On Friday, July 10, Iran celebrated “Jerusalem Day,” its usual, collective anti-Israel outburst. Mobilized by the regime, millions of Iranians streamed out into the country’s streets to jeer at the “Zionist enemy” and its protector, the great American “Satan.” They swear to one day hunt the usurpers of al-Qaida. They burn the stars and stripes. They shout the old slogan of the 1979 revolution: “Death to America!” Things are clear.
The top leaders of the Islamic Republic had warned of this. Israel’s destruction must be “the priority of Muslims,” said the Revolutionary Guards, the armed branch of the regime. The night before, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, anti-Americanism pinned to his turban, recalled this geostrategic evidence: “The U.S. is the true embodiment of global arrogance.” Logically, it follows that “fighting global arrogance is the core of [the Iranian] revolution and we cannot put it on hold,” he added.
At the same time, behind the delectable, creamy façade of a Viennese five-star hotel, the Palais Coburg, the arrogant “world powers” were finalizing a historic agreement with Iran. The “5+1” group – China, the U.S., France, the U.K. and Germany – concluded years of negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear program. Signed on Tuesday, July 14, the Vienna document does not dismantle the nuclear ability of the Islamic Republic, strongly suspected of being military in nature. It places it under strict international control. In return, the severe economic sanctions against Tehran, imposed due to Iran’s breaches of the nonproliferation treaty, will be lifted. This give and take represents an historic diplomatic breakthrough.
But which Iran should we believe? The one that burns American flags in the streets of Tehran? The one from the salons of Palais Coburg? The Iran of Ali Khamenei who despises America, or that of Mohammad Javad Zarif, head of the Iranian delegation in Vienna and preferred partner of Secretary of State John Kerry? These questions beg another: Can the nuclear power agreement lead to a normalization of U.S.-Iran relations?
Ali Khamenei wanted this agreement. Shaken by the strength of the Iranian reformist movement in 2009, by the eruption of the “Arab Spring,” by the degradation of the country’s economy due to both sanctions and lower oil prices, the “Supreme Guide” has made concessions. He permitted the election of a reformist president, Hassan Rouhani. Countering his natural allies in Tehran, the hardliners, he supported Zarif in Vienna. To relegitimize his regime, he needs to reopen the country’s economy, with the political dangers that it brings.
Barack Obama wanted this agreement. The American president took the risk of negotiating with a country that his predecessor classified as part of the “axis of evil.” A country with which the U.S. has had no relations since 1980. A country that has often opposed America, even violently. A country that the U.S. State Department lists among the state sponsors of international terrorism. But a young country, of 80 million inhabitants, with a bright and dynamic civil society, with which the U.S. must be able to speak like it does with so many of its other strategic adversaries. Finally, a country that plays a key role in the Middle East.
Obama is defying a powerful opposition front, both inside and outside the United States. In Washington, the entire Republican Party, which holds the majority in Congress, and a fraction of Democrats are opposed to the Vienna agreement – it’s too dangerous, they say. Abroad, America’s two great allies in the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia, have made common cause against Iran, which they accuse of being the principal destabilizing force in the region. They fear that Iran, relieved of sanctions, will allocate even more resources in service of its local allies: the Shiite regime in Baghdad, Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Lebanese Hezbollah, Houthi militias in Yemen and Palestinian Hamas.
Arrogance and Paranoia
The opposition front is not very credible. Its members demonize Iran as if it were Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. They lend Iran, in the same terms, a capacity for Promethean evil. Certainly, Iran wants to be recognized as one of the leading powers in the Middle East. However, it remains a military dwarf. Its defense budget is eight to 10 times smaller than that of the Gulf countries altogether – they have infinite access to the most modern Western weapons. Iran is surrounded by three illegal nuclear powers: India, Israel and Pakistan. At its birth, fiercely anti-American, the Islamic Republic was targeted by external aggression: the war that Saddam Hussein declared in 1980, supported by the U.S., the USSR and Europe. This war established the Iranian attitude on the international scene – a mix of arrogance and paranoia. Finally, if Iran succeeds in federating a Shiite arc in the region, it is due to the total chaos that the American invasion in Iraq provoked there.
Does the Vienna agreement signal a more cooperative Iran? In fact, nothing indicates that. In the 1970s, the major agreements on nuclear disarmament between the U.S. and the USSR did not restrain Moscow’s behavior abroad – on the contrary. True detente came in the 1990s. On the other hand, the normalization of U.S.-China relations in 1972 immediately resulted in China relinquishing its pariah status, abandoning its subversive plots in Asia and concentrating on its interior development. This is the hoped-for result after Vienna.