When President Obama, partner nations, and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani announced the completion of a nuclear deal, political reactions were typically divisive in the United States but strangely united in Iran. Such agreement is rare for what is usually a divided Iranian body politic. But the accomplishment for politicians and negotiators—in the United States, Europe, and Tehran—may have sparked false hope for the people of Iran.
Despite feigned indifference from the Obama administration about whether the deal would thaw international relations, many Iranians hoped the agreement would be a first step toward normalization with the West. Unfortunately, new developments show they were likely wrong.
Today’s Iranian political spectrum ranges from radical reformists on the far left to conservative hardliners on the far right. Pragmatists occupy the middle, flanked on their immediate left and right by pragmatic reformists and conservatives. Each political group is Islamic, but they have different visions for the future of Iran and for how the nuclear deal fits into that future.
Reformists want to see Iran become an Islamic version of Japan: a democratic country with close ties to the West and the United States, but proud of its strong traditions and heritage. They dream of an advanced economy diplomatically integrated with the rest of the world. Most Iranians–whether secular or Islamic–share this view. While secular Iranians lack true representation in the Islamic political system, most would identify with Islamic reformists if forced to choose (combining for an estimated 80 percent of the population).
Pragmatists prefer an Islamic version of China: a military and economy strong enough to operate independently of the West. They want whatever is most expedient for Iran’s prosperity, whether or not that means dealing with the West. Pragmatists prefer whatever mix of individual freedoms and state controls are necessary, but political liberalization isn’t on their agenda. An estimated 10-15 percent of Iranian people agree with the pragmatists’ approach.
Hardliners are fine with their current Islamic North Korea: an isolated nation apart from the influence of the West. They want a self-sufficient country with strong social controls ruled by a powerful regime resistant to “oppressor regimes” like America. Few Iranian people (roughly five percent) share this view.
The nuclear agreement initially appeased these competing factions, temporarily blurring the true victors of the approved deal.
As the economic sanctions took their toll, the Iranian public grew restless with the hardline stance against the West. They supported the negotiations wholeheartedly as a hope for economic relief, possible political liberty, and closer diplomatic and economic relations with the United States and the West.
Pragmatists were equally impatient for sanctions relief, and totally unmoved by the diplomatic opposition regime hardliners had against negotiations.
But conservative hardliners, who hold all unelected positions of power, were in danger of losing control of the population. Iran has a revolutionary culture—it and Russia are the only countries to have had two revolts in the twentieth century—and the precursors were there again: Unemployment had risen to 30-40 percent, inflation was rampant, and Iran’s large youth population grew increasingly discontent. They had limited time to address the sanctions and stabilize the economy before internal frustrations boiled over.
Thus, even though dealing with the West is as anathema to Iranian hardliners as dealing with Iran is to American conservatives, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei allowed popularly elected president Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatist, to move forward with negotiations.
When the deal came through, everybody got a piece of what they wanted. Reformists rejoiced about its implications for an open society. Pragmatists got an end to sanctions and the possibility of economic growth through access to the global economy. And Ayatollah Khamenei and his hardliners got stability and retention of social control.
Yet out of this seeming “win-win-win” for all three groups, a singular victory emerged for the Supreme Leader and his hardliners. The Ayatollah recently banned any further negotiations with the United States and shot off a new long-range surface-to-air missile—in likely violations of United Nations Security Council resolutions. Such defiance showed that the isolation game remains the same: The ruling regime will not allow any real progress with the West—especially not the United States.
As the Ayatollah clenched his fist, he dashed the hopes millions of reformist Iranians that the nuclear agreement would renew relations between their country and the global community. Unfortunately, the United States’ narrow focus on nuclear issues allowed the regime to leave diplomatic issues like regional security, human rights, and political liberation dangling in the wind.
Tackling issues in silos will never achieve wide-ranging solutions for the people of Iran. It only allows the ruling hardliners to selectively engage in issues that suit their best interests. With the moment of international pressure gone, the Iranian people can only hope the next US administration will pursue broader normalization with Iran.
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