The world in 2023 can expect to see more turbulence and crises as various international confrontations remain unsettled. The politics of the Iran nuclear issue will be one of the major conflicts, and is particularly likely to turn into a crisis this year. There will be more obstacles impeding a deal, and prospects in Iran’s nuclear politics will remain bleak even as the door of the Vienna negotiations to resume JCPOA talks is not closed and parties could reach a final deal.
The relevant parties, including the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany began negotiating in Vienna in April 2021 to resume the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Washington characterized the negotiations as an effort to reverse Iranian nuclear proliferation. Iran, for its part, tried to make the U.S. remove sanctions in a meaningful way. Negotiations were suspended in the final stage in September, as the American administration under President Joe Biden worried that a deal would affect the midterm election of Democrats in November, since any deal would be attacked by Republicans as amounting to concessions.
Nevertheless, the Vienna negotiation is not a dead horse, as parties still see a resumption deal to be the best solution. It is Iran’s best choice to have sanctions removed through a negotiated solution to solve its urgent domestic economic problems. A resumption also serves U.S. interest in reducing the risk of nuclear weaponization by a major rival. It is also in the interest of other parties to lower the risk of nuclear proliferation. In addition, neither the U.S. nor Iran wants to take responsibility for walking away from the table.
Nevertheless, despite the aforementioned optimistic side of the story, 2023 will yield a more pessimistic outlook.
First, U.S. domestic pressure on Biden to play politics with the nuclear issue will pollute the atmosphere for a negotiated solution of the dispute. One reason that the Barack Obama administration successfully reached a nuclear deal in July 2015 lay in the fact that he separated politics from the nuclear dispute. Because of this approach, the Obama administration was able to sideline political disturbances and concentrate on the nuclear issue alone. This gave Iran confidence that the U.S. did not intend to overthrow its Islamic system.
Unfortunately, things have changed greatly on the ground. The last three months have seen a serious political challenge in Iran triggered by the hijab movement. It was an internal issue per se, but is has fostered a new wave of anti-Iran propaganda in the U.S. The Biden administration has been pressured not to negotiate with the so-called authoritarian regime, and political liberals even believed that Iran’s Islamic system would soon be toppled. All this discouraged the Biden administration’s efforts to negotiate a solution.
In some ways, the same approach has also been taken by Europe. The debate there over the so-called Iranian crackdown on protesters has led the EU parliament to adopt new policy on Iran. Three choices are on the table— sanctioning some military institutions and individuals, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and adding it to the list of terrorist groups, as well as cutting ties and expelling Iranian ambassadors. All indications are that European countries will follow the U.S. in this regard.
Second, pressure from Israel will serve to narrow the Biden administration’s leeway on the Iran nuclear issue. Israel, a special U.S. ally that is concerned about the potential military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program, is always a key variable affecting U.S. Middle East policy by pressing the U.S. Congress to act. Although the nuclear deal in 2015 was also in Israel’s interest by preventing Iran from weaponizing its nuclear program, right-wing politicians, such as Benjamin Netanyahu, believed that the deal was not tough enough. Netanyahu lambasted the 2015 agreement as a historic mistake, while other parties around the globe were cheering it as a good deal.
December saw Netanyahu’s return to the top echelon of Israeli politics, along with an extreme right-wing cabinet. Netanyahu can be expected to press the Biden administration to adopt an even tougher approach, which will certainly sabotage multilateral efforts to negotiate a solution. This will also undermine Iran’s confidence in seeking a diplomatic solution to the problem.
Third, Iran’s expectations for economic benefits will be further lowered as the Biden administration nears the political campaign season for 2024. The U.S. had been arguing that a potential nuclear deal would remain as an administrative commitment, rather than a treaty approved by Congress. This implies that a succeeding administration could withdraw from a nuclear deal without domestic hurdles, which was the rationale given for Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the deal in May 2018.
The rationale suggests that Biden’s successor can very easily step out of the deal. And judging by the profound confrontation between the two sides, another withdrawal from the deal may be likely. To put it another way, even with a new deal in place, the period in which Iran can benefit — say from the removal of sanctions — would be within Biden’s term.
Suppose a deal were reached after multilateral endeavors in June this year and takes effect six months later (year’s end). Iran would only have 12 months in which to be free of significant sanctions even if the U.S. seriously implemented it. Unfortunately, history indicates that the U.S. has never been serious in this regard. Even the Obama administration failed to meaningfully implement the deal in 2016.
Benefits that are not guaranteed for a period of 12 months will not whet Iran’s appetite for dropping its nuclear capabilities. It is also not worth the tedious multilateral effort needed to make a deal.
Fourth, 2023 will see a generally worsened international atmosphere for negotiations, as the Biden administration can be expected to enhance its unilateral approach to diplomacy. Biden did inherit Obama’s enthusiasm for the JCPOA but rather abandoned Obama’s spirit of multilateralism, which was actually a precondition for reaching a multilateral agreement. Because of Biden’s unilateral approach, the U.S. is not only confronting Russia but also angering China on many issues. This has seriously polluted the international environment needed for cooperative solutions to issues of shared interest.
Judging from the restrictions mentioned above, the political prospects for an Iran nuclear deal seem dim. The best scenario might be restarting the negotiations and reaching a deal for resumption, which could lead to a soft-landing for the crisis, but this is not likely in light of the many major obstacles. The worst scenario could be that Iran will cross the threshold with a nuclear bomb, adding further pressure on the U.S. side and producing major uncertainties that go beyond Iran’s calculations.
The most likely scenario for a modicum of success is Iran continuing to increase its nuclear capability but stopping before the weaponization threshold. This would pressure the U.S. while keeping strategic risks under control.
In any case, the year 2023 will see severe prospects for trouble in Iran nuclear politics, and the parties will have to work for the best scenario despite difficulties while preparing for the worst.