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Iran's nuclear deal: A key, but to which door? Open in fullscreen

Bernard Hourcade

Iran's nuclear deal: A key, but to which door?

Iranians have long insisted that they never wanted nuclear weapons [Getty]

Date of publication: 17 July, 2015

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Comment: All eyes will now be on conservatives in Washington and Tehran, while regional neighbours must keep calm and accept the new era, writes Bernard Hourcade.

After marathon negotiations, Iran and the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany - the so-called "P5+1" - finally signed a very technical and detailed agreement on July 14, allowing Iran to develop its civil nuclear industry, but forbidding any kind of military nuclear programme for at least ten years.

The text was negotiated directly between Iran and the United States and it reaches far beyond the issue of a nuclear programme.

For 36 years, "Death to America" [marg bar amrika] was the most ubiquitous and widely chanted slogan in Iran.

Essentially negotiated between Washington and Tehran, the signing of the nuclear deal marks a historic turning point for the Islamic Republic - whose political identity has largely been built on opposing American imperialism.

For reasons that were often explained, the status quo had reached deadlock. The Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has been persuaded that guaranteeing the survival of the Islamic Republic would require opening the door.

Once again, a new key would need to be found - it is by no means a coincidence that the symbol of Hassan Rouhani's 2013 presidential campaign was just such a key. But who would be allowed through this door?

Iranian political life has always been very active, as demonstrated by the trials and sentencing of opponents or former prominent political leaders, debates in the press and above all in parliament.

With the lifting of economic - followed gradually by political - sanctions, the door will now reopen and allow for the "return" of Iran to the fold of the international community.

It would, however, be naïve to believe that in just a few months the country will become a sort of Eldorado for business, or that the state will cooperate with Saudi Arabia, or that it will abandon its criticism of Israeli policy.

Nor will it be a model for freedom of expression or artistic creation. The social and political groups, the networks that inherited the Islamic revolution and the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988) who ran the Islamic Republic will, naturally, attempt to keep hold of their power - making the best use possible of the new political situation that now includes "moderation", "heroic flexibility" or openness to the international arena, in order to keep check on the doors that will open.

A consensus, despite the teeth-grinding

There is a broad consensus in favour of international openness, even among the most radical opinion.

The extremely hardline Ahmad Khatami who leads Friday prayers in Tehran, after having spoken at length about the fact that Iran did not need to come to an agreement with "the Great Satan", eventually concluded that an agreement "would greatly facilitate life for Iranians".

In parliament, some radical deputies from the Paydari group ["the Resistance Front"], accused Foreign Minister Javad Zarif of high treason, and demanded that cries of "marg bar amrika" continue.

     There is a broad consensus in favour of international openness, even among the most radical opinion.


Nevertheless, they obey the leader - who sets out the red lines but who also supports the government.

The supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and his supporters are adopting a policy crafted to ensure the survival - and therefore adaptation - of the Islamic Republic to the new balance of power.

The three principles set out in preparation for the sixth Economic Development Plan (2016-2021) clearly demonstrate the will to allow the Islamic Republic to open the door to international open-mindedness, without abandoning its Islamic and revolutionary identity.

- "An economy of resistance" - that is to say, a refusal of economic "colonisation" or domination by foreign businesses;

- "A leader in science and technology" - in the symbolic domain of nuclear development, but mainly to ensure the autonomy and international future of the country which has been distanced from globalization;

- "Cultural excellence" - or the promotion of the Islamic Republic and the "sacred defence", in reference to the Iraq-Iran war, "the promotion of an Islamic lifestyle in society"

In the medium and long term, Iran's open door points towards moderation in all areas, though it is likely that immediate conflicts will be violent. Having lost the battle over openness towards the United States, the radical groups and religious conservatives will only become more active and more closed on the issues of culture and human rights, benefitting from the euphoria and silence imposed by the stream of dollars - for social peace still needs to be bought - and the international economic contracts.

Preparations for the upcoming parliamentary elections on 26 February 2016 have already begun - and will contribute to stirring up passions.

The reformers, who have been marginalised or imprisoned since 2009, following demonstrations against the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - who is beginning to revive his networks - are beginning to come out of prison after having served their sentences and are looking to combine their forces.

The former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is still Chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council, often appears in the media to support openness, while Mohammad Khatami, who is still serving a sentence forbidding him to publicly express his views, is having more people visiting.

In short, all the actors involved in social and political life are ready to play their role in the context of openness.

Spontaneous celebrations broke out across Tehran [Getty]


The best interests of the Iranian nation are at stake. The country that missed the boat in terms of globalisation cannot afford to miss this opportunity.

No official signing ceremony has been planned to mark what Iran considers to be a simple return to normality and not a political change.

The spokesperson for the Iranian Ministry for Home Affairs, Hossein-Ali Amiri, confirmed that he does not wish there to be a public celebration of the agreement. In order to control the enthusiasm - or dissatisfaction - of the Iranians, the government decided to mark "Jerusalem Day", the last Friday of Ramadan, with a large-scale rally in support of Rouhani's government and the Supreme Leader's "heroic flexibility".

