Iran’s Regime Can Change. But a Nuclear Deal Isn’t Likely to Transform It.
AARON DAVID MILLER Wall Street Journal 6-24-15
Would a nuclear deal with Iran be a transformational accord, realigning the region and bilateral relations? Or would it be a more narrow business proposition: sanctions relief in exchange for slowing Iran’s nuclear program and buying time, or so Western diplomats hope, for more fundamental change in Tehran?
Speculation is risky business. But with a nuclear deal looking likely, I’m thinking a bit about what the post-agreement future might hold.
Even the mullahcracy in Tehran isn’t immune to change. A year ago, few would have predicted that we’d be close to an agreement. (Yes, some will say not to count our deals before they are signed.) Still, a transformation isn’t likely, even over time, particularly in a region that rarely offers good news or quick results. Consider:
Regime preservation: Iran didn’t get into negotiations over its nuclear program because it was seeking to become Switzerland–democratic, and an integral part of the global community. You could argue that Iran’s putative interest in nuclear weapons, or at least the threshold nuclear weapons status, was driven by the desire to sustain power and hedge against regime change. Likewise, Tehran’s willingness to put constraints on its nuclear program is driven by a desire to pacify and control its public by relieving the economic pressure and tremendous dislocation wrought by sanctions. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, doesn’t see a nuclear agreement as a pathway to letting go of power but as a way of enhancing it and securing the revolution.
Iranian behavior: Japan is a state that also has the capacity to produce nuclear weapons should it choose to do so. Unlike Tokyo, Tehran doesn’t respect international norms or democratic principles; it is repressive at home and expansionist abroad. Let’s be clear: Iran is rising, and while it cannot dominate the entire Middle East it does seek preeminence in its sphere of influence: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and the Persian Gulf. A nuclear deal won’t change these objectives or make Tehran buy into the U.S. vision of the Middle East. And in the wake of an agreement, the Iranian regime may well seek to flex its muscles and demonstrate that it hasn’t been domesticated by the Americans. Relief from sanctions might give it the resources necessary to consolidate its regional position.
Should the Iran deal pass congressional muster–and I’m betting that it will or that the president will have enough support to sustain a veto–it would still remain a controversial and contentious enterprise. There will be struggles over implementation, and Congress will try to monitor Iranian behavior and watch for signs of human rights violations and bad behavior in the region. This isn’t the Egypt-Israel peace treaty; Ayatollah Khamenei isn’t Anwar Sadat and there is next to no willingness in Washington to give the mullahs the benefit of the doubt. A Republican Congress is unlikely to repeal sanctions for the remainder of the Obama presidency. The U.S.-Iranian relationship will, on balance, remain a pretty fraught enterprise–and it will be much harder to improve bilateral relations than it will be with Cuba.
Could the future be different? Might a nuclear deal set into motion a process in which the Iranian regime becomes less repressive, more open to change, and more willing to cooperate with the U.S. on regional issues such as Syria or Yemen? Would a nuclear deal open the spigot and create opportunities for an Iranian public hungry for more freedom, contact with the outside world, and a better life to press the regime for change? It’s tough to see that future now. Authoritarian states can open up economically. But as events in Russia and China have shown, they are also adept at maintaining control. Nobody ever lost money betting against the democratization of authoritarian states. And, for now at least, the safe wager is for continuity.
Aaron David Miller is a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center