khamenei’s right hand.

Moreover, the sanctions will also hit Ebrahim Raisi, the head of Iran’s judiciary, as well as Iranian individuals linked with “brutal terror actors outside Iran”, notably Ali Akbar Velayati and Hossein Dehghan – the US Official revealed. 

The reaction from Tehran has been swift, with the Foreign Ministry’s Spokesperson, Seyyed Abbas Mousavi, swiftly condemning the US “unilateral and futile” sanctions and its “anti-Iran statement”. In his statement, Mr. Mousavi first accused the US of “bullying” other countries due its “inability to use diplomatic or logical solution”. Moreover, referring to the US accusations on the hostage crisis, he blamed the US for “misrepresenting the realities and distorting the history by keeping open an already-closed case” – and instead accused the US of committing crimes against Iran.

This most recent spat comes on the background of broader tensions between Washington and Tehran.

The administration of President Trump accuses Iran not only of oppressing its own people, but also of pursuing a terrorist agenda across the Middle East, including by seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Consequently, in May 2018 the US withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal), which provided for economic benefits for Iran in exchange for stricter controls on its nuclear program. Since then, Washington has re-imposed increasingly harsh sanctions on Iran, with the declared aim of changing the policies of the Iranian government. 

As for Iran, after having failed to reap the economic benefits foreseen by the JCPOA through the help of the remaining signatories, in the last months policymakers in Tehran have announced the suspension of some of Iran’s obligations under the deal. In parallel to the US announcement of the latest round of sanctions in early November, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has announced that Iran will restart to inject gas to the centrifuges in its facilities in Fordow – a move prohibited by the JCPOA. This move – the President stressed – is completely reversible, and – as previous steps taken by Iran – “will be conducted under the monitoring of the International Atomic Energy Agency”. 

The door for diplomacy remains thus open – although by now the opening looks rather small. 

About the author:

Guido Lanfranchi is a student and young professional in the field of international affairs. He has pursued his studies both at Leiden University and Sciences Po Paris, where he is currently enrolled. In parallel, he has been gaining professional experience through internships (first at the Council of the European Union, and currently at Clingendael Institute), as well as by working as reporter and associate editor for Diplomat Magazine The Netherlands. His research and work focus on the Middle East and Africa, and especially on conflict situations in these regions.

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