First Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif suggested that a nuclear deal could be reached this week, and today came a report that the US might be prepared to offer some relief from sanctions in exchange for a temporary nuclear freeze and some targeted rollbacks:
The official said that the suspension of Iran’s nuclear efforts, perhaps for six months, would give negotiators time to pursue a comprehensive and far more challenging agreement.
“Put simply, what we’re looking for now is a first phase, a first step, an initial understanding that stops Iran’s nuclear program from moving forward for the first time in decades and that potentially rolls part of it back,” the official told reporters.
There has to be a longer term goal with respect to Iran beyond the nuclear program, which is to do whatever we can (even though it might not be much) to boost Rouhani’s presidential record and justify the popular support he won in the presidential campaign, and maybe to give the Iranian public some sense that the United States isn’t their enemy. There’s some serious, and convenient, misunderstanding about how the Iranian government works; when Ahmadinejad was in office he was the most dangerous man on the planet, but when the comparatively moderate Rouhani was elected suddenly the Iranian presidency was a totally powerless office and the real danger had always been the Supreme Leader, but also too Rouhani is just as bad as Ahmadinejad because We Say So. Well, the Iranian presidency isn’t the most powerful office in the country, frankly it might not even be in the top five in terms of actual designated authority, but as the focal point of Iranian popular sentiment the office has considerable importance. Iranian political history, as chock full of authoritarians as it is, also speaks to the power of populism in shaping the direction of the government; the 1891-1892 Tobacco Protest is the best example. It forced the Qajar shah to acquiesce to popular calls for a constitution and elected legislature, and it also cemented the power of the Shiʿa clergy as a repository of popular will against the autocratic monarchy, a peculiar feature of 20th century Iranian society that culminated in 1979.
Very few people would openly talk about the concept of “oriental despotism” these days, because thanks in part to Edward Said this kind of explicitly racist Othering isn’t taken as seriously as it once was, but just because the term is out of use doesn’t mean that the sentiment behind it went away. We have a tendency to view the Middle East as a land full of petty tyrants and kings ruling oppressively over their poor, benighted subjects. But the Iranian people overwhelmingly support the continuation of the Islamic Republic, and they do have a voice in their government. Yes, it’s true that “the unelected parts of Iran’s government are more powerful than the elected parts,” but it’s also true that the nature of the elected parts influences the actions of the unelected parts. Ayatollah Khamenei tacked toward Ahmadinejad after he was elected because it was clear that Ahmadinejad’s populist radicalism, and his Revolutionary Guard backers, were on the ascendency, but as Rouhani’s election began to look more and more likely Khamenei refused calls from those same radicals to intervene in the election, either because he saw an opening to disengage himself from the radical fringe or because he saw the direction of popular sentiment and chose to ride the wave rather than buck it. Khamenei, despite having near-absolute power on paper (he can overrule anything the elected part of the government does, and he directly controls the military and foreign policy establishment), is subject to external pressures just as any other absolute ruler would be; he has to maintain the support of both the hard-line Revolutionary Guard and the Iranian people, and it’s a delicate balancing act. To the extent that those two forces are not in alignment with one another, Khamenei can’t distance himself from one without the strong support of the other.
All this is to say that there is a way to affect internal Iranian politics, by doing what we can to support moderates when they are elected to office. Rouhani hasn’t ushered in an era of liberalization or even moderation–Iran still has a horrific human rights record, for starters–but the changes his election has wrought are clear: Iran and the United States are talking more than they have since the Revolution, the Iranian side of nuclear negotiations is now being led by someone who actually seems to be there to negotiate for a change, and even Khamenei is warning hard-liners not to undermine negotiations. But the risk is that Rouhani’s presidency ends like Mohammad Khatami’s did, with reforms stymied by hard-liners and an economy that had improved but was not strong. The weakness of the economy and the failure of moderating reform paved the way for the election of a hard-line populist like Ahmadinejad, which served nobody’s interest apart from Iranian hardliners and those in the West who liked having a convenient bogeyman to stoke public fear.
So yes, let’s start lifting sanctions, temporarily if need be, in exchange for any movement we can get from Iran; the sanctions are crippling the Iranian economy, and if Rouhani can be the president who oversees the dismantling of those sanctions and the revitalization of the Iranian economy, then the project of moderation might have a serious, long-term future.
There’s going to be a lot of caterwauling about any temporary deal, most of which will flow out of Israel and be happily echoed by Republicans looking to score political points however they can. They’ll say the Iranians are cynically playing Obama to get sanctions lifted and buy time to construct a nuclear device. The problem with this kind of thinking is the assumption that there’s some way the US and Israel-Saudi Arabia could “end” the Iranian nuclear program, and there really isn’t. Even if Rouhani is able to finagle a delay in development or even a partial draw down of the program, unless popular sentiment stays on the side of moderation and engagement with the West then the pendulum of public opinion will eventually swing back toward the hard-liners and we’ll be right back where we started. Strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities would just make things exponentially worse in every respect. The real prize is not a nuclear-free Iran, but an Iran that is liberalized and part of the world community again, and that’s why lifting the sanctions, even for a short time, makes sense.