After the Vienna agreement over Iran’s nuclear programme was announced, Valiasr Avenue, the long, snaking road that brings traffic southwards and downhill from the middle-class suburbs of northern Tehran to the city centre, was blocked until 2am. Excited, relieved and optimistic, people piled into their cars and headed out to celebrate, hooting their horns, singing and chanting. For Barack Obama and the western leaders, the agreement seems to offer a new start after 36 confrontational years. But for millions of middle-class people in northern Tehran, it promises something even more enticing: the chance to weaken the control that the religious conservatives have maintained over everyday life since 1979.
It has been hard, over the years, to explain to western readers and viewers the deep contradictions of Iran, one of the world’s least-reported-on major countries. The problem is that we think we know what the Islamic Republic is all about. We see the pictures of black-robed demonstrators in the streets denouncing the west and all its works. We recall the former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with his unshaven face and simian eyes, and think that he speaks for an entire nation of extremists. We assume, therefore, that Iran’s nuclear programme is intended to wipe out Israel and threaten western interests. And, as a result, we get Iran wrong every time.
The reality is that it is a highly complex political society – too complex for its own good – in which, for nearly 40 years, the old conservative revolutionaries have battled against the instinctively pro-western, relatively liberal instincts of a clear majority of its people. Even now, the conservatives manage to keep a grip on society through the structure of the state, which gives the unelected religious leader more authority than the elected president, and through the system of religious policing, which forces everyone to toe the line.
Every time the liberal section of society gets the chance to celebrate a victory over the conservatives, it does so in style – hence the parade of honking vehicles up and down Valiasr Avenue on 14 July. For the people leaning out of the windows and waving pictures of their foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who led the negotiations to their successful conclusion, the agreement signals an end to sanctions and confrontation with the west. No wonder Iran’s conservatives are nervous about the deal. It probably ensures that the markedly liberal president, Hassan Rowhani, will be re-elected in 2017; and it will make Iranian society more “westoxicated” (an old revolutionary term) and even harder to control.
Will it prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons? The agreement doesn’t, on the face of it, seem particularly watertight, so Iran will likely be able to get around it if it wants. Yet there has never been any serious indication that Iran – even the Iran of the conservatives – wants nuclear weapons. What it seeks is the status that generating energy by nuclear means seems to confer; for the most part (and aside from the terrorist attacks it has carried out), Iran has been relatively timid in international affairs.
It is a country with great imperial pretensions and it feels that British and American machinations have historically prevented it from exercising real power in the region. What power it has is exercised through the Shia nexus, linking it with Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad government in Syria, the Shia parties in Iraq and Shia groups in the Gulf. Iran is not and cannot be an existential threat to Israel but it can be a major diplomatic and military nuisance – hence the bitter condemnation of the Vienna deal by Binyamin Netanyahu.
Hence, too, the fears of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf rulers. The old system, in which the US kept the Middle East under control through military, political and economic links, is just about finished. The ground is shifting under everyone’s feet, so that in their different ways both Saudi Arabia and Israel are now out in the cold and Shia Islam is in the ascendant. A new alliance with Sunni Islam is up for grabs.
In Iran, the big winner after the deal is President Rowhani. He is affable, moderate and calm and has managed to stabilise the country after the violent ups and downs of the Ahmadinejad years. Any reformist leader can rely on roughly two-thirds of the electorate for support but the complexities of the Iranian constitution and the wiles of the politicians have often shackled the reformists’ powers. Now, however, the wave of prosperity that ought to follow the lifting of sanctions should strengthen Rowhani greatly. Will he be able to convert this into new political powers?
For those of us in the west, there are immediate, practical advantages. Iran’s oil will be back on the open market and should drive the price of oil down to $50 or maybe even lower: a big economic benefit. Whatever we may think of Iran, relying on prejudice and the television pictures of angry crowds, the reality is that the country is a sophisticated society that can once again play the pivotal role it did under the shah – though, one hopes, with a bit more common sense.
Is the world safer now? Not particularly, if only because the threat from Iran was mostly exaggerated out of proportion by Israel and the American right. Yet it will be a differently dangerous place. Sanctions, which are an unpleasant and lazy way of exercising power, have proven their effect; so has working with Russia instead of against it. The Vienna agreement will bring nothing good for Isis and it will be easier to co-ordinate a western/Shia campaign against it. The great anxiety now is felt by Saudi Arabia. What does it do and where does it go? After all the years of worrying about Iran, maybe we should start worrying about the Saudis instead?