As the official deadline for the nuclear deal approaches, many are expressing their apprehension over the consequences that may emerge should a deal be reached and sanctions on the Islamic Republic are lifted.
The anxiety mostly has to do with concerns over regional and global stability that may be threatened if Shia Iran plans to export more than oil, gas, and pistachios. Like its Islamic Revolution ideology, for example.
While there is no doubt that Iran – a country that is often accused of aspiring to be a hegemonic power driven by aspirations to dominate the Middle East by spreading its religious ideology – would have a greater influence on Sunni Azerbaijan and the five majority Sunni Central Asian states, there is no evidence that suggests their influence would extend past a purely economic one. In fact, the governments of these former Soviet Republics have high-ranking members that were once affiliated with the Communist Party during the Soviet era. Members who are still deeply suspicious of theocratic rule.
For these states, who have been independent for almost 25 years, there are clear opportunities that may arise from new trade developments in the region. As talks of recreating the ancient Silk Road – the name for the ancient trade route between the Mediterranean Sea and China – continue, the possibility that Iran will no longer be off-limits is being eagerly anticipated. Because the Caspian Sea offers little trade potential at the moment due to its contested legal status, this situation may offer opportunities for Central Asia that will allow it to cut back its reliance on countries like Russia to the north and China to the east. A southern route through Iran would effectively change the dynamics of trade, giving the five central Asian countries more leverage at the bargaining table with their superpower neighbors.
A passage through Iran also offers a shorter non-Russian route for shipping Central Asian oil and gas to Europe. The European Union is also looking to decrease its dependence on Russian supplies so it is actively looking to diversify its gas suppliers. Receiving gas from the Caspian Region – known as the Southern Gas Corridor Project – via this route would be enormously advantageous for them. However, this would take a minimum of five years and maybe even closer to a decade before any of these projects would be functional.
In general, coming to a nuclear agreement is welcome among ordinary Iranians who have suffered a great deal from the international sanctions slapped on them by the United States and other nations. These sanctions have imposed restrictions on trade and international banking which have seriously hurt Iran’s economy. To the Iranian people, a deal means more jobs which would lead to a higher standard of living. While many would argue that the Iranian people have gotten a raw deal, it is important to remember that Iran’s Guardian Council regime has often tried to deliberately provoke the United States. When presented with evidence to support it was enriching uranium in the early 2000s, Iran’s regime admitted it had hidden a uranium enrichment program from the world for almost two decades. Iran continued to enrich uranium openly in defiance to the United Nations. Things got worse when Iran’s former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a very controversial leader, insisted that Iran would not stop enriching uranium and that the West had no business interfering in their affairs. He publicly announced that it was Iran’s intention to destroy the nation of Israel and eventually defeat the United States – the “Great Satan.” This certainly hurt the side effort by calmer voices in Iran that tried to emphasize nuclear energy alone.
The United States – despite Iran’s insistence that it was pursuing a uranium enrichment program only to build nuclear power plants – was convinced Iran was building a nuclear weapon and saw Iran’s actions as deliberately violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Under its provisions, the nations with nuclear weapons at the time agreed not to give nuclear weapons – or the knowledge on how to build them – to any other nation. The United States and its allies – especially Israel and Saudi Arabia – are worried that should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, it would throw the Middle East into turmoil. They believed other countries would want to build their own nuclear weapons and a regional nuclear arms race would ensue that would be tinged with religious extremism.
To be fair, Iran has made real progress in recent years. With the election of Iran’s current president, Hassan Rouhani, the country has taken a different stance toward the nuclear issue. President Rouhani criticized the nuclear stand-off with the West and brought much attention to the state of Iran’s economy that was being smothered by the sanctions. The sanctions isolated Iran from the rest of the world and President Rouhani started negotiations with the P5+1 countries which led to an interim treaty in 2013 that stated Iran would seriously limit their uranium enrichment program in exchange for temporary relief from the sanctions.
However, as many are aware, Iran’s president is the elected head of government but largely fills a ceremonial position. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, is the one who calls the political shots. He has the power to veto any legislation passed by the executive branch per Iran’s unique “Islamic government” constitution. Not surprisingly, there are deep rifts in the country’s government caught in what some might consider a nasty power struggle. On one side are the reformists led by President Rouhani and on the other conservatives led by Ayatollah Khamenei. The reformists want Iran to become more democratic while the conservatives want to keep the country in line with the fundamentalist Islamic social codes introduced by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979.
Even though Ayatollah Khamenei has been behind President Rouhani on the nuclear issue, these rifts could prevent Iran from improving its global image and from making further progress socially, economically and politically. Unfortunately, the country already has a reputation to some for thuggish behavior as both a violator of human rights and as one of the largest exporters and contributors of terrorism. Even though an argument can be made that the rights and opportunities of women have improved in recent years, the country has lost too many of their best and brightest citizens to relocate to the West and other countries that are more modern and democratic. If sanctions are lifted and it is truly their desire to get involved with projects like the Southern Gas Corridor Project, Iran will need to take some serious steps toward addressing its internal problems, worrying more about being a major participant in the global economy and less about aspirations to be a regional religious hegemon. Right now it seems like most of the country favors the former objective overwhelmingly. But the Guardian Council undoubtedly still dreams of the latter. Checking that desire, or enacting some type of reform on the Guardians, could be the most interesting immediate future for Iran when it comes to economic plans in the greater Caspian region.