Will the Iranian Nuclear Agreement Impact Iranian Foreign Policy and Domestic Politics?

The debate over Iran’s nuclear weapons program generated as a consequence of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 states signed on April 2, 2015 has tended to concentrate primarily on just that. Reading through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it is evident that Iran will still have the option of assembling its nuclear bomb, if it chooses to do so, 10, 15 or 25 years after the agreement is signed. Qualms over this aspect of the deal on the part of skeptics should be reasonably mollified by the fact that the JCPOA is an arms control agreement, not a disarmament treaty. This makes the JCPOA realistic and in accordance with the inherent practice of realpolitik in international relations by sovereign states.

Two key questions less-debated are first, whether the nuclear agreement moderates Iranian foreign policy in the Middle East and second, how and in what ways can the deal impact the opening up of Iran’s domestic political system, which is currently tightly controlled by a religious theocracy? Stephen Walt has argued rightly that the real question is not about Iran possessing the bomb, but about managing Iran’s future role in the Middle East. As Iran’s economy opens up and Western multinational companies invest there, it is bound to create linkages of interdependence, bringing economic benefits not only to Iran but to the P5+1 states as well. In such a scenario, how would Iranian foreign policy in the region play out? Will economic interdependence influence Iranian foreign policy in ways that it becomes less interventionist and by definition, less concerned with exporting the Islamic Revolution in the Middle East?

The answer to the question can be framed by way of perhaps not a fully satisfying “yes”; a reluctant yes – but still yes and not “no.” A cursory glance at Iranian foreign policy since the Revolution reveals that though the export of the Revolution was perceived as the defining characteristic of the theocratic regime, the regime itself was less sanguine about it. In fact, Iranian foreign policy can be defined as equally nationalistic (drawing on its Persian and Iranian roots) and by extension pragmatic, choosing to pick and implement policies that serve Iranian national interests independent of its religious inclination. In such cases, Iran has played very much the role of a rational state actor in international relations, as every state is bound to do – and not that of a mindless, senseless, religious theocracy bent on destroying everything that comes in its way.

Consider the following facts: Iran allowed itself to secretly deal with the U.S. and Israel during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s at the height of the Islamic Revolution; it has also shown support for Hamas, a predominantly Sunni organisation, as a means to wage its proxy war against Israel;  and in the Caucasus, Iran backs Christian Armenia against a Muslim (predominantly Shia) Azerbaijan.   Finally, both American and Iranian national interests in the War on Terror have coincided, as evidenced in their cooperation in Afghanistan against the Taliban in 2001 and in the recent war against ISIS in Iraq. These facts are inconvenient truths for analysts viewing Iran from a singular view of its being a religious theocracy and irrational state. On the contrary, it may be asserted vociferously that Iran is a rational actor pursuing its national (not necessarily religious) interests as it deems fit. In this regard, the fact that Iran chose to deal with the international community, agreeing to cap and limit its nuclear technology with IAEA inspections is fairly logical as it contemplates flowing economic benefits.

Hence, it may be fairly concluded that the nuclear agreement, in the longer term, is bound to impact Iran not only with respect to its nuclear technology but also in terms of its overarching policy in the Middle East. Iran cannot be expected to invite economic benefits from the international community and utilize these in order to further expand the scope of its interventionist policy in the Middle East. If this were to take place, America is bound to lose its two strongest allies in the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia, something that it will not and cannot allow for. On the other hand, Iran stands to lose the international community forever if it reneges on the deal. Were this to occur, Iran would find itself on the wrong side of history, where it would continue to be seen by regional states as a destabilizing force in the region. Perceptibly, Iran has more to lose if any future nuclear agreement goes bad than the P5+1 states.

Finally, one further thought worth considering: will the nuclear agreement influence Iran’s political system in ways that would make it less authoritarian? Iran’s society is not a monolith and the huge celebrations witnessed on the streets of Tehran after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s arrival indicates how the prospects of Iran’s economic opening and engagement with the West is perceived by civil society. Undoubtedly, increased economic interactions and interdependence between Iran and the West are bound to heighten an already prevalent desire amongst the people of Iran—that is, lessening the role of the religious theocracy in the political system. The pressure on the religious theocracy is bound to increase and civil society protests from more democracy and openness will manifest itself in Iran with time. Alternatively, Iran could go down and resemble the ‘China model,’ that is, a relatively open and liberal free market economy co-existing with a centralized and highly authoritarian political system.

The nuclear agreement is a landmark achievement displaying a collective security consensus on the part of the major powers on how to deal with Iran. While the agreement strives to limit and cap Iran’s nuclear program, its consequences may be far reaching impacting also on Iranian domestic politics and foreign policy. Despite Iran’s religious rhetoric, both the United States and Iran have found ways and means to engage with each other, as strategic priorities and national interests have dictated. The future will bring a necessary measure of both engagement and containment (congagement) between Iran and the United States with a caveat that “engagement” will figure much more prominently in bilateral relations than previously acknowledged by public officials on both sides.


