After years of wrangling, a nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers would not dramatically change Iran’s relationship with the United States–but it would make substantial changes: A deal that lifts sanctions, even gradually, would boost Iran’s economy, and Tehran would gain access to its substantial assets currently frozen in foreign banks. Iranian oil exports, almost halved by sanctions, would rise again.
Petrochemical and other stalled projects could be completed. Iranian banks and businesses would regain access to the international banking system. Foreign investment, particularly in Iran’s cash-starved energy industry, could flow in again.Moreover, if the agreement’s terms uphold what Iran’s ruling establishment sees as the Islamic Republic’s rights and dignity, and hard-liners could not credibly say Iran’s negotiating team gave away the store, President Hasan Rouhani‘s position could be strengthened–possibly allowing him to pursue the economic reforms and international engagement that he campaigned on. Millions of Iranians are desperate for sanctions to end. They are weary of third-rate Chinese and Russian goods, factories idled by lack of raw materials and spare parts, and scarcity of critical medications.
The intense public focus among Iranians on the nuclear negotiations in Lausanne was captured Monday by a commentary in the student news agency, ISNA: “Willy-nilly, numerous political and economic issues and important national decisions have become intertwined with the nuclear issue,” Zahra Asghari wrote. “For many of the people, families, the youth, and small and large merchants perhaps the most important question today is what is happening in Lausanne? Will an agreement be signed? Shall we buy or sell dollars? What will be the price of gold coins? Will housing prices fall?”
If the negotiations fail, disappointment in Iran would be widespread. This consideration will carry some weight with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, when he considers whether to sign on to an agreement.
But even if an agreement is reached, four decades of hostility between Iran and the United States will not be erased overnight. A number of observers have cited shared interests between the U.S. and Iran in defeating Islamic State or in a stable Iraq. President Rouhani and his team would like to build on those shared interests, but Ayatollah Khamenei will continue to seek a major regional role for Iran–a goal that puts Iran in competition with the U.S. in the Middle East.
Ayatollah Khamenei and the hard-liners around him will not soften their hostility toward Israel or abandon Syria’s beleaguered president, Bashar al-Assad. Nor will Iran stop using surrogates such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and militias in Iraq to further its aims. Iran’s championing of Shiite movements across the region, along with policies pursued by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, has helped exacerbate sectarian tensions. All this will not suddenly end.
An agreement ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful would be good for the entire international community. But divisions between Iran and the U.S. run deep. They may be overcome eventually, but they won’t be in the immediate future. Haleh Esfandiari directs the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She was held in solitary confinement in Evin Prison in Tehran for 105 days in 2007. The views expressed here are her own.
The Wall Street Journal