December 11, 2015 | By Saeid Golkar

The Unifying Fable of Iran’s Nuclear Deal

US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, US Secretary of State John Kerry, and US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman (L-3rd L) meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (2nd R). REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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.

About

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.

Archive










Urban Reflections from the 2019 International Student Delegation

Each year approximately 30 students from leading research universities around the world participate in the global student delegation program at the Pritzker Forum on Global Cities. Promising students who have demonstrated a commitment to improving global cities and are enrolled in a master’s or PhD program are nominated by their host universities to attend. The 2019 delegation included 30 students from 20 countries, including China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Germany, Israel, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. Their biographies are available here.

The following series of contributions are their reflections and insights inspired by and drawn from their experience attending the 2019 Pritzker Forum.


| By Lille van der Zanden

Social Equity: The Legacy of 100 Resilient Cities

On July 31, 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) officially ceased its operations, marking a turning point in the modern urban resiliency movement to create cities that can bounce back from disaster. In six years, the Rockefeller Foundation-funded initiative brought a standardized urban resilience framework to cities across the globe, facilitating the development of more than 80 resilience plans in the process. As a result of its work, urban resiliency planning has become a common practice for city governments, with many institutionalizing the position of a chief resiliency officer.




| By Ian Klaus

Will Ambassador Subnat Go to Washington?

On June 28, 2019, Congressmen Ted W. Lieu (D-CA33) and Joe Wilson (R-SC02) introduced H.R.3571, the “City and State Diplomacy Act.” The Act seeks to mandate a senior official at the State Department charged with “supervision (including policy oversight of resources) of Federal support for subnational engagements by State and municipal governments with foreign governments.” The position would be at the ambassadorial level, and “Ambassador Subnat” would require the consent of the Senate and oversee a new Office of Subnational Diplomacy.