Can Iran be a Normal Country?

Efforts are underway to discredit the nuclear deal signed by Iran and the P5+1 nations (U.S., France, Britain, Germany, Russia, and China).  The deal imposes a strict inspection regime, reduces the number of centrifuges that Iran can operate, and should delay Iran’s ability to build a working nuclear weapon by at least ten years.

One would think a deal that won the acceptance of such diverse nations would have to be a pretty good deal.  But those who oppose it believe that any deal agreed to by Russia and China MUST be bad for the United States, and that our European allies are simply going along and not showing sufficient regard for the interests of the U.S. and other allies (especially Israel).

Yet I believe the deal can help deliver us from two major threats.  First is the risk of a nuclear arms race between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with both seeking to have operable nuclear weapons to match the other.  With wars already ongoing in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq that pit Saudi allies against those of Iran, the risk of escalation to nuclear conflict could not be ruled out if both nations raced ahead to build nuclear weapons.  A deal that delays Iran’s ability to build working nuclear weapons for a decade helps keep that risk at bay during a period of extreme instability and conflict in the region.

Second is the risk posed by the expanding empire of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS).  The only hope of rolling back and disarming IS, and ending the reign of terror it has imposed, is for Iran and Saudi Arabia and Turkey to join forces against the common threat.  Yet that has not been possible as long as ideological opposition among these countries prevents any cooperation.

Fortunately, the nuclear deal offers hope that Iran could become a more ‘normal’ country, acting on its rational interests instead of being driven by ideological extremism.  A successful deal that restores economic progress could help Iran’s President Rouhani gain leverage over the more extremist elements in Iran.  In particular, Rouhani needs the support of the Revolutionary Guards to mount a successful campaign against IS.  If a nuclear weapon is off the table for some years, the Guards may look for other ways for Iran to maximize its military strength and influence in the region, and leading the fight against IS may be their best option.

The history of revolutionary regimes gives some hope for this outcome.  It is common for revolutions to undergo a “second radical phase” a decade or more after they start.  The second radical phase does not seek to overturn the government, but to steer it in a more radical direction, to recover the ideological fire of the early revolutionary period.  The Stalinist purges and collectivization campaigns of the 1930s form a second radical phase in the Russian Revolution of 1917; the cultural revolution of the 1960s marked a second radical phase in the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949; and the Cardenas nationalization and social welfare reforms of the 1930s were a second radical phase in the Mexican Revolution of 1910.   In Iran, the presidency of Ahmadinejad was also such a second radical phase, marked by ideological extremism both domestically and internationally.

But that phase may now be coming to an end.  In other revolutions, the second radical phase usually led to economic disruption and isolation, provoking a reaction in favor of more rational economic and political policies.  The result was new governments that acted more on the basis of rational self-interest, less on the basis of ideological fervor.  Thus by the 1940s Stalin was willing to ally with the capitalist regimes against Hitler; and  in the 1970s China resumed diplomatic relations with the United States.  The Rouhani regime seem bent on moving forward to reduce Iran’s isolation and improve its economy.

Iran will not become a secular or pro-western state, any more than the Soviet Union did under Brezhnev or China did under Deng Xiaoping.  However, Iran may well become a rational state with which we can deal, and obtain cooperation against common enemies.

If the nuclear deal helps promote the transformation of Iran from a radical phase of international and domestic extremism to a more rational phase of economic and political self-interest, it will provide greater benefits than simply slowing Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons, important as that is.   At a time when the fabric of the Middle East is being torn asunder from Syria to Yemen, and an ideologically extreme force in the form of the Islamic State is spreading, having a rational Iran with whom we can negotiate and manage common interests will be a boon.  For that reason, Congress should support the deal, and we should hope it wins approval in Iran as well.

About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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