Eyes bulge in amazement when I show pictures of Tehran. There are always gasps. Within seconds someone exclaims, “That is Iran?”
Tehran has wide and well-kept boulevards jammed with traffic, handsome parks, arrays of public art, a bustling downtown and vibrant neighborhoods. It feels prosperous despite years of economic sanctions, more like Madrid or Istanbul than Cairo or Mumbai. Outsiders find this astonishing. What they have been told about Iran leads them to believe it is a hellhole where people live in fear and misery. The fact that most Iranians go happily about their business every day clashes with that narrative. It suggests that Iran is a normal country.
Westerners who visit Iran find that friends and relatives question their sanity. One whom I met on a recent trip told me that his adult son asked him, “Have you prepared your will?” This phenomenon is not confined to Americans. A German tourist I met shook his head when I asked him about the image of Iran in his country.
“Same as in the United States,” he replied. “Brutal regime, terror state, axis of evil, they’re going to behead you.”
Iran is the world’s most misunderstood country. It has been cut off from the West for decades, and during that period much of the world press, with limited access, has joined to demonize it. Anyone in the United States or Europe who believes what press outlets have reported about Iran over the last 36 years, and what Western leaders have said about Iran, would logically conclude that it is among the world’s nastiest places.
That misconception is beginning to erode. In July, six world powers signed a landmark accord with Iran. It strictly limits Iran’s nuclear program and, in exchange, offers Iran relief from economic sanctions that have isolated it from the global economy and caused much hardship for ordinary people. In effect, it reintroduces Iran to the world — and brings the world back to Iran.
“People are very excited!” an office worker in Tehran told me on the first day of a trip through Iran in May. I sensed that excitement everywhere. Iranians dare to hope that a historic page may be turning.
Americans who visit Iran are always struck by how fervently they are welcomed. This is one of the most pro-American populations in the world. When Iranians meet Americans, they explode with delight and clamor to take selfies to prove that they have touched a citizen of such a great nation.
I heard repeatedly from Iranians that when their international isolation ends, the United States would be their preferred foreign partner. They resent Britain and Russia for past abuses, are wary of Israel, and do not trust China. To them, the United States seems the most trustworthy.
At a subterranean kebab salon in Tehran, I dined on seasoned lamb with fresh mint, wrapped in warm bread. Afterward I strolled along the busy street above. I found a car dealership where several Porsches were on display. The owner told me they are in high demand despite a 100 percent tax on luxury imports. Then he began talking about his trips to Miami, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
“I saw that socially, we are very similar,” he said. “I have a good feeling for Americans. So do most Iranians. But we have to move our good feeling up to something bigger. Iranian people want this agreement to bring us back together with the United States. That is our real hope.” Then, after a pause, he smiled wistfully.
“I’d also like to go back to Las Vegas,” he said.
The Porsche dealer’s visit to Las Vegas will not be possible any time soon. Potent forces in both countries have lived with the paradigm of hostility for so long that they can hardly imagine an alternative.
American political candidates compete to denounce Iran ever more colorfully. In Iran, militants use their influence over the justice system to launch prosecutions aimed at intimidating dissidents and blocking reconciliation.
Yet the nuclear accord gives Iranians and Americans a basis for growing trust. That makes it one of the most important diplomatic breakthroughs on the world stage since the United States and China began their process of reconciliation more than 40 years ago.
Under the new accord, Iran accepts radical cuts in its nuclear program. It will rid itself of all medium-enriched uranium and 98 percent of its low-enriched uranium. It will dismantle most of its centrifuges, and for 15 years will sharply limit the capacity of those that remain. That will assure that Iran cannot build a nuclear weapon. As inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency certify that Iran has taken these steps, economic sanctions imposed by the United States, European Union and United Nations will be progressively lifted.
This accord serves the deep interests of Iran, the United States, and most of the world. In the bloody panorama of today’s Middle East, it resolves a major dispute that has afflicted geopolitics for decades. That effectively ends the prospect of a Western military attack on Iran, which was a real possibility during the George W. Bush years. The accord also empowers Iranian moderates in ways that could lead to a progressive political opening in their country.
