Fresh off a diplomatic victory concerning Syria, the United States may be on the verge of making significant headway in solving the most vexing foreign policy problem of the last 34 years – what to do about Iran? From the 1979 hostage crisis to near war over Iran’s alleged nuclear program, the ability of Iran’s clerics to plot a Machiavellian course to expand regional power has given American policy makers headaches. President Obama, whose foreign policy successes are growing, may have another victory in reach. If so, this will go further in turning around the narrative on Syria. Rather than being outplayed by Putin, Obama may have one of the most significant diplomatic victories since the end of the Cold War.
Many people were surprised when Hassan Rouhani won the June 2013 Presidential election in Iran. A moderate, he espoused closer relations with the West, more civil liberties and economic reform. Gone are the days of bombast from former President Ahmadinejad. No more talk about wiping Israel off the map; instead, Rouhani went to the United Nations to proclaim that no state should have nuclear weapons, and there was no room in Iran for nuclear arms. This clears the way for a deal to end the tense stand off that’s been brewing for over a decade about Iran’s alleged arms program.
That election was proof that however powerful the Iranian clerics are, Iran is still an emerging democracy. Rouhani was not the choice of Supreme Leader Khamanei, yet he won narrowly in the first round. If the elections were rigged, he’d have at least fallen short of the 50% to prevent a second round of voting. Moreover, Iran’s clerics realize that they could lose power in a heartbeat if the Iranian people rebelled against their authority. From 1979 to 2004 there was a gradual liberalization of Iranian life allowed by the clerics because they didn’t want to foment dissent.
In 2004 that all changed; conservatives gained a majority for the first time in the Majles (parliament), and conservative Ahmadinejad won the Presidency. It appeared Iran had changed course and was on a dangerous anti-western trajectory. In hindsight that may have been a short term boost to the conservatives by anger at the US invasion of Iraq. As that ill fated war fades into history, the Iranians appear to be moving again towards becoming a more liberal Islamic Republic.
So what next?
With high level talks between Secretary of State Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif already underway at the United Nations Security Council, the path will be a gradual easing of tensions alongside trust building agreements that could ultimately yield an agreement for Iran to not only end its nuclear program, but allow inspectors to verify its conclusion. That has not yet happened of course, things could still go south. Still, this is a major breakthrough and there is reason to think it’s the real thing.
If so, it’s a very good thing that the US did not choose to attack Iran back in the heyday of Ahmadinejad’s bombast. He’s gone, Iran’s gradually changing as its large youth population ages into adulthood, and the consequences of going to war with Iran could have been catastrophic. The Pentagon thought so – they war gamed it out, and saw considerable danger in attacking Iran. The hawks on Iran will be proven to have been wrong.
The agreement to force Assad of Syria to give up chemical weapons is also important. Iran saw Russia and the US work together, and recognize that despite rivalry between the two former Cold War foes, both share an interest in not allowing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This is far more effective than a US strike against Syria which would have probably done more to show post-Iraq impotence on the part of the Americans than anything Iran would fear.
Most important, though, is the changes taking place in Iran itself. The country has a population with a strong pro-Western streak, well educated and modern. The youth are demanding change. The same dynamic is taking place in Iran as in the Arab Spring, except Iran already has an emerging democracy and more liberal population. It’s clerical class has proven less extremist than pragmatic.
In short, a thaw in the tension with Iran may be a sign that Muslim extremism is also on the wane. Iran is a model of an Islamic Republic, mixing religion and democracy. A stable Iran could help the Iraqis get their democracy back on track, and ultimately be extremely important for the entire region.
We aren’t there yet, but the fruits of Obama’s foreign policy are starting to become evident. He didn’t really deserve the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, but by the time he leaves office the world will likely in much better condition.