Betting on the Reform and the Reformers in Iran

Why the United States (and the West) shouldn’t place all its hopes for a new and more moderate Iran on the shoulders of President Hassan Rouhani.

A man walks past a billboard lobbying against an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program September 17, 2015 in Washington, DC.  Iran's foreign minister said last week that Washington must honour a nuclear deal between Tehran and major powers once implementation begins and block any attempt by lawmakers to meddle with it. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
A man walks past a billboard lobbying against an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program September 17, 2015 in Washington, DC. Iran's foreign minister said last week that Washington must honour a nuclear deal between Tehran and major powers once implementation begins and block any attempt by lawmakers to meddle with it. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

The Obama administration, including the president himself, has made much of the fact that even if Iran doesn’t change its behavior at home (or in the region), the nuclear agreement is nonetheless a worthwhile enterprise. There is a compelling logic to the president’s argument — an unreformed Iran with a nuclear weapon is much more dangerous than an Iran without one.

But the president’s chain of logic fails to take into account one fundamental reality: the regime’s quest to become a nuclear weapons threshold state. And that desire to keep the weapons option alive is inextricably linked to how the regime sees itself: as a revolutionary, ideological Shiite Islamist cause with legitimate regional ambitions surrounded by hostile Sunni neighbors and a West — particularly an America — that wants it reformed or, worse, overthrown. Just read the supreme leader’s statement on Wednesday banning direct negotiations with the United States: “Negotiations with the United States open gates to [its] economic, cultural, political and security influence. Even during the nuclear negotiations, they tried to harm our national interests.”

Driven on one hand by a profound sense of insecurity and a deep sense of entitlement, if not grandiosity, on the other, Iran’s desire for a putative nuclear weapon isn’t some discretionary foreign-policy option. As an aspiring great power in its region, nuclear weapons threshold status may actually be central to its own sense of identity at home and to the tools it needs to navigate the harsh world it sees abroad.

In short, without an evolution in that outlook, the uncertainty over Iran’s intentions on the nuclear issue will remain. We know that Iran already has the know-how and technological capacity to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon. Whether it would choose to weaponize is another matter. But as long as the Islamic Republic behaves like a cause and not just a country, the danger will be ever present. And despite the hopeful tone set by the country’s leading reformer — President Hassan Rouhani — at last month’s U.N. General Assembly, counting both on moderation and on the regime’s putative leading moderator are probably losing bets. And despite the Iranian public’s desire for change, the hopes engendered by the lifting of sanctions, and the “open for business” sign now hanging in Tehran, the odds of truly significant reform and a favorable future for Iran’s reformers aren’t bright.

And here’s why:

Let’s start by considering the hydra-headed power structure in the Islamic Republic, where it’s the supreme leader — and not the president — who has the final say on all matters of state. So though Rouhani may wax on about the possibilities of cooperation with the United States on other non-nuclear fronts — like he did last month at the United Nations when he proclaimed that “from our point of view, the agreed-upon deal is not the final objective but a development which can and should be the basis of further achievements to come” — in the end, the buck doesn’t stop at his desk. It is the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who calls the shots, as we saw in the final negotiating days of the nuclear accord in July when Secretary of State John Kerry asked Foreign Minister Javad Zarif whether he had Khamenei’s support. And, as we saw on Wednesday, he will continue to call the shots for the foreseeable future.

Indeed, a plain reading of the supreme leader’s comments in September on the prospects for rapprochement suggests caution. “We approved talks with the United States about the nuclear issue specifically. We have not allowed talks with the U.S. in other fields, and we will not negotiate with them,” he said. In the same speech, Khamenei warned: “The Iranian nation ousted the Satan. We should not let it back through the window.” If we think the U.S.-Iranian diplomatic, economic, and political relationship is on a linear road to recovery, we better reconsider. Whatever the reformists may intend, the supreme leader will make certain it’s at best a clear quid pro quo; and more likely if there’s a step forward, there will be two back. The regime didn’t cut this nuclear agreement to weaken its capacity to control U.S. and Western influence but to preserve the revolution’s safeguards against America’s reach.

It’s not only the supreme leader who counsels against moderation, but other Iranian leaders as well. In August, Rouhani challenged the role of the Guardian Council — controlled by hard-liners — in vetting prospective candidates for public office in Iran, looking ahead to the parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections in February 2016. Conservatives, in turn, seized on his comment as a shot across the bow.

If that’s not enough, Culture Minister Ali Jannati is close to being impeached, after members of parliament accused him of permitting questionable concerts and movie screenings, among other abuses. He joins a long list of other members of the Rouhani cabinet who are on thin ice: the ministers of economy, roads and urban development, oil, and education have all been subject to impeachment motions in the Iranian parliament. A leading Iranian daily dubbed the Rouhani administration as having broken the record “for [the] most questions by members of parliament put to ministers.”

With elections for the Assembly of Experts, which appoints the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader, set for February, it is entirely conceivable that the next contest will prove decisive in defining the future political landscape. There have already been rumors that the moderate Hassan Khomeini, grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, will run. This could set off a collision course between Khomeini and other moderates and the conservative mainstays in the Assembly like the current chairman, Mohammad Yazdi, who most recently said, “We should not change our foreign policy of opposition to America, our No. 1 enemy, whose crimes are uncountable.” But in the end, the conservatives could remain ascendant given the Guardian Council’s power to preclude candidates from standing in the election. We witnessed such a phenomenon in 2013, when the pragmatic Hashemi Rafsanjani was prohibited from running for another term as president.

The world saw flashes of this before during the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami, when his culture, interior, and transportation ministers were all targeted for impeachment by hard-liners. That’s not to mention the thwarting of his signature twin bills for government reform, one of which would have limited the Guardian Council’s authority to disqualify candidates from running in state elections. Now the former president is under severe in-country restrictions and is barred from leaving Iran.

We don’t doubt the desire for change among the Iranian public or the country’s reformers — the problem is that they’re not running the country and may not be for a very long time. And all of this suggests that Rouhani will have a tough road ahead. And that’s not even taking into account American hawks — from Marco Rubio to Chuck Schumer — who don’t like the nuclear agreement and who will be looking for ways to hold Iran to account for any violations and particularly for its behavior in the region.

And though the Vladimir Putin show in Syria may have added a new heavyweight to the congressional bad-boy list, Iran and Hezbollah won’t be far behind. Iran’s actions in the region, including support for Hezbollah and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, will guarantee that sanctions for its support for terrorism and human rights abuses will continue. Tehran is likely wary of Putin’s new found influence in Syria. But right now they appear to be on the same page. And that will only amplify congressional suspicions of Iran. And the U.S. presidential election campaign will only ensure a bigger and louder stage for the Republicans to hammer not only Iran but Obama and Hillary Clinton, too.

All of this seems to suggest that far from creating a virtuous cycle where Iranian and U.S. actions and reactions reinforce one another in the service of a closer, more trusting relationship, the prevailing tone will be a cautious, incremental one. And, if the Obama administration is lucky, one characterized by fits and starts, not by a major breakdown. One thing seems pretty clear: Somewhere in a parallel universe far, far away, the logic of a linear path to Iran’s moderation may be alive and well. But back here on planet earth, the odds on the health and prosperity of reform and the reformers, too, are still very long ones indeed.

Photo credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

Jason Brodsky is a research associate in the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center.

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