The deal is based on the principle that engaging with countries tends to make them more responsible. Lyndon Johnson might well have been speaking of Iran when he memorably proclaimed in another context, “I’d rather have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.”
Over the last 65 years, political relations between the United States and Iran have ranged from excellent to terrible. They have always been bad for the Iranian people.
In 1953, after Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh nationalized Iran’s oil industry, US-Iran relations became so hostile that President Dwight Eisenhower sent the CIA to depose Mossadegh. For the next quarter-century the United States was an intimate partner of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, whom Henry Kissinger called “that rarest of leaders, an unconditional ally.” This intimacy resulted in the oppression of Iran’s people, and helped set off the anti-Shah uprising. Many Iranians blamed the United States for the Shah’s repressive tactics and spectacular corruption. Their anger turned to hatred after the Shah fled in 1979 and militants supported by the new regime took American diplomats hostage, holding them for 444 days. The United States imposed heavy sanctions on Iran, and supported Saddam Hussein during his eight-year war against Iran.
Iran has contributed its share of poison to this relationship over the years. Its leaders and their proxies have worked assiduously and sometimes violently to undermine American interests around the world. Iran has been implicated in the in the devastating 1983 bombings of the American embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon; the 1984 kidnapping of the CIA station chief in Beirut and his subsequent torture and murder; the 1985 hijacking of a TWA jet and the killing of a US Navy diver who was aboard; the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 airmen; and the training of insurgents in Iraq who fought against and killed American soldiers. If even some of these allegations true, it is a grim list.
This became the world’s most toxic relationship. For more than 35 years, hostility between the United States and Iran has been a defining fact of international politics. All of today’s policymakers in Washington and Tehran grew up with it. Their world is about to change. The new accord is full of political, cultural, economic and strategic potential.
With that coup, Americans sent a message to the rising generation of Middle East leaders: We will destroy democracies if they interfere with our oil interests, and we will support tyrannies if they guarantee our supply. This made the West a partner of regimes, particularly in the Persian Gulf, that were not simply oppressive but also in some ways anti-Western.
The Change: Cultural
Each of my trips to Iran winds up having a theme. This time it was what Iranians call “bad hijab.”
Islamic rules require Iranian women to observe “hijab” by covering their hair and dressing modestly. Those who use make-up, wear tight jeans and push their colorful headscarves back to reveal flowing locks are guilty of “bad hijab.” In the past they were subject to detention and even prison. Now “bad hijab” is all the rage; headscarf chic is the new social subversion. The once-feared morality police are nowhere to be seen.
“Some people here are unhappy with this, but they see it’s what we want, so they can’t say too much,” one woman sporting a “bad hijab” told me. “This is a big country, and the ones in power don’t want to turn people against them. They have to be careful.”
This self-confidence and desire for social change is stronger than ever in Iran. Old rules are becoming more difficult to enforce. Iran is a young country, with a median age of just 28. Most people cannot remember the Shah’s rule, the hostage crisis or the Iran-Iraq War. The young generation is not invested in the Islamic Republic, and chafes under a system that seeks to regulate private life.
In some countries this might be a recipe for instability. Restive youth might demand rapid change, sparking a crackdown and then a spiral down into chaos. That is unlikely to happen in Iran. History, however, makes that highly unlikely in Iran.
The “Green Movement” uprising of 2009 might have sparked an explosion: After an evident election fraud, hundreds of thousands of Iranians turned out to protest. They were beaten and repressed. Rather than fight back, they returned home. Better to maintain social peace, they reasoned, than cast the country into chaos with uncertain results.
“We tried something and it didn’t work,” a veteran of the Green Movement explained as he sat with his family near the tomb of King Cyrus. “We’ll get the result we want. It just won’t come on the schedule we had hoped.”
Iran’s rebellion is cultural, not political. People are willing to accept an unpleasant regime as long as it allows them to live their private lives freely. This may be the unspoken political bargain that sustains Islamic rule over the coming years.