The risks of sabotage

After almost four decades of unilateral support of the West against the "Iranian threat", the petrol monarchies, Israel and their neoconservative supporters in the United States and in France are worried - at times, even panicked - faced with the potential return of Iran, or rather, the sustainable survival of the Islamic Republic with the wind in its sails.

They will not relent and will use any procedural means possible to block or delay the implementation of the agreement, even if they are aware that this change is inescapable, and that ultimately they will end up assisting in victory and pouncing on the Iranian market.

There is already talk of Laurent Fabius making a trip to Tehran.

In Washington, the economic lobbies and public opinion are now mostly favourable to a deal, and should succeed in finishing off the ideological opposition of the Republicans in Congress.

Even in Israel, despite the fiery declarations of Binyamin Netanyahu, many in military and security circles consider the agreement as presenting an acceptable compromise - and that, for a decade at least, the security risk will mainly come from the development of jihadist forces on the borders and particularly in Gaza.

The page is turning on the Islamic Iranian revolution.

On July 4, Abbas Araqchi, one of the main Iranian negotiators, explained clearly on Iranian television that the deal would only be implemented after the several months necessary for gaining the political approval of national and international courts, and the lifting of the innumerable US, European and unilateral regulations put in place to impose sanctions.

This presents just as many opportunities for blocking or sabotage, although less so in Iran than among the six negotiating countries.

In pictures: Iranians celebrate nuclear deal [slideshow]



The Iranian government, without any particular deadline, and the US Congress, within 60 days, must accept the agreement signed in Vienna. The authority of the Supreme Leader is strong enough to impose a positive vote on the conservative deputies whilst allowing them to express their opposition to the Great Satan.

By contrast, Barack Obama does not have the same authority. Above all, he does not have true parliamentary support.

One might think that going beyond the slogans, members of Congress are free to remain shrewd, and that they would not dare oppose the other members of the Security Council and other players who are in favour of the agreement.

The UN Security Council, whose vote in 2006 launched the sanctions, will once again be consulted and will vote on the repeal of the measures against Iran, allowing various governments, in particular European ones, to impose their own sanctions.

The next step is to draft and implement new regulations and policies in each country concerning Tehran. It is only then that Iran itself will be able to apply the measures concerning it, under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency. In other words, it will definitely take more than two or three months before Iran is able to reassume its international capacities.

If the sharp increase in conferences, seminars and trips to Iran is anything to go by, economic circles the world over are in their starting blocks for the rush towards the Iranian Eldorado - which could take over from the Emirates.

     It is certain that Iran will, over the coming decades, be a leader in the international marketplace.


Today more than ever, Dubai is the true economic capital of Iran; it is there that the international companies are based and those who look likely to become leaders in Iranian business.

Given the abundance of misconceptions and the lack of knowledge of the political and cultural reality in Iran, there will undoubtedly be some unpleasant surprises, but it is certain that Iran will, over the coming decades, be a leader in the international marketplace.

Companies will be able to work with ease on both sides of the Gulf.

The same cannot be said of politics. The support of the six most powerful countries in the world for an agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran goes far beyond the simple question of nuclear security and proliferation.

The petrol monarchies feel betrayed by the Americans, after they generously helped oust the Taliban from Afghanistan, and placed power in the hands of the Shia majority in Iraq.

Arms sales and military agreements - particularly between France and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates - are simply a technical response to the much deeper political question highlighted by the emergence of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.

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The petrol monarchies must now face a two-fold challenge.

The radical Sunni movements that they had supported for many years are now turning against them - at a time when Iran is making a comeback as an increasingly normalised political actor.

Iran has 78 million inhabitants, seniority as a state, a successful experiment with poltical Islam - a policy close (in some respects) to that of the Muslim Brotherhood - a Republican constitution, a large and complex middle class and the most secular women in the region.

The petrol monarchies that were used to domestic stability and the international red carpet must now face up to these extremely serious challenges.

The first response was the military conflict on foreign terrain; in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon, Iran responded with hostility to Saudi advances.

Resigned or constrained, will the two new "policemen of the Gulf", like the USSR and the United States in the past, be able to find a modus vivendi, a peaceful coexistence?

Iran must confirm its peaceful declarations in order to re-establish confidence, and Saudi Arabia must calm its panicked reactions.

The countries of the P5+1 group - who have just succeeded in finding the key to a locked door - certainly have a useful role to play in getting the petrol monarchies accustomed to the idea that the door to Iran is now open, and will remain so for a long time.


Bernard Hourcade is a geographer and senior research fellow at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. He was formerly based in Tehran as director of the Institut Français de Recherche en Iran, between 1978 and 1993.

He founded and directed of Paris' Monde iranien research centre, specialising in the social and political geography of Iran.

A version of this article was first published in French by our partners at Orient XXI.

Opinions expresed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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