Could the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) create a pathway toward democracy in the Islamic Republic of Iran or is the United States investing in a nation whose political portfolio has continually displayed a diminishing return?
We know that democratic nations tend to be less willing to engage in conflict and are generally more cooperative in the realm of international relations. Moreover, democratic nations tend to be economically independent and more developed, and are more likely to hold alliances with other nations. While this is political theory, there is a significant amount of weight behind its importance. So how could the JCPOA lead to the promotion of democracy within Iran and the greater Caspian Region?
If we take the above-mentioned political theory of increased cooperation among democratic states and apply it to the diverse political environment of the Caspian region we observe a series of rivalries exacerbated by political, economic, and religious ideologies that have remained as relics of the Soviet Era. Take, for example, the nations of Iran and Azerbaijan. Iran is a nation whose political structure follows that of a theocracy, which allows for a single “Supreme Leader” to exercise total ideological and political control throughout a system dominated by clerics who manage every function of the state. Iran is home to the world’s largest population of Shi’a Muslims, with its northern neighbor, Azerbaijan, home to the second largest. Due to their contiguity these two countries share a mutual past and hold common links between their cultures. Despite this common culture—which should be a strong element for any relationship—the two nations are stuck in a continual paradox of competition. The reasoning behind this competition lies in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s ideologically-motivated foreign and domestic agenda, where its version of Shia Islam influences all aspects of political, social, and economic life.
Unlike Iran, which has observed multiple economic sanctions from the international community, Azerbaijan has been the recipient of over $967 million in U.S. foreign aid. The Obama administration has stated that U.S. assistance to Azerbaijan is to develop democratic institutions and civil society; support the growth of economic sectors not related to oil; strengthen the interoperability of the nation’s armed forces with NATO; as well as increase maritime border security, combat terrorism, eliminate corruption, and prevent the growth of transnational crime. After the September 2001 terrorist attacks, Azerbaijan allowed U.S. over-flight of its airspace, as well as approved numerous landings and refueling operations at Baku’s civilian airport to assist coalition military operations occurring in Afghanistan. It was the threat of an emerging common enemy—global terrorism—that created a new positive relationship between the two nations, regardless of cultural differences and/or political structures.
These efforts have later become scrutinized by mainly Iran and Russia—the other major super power in the region—which signed a political declaration barring foreign militaries from having a presence in the Caspian Sea region. This is a geostrategic attempt on behalf of Iran and Russia to prevent Western influence in the smaller states making up the region. This is because Western support would undoubtedly come in the form of developing the trans-Caspian pipeline, a move that would diversify other littoral states’ (specifically Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan) energy dependence and break the monopoly of Russia’s exports of natural gas to European countries. Moreover, Tehran may observe a Western presence in the Caspian Basin as an attempt to place more pressure on its long-term geostrategic ambitions, including the nuclear issue.
The international isolation of economic sanctions placed upon Iran by the United States and European Union (EU) severely crippled its petroleum-dependent economy. After decades of failing economic polices driven by religious ideology, Iran is now ranked last out of fifteen countries in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region. While religious beliefs are a cultural trait and should be embraced with deep conviction by any believer, Iran’s failure to separate religious propaganda from economic, political, and social realities has fueled this decline. Moreover, these failures have impacted not just Iran, but also the bordering states within the Caspian Region, with cascade effects throughout the MENA Region. The JCPOA would undoubtedly lead to socio-economic developments within Iran and create new dynamics–intentional or not–for the Caspian region. Despite the controversy surrounding the nuclear deal, it is these resultant economic developments that could possibly create a pathway to democracy within Iran. However, when Iran has remained the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism despite the crippling sanctions, which seem to have had little effect on quelling Iranian support, can Iran be trusted to not utilize its JCPOA-inspired economic advancement to fund or equip terror organizations more effectively? Iran has previously deceived and defied world powers as well as covertly constructed nuclear facilities throughout the last two decades. And while Iranian leadership declared these nuclear pursuits peaceful, its disregard for democratic processes and cooperation with the international community earned it the label of rogue nation. I think the question that needs to be asked is whether the JCPOA will be ultimately hopeful diplomacy or political folly? Is the U.S. allowing a rogue state to increase its use of proxy forces to build regional hegemony or is it leading said regime out of its ‘roguishness’?
The JCPOA has seen divided support among the political elites of both the U.S. and Iran. So could the agreement rouse a pathway to democratic promotion within Iran or is the deal simply a distraction that holds the potential to create more instability in both the Caspian region and the Middle East? I believe there is a possibility of democracy within Iran because of two hopeful dynamics. First, the historical and religious commonalities shared between Azerbaijan and Iran and the established partnership between the U.S. and Azerbaijan prove that democratic processes can gain ground even in a radically ideological nation. Second, if the agreement is approved by the U.S. Congress, the socio-economic developments that will arise from the lifting of sanctions and the economic opportunities for Iranian citizens will likely produce both social and political change, mostly from a bottom-up approach that is from the citizens themselves.
Acceptance of the JCPOA could possibly establish a pathway to renewed relations with the hopeful prospect of promoting democracy within Iran, while a Congressional rejection could aggravate historical grievances due to economic and political isolation. While either outcome will not be zero-sum in nature, the regional dynamics in trade, terrorism, and energy will be dramatically shaped through the consequential shifts in power. These shifts could either exacerbate the paradox of continual competition as observed in the Iranian-Azerbaijani model or lead to the acceptance of democratic processes through socio-economic developments within Iran. For now only time will tell if Iran will continue to be an isolated nation or if constructive actions can create new American engagement, proving the JCPOA was a positive investment.