“You Americans expect to like your government,” a middle-class Iranian who has visited the United States told me. “We don’t. We have had thousands of years of bad governments. As long as they don’t affect our lives too much, we accept that.”
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The sleek and perfectly coiffed “bad hijab” women I saw all over Iran do not look like classic revolutionaries. If Iran’s revolution is to be cultural rather than political, however, they are its public vanguard. Their ambition will likely grow as Iran becomes more closely engaged with the rest of the world. Traditionalists fear this. The dour Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameni, has asserted that economic and security threats to Iran are “less vital than mental, cultural and political ones,” and urged people to resist “infiltration” by those wishing to change Iranian society.
“They promise that Iran will be totally different in 10 years,” Khameni warned in a tweet after the nuclear accord was signed. “We must not allow such evil prospects and thoughts.”
The Change: Business
Americans swarmed Iran in the 1960s and 70s. They came by the tens of thousands, working at the Bell Helicopter factory in Isfahan or for other large-scale enterprises the Shah favored. For good or ill, they helped shape Iranian society and the course of Iranian history. Now foreign influence is about to return to Iran. It will be felt first in business, as sanctions expire.
Business opportunities in Iran are unique. This is the last big untapped consumer market in the world. Its nearly 80 million people are highly educated, consumer-oriented, and eager for what the world has to sell. Best of all, Iran has huge oil and gas reserves, so it can pay cash for what it buys. Capitalists around the world are salivating.
“Iran is the big prize,” a New York investment analyst, Oswald Clint, told Bloomberg Business. “The resource size is very attractive.”
After more than 35 years of neglect, Iran’s energy infrastructure — drilling rigs, refineries, pipelines, pumping stations and seaport terminals — must be completely rebuilt, at a cost estimated to be more than $150 billion. Aviation is another huge opportunity for foreign companies; Iran is suddenly in the market for several hundred new passenger aircraft, plus a new air force. From there the list is almost endless. Iran needs a new fleet of trucks and buses, as well as new auto factories. Tourism is likely to increase, perhaps dramatically, opening opportunities for hotel and resort development. Iranians are gadget-crazy, so the market for consumer electronics will be strong. One of my Iranian-American friends recently wrote me, “I just hope Starbucks and McDonald's won't be in Iran anytime soon.” She better brace herself.
The buzz of anticipation is palpable at hotels in Iran where businessmen stay. They talk in groups, meet with partners and rehearse presentations. This is a true bazaar, but on a global scale.
One morning at breakfast, I found myself next to the director of a South Korean software company. On another morning I chatted with a manager of Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund, who was looking for investment opportunities. In an elevator I met a salesman from Slovenia. The money to be made in Iran is part of what makes this deal too big to fail.
The Change: Strategic
Kyle Kim/Global Post
The deal’s strategic implications are even more far-reaching. Changes in the Middle East’s political geography made the deal possible. Even greater changes may come as it takes hold.
US President Barack Obama’s determination to wind down American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and the wish of many Americans to avoid more such wars — led to a search for new security arrangements in the Middle East. The emergence of the Islamic State and other Sunni terror groups also changed strategic calculations; with some Saudis and even Turks aiding those groups and Iranians their uncompromising enemy, Iran began looking more appealing. Finally, the revolution in energy extraction dramatically reduced the need for Americans to kowtow to foreign oil producers. This confluence of factors produced a deal that allows the United States and Europe to consider tempting new geopolitical options in the Middle East.
For Iran, the central achievement of this deal is the lifting of sanctions and the return to global markets that it implies. For the rest of the world, its most profound strategic impact is that it cuts off Iran’s path to nuclear weapons. Inspection and verification mechanisms written into the accord are the tightest ever accepted by a country not defeated in war.
This profoundly alters Middle East security calculations. According to American intelligence agencies, Iran has no active nuclear weapons program and has not had one for more than a decade. Nonetheless, until now it has had at least the theoretical ability to launch such a program. Eliminating that possibility wipes away what might otherwise have become a tremendously destabilizing factor in the Middle East.
