What’s next for the Iran nuclear deal?

Walter Frick
Sep 13, 2023 09:17PM UTC

In May 2018, the Trump administration withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by its predecessor. Since then, the deal—formally, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—has been a zombie. It’s not dead, but with Iran flouting its terms and the U.S. no longer officially a party to it, it’s not alive either.

Does the JCPOA—or something like it—have a future? Forecasters at INFER have been tackling a series of questions related to the deal and to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. They’ve forecasted the likelihood of Iran leaving the JCPOA, as well as of other participants enacting “snapback” sanctions.

INFER forecasters and experts agree on the most likely scenario: The status quo will continue, with Iran staying formally in the deal and without any party enacting snapback sanctions. However, there is considerable disagreement over the likelihood of different scenarios.

Will Iran leave the deal?

As of this writing, the INFER crowd forecasts an 11% chance of Iran leaving the JCPOA by January 1, 2025. INFER asked four experts for their reactions to that forecast. Two said it was too high; one said it was about right; one said it was too low. That range reflects the uncertainty surrounding Iran’s nuclear program and its relations with the West.

“I don't see any reason for Iran to leave the JCPOA—there is nothing to gain economically, and enrichment has continued in spite of the treaty,” wrote one INFER forecaster.

Brian O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center, agrees. “I don’t think there’s any reason they leave it because they don’t have to,” he told INFER. “There’s no benefit to them really.” One benefit to Iran of staying in the deal, says O’Toole: “The JCPOA gives them conceivable cover to keep driving a wedge between Europe and the U.S.”

(Disclosure: I am a part-time editor at the Atlantic Council.)

Jason Brodsky, the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran, an advocacy group, went further. “Iran is never going to leave the JCPOA,” he said.

Henry Rome, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said a forecast of 10-15% chance was about right for Iran leaving the deal. What would it take for that to happen? “It would take them deciding to shut the door on nuclear diplomacy for the foreseeable future,” he told INFER. Iran would have to come “to the conclusion that JCPOA cannot be revived and that anything like JCPOA can’t really be revived and therefore there’s no reason to even maintain the illusion of a JCPOA structure existing anymore.” One factor that could precipitate such a course? The U.S. election. (More on that in a moment.)

Kimberly Donovan, director of the Economic Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council, told INFER that the chances of Iran leaving the deal were closer to 25-30% and that a scenario for doing so could involve developing closer ties to China. That might lessen the bite of Western sanctions. And if China were to broker a detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran, for example, then Iran might face less risk from its neighbors in pursuing nuclear weapons.

Will Europe enact snapback sanctions?

The INFER crowd is forecasting a 3% chance that a JCPOA participant enacts snapback sanctions by the end of 2024, and there was relative agreement between forecasters and experts over the path from here to there.

“The main factor in this question is whether Iran pushes to get a nuclear weapon for real or not,” one INFER forecaster wrote.

Rome, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that there were “one-and-a-half” paths to snapbacks. “One is if Iran were to enrich [uranium] to 90%, the level traditionally defined as weapons grade,” which “the Europeans have made crystal clear in writing that that would lead to snapback. The half is if Iran were to provide ballistic missiles to Russia, that could be a trigger for snapback as well.”

Iran’s involvement in Ukraine points to the difficulty of getting back to a JCPOA-like accord. That deal specifically put aside non-nuclear issues, like funding for terrorism, much to Israel’s displeasure. Today, Western countries might have a harder time separating nuclear weapons from issues like the war in Ukraine.

Some INFER forecasters also mentioned conflict in the Strait of Hormuz as a potential cause of snapbacks. O’Toole said that would not necessarily lead to snapbacks but would certainly shift Europe’s posture toward Iran.

What about the U.S. election?

The single biggest x-factor for the JCPOA’s future and Iran’s relationship with the West is the U.S. presidential election, according to the experts INFER spoke to.

Experts believe that the Biden administration would like to return to something like JCPOA, though likely not until after the election, and are pursuing de-escalation in the meantime. But even if Biden wins, the administration might find it harder to make a deal this time around.

In addition to the question of arms sales to Russia, there’s the fact that the JCPOA was signed with the P5+1—China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. But U.S. relations with both China and Russia have declined, so for now the P5+1 is not a credible negotiating bloc.

Then there’s the fact that the JCPOA may not have actually delivered the sanctions relief that some anticipated—possibly including Iran. While the deal did lift some U.S. sanctions, it remained difficult for Iran to access the U.S. financial system. For example, families of terrorism victims have sued in US court and tied up Iranian funds. And during the Trump administration, the US Treasury Department designated Iran a “jurisdiction of primary money laundering concern,” which some experts believe would be difficult for the Biden administration to undo.

But the bigger uncertainty is about what will happen if Trump wins a second term.

“If Trump wins, there’s something like even odds that they push for a bomb,” said O’Toole. “Their breakout time is probably shorter than the transition time between elections.”


This article is part of the blog series "INFER Insights." Each post explores a question or topic we're monitoring on INFER and compares crowd and expert perspectives surrounding the possible outcome. 

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Walter Frick

By: Walter Frick

Walter Frick is the founder of Nonrival, a newsletter that lets readers make predictions about tech, business, and the economy. He is a contributing editor (former senior editor) at Harvard Business Review, former executive editor at Quartz and has written for publications including The Atlantic, the BBC, and MIT Technology Review.

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