Young Iranians celebrate the agreement between their government and six world powers, which curbed the country's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.  Tehran, Iran, July 15, 2015. (Ahmad Halabisaz/Xinhua/Corbis)

After Nuclear Deal, Which Iran Will Flourish? Q&A with Karim Sadjadpour

Young Iranians celebrate the agreement between their government and six world powers, which curbed the country's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Tehran, Iran, July 15, 2015. (Ahmad Halabisaz/Xinhua/Corbis)

The July agreement between Iran and six world powers, which placed limits on Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions, still faces a stern test in the United States Congress. Nonetheless, the Middle Eastern nation’s willingness to even come to the negotiating table has been seen as a possible sign of a progressive political change.

Karim Sadjadpour, Senior Associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes more time will be required to safely make that assessment, however.

“It’s too early to say,” he said. “I think this deal means different things to different factions in Tehran. For hardliners—here I would include Supreme Leader Khamenei and the senior cadres of the Revolutionary Guards, whom he appoints—it is merely a one-off, tactical compromise that was necessary in order to get economic sanctions lifted.

“I believe more pragmatic factions—here I’d include President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif, and the vast majority of Iranians—see the nuclear deal as an important first step in Iran’s evolution into a country that puts its economic and national interests before ideology.”

Speaking with Global Observatory Assistant Editor James Bowen, he said there had long been a modern, young population within Iran longing for greater economic prospects and global integration, but these individuals didn’t exert enough influence over the country’s politics.

“If open discussion and reporting were allowed and people were privy to how many billions of dollars Iran has spent supporting the Assad regime and regional militias, I suspect you’d hear more Iranian voices arguing that such money should be spent at home rather than abroad,” Mr. Sadjadpour said.

He said Iran had struggled to live up to its great potential under the authoritarian leadership of Khamenei, and a more representative government could put the country’s national and economic interests ahead of those of the regime.

Do you think there is a greater likelihood of peace in the Middle East should the Iran nuclear deal be put in place?

Yes and no, it depends to some extent on where you live. The likelihood of a US-Iran military conflict—which would have negative reverberations throughout the Middle East—has been averted for the foreseeable future. So if you’re Iranian, or if you’re European or Chinese and primarily worried about energy security in the Middle East, the nuclear deal is a no-brainer and will make the region more peaceful.

Yet, given the deal is unlikely to change Iran’s longstanding regional policies, many Israelis, Syrians, and Sunni Arabs in the Levant and Persian Gulf are worried a deal will provide Tehran more resources to support militant groups who may appear moderate in comparison to ISIS, but don’t have a strong track record of being forces for peace and tolerance.

The honest answer is that it will take many years to determine the impact of the Iranian nuclear deal on the Middle East. If you look at the most seminal event in the Middle East over the last four decades—including the 1979 Iranian revolution, the 1992 Oslo Accord, the 2003 Iraq war, and the Arab uprisings that began in 2011—they all are interpreted much differently in hindsight than they were at the time.

Some have construed this deal as being a product of Iran’s political and cultural moderation as the older revolutionaries slip from power. Do you think that’s a true assessment?

It’s too early to say. I think this deal means different things to different factions in Tehran. For hardliners—here I would include Supreme Leader Khamenei and the senior cadres of the Revolutionary Guards, whom he appoints—it is merely a one-off, tactical compromise that was necessary in order to get economic sanctions lifted.

I believe more pragmatic factions—here I’d include President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif, and the vast majority of Iranians—see the nuclear deal as an important first step in Iran’s evolution into a country that puts its economic and national interests before ideology. Since 1979, the demise of hardliners and the end of the revolution has been frequently predicted. But what hardliners lack in popular support, they make up for by having a monopoly of coercion and unity of purpose.

During the presidency of Mohammad Khatami from 1997 to 2005, Khatami advocated for civil society and human rights, there was a reform-minded parliament, and everyone believed that Iran was inexorably moving forward…and then came the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which moved the country backwards for another eight years.

