Iran and the United States are closer to confrontation. In 2015, Iran signed a deal with the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China to limit its nuclear production in exchange for the lifting of sanctions that have crippled the nation’s economy. Trump’s campaign pledge to withdraw the U.S. from the deal was not fulfilled in 2018. In fact, Iran increased its nuclear activities again. President Joe Biden pledged to try to restore the deal, but Iran—reluctant to negotiate from a perceived position of weakness, and angry that U.S. presidents can so easily reverse their predecessors—is playing hard to get.
Iran’s government has said at various times that it wants to revive the deal, and the country’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, entered office in August with a chance to seal a quick agreement with Washington. He would have had to accept limits on what Iran insists is a peaceful nuclear—energy program, but the lifting of sanctions would allow Iran to sell much more of its oil and other exports, helping to rebuild its broken economy. Instead, Iran has ramped up its nuclear program in ways that reduce the “breakout time” needed for it to build a nuclear weapon, and Raisi has offered little at the negotiating table.
Diplomacy has been put on hold and the prospects of success for it are dimming. There are few choices for the Biden Administration. The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan has reduced the President’s tolerance for risk-taking with Iran that will invite Republican charges of appeasement. Israel, which speaks of Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat, fears that Biden’s foreign policy focus on China and his determination to pivot America’s security focus toward Asia will leave Israel alone, while America’s Gulf allies are more concerned about Iran’s proxy wars and cyber-threats.
There could be spillover effects for the two countries as well as the region from the fight over the nuclear program. Iran will demand a less comprehensive agreement as the hopes for a reviving of the nuclear deal wane. Iran will increase its uranium enrichment and deploy advanced centrifuges to test methods for turning it into a metal suitable to be made bombable. Iran might remind the rest of the world, as it works together with its allies to increase economic pressure.
There’s also a risk inside Iran that continued economic misery will provoke anti-government protests, and if Raisi doesn’t believe he should offer the nuclear concessions needed to ease that pain, he may instead create distractions in the various Middle East conflicts in which Iran is directly or indirectly involved—particularly in Iraq and Yemen. Fear of U.S.–Israeli strikes inside Iran that his government can’t effectively respond to will prevent Raisi from crossing the ultimate red line by building a bomb. It is not likely that Iran will repeat its 2019 bold attack on Saudi Oil Infrastructure. But Iran’s hard-line President has many options short of that, which could again raise security alerts and add upward pressure on already high and rising oil prices.
The possibility that Israel may decide to take military action against Iran without Washington’s approval is also present. It is likely that Israel will take the more drastic but dangerous step of sabotage Iranian military and nuclear sites. This could provoke retaliation from Iran, even in cyberspace. A spiraling conflict could be triggered by a mistake on the part of either side.
The new presidents of the U.S. and Iran are both playing weak hands, and that’s making it unexpectedly hard to restore a deal that offers big benefits for both sides.