It is rather difficult to know what to say about the Iran nuclear deal. It seems that everything that needs to be said has been said and will continue to be said in the coming days over and over and over again. As I have watched and read the commentary with a measure of detached bemusement, the debate reminds me of the Miller Lite television commercials of my youth. Retired sports greats and others were divided into two teams, one of which would scream “Tastes great!” and the other would retort “Less filling!” Everyone’s ideas were fixed beforehand and no one ever moved from one camp to the other. So it is with the high-pitched, high velocity contest over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that the P5+1 signed with the Islamic Republic of Iran last Tuesday.
Those for it have long been for a deal with Iran, and those opposed have long been opposed. That would be okay, but these two camps tend to frame the terms of the debate so that there is no such thing as either principled opposition to or principled support for the deal—just warmongers or folks in the tank for U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. It is all so disconcerting because this is the environment in which Congress will begin its sixty-day review period of the JCPOA. In other words, it is going to get worse in Washington before its gets better.
I read the 159-page deal last Wednesday and Thursday. The technical stuff is way beyond me, but you do not need to be Secretary of Energy Ernst Moniz—a nuclear physicist—to understand that the JCPOA provides for significant and important reductions in Iran’s nuclear capabilities and is meticulous in setting up a monitoring and inspection regime as well as a sophisticated dispute resolution mechanism. It is also based on a hunch—yes, a bet; a wager that Iranian politics in 2025 will be vastly different from what it is today. For many supporters of the Iran deal, especially those who have engaged in Track II diplomacy meetings with Iranians, those who have hung out with Iranian journalists during two years of continuous negotiations, and those who listen to a wide variety of Iranian expats tell anyone who will listen that Iran is the most pro-American country in the Middle East, the evolution of the Iranian regime is an article of faith.
Fareed Zakaria had a more sophisticated take on this in Sunday’s Washington Post when he pointed out that, historically, countries that have opened to the world after long periods of isolation—self-imposed or otherwise— often become transformed in the process. His primary example is China, which has indeed changed much since Deng Xiaoping’s opening in the 1970s. Fareed was not actually making the analogy between China and Iran, but merely pointing out that connecting to the world has a potentially dynamic effect on the domestic politics and economies of places heretofore closed. Fareed is correct, but as he acknowledges, Iran was never as cut off from the world as China. Up until not too long ago, Iran had on-again, off-again diplomatic relations with some European countries and continued to have ties with most of Asia. Iranians have had regular, albeit controlled, access to the internet, and the Iranian press seems fairly lively, especially in comparison to the snoozy official new outlets on the Arab side of the Gulf.
I am not saying that now that Iran is allegedly coming in from the cold it will not change, but I do not know how reasonable people can have so much faith that it will. Why do they believe that? Because they want to, I suppose. Despite all of the invective heaped upon the Obama administration for its naïveté about Iran, I do not think they believe it either. I know nothing about the deliberations and plans inside the administration, but it seems to me that if the White House is serious about the chances of the JCPOA working, they have got to have a strategy to help make the wager that Iran will change (for the better) a reality. That either means fomenting revolution—an unlikely policy—or helping Iran evolve through educational exchanges, beefing up Voice of America’s Persian-language programming, establishing business ties as sanctions relief gets underway, and overall making it easier for philanthropies, private citizens, and the U.S. government to interact with Iranian society. This would, of course, make the administration’s declarations that the JCPOA is just about Iran’s nuclear program and not about the broader relationship not so much untruthful, but rather “truthy”—in other words true enough, but not exactly the whole story. The fact of the matter is that given the stakes involved and the internal logic of the agreement, the nuclear deal means a whole lot more than the number and type of centrifuges spinning, the amount of enriched uranium the Iranians can have, and what “snapback” means. To make the deal stick beyond its sunset clause, there have to be changes in the Washington-Tehran relationship.
This may be why Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was so clear last weekend that despite his support for the JCPOA, he still regards the United States as an enemy. The ayatollah is no dummy. He understands that the deal is not just about nuclear issues and that, as some Iranians contend, the agreement has the potential to strengthen Tehran’s moderates. It seems that the Supreme Leader has calculated that the JCPOA is worth it in terms of sanctions relief and determined that he and his allies can effectively undermine, deflect, and defeat pressures for change.
Whether Obama or Khamenei will be correct is an empirical question the answer to which we will learn a decade from now—if Congress does not kill the JCPOA first. Everything else is just inconclusive debate. “Tastes great! Less filling!”