The nuclear deal with Iran has sparked a vigorous debate not only in the United States, but in Iran as well. The discussion of the agreement among Iranians at times echoes the American discussion, but is also much deeper and wider. Reports in Iranian media, as well as our own correspondence and conversations with dozens of Iranians, both in the country and in exile, reveal a public dialogue that stretches beyond the details of the agreement to include the very future of Iran. And it seems that everyone from the supreme leader to the Iranian American executive in Silicon Valley, from the taxi driver in Isfahan to the dissident from Evin Prison, is engaged. The coalitions for and against the deal tend to correlate closely with those for and against internal political reform and normalized relations with the West.
The mere fact that there is such a debate says something about the nature of the Islamic Republic of Iran today. Iran is a dictatorship. One man, the supreme leader, has most of the power. He is the commander in chief and thus formally controls the military, the very powerful internal militia, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and its external wing, the Quds Force. The supreme leader appoints the head of the judiciary, the head of the Iranian national radio and television organization, and most of the National Security Council—an advisory body similar to the U.S. National Security Council. He also controls tens of billions of dollars in revenues from religious endowments and foundations. And, as stated in the constitution, he is the spiritual leader of the country, combining religious and political power in one office.
And yet nowadays the supreme leader does not decide everything on his own. Some formal institutions of the Iranian regime, and a myriad of informal interest-group networks, also play a role in shaping policy, including on the nuclear deal. Most importantly, the Iranian president has some political autonomy. Through his control of the Guardian Council—a committee of 12 men that among other things must approve every candidate wishing to run for elective office—the supreme leader decides who is allowed to run for president. But once the list of candidates is determined, the vote is usually competitive, giving the chief executive an electoral mandate directly from the people. In the last presidential election, candidates ideologically closest to the supreme leader garnered only a few million votes, while the one candidate running as a reformer, Hassan Rouhani, received more than 18 million votes. Rouhani’s wide margin of victory strengthened his position as a partially independent actor within the Iranian regime.
In addition to the president, other groups have obtained some political autonomy within Iran’s fractured authoritarianism. Civil society is constrained but still fighting. A vibrant underground of publishing, theater, music, and poetry continues to spread. Divides exist even among the clerics. Conservatives still dominate, but several top clerics have voiced their support for Iran’s reformist forces and criticized—sometimes openly, sometimes more discreetly—conservative policies. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s own brother, Hadi Khamenei, recently described the eight-year presidency of Rouhani’s predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as some of the “darkest [years] in the history of the country,” adding that the conservatives are trying to “give a bad image to the reformists.” This political system—authoritarian but with pockets of pluralism—has created the relatively permissive conditions for a serious, public debate about the nuclear deal.
Moreover, in refraining from taking a firm public position for or against the agreement, Khamenei himself has encouraged this debate. Given the extent of Khamenei’s control, the Iranian negotiators could not have signed the accord without his approval. In public, however, the supreme leader has refrained from praising the work of his negotiating team, saying only that the deal must be ratified through the proper “legal channels” and will not change Iranian policy toward the “arrogant U.S. government.” Khamenei’s mixed signals have allowed others to speak out more forcefully on the nuclear pact.
Those supporting the deal include moderates inside the government, many opposition leaders, a majority of Iranian citizens, and many in the Iranian American diaspora—a disparate group that has rarely agreed on anything until now.
First and most obviously, the moderates within the regime, including Rouhani and his close friend and political ally, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, negotiated the agreement, and are now the most vocal in defending it against Iranian hawks. Rouhani crushed his conservative opponents in the last presidential election in 2013 in part because he advocated for a nuclear deal. This agreement is his Obamacare—his major campaign promise now delivered. Former Presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, as well as moderates in the parliament and elsewhere in government, have also vigorously endorsed the accord. During the negotiations, Rafsanjani, for example, celebrated the fact that Iran’s leaders had “broken a taboo” in talking directly to the United States. Since the agreement was signed, he has said that those within Iran who oppose it are “making a mistake.”
Second and somewhat surprisingly, many prominent opposition leaders also support the deal. Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a popular presidential candidate in 2009 who is now under house arrest for his leadership of the Green Movement protests against Ahmadinejad’s reelection, backed the pursuit of the agreement, albeit with some qualifications. He’s joined by other government critics, some only recently released from Iran’s prisons. Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human-rights activist and Nobel laureate now living in exile, expressed the hope after an interim agreement was reached in April that “negotiations come to a conclusion, because the sanctions have made the people poorer”; she labeled as “extremists” those who opposed the agreement in Iran and America. Akbar Ganji, an Iranian journalist who spent more than six years in prison in Iran, also praised the agreement, writing that “step-by-step nuclear accords, the lifting of economic sanctions and the improvement of the relations between Iran and Western powers will gradually remove the warlike and securitized environment from Iran.”
Polls show that most Iranians agree with these positions, and public opinion is apparent not just in the Iranian government’s numbers but also in the results of earlier surveys conducted by the University of Maryland and Tehran University. The sentiments of many ordinary Iranians were manifest in the spontaneous demonstrations of joy that took place in many Iranian cities after the agreement was announced.
A new poll also indicates that two-thirds of Iranian Americans favor the agreement, and our own conversations with members of the Iranian diaspora bear this out. The Islamic Republic has long enjoyed some defense from a handful of non-governmental organizations in the West, but support for the nuclear deal stretches much deeper into the diaspora and includes those who despise Tehran’s theocracy. For instance, many prominent Iranian American business leaders have told us they approve of the accord. Iranian American foundations and community-service organizations have issued statements backing the deal, while also calling for renewed focus on political reforms inside Iran. Even many of those who had to flee the country after the 1979 revolution, and have since helped fund projects to encourage democracy inside Iran (including, in the past, our own Iran Democracy Project at Stanford’s Hoover Institution), support it. There are exceptions. Some in the diaspora still believe that only more pressure, and if need be a military attack, will bring down the Islamic Republic. But the number of Iranian Americans who are at once critical of the regime and supportive of the nuclear deal is striking.
