Trying to sell the nuclear deal with Iran, leaders from the six world powers that negotiated the deal have talked a lot about its ostensible virtues. But they all have painstakingly avoided talking about one aspect that could be key to the agreement’s ultimate success: regime change.
That nobody’s openly talking about it doesn’t mean they’re not secretly thinking about it. Indeed, the hope that this deal will transform Iran might have significantly bolstered the West’s confidence in the deal, which grants the Islamic Republic legitimacy as a nuclear threshold state in less than half a generation.
According to the agreement, most of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program will expire in 10 to 15 years. By then, Iran will be able to “break out” — enrich enough uranium for a nuclear bomb — in no time, US President Barack Obama admitted in April.
Some analysts believe the P5+1 world powers agreed to this so-called sunset clause because they believe that Iran is going to change. According to this theory, the lifting of sanctions and the subsequent influx of international companies will bring Western ideas and ideals to the country. That will strengthen the opposition and weaken the hardliners, leading to greater democratization and perhaps eventual regime change, they argue.
“This deal demonstrates that American diplomacy can bring about real and meaningful change,” Obama said last Tuesday, hours after the agreement was signed in Vienna. The president is not betting on change in Iran, though he is “always hopeful that behavior may change,” he stressed during a press conference last week.
“My hope is that building on this deal we can continue to have conversations with Iran that incentivize them to behave differently in the region, to be less aggressive, less hostile, more cooperative, to operate the way we expect nations in the international community to behave,” he said. “But we’re not counting on it. So this deal is not contingent on Iran changing its behavior. It’s not contingent on Iran suddenly operating like a liberal democracy.”
The ailing health of Iran’s 76-year-old leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, also gives some people hope that change can come to Iran before the nuclear deal elapses. Khamenei has battled prostate cancer and, while he underwent successful surgery, some reports claim he has only two years to live.
When he goes, some believe, the Iranian people, encouraged and emboldened by the economic prosperity that followed the sanctions relief, might demand a drastic change.
The “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” was celebrated in Iran as a success for President Hassan Rouhani, who in Iranian terms is a “moderate.” The deal might therefore bolster the so-called moderate camp and even the illegal opposition.
“If the Iranian economy opens up and develops, more Western ideas will enter the counter, which might engender a societal process,” argues Raz Zimmt, a research fellow at the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University. “It will also strengthen Iranian opposition groups currently operating underground.”
However, he stressed, it is impossible to overthrow the current Iranian regime from the outside. “Only the Iranian people itself can do this.”
No change while Khamenei is in charge
No major change should be expected as long as Khamenei is still breathing, Zimmt asserted. An iron-fisted leader, the ayatollah will quell any popular uprising, as he did during to the so-called Green Revolution in 2009, he said.
However, “it’s quite clear that there will be a crisis in Iran when he dies, even if the regime initially survives. His death could spark a political crisis, which might allow the streams operating under the surface to come to the fore.”
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps might be weakened by the nuclear deal, according to Zimmt, since they benefited greatly from the sanctions. In the absence of foreign companies developing oil and gas fields, the IRGC stepped into the breach and got very wealthy in the process, he explained. While the sanctions relief and broad economic development will not destroy the IRGC, it could ultimately diminish its status within Iranian society, Zimmt estimates.
‘That executives from Coca-Cola or Mercedes-Benz come to Iran doesn’t mean that they will bring Western liberal values such as democracy with them’
In Jerusalem, however, few people believe the nuclear deal will positively transform Iran.
“We don’t think that this money [up to $700 billion in unfrozen accounts and sanctions relief] will serve to strengthen human rights in Iran or economic development to benefit society — rather the opposite,” a senior official close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week. “Therefore we don’t think there will be any regime change. Rather, the regime will be supported by hundreds of billions of dollars.”
The hope for future change cannot justify making concessions to Iran now, said Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, Netanyahu’s point-man for the nuclear file.
“I heard many times that Iran might change in the next ten years, following the agreement. This might happen. But it’s only speculation,” he told the foreign press last week during a briefing. “You cannot gamble on the future of the world, the future of global security, on such mere speculation. Iran might change, either for the better for the worse.”
Even Israelis looking favorably at the nuclear deal urge the world not to hope for regime change.
“That executives from Coca-Cola or Mercedes-Benz come to Iran doesn’t mean that they will bring Western liberal values such as democracy with them,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Middle East analyst who supports the Vienna agreement. “This is all contained. The economic development doesn’t turn into something that the opposition can use against the regime.”
If the opposition feels emboldened by Western ideas and tries to engender significant reforms, the hardliners will quickly nip it in the bud, he posited. “Iranian politics has so far shown us that the conservatives that control the regime are stronger than the moderates. In Iranian society, there is an architectural bias against reformists.”
Many ordinary Iranians want better relations with the United States, but the regime doesn’t, said Javedanfar, who teaches Iranian politics at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. The ayatollah knows how to suppress such feelings and to enjoy the fruits of economic growth without allowing the country to come under a Western sphere of influence.
“If there is an economic opening, it will be the government and the regime’s business interests that are first to benefit. Once they get richer richer, the crackdown would be even harder if the people of Iran dare to rise up against the regime.”
The 2009 Green Revolution followed an election the demonstrators thought was rigged; it had very little to do with economic strain, Javedanfar continued. The removal of sanctions and Western money coming in, therefore, should not be seen as a catalyst for revolution. “This regime is an expert in building a firewall between economic ties with the West and the rise of Western values such as democracy,” he said.
“Iran is extremely unpredictable,” Javedanfar warned. “Everyone wants democracy and hopes and prays for better relations with Iran. But we can’t rely on a timeline.”
And probably no change after Khamenei, either
It’s entirely unclear how the nuclear deal will play out, agreed Eldad Pardo, an Iran expert at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“It’s true that there is a danger for the regime from normalization and the opening of society and economy,” he said. It’s possible that the people of Tehran take to the streets to celebrate the deal tomorrow and spontaneously walk to the supreme leader’s palace and start a revolution. But it would be very foolish to bet on it, he cautioned.
China’s dictatorship didn’t fall when the country opened up to Western markets. The regime in Tehran is very strong and has many built-in mechanisms to ensure its long-term survival, Pardo noted.
Those hoping for the death of Ayatollah Khamenei to spark an uprising should know that he has long been planning for the day after to ensure a smooth transition, Pardo added. “He’s a very smart man. So far, he has always managed to emerge victorious from any such challenges.”
And he apparently means to keep on doing so even in death.