This is also good for Iran, because it removes the one reason outside powers might have to attack. Even in the worst-case scenario — Iran renounces the accord at some future time — it would take at least a year for its scientists to assemble a nuclear weapon. Without this accord, Iran could pursue a nuclear program with little restraint or oversight. It might approach completion of a weapon. If fanatics were then in control of either the Iranian government or an enemy regime, apocalyptic confrontation might ensue.
Strategic benefits of this accord stretch far beyond the end of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It breaks the United States out of the geopolitical straitjacket that has constricted its Middle East policy for more than half a century. By tearing down a barrier to engagement, it gives outside powers a framework within which they can talk directly to Iran. The existence of this channel could contribute to a more peaceful and stable Middle East.
Since the end of World War II, oil has been the guiding force in shaping European and American policy toward the Middle East. Disputes over oil led the United States to topple Mossadegh in 1953. With that coup, Americans sent a message to the rising generation of Middle East leaders: We will destroy democracies if they interfere with our oil interests, and we will support tyrannies if they guarantee our supply. This made the West a partner of regimes, particularly in the Persian Gulf, that were not simply oppressive but also in some ways anti-Western. Now, with oil and gas production rising in the United States and Iran poised to begin exporting large amounts, the United States can finally break free of its fealty to Gulf sheiks. It is not a “pivot to Iran,” but a broadening of strategic alternatives, which is always valuable.
Wealthy Saudis, encouraged by their government, have helped finance anti-American terror groups including the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Those groups follow a radical Sunni ideology that includes a desire to kill all Shiites. Most Iranians are Shiite. This gives them a powerful motive to fight extremist groups that Saudis support. If the United States wants to crush those groups, it will find no more eager partner than Iran. Longstanding political hostility has made it impossible for the two countries to coordinate strategy. That may slowly begin to change.
Iran has deep ties in turbulent countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain. It has tools to use in those countries, especially among their Shiite populations, that neither the United States nor any other country has. This influence has at times been destabilizing. But as Iran becomes part of a new regional security architecture and re-enters the global economy, it will have a greater stake in promoting stability. Its influence over armed factions could become valuable. Iran now has a deeper interest in resolving Middle East conflicts peacefully — partly because doing so will increase its own power and influence.
Cooperation with Iran also makes it easier for the United States to lift itself out of the Middle East quicksand into which it has sunk so deeply. Growing numbers of Americans are tired of involvement in Middle East wars, and if that is the sum of US involvement with the region, they will oppose it. Broadening the security panorama to include Iran will make a US role in the Middle East less costly and therefore more sustainable. The nuclear accord is, among other things, a way for the United States to shift away from its failed policy of trying to dominate the Middle East. It will help the United States lighten its footprint there.
The Change: Iran vs Saudi Arabia and Israel
Towering above a traffic circle in Tehran is a giant billboard that shows a family being blown to bits, complete with spattered blood. The caption reads: “What Saud is Doing in Yemen Is Worse Than What Israel Does in Gaza.”
A poster hanging from a nearby lamppost shows a terrified woman running frantically away from an exploding fireball. “We Will Forgive Saddam Before We Forgive Saud,” reads the caption. Given the devastation that Saddam Hussein wreaked on Iran, that is a shocking statement to read on a government poster.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are the last two powers left standing in the Muslim Middle East. They are on opposite sides of the Shiite-Sunni divide, and locked in strategic conflict. Both support proxy forces in other countries, and in some places — like Yemen — the proxies are at war. Each side blames the other for tearing Yemen apart in order to gain strategic advantage and sectarian hegemony.
Saudi leaders deeply mistrust Iran. They believe it is bent on dominating the Middle East. In 2010, according to an American diplomatic cable released in the WikiLeaks trove, the Saudi king urged Americans to strike Iran and “cut off the head of the snake.” Saudis first tried to block the nuclear accord, but halfheartedly endorsed it when it became clear that they could not succeed. Now they are eager to weaken or undermine it. That would mean trying to stop a process that has been underway for years: Iran’s return to regional power.
