In a widely read opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal this past month, the United Arab Emirates’ Ambassador to the United States Yousef al-Otaiba expressed his country’s regret that Iran—one year after the conclusion of the nuclear framework agreement—had not changed its behavior. “Don’t be fooled,” argued the article’s subhead, “The Iran we have long known—hostile, expansionist, violent—is alive and well.”
Looking at Iranian activity in the region since the deal was finalized last July, it is hard to argue with Otaiba’s core conclusion. Even as it has implemented the nuclear restrictions and reductions required of it by the agreement, Iran has advanced its long-range ballistic missile program, continued to support Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad (both directly and through the terrorist group Hizballah), continued to fund and arm its Houthi allies in Yemen, and maintained its hostile rhetoric and posture both toward its Gulf rivals in the region and toward the West and the United States. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif denies any responsibility for regional turmoil and accuses his country’s critics of “damaging adventurism” while the regime continues its practice of arresting U.S. citizens without due process. With access to more than $50 billion in previously frozen funds and its ability to sell oil in international markets restored, Iran is now arguably better positioned to extend its destabilizing influence throughout the region.
All that said, short-term critiques of Iran’s behavior, however valid, are missing the point. It was never realistic to imagine—and Obama Administration proponents of the deal (like myself, while part of that Administration) did not argue—that implementing it would lead to immediate changes. Instead, we argued the Iran nuclear deal was just that: a narrow agreement focused on constraining Iran’s potential nuclear weapons program by diplomatic means in the absence of better alternatives. If it led to hoped-for changes in Iran’s behavior—what President Obama called a “different path…of tolerance and peaceful resolution of conflict”—those changes would take place gradually and only over the longer term. With the main nuclear infrastructure restrictions in the nuclear deal designed to remain in place for 10, 15, or 20 years, we recognized the possibility, however slim, that by the time those constraints were lifted we would be dealing with a different Iran.
Could that actually happen? I certainly would not bet today that in 15 years Iran will be a responsible international actor that treats its population well at home—indeed, if forced to wager I would bet against it. The clerical regime that currently rules the country will do everything it can to preserve power, including resorting to violent domestic repression, and such regimes elsewhere have shown a capacity to hold power for a significant amount of time.
But I do think that positive change in Iran is possible. And given the realistic alternatives to the nuclear deal—temporarily setting back Iran’s nuclear program with a military strike or continuing to isolate Iran as it advances an unrestricted nuclear program—it is worth exploring those prospects. Rather than “tearing up the nuclear deal,” as proposed by many critics, the most sensible approach is a firm but patient policy to rigorously enforce the nuclear deal, simultaneously contain Iran’s hegemonic regional ambitions, and explore the possibility of better relations with a different government in Tehran.
How Iran Might Change
One data point to keep in mind as we think about the potential for change in Iran is that every time the Iranian public is given the opportunity to express itself—in particular through elections, however limited and flawed—it seems to indicate a strong preference for more freedoms at home and greater integration with the world.
As far back as 1997, Iranians rejected the favored regime candidates for President and voted for Mohammad Khatami on a platform of relative rapprochement with the West and a “dialogue of civilizations.” Twelve years later, in 2009, Iranians voted en masse for Mir Hossein Mousavi and the “Green Movement” in an apparent rejection of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s ruinous policies of economic populism and confrontation with the West. The regime prevented Mousavi from taking power and crushed the protestors who supported him—and the United States, understandably in my view, concluded it had no realistic way to prevent the crackdown, and that even rhetorical support might prove counterproductive. Once again in 2013, the regime carefully limited the number of potential candidates for President, and again the public indicated its desire for change by supporting the candidate most closely associated with a new approach, Hassan Rouhani. The most obvious conclusion is that the Iranian public was desperate for change and economic progress, and it knew that it would only come about in the context of a deal on Iran’s nuclear program that would lift international sanctions. Rouhani was seen as the only candidate capable of bringing that about.
Most recently, in the 2016 elections to the Iranian Parliament (Majlis) and Assembly of Experts (the group that will select the next Supreme Leader), Iranians appear to have voted in far greater numbers for “moderates” than for extremists, even though many moderates and reformists were prevented from running in those elections in the first place. While it is difficult to clearly gauge Iranian preferences given the tightly controlled nature of the elections and restrictions on polling and the press, anecdotal evidence and the polling that does exist suggest that the public—and in particular the next generation—strongly favors more freedom at home and more engagement abroad. Especially if Iran’s neighbors and the West show an openness to engage with Iran, there is reason to believe the Iranian public will continue to want to move in this direction.
There is also a sound theoretical basis for believing that the opening of Iran’s economy, as a result of the lifting of sanctions after the nuclear deal, may contribute to long-term political change. As numerous scholars have pointed out, economic development, industrialization, and modernization help foster democratization, openness, and transparency. They tend to create what modernization theorists Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel call “a self-reinforcing process that transforms social life and political institutions, bringing rising mass participation in politics and—in the long run—making the establishment of democratic political institutions increasingly likely.”
As we have seen in countries as diverse as South Korea, Chile, and Taiwan, industrialization and economic growth leads to the expansion of the middle class, rising educational levels, demands for greater individual freedom, the rule of law, and increased international engagement. Scholars acknowledge, of course, that there is nothing automatic about this process, especially when the country is ruled by an insecure ideological regime that fears, with good reason, that democratization could threaten its very existence (and the privileges that come with its rule). But it is equally true that the prospects for positive change are dramatically reduced if the autocracy in question is politically and economically isolated. The precedents of North Korea and Cuba hardly suggest that sanctions and isolation are the best ways to encourage democracy and regional cooperation. In the case of North Korea they have also failed to prevent nuclear and ballistic missile proliferation.
