Will the nuclear agreement change Iran?
Washington - The debate about the Iran nuclear deal had focused on terms of the agreement and whether it would survive a US congressional vote in the face of intense opposition. Now that the deal is assured of survival in Congress, the focus is now on the day after.
On that front, the most important question is: What kind of Iran will this deal produce? Will the agreement moderate the Iranian regime’s regional ambitions? How will it affect the Iranian economy? Will it prove a shot in the arm to the democratisation process?
The only thing people agree on is that it is a “transformational deal of a transformational moment” in the words of David Rothkopf, editor of Foreign Policy magazine.
Opponents of the deal, even though they want to kill it, at the same time want to use it to foster regime change.
They regard Washington’s failure to support the Green revolution street protests in Iran in 2009 as a missed opportunity.
Proponents of the deal, led by US President Barack Obama, say it is a good agreement regardless of the nature of the Iranian regime. As Obama said in an interview with the New York Times: “We are not measuring this deal by whether it is changing the regime inside Iran.”
But whether or not they admit it publicly, hoping for a new Iran to emerge as a result of the country’s deeper integration with the international community is on everybody’s mind. Obama administration officials say they hope and expect the deal will change Iran.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who might know the Iranian regime better than anyone in Washington after spending two years in negotiation with its members, has more openly expressed hope that the agreement will help change Iran from within.
Does this mean that democracy will flourish in Iran as soon as the country opens up and that the mullahs will fade into the sunset? Hardly.
Nobody is talking about a realistic prospect for Iranian democracy in the near future.
Two more realistic models are offered when talking about the future of Iran. One is the Soviet Union after its collapse at the end of the Gorbachev era. The other is the Chinese model: economic openness with continued political repression inside and projection of power in the region.
Those who lean to the idea that Iran offers a potential Soviet model say the nuclear deal presents an opportunity to change the regime. Benjamin Weinthal, of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, argues that the United States should “replicate the US position towards the solidarity movement in Poland” in the 1980s. “The deal may have just bought us ten years to get rid of this vile regime,” he said.
Others, however, say the deal may allow Iranian hardliners to cement their grip on power, politically and financially.
Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center wrote that “the supreme leader doesn’t see a nuclear agreement as a pathway to letting go of power but as a way of enhancing it and securing the revolution”.
The strong grip on power maintained by the regime discards the possibility that it will collapse as soon as the first business deal is signed in Tehran — there will be nothing resembling the fall of the Berlin Wall. Nader Hashemi of the University of Denver argues that the prospect for democratic political change is limited.
He said the “Arab spring” and the subsequent turmoil and collapse of a number of Arab countries has “scared the Iranians from change and led some people to think change might lead to disaster”.
The regime also benefited from the confrontation with the West over the nuclear issue, a confrontation that fuelled the nationalist sentiment and has led even the opponents of the regime to support the nuclear deal.
So is the China model a better fit for Iran? Moustapha Hafs, a Lebanese activist and researcher who lived in Iran and speaks Farsi, says it does not apply. “While China is an engine, Iran is a consumer,” Hafs said. “And while it is buying from the world, it will remain under the control of outside multinationals.”
Hafs says that democratisation in Iran can only come through the end of ideological authority.
In his assessment, the current regime “does not represent more than 18% of the Iranian people; the rest, or 50% at least, shop in Dubai”.
Many Iranians are hoping that the ideological grip of the regime will unclench as the end of sanctions brings a much-desired period of prosperity. Iranian reformists hope that job creation and a better standard of living might lead to political openness and improved human rights.
After 30 years in power and after extending its sphere of influence throughout much of the Middle East, it is hard to believe that the Iranian regime will fold and clear the way for a new generation of Iranians who believe in democratic ideals.
Change will not come easy in Iran. As Gerald Seib of the Wall Street Journal wrote: “History shows revolutionary regimes don’t die easily.”