Many supporters of an Iranian nuclear agreement believe that a deal could help to moderate, even democratize, Iranian society. Barack Obama’s constant allusions to the transformative potential of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for U.S.-Iranian relations suggest that he believes an agreement, which would quickly release tens of billions of dollars to the Islamic Republic and reintegrate it into the global financial system, would improve the clerical regime’s behavior. Democrats and Republicans have often touted the transformative power of global markets; our bipartisan China policy is built upon this pedestal. As much as free-trading corporate Republicans, the Clinton administration loved advancing the idea that business spreads amity. A former State Department adviser to Richard Holbrooke and now the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Vali Nasr, wrote a well-received book, Forces of Fortune, which argues that commerce and capitalism are the best ways to vanquish the Middle East’s demons, authoritarianism and Islamic militancy. Although Obama likely doesn’t care too much for Nasr, who also wrote a scathing critique of the president’s foreign policy, he’s advocating the scholar’s medicine for the Islamic Republic.
A cynic might suggest that such apostles of economic determinism are reverse-engineering their ultimate goal: a smaller U.S. military role overseas. Economic “engagement” tends to gain ground in Washington when the alternatives, war and containment, are too unpleasant and expensive to contemplate. Like war-averse enthusiasts of sanctions, trade diplomatists are essentially saying you can have it all: greater global security and prosperity without the blood and guilt of Pax Americana. There is certainly a wide overlap between those in Washington who have already conceded the Islamic Republic atomic weapons and those who find the president’s developing nuclear deal to be an imperfect, but still pretty splendid, arrangement.
But it’s best not to be too cynical. Although most fans of realpolitik do have a soft spot for the gospel that American commerce can soothe the foreign savage beast, Obama has never been a convincing practitioner of this morality-lite school. He’s too uncomfortable with power politics and American hegemony. He cares too deeply about transforming the United States and mirror-imaging his national aspirations overseas. Quintessentially an American liberal, the president really does seem to believe that familiarity, even with Islamist regimes, ought not to breed contempt.
Many Iranians, too, cling to the idea that domestic liberalization cannot happen unless foreigners—principally Americans—do the right thing. Prominent dissidents have advocated trade and diplomacy with the West as a means of opening up their own society. A huge fan of the president’s foreign policy, the Atlantic’s Peter Beinart, recently highlighted Akbar Ganji, a famous journalist and dissident who was once a hard-core member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as an example of an Iranian democrat who believes that the West’s nuclear diplomacy with the clerical regime could lead, eventually, to a more open, democratic society. Military threats and sanctions against the mullahs are, Ganji emphasizes, always counterproductive.
As a tool of regime change or nuclear diplomacy, sanctions have been predicated on the assumption that economic coercion can deliver unsustainable political pain. Many Iranian dissidents still hold fast to the belief that the Islamic Republic can have a smooth transition from autocracy to representative government, that the ugliness of the revolution, the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), the continuing brutal repression of dissent and democracy (especially the Green Movement in 2009), and the blood-soaked denouement of the Arab Spring have created a nation of fallen and depressed revolutionaries who don’t have the stomach for confronting head-on the mullahs and their Revolutionary Guards. They envision a peaceful, more prosperous, sanctions-free future in which the ruling elite will evolve. Islamist ideology may not disappear from Iran’s discourse, but the appetite for violence will evanesce. Although many Iranian dissidents are socialists (Marxism is far from dead in Persia), they still see global commerce and greater foreign contact as a softening force, at least vis-à-vis the clerical state. An Iranian Thermidor will arrive in part courtesy of Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, Boeing, and Western tourists.