At its core, the proposed nuclear deal with Iran is a bet on the future direction of the Iranian regime. Two former Secretaries of State, Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, argued in a recent critical piece in the Wall Street Journal that the central claim of the deal’s proponents is that Iran will be less aggressive in ten years than it is today.
They implied that they too might sign on if they could believe in such a positive trajectory. In other words, the other criticisms of the deal that they and others have voiced about proliferation in the region, the extensiveness and verifiability of the proposed limitations, etc. are difficult but not insoluble problems. But they rightly point to Iran’s “3 ½ decades of militant hostility to the West and established international institutions” as well as Washington’s questionable record in predicting the course of domestic transformation in places like Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan as ample grounds for skepticism regarding the optimists’ projections.
If it were simply a matter of rolling the dice on the future of Iran, there would be good reasons to choose caution over optimism. But how might the deal itself affect that future? What impact will it have on Iran’s domestic politics and how should that factor into Washington’s calculations?
That depends on where the Iranian leadership finds itself right now. The Islamic regime was established in the late 1970s and early 1980s in a massive social revolution. The 1960s and 1970s had seen a wave of these sorts of revolutions sweep Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Their fundamental thrust was to establish a dignified, prosperous existence for states and peoples that had suffered the depredations of colonial rule, economic exploitation, and cultural repression. Marxism held tremendous appeal for many of these revolutionaries, but the example of Soviet communism ultimately disabused many of the notion that Marxism offered effective solutions to the problems posed by global inequality. In Iran, Marxism appealed to urban, educated Iranians as well as workers, making the Soviet-oriented Tudeh (Masses) Party the most powerful political organization in the country. In response, Iranian nationalist thinkers such as Jalal Al-e Ahmad, religious revolutionaries such as Ali Shariati, and clerics such as Ayatollah Sayyid Mahmud Taleqani produced a distinctly Iranian Islamic alternative to Marxism. They argued that Islam could ensure a more just and less corrupt economic order, create social cohesion, and enable cultural and political self-assertion. Islam was supposed to provide superior solutions to the problems of a state struggling with underdevelopment and the legacy of foreign domination than Marxism could.
The crowds that brought down the Shah were some of the largest of the twentieth century. They included masses of white and blue-collar workers alongside politically diverse youth and religious seminary students. Accelerating inflation, economic inequality, and a slowing of the rapid pace of growth that had characterized Iran in the mid-1970s helped spark the revolution. For this reason, Khomeini and his circle, backed by newly created institutions such as the Revolutionary Guards, sought to put in place a program of economic reform that would answer the demands of the crowds and prevent a turn back towards the Marxist Left. Khomeini spoke of the aspirations of the Mostaz’afin (the poor), set up a Mostaz’afin Foundation to use state resources to aid the needy, and began an extensive program of land reform and nationalization of major industries, policies inspired in part by Marxist economic prescriptions.
These reforms were neither consistent nor successful. With the Iraqi invasion of September 1980, the Islamic regime in Tehran shifted its focus from domestic change to combatting external enemies. The support given to Iraq in the 1980s at times by both superpowers only exacerbated the sense of siege and messianic mission in the Islamic Republic. Ever since, the political history of Iran has been a continuous oscillation between mobilizing against an external threat and attempting to finally shift the attention of the regime back to domestic issues. When the war ended, many hoped that the regime would focus on domestic tasks, particularly economic reconstruction. Their hopes crystallized in the surprising election of Mohammad Khatami in 1997, who tried to prioritize domestic reform and reduce international tensions. His efforts were checked by forces in Iran militantly opposed to the West, such as the Revolutionary Guards, that were able to leverage continued external tensions against the reformists. The backlash culminated in the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, a leader so militant that he legitimated the fears of many observers about the aggressive nature of the Islamic Regime.
Ahmadinejad's administration engendered understandable skepticism with regard to the possibility of reform in the Islamic Republic. Kissinger, Schultz, and others point with reason to our poor record in predicting domestic transformation. Such predictions have been wrong about Iran in the past, and we have no guarantees today.