“Iran After the Nuclear Deal” – WAC 3/7/2016 Event

The World Affairs Council hosted a fantastic discussion with Reza Marashi, Research Director at the National Iranian American Council, on political, economic, and diplomatic developments in Iran following the nuclear agreement. The conversation was moderated by David Woodward, President & CEO of Associates in Cultural Exchange. 

Reza highlighted that the nuclear agreement opened diplomatic lines of communication between the U.S. and Iran that before were non-existent. This allowed for the expedited release of U.S. Navy Sailors, and the eventual release of U.S. prisoners as part of a prisoner swap. Reza is optimistic that there is an opportunity to make enough progress on U.S.-Iran relations that the ties are irreversible, where any efforts to undermine it from a new administration in Washington are impossible.

Internally, the recent elections in Iran allows for more progress on the economic front. However, the Islamic Republic still struggles with mismanagement, nepotism, and corruption, even after the sanctions were lifted. Reza highlighted the fact that the largest national security threat Iran faces is the internal schism between state and society.

Below are additional reflections from the event:

Iran is its own worst enemy

Mr. Woodward brought up the fact that one of the major benefits expected for Iranians from the nuclear deal was the lifting of sanctions. He asked Mr. Marashi where things currently stood on that front and when Iranians would begin to benefit from a less isolated economy.

Marashi said it would take some time before the average Iranian would feel the economic relief from the lifting of sanctions. But he does not believe that this was Iran’s main motivation for sitting down to negotiations.

Since long before the nuclear crisis Iran has been plagued by nepotism, corruption, and mismanagement in its government. Hardliners, or extremists as Marashi prefers to call them, have blamed Iran’s internal problems on its foreign enemies. But in truth everyone knew that this was just an excuse not to make the hard domestic policy decisions that needed to be made. If changes were not made soon the divide between the Iranian people and their government would continue to grow and tear the country apart.

Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, realized that if Iran was to solve its internal problems it needed to begin to solve its external problems. He and other reformers believe that once the country’s influential extremists are no longer able to use Iran’s enemies as scapegoats, they will begin to have the consensus and unity needed to solve the country’s most pressing domestic issues. For this reason Marashi says that Iran absolutely will not be the first to violate the terms of the nuclear agreement; they cannot afford to.

Iran and the Sunni/Shia divide

Iran has had a long-standing rivalry with Saudi Arabia. As the largest Shia Muslim nation, Iran sees itself as the defender of Shiites worldwide. Saudi Arabia, the country where Islam’s two holiest sites are located, sees itself as the lead defender of Sunnis worldwide. Since the nuclear deal was agreed to, Saudi Arabia’s most powerful ally, the United States, has changed their relationship with Iran. Mr. Woodward asked Mr. Marashi where Iran is now positioned in the Sunni/Shia rivalry given these developments.

Marashi pointed out that the Sunni/Shia conflict is a favorite subject of the mainstream media, especially in the United States. He believes that the conflict is for the most part a self-fulfilling prophecy of the media. If you look closely at Islam, The Quran, and the teachings of the two sects you will not find anything that says that these two groups should be at odds with each other. The more the media talks about how much the two sides disagree with one another, the larger the divide becomes.

According to Marashi, the current rivalry mostly started after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran that brought the current government to power. A security status quo was created with the US backing Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies and Russia backing Iran and its Shia allies. But the status quo was not sustainable and the U.S., under President Obama, decided it was time to take a more diplomatic approach. Concerned that the U.S. may no longer be a stalwart ally against Iran, Saudi Arabia is now trying to leverage the security status of the region to their own benefit and Iran’s detriment.

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