This coalition has multiple motivations for favoring the deal. A number of Iranians simply want sanctions lifted. Some moderates within the regime may want to reduce international pressure on Iran as a means to preserve the power structure. And it’s safe to assume that a few Iranian American business leaders see new trade opportunities in the diplomatic achievement. But the agreement could also serve as a first step in alleviating the problems of ordinary Iranian citizens. If the deal represents the beginning of Iran’s reengagement with the outside world—more trade, more investment, more space inside Iran for the private sector, more travel, more normalcy—all of these trends would undermine the ideological, emotional, and irrational impulses of the theocracy. Especially in the context of an aging supreme leader, a newly elected reformist president, and a young, post-revolutionary population, the nuclear deal offers an opportunity for Iran to modernize politically and economically. Even dissidents sitting in jail or exile have expressed these views. Ganji, for instance, argued that “if there are friendly relations between Iran and Western powers, led by the United States, the West will be able to exert more positive influence on Iran to improve its state of human rights.” Conversely, members of this coalition have voiced fears that a collapse of the deal would only reaffirm the United States as the enemy of Iran—the Great Satan—and thereby strengthen the hardliners internally. Issa Saharkhiz, a journalist who spent four years in prison, recently warned that such a collapse could bring “Iranian versions of ISIS”—a reference to Shiite conservatives and their militant allies—to power in the country.
And that’s exactly why the most militantly authoritarian, conservative, and anti-Western leaders and groups within Iran oppose the deal. This coalition is formidable and includes former President Ahmadinejad, the Iranian leader who denied the Holocaust and called for the elimination of Israel. Fereydoon Abbasi, who directed Iran’s nuclear program under Ahmadinejad, and Saeed Jalili, the former nuclear negotiator, have repeatedly sniped at the deal. In a biting interview, Abbasi ripped into every facet of the talks, saying that the negotiators, “especially Mr. Rouhani ... have accepted the premise that [Iran] is guilty.” Several conservative clerics and IRGC commanders have expressed similar sentiments. One prominent critic of the deal claimed that of the 19 redlines stipulated by the supreme leader, 18 and a half had been compromised in the current agreement. Many publications considered close to Khamenei—including most noticeably the daily paper Kayhan—have been unsparing in their criticism.
Conservative opponents of the deal tend to emphasize its near-term negative security consequences. They point out that the agreement will roll back Iran’s nuclear program, which was intended to deter an American or Israeli attack, and thereby increase Iran’s vulnerability. They have denounced the system for inspecting Iranian nuclear facilities as an intelligence bonanza for the CIA. And they have issued blistering attacks on the incompetence of Iran’s negotiating team, claiming that negotiators caved on many key issues and were outmaneuvered by more clever and sinister American diplomats.
And yet such antagonism appears to be about more than the agreement’s clauses and annexes. The deal’s hardline adversaries also seem concerned about the same longer-term consequences that the moderates embrace. For instance, IRGC leaders must worry that a lifting of sanctions will undermine their business arrangements for contraband trade. In a not-too-discreet reference to these concerns, Rouhani declared them to be “peddlers of sanctions,” adding that “they are angry at the agreement” while the people of Iran pay the price for their profiteering. Over time, more exposure to the wider world of commerce is likely to diminish if not destroy the IRGC’s lucrative no-bid government contracts for infrastructure and construction projects.
Perhaps more threatening for this coalition is the loss of America as a scapegoat for all domestic problems. The conservatives need an external enemy to excuse their corrupt, inefficient, and repressive rule. Some have even suggested that the United States is trying to do to Iran what it did to the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev foolishly trusted U.S. President Ronald Reagan and sought closer ties with the West. The result was the collapse of the Soviet regime. In a remarkable letter from Evin Prison written after the nuclear deal was announced, Mustafa Tajzadeh, once an influential deputy minister of interior during the Khatami administration and now a defiant dissident behind bars, criticized the leader of the conservative faction in Iran’s parliament, who had openly warned against the danger of a ratified nuclear deal as a prologue to a more dangerous domestic challenge from democratic forces. Foreign crises, the conservative parliamentarian had opined in a statement, are “easier to manage.”
Conservatives in Iran may be right. Iran’s opening to the outside world may weaken the ruling regime, as eventually Mao Zedong’s opening to the West did in the 1970s in China, and Gorbachev’s opening to the West did in the 1980s in the U.S.S.R. But these historical analogies also suggest that Iranian hardliners may be wrong. China’s overtures to the West undermined communist ideology and practices, but have proved essential in keeping the Chinese Communist Party in power so far. Gorbachev’s bold steps toward international integration eventually allowed both market and democratic institutions to take hold in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. Yet the current counterrevolutionary backlash inside Russia suggests that the struggle for democracy, markets, and integration there will be long and tumultuous. There is no guarantee that Iran’s will be any less so.
No one knows what scenario will unfold in Iran. But the debate inside the country should inform America’s own debate. If the deal, as some American critics claim, sells out Iranian democrats and strengthens theocrats, why do so many Iranian reformists, democracy activists, and even dissidents support it? If it represents a financial windfall for Iranian conservatives and their terrorist allies abroad, why are Iran’s most conservative politicians so passionately against it?
Maybe Iran’s democrats are naive. And maybe the conservatives are playing a clever game of deception. Yet given America’s less-than-sterling track record of supporting Iran’s reformers, perhaps this time it’s worth listening to and betting on those in the country whom the United States claims to champion.