The Nuclear Deal Could Transform Iran's Revolution

"A nuclear deal with Iran could be an important step in pushing the regime back to concentrating on its revolutionary tasks at home."

The economic situation in Iran, partly because of the sanctions, has deteriorated to the point that new president Hassan Rouhani was elected largely on a platform of economic improvement. So far it appears that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene’i has supported Rouhani because the protest wave of 2009 showed how volatile the situation is. Khatami was always treated with a certain level of suspicion by Khamene’i, which made his success far less likely. It appears that the Iranian political establishment, both conservative and reformist, has finally understood that the regime is in real trouble if it does not begin providing for its people.

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.

As with China, we should not expect Iran to suddenly perform a political about-face. Iran’s interests are not completely aligned with ours, and that is likely to be the case for the foreseeable future. Tehran supports proxies around the region such as Hezbollah that threaten American interests. There is already much talk in Iran, though, about the flood of resources going to these overseas adventures and how they could be put to better use at home.

A similar phenomenon became evident in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, as a desire for domestic reform led the regime to gradually abandon its forward international commitments. Furthermore, the United States has been able to deal with many Middle Eastern countries that pursue interests contrary to our own, and Washington has more reason for optimism with Iran than it has ever had with, say, Saudi Arabia.

A nuclear deal with Iran could be an important step in pushing the regime back to concentrating on its revolutionary tasks at home. By offering Iran a measure of security and cooperation, the United States would allow the forces of reform to shape the trajectory of the Iranian Revolution without a perpetual demand to mobilize against a supposed American threat. That could mean weakening the most militant forces in Tehran and enabling, rather than just passively hoping, for the change we want.

We may still be making a bet, but in this case that bet might stack the deck in our favor.

Jeremy Friedman is the Associate Director of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy at Yale University, and he will be joining the faculty of Harvard Business School this fall. His first book, "Shadow Cold War: The Sino-Soviet Competition for the Third World," will be published by the University of North Carolina Press in September. He is currently at work on a second book project entitled "Revolutionary Dreams: Constructing Third World Socialisms," that tackles the influence of the ‘Second World’ on the trajectory of post-colonial socialist revolution in the ‘Third,’ using Indonesia, Tanzania, Chile, Angola, and Iran as case studies.

Image: President of Iran