The heart of Iran's debate on a nuclear deal

With a victory for its moderates in the 'framework' agreement, Iran and its Islamic Revolution may take a turn toward reform – or a less coercive brand of religion upon individual conscience.

AP Photo
Iranians in Tehran celebrate a framework agreement on Iran's nuclear program between their country and six world powers. Hundreds hailed the deal in major streets April 3, many chanting support of President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

When President Obama defends the “framework” agreement reached with Iran on containing its nuclear program, he speaks of an “appetite” among the Iranian people to rejoin the international community. If a final deal can be reached by a June deadline, he says, it will empower those in Iran who seek a “new direction” for their country.

When Iranian President Hassan Rouhani justifies the tentative pact, he says Iran does not need to choose between fighting other world powers and surrendering to them. “There is a third way,” he said in a national address. “We can have cooperation with the world.”

Both leaders, who must now deal with powerful critics of the framework at home, know that negotiations over a final deal will not be only about the particulars of uranium centrifuges, intrusive plant inspections, or the future of economic sanctions. As much as both sides tried to wall off the talks from the issue of Iran’s expansionist behavior in the Middle East, that behavior is now in the spotlight.

Mr. Rouhani, along with other relative moderates in Tehran, have scored a victory over their more conservative domestic opponents. They may now be emboldened to show that a new Iran can emerge from this initial step – such as a decision last month to allow Iranian women to attend public sporting events.

Merely by coming to an agreement with the United States and other powers on an issue of its own security, Iran’s religious leaders hint that their 36 years of Islamic revolution – exported through violence – may now be tempered by a new era of reason and by a listening to their restless people, nearly half of whom are under age 25.

Since its 1979 revolution, Iran has acted more like a cause than a country, seeking to impose a brand of Islam on the Middle East by top-down coercion, not by moral example or by peaceful persuasion. This approach has little appreciation for a person’s capacity to make wise choices by the light of reason, a capacity taught in Islam and other major religions. It relies on covert terror more than convincing inspiration. It imposes rather than impresses.

In a speech in mid-March, Iranian supreme guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that the West’s demand for a change in Iran’s behavior would result in “the complete elimination of religion.” Rouhani, however, who was elected as president in 2013 in an otherwise authoritarian regime, is in the reformist camp along with a former president, Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. This camp sees religion more in the service of the people than the people in the service of a religion as defined by the reigning mullahs. This is a key distinction in Iran’s internal debate over its foreign relations.

Iran’s adversaries in the region, led by Saudi Arabia, worry that a nuclear deal will only push Iran to make up for its diminished ambitions as a nuclear power by exerting its forces and influence even further into neighboring countries. Mr. Obama hopes, in contrast, that a deal will stir reform in Iran. “What we’ve also seen is that there is a practical streak to the Iranian regime,” he told The New York Times.

With a final deal, Obama said, “what may happen is that those forces inside of Iran that say, ‘We don’t need to view ourselves entirely through the lens of our war machine. Let’s excel in science and technology and job creation and developing our people,’ that those folks get stronger.”

In coming weeks, as the final talks get down to the wire, the world can hope to see more change in Iran’s regime, the kind that reflects a respect for Iranians and others to freely reason together.

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