An Iran deal could have broader implications

A nuclear deal could remove a giant obstacle in Iran’s dealings with the world

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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:

Economic incentives

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 business

Theodore Karasik

“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 business,” said Dubai-based geopolitical analyst Theodore Karasik. “Because the country’s infrastructure is literally 30 years behind, every sector or commodity is open ... Iran is already preparing for this.”

For now, the short-term impact is ending the sanctions, which hammered the Iranian currency and caused unemployment and misery. The economic deals that follow will likely be a basis for greater ties with the world - especially if post-nuclear-deal Iran takes steps to further open its economy.

Iran’s influence in the region

Majority Persian Iran has cast an enormous shadow on the neighboring Arab world, in part by playing on the centuries-old split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

It has a powerful proxy militia in Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah group, which it arms, funds, trains and guides. This has helped Lebanon’s Shiites - who enjoy a plurality over the Sunni Muslims, Christians and the Druse - dominate the country. It has kept Syria’s Bashar al-Assad - whose minority Alawite sect is a Shiite offshoot - in power by direct financial backing and by having Hezbollah fight alongside his forces. Hezbollah occasionally embroils Lebanon in ruinous conflict with Israel as well, and is blamed for terrorist attacks from Bulgaria to Buenos Aires. In addition, Iran is believed to indirectly back Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have in recent months taken over much of the country and displaced the government from the capital, Sanaa.

But there have also been common interests with the West. Iran and Washington cooperated closely against Afghanistan’s Taliban in 2001. In a new twist, Iran is proving critical to helping the Shiite-led authorities in Iraq fight ISIS militants. Iran’s goal is to help fellow Shiites and strengthen its own influence, but it also presents its actions as part of the world’s fight with what it casts as a toxic distortion of Islam.

These kinds of complexities may coax the West to get back together with a nation whose political vocabulary labels the United States “the Great Satan.”

Nuclear dominoes

The reports of a deal all involve leaving Iran just out of reach of a weapon, keeping its enriched uranium but needing more for weaponization. This so-called “breakout period” ranges from one year to several. It is not just Israel - widely believed to have nuclear weapons of its own - that is worried; Arab countries bristle as well.

Prince Turki al-Faisal, an outspoken member of the Saudi royal family who previously served as the country’s intelligence chief, hinted that continued nuclear activity by Iran could trigger a regional arms race, telling the BBC that “if Iran has the ability to enrich uranium to whatever level, it’s not just Saudi Arabia that’s going to ask for that.”

Thanks to its vast oil wealth, Saudi Arabia has the resources to pursue its own nuclear program. The kingdom earlier this month signed a memorandum of understanding to work with South Korea on the development of nuclear energy and has previous nuclear-related deals with France, Argentina and China.

Other Arab countries are eyeing nuclear technology, though like Iran their stated focus is energy generation. The United Arab Emirates is furthest along, with its maiden nuclear power plant expected in 2017.

Regime change?

For Iran’s ruling clerics, a deal would represent crucial recognition by the world of their Islamic theocracy. Since coming to power in 1979, the mullahs have been convinced the West wants to remove them. Now the leadership can turn to its people and tell them: Our worst enemies have been forced to deal with us.

That might strengthen the existing system, leaving in place the careful dance between supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, regime hard-liners, and relative moderates like President Hassan Rouhani. But further opening to the West might in turn embolden the moderate camp, increasing their pressure on clerics to loosen their grip on power.

Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, says changes in Iran will be slow, “through institutional reform, not revolution.”

Key opposition figures are in jail, and the mass street protests following disputed presidential elections in 2009 showed a significant base supporting change. At the same time, it can be surprising to outsiders that the Islamic Republic is, in its way, less than fully dictatorial. There are elections for parliament and president; the contest is limited to candidates approved by a panel of clerics and legal scholars, but can still leave an opening.

It’s impossible to say what a regime feeling more confident and vindicated by a nuclear deal might do. Would it become more open and even invite back anti-regime exiles? Would they be popular if they somehow returned? Precedents from Iraq to Afghanistan suggest maybe not. But Iran’s own history says maybe yes: Ayatollah Khomeini, the key figure of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, was a returning exile from France.

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