West’s standoff with Iran could escalate

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DTALK despite everything in 2021, Iran and America do not appear any closer to relaunching the multinational nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which Donald Trump pulled America from in 2018. Both sides have said they are willing to revert to the terms of the original deal if the other does it first. But the world has changed since then, and the prospect of a continued deadlock in 2022 means there is a growing chance of escalation.

One big change is that although Democrats have regained power in America, extremists now control all levers of power in Iran. The new President of the Islamic Republic, Ebrahim Raisi, has ruled out Western efforts to restore JCPOA. After months of evasion, world powers might conclude that he and his godfather, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are no longer interested in a full-fledged nuclear deal.

Iran’s hardliners fear the West is using the JCPOA as a first step to limiting Iran’s regional reach and its missile program, and backing it on human rights. Better ties with the West would also revive Iranian reformers in their fight against the regime’s hard core and increase their hopes of diluting Iran’s clerical zeal. So hardliners may decide it’s best to avoid a deal. Nor will Mr. Khamenei want Western powers to upset his own succession, most likely to his son, Mojtaba.

As a result, Western diplomats will spend early 2022 trying to devise creative alternatives. “More for more” would free Iran from more sanctions than the original agreement in exchange for a longer-term suspension of its nuclear program. “Less for less” would trickle down some $ 100 billion in frozen assets abroad in exchange for a decline in uranium enrichment. Iran will demand that America roll back all sanctions imposed by Mr. Trump and promise never to reverse the deal again. America will insist that Iran first scale back its nuclear operations.

The likely stalemate will encourage hardliners in Tehran. They will argue that US sanctions on banks and oil bolster Iran’s resilience and accelerate its diversification away from fossil fuels. Mr Raisi will seek to get closer to China and improve its trade relations with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a club which Iran joined in 2021 and which includes China, India and Russia. Iran’s oil sales to China have doubled in 2021 and will continue to grow. Iranian public opinion towards America could cool further.

As the clock ticks, Western powers may also grow weary of the JCPOA. The 2015 agreement was full of sunset clauses limiting the duration of nuclear restrictions. The ban on arms sales to Iran has already expired. The first restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program fall in 2024 and cease completely by 2031. Some Western diplomats openly fear the deal is not worth it.

Hence the risk of escalation. The first theater of confrontation would be Iran’s nuclear development. In September 2021, Iran had five tonnes of uranium enriched to 3.67% fissile purity, against 200 kg agreed under the JCPOA. He also had 85 kg fortified to 20% and an additional 10 kg fortified to 60%, far beyond anything necessary for civilian purposes. Parliament has mandated a new generation of centrifuges that will expand enrichment targets to military grade purity of 90% or higher.

The second theater will be regional. Iran could organize military exercises on its border with Azerbaijan, which has close military ties with Israel. For its part, Israel could step up sabotage operations against Iranian nuclear facilities and drone attacks against its many proxies, increasing the threat of a regional war. Iran could offer the Chinese navy the use of its islands in the Gulf. Some observers believe that the first military confrontation between China and the West could take place in the Gulf of Oman rather than the South China Sea.

Fear of such scenarios could pull enemies from the brink. No one wants a war. The West could offer better conditions, allowing hardliners to save face (despite their bravado, they want a stronger economy). Mr Raisi does not have the $ 600 billion in reserves that protected Iran from sanctions a decade ago, and the partial release of frozen assets the West granted to its predecessor. The rial has lost 90% of its value against the dollar since 2015. Wages and savings have been hit. Basic commodities such as rice are out of reach, and power and water cuts are provoking anger just as Mr. Khamenei prepares his succession. But the old man can calculate that his diet is safer without interference from the West.

Nick Pelham: Middle East Correspondent, The Economist

This article appeared in the Middle East section of The World Ahead 2022 print edition under the headline “Still Want a Deal?

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