In 2004 I spent a week in Tehran writing an article about Iran’s nuclear program. What struck me most when I was there was the tension between the country’s revolutionary ideology and its historical character: the programmed and polemical officials who were at the same time exquisitely polite, the drab streets thronged with the most extraordinary variety of faces from all corners of an ancient empire. I found myself thinking what an amazing country Iran would be if only someone could get rid of those lunatic mullahs. I still think that. And the question I ask myself about the nuclear deal reached last week is whether it will make the attainment of something like normalcy for Iran more or less likely.
I know, of course, that the great question of the day is whether the deal will prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. I think it will; and on those merits, I’m in favor of the deal. But I can’t quite believe that Iran’s nuclear capacity is the supreme question it’s made out to be. The real issue, as Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution recently noted, is Iran’s disruptive behavior in the Middle East. The Israelis and the Saudis are aghast that the West is prepared to lift sanctions on a country that continues to sponsor Hezbollah and wage war against Sunnis in Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen. Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went so far as to say that Iran is bent on “taking over the world.”
That level of alarmism is ludicrous, even by Netanyahu’s standards, both because Iran’s military capacities are very modest and because its ambitions are regional, not global. Nevertheless, Iran represents a special kind of danger to the world because, like revolutionary France, if not like Nazi Germany, it seeks to expand its area of control not simply as a matter of state interest but of ideological conviction. Iran is a revolutionary force bent on upending a regional status quo. And while France exhausted itself through perpetual warfare, ultimately discrediting the principles of the revolution, Iran’s leaders have largely fought through proxies, preserving their standing, as well as the nation’s manpower. Indeed, the very fact that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has given his blessing to the nuclear deal is a sign of the suppleness that has preserved the revolution after more than 35 years.
The regime is unlikely to destroy itself, and the Iraq War should have cured even the most reckless soul of the belief that outside forces can institute regime change without cataclysmic results. The question then is, what actions by outsiders — if any — are most likely to reduce the potency of Iran’s revolutionary ideology and thus curb its adventurous foreign policy? How, that is, can Iran come to resemble other ambitious-but-responsible emerging powers, like India or Turkey?
Could the nuclear deal itself begin to bring that about? In conversations I had starting in the summer of 2009, officials in President Barack Obama’s administration expressed the very guarded hope that a new, more respectful approach to Iran might ultimately lead to just such an outcome. Now that Obama has gained the nuclear deal he sought, he is careful to say, as he did to the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, that he has no expectations of a kinder, gentler Iran. The president has learned quite a few painful lessons over the years about the intransigence of America’s rivals (think of Russia in Ukraine or China in the South China Sea). What’s more, he knows very well that both Netanyahu and many of his Persian Gulf allies regard his Iran policy as recklessly naive. There’s no reason to compound the problem by putting forward overly optimistic scenarios.
There are, in fact, few grounds for optimism. As many commentators have noted, some portion of the $100 billion to $150 billion in bank funds to be unfrozen as sanctions are lifted will almost certainly go to the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard or Hezbollah. Even absent that windfall, so long as Iran’s Sunni adversaries, above all the Saudis, remain obsessed with countering Teheran’s influence, both real and imagined, Iran can be counted on to support Shiite groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria.
In the short run, therefore, the nuclear deal is likelier to make matters worse rather than better, and the president may spend more of his remaining time in office countering Iran’s aggressive moves than he will summoning its better angels, as the New York Times‘ editorial page recently urged him to do.
But what about the long run? What about changes, not in the behavior of the regime but in its ideological foundations — and thus in the balance of power between state and society? Is it reasonable to think that the nuclear deal might help tip Iran toward moderation? I think it is, and I imagine that Obama thinks so too, even if you won’t catch him saying so.
Revolutions need adversaries. The best argument for ending the decades-long sanctions on Cuba was that inveterate American enmity had offered the Castros the perfect pretext for preserving their autocratic rule. Normalizing relations would unleash forces that would undermine the legitimacy of the communist regime and strengthen liberal forces. That process has only just begun, but it holds out far more promise of turning Cuba into a country that respects the international order than did the policy of endless antagonism. Iran, like Cuba, has used virulent anti-Americanism to preserve its grip over an increasingly restless citizenry.
The mullahs can still muster crowds to shout “Death to America,” but they aren’t as large as they once were. Unlike Cuba, Iran has a robust and growing middle class that is desperate to travel to and trade with the West. That class elected the moderate Hassan Rouhani as president in 2013. And it is this aspirational class that will ultimately be the agent of social transformation in Iran.
Of course, there are arguments on the other side. Cuba is dead broke and needs the lifeline from the West, whereas the nuclear deal is about to loose a cataract of revenue on Iran. If the United States really wants to tip the balance between the theological state and an increasingly aspirational Iranian society, therefore, Washington should keep tightening the screws of sanctions until the citizens rise up against their rulers — as then-President Ronald Reagan did by raising the ante of military spending until the Soviets bankrupted themselves. Nevertheless, that seems less likely to dislodge the mullahs from power than the dynamic of economic freedom.
Revolutionary societies don’t last forever; they are eventually undone by their own contradictions. Mao gives way to Deng; Andropov to Gorbachev and then to Yeltsin (and then, alas, to Putin). Sometimes the United States confronts such regimes, sometimes it contains them, and sometimes it tries to furnish an exit ramp. Until now, Washington has focused its policy toward Iran on the first two of those options. Now it is trying the third. It’s a gamble. It is, however, vastly preferable to the alternatives.