by Shireen T. Hunter
The day that everyone was dreading arrived yesterday when President Trump announced that the United States will no longer adhere to the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA). Before and after his announcement various commentators have discussed the implications of his decision for America’s position in the world, its relations with Europe and the risks of greater turmoil in the Middle East.
These are all serious issues. However, few have discussed how this decision would affect Iran, and how Iran should react. The main concern has been the possibility of Iran resuming its high-grade enrichment process and possibly surreptitiously working on a nuclear device.
Clearly, President Trump’s action is both unfair and unwise. Be that as it may, his decision forces the Iranian leadership, especially the more hardline elements, to confront tough realities of international life and domestic conditions that they have consistently and adamantly refused to acknowledge. Yet they need to know these facts. Commentators who pretend that these realities don’t exist are not doing Iran any favors.
First and most important, international relations are still based on power equations rather than rule of law or ethical principles. Complaining about this reality, as Iran does consistently, does it no good.
Second, in the post-ideological era, most states, except for the Islamic Republic of Iran, act on the basis of their national interests and not in pursuit of some vague ideals. This means that other parties to the JCPOA will determine their approach to Iran based on calculations of their economic and other interests. Since Europe’s and China’s interests are more tied to America than to Iran, they will not go out of their way to help Iran. Even Russia, facing its own domestic problems, will not come to Iran’s aid.
Third, within the current international system, America is still the dominant power economically and militarily. Iran hardliners’ belief that America is on the verge of collapse is nothing but a fantasy.
Fourth, Israel has tremendous influence on America for many reasons, including the memory of World War II and the crimes against the Jews of Europe. Thus, Iranian expectation that it can make a deal with America and continue to challenge Israel’s existence and engage in activities that seem threatening to it is foolhardy. This factor also puts a limit on European willingness to engage with Iran. Accusations of sponsoring terrorism and destabilizing regional activities are largely about Iran’s hostility to Israel. No matter how much Iran fights the Islamic State or other extremist groups, it will get no credit if it continues its animosity to Israel.
Fifth, the mismanagement of Iran’s economic and other affairs has left the country in a difficult position and with a frustrated and unhappy population. Despite brave words from the government that all necessary measures have been taken and the people should not worry about their economic conditions, the return of sanctions, including those on the purchase of Iranian oil, will seriously worsen conditions inside the country. Certainly, Iran can go back to bartering and other such measures and stop even its modest development plans. But this will only worsen its situation.
More seriously, economic deprivation and a stifling social atmosphere coupled with environmental problems have been eroding Iran’s national solidarity, with worrying consequences for the country’s future.
Those who wish Iran well should point out these realities instead of focusing on America’s lost prestige, credibility, and isolation.
How Should Iran Respond?
President Hassan Rouhani has so far reacted wisely. Instead of declaring that Iran is leaving the JCPOA (or worse, as some have suggested, the NPT), he said that Iran will remain in the agreement as long as the other five states stay in it.
However, he will come under pressure from hardliners to take a more combative approach. That would be wrong. Instead, he should point out the dangers of the policies promoted by the hardliners and ask for fundamental reforms in Iran’s domestic and foreign policies.
An easy step domestically would be to relax the social and cultural codes, eliminate forced hijab, and allow concerts and other amusements. Annually, Iranians spend billions of dollars to go places such as Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Turkey, in addition to Europe and Asia, just to enjoy a freer atmosphere even if for a few days. Some seek residency in these places and invest in them instead of in their own country. This is costing Iran heavily in monetary terms.
Meanwhile, Iran’s tourism industry is languishing partly because of these restrictions. Yet, a minority of aged clerics and hardline revolutionaries insist on maintaining this stifling atmosphere. In short, the cost of maintaining an Islamist society is becoming prohibitive for Iran.
Improving Iranians’ mood will help the country’s economy, enhance national solidarity, and even strengthen their will to resist unfair treatment.
Another step would be better treatment of overseas Iranians with considerable funds. As long as Iranian residents abroad get imprisoned as soon as they return to their country, any hope of their investing in Iran is nil. Ironically, it has been almost 30 years since Ayatollah Rafsanjani talked about national reconciliation and reached out to overseas Iranians.
More important, the leadership in Iran, especially the hardliners, must realize that the system’s contradictions are intensifying and can no longer be sustained. In a book on post-Khomeini Iran in 1992, I wrote that the Islamic Republic has two choices; fundamental reform that will alter its nature or a dangerous stagnation and even implosion. Now time is running out for reform, although it is still possible.
Dealing with America
Iran must realize that for the foreseeable future it cannot circumvent America. Thus, it must deal with it openly and realistically. This does not mean trusting in America’s good intentions, good will, or reliability. It is merely an acknowledgement of reality.
Dealing with America also means dealing with Israel as an independent state recognized by the United Nations. American withdrawal from the JCPOA has shown that normalization of ties with America requires coming to terms with Israel. An Israeli academic at a conference on Iran-America relations in 1993, once told me that the road to Washington goes through Tel Aviv.
For all this to be possible, Iran must develop a national rather than an Islamist outlook and put Iran’s interests ahead of Islamic universalism, anti-imperialist struggle, and Palestine’s liberation. Forty years of lost efforts, hundreds of thousands dead Iranians, and billions of wasted dollars are enough.
Will Iran’s leaders have the courage to act as Iranians rather than as tired Islamists and revolutionaries?