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Will Iran follow the Soviet example?

U.S. President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union’s final leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, at the White House in 1987. Credit: Fed Govt via Wikimedia Commons.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union’s final leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, at the White House in 1987. Credit: Fed Govt via Wikimedia Commons.

The nuclear deal with Iran has, inevitably, been accompanied by a large amount of crystal ball gazing among its defenders and opponents as to how the legitimization of Tehran’s nuclear capacity will impact its behavior. Will the Iranian regime emerge from the deal as a responsible international actor—an outcome on which President Barack Obama himself is betting—or will it seek to rub salt into the wounds of its gullible Western interlocutors by fanning existing regional conflicts and launching new ones?

Predicting politics is a notoriously difficult business. Only the very brave or the extremely foolish approach it with any confidence. With history serving as a rough guide, it is tempting to err on the side of caution by not forecasting earth-shattering future developments. At the same time, caution closes off our willingness to imagine radical, unexpected potential outcomes—which is what happened with the Soviet Union, whose example has been much invoked in recent weeks.

In 1980, when president Ronald Reagan entered the White House a few months after the invasion of Afghanistan triggered renewed fears of wider Soviet aggression, few thought to suggest that the USSR would cease to exist early on in the next decade, because the prospect seemed so outlandish. At most, it was granted that the period of detente that began at the end of the 1960s had exposed Soviet society to a modest, if unprecedented, awareness of the advantages of Western democracy. “Soviet young people crave blue jeans and rock music, while their elders try to ape the latest Western fashions,” noted one contributor to the Foreign Affairs journal in 1980. “None of this promises a new Russian Revolution, but it does guarantee the growing significance of both consumerism and cynicism in Soviet life.”

Will the same fusion of “consumerism and cynicism”—hallmarks of Western life—lead Iran to become a more open society? Put another way, will the lifting of international sanctions mean that economic considerations, rather than ideological ones, are given priority when it comes to the Iranian regime’s foreign policy?

Even if the answer to that question is in the affirmative, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Iran will naturally orient towards more openness and democracy. Fifty years of resistance to communist repression—in Budapest in 1956, in Prague in 1968, across Poland in 1981, in Beijing in 1989—proved conclusively that authoritarian regimes will spread fear and bloodshed to retain power, even when they ultimately end up the losers. Given the brutal crushing of Iran’s student-led democracy movement in 2009, in the face of American and Western indifference, one should not be surprised if ordinary Iranians are reticent about participating in a rematch.

Even so, it can still be argued that there are elements within the Iranian regime who believe it would be wise to launch a reform process from above, in order to head off the eventuality of a 2009-style uprising. But these elements, foremost among them President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, have earned the title of “moderates” without even dipping a toe into the waters of political reform.

Additionally, the lifting of sanctions will immediately benefit the most bellicose components of the regime, like the Revolutionary Guards Corps, which controls 20 percent of the companies trading on the Tehran stock exchange, and the office of the Supreme Leader, which runs a private portfolio named for Ayatollah Khomeini valued at $95 billion. In their eyes, the coming windfall is a reward for the Islamic Revolution, not reform. Finally, the Soviet experience could turn out to be more of a hindrance than a help, insofar as it provides a salutary lesson to authoritarian regimes about the lethal dangers of conceding too much power to those over whom you rule.

That should lead us to look more closely into the circumstances which led to the Soviet Union’s demise. There is something of a myth floating around that the detente policy of president Richard Nixon led organically to the opening of Soviet society and the subsequent dismantling of Soviet power. A closer reading of the history shows us that there were, basically, two phases involved. Under presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter, detente enabled the Soviets to stabilize their military strength, by working under the assumption that the Soviet Union was a superpower entitled to expect military parity with the U.S. and NATO. Following the Afghan invasion of 1979 and the repression of Poland’s independent “Solidarity” labor union in 1981, Reagan reversed this policy with a profound boost to America’s nuclear superiority. It was from this position of strength that he successfully negotiated with the Soviet Union’s final leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

It may be, then, that the nuclear agreement reached in Vienna last month is merely the first of two or more phases in the evolution of post-deal Western policy towards Iran. And if the Soviet Union is any guide, then the secret to its direction lies in what Tehran does. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan buried many of the assumptions that underlay the detente policy. A similar action by Iran might, then, lead to a comprehensive rethinking of its own case.

The problem is that the Iranians are, in some ways, ahead of the Soviets. We have launched a policy of detente after their invasions, through proxy militias and Iran’s Qods Force, of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. We have no mechanism to restrain their support of proxy allies like Hezbollah. (Secretary of State John Kerry has pointed to a U.N. resolution that prohibits Iran from militarily supplying Hezbollah, but given that there’s another resolution still on the books ordering the disarming of Hezbollah, it’s not of much use.) We have no control over how they spend their sanctions relief windfall. Any attempt on our part to tighten the screws on Iran will be countered by armies of lobbyists representing the European and American business interests itching to get back into the Iranian market.

From this vantage point, it seems fanciful to believe that Iran will be a dramatically different state 15 years from now, when the “sunset clause” sets in. Sure, one cannot discount the ability of human beings to produce wildly unexpected results. But we shouldn’t bet on those things either.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014). 

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