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.
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.
Former Bank of London governor Lord Mervyn King draws from lessons he learned during the 2008 financial crisis to discuss how to manage the current economic uncertainty.
A look ahead to winter and spring 2020 nonfiction books that might shed some light on the world after COVID-19.
The Wall Street Journal’s Dasl Yoon, reporting from Seoul, joins us to explain what other countries can learn from South Korea’s innovative approaches to successfully flatten the curve of new infections – without shutting down the economy.
POLITICO’s Ryan Heath joins Deep Dish to explain the lessons the United States can learn from countries that are further ahead in the COVID-19 infection timeline.
With borders now closed and countries like Italy in an increasingly restrictive nation-wide lockdown under the threat of the novel coronavirus, Europe is facing a crisis likely unparalleled since the end of World War II. This compounds an already disruptive year, following the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, and increasingly calls into question the continued relevance of the political and economic bloc.
As COVID-19 spreads around the world, non-resident senior fellow on global cities Robert Muggah shares his insights into the spread and impact of pandemics, why they are becoming more common, and how cities can help minimize threats now and into the future.
The Midwest is caught in the painful shift from one economy to another, and its divided fortunes show this. It is a split between winners and losers, between well-educated city dwellers and the left behind, angry denizens of the old economy. All this has big impacts that are economic and social – and political.
While the political importance of the American Midwest in 2020 is clear, the region of 70 million people is all too often written off as an economic has-been and a cultural backwater. The truth is a different, more complicated story.
Yemen's years-long war pits Iran-backed Houthis against a coalition of Saudi-led forces seeking to restore Yemen's internationally recognized government, and the United States is involved as well.
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Levant Affairs and Special Envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn joins Deep Dish to explain the Trump administration’s plan in war-torn Syria.
It is too early to conclude that the epidemic will shake the Communist Party’s grip. Once the “people’s war” has defeated the epidemic, the authoritarian regime may turn out to have become even more powerful. But this crisis has made a few things clear. It illustrates how cities are increasingly important actors in addressing pressing global challenges. It also exemplifies how central-local government relations can shape a country’s response to major epidemic outbreaks.
Mira Rapp-Hooper and Ivo Daalder discuss the state of US alliances at a moment when new concerns are flaring up from the Philippines and East Asia to Europe.
After a decade and a half as German chancellor, Angela Merkel has said she will step down in 2021. In the latest #AskIvo, Council President Ivo Daalder looks at three big issues rising to the surface in German politics on the eve of her departure.
For years, violence and crime have led to poor living conditions in the country and mass emigration. Rosa Anaya joins Deep Dish to discuss her work rehabilitating inmates and gang members in El Salvador.
Do Chicagoans truly understand the important role the US Navy plays around the world and the increasing challenges to its previously unimpeded supremacy of the seas?