More economic engagement with Iran admittedly comes at a cost—the Islamic regime will have additional fund to use in supporting terrorism and interfering in the region—and does not guarantee better behavior in the long run. But these policies are not particularly expensive and they have not been constrained by limited Iranian resources (witness Iranian regional policies in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq even at the height of sanctions). Maintaining or increasing Iran’s isolation probably guarantees that those policies will continue.
Another reason to believe the nuclear deal might promote long-term change in Iran is that more openness and dialogue could help diminish the deep insecurity and resentment felt not just by regime officials but by much of the population. While Americans and many in the region focus with good reason on Iran’s threat to its neighbors, Iranians themselves have a long list of fears and grievances—often purposefully manipulated by the regime. These date back at least to 1953, the year (as nearly all Iranians believe) the U.S. government overthrew Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohamed Mossadegh, and replaced him by restoring to the throne the repressive Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the seizure of the U.S. Embassy compound that November, the United States imposed sanctions on Iran that eventually led to a full economic boycott and even “secondary” sanctions that punished other countries for investing in Iran. Also in the 1980s, the United States “tilted” toward Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War (started by Iraq’s invasion of Iran), a brutal war of attrition that led to hundreds of thousands of Iranian casualties. Iranians also recall vividly what many of them believe was the deliberate downing of an Iranian commercial airliner by the USS Vincennes on July 3, 1988, which killed all its passengers. More recently, the U.S. government under the Bush Administration, which branded Iran a member of an “axis of evil,” used its vast military power to overthrow the regimes to Iran’s West (Saddam Hussein’s Iraq) and East (the Taliban in Afghanistan) and maintained a significant military presence in both countries (as well as throughout the region) while debating the use of force and regime change in Iran.
Without in any way absolving Iran of the responsibility it bears for its conflicts with the United States and so many of its neighbors, it is not hard to understand how these feelings of deep insecurity have led many Iranians to believe that their country needs a strong military force, including nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, to deter foreign intervention. Iranians would also note that several of their neighbors—including Pakistan, India, and Israel—maintain nuclear weapons arsenals and delivery systems that could reach Iranian territory. These insecurities and geopolitical realities will not disappear overnight, whatever policies we pursue. But it is at least possible that the passage of time, the emergence of a new generation of Iranian leaders, and greater engagement between Iran and its current adversaries could ultimately contribute to some sort of positive domestic change and a regional modus vivendi.
Give It Time
Critics of the nuclear deal like to point out that 15 years—the length of time that the most essential restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program are slated to last—is not a particularly long time, which is certainly true. But precedents in several other countries reinforce the notion that 15 years is a long enough period to allow for considerable changes to take place. (It is also, of course, a much longer period than the two to three years experts believe Iran would need to reconstitute its current nuclear program after a potential military strike.) Consider, for example, that in 1960 China was undergoing its “Cultural Revolution” and trying to spread communism throughout Asia—yet by the mid-1970s it had ceased its support for regional insurgencies, broken off relations with its Soviet ally, and begun pursuing a strategic entente with the United States. In 1971, to take another example, the Soviet Union was undertaking a military buildup and deepening its influence over satellite states under the banner of the “Brezhnev Doctrine.” By the mid-1980s, after a series of geriatric leaders had retired or died in office, a 55-year-old leader from a new generation had taken power, and within a few years was announcing massive troop withdrawals from Eastern Europe, negotiating major arms control agreements with the United States, and abandoning communist clients around the world.
We do not know what Iran will look like in October 2030, 15 years from the day the nuclear deal was officially implemented. But we can be fairly certain that the current Supreme Leader (now 75 years old) will no longer be in power and a new generation of Iranians—perhaps less marked by the conflicts of the past—will be in charge. There seems to be at least the possibility that such a new leadership will have chosen the “different path” President Obama referred to.
In the meantime, of course, the United States and its allies will need to hedge against the very real possibility, or even the probability, that Iran will not evolve in this direction. This means that we will have to be extremely vigilant, enforce the nuclear deal, stand by our friends in the region, and counter Iran’s destabilizing activities. If the nuclear deal breaks down in the coming one to two years, as is entirely possible, we can always revert to sanctions and potential military strikes. And if it endures for 15 years but Iran at that point still supports terrorism, interferes with its neighbors, represses its population, seeks regional hegemony, and fails to reassure the world about its peaceful nuclear intentions, whoever is the U.S. President at that time will have to consider all options, including the use of force. That outcome would be unwelcome, but the nuclear deal, by preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons for at least the next 15 years, preserves all those options, and provides an opportunity to avoid having to implement them.
In the meantime, we can use the coming decade to explore the prospects for a different Iran and an improved bilateral relationship that would allow us to escape from what now seems to be a permanent, costly, and destabilizing confrontation. A transformed Iran would have enormous strategic, political, and economic benefits—not just for the United States but for all the countries in the Middle East. History, theory, and some evidence from Iran today suggest that such a development is at least possible. While hedging against the possibility that such an approach will fail, it seems reasonable to test the proposition.