How do Iranians feel about the nuclear deal?

How do Iranians feel about the nuclear deal?
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A great deal has been written on the economic impact this will have and the related political and financial risks associated with the opening up of Iran.  However, much less has been said about the views of Iranians on these issues, and how their views will impact the political and economic outcomes of this resolution.

On January 16, 2016, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran had taken the necessary steps for the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The implementation of this nuclear deal means the end of international sanctions on Iran and the release of Iranian assets abroad that had been frozen. 

The vast majority of Iranians are excited and hopeful about the ending of sanctions and the changes it will bring. The sanctions had a huge impact on the cross-section of Iranian society, from pistachio farmers whose hold on the global market was eliminated, to air-travelers who flew at significantly greater risk of disaster due to aging aircrafts and the inability to get proper replacement parts.

Traditional arts are expected to benefit from a wider market, and industries like the film industry will likely benefit from the increased access to modern technology. Iran’s banking system, which had been cut off from international transfers, will now enable small business owners to trade internationally and receive payments from abroad, and family members will be able to send and receive money overseas.

Iranians also widely expect tourism and related industries to receive an influx in new business. Overall there is the strong hope among Iranians that the economy will improve with increased employment, growing salaries, and decreased inflation.

The reality, however, is that Iran’s economy has been badly damaged by the sanctions, but not by the sanctions alone. Corruption, inefficiency, lack of transparency, and mismanagement have played a large part in creating Iran’s current economic environment. President Rouhani is working to capitalize on the political support he has gained for the upcoming elections, while also trying to lower expectations in order to avoid future backlash over the economic situation.

Feelings about the nuclear deal and the ending of sanctions are divided among government officials and the political classes. The division is caused by ideological differences as well as economic and political calculations.

The greatest beneficiaries of the sanctions were companies owned by or with close ties to the high government officials and the Revolutionary Guard Corps. These large firms had access to funding which enabled them to take advantage of the failure of many of the smaller companies. There is a fear that the these companies will no longer be able to maintain their market advantage in the face of open international competition.  

However, the greater fear among those officials opposed to the deal is ideological. In 1962, Iranian author and intellectual Jalal Al-e Ahmad wrote Gharbzadegi as a critique of Iranian society, which was in his opinion afflicted with “Occidentosis,” or “Westoxification.” He argued that during the twentieth century, in its haste to modernize and emulate the West, Iran had managed only to mimic Western culture superficially and therefore it had become unrooted. No longer were the youth connected with and steeped in traditional Iranian culture, but neither did they have a deeper understanding of the development and underlying history or significance of the trappings of Western culture that they had adopted.

In this vein, Al-e Ahmad proposed that Islam, as political ideology more than as religious belief, was the best defence against the cultural attacks of communism and capitalism on Iran. This theory became a fundamental part of the Islamic Revolution. In a 1971 speech Ayatollah Khomeini gave to pilgrims on hajj, he echoed this saying that “the poisonous culture of imperialism” was displacing Iran’s Islamic culture and it was the responsibility of the country’s leaders to oppose this threat. 

In the lead-up to implementation day, the current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has been issuing similar statements emphasising that, while there may be significant benefits from building economic ties, vigilance against cultural imperialism must be maintained. One means of preventing too much cultural and economic integration will be for the Guardian Council to limit the number of ‘reformist’ candidates allowed onto the ballot.

Nevertheless, among officials like Rouhani, who hope to see a more significant opening with the West, as well as those who want to limit any cultural détente, there remains a strong distrust of global superpowers, particularly in the West. Under the current government it is likely that the obligations of the JCPOA will be adhered to by Iran, while at the same time the government will continue to push the boundaries of the agreement in order to test the other signatories and strengthen its position in the region. Officials’ hesitance regarding increasing ties to the West, and to the US in particular, is not generally shared by the majority of the population, who feel favorably towards Europe and the US.

One of the greater changes that the nuclear deal has usher in is the increasing presence of Iran in regional diplomatic negotiations. The exchange of prisoners between the United States and Iran just prior to the implementation of the JCPOA was primarily a public relations stunt, but this exchange, as well as the participation of Iran in talks on Syria and the relatively quick resolution of the situation involving the capture of American sailors in Iranian territorial waters, are evidence of Iran’s new diplomatic presence.

The willingness to engage in diplomacy is not an indication that the US and Iran will soon be allies, but it allows for the possibility of some collaboration where the interests of the two nations coincide, as in the exchange of prisoners and the fight against ISIS.  

About Author

Kevin Graham

Kevin Graham is a political risk analyst and historian of the Middle East with a background in Arabic and Persian translation. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and History, with a minor in Persian, from the University of California Berkeley, as well as an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Chicago and an MSt in Oriental Studies from the University of Oxford.