The Wilson Quarterly

The nuclear deal with Iran reached in Vienna last July can be seen as the final achievement of a long and difficult negotiation on an important issue, but it is also a turning point with significant implications for the future.

The intention of the “P5+1” talks was clear: preventing Iran from using its advanced nuclear infrastructure and know-how for military purposes — a prospect that would have a profound and destabilizing effect across the entire Middle East. But what were the Iranians after? Certainly, they wanted to preserve an independent capacity to generate energy through nuclear plants — indeed, independent energy experts have pointed out that even though Iran is a major oil and gas producer, it will have to find a different source for its future internal energy needs if it wants to maintain its vital export revenues. But that is not all.

While one may trust the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate when it stated that Iran had decided not to go militarily nuclear, both logic and the public statements of Iranian regime personalities (including, most explicitly, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani) yield a more nuanced inference. Even if Iran does not actively seek nuclear technology for military purposes, it intends to preserve a nuclear capacity that, if need be, might one day be turned to military uses. It is a common contingency; even avowedly antinuclear Japan wields this potential. (In itself, this does not contradict the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which addresses actual activities and not potential activities or alleged intentions.)

Though such military might has its appeal, for Iran the main value of the nuclear deal lay elsewhere. It seems, on the contrary, that Tehran always considered the nuclear issue more as a means than as an end. In a way, it can even be said that the negotiation itself, independent of its contents, allowed Iran to achieve a very significant goal insofar as that it induced the United States to accept Iran as a legitimate counterpart.

Tehran always considered the nuclear issue more as a means than as an end.

We should be finally able to discard an outdated view of Iranian priorities, one which — in curious coincidence with the ostentatious revolutionary posturing of the Iranian regime — takes the blustery rhetoric at face value instead of focusing on actual substance. Iran is a problematic topic in international relations not because it is, in the words of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a “messianic apocalyptic cult,” nor because it is trying to implement a master plan for Shia expansion. Iran is problematic because its very real priorities in terms of national interest and geopolitical influence clash with the interests both of its neighbors and of the United States, and because Iran has pursued these interests in an antagonistic way.

Iran is problematic because its very real priorities in terms of national interest and geopolitical influence clash with the interests both of its neighbors and of the United States, and because Iran has pursued these interests in an antagonistic way.

Iran is indeed ambitious, but in a way that diverges from the caricature of resistance to imperialism and theocratic religious identity. It is an ambition that was there before the revolution, as is proved by the shah’s dreams of grandeur and his regional subimperialism. (Incidentally, it is interesting to note that Iranians of all political persuasions consider the nuclear issue a national issue, not simply a regime priority.) It is a well-known historical phenomenon that revolutions, once they consolidate, maintain their rhetoric but tend to become very “classical” in the pursuit both of regime stability and of the national interest. For Iran — both its people and its regime — which priorities are the most vital, and most widely shared?

Security, of course: which is understandable, especially if one considers the traumatizing experience of eight years of war after Saddam Hussein’s aggression. But a similarly popular priority is the desire to end Iran’s isolation — a concern related both to security and to economic prosperity. The overwhelming national consensus supporting the foreign policy of President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif can be explained in light of these two priorities. When the P5+1 deal was struck, Iranians rejoiced, both relieved and proud: We are not going to be bombed, and our country is being recognized by the great powers as an indispensable interlocutor!

Let us not be fooled by the seeming permanence of aged clerics at the top. For most of the country’s citizens, Iran trumps Islam. One should not underestimate the fact that the cheering crowds who had gone to the airport to greet the foreign minister on his return from Vienna were chanting, “Zarif, you are the new Mossadeq.” Unlike the crowds that are bussed to demonstrations to shout “Death to America,” this celebration of the agreement was a spontaneous demonstration.

For most of the country’s citizens, Iran trumps Islam.

For the Rouhani government, the nuclear deal was not an end but a beginning — a reality proved by the current dynamism of Iranian foreign policy. At talks on Syria, Iran’s interests have intersected with those of the United States and Russia in the pursuit of a compromise. Any result from those discussions will have to address some Iranian concerns, but inevitably it will involve sacrificing Bashar al-Assad, though perhaps not immediately. At the same time, Iran has been recognized by the United States as a necessary partner against the regional and global menace of the Islamic State.