This process began more than a decade ago, when the United States invaded the countries on Iran’s eastern and western borders, Afghanistan and Iraq. Sworn enemies of Iran ruled both of those countries: Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. By deposing them, the United States handed Iran a decisive strategic gift. Iran remained stable enough to project power while its onetime rivals collapsed into chaos. The weakening of Egypt and the collapse of Iraq, Libya and Syria left a great vacuum that Iran has stepped in to fill. That made “containing” Iran increasingly difficult, and began the process that led to the new nuclear accord.
For this accord to reach its full potential — for it to become a tool for stabilizing the Middle East — Iran will have to reassure its neighbors that rising Iranian power does not threaten them. Above all, Iran will have to develop some kind of political understanding with Saudi Arabia. This may happen, but not soon.
One urgent issue Iran and Saudi Arabia must address is the poisonous rise in sectarianism that fuels Middle East conflicts. For years Sunni and Shiite militants have been killing each other, bombing each other’s mosques and massacring civilians. In Iraq and Syria, Shiite militias backed by Iran have been indispensable in the fight against the Islamic State and other Sunni terror groups. Too often, though, they have behaved in brutal ways that intensify sectarian hatreds. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have committed sectarian sins. Some understanding between them is essential if the region is to escape from the spiral of Sunni-Shiite hatred in which it is caught.
While the nuclear deal was being negotiated, Saudi leaders warned their American counterparts that since Iran lies all the time, it couldn’t be trusted to keep its promises. The final accord, however, contained such tight safeguards that this argument faded. Now, instead of fearing that Iran will violate the accord, Saudis see the opposite danger: that Iran will scrupulously comply. This would allow it to become steadily richer and more influential — something that Saudi Arabia finds terrifying. Israel makes the same case: an Iran free to become wealthy will become more able to project power. The Saudi government warned after the accord was signed that if Iran uses its new economic power “to cause turmoil in the region,” it will face “a decisive reaction.”
These critics are right in principle. If a country is incurably malevolent, any agreement allowing it to thrive is dangerous. Iran, however, does not fit into that category. It is a rational player with interests that overlap with those of the West. So while its power will indeed increase as a result of this accord, that may well be positive for the Middle East.
In time, Iran and Saudi Arabia may come to at least some general agreement on how to handle conflicts in their neighborhood. Bringing Israel to change its view of Iran will be more difficult.
Iranians may persuasively insist that all of Israel’s arguments against the nuclear accord are mistaken, exaggerated, or tendentious — except one. It is the argument that words matter. Even if Iran behaves impeccably, Israelis will have reason for unease as long as it is run by leaders who have threatened Israel’s existence and questioned the Holocaust. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has denounced his predecessor’s “hate rhetoric” and sent a tweet wishing all Jews “a blessed Rosh Hashanah,” but that is not enough. Jewish history gives Israelis the right to fear the worst from a powerful neighbor that denies their country’s right to exist.
Hatred for Israel, like hatred for the United States, is central to the ideology that produced the Islamic Revolution and has fueled the Islamic Republic. To renounce that hatred is exceedingly difficult for Iran’s religious leaders, because it implies abandoning a foundational principle of their political and moral order. Political understanding between Iran and Israel may have to await a new crop of leaders on both sides.
The Change: Washington's View
During my recent visit to Tehran, I stayed outside the city center for the first time. My hotel was a modern high-rise in the leafy northwestern part of the city. I was given a room at the back of the hotel. From my window I could see a large, symmetrically sloped hill, dominated by an improbably high flagpole.
It took me only a short while to realize what was hidden beneath that hill: Evin prison. It was a terrible place for opponents of the Pahlavi dynasty. For today’s prisoners, it still is. I was horrified to realize what I was seeing, not just because I realized that many political prisoners are suffering there, but because one of them is my friend.
It seems like yesterday — actually it was several years ago — that I was having a wonderful dinner with Jason Rezaian in Boston. I congratulated him on having been named the Washington Post’s correspondent in Tehran. Before that he had covered Iran for GlobalPost. We agreed that he was off on the adventure of his life. Neither of us could have imagined the nightmare it has become. In July 2014 Jason, who holds Iranian and American citizenship, was arrested on unspecified charges. He has been in Evin ever since. According to news reports, a secret court has convicted him of espionage.