Since 1979, power in Iran has been a pendulum swinging back and forth between revolutionary ideology and economic and national interests. In the years to come we’ll have a better sense whether the nuclear deal was the beginning of a new trend of moderation, or a temporary, tactical deal driven by economic expediency.

If we consider that idea about society and the political climate moderating somewhat, it seems completely at odds with what we’re seeing in Iran’s continued support for militarism in the region, whether it’s in Syria, Yemen, or Israel. How do you square those two things together?

This dichotomy isn’t new, it has existed for decades. Iranian society has been ripe for political change for at least two decades now. Western journalists who are able to visit Iran now are writing the same stories that Western journalists who visited Iran in the late 1990s wrote about, i.e. a modern, young population yearning for greater economic prospects, freedoms, and global integration.

But the reality is that the Iranian people don’t have much influence over Iran’s regional policies. If open discussion and reporting were allowed and people were privy to how many billions of dollars Iran has spent supporting the Assad regime and regional militias, I suspect you’d hear more Iranian voices arguing that such money should be spent at home rather than abroad.

Remember that throughout the Khatami era, when Iran’s President was calling for “dialogue of civilizations,” the revolutionary guards continued supporting Assad, Hezbollah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Iran’s key organizing principles—resistance against American and Israel—didn’t really evolve. For that reason I think many folks in the region are not convinced by moderate statements from Iran’s president and foreign ministry, they focus on the Supreme Leader and Revolutionary Guards, whose worldviews appear firmly entrenched.

Do you think the lifting of international sanctions as a result of the nuclear deal will be more of a benefit for the regime in Tehran or for those Iranians who want to see the country reopen to the world?

The Revolutionary Guards have benefitted from Iran’s isolation in that they’ve filled the vacuum left behind by major international firms that have far greater technical capacity and human resources in a number of different industries, including energy, infrastructure, and telecommunications, to name just a few. Revolutionary Guardsmen also made billions bypassing the sanctions regime through illicit means. As an Iranian businessman friend of mine once told me, “sanctions hurt most those of us who obey the law, not those who defy the law.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that the Revolutionary Guards will lose when and if Iran’s economy opens up. As the old expression goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Iran lacks rule of law and transparency, there’s tremendous crony capitalism, and if Revolutionary Guard interests are ever threatened in a major way by the activities of private Iranian businessmen or foreign firms they’ve shown themselves willing and able to shut them down.

It’s telling that Iran’s private sector and civil society is most excited about this deal and the Revolutionary Guards appear most concerned about it. It’s inevitable that government cronies will be enriched as a result of the nuclear deal; what’s less clear is whether the Iranian people will feel a significant improvement in their quality of life in the coming years.

You’ve said that you look forward to the day when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is no longer in power. Why do you think that would bring lasting change and not merely provide opportunity for another conservative leader or regime to take power, to prolong the cycle?

Khamenei has been in my opinion the single biggest obstacle to political reform within Iran, and the single biggest obstacle to rapprochement with the US and global reintegration. He’s been ruling for 26-years, he hasn’t left Iran since 1989, and he’s a 76-year-old cleric presiding over a population whose median age is 29. During his tenure Iran has had one of the world’s highest rates of brain drain, and it consistently ranks among the most repressive, corrupt countries in the world. Like many autocrats Khamenei has always put his own interests and the interests of the Islamic Regime before the economic and security interests of the Iranian nation and I think he’s a big reason why Iran has punched way below its weight.

That said, there are no guarantees that Iran’s post-Khamenei leadership is necessarily going to be more progressive and tolerant. Democratization is a slow and frustrating process, but we know there are more democracies in the world now than there was 50 years ago, and 50 years ago there were more democracies than there were 100 years ago. It could take many more decades but I’m confident that Iran’s centennial quest for representative government will eventually be fulfilled. And I think Khamenei’s reign has impeded that goal, not hastened it.