Forecasting Iran’s nuclear development

Oct 06, 2023 09:12PM UTC

For years, Iran was thought to be working towards building a nuclear weapon. In 2015, however, the U.S. and its allies successfully negotiated the JCPOA, better known as the “Iran Nuclear Deal.” Three years later, the U.S. pulled out of the deal, and Iran began ignoring the deal’s restrictions on its nuclear program in response. Now, using our issue decomposition process, INFER is assessing the likelihood that Iran will produce a nuclear weapon. We’ve already released several forecasting questions on this issue and more will be released in the coming weeks, along with periodic reports summarizing which scenario is most likely to occur.

After the U.S. withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, Iran breached the limits on uranium enrichment and stockpiling set by the deal. With gaps remaining in the IAEA's monitoring and knowledge of Iran's program, there is considerable uncertainty around Iran's nuclear intentions and just how close they are to achieving weaponization capabilities if they choose to pursue them. The U.S. and some of its allies, including Israel, have previously accused Iran of pursuing nuclear weapons capabilities, while Iran maintains its nuclear development is solely for civilian energy and medical purposes. However, Iran achieving nuclear weapons capability could significantly alter the balance of power in the Near East given Iran’s strategic location, alliances with state and non-state actors like Hezbollah, and adversarial relationship with the U.S. and its allies.

Due to the significant impact of Iran's nuclear future on international security and U.S. interests, we worked with Beth Sanner, INFER advisor and former Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Mission Integration, to scope this issue into the overarching question–Will Iran produce a nuclear weapon?–and decompose it to understand (and forecast) the drivers that will help decision-makers understand what will influence the outcome.

The visualization below shows the three drivers that we prioritized: Iran’s external threat environment, its internal preferences, and international incentives and disincentives.

Looking more closely, we can see how movement within each driver (i.e., change in the likelihood of certain events occurring) can provide a better picture about how likely Iran is to develop a nuclear weapon.

  • External threat environment: The outcome in this driver is influenced by the occurrence of an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, coordination between Iran's enemies, and military support from countries like Russia and China. Increased hostility in the external environment and threats to Iran's security could motivate Iran to pursue nuclear weapons as a deterrent, while the opposite could make a nuclear weapon a less likely possibility.
  • Internal preferences in Iran: The outcome in this driver is influenced by potential leadership changes, economic pressures, and domestic views on nuclear development within Iran. For example, a more hardline leader coming into power or strong public support for nuclear weapons could increase Iran's motivation to pursue them.
  • International incentives and disincentives: The outcome in this driver is impacted by ongoing international agreements like the JCPOA and economic sanctions imposed by other nations, which would shape the costs and benefits of Iran's nuclear development.

To quantify the future outcome of each driver, we have identified metrics or relevant event outcomes to forecast. Here are examples of a forecast question under each driver:

These questions and others are tagged under Iran Nuclear Program.

For more on this topic, see our blog post comparing expert perspectives and crowd forecasts in What’s next for the Iran nuclear deal?

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