Sleeping in my hotel room was difficult. I looked out the window often, thinking of Jason in his cell less than a mile from my fluffy bed. By rights I should have been uneasy anyway, since many Iranians whose names I do not know are also locked unjustly in Evin. Having a friend inside, though, makes the injustice seem more acute.
This case is sobering not only because it reflects human rights conditions in Iran. It is also a reminder that obscure Iranian clerics wield power elected officials cannot match. Rouhani is unable even to free the two opposition candidates who sought the presidency in 2009 and have been under house arrest ever since. If Iran wants to take its rightful position on the world stage, it will have to resolve this confusion of power between secular and religious authority, and more fully respect the rights of its citizens.
In Washington, few have been able to break away from preconceptions fully enough to see Iran as a potentially valuable security partner. Jason’s imprisonment, and other statements made by Iranian clerics, has served to solidify their enmity. In time, however, Western powers may conclude that they have more interests in common with Iran than with some of their so-called allies.
During hyper-partisan debate over the nuclear accord in Washington, opponents used all manner of anti-Iran arguments. That was to be expected. More notable was that many supporters of the agreement also condemned Iran. In speech after speech, they argued for it on the grounds that it limits Iran, restricts Iran, corrals Iran, handcuffs Iran, and makes it possible to control what Iran has and does. In many Western capitals, and nowhere more strongly than in Washington, Iran is treated as devious, malicious, a troublemaker and promoter of terror. In fact, Iran is no more or less reliable or responsible or trustworthy than other countries in the Middle East. It has as much reason to mistrust the West as the West has to mistrust it.
The image of Iran as a military juggernaut, for instance, is an extravagant exaggeration. Iran’s rivals are far better armed and equipped. Saudi Arabia spends five times more on its military than Iran. Even the United Arab Emirates, which has one-seventh of Iran’s population, is incomparably better armed. Those countries and their Persian Gulf neighbors have some of the world’s most advanced weapons systems, and are rushing to buy more. Iran still relies on outdated and even obsolete equipment, some of it dating back to the Shah’s regime. In conventional military power, Iran is closer to a midget than a giant.
Iran has both of the qualities Western countries should look for when seeking overseas partners. First, its strategic goals, which center on a fervent desire to crush extremist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, parallel those of the United States and most of the world. Second, Iranian society looks much like European and American societies. Women are prominent in almost every field and constitute more than half the country’s college students, internet and pop music cultures are huge, and the call to prayer, which dominates life in many Muslim countries, is almost never heard. Ordinary Iranians are far more positive toward the United States and Europe, and more sympathetic to the democratic ideology they represent, than are their counterparts in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, or other countries that are supposedly partners of the West. Even more important, America’s long-term strategic goals in the Middle East — centered around crushing Sunni militant groups — are closer to Iran’s than to the goals of those nominal partners.
What Lies Ahead
Obama was highly articulate in his speeches and interviews defending the nuclear deal. He told Americans that it is folly to believe “that we could easily impose our will on a part of the world with a profoundly different culture and history,” and that regarding Iran, “the choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war.”
“This deal is not just the best choice among alternatives, this is the strongest nonproliferation agreement ever negotiated,” he said in one speech. “I've had to make a lot of tough calls as president, but whether or not this deal is good for American security is not one of those calls. It's not even close.”
The nuclear accord is a quantum strategic leap. Whether it can be the basis for a new relationship between Iran and the outside world — and especially between Iran and the United States — remains uncertain. Groups that fought to block the accord will now focus on limiting its effect. They will wage intense campaigns aimed at keeping the US-Iran relationship as hostile as possible.
Although this accord is far-reaching in itself, its potential goes far beyond the single dispute it aims to resolve. By rearranging pieces on the Middle East chessboard, it offers tantalizing strategic and economic possibilities. It decisively advances Western security interests. For Iran it offers a path from isolation toward prosperity and a more open society. In a region where hope is often hard to justify, this makes it uniquely promising.
This story is cross-posted by our partners at GlobalPost.