Historically, the struggle for Iran has been between constitutionalists and authoritarian forces.
Iran began to transform early in the 20th century, when the Persians fought against an Anglo-Russian agreement that divided Iran into a Russian zone and a British zone. Resistance continued at various levels until 1951, when a popular election brought Mohammad Mossadegh to power as prime minister. In 1953, a CIA-led coup overthrew Mossadegh and monarchist rule was reinstalled under a new shah.
Iran’s second transformative period, less liberating than its first, was when Iran was ruled, with American support, by the shah and then by the ayatollahs after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, during which they also had to deal with an eight-year-war with an Iraq supported by America.
President Obama touched on that history when he said in an interview with Tom Friedman of the New York Times: “And then I think the last thing that – this is maybe not something I’ve learned but has been confirmed – even with your enemies, even with your adversaries, I do think that you have to have the capacity to put yourself occasionally in their shoes, and if you look at Iranian history, the fact is that we had some involvement with overthrowing a democratically elected regime in Iran. We have had in the past supported Saddam Hussein when we know he used chemical weapons in the war between Iran and Iraq, and so, as a consequence, they have their own security concerns, their own narrative. It may not be one we agree with. It in no way rationalizes the kinds of sponsorship from terrorism or destabilizing activities that they engage in, but I think that when we are able to see their country and their culture in specific terms, historical terms, as opposed to just applying a broad brush, that’s when you have the possibility at least of some movement.”
An understanding of those concerns, both ours and Iran’s, is reflected in an agreement that has the potential to bring Iran into its third transformative moment. The agreement presented to the world on July 14, an agreement that will roll back Iran’s nuclear program while easing sanctions, holds the promise to roll back a nuclear weapons threat from Iran, ease instability in the region, and ultimately enhance regional and global security.
A third transformative opportunity.
The agreement we saw this week, which I have read, is far-ranging and sets a baseline for Iranian compliance that is far higher, with a longer life, than many expected.
The agreement is a triumph affirming the legitimacy of diplomacy. It moves Iran from a breakout period of three months to a breakout period of well over a year to begin to assemble a bomb. It limits Iran to a uranium enrichment level of 3.67 percent, meaning they will not even be able to domestically produce medical-grade material (20 percent). Of the 12,000 kilograms of enriched uranium presently in Iranian stockpiles, all but 300 kilograms will be exported. The number of its centrifuges will be reduced by two-thirds, and the International Atomic Energy Agency has been empowered to subject Iran to the most intrusive and comprehensive inspection and control protocols ever imposed on a nation – some of which will last up to 25 years, after which other IAEA protocols will still be enforceable.
This is not a bilateral agreement. It is an agreement between the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia and Iran. It is enforceable by international protocols and by the United Nations, has snap-back provisions for sanctions should Iran fail to meet expectations and marks, I believe, the possibility of a new era in the Middle East.
This is not a point of view commonly heard in America. The failure of the U.S. Congress, and of the American media to a great extent, to fully question and challenge the Bush administration and its rationalizations for its invasion of Iraq was an institutional failure that persists today – and affects consideration of this agreement.
The unwillingness to admit that America significantly destabilized and fractured the Middle East from 2003 onward and contributed to Iran’s emergence as a hegemonic influence is a dangerous conceit that many still embrace.
The shrill outcries and condemnations of the agreement, which don’t need to be repeated here, come from those who still embrace such conceits, from those who have not read the agreement, from those who have read the agreement but who oppose taking the boot off Iran’s neck, and from those for whom a foreign policy triumph of this magnitude for President Obama is an impossible pill to swallow.
Critics either cannot, or are unwilling to, acknowledge the possibility that by easing the sanctions and by allowing an expansion of the Iranian economy that Iran will, utilizing its size, human resources and the natural resources with which it has been endowed, thrive and boom.
Critics cannot conceive that through that boom, in a demographic cycle that will probably parallel the life cycle of the present agreement, Iran will expand international contacts and exchanges, expand opportunities and comforts for Iran’s lower and middle classes, and promote domestic stability rather than insecurity.
The more Iranians gain, the more they will be resistant to have it all taken away from them by autocratic and militaristic forces. As nationalistic as Iran is, which is why Obama was wisely advised not to intercede in the 2009 post-election crisis, it is a country ruled as much by bazaaris, middle class merchants, as it is by the Revolutionary Guard or the ayatollahs. The election of Hasan Rouhani as president, against all expectations, and the ability of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to negotiate the agreement, are manifestations of a restless nation anxious to move forward.
Iran is not going to give up its hegemony over the sphere of influence we granted it. What they will hopefully give up, as it comes in from the cold after 35 years of isolation, is its need to keep other parts of the region unstable. As it enters a new cycle of prosperity, it will hopefully see that its interests are better served by regional stability than instability.
This is what I believe President Obama and the other members of the P5 see – and that is exactly what is driving Obama’s Republican critics so mad. For them it is almost inconceivable that after gathering on Inauguration Night 2009 determined to limit the president to one term that he will have achieved, in his second term, both Affordable Care Act on the domestic front and detente with Iran; a gambit that if successful will rank alongside Nixon’s opening to China or Reagan’s Cold War victory over the Soviet Union as historic and transformative moments.
This column appeared originally in the Concord Monitor.