The US-led nuclear deal is just about Iran's nuclear program and will not resolve any of the larger issues with Iran and its relationship to the rest of the world. Still, debate about the deal has, with merit, repeatedly turned to the question of Iran's place in the Middle East. After all, the country is increasingly assertive and influential in the region — it's also by far the country whose foreign policy is most hostile toward the US and its allies.
Iran hawks say that for this reason, any nuclear deal can only embolden and enhance Iran's menacing stature. Proponents of a deal sometimes argue that this could be an important first step toward removing the hostility between Iran and the rest of the world, thus encouraging a more conciliatory and productive Iranian foreign policy.
Both arguments almost certainly overstate the effects of this nuclear deal, but they're circling around an important question: Will Iran's hard-line anti-Western foreign policy change? Can it? And if so, how?
The journalist Steve Coll made an insightful point about this, speaking on a podcast this week hosted by the New Yorker. He compared Iran to the Sunni Arab countries of the Middle East, which make up most of the region:
The United States faces, in the Middle East, many Sunni Arab countries with elites that are pro-American and populations that are deeply hostile, whereas in Iran it faces elites that are mostly hostile — or require hostility to maintain their power — and a population that is really ready for change.
In other words, America's Middle Eastern allies are mostly countries where authoritarian rulers impose deeply unpopular pro-American policies. Our greatest enemy is a country where authoritarian rulers impose unpopular anti-American policies. It doesn't sound like a situation that's particularly stable, either for us or for the Middle East itself, and indeed it's not.
Coll made the point while discussing a recent trip to Iran during a prior year's Quds Day, the annual celebration in which hard-liners chant against Israel and America (this year's Quds Day was on Friday). He'd found that most of the attendants were not true believers "there voluntarily" but rather were "tenth graders who'd been bused in." "Everyone wanted a selfie with the Americans," he said. "I'm sure many travelers have the same experience; this is a society that is really ready to normalize" relations with the West.
And, indeed, people who travel to Iran or know it well will often point out that, for all the anti-Western deeds and rhetoric of the regime, the population is really largely over the idea of a never-ending revolutionary struggle against the foreign devils. This is something you especially hear proponents of a nuclear deal point out as a way to argue that US-Iran relations could one day be positive, and maybe even should be.
But the flip side of that is just as true: You have, in Iran, a regime that believes its very legitimacy rests to some extent on maintaining hostility with the West. And the Iranian government has important constituencies that, while small, do earnestly believe in anti-Western policies. Those include contingents within, for example, the security agencies and the clerical establishment. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has a history of bending to hard-liners, perhaps believing that he cannot rule without their support. This tension between Iran's anti-American elite and its more pro-normalization population is a real problem for the country's leadership, and indeed for its stability.
The comparison to Sunni Arab dictatorships is particularly apt here and should be worrisome. In, say, Jordan or Saudi Arabia, you have governing elites and security-military establishments that really like the West and see Western support as crucial for their country.
But they rule over populations that are much more anti-American. This creates all sorts of political problems in those countries; authoritarianism is always unstable and especially so when it pursues unpopular policies. But this contradiction has managed to hold for decades. It could hold in Iran, as well.
The fact that we want authoritarian elites to be able to overrule their populations in Sunni Arab societies, but want popular opinion to reign in Iran, should not surprise anybody. If you're shocked to learn that countries prioritize their interests over their values in foreign policy, then welcome to your first day reading the news.
Still, this contradiction speaks to the larger instability of American foreign policy in the Middle East and of the status quo there. The things that make Iran's official anti-Americanism politically unviable in the long term hold just as true in the Sunni Arab states, from Algeria to Bahrain.