As world powers edge toward a possible nuclear deal with Iran, the debate has been dominated by the question of whether it leaves an opening for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. But an accord could have another profound impact: Is this the beginning of the Islamic Republic’s broad acceptance by the community of nations?
On the surface, the answer will almost certainly be no. The P5+1, as the negotiating countries are called, have not linked the nuclear issue to anything other than the gradual winding down of withering economic sanctions.
Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran remain cut, as they have been since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran. Iran is one of only four nations considered by the U.S. to be a state sponsor of terrorism. Rounds of sanctions have driven investors away, leaving Iran with few trading partners and a hobbled economy.
In the region, Western-allied and oil-rich Sunni-ruled Gulf states deeply distrust the non-Arab Shiite powerhouse and see its hand in destabilizing their part of the world by backing armed groups from Lebanon to Yemen to Iraq. That distrust fuels sectarian divisions that course through many of the region’s conflicts and get exploited by extremist organizations including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, which considers Shiites heretics.
A deal could worsen those tensions. Arab powers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt might conclude Iran has been allowed to stand on the threshold of a nuclear weapon and decide that they, too, must have nuclear programs - further inflaming the world’s most combustible tinderbox.
But it would also remove a giant obstacle in Iran’s dealings with the world. The West’s nuclear fears long ensured consensus around isolating Iran. With that removed, calls will likely increase for engagement with Iran to resolve other disputes. All this could also alter Iran’s domestic politics in unpredictable ways.
For Western thinkers and policymakers, Iran presents a challenge. On one hand, it’s the modern manifestation of a proud Persian civilization, a potentially lucrative market with the world’s fourth-largest oil reserves. On the other, even after a deal, for many it would remain a global menace, a regional meddler and oppressor of its people.
This week, the U.S. and Iran are holding down-to-the wire talks in the Swiss city of Lausanne, with no guarantee of a breakthrough. As events there unfold, here are some aspects to consider:
There is tremendous mutual incentive for normalizing business ties with Iran. After many years of being largely cut off from the West, the country is ripe for foreign investment and a quick improvement of infrastructure, and its oil resources make it a draw.
The population is large - some 80 million people - and reasonably well educated, with some 85 percent literacy and the average person receiving 15 years of schooling. Per capita income is just around $5,000 per person, but with cost of living factored in that money goes a lot further than it would in the West - a sign of a distorted economy where change could happen quickly.
Many people are already making plans for Iran’s integration into the regional and world economy, particularly the Europeans and the Asians, who see Iran as an unprecedented opportunity to do businessTheodore Karasik