After Optimism on Possible Iran Nuclear Deal, 2023 Not Likely To Deliver
Iran is believed to have made significant progress toward military nuclear capability and it is unclear whether it even wants an agreement
If things were tricky between Iran and the world powers negotiating a nuclear deal before 2022, this year further complicated matters.
It was the year in which Iran was emboldened by a Russia at odds with the Western world. But, also, it was the year in which internal turmoil ravaged the Islamic Republic and exposed a harsh regime.
After the collapse of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement in 2018 following the American withdrawal from the deal, the US reimposed sanctions on Iran. The agreement, which went into effect in 2015, was originally signed between Iran and the US, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the European Union.
In 2019, Iran was believed to have broken the limit set by the JCPOA on its enriched uranium stockpile, publicly announcing that it was continuing to enrich uranium at higher purity levels, approaching that necessary to build a nuclear weapon. All the while, Iran has maintained its nuclear plan is not intended for military purposes.
As US President Joe Biden took office, he announced that one of his goals was to bring the US back into the JCPOA.
Talks to reinstate the agreement resumed in April 2021, enthusiastically backed by the United States. Although the US was looking to change some of the requirements of the agreement, there was optimism on both sides that a deal was closer than ever. In the summer of 2022, reports emerging out of the talks in Vienna said that the agreement was within reach and that it was just the final details waiting to be ironed out.
However, as time progressed and circumstances changed, the deal began to slip away.
“The world has been preoccupied,” according to Dr. Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and former member of Israel’s National Security Council. “The pandemic, the economic crisis, and the war in Europe have all distracted attention from the Iranian issue.”
Just last week, a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) meeting on the Iranian nuclear program was held in New York. The UN undersecretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo, said Iran is believed to now possess eighteen times the amount of enriched uranium that it was allowed to have under the JCPOA, saying the country now has “worrying quantities of uranium enriched to up to 60%.”
Uranium enriched to that higher level is believed to be necessary to build military-grade nuclear weapons.
“The international community has gotten accustomed to Iranian violations,” Guzansky added. “Gradually and wisely, Iran has eroded the red lines that were set. Each time it enriches more uranium at a higher rate, testing the limits of the international community.”
At the UN, Iran became defensive.
Iranian Ambassador to the UN Amir Saeid Jalil Iravani told the UNSC that his country has shown “maximum flexibility” at the Vienna negotiations.
The world has been preoccupied. The pandemic, the economic crisis and the war in Europe have all distracted attention from the Iranian issue.
The US has continued to negotiate, even as prospects for an agreement grow very dim.
In a recent video that surfaced on social media, President Biden was recorded saying that the agreement with Iran was “dead,” adding he would not make a formal announcement about it.
“An official admission would be an admission of failure and would force the US to present a Plan B,” said Guzansky. “There are no good alternatives.”
During 2022, the US intensified sanctions against Iran. Biden, who had stated repeatedly that he wanted to re-enter the JCPOA, found himself changing course in response to global developments.
While negotiating, there were several events that had a direct impact on the atmosphere between the parties. Earlier in the year, Iranian officials refused to cooperate with probes by the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, on several undeclared sites where unexplained uranium particles were detected.
Iran also dealt violently with popular protests against the regime and has been subject to international condemnation. What began as demonstrations on the treatment of women in the Islamic Republic, sparked by the death of Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the modesty police for wearing her hijab incorrectly, developed into a national revolt that has put the US, and other Western powers, in a tricky position.
“Iran is facing contradicting forces,” said Dr. Menahem Merhavy, a research fellow and expert on Iran at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “The demonstrations weaken its bargaining power, making the West less enthusiastic to sign an agreement. Iran is perceived as one of the most oppressive regimes in the world, dissuading Western leaders from shaking hands with Iran in any context.”
Further complicating matters, is the continued Iranian involvement in the war between Russia and Ukraine. With Iran supplying Russia with armed drones that have been used to attack Ukraine, global outcry was quick to follow.
“Events in Ukraine strengthened the relations between Tehran and Moscow, emboldening Iran,” Merhavy explained. “The fact that Russia has engaged in such a lengthy war while under western sanctions is an inspiration to Tehran.”
The war in Europe has brought Iran and Russia closer together.
“Combined, these circumstances lower the possibility of an agreement,” Merhavy said.
Fear of a cold winter in Europe with little supply of Russian gas could have made Iranian oil increasingly attractive, motivating the West to lift sanctions on the country. However, oil prices are not at an all-time high. With European countries finding somewhat reasonable alternatives, Iranian oil is less of a bargaining chip.
Now that the US is after its midterm elections, President Biden’s White House may be more resolved on how it wants to deal with Iran.
The American president has vowed to not allow Iran to achieve nuclear capability. The administration now needs to decide how to do this. It is difficult to see the administration entering a deal with Iran while it is under so much criticism. But it is also unlikely the US will choose a military option against Iran which could spiral the region into a major war.
Iran is believed to have made significant progress toward military nuclear capability. Many experts believe such weapons are within reach.
“Looking forward, the challenge is to keep Iran a threshold nation,” said Guzansky. “This status already has benefits that give Iran stature and the ability to extort with the threat of further progress.”
“It will be very difficult to retract any progress Iran has made,” he added.
Looking forward, the challenge is to keep to keep Iran a threshold nation. This status already has benefits that give Iran stature and the ability to extort with the threat of further progress.
Iran is playing a tricky game and it is unclear whether it even wants an agreement.
“There is not a lot of enthusiasm in Iran to reach an agreement,” said Merhavy. “Tehran sees it’s not so bad without one, the sanctions are not as crippling as during the Obama Administration and there is not much to lose without a deal.”
The sanctions that Iran was under throughout the Trump Administration after its withdrawal from the JCPOA left the current administration with little leverage. The only real threat would be military action.
The return of Binyamin Netanyahu to leadership in Israel could see greater prominence of the issue in international discourse. Netanyahu has always been a vocal opponent of Iran. Israel sees Iran as its greatest threat and might choose to operate if it believes all other options have been exhausted. Such a move is highly unlikely, mainly due to Israel’s operational limitations, but also because it would have widespread implications.
The coming year could be decisive on the issue of Iran, but it could also be more of the same.
“Iran wants to continue negotiations, continue buying time,” Merhavy added. “The ability to intimidate the world with the threat of imminent nuclear capability. The current situation is good for the Iranians, sanctions aren’t harsh and they display goodwill by continuing to negotiate.”
The sides likely will continue to show up and negotiate. For Iran, the current situation appears ideal. For its negotiating partners, there appears to be no better alternative.