All of this is good news — at least for those who know, responsibly, that the alternative of a nuclear deal was embarking on a dangerous escalation in a region that is by now a testimony to the failure of both local democratic aspirations and America’s transformative ambitions. For too long, an ethic of conviction has prevailed over an ethic of responsibility, so that getting rid of a dictator (Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi, and now Bashir al-Assad) was considered an absolute priority, irrespective of the all-too-foreseeable consequences of state collapse and sectarian and tribal fragmentation.

But will it work? Will the hypothesis of Iranian inclusion at the price of moderation turn out to be sustainable? The jury is still out, though recent developments justify serious concerns.

It is enough to compare two speeches by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. His speech on April 9, 2015, was taken as a signal that in spite of his repeated expressions of skepticism, the Rahbar not only approved of the nuclear deal but also was willing, albeit with a load of caveats, to allow “other issues” to be included in the negotiations. By contrast, in his October 7 speech, the Supreme Leader shifted to a negative position that focused on the danger of foreign “infiltration” aimed at subverting the Iranian regime. More ominous still, he attacked those who did not see that danger, classifying them into two groups: “the thoughtless” (those who do not care) and “the nonchalant” (those who do not realize).

The message is a clear intimidation addressed at both reformists (“the thoughtless”) and centrists (“the nonchalant”), the political constituency of the Rouhani government. And it is more than words. The detention of a number of double U.S./Iranian citizens, from Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian to businessman Siamak Namazi, can only be interpreted as attempts to prevent the gradual normalization that doubtlessly is at the core of Rouhani’s foreign policy agenda.

Rouhani’s internal adversaries take him so seriously that they are willing to use any means to interfere with his agenda.

The nuclear agreement has unleashed a counteroffensive on the part of the radical component of the regime. They are forces that, as the results of the election of President Rouhani proved, are in a clear minority in the country but hold powerful positions within key components of the regime, especially the judiciary and the Revolutionary Guard. The hybrid constitutional system of the Islamic Republic affords them a wide margin of action and, with much more sinister consequences, they are well entrenched in what can be defined as the Iranian “deep state” — one that is able to play dirty outside official state channels, often against the sitting government. Their reaction proves the authenticity and credibility of the intentions of President Rouhani, who is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing but a centrist allied with reformists in the pursuit of a more normal and less isolated nation. His internal adversaries take him so seriously that they are willing to use any means to interfere with his political project.

And how about the Supreme Leader? Has he changed his mind? Was he pretending when he authorized the negotiations and the compromises they entailed? What should be clear is that while Ayatollah Khamenei is far from being politically progressive or liberal, he is moved not by a radical, immutable ideology, but rather by the paramount concerns of saving his own power and guaranteeing the perpetuation of the regime.

In a way, the ayatollah is surprisingly pragmatic.

In a way, the ayatollah is surprisingly pragmatic. For a few years, he had allowed a limited reformist phase under President Mohammad Khatami, then froze Khatami when he thought that things were going dangerously too far. He promoted the populist noncleric President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, only to block him when his radicalism and divisiveness threatened the stability of the regime. He gave a green light to President Rouhani in order to overcome the country’s dangerous isolation, and now he has probably come to the conclusion that the time has come to try to stop him, too, since it is becoming evident that Iranian society is trying to draw dangerous internal political conclusions from the new foreign policy course.

The most radical, most ideological believers in an immutable revolutionary and religious identity of the Islamic Republic would certainly like for Iran to become a sort of North Korea, closed to the world as well as to individual freedoms. They constitute, however, an extremely reduced minority, albeit one with the power to be a nuisance.

Iran’s mainstream conservatives instead aspire to combine international normalization (allowing for accelerated economic development) with the maintenance of internal political control. (It could be said that their model is China, rather than North Korea.) However, every time they fear that external normalization (which they need) may turn into internal loss of control (which they fear), they are determined to sacrifice the former to the latter.

Much in this struggle about the future of Iran will be decided in the February 2016 election of the parliament and the Assembly of Experts, a sort of college of cardinals that decides on the appointment of the Supreme Leader. This is another reason why the hard-liners are now playing hard and dirty, trying to intimidate potential progressive candidates and muzzle the press. The fight is a momentous one, and its outcome, though still unpredictable, will not only determine the future of an overwhelmingly young, educated, and creative people, but also will have a decisive impact on the whole troubled region.

* * *

Roberto Toscano served as Italy’s ambassador to Iran from 2003 to 2008, and as ambassador to India from 2008 to 2010.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of State

Read Next

Foreign policy has lost its creativity. Design Thinking is the answer.