Nuclear deal with Iran would benefit Iranian moderates and improve prospects for democratic reform
Successful completion of the nuclear deal would give Iranian moderates grounds for arguing that Iran is on the verge of achieving enough international stability to finally allow it to turn its attention to the domestic tasks of the revolution.
Opponents claim Iranian negotiators caved on key issues and were outmaneuvered by more clever and sinister American diplomats. Conservatives in Iran may be right. Iran’s opening to the outside world may weaken the ruling regime, as eventually Mao Zedong’s opening to the West did in the 1970s in China, and Gorbachev’s opening to the West did in the 1980s in the U.S.S.R. But these historical analogies also suggest that Iranian hardliners may be wrong. China’s overtures to the West undermined communist ideology and practices, but have proved essential in keeping the Chinese Communist Party in power so far. Gorbachev’s bold steps toward international integration eventually allowed both market and democratic institutions to take hold in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. Yet the current counterrevolutionary backlash inside Russia suggests that the struggle for democracy, markets, and integration there will be long and tumultuous. There is no guarantee that Iran’s will be any less so.
No one knows what scenario will unfold in Iran. But the debate inside the country should inform America’s own debate. If the deal, as some American critics claim, sells out Iranian democrats and strengthens theocrats, why do so many Iranian reformists, democracy activists, and even dissidents support it? If it represents a financial windfall for Iranian conservatives and their terrorist allies abroad, why are Iran’s most conservative politicians so passionately against it?
Maybe Iran’s democrats are naive. And maybe the conservatives are playing a clever game of deception. Yet given America’s less-than-sterling track record of supporting Iran’s reformers, perhaps this time it’s worth listening to and betting on those in the country whom the United States claims to champion.
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Given the number of domestic challenges the Islamic Republic is facing, most notably a tremendous growth in its youthful population, combined with the incompetence and corruption that has marked its stewardship of the Iranian economy, it is hard to imagine that this regime can continue to avoid collapse without significant reform.12 At the same time, there is little reason to expect that a democratic revolution is imminent. The reform movements that seemed so promising in the late 1990s have largely been defeated. The best strategy for revitalizing these movements is to encourage Tehran's involvement in the world economy, as opposed to further attempts at isolation. Increasing the Iranian people's exposure to the world economy is much more likely to increase motivation and expand the resources available to any future reform movement. Iran's eventual inclusion in the World Trade Organization is one of the carrots currently being held out to Iran as part of ongoing negotiations regarding its nuclear program. Such incentives may advance America's long-term foreign policy goals in the region even if those efforts fail to negate Iran's development of a nuclear weapon.
Perhaps most significant would be the implications for the internal power struggle within Iran. Hardliners still hold most of the cards and they are as extreme and nasty as can be imagined. Nevertheless, Iran also has an elected government with considerable influence and with a demonstrably more benign world view. Never before since the Iranian Revolution have the pragmatists so captured the imagination of the Iranian public, with their vision of an Iran more economically integrated into the global community. The United States should want to help them; not undermine them. If there is a deal, the pragmatic faction’s power and influence will dramatically grow, increasing the likelihood that after the death of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Iran would be led by a more reasonable autocrat.
If instead, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is discredited through a breakdown in the nuclear talks, hardliners will resume complete control as in the time of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and win the succession fight. That will sabotage the West's ability to work with Iran for years to come.
The deal itself is the second reason. It gives Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and others concrete grounds for arguing that Iran is on the verge of achieving enough international stability to finally allow it to turn its attention to the domestic tasks of the revolution.
Domestic reform is more than ever at the center of political discourse in Iran. It is being raised not only by the opposition, but also within the religious seminaries and among those committed to the regime. This debate is not just limited to the economic sphere. Many are questioning how Islamic rule should be manifest culturally. As Abbas Milani, Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, described in a recent article in The Atlantic, Iran is in the midst of “culture wars” over the role of Islam in society, and the regime is occupied with preserving and legitimizing Islamic rule. It desperately needs to prove that it can provide economic growth to show that Islamic rule is not just holding Iran back.
Iran might be reaching a point like China in the late 1970s. Desperate economic circumstances, the manifest bankruptcy of its world revolutionary project, and rapprochement with the United States gave the communist regime the breathing space it needed to shift its attention to internal matters. The Chinese Communist Party has not given up power, and it has never publicly disavowed its revolution. Like Iran, though, its revolution was as much about internal improvement as external confrontation. Many now see economic growth rates as Beijing’s main source of legitimacy. Rouhani too has made it clear that Iran has to choose between international isolation and economic growth.
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Rouhani and his western-educated Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif currently “own” the nuclear portfolio and, to some extent, tenta- tive efforts to improve relations with Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states and Turkey. A win on the “nuclear file” might enable Rouhani and Zarif to convince Khamenei to give them greater autonomy and to begin to claw back additional aspects of Iranian foreign policy from the Revolutionary Guards. It is important to recognize, however, that such a shift in some areas of Iran’s foreign policy orientation would not end the competition or rivalry between Iran and the United States (or the latter’s regional allies). For Iran’s pragmatists, a thaw would not result in capitulation or the abandonment of Iran’s role as a revolutionary state. But improved lines of communication with Washington and regional states would permit pursuit of tactical cooperation and “win-win” compromises that could secure Iran’s core interests while reducing international hostility.8
However, while Iran’s political system appears to be largely static, its society presents real possibilities. Most Iranians are eager to have a more open country that is part of the global community. This is not to sugarcoat the problems Iran faces as a nation, be they corruption, drug use, pollution, and all the struggles that come with a nation grappling with modernity. And it may take decades for Iran to emerge from the trauma of revolution, war, sanctions, and repression.
