By: Ellen Lightfoot
In Tehran, news of the nuclear agreement was greeted with a mix of collective elation and relief as millions rushed into the streets, hopeful of what the consequent lifting of sanctions could mean for their economic and cultural wellbeing.
Across the Atlantic, the deal has failed to elicit such uniform optimism. Republicans in Washington, all before laying eyes on the final copy, offered their own apocalyptic take on the diplomatic achievement.
According to House Speaker John Boehner, the deal “is going to hand a dangerous regime billions of dollars in sanctions relief while paving the way for nuclear Iran.” Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, among the more inflammatory, declared that it “empowers an evil regime to carry out its threat to ‘wipe Israel off the map’ and bring ‘death to America.’”
Word choice alone should cast doubt on the validity of such predictions. Descriptors like “evil” and “dangerous,” while certainly fear-inducing, fail to engage with the complex realities of Iran’s political structure, and offer little more than blind adherence to the flawed vision of the nation as a “failed” state. In reality, liberalizing currents within the social sphere, combined with favorable conditions for democracy, indicate Iran is ripe for reform if given sufficient external stimulus — something that the current nuclear deal may just provide.
From the first day of negotiations, interpretations characterized by American exceptionalism and a fundamental distrust of the Iranian state and people has colored much of the criticism issued from D.C. Indeed, even the attempts by Senators Mark Kirk and Ted Cruz to address Iran’s deteriorating domestic situation were at odds with the consensus among local voices that the deal would be a victory for human rights.
As the deal enters its 60-day stint in the congressional incubator, it’s critical to assess the actual domestic implications of the deal within Iran and how it factors into American national security. Opponents who cite the abhorrent conduct of the Iranian judiciary and paramilitary apparatuses as evidence for future mischief are justified in questioning Iran’s institutional capacity. Little has improved in the political sphere since the self-proclaimed “moderate” President Hassan Rouhani took office in 2013. Given the limited scope of his constitutional mandate, Rouhani remains barred from undertaking any of the robust structural reforms promised during his campaign, and relatively powerless to address the flagrant abuses of the state.
Yet to cast Iran as permanently static, incapable of gradual reform, would be inaccurate. Dr. Haleh Esfandiari, founder Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, observes a more subtle movement occurring within the social sphere as more and more emboldened youth adopt lifestyles in explicit rejection of the values and norms of the Islamic Republic. “Walking through the streets of Tehran, it’s immediately visible that women’s dress has become bolder—the fabric around a girl’s head has become thinner,” she told World Policy Journal. “You see more girls and boys together, and a proliferation of malls and coffee shops with gathering places.”
In recent years, a set of socio-political conditions have coalesced to silence the reformist spirit that first awakened during the protests of the 2009 “Green Movement” following Iran’s falsified elections that year. At the international level, crippling economic sanctions have effectively destroyed the base of the democratic opposition. For over three decades, civil society and members of the educated middle class were forced to prioritize simple survival over political organizing. At home, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini has been able to win widespread popular support for his nuclear ambitions by casting his efforts as part of the nationalist fight against Western aggression. The string of post-Arab Spring militarized insurgencies across the region has also served to bolster the preexisting disdain among regime hardliners for violent revolutionary change.
The deal holds great potential to amend some of these debilitating conditions, which have long prevented the nation from achieving a more inclusive political system. By lifting financial sanctions, the West will increase the operating capacity of the civil society and empower grassroots activists to place greater pressure on the already-weakened conservative political guard. The withdrawal of highly visible international pressure on Iran will similarly make it more difficult for hardliners to rely on their anti-Western narrative to justify internal repression or their expansionist agenda abroad.
Esfandiara admits that, in the short term, the nuclear deal may result in a significant repressive backlash from the conservative Iranian establishment, desperate to reassert its power over the president. Within the next 60 days, Rouhani will be hounded by opponents trying to capitalize on the congressional freeze on sanction relief. The deal may even make Western diplomats “less inclined to speak out against human rights violations for fear of upsetting diplomatic relations,” claimed Michael Singh of the Washington Institute.
But in the long run, Esfandiara believes Rouhani can utilize the nation’s new economic position to convince the Supreme Leader that “progress is needed…that if we want foreign and national investors, they will want to feel safe and we as the government have to provide them with safety.”
As the GOP rushes to condemn the agreement on account of its excessive faith in autocracy, they must consider what would likely ensue inside Iran in the absence of diplomacy. Beyond enabling Khomeini to continue developing his nuclear arsenal, a failed deal would erode any reformist momentum built thus far behind Rouhani and his young, emboldened constituency.
Ellen Lightfoot is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.