Forty years after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, relations between the United States and Iran are as tense as they have ever been. Last year began with broad optimism for the course of U.S. relations with Iran as multilateral talks to restore full U.S. and Iranian adherence to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), appeared to make progress. The Trump administration abrogated the agreement in 2018. On at least two occasions in 2022, most recently in August, European officials claimed that a deal was imminent, and confidently predicted that Western tensions with Iran would ease. Yet, Tehran balked at the final compromises required for a deal, accusing the United States of unreasonable demands. With negotiations stalled since September 2022, the Islamic Republic has intensified its enrichment of uranium to the point that proliferation experts assess Iran is weeks away from acquiring enough fissile material to produce a nuclear weapon. Iran’s late 2022 nuclear advances coincided with growing Western alarm over Tehran’s agreement to support Russia’s faltering Ukraine war effort, supplying Moscow with thousands of Iran-made armed drones and short-range ballistic missiles. The Iranian leadership’s burgeoning alignment with Moscow coincided with an escalating crackdown against protesters opposing the clerical regime’s repression – a female-led uprising sparked by the mid-September death of a young Kurdish woman while in custody for failing to comply with the regime’s laws requiring the full covering of her hair. Washington is now using pressure that Iran has not experienced for many years to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, which he claims Iran is not looking to do currently. Last november, US Special Envoy Robert Malley also warned that the military option was still on the table if the US could not get Iran back into compliance with the now-defunct 2015 nuclear deal through diplomatic efforts. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in partnership with the Israel Defense Forces on last January kicked off Juniper Oak 23.2, the biggest joint U.S.-Israel exercise in history. A list of primary focuses for Juniper Oak outlined by CENTCOM included joint command and control, maritime air operations, combat search and rescue, electronic warfare, suppression of enemy air defenses, air interdiction, and strike coordination. This large multi-domain exercise that includes a U.S. carrier strike group is aimed largely at Iran. It comes at a time when friction between Iran, the US and Israel has grown even greater, in anticipation of a future attack on Iranian nuclear sites in the coming months.
The accumulation of actions by Tehran has severely diminished any chance of reviving the JCPOA. On January 4, 2023, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that the United States has not observed any change from the Iranian side to warrant a resumption of the JCPOA negotiations with Iran in Vienna. He added, confirming that U.S. policy toward Iran had shifted to a harder line, that: “Since September especially, our focus has been on standing up…for the fundamental freedoms of the Iranian people and countering Iran’s deepening military partnership with Russia and its support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.” U.S. President Joseph Biden and the U.S. Congress have soured on any lifting of JCPOA economic sanctions on Iran. There is broad support throughout the U.S. government for additional sanctions on Iranian human rights abusers and its drone and missile production infrastructure. Reflecting the perception that the JCPOA will not be revived, some members of the U.S. State Department’s JCPOA negotiating team have departed. U.S. officials have not declared the talks ended, apparently calculating – among other considerations – that Iranian leaders might use a collapse of the negotiations to advance to “threshold” nuclear status – a capability of quickly assembling a working nuclear weapon if the government decided to do so. U.S. and allied options to dramatically change Iran’s behavior – its nuclear program, its alignment with Russia, its support for regional armed factions, or its domestic repression – appear limited. Since 2010, U.S. secondary sanctions – excluding from the U.S. financial system foreign companies that trade with sanctioned Iranian entities – have been progressively expanded and now target virtually every sector of Iran’s economy. Senior Iranian officials, commanders, and units of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), other Iranian law enforcement entities, missile and drone facilities and supporting entities, oil trading firms, banks, and irregular financing networks have all been sanctioned by the United States and, in many cases, also by U.S. allies. Iranian banks are virtually shut out of the global financial system. In late December, U.S. officials signaled their intent to use additional sanctions to try to curtail Iran’s supply of drones to Russia. National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson stated: “We are looking at ways to target Iranian [unmanned aerial vehicle] production through sanctions, export controls, and talking to private companies whose parts have been used in the production. We are assessing further steps we can take regarding export controls to restrict Iran’s access to technologies used in drones.” U.S. and allied sanctions have damaged Iran’s economy but have fallen short of causing Iranian leaders to accept the compromises needed to restore the JCPOA, reduce or end sales of military equipment to Russia, or cease its attacks, arrests, and executions of domestic protesters. The United States and its allies will continue to designate Iranian and Iran-facilitating third-country entities and persons for sanctions in 2023, but U.S. officials and outside experts are likely to express frustration that sanctions alone will not accomplish U.S. Iran policy objectives.
A key question is whether the United States or its allies judge that military options are necessary to address the variety of threats Iran poses. As Iran’s nuclear program advances, the potential for the hardline Israeli government of Benyamin Netanyahu to undertake strategic air strikes against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure will increase. Overt Israeli military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities in 2023 cannot be ruled out – with or without U.S. approval – if Iran enriches uranium to weapons-grade levels (90% purity). In the current context, the possibility of new U.S. military action against Iranian forces and assets is also increasing. On January 4, U.S. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price acknowledged that the United States and Israel have discussed possible efforts to interdict “the proliferation of Iranian [armed drone] technology to countries around the world, including to Russia.” U.S. military efforts against Iran are not unprecedented: over the past eight years, U.S. forces have been intercepting Iranian arms shipments to the Houthi movement in Yemen. Over the past decade, the U.S. military has consistently retaliated for attacks on U.S. forces by Iran-backed militia forces in Iraq and Syria. Over the past two decades, U.S. naval elements have, on numerous occasions, fired warning shots at IRGC naval units that made threatening approaches in the Persian Gulf. Still, to date – even at times of heightened tensions – the United States has not conducted strikes on missile, drone, nuclear, or military facilities inside Iran. Nevertheless, U.S. officials have always maintained that “all options are on the table” in response to Iranian nuclear developments or other perceived Iranian threats.
Last november 2022, US Special Envoy Robert Malley also warned that the military option was still on the table if the US could not get Iran back into compliance with the now-defunct 2015 nuclear deal through diplomatic efforts. The Biden administration has rolled out several rounds of sanctions as chances to reach a nuclear deal worsen. The indirect talks, which were being held in Vienna, have been stalled for months. One of the key foreign policy priorities for Biden officials after they took office was to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was brokered under former President Barack Obama. “If none of that works, the President has said, and, as a last resort, he will agree to a military option because if that’s what it takes to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, that’s what will happen. But we’re not there,” the special envoy for Iran said last year. Robert Malley defended the Biden administration’s efforts to keep diplomacy open and as an option. But he criticized the Trump administration and its maximum-pressure campaign that was implemented in a bid to try to get Iran back to the negotiating table. “We owe it to ourselves to have an honest examination of how sanctions work and how they don’t work,” he said, adding that Iran would not be advancing its nuclear program the way it currently is if sanctions had worked. Yet, Malley said Iran was not pursuing a nuclear weapon “at this point” without elaborating. He blamed the Iranian regime for refusing to accept the deal that was put on the table during the previous rounds of talks in Vienna.
Some experts and former U.S. officials argue that only the outright replacement of Iran’s regime will adequately address the many threats posed by the Islamic regime. U.S. officials have provided public support for Iran’s demonstrators in the ongoing uprising, while acknowledging that the United States has little leverage with which to help force the current government out of power. In 2023, the United States and its allies appear to be hoping for – but not expecting – a change in Iran’s regime, while planning for a range of escalatory economic and military steps in an effort to blunt the growing array of threats posed by Iran.