Home/Daniel Larison/The Green Movement and the Nuclear Deal

The Green Movement and the Nuclear Deal

“Thirty-five percent of Iranians like this government and Ahmadinejad,” a college student told me outside a Sufi shrine in the southeastern town of Mahan. “Twenty-five percent are against. The rest don’t care.” ~Stephen Kinzer

There’s no good way to verify that estimate, but it sounds plausible and it makes sense that there is a large number of disaffected Iranians that have no strong desire to side with regime or opposition. For the opposition to have even partly succeeded in having its grievances addressed, it needed to find some way to mobilize this apathetic and/or thoroughly disillusioned bloc, and this didn’t happen. It’s not clear how the tactics of the movement were going to make that happen, and it is possible that the more radical and secular elements of the movement alienated potential supporters in this otherwise indifferent middle. It is possible that other Iranians would have told Kinzer something very different about the status of the Green movement. Because he could not meet with opposition leaders and activists, Kinzer was bound to encounter more Iranians who were less directly engaged in or more disillusioned about politics. It still seems telling that he could not find anyone who believed that the movement has not stalled or failed entirely.

In the wake of the new nuclear deal brokered by the Turkish and Brazilian governments, another part of Kinzer’s account is worth noting:

Iranians seem puzzled by the Obama administration’s intense focus on their country’s nuclear program, which officials in Washington describe as a grave threat to global security.

The Iranians aren’t the only ones puzzled by this. Even if you accept that Iran’s government is intent on building nuclear weapons, the obsession with Iran’s nuclear program is hard to explain rationally. The trouble is that it is not a rational policy: it has an impossible objective and it is based in an unreasonable fear of a potential future arsenal for which there is little or no evidence. This arsenal would most likely be built, if it ever were built, as a deterrent against the attacks that Western governments continually say they will never rule out launching.

The Turco-Brazilian diplomatic effort is a product of growing international consternation with Washington’s fixation on this issue. It is a reflection of just how few non-Western governments take the Iranian “threat” at all seriously. An increasing number of governments does not really believe that the threat exists and they are more willing to say so after the Iraq debacle. Now there are more non-Western governments, including both large democracies and allies, that are in a position to wield influence internationally and many of them have been building constructive trading relationships with Iran at a time when the U.S. and major European governments have gone down the dead-end route of isolation and sanctions. Turkey and Brazil have demonstrated what real diplomatic and commercial engagement can achieve. If Iran hawks regard the nuclear deal these states have brokered as insufficient and unsatisfying, that is more a measure of their unreasonable demands and expectations than it is a measure of the deal’s flaws.

The new nuclear deal will not satisfy the U.S. and our European and Israeli allies, because nothing short of the severe limitation or abolition of Iran’s nuclear program will satisfy most of these governments. The administration insisted on pursuing a diplomatic track to try to craft an international consensus against Iran, and it always acknowledged that it was doing this as a necessary prelude to punitive measures later. All along the flaw in the administration’s policy was not that it was pursuing a diplomatic solution, but that it was pursuing an objective that it could never realistically achieve by any means. We now see what kind of fuel swap deal Iran will accept, and it is clearly unacceptable to Washington.

Instead of rallying the world around a new round of sanctions against Iran, the pursuit of those sanctions has reminded us that even many important democratic and allied powers around the world are effectively more sympathetic to Iran’s position than they are to ours. By pursuing the same irrational policy goal in a relatively consultative, multilateral way, the administration made clear to rising powers that there was nothing that Iran would realistically do that could have prevented punitive measures. Instead of exposing Iran as the uncooperative “rogue” state thwarting the “will of the world,” the administration has unintentionally done all parties a favor by pushing a new round of sanctions hard enough that the U.S. and our allies were exposed as the unreasonable, uncompromising creators of a “crisis” that need not have happened.

This is not the result the administration or Western hawks wanted, but as far as regional peace and stability are concerned it is a fairly good result. The deal probably will not prevent unilateral U.S. sanctions, but the new deal shows us just how few allies we will have in trying to penalize Iran and it will make it increasingly difficult to pretend that our Iran policy serves the interests of international security and stability.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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