On Saturday, Iran began pouring cement into the heart of its nuclear reactors in exchange for economic sanctions relief from the UN, EU, and US. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who has publicly interpreted the nuclear deal as a major step toward Iranian political reform, declared its implementation a “golden page” in Iran’s history on Sunday.
Yet realizing the nuclear Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, while certainly a historic rapprochement between Iran and the international system, leaves plenty to be desired. Iran’s clerical government still prolongs a brutal civil war in Syria by propping up the Assad regime, digs its heels into jihadist footholds in the Levant by funding Hezbollah, and stokes the Arab-Israeli conflict by supporting extremism in order to bolster its regional position.
For optimists, the deal—as well as the release of American hostages and swift resolution of recent American trespassers—are events that may portend a Thermidorian, Soviet-style implosion of the belligerent regime and the flowering of latent democratic longings in Iran’s relatively young population. For pessimists, however, it is just another bargaining chip in Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini’s grand strategy to undermine the Western order imposed on the Muslim world.
The key question, as Washington Institute scholar Mehdi Khalaji has paraphrased Kissinger, is whether Iran will become country or remain a cause. On one level, Iran takes full advantage of its sovereignty as a nation-state in the international system. On another level, Iran openly denounces the premise of national sovereignty itself, even before the UN, and advocates for a theocratic, Islamist world order premised on divine sanction.
Iran’s own domestic politics reflect this dichotomy, with a democratically elected executive forever pitched into competition with the clerical hegemony under the Supreme Leader. The outcome is a dense hive of factional rivalries shifting around an ideologically totalitarian core that rarely represents the interests of its people.
There is merit, however, to interpreting the nuclear deal as a sign of new democratic trajectories. Economic sanctions, a hostile regional landscape, and growing popular resentment may be finally forcing Iran to rebalance its policy calculus away from Islamist ideology and toward its national interest, a tectonic shift that might reverse its hostility to the Westphalian world order. In an astonishing admission in June, 2013, Khamenei acknowledged the legitimacy of political opposition on the basis of Iranian nationalism, not Islamism.
“Some people, for whatever reason, may have no desire to support the Islamic regime,” he confessed, “but they certainly want to support their country.” Two days later, opposition leader Hassan Rouhani won the presidency.
As Brookings scholar Suzanne Maloney suggests, the “one-two punch” of nuclear concessions and the release of American prisoners—bitter pills for Tehran’s conservative hierarchy—indicates the growing power of Iran’s democracy. Despite Khamenei’s constitutional superiority over Rouhani’s office, the nuclear deal may foreshadow the day when Iranian popular demand for accountable governance finally forces religious imperialism to bow to republican impulses.
For now, Iran is arguably one of the Middle East’s most democratically disposed nations. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before Iran, much like China in the 1970s, begins to shed some of its fundamentalist trappings and open to the West. Whatever else it is, the nuclear deal appears to be a step in that direction.