How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Although it was greeted with heated debate in the United States, the announcement of a landmark deal on Iran’s nuclear program was met with wide approval in Iran. Cheering crowds decked in purple and green, the colors associated with the country’s embattled movements for moderation and reform, met Iran’s nuclear negotiators at the airport. Newspapers printed special editions with jubilant headlines. And even the stern Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, released an official statement with unusual dispatch to welcome the news and laud the diplomats who hammered out the deal.
One might think that the crowds and officials were rejoicing at the relatively meager sanctions relief meted out by a justifiably mistrustful West. Or perhaps that they were celebrating the fact that the deal left open the question of whether Iran has the right to enrich uranium. In fact, their concerns were far broader: thanks to the deal, regime moderates have started to rebalance a government that seemed on the verge of toppling only a few years ago. And, in so doing, they have confounded the world’s expectations. Despite facing the most severe sanctions in history, increasing global isolation, and a recent history significant domestic unrest, Iran’s revolutionary theocracy has once again navigated its way off of history’s exit ramp. Where the country heads next, of course, remains as uncertain as ever.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivered on his promise to end the nuclear impasse -- and in record time, only 100 days into his presidency. His authority is now more secure than that of any of his predecessors. He leads a national unity government that boasts broad support among the country’s perennially warring political establishment, the explicit backing of the supreme leader, and, now, the ecstatic support of the public as well.
The last 100 days have certainly been eventful. But the real story of Iran’s transformation began in 2009, with the epic turmoil that followed the contested re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. The unrest left deep rifts among the insiders who had governed the Islamic Republic for the previous three decades. With an array of senior political figures in prison, and what was left of the legitimacy of Iran’s elections in tatters, the regime’s political base had become precariously narrow.
A slew of UN sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program in 2010, which were followed by yet more punitive measures by Washington and its allies, didn’t help matters. As the economy faltered, Ahmadinejad emerged as the regime’s most suitable scapegoat. His repudiation by the supreme leader let loose the barely contained hostilities that divided the regime's remaining defenders. Ahmadinejad’s final years in office were spent battling open subversion by the rest of the establishment as well as the spasmodic crises -- hyperinflation, the currency crash, product shortages -- sparked by the sanctions regime.
The infighting seemed to set Iran’s revolutionary enterprise on a dead-end course, headed inescapably toward collapse or capitulation. But the country’s theocracy has repeatedly demonstrated a capacity for reinvention, and, somewhere along the skid into oblivion, its old guard grabbed the wheel. Just as regime stalwarts had done at the end of the devastating war with Iraq in 1988, the revolutionaries sought salvation in moderation. During that period, the regime’s foremost pragmatist, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, took the helm of the presidency and began to reconstruct Iran’s economy and revive its frayed ties around the region. This time around, they looked to veteran power broker Rouhani, whom they believed could bridge the establishment’s orthodox and liberal sides and who could be trusted to spearhead a slow-motion process of rehabilitating the regime.
In this sense, Rouhani owes his surprise election victory in June not only to the millions of Iranians who overcame their fears of a replay of 2009 to vote for him but also to an establishment that had carefully cleared the way for his dark-horse candidacy. The system’s sentinels had permitted him to run a wildly iconoclastic campaign that galvanized young Iranians and unshackled an extraordinary debate over the once-sacrosanct nuclear program. Then, after his win, Rouhani was permitted to install the most forward-leaning, Western-oriented cabinet in post-revolutionary history. In speeches and press conferences, he openly staked his presidency on resolving the nuclear impasse, promising more active diplomacy and efforts to build trust and transparency. Although Iranian leaders have continued to laud their ability to withstand and evade sanctions, the cost of defiance had clearly become too much for the system to bear.
Everything that has happened since then -- the foreign minister’s Twitter diplomacy, Rouhani’s unprecedented outreach to Barack Obama and senior U.S. officials, the preliminary nuclear deal inked on Sunday -- has been part of a carefully orchestrated strategy by the regime, undoubtedly endorsed by Khamenei. And, for now, its planning seems to have paid off.
However, having successfully pivoted away from the brink will not necessarily ease the Islamic Republic’s challenges. The Iranian public’s overjoyed response to the political and diplomatic openings of the past five months worry the aging stalwarts of Iran’s revolution. Having raised the expectations of a restless young nation with a popular president and nuclear bargain, Tehran must now deliver. Iranians want to see the fruits of these breakthroughs: the trade that will bring new jobs and economic opportunities; the easing of government repression and social restrictions; a leadership that is accountable to its people and respected abroad.
In other words, the nuclear deal is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for a failing regime; rather, Iran’s internal reset and the diplomatic breakthroughs that have followed will only exacerbate the pressure from below. The millions of Iranians who thronged Rouhani’s rowdy campaign rallies, who reveled in the streets after he was elected, and who celebrated the nuclear deal are watching and waiting. In case the regime’s leadership missed the message, many of those who greeted the nuclear negotiators were chanting slogans in support of the candidates who led the post-election protests in 2009, men who have now endured 1000 days of shockingly brutal house arrest.
If Rouhani’s government of “hope and prudence” is going to fulfill his people’s expectations, then the Islamic Republic’s current embrace of pragmatism must prevail over its well-honed authoritarian impulses and institutions. Nothing in Iran’s post-revolutionary history gives reason for optimism about enduring moderation; past attempts by pragmatic presidents to moderate the regime were derailed by hard-liner opposition and intra-elite competition. Still, with Rouhani having been entrusted with the historic role of engineering the country’s first opening to Washington (something neither Rafsanjani nor Khatami could claim), he may yet prove able to transform Iran’s domestic climate.
Many players around the world have critiqued the deal. But the ebullient Iranian response to the bargain offers a reminder of the power of diplomacy. The fact that the bargain boosted the profile of the country’s moderates -- and put more pressure on them to deliver to the Iranian people -- bolsters the case for diplomacy. We now know that Washington has long pursued diplomacy, even when the political conditions within Iran were at their worst -- overtures that may have helped persuade the ever-suspicious Khamenei to initiate the quiet program of recalibration that culminated with Rouhani’s election.
Additional sanctions will not break a regime whose survival instincts are second to none, and they will not inspire democratic activism among a population that sees moderation as the answer to its battered hopes. Whatever else the nuclear diplomacy may accomplish, it will at least intensify popular demands on the Islamic Republic at home.
The Limits of Containment