Academics and Research

Quick Questions: Middle East expert Nader Hashemi on the Iran nuclear deal

With the U.S. Congress scheduled to vote on the Iran nuclear deal by Sept. 17, proponents and opponents are squaring off over the deal’s merits and shortcomings, mostly from a geopolitical perspective.

But what does the deal mean for the people of Iran? What does it mean for the country’s democracy movement and reformers? In his research and writings, Associate Professor Nader Hashemi of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies takes on these questions and more. Director of the University’s Center for Middle East Studies, he is co-editor, along with the center’s associate director, Danny Postel, of “The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future” (Melville House, 2010).

For those who want to know more about the Iran nuclear deal, the center is hosting “The Iran Deal and U.S. Foreign Policy: A Conversation With New Yorker Writer Robin Wright” at 11 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 11, in the Special Events Room of the Anderson Academic Commons.  


Question: As a longtime observer of Iranian society and politics, you’ve followed the ups and downs of the country’s democracy movement. If the deal fails, what will that mean for Iran’s political moderates?

Answer: If the nuclear deal is rejected by the United States, Iranian hardliners will celebrate. Contrary to what we are hearing from opponents of this deal, this nuclear accord was a historic defeat for Iran. Moderate voices among Iran’s ruling elite forced the Supreme Leader to accept this deal because of Iran’s collapsing economy. Inside Iran today, hardline groups such as the Revolutionary Guards are hoping the deal will collapse. For them, the ideal scenario is for Congress to prevail over President Obama, so that the world will then blame the U.S. and not the Islamic Republic. Reformists and dissident forces within Iran believe that this deal strengthens their position domestically: 1) because it averts the threat of war; 2) because it opens Iran up to the international community; and 3) because it is an ideological and political defeat for the hardline narrative within Iran that rejects diplomacy and negotiations with the U.S.


Q: And if the deal goes into effect?

A: As the sanctions are lifted, Iran’s economy will gradually improve. Under the current sanctions regime, the average Iranian citizen — not the ruling elites or the Revolutionary Guard — was most adversely affected by the collapsing economy. Iran’s middle class, which forms the core constituency for Iran’s pro-democracy movement, will benefit both by an improved economy and by greater international engagement. Instead of struggling to survive under a repressive regime and a failed economy, they will enjoy more wiggle room and opportunities to revive civil society activity and pro-democracy activism. That there is no guarantee that this nuclear deal will lead to a democratic transition in Iran, but at a minimum, the social conditions needed to support democratic movements will vastly increase after the deal goes into effect. What most Americans don’t realize is that U.S. policy under Bush and the Republicans actually strengthened the Iranian regime and weakened pro-democratic forces.


Q: Many of the deal’s supporters contend that it will undermine the credibility of Iran’s hardline conservatives, its clerical elite. How would it do so?

A: The hardline political narrative within Iran claims that the U.S./West cannot be trusted to honor political agreements. They believe in a “clash of civilizations” narrative, where compromise and diplomacy are futile, and only by investing in a larger military budget and by confronting the U.S. and its allies in the region can Iran survive as a nation-state. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif (a DU alumnus) have proved the opposite. Serious diplomacy instead of war can indeed resolve international problems. Thus, in a very serious way, the ideological narrative of the hardliners in Iran has proved to be a failure. Likewise, the more moderate voices led by President Rouhani have scored an important political victory. In addition, hardliners are worried about their economic investments and prospects under the nuclear deal. They benefited tremendously under the sanctions regime by running a clandestine, mafia-style smuggling network and protection racket that have produced huge profits for them. With the Iranian economy opening up, they are bound to lose their monopoly on profit making. This is another reason why they are upset.


Q: Detractors argue that the deal is a threat to many of the Sunni states and Israel. Are they right to be concerned?

A: I think the claim that the nuclear deal will allow Iran — flush with $150 billion in cash — to dominate and destabilize the Middle East is a gross exaggeration. First, the agreed-upon sum of money that Iran will gradually obtain, if it complies with the agreement, is in the range of about $40 billion to $50 billion. Most of this money will have to go to pay off its debts and rebuild its petroleum industry. Anything left over will have to be spent internally on creating jobs and attracting foreign investment. Yes, Iran will be able to spend more on its military, but critics of this deal ignore the fact that Iran has expanded its influence in the region based on a strategy of exploiting opportunities where states have crumbled and political vacuums have opened. It is a strategy of low-intensity asymmetrical warfare by supporting local militias, not expanded influence via the large-scale deployment of military forces. Also, remember that Iran’s regional rivals in the Persian Gulf states outspend Iran 8-to-1 in their military budgets. Thus, I don’t see this nuclear deal as a “game changer” in the politics of the Middle East.


Q:  If the deal fails, what are the likely ramifications for the Middle East?

A: If this deal fails, Iran will likely become a nuclear-weapons state within two years. A nuclear arms race in the Middle East will soon follow. There will be calls to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities from the same people who are today opposing the nuclear deal — namely Republicans in Congress and supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The likely scenario would be another Middle East war — on top of the raging fires that are currently consuming the region — and with consequences that will be catastrophic both for the people of the Middle East and the entire world. This is precisely why I support this nuclear deal. There are other reasons this deal is important. But perhaps the most important is that it helps advance the struggle for democracy in Iran.


Editor’s Note: Hashemi and Postel have written extensively about this topic. Here are some additional articles exploring the ramifications of the Iran nuclear deal.

Activists in Iran pen open letter to Americans on nuclear deal (POLITICO)

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