The Iranian nuclear agreement is a gamble on the future trajectory of Tehran and its leadership. If the deal unfolds in the way that it is expected to, Iran will benefit in two ways.
One, the lifting of trade and financial sanctions should boost the economy, crippled by a limited ability to export oil and gas.
Two, allowed to keep much of its nuclear knowhow and a reduced version of its N-infrastructure, Tehran in theory could contemplate nuclear weaponisation in some 15 to 20 years from now, though there would be sufficient lead time to detect any movement in that direction. The agreement is festooned with conditionalities and penalties if Iran violates the accord in any way.
Iran will have to wait for months before the sanctions are peeled away one by one. It knows United States sanctions may not be lifted until the next presidential elections are over, but Tehran can live with the lifting of United Nations sanctions.
China, the European Union and possibly India will benefit. But Iran is the main gainer. The United States and the West, in turn, will watch to see how smoothly the International Atomic Energy Association’s inspections of nuclear facilities take place over the coming months.
US President Barack Obama is hoping that Iran will use this new opening to rein in its aspirations, often violent and sectarian, to be the dominant player in West Asia. Instead, Iran should focus on its many internal economic and political problems.
Israel, Saudi Arabia and other rivals of Iran believe that this is a folly. One of the consequences of this distrust are the civil wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen that have become proxy struggles among these West Asian powers.
Tehran should seize this opportunity. It has emerged as the major Persian Gulf player given its footprint in Iraq. With Washington’s interest in the Gulf waning and the United States and Iran sharing a similar concern about the Islamic State, Tehran could conceivably end up king of the regional hill with US support. But it needs to end its use of terror, give up on threats to Israel and begin easing repression at home.
Iran needs to understand that being more accommodating is the real path to becoming a regional power. The nuclear deal is a major step, ending a quixotic effort to reverse Iran’s nuclear programme. Tehran could never unlearn what it had done, only its intentions and fears could be changed. This is a major step towards addressing Iran’s mindset. But the environment in the region is still difficult.