Is the Iran nuclear accord a groundbreaking agreement or a historic mistake? As the world’s attention shifts from Vienna to Washington, where Congress is set to debate this very question, it’s worth taking a step back to get a better understanding of what’s really going on. That is especially true for the deal’s skeptics, because if they looked at what has transpired from Iran’s point of view, it would be clear to them that this nuclear agreement marks a colossal defeat — for Tehran.
Why? For a start, the deal is a repudiation of the nuclear strategy of Iran’s Supreme Leader, embodied in his “resistance” approach to international relations. Indeed, whatever gloss official statements from President Hassan Rouhani try to put on the deal, Iran has effectively capitulated to the demands of the West.
Over the past 15 years, the Islamic Republic had invested heavily in its nuclear program, establishing an extensive multibillion-dollar infrastructure, the exact cost of which has never been made public. As a result, Iran was subjected to unprecedented sanctions and economic hardship — a price the regime was seemingly willing to pay to retain the option of pursuing a nuclear weapon.
But this agreement, with its provisions for rolling back key parts of Iran’s nuclear program and subjecting it to unprecedented international inspection, now makes this option much more difficult. In fact, it cuts off Iran’s pathway to a bomb and effectively paralyzes Tehran’s nuclear ambitions for at least the next decade, while also sending Iran down a path of further concessions in exchange for gradual sanctions relief.
That Iran was forced to accept terms it had steadfastly rejected in the past suggests that Iran’s nuclear strategy has hit a brick wall. Mohammad Ali Jaafari, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, admitted in 2013 that with the deal as it stood then, Iran had “given the maximum and received the minimum.” Other hard-liners weighed in suggesting that Iran “gave away the crown jewel for a lollipop.”
While the validity of this interpretation of the agreement cannot be publicly debated in Iran because of political censorship, there is obvious frustration among Iranian members of the public that they have had to wait so long for some sort of deal. As Iranians began to digest the news of the 2013 plan, The New York Times Tehran bureau chief said one man had commented: ‘I am now 30 years-old. When Ahmadinejad came to power I was 22. Why were those eight years of my life wasted? Why am I still without a job? Why do I hold a university degree but don’t have a future in this country?”
Such views underscore another reason criticism of the deal is misplaced: The agreement is good for the Iranian people.
The easing of sanctions will benefit the Iranian middle class and civil society, which comprises the core support base for Iran’s pro-democracy movement. Under the existing sanctions regime, it was average Iranians, not the ruling clerical elite, who were most adversely affected. Indeed, according to a report by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, sanctions have led to a “severe deterioration in the ability of the Iranian people to pursue their economic and social rights.”
Essentially, a basic struggle for survival had taken precedence over political organizing and pro-democracy activism. Now, freed from the economic devastation of sanctions, pro-democracy activists will find they are actually the biggest beneficiaries of a nuclear deal.
Keeping Iran’s pro-democracy movement in mind is critical as the West looks to de-escalate tensions with Iran, because while a nuclear agreement is a vital first step, it won’t by itself resolve the challenge that Iran poses to stability in the Middle East. The reality is that the Iranian regime will only truly change its behavior after a democratic transition, where more accountable Iranian leaders will assume power and play a more constructive role among the community of nations.
This is where the United States can play a role, albeit an indirect one. As we have learned from other democratic revolutions, there is no exact formula to predict when a dictatorial regime may crumble, but in the medium term, the prospects for change look good in Iran. What has been missing in Iran, though, is an international context conducive to a democratic transition. To date, the existing sanction regime and foreign military threats have actually strengthened the clerics and the Revolutionary Guards. A shift in U.S. policy toward Iran could change that.
What should such a policy shift involve? For a start, it would now elevate the question of democracy and human rights, and place it at the center of any future engagement with Tehran. Yes, the clerics will protest and point to Western double standards, but the Iranian regime is most vulnerable in the eyes of its own youthful population where it faces a sustained challenge to its legitimacy.
Ultimately, as the U.S. Congress and the American people get ready to debate the nuclear deal, a more nuanced perspective is needed. And that means realizing that this nuclear deal represents a historic defeat for Iranian foreign policy — and that it potentially opens the door for the revival of Iran’s pro-democracy movement.