Iran is reaching a tipping point for democratic reform and the nuclear deal could push it over by providing the economic growth the moderates need to succeed
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.