Nuclear Deal Won't Lead to a Freer Iran

Clinton was wrong when he said economic ties with China would herald a new era of freedom there. Obama is heading the same way with Iran.

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Walking by a coal-powered steel plant in Tianjin, China: Considering volumes, the only real impact Israel could have is through innovation. Credit: AP

Bernard Avishai is miffed by the Obama administration's reticence to speak of Iran's imminent transformation into a freer country thanks to the nuclear deal. In an op-ed for Haaretz ("How the Nuclear Deal Can Benefit Both Iran and Israel"), he argues that this transformation is preordained by Iran's need to integrate into a knowledge-based global economy and placate a restive well-educated younger generation. "If Obama can’t speak about it, we must," concludes Avishai.

Yes, Avishai is correct that the administration packaged the deal as an arms control agreement and reined in talk of a new Iran. It is hard to ascribe this to excessive modesty – a trait uncharacteristic of the administration. Perhaps Barack Obama does not want to share the fate of one William Jefferson Clinton, who, in 1993, pushed through legislation for the People's Republic of China employing the same deterministic arguments favored by Avishai:

"We are hopeful that China's process of development and economic reform will be accompanied by greater political freedom.In some ways, this process has begun. An emerging Chinese middle class points the antennae of new televisions towards Hong Kong to pick up broadcasts of CNN. Cellular phones and fax machines carry implicit notions of freer communications."

Twenty-two years and two Chinese leadership changes later (in 2003 and 2012), developments in China fail to justify Clinton's optimism. China has demonstrated that it can be both a major producer of cellular devices while still maintaining a "great firewall" to monitor and squelch dissenting views. Fewer antennas are currently pointed toward Hong Kong because the "One Country, Two Systems" formula used to entice Hong Kong into reunification with mainland China has gradually degenerated into one country, one system. When Hong Kong's legislature demanded free elections for a leader who was not handpicked by Beijing, the counteroffer was a system with a striking resemblance to Iran's: They could have a choice of candidates, but each would be preapproved by Beijing as loyal to the Communist Party. The legislature rejected this last June, and as such, Beijing continues to dictate Hong Kong's leader. China has been exposed to Western education but this has not translated into democracy. If the pace of Iran's transformation follows the Chinese trajectory, we will still be dealing with Ali-Khamenei think-alikes long after the sunset clauses on the nuclear deal's restrictions kick in.

But maybe China is an unfair comparison.Given the Chinese people's industriousness, they could confound the rules and perversely wed authoritarianism to economic progress. A fairer example is Russia, which, like Iran, is a petro state sorely in need of diversification given its unhealthy dependence on oil and gas royalties. Russia, too, has suffered from a brain drain and capital flight. It also recently had a president who temporarily aroused great expectations. Dimtry Medvedev, a former law professor, presented similar arguments to Avishai during his June 2010 visit to Stanford University and the Silicon Valley, when he acknowledged his country's problems and the need for reforms that would encourage innovation and technological advances. In terms of his academic pedigree and the sincerity of his convictions, Medvedev was a far more plausible agent of change than Hassan Rohani and Javad Zarif. Unlike Rohani, he actually tried to improve things. For example, by setting up the Skolkovo technological incubator outside Moscow.

Yet Medvedev was the weak sister in his tandem with Vladimir Putin, who has made short work of any reform initiated by his former protégé. A recent article in the Guardian described Skolkovo's current travails, now that Putin has unleashed his "dictatorship of the law" and subjected the complex to tax inspectors and corruption allegations.

Even if Rohani and Zarif are genuine reformers, they are the Medvedevs of the Iranian system when pitted against Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

The usual retort to the "implausible" persistence of authoritarian systems is that they encounter blowback from international partners and pay the price – being ostracized, sanctioned and shut out of the innovative loop – resulting in poor economic performance. But what if the authoritarian power acquires a position of economic or political leverage – real or imaginary? Thanks to Wikileaks, we have former secretary of state Hillary Clinton's 2009 plaint that China's position as a major U.S. creditor limited U.S. options: "How do you deal toughly with your banker?"

Chancellor Angela Merkel, while calling Iran's attitude toward Israel "not acceptable," also recently referred to the Iranians as partners. Following the European summit on the refugee crisis, she said, "We have to speak with many actors [in Syria peace talks]; this includes Assad, but others as well. Not only with the United States of America, Russia, but with important regional partners, Iran, and Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia." The hope that Russia and Iran can supply the military muscle in Syria against ISIS, given the West's reluctance or inability to do the same, make Iran's unacceptable behavior acceptable and completes Putin's metamorphosis from pariah to statesman.

Given the historical record, it is difficult to share Avishai's optimism for the Iranian nuclear deal. It will not work as a catalyst for positive change, but as a retardant, for it will convince Iran's leaders that no change is required on their part.

Amiel Ungar is a political scientist.