What the Nuclear Deal Says about Iran’s Politics and Society

by Shireen T. Hunter

In the aftermath of the recent nuclear accord on Iran’s nuclear program, it is important to understand correctly the Islamic Republic’s motives for signing the deal with the United States (and the other P5+1 countries) and the factors that enabled the Iranian negotiators to reach an agreement. Without such an understanding, the United States will continue to make policy toward Iran on the basis of previous assumptions about the country. More critically, neither Washington nor the Middle East region will realize the potential benefits of the deal. Indeed, the deal might even unravel.

The first mistake to avoid is to attribute Iran’s willingness to reach a deal solely to the effects of sanctions. Clearly, sanctions have had considerable costs for Iran and have caused much pain and suffering to the Iranian people. Nevertheless, Iran could have continued to limp along for at least a few more years and hope that the sanctions regime would eventually unravel by itself. Or it could have embarked on a systematic policy of regional destabilization.

As much as regional countries hold Iran responsible for all their troubles, Iran has consistently followed a cautious policy in its neighborhood – to both the south and the north. Some hardline elements in Iran would have preferred a destabilization strategy even if it increased the risk of external military attack. In fact, some would have even welcomed a military attack because, in their view, it would have led to a complete unraveling of any semblance of regional order. This means that the US—or more precisely those who have always opposed any dealings with Iran— should not conclude that the same sort of pressure should now be brought to bear on Iran to extract other concessions. Such an approach would only play into the hands of those in Iran who want to prove that the US is not reliable.

The second mistake to avoid is to think that the negotiations were successful only because of the policies of the current Iranian government and president. No doubt President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and the entire Iranian negotiating team, especially Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, deserve the gratitude of the Iranian people and the appreciation of their P5+1 partners. But the deal would not have been possible if the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei had not steadfastly supported the negotiating team against attacks by hardliners, which he kept in check. The view of Khamenei as a pathological naysayer incapable of compromise should be abandoned. Once and for all, Washington should understand the Iranian political leadership as a whole and stop dividing it into elected and non-elected elements, as the Clinton administration did. The US must learn to deal—if it so wishes—with Iran’s entire political system and not only those that it finds more palatable.

Meanwhile, the so-far-successful culmination of the protracted negotiations reflects changes within Iranian society and polity. The most important is the significant erosion of revolutionary fervor and the reassertion of a new type of Iranian nationalism that is neither excessively ethnocentric nor outwardly expansionist. It merely reflects a greater desire to put Iran’s interests ahead of unrealistic ambitions as well as to make political compromises to achieve this goal. The election of President Rouhani, in part, was the result of this new emerging Iranian nationalism.

The nuclear agreement also shows the maturing of Iran’s foreign policy culture as the outcome of a hard and almost brutal learning process that all revolutionary movements have undergone throughout history. This newfound maturity is not limited to politicians and bureaucrats but also applies to the people. The Iranian public is now more educated, better informed, and thus less willing to accept all that the authorities proclaim. In general, Iranian society is now more sophisticated as well as more aware of its own history, culture, and distinctiveness. Although official discourse still focuses on Islamic universalism, the people are no longer receptive to it.

In this respect, the behavior of Arab states and recently Turkey toward Iran has cured most Iranians of the illusions of Islamic unity. The emergence of groups like the Taliban and the Islamic State has shown Iranians that their traditional understanding of Islam is preferable to the Marxist-tinged revolutionary Islam of the Revolution’s early decades and differentiates them from other Muslims now heavily influenced by Saudi Wahhabism. In the future, Iran is even more likely to pursue a pragmatic foreign policy based on the calculation of its own interests rather than the pursuit of an ideological chimera.

Perhaps most important, the trials and tribulations that Iran has undergone in the last 35 years, including punishing sanctions and an eight-year-long war with Iraq, have tended to strengthen rather than tear apart its national unity. Of course, there are differences within Iran and many disgruntled groups. But the country and its people have a clearer sense than before of themselves and the necessity of national compromise and cooperation. More important, they have been cured of the virus of revolution and prefer gradual but more lasting change. This is what is lacking in many other countries in the region.

Despite all these positive changes, not all will be smooth-sailing in Iran. Power struggles will continue, and some groups will ignore the national good in pursuit of selfish interests. But even they cannot turn back the clock. They simply no longer have a popular base, no matter what they claim. The only way they can be resurrected would be for American hardliners to undercut the results of the hard work done by the Obama administration.

In short, it is important for US post-deal policy toward Iran to be guided by its new conditions and not by the outdated visions that many groups in America still unfortunately promote. Indeed, the US has a lot more in common with the new Iran, beyond strategic issues, than with some of America’s so-called allies in the region.

Photo: Ali Akbar Salehi (right) and Vali Nasr (left). 

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. This is a fair and a bit optimistic view of what is happening in Iran. The article provides a good analysis of the mindset of current government but a considerable part of the administration (IRGC, …) have more conservative(revolutionary/Islamic) opinions.

    The Iranian political sphere is very similar to he US. Right now democrats rule in Iran but republicans may take the control. However I think the illogical and illegal behaviors of Ahmadinejad’s government will never again be tolerated even by conservatives.

  2. Mark me a skeptic. We are making a deal that will enable Iran to be the major power in the Middle East. I have not seen anything in their previous behavior that would lead me to the conclusion that they are going to be a responsible rather than dominant country when this takes effect. Woe to Israel and the Saudis. The only alternative they will have is to arm themselves in self defense. I’m very concerned that we will see a nuclear war for the first time.

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