What Iran Deal Critics Don’t Understand About Iran

Young Iranian adults sit at a cafe, backdropped, with pictures of Western celebrities in Tehran, Iran.

AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

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Young Iranian adults sit at a cafe, backdropped, with pictures of Western celebrities in Tehran, Iran.

To Iranians at home and abroad, the agreement isn't a bet on a suspect regime, but on its people.

If there was any doubt that US president Barack Obama was all in on the Iran nuclear deal, he eliminated those doubts with his Aug. 5 speech at American University in Washington, DC. As I sat in the audience and watched Obama thunder away at critics of the deal, it was crystal clear what he wants his major foreign policy achievement to be: choosing peace over war with Iran.

The Iranian-American community firmly supports Obama’s choice. One passage from his speech highlights why. “The majority of the Iranian people have powerful incentives to urge their government to move in a different, less provocative direction—incentives that are strengthened by this deal,” Obama said. “We should offer them that chance. We should give them that opportunity.”

Iranian Americans have long grappled with the paradox of wanting to make Iran a better place—but fearing success as much as defeat. Some worry that contributing to positive changes inside Iran will only strengthen the regime and extend its lease on life. But for most Iranian Americans, this dilemma was resolved by their collective experience after Iran’s 1979 revolution. Rather than producing a Jeffersonian democracy, revolutionary upheaval replaced one government that failed to meet the political, economic, and social aspirations of the Iranian people with another.

That is why after examining the realistic options available, most Iranian Americans reach the same conclusion as Obama: Supporting an approach based on diplomacy and opposing war provides the best hope for improving human and civil rights for Iranian citizens.

This is a fact that I have observed up close, while working in the State Department’s Office of Iranian Affairs and now at the National Iranian American Council. Polling shows that support for peaceful solutions to the US-Iran conflict has been consistent and cohesive. A 2008 poll found that 70% of Iranian Americans favored US-Iran dialogue and negotiations. A 2015 poll showed 66% of Iranian Americans feel that the nuclear deal will specifically improve human and civil rights for Iranian citizens—precisely because a nuclear deal will likely strengthen president Hassan Rouhani’s political ability to address such issues.

Those same Iranian citizens have been unwavering in their support for a nuclear deal, believing it is the only way to achieve peace domestically and internationally. Conversely, according to a recent study respondents were unanimous in their belief that failure to secure a deal will result in increased repression, further loss of political and cultural freedoms, and possibly war.

The nuclear deal is a boost to Rouhani, who won by a landslide in 2013 because his campaign promised to improve political, economic and social freedoms. Achieving the former helps facilitate progress on the latter. Recent history tells the story: When US-Iran tensions increase, so too does the Iranian government’s crackdown on civil society. When Washington DC and Tehran take steps to de-escalate tensions, Iranian civil society enjoys more breathing room. Knowing this, Iranian Americans support the mindset of Iranian voters: Violent change rarely improves human and civil rights, while gradual (and at times, painful) reform has a slower but greater chance of success.

Can Rouhani deliver on his promises? Skepticism is understandable, but cautious optimism is warranted. Rouhani’s political career was born in Iran’s national security establishment. From 1989 to 2005, he was secretary of the Supreme National Security Council—a position appointed directly by supreme leader Khamenei. This guides Rouhani’s argument for improving human and civil rights: The most significant national security threat is decreased internal cohesion, not external conflict. By arguing that internal cohesion and stability can be harmed through external tensions, Rouhani creates space for accommodation with regional and global powers, and relaxing excessive restrictions on Iran’s domestic scene.

Critics of this approach fail to offer a viable alternative because there isn’t one. For almost the entirety of the George W. Bush administration, America’s Iran policy was regime change. The Iraq war debacle rendered public support for another war with Iran non-existent, so the Bush administration instead announced a $75 million program to “promote democracy” in Iran. Not surprisingly, many Iranian activists said US policy undermined their efforts and became a pretext for increased crackdowns on civil society. Millions of US government dollars could not achieve what Iranian voters accomplished in one day at their polling stations in 2013.

The Iran nuclear deal is a historic diplomatic achievement that benefits Americans and Iranians alike by taking war off the table and creating the possibility for sustained peace. Obama has offered the chance and given the opportunity that Iranians have long sought: By removing their government’s foreign bogeyman, Obama is forcing it to look inward and address its own shortcomings, thereby improving the ability of Iranians to hold their government accountable. Obama’s bet on the nuclear deal is not a bet on Rouhani, but a bet on the Iranian people. As the fight in Congress peaks, that is precisely why Iranian Americans will have his back.

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