Dormant international negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program seem likely to resume early next year, as Iran hints at a willingness to return to the table. But the progress Iran continues to make in the processing and stockpiling of 20-percent-enriched uranium – a critical step in the process for building a nuclear weapon – also means that 2013 is almost certain to be a make-or-break year for stopping Iran's advance – either through diplomacy or war.
"Iran is the most likely place where conflict and the projection of American power could get in the way of domestic agenda," says Kupchan, also a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. "A window of opportunity opened for the diplomatic front with Obama's reelection," he adds, "but that window will only remain open through the spring." If no deal is forthcoming, "There's a reasonably high likelihood of an American air war against Iran in the second half of 2013."
What might a deal that avoids the need for airstrikes on Iranian nuclear facilities look like?
Iran – which insists that its program is intended solely for peaceful purposes – would almost certainly be required to ship its stockpile of 20-percent-purified uranium out of the country, while opening up its facilities to an intrusive international inspection regime, nuclear experts say. Iran will seek an easing of tough international economic sanctions – sanctions the US is likely to add to in the run-up to any negotiations – in return for any steps it takes. One possible stumbling block: Israel wants no easing of sanctions until Iran gives up all enrichment activity.