How to Stimulate Political Change in Iran
Isolation hasn't worked.
Those endeavoring to sabotage any negotiated agreement with Iran have shifted their arguments in interesting ways as events have successively caused their arguments to lose credibility. Once upon a time, well before the last Iranian elections and when there were no active negotiations to speak of between Iran and the Western powers, one heard the contention that the Iranian regime didn't really want normal relations with the West because it saw its isolation as an important ingredient in its power. The idea was that the more opportunity the Iranian people had for interaction with more enlightened parts of the world, and the less their regime could pose as defenders of a beleaguered nation, the less patience ordinary Iranians would have with their own backward political system and the less secure would be the mullahs' rule.
One doesn't hear that line of argument much anymore, now that the current Iranian leaders, including the supreme leader as well as the president, have demonstrated beyond any doubt that they do seek a better and fuller relationship with the West. The nay-saying has shifted to assertions that we might get a deal with Iran but it won't be a good one. We are hearing plenty of this kind of nay-saying right now, of course. But as the shape of a likely preliminary nuclear agreement has become known, in which relatively minor sanctions relief would be linked to significant, time-buying restrictions on Iran's nuclear program—and especially an end to enrichment of uranium to the 20 percent level, which figured prominently in the lines that Benjamin Netanyahu drew on his famous cartoon bomb last year—the credibility of this line of argument has weakened as well.
Thus along with continued strenuous efforts to spin the emerging preliminary deal in a way that magnifies the sanctions relief and minimizes or overlooks the Iranian concessions, the saboteurs have turned to broad-scale denunciation of anything negative that can be said, validly or otherwise, about the Islamic Republic of Iran. Most conspicuous are Netanyahu's endless fulminations about how Iran is apocalyptic, medieval, messianic and in every other respect a perpetual heart of darkness. Some of those in the United States who support Netanyahu's campaign search for human rights transgressions such as discriminatory treatment of Baha'is, while others utter vague warnings about Iran's “hegemonic ambitions.” None of this entails any logic in favor of rejecting rather than signing a nuclear deal with Tehran. Not having a deal will not provide a whit of help, for example, to any Iranian Baha'i. It is all just an attempt to make any doing of business with Tehran seem distasteful.
The argument-shifting and departures from logic have made increasingly transparent how this campaign is about wanting to prevent any deal with Iran at all, not trying to get a “better” deal. The Obama administration, the rest of the P5+1, and the American public would do well not to be distracted by any of this. But we should think anew about the implications of the old argument regarding how more interaction with the West could endanger the existing political order in Iran. If Iranian leaders supposedly once feared a nuclear agreement leading to more extensive trade and other dealings with the West because this would undermine the basis for their rule, shouldn't we be optimistic about such secondary political effects, as a bonus beneficial consequence, if Iranian leaders nonetheless do accept an agreement?
The logic of the old argument has some validity, and there probably are hardliners in Tehran who are so wary of an agreement for this very reason that they are still on balance opposed to a deal. The supreme leader and others in the current leadership also undoubtedly have thought similar thoughts. But they also realize that the political standing of the current management will depend as well on economic improvement that only a more normal relationship with the West can bring. They evidently are willing to take their chances on long term secondary and tertiary political effects in order to cope with the here and now.
Those effects will not show themselves suddenly. It is not as if a nuclear agreement would mean that a nation in seclusion will abruptly become aware of what is going on in the outside world. Contrary to Netanyahu's assertions, Iran is not a medieval country where people do not wear blue jeans—as many jeans-wearing Iranians have been quick to tell him. But over the longer term the effects are likely to be along the lines projected by the Lebanese journalist Rami Khouri:
Just as Helsinki in the mid-1970s helped trigger in a nonviolent way the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire 15 years later, so would a rapprochement between Arabs, Iranians and the West create conditions inside Iran that would inevitably change its ideological configuration and allow a more natural resumption of historical evolution in the country, which is what a majority of Iranians seems to want. I suspect that robust economic growth and the absence of a confrontational relationship with foreign countries would allow Iranian forces of pragmatism and liberalism to expand their sway inside the country, and eventually – perhaps within 5-7 years – bring down the remnants of the hard Islamic revolutionary regime that still dominates the country’s power structure.
Iran has evolved significantly even during the three decades of the Islamic Republic. Although the evolution has not been all in one direction, most of it has been in directions that entail improvement from our point of view. Some of this evolution is due to the passage of time, in which a revolutionary regime that initially feared it could not survive without like-minded regimes surrounding it came to realize that was not the case. It is partly due to the practical need to meet domestic demands. And it is partly due to an awareness of what sorts of Iranian behavior internationally do or do not elicit cooperation and advance Iranian interests. More, rather than less, normal interaction with the Iranians is what will not just continue but accelerate these trends, leading to effects such as those Khouri describes.
This is the way to encourage political and social change in Iran. It is fantasy to believe instead that endless pressure will eventually cause pressured Iranians to rise up in revolt. In a Gallup poll taken earlier this year (even before Hassan Rouhani became president) that asked Iranians whom they hold most responsible for the sanctions against Iran, 46 percent said the United States and only 13 percent said the Iranian government. (The next most frequent responses were Israel nine percent, the Western European countries six percent, and the United Nations six percent.) The principal beneficiaries of endless beleaguerment are hardliners, not counterrevolutionary liberals. Those in the United States who wish, openly or tacitly, to overturn the political order in Iran have another reason to support the current nuclear negotiations.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Shahram Sharif. CC BY 2.0.