What awaits Iran and its activities abroad will have significant consequences not only for millions of Iranians, but also for Ukraine, Russia, much of the Middle East and the foreign policy of Western governments. .
Reuters | Wana News Agency
It’s been a turbulent year for Iran.
In a year that some hoped would see the revival of the Iran nuclear deal and successful diplomacy with the West, Iran instead strengthened its ties with Russia and violently suppressed a grassroots protest movement led by women.
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What awaits the country and its activities abroad will have significant consequences not only for millions of Iranians, but also for Ukraine, Russia, much of the Middle East and the foreign policy of Western governments.
The Biden administration has gone from encouraging talks on reviving the Iran nuclear deal to imposing more sanctions on Tehran and condemning it for providing deadly weapons and training to Russian forces fighting in Ukraine. Iran’s Foreign Ministry denies knowledge of Iranian arms transfers to Russia, despite evidence of Iranian-made drones wreaking havoc in Ukrainian cities.
And the country of 85 million people is in the throes of a protest movement that has been described as the biggest challenge to the government of the Islamic Republic in decades. Meanwhile, its economy is spiraling and it is currently enriching uranium to its highest level ever, meaning Iran has never been closer to achieving nuclear bomb-making capability.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi greets Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 19, 2022. Putin probably wanted to show that Moscow still matters in the Middle East by visiting Iran, said John Drennan of the US Institute for Peace.
Sergei Savostyanov | AFP | Getty Images
“2023 is going to be a pivotal year for Iran,” Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the nonprofit Crisis Group, told CNBC. “The economy is more troubled than ever; society is more discontented than ever; and the country is more isolated than ever.”
“The Islamic Republic is where the Soviet Union was at the beginning, not the end, of the 1980s,” Vaez said. “It is an ideologically bankrupt, economically broken and politically crippled regime.”
“However,” he added, “he still has the will to fight.”
The nuclear deal: too far?
Already in 2021, the head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog, Rafael Grossi, told reporters that “only bomb-making countries” enrich uranium to Iran’s level by 60% – that’s just a technical step away from the quality of weapons, which is 90% purity.
As part of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – which involved the United States and other powers and lifted economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program – the uranium enrichment of Iran was limited to 3.67%, which is sufficient for a civilian nuclear energy program.
A photo taken on November 10, 2019 shows an Iranian flag at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant, during an official ceremony to launch work on a second reactor at the facility.
ATTA KENARE | AFP via Getty Images
“Prospects for relaunching the JCPOA are bleak for 2023,” said Henry Rome, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, referring to the agreement by its official acronym, which stands for Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Rather than cancel it entirely in response to Iran’s apparent support for Russia and brutal crackdown on protesters, “a ‘prolonged and feigned’ attitude to the nuclear deal is likely to continue for some time.” time,” Rome added. Negotiations have been stalled since September.
The Trump administration pulled the United States out of the deal in 2018, reimposing harsh sanctions on Iran that have both hurt its economy and spurred its government to accelerate nuclear development. And the prospects of the Biden administration reviving the deal are rapidly diminishing.
Moreover, time is running out for anything to be recovered – the deal’s main nuclear restrictions will expire at the end of 2023 with “sunset clauses” in place.
“The current JCPOA will be increasingly obsolete in 2023,” said Ryan Bohl, principal analyst for the Middle East and North Africa at Rane. And, he added, “neither Europe nor the United States wants to offer sanctions relief to a regime that actively suppresses protesters.”
Negotiators may have to start from scratch, and Western signatories to the deal are likely to want to see a resolution to the protest movement first, some analysts say.
Meanwhile, the West announces new sanctions while Iran continues to push its nuclear development, creating a widening chasm between the two sides.
What future for the Iranian protest movement?
Nationwide protests that began in mid-September and quickly spread to dozens of cities across Iran were sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, a Kurdish Iranian woman who died in police custody. seen after she was arrested for allegedly breaking Iran’s strict headscarf rules. The unrest escalated into a full-scale movement demanding the withdrawal of the Islamic Republic, Iran’s hardline theocratic government.
But after nearly four months and a campaign of bloody crackdowns and executions by the state, the question remains: How long will the protests last?
A protester holds a portrait of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in support of Amini, an Iranian girl who died after being arrested in Tehran by the vice police of the Islamic Republic, at Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul on September 20, 2022.
Ozan Kose | AFP | Getty Images
“The four forces to watch in 2023 on Iranian protests are the streets, the strikes, the sanctions and the security forces,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He expects there to be sustained protests in 2023 against the Islamic Republic, although the government has an overwhelming advantage in the use of force.
“The regime retains all the tools of repression and will use them more and more,” he said, but added that Iranians’ demands for political change inevitably mean more domestic instability.
Most Iranian analysts polled by CNBC expect the protests to continue in some form, but predictions about their intensity and effectiveness vary.
While protests can still take unexpected turns, “protesters have yet to muster significant and sustained support in key economic sectors or draw defections from the security services,” Rome noted.
As for Rane’s Ryan Bohl, the most likely outcome is that the protests “eventually get put down and die down.” The second result, he said, is that the movement becomes institutionalized, turns into a viable opposition movement and is able to extract concessions from the regime.
The third and “least likely” – but still not impossible – outcome next year is that “the protest movement escalates to include other sections of Iranian society and causes splits within the regime that could threatens its survival,” Bohl said.
Weapons for Russia
The latest conflict between Iran and the West came amid the Russian-Ukrainian war in the form of deadly Iranian drones used by Russian forces to attack Ukraine.
This has already prompted more US and European sanctions against Iran, but is unlikely to stop the growing collaboration between the two increasingly isolated countries.
“Iran cannot afford to alienate Russia,” Crisis Group’s Vaez said. “The West will have to get creative to find a way” to slow down and limit the types of weapons it can transfer to Russia, he said – something already underway, because the Biden administration is reportedly working to stifle Iran’s access to foreign components for weapons.
Ukraine has accused Iran of supplying Russia with drones, which were used to attack Kyiv.
Sopa Pictures | Light flare | Getty Images
Still, “more drones and missiles and technical cooperation on military matters seem likely,” Bohl said, in addition to deeper business ties to create a “sanctions-proof business network.”
This will have diplomatic costs, which Tehran seems willing to bear, although it is unclear what it will get in return – money, weapons, technology or some combination thereof.
Either way, “Iran will likely continue to play hardball in 2023,” Ben Taleblu said, adding, “I fully expect Russia and Iran to continue to strengthen their security, political and economic in 2023”.
“An increasingly risk-tolerant political elite may feel unstoppable abroad as they face challenges at home,” he said. “If Iran were to proliferate ballistic missiles and not just drones to Russia for use in Ukraine, that would represent further evidence of this perception.”