Image: Atta Kenare-AFP, Getty

Posted in , Iran, Negotiations, Nonproliferation, Nuclear, Nuclear Weapons

Farhan Hanif Siddiqi

Farhan Hanif Siddiqi is an Associate Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. His research interests border on nationalism and ethnicity, theories of International Relations and democracy/democratization. He is the author of "The Politics of Ethnicity in Pakistan: The Baloch, Sindhi and Mohajir Ethnic Movements," published by Routledge in 2012. He was an SAV Visiting Fellow in January 2017.

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6 thoughts on “Will the Iranian Nuclear Agreement Impact Iranian Foreign Policy and Domestic Politics?

  1. Hello William,

    Thank you for your appreciation of the article and feedback.

    Why, in your opinion, is the JCPOA “unrealistic’ and not in accordance with the practice of “realpolitik” in international relations?

    Thank you.

  2. The American progressive regime completely denied the very requirement to sustain realpolitik, namely the policy option for sustained violence. Without a little Hobbes or Machiavelli, the framework your article referenced cannot possibly detail realism. What academics have advanced is a morally undifferentiated pluralism. Prior to tenured radicals, politics was applied ethics, now its policy tethered to a continually forward moving positivism, devoid of coherency.

  3. Farhan – to go a bit further to your second hypothesis (that the nuclear deal could lead to greater openness and stronger civil society vs. “the China model”). Which outcome do you see as more likely should the deal be a success, and which should it fall apart (either before or after June 30) ?

  4. Thank you William!

    Politics is not always about “sustained violence”, it also involves the art of estimating when to use force (because the use of force is not always productive) and when to negotiate in order to ensure that national interests are met. I will move beyond Machiavelli and Hobbes and bring in Morgenthau who opposed the US intervention and use of force in Vietnam (and he was proved right). His argument was that if war had to be pursued, it should be pursued against Cuba, a far more potent threat to the United States, he believed. Incoherence is not the domain of “progressive”, “forward moving positivism”, as you state, it is equally prevalent in the world of realpolitik. The Iranian nuclear agreement is a success, I believe, because it is not only about the United States and its policy towards Iran. The agreement brings into unison all major powers in the world; this is a marvellous achievement and deserves appreciation. Furthermore, the US still holds the leverage when it comes to inflicting violence, however, the question that needs to be asked is if the US can inflict the same level of violence in Iran, as it did in Afghanistan and Iraq? Iran wants to come closer to the West and has been yearning to do so since the 1990s. This facet of Iranian policy and state elites cannot be overlooked while analysing the agreement. Finally, after years of focusing on Iran as the enemy that needed to be contained in the Middle East, forces far more dangerous to the region’s stability have been unleashed by states considered staunch American allies. This is as potent a challenge to American diplomacy as negotiating and dealing with Iran.

  5. Julia – Thank you for the question!

    I think it is fair to assume that the Iranian state’s policy towards its Arab, Kurdish, Baloch and other minorities would remain the same. In this sense, it would resemble the China model in which minorities (such as in Tibet and Xinjiang) are denied fundamental human rights and freedoms. However, the deal’s plus point, I believe, would be to engender and in some ways exacerbate the policy divide between the elites in Tehran and Iranian society, in general. The elites who want openness and increased contacts with the West will be boosted with increased transnational exchanges over a number of issue areas, not only economic, but also educational, tourism, music, arts and literature.

    So, in essence, what I am saying here is that transformation at the state level will not be, and is not usually as abrupt as are changes at the societal level. The nuclear agreement and prospects of Iran’s opening up will pose a challenge to Iran’s clergy specially if electoral politics continues to push reformist leaders and elites into the political system. So, rather than say, whether it will be civil society vs the China model, I see an outcome premised on increased tensions between Iranian reformists and hardliners, irrespective of the deal’s success or otherwise. The deal, one can say, will increase the momentum of conflict in Iranian politics.

    Iranian society and politics in ways is more dynamic than that of China (which is dominated solely by the Communists) as it allows for competitive elections between rival candidates proposing alternative policy programs and guidelines. The “China model” on further thought has to be qualified, in some ways, in the case of Iran because of this fact. The authoritarianism of the clergy remains a significant factor in Iranian politics and it is unrealistic to assume the transformation of the clergy and the Iranian state overnight. The most interesting development in Iran, in the coming years, would be the gradual consolidation of the pressures from below, that is, the civil society, again irrespective of the fact whether the deal goes through or not.

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