2023 will be a crucial year for Iran on the domestic, the regional and the international stages. The challenges the country will face in each of these key areas and how the establishment will handle them will shape the future of Iran for years to come.
On the domestic front Iran will continue to grapple with tensions between state and society. These have been growing over the past few years but have been particularly acute in 2022, the year of the “Women, Life, Freedom” demonstrations. What started as protests triggered by rage over the killing of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman of Kurdish origin detained and then killed by the morality police simply for loosely wearing the hijab, quickly evolved into a wider anti-government protest across the country. Nearly three months later, demonstrations have still not been contained by the regime, despite the crackdown by the security forces. At the same time, the leadership seems unwilling to grant any concession or respond to the protesters’ demands. The de facto stalemate is likely to continue for the time being and, even with demonstrations ending, the establishment is unlikely to work towards mending the gap between state and society. This means that, while the stability of the regime might not be at risk, at least for now, other demonstrations and sources of tensions could emerge in the coming year, potential drivers being the state of the economy and the pressure on the day-to-day lives of a large share of the population, or the broader dissatisfaction with civil liberties.
The domestic picture will also continue to affect Iran’s relations with international players, particularly Western ones. With the Iranian regime continuing its repression towards protests and its lack of reforms, the West will most likely gradually pursue its path towards downgrading ties with Tehran. Over the past few months, besides condemning the violent crackdown on demonstrators, several Western countries (EU, UK, US and Canada) have introduced new sanctions against individuals and entities identified as responsible for their role in the death of Mahsa Amini and the violent response to the recent demonstrations in Iran. Germany’s foreign office went as far as to announce a downgrading of bilateral relations with Iran – a policy which might be adopted by other countries across Europe as well. The supply of drones by Iran to Russia for its war in Ukraine further decreases the chances of an improvement of ties between Iran and the West and, instead, increases the likelihood that Iran will be isolated and subject to even more pressure and sanctions. The trajectory therefore is one of condemnation of Iran’s repression, support for demonstrators and a focus on ways to curtail Iran’s supply of weapons to Russia, thus moving away from engagement and dialogue.
One of the clear repercussions will be on the chances for the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), to be restored. Negotiations over the summer seemed to lead those involved to be cautiously optimistic that an agreement was within reach between the two sides. However, the glimmer of hope rapidly vanished after Tehran submitted a new series of requests which both the EU and the US did not deem reasonable. Since September, talks have not resumed, partially due to a wait-and-see strategy on both sides but mostly as a consequence of recent developments. Already in October, the US claimed that reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal "is not our focus right now". A few days later, France and the UK added that, by supplying drones to Russia, Iran was in breach of its obligations under parts of the JCPOA. With talks stalled, the potential for the nuclear issue to become a major crisis drastically increases. Iran has continued advancing its nuclear activities, most recently beginning to enrich uranium to 60% at the underground Fordow nuclear facility, bringing the country closer to weapons grade material. While Tehran continues to deny its desire to build a nuclear weapon, the recent nuclear activities significantly shorten the so-called “breakout time” needed to create a bomb. As concerns by the EU and the US intensify, the lack of meaningful options available, without dialogue on the table, mean that the risk of an escalation and even a confrontation is getting ever closer. This is even more the case given the recent re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israeli Prime Minister and the likely rise in Israeli actions against Iran and its nuclear programme, in line with his past behaviour.
The overall picture is thus one of escalation on multiple fronts, including the regional one. The protests have already had an impact on Iran’s foreign policy, leading Tehran to adopt an even more securitised approach towards neighbouring countries. Over the past few months, for instance, Iran has intensified its drone and missile attacks against the Iraqi Kurdistan Region after accusing Iraq-based Kurdish militants of fomenting the unrest inside Iran. Iran’s perception of a threat, inside and outside the country, could induce Tehran to pursue similar actions elsewhere, including by intensifying its support and funding for its proxies across the region. This will all come at the expense of dialogue and de-escalation with countries in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia. Initiatives such as the bilateral dialogue between Tehran and Riyadh mediated by Iraq have been suspended for months and their resumption seems more and more challenging. While the two sides might indirectly engage in talks on specific issues, such as on Yemen, as currently seems to be the case, the prospects for a restoration of diplomatic ties and for some sort of security arrangement across the region seem meagre.
With the challenges ahead on the domestic, international and regional front, it remains to be seen whether Tehran will be able to not just talk the talk but also walk the walk, without enduring consequences on its stability and security.