Nuclear Deal That Iran's Moderates Want May Entrench Hard-Liners

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Even if an agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program is reached, it would leave one big question unanswered.

Would a deal help strengthen the country’s moderates, or would it enrich and embolden the forces that remain intent on exporting Iran’s Islamic revolution?

“I think there are hard-liners inside of Iran that think it is the right thing to do to oppose us, to seek to destroy Israel, to cause havoc in places like Syria or Yemen or Lebanon,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in an April 6 interview with NPR. “And then I think there are others inside Iran who think that this is counterproductive.”

In remarks after the announcement in Switzerland this month of a political framework for a nuclear accord, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described the negotiations as a test that could be “repeated on other issues,” even as he cast the U.S. as untrustworthy.

That was a rare hint that Iran’s Supreme Leader might countenance efforts to continue a dialogue with the nation he regularly denounces as the “Great Satan.” The remark is “very positive and could signal an important change,” said Reza Haghighatnejad, an Istanbul-based independent political analyst and Iran-watcher.

Signing a nuclear deal, Obama said in the NPR interview, might “strengthen the hand of those more moderate forces inside of Iran.” But “the deal is not dependent on anticipating those changes,” he added. “If they don’t change at all, we’re still better off having the deal.”

‘Valid Hope’

Karim Sadjadpour, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said that “in the medium- or long-term, there is a valid hope that the deal becomes transformational” by helping empower elements of Iranian society “who want to put national interests ahead of revolutionary ideology.”

Even Sadjadpour is hedging his bets, though. “There is a valid concern that this nuclear deal will be transactional -- that Iran will simply have far more resources to double down on its existing policies,” he said during a panel discussion about the implications of a nuclear accord.

Critics such as Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA clandestine service officer and a Farsi speaker who’s now at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, say it’s naive and dangerous to see Iran as anything but a threat.

Reporter Charged

The tensions were underscored on Monday when the Washington Post reported that Iran plans to put its correspondent Jason Rezaian on trial before its Revolutionary Court on charges including espionage and “collaborating with hostile governments.” He has been held in the Evin Prison since July 22, and Secretary of State John Kerry, on the sidelines of the nuclear negotiations, has pressed Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif for his release.

There is some consensus on one point: A nuclear agreement isn’t likely to lead to a rapid improvement in U.S.-Iran relations after decades of conflict. The CIA backed the 1953 coup that toppled democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and installed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who was ousted in the 1979 revolution that created the current regime in Tehran. Then the Reagan administration backed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in his eight-year war against Iran.

Hard-Line Opposition

American support for Israel and the conservative Sunni Muslim monarchies of the Persian Gulf against Shiite Iran also may deter any significant rapprochement. Iran’s leaders are wary that Israeli and U.S. hard-liners oppose the nuclear agreement being negotiated in part because they think regime change is the only way to eliminate the threat Iran poses.

Although Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has signaled that he favors some liberalization at home and improved international ties, more conservative forces loyal to Khamenei, including elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, are resisting domestic political reforms and continuing to support their allies in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

“This is not, in my view, an agreement that if it’s concluded is going to transform Iran, or transform our relationship, or put us on a path to rapprochement because I don’t see Iran ceasing and desisting in terms of its support for terrorism and destabilizing activities throughout the region,” said Michele Flournoy, chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security, who was under secretary of defense for policy during Obama’s first term.

Still, Iran isn’t North Korea, and the government must pay some attention to popular discontent. Some previous leaders such as Rouhani’s hard-line predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, learned that the hard way.

Cost to Economy

The case for change rests in part on expectations that the boost to the Iranian economy after a lifting of economic sanctions would strengthen relative moderates such as Rouhani, who won the 2013 election on a campaign platform that included promises to end the nuclear crisis, as well as expanding social and political freedoms.

Rouhani took office after eight years of rule by Ahmadinejad during which United Nations, European Union and U.S. sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program drove it deeper into political and economic isolation.

Oil sanctions alone have cost Iran more than $200 billion in lost exports since 2012, Adam Szubin, a senior U.S. Treasury sanctions official, told a House panel last month.

The nuclear deal being negotiated between Iran and six world powers -- the U.S., China, France, Germany, Russia and the U.K. -- would lift oil, banking and other economic sanctions if Iran implements actions intended to prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons.

A survey by the Islamic Republic News Agency said 83 percent of Iranians expressed “optimism” and “happiness” over the framework accord.

A nuclear deal “ultimately will, on balance, help the moderate elements in Iran,” said Trita Parsi, president of the Washington-based National Iranian American Council. But he said that Iran is “moving in a moderate direction in a context in which the region is moving in a much more radical direction, and that will make it more difficult for the moderates.”

Great Expectations

“We can’t expect it to produce immediate results and suddenly empower more centrist figures who want to open Iran,” said Alireza Nader, a senior analyst at the Rand Corp.

“The nuclear deal is going to be important, but other things need to happen in Iran before we can see a change in direction,” he said in a phone interview. “I really don’t believe that as long as Ayatollah Khamenei is the supreme leader Iran will undergo tremendous changes.”

The Iranian president has stressed economic over political matters, apparently wary of setting off a repeat of the 2009 Green Movement that authorities crushed. Even so, his room to maneuver is limited under the supreme leader, as well as by other powerful institutions, such as the radical elements of the Revolutionary Guards and the conservative clergy and judiciary.

Old Problems

If sanctions are lifted, said Nader, “the economy will be better, but we might see a return to some of the same old problems Iran faced before -- high corruption, mismanagement and unaccountable economic entities like the foundations and the Revolutionary Guards. No doubt institutions like the Revolutionary Guards are going to see some benefit, otherwise they wouldn’t support the deal.”

Iran continues to prosecute and imprison people who criticize the government “or publicly deviate from officially sanctioned narratives,” the UN’s special rapporteur on human right in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, said last month.

Revolutionary Guards

The biggest winner from the waiving of sanctions might not be ordinary Iranians but the array of Revolutionary Guard companies and religious foundations that dominate key segments of the economy, including defense, construction, telecommunications, and transportation.

In 2013, the U.S. Treasury Department identified and sanctioned a “shadowy network” of front companies under Khamenei’s direct control that it said generated billions of dollars in profits annually.

While “it’s possible” that a nuclear deal would pave the way for some Iranian moderation, the U.S. needs to plan for the opposite case in which sanctions relief provides a “turbo-boost to the ayatollahs,” Martin Indyk, a former Mideast negotiator who’s executive vice president of the Brookings Institution in Washington, said in an interview.