Nevertheless, Iranians have demonstrated resilience in the past. And many of them believe that a better future is worth waiting for. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will not live forever. Will his passing lead to a better future? Looking at the Middle East, it’s difficult to be rosy about any one country’s fate. But a final nuclear deal, Iran’s adherence to it, and resulting sanctions relief could provide more room for Iranians who seek real changes. No one should expect miracles after a nuclear deal. Khamenei and his system will not change so easily. But Iranians have been patient. The United States should be as well.
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and an outspoken advocate for improved relations with Tehran, struck a more optimistic note, suggesting that an agreement could be a watershed in internal Iranian affairs.
“I think in many ways this is going to be decisive as to who defines Iran for the coming decades,” he said after flying back to Washington on Wednesday from Lausanne, Switzerland, where he was monitoring the talks. “If there’s a good deal, and sanctions are lifted and it boosts the Iranian economy, it will show that the moderates can actually get something done.”
Mr. Parsi said that Mr. Rouhani, who took office in August 2013, had been given an extended honeymoon by most Iranians, despite economic stress and other problems, because they prefer his style to that of his more bombastic and divisive predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “They lived through eight years of the alternative, and they know they don’t like that,” he said.
Gary G. Sick, a former National Security Council official and now a Columbia University scholar who has studied Iran for more than four decades, said that Iran’s leaders would place great weight on presenting a deal as a victory, even if they made major concessions in the fine print.
“They need something to hold up to the populace and say, ‘We’ve stood by our rights and our dignity,’ ” he said.
That is in part because Iranian hard-liners, particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, will be looking for ways to attack and undercut any deal, Mr. Sick said. The Revolutionary Guards “thrive on hostile relations with the U.S. and benefit hugely from sanctions, which allow them to control smuggling,” he said.
Mr. Sick said he believed that a deal could begin a process of epochal change inside Iran.
“If the sanctions are lifted, foreign companies come back in, the natural entrepreneurialism of Iranians is unleashed,” he said, then Iran’s political system will inevitably change, if slowly.
“If you want regime change in Iran, meaning changing the way the regime operates, this kind of agreement is the best way to achieve that goal,” he said.
Third, the deal will help unleash Iran's vibrant, young (the median age is 28!) and moderate society, which is continuously pushing Iran in a democratic direction. The deal enjoys solid support among the Iranian public as well as among Iranian civil society leaders, partly because they believe the deal "would enable political and cultural reforms."
America benefits if the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people are increasingly met, because a more democratic Iran is a more moderate Iran.
This is particularly important at a time when the violent winds of religious radicalism are ravaging the Middle East and beyond. America is in desperate need of an injection of political moderation in the region. An Iran that moves towards democracy could provide that.
MYTH: 4) A nuclear deal will worsen human rights in Iran and sell out the Iranian people.
Nonsense. Iranian civil society remains unwavering in its support for a nuclear deal, believing it is the only way to achieve peace domestically and internationally. According to a recent study, respondents were unanimous in favor of a deal, and 61% of respondents believe it would enable political and cultural reforms in Iran - precisely because a nuclear deal will likely strengthen Rouhani's political ability to address such issues. Conversely, respondents were unanimous in their belief that failure to secure a deal will result in increased repression, further loss of political and cultural freedoms, and possibly war.
It is important to note that a short-term increase in human rights abuses may occur in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear deal. Some hardline Iranian officials will likely want to send a message: Do not mistake our opening to the world for "weakness" at home. However, a Rouhani administration empowered by a nuclear deal and improved relations with the world will likely have the ability to improve Iran's human rights situation over the medium to long term. This is change that Iranian society can tolerate: They know better than any population in the region that violent change rarely improves human rights, while gradual (and at times, painful) reform has a far grater chance of success.
The nuclear deal with Iran has sparked a vigorous debate not only in the United States, but in Iran as well with a broad moderate political consensus, supported by overwhelming public support for the deal.
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The author reflects on her experience growing up in Iran and how the nuclear deal could start to change the decades of enimity between the U.S. and Iran that she witnessed.
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Iranians overwhelmingly support the nuclear deal, seeing it as opening up the possibility for more economic cooperation and dialogue with the West and improving the prospects for democratic reform in Iran.
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Jeremy Friedman argues that we should be optimistic about the prospects that the Iranian nuclear deal will bring about more democratic reform in Iran because he notes that the economy is forcing the question and there is an undercurrent in Iranian culture that is ready for reform.
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Alireza Nader encourages optimisim in Iran's movement towards democratic reform but warns that it will take time for these changes to take effect.
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For Iran watchers, a possible deal to rein in the country’s nuclear program raises questions about its impact not only on arms control in the region but also on Tehran’s complex internal politics.
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