After 36 years and several failed attempts to establish a direct and sustainable diplomatic channel between the U.S. and Iran, the success of the recent international talks regarding Iran’s nuclear program and the impact of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s domestic politics should not be underestimated. The agreement will no doubt help those who want more conciliatory external relations and a more open political and cultural domestic environment.
But the effects of the agreement should not be overestimated either. It’s unlikely that it will bring about a fundamental change in the balance of political and ideological forces that were established after the 1979 revolution.
In assessing the potential long-term impact of JCPOA on Iran, two key characteristics of the country should be noted. First, the Islamic Republic, like other political systems with competing political institutions and forces, is more like a sluggish oil tanker whose change of direction — if it is to happen peacefully — will be gradual and contested at every step of the way. Second, the country is not about to abandon its revolution-inspired ideological frame. Responding to a question by David Ignatius about whether Iran is a nation or a revolutionary cause today, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had it right. Rejecting the dichotomy, he insisted, “Ideals and interests converge” in Iran, just as in the United States.
The implementation of the JCPOA would immediately strengthen the centrist-reformist alliance that paved the way for Hassan Rouhani’s 2013 presidential victory. The test for this is the upcoming parliamentary elections to be held on Feb. 26, 2016. The mere fact of the agreement is a success story for Rouhani, who made the resolution of the nuclear imbroglio a campaign promise; it will probably also assure him a second-term victory in 2017 and, with the help of his moderate and centrist allies in parliament, another six years to try to shape domestic and foreign policy.
Meanwhile, the hard-liners have put themselves in a lose-lose position. In opposing the deal, they are at odds with broader public opinion; if they decide to soften their complaints in order to do better in the upcoming parliamentary elections, they will openly disagree with their political base, which, though relatively small, has enough institutional and political clout to remain a formidable force in Iranian politics for years to come.
The hard-liners constitute a minority bloc of about 40 or so MPs in the current conservative-controlled parliament. But they have been loud and effective in challenging Rouhani and his ministers. The probable loss of many of these MPs in the elections will bring the next parliament in line with the administration’s agenda, opening the door for Rouhani to deliver on his other promises, which include a neoliberal economic agenda of cuts in the size and services of the state and privatization, boosting foreign investment and more political and cultural openness.
These pursuits will not go unchallenged. First, the hard-liners will not just disappear; they will find opportunities to jump back into the political ring, particularly if the JCPOA does not significantly alter the three-decade-old U.S. policy of containing Iran. If Barack Obama’s administration is unable or unwilling to use the nuclear agreement to shift from its policy of coercive containment, it will assure continued hostility between the two countries and provide the hard-liners a source for continued attack against Rouhani’s policy of accommodation and reconciliation with the West.
Second, old habits die hard. Age-old entrenched interests will continue to influence the direction in which the country’s politics are headed. For instance, in his pursuit of economic liberalization, privatization and cuts in the welfare state, Rouhani will face not only the opposition of institutions that have benefited from an economy closed off by sanctions but also the discontent of working- and middle-class Iranians suffering under a severe recession, high inflation and increased economic inequality. The argument made by the proponents of the JCPOA that lifting sanctions would expand the economic pie and benefit everyone is a version of trickle-down economics that has proved unreliable in many other contexts.
On the political front, the reformers and civil rights activists hope that the reduction of economic and military threats against Iran will help quell the Islamists’ fears that the United States wants nothing but regime change. The hope is that reduction of tensions will help improve the treatment of at least the loyal opposition by the judiciary and security services.
But those who fear that negotiations are “just an excuse and a tool for penetration” and “an instrument for imposing their demands,” in the words of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, see intellectual, cultural and political penetration by the West as more dangerous than economic and even security-oriented penetration. In such a context, any perceived attempt for substantial political change will face a conservative backlash similar to what happened during the reformist era (1997 to 2005).
If the JCPOA removes the economic noose that has been placed around Iran’s neck, the past two decades of deeply entrenched domestic politics may gradually begin to change and reflect Iran’s diverse and multivocal society. But “gradually” is the operative word. Expectations of substantial and immediate shifts are unrealistic. In the highly volatile Middle East, such expectations can even be dangerous.