Now a deal’s been done, will Iran be better behaved?

Neither the most alarmingly negative or positive predictions for how Iran will react to the nuclear deal are likely to come true, writes James Zogby.

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani addresses the nation in a televised speech after a nuclear agreement. Ebrahim Noroozi / AP
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With the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between the P5+1 and Iran, some are panicking while others have visions of a dramatically realigned Middle East. Both views are overreactions, since the deal itself is quite limited in scope and the impact of 35 years of history cannot easily be erased.

As Barack Obama has made clear, the focus on the negotiations was on Iran’s nuclear programme. The US has not embraced Iran, eased its concerns about Iran’s behaviour or absolved it for its hostile actions against US citizens. This is not the change the president sought, nor is there any support in American public opinion for a changed US relationship with Iran. And so those who envision the JCPOA as a sign that the US is abandoning its traditional alliances ought to relax. It’s not going to happen any time soon.

I’m not sure that Iran wants or could easily ingest such realignment either. Iran continues to harbour deep resentment toward the West and the US, in particular. For 35 years, the Iranian public has been fed a steady stream of vitriol based on resentment of past American actions toward their country and anger at current US policies in the broader region. This has taken a toll.

Just a few months ago, when asked for their views as to whether the US “contributed to peace and stability in the Middle East”, 94 per cent of Iranians said “no”. This anti-American mindset runs deep. In fact, it is the cornerstone of Iran’s self-identity.

For decades, Iran has fashioned itself as the leader of the anti-western resistance movement across the Muslim world. Their support for groups in Lebanon and Palestine and their involvement in Syria, Iraq and Yemen has not been motivated by mere sectarian ambitions. Rather it has been part and parcel of establishing the Islamic Republic as the vanguard of the regional effort to weaken the role of the US and its allies across the region.

This too has established itself in Iranian public opinion. In 2012, Zogby Research Services polled in several Muslim countries asking respondents whether they favoured “achieving peace and understanding” with the West or “continued struggle”. The only Muslims who supported the latter option were Iranians. And they did so by a substantial margin.

The mantra of “resistance” is the “soft power” weapon that Iran has used to lay claim to its regional leadership role and to challenge its Arab neighbours. For a time, it worked. Israel dealt devastating blows to Lebanon in 2006 and to Gaza in 2008. Iran’s message to the region then was, in effect, “Look at what Israel, supported by the US, is doing to your Arab brethren. And look at how your weak governments are passive in the face of these assaults on your dignity. And now look at how we are supporting the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance”.

The message worked. Back then, Iran’s favourable ratings across a deeply traumatised Arab region were higher. What ultimately turned the tide against Iran was the war in Syria. Arab outrage over the horrific violence meted out by the Assad regime and the strong support Damascus continued to receive from Iran served as the “final nail in the coffin” of Iran’s reputation.

But even with that, Iran is too invested in the Syrian conflict and the Iranian public has become strongly supportive of their government’s policies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere for there to be any immediate change in Iran’s regional policies. In the poll we conducted in late 2014, nine out of 10 Iranians said that it was important for their country to be involved in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, while 80 per cent were supportive of their role in Bahrain and 60 per cent of their role in Yemen.

In much the same way, the rhetoric used to support their defiance of the West on the nuclear question has also affected Iranian public opinion.

For example, while the Supreme Leader maintained that it was against Islam to seek to possess nuclear weapons, 87 per cent of the Iranian public told us that they wanted their country to have such a weapon, as a matter of national pride and defence. And two thirds told us that “maintaining our right to a nuclear programme is worth the price being paid in economic sanctions and international isolation”.

Our polling in both 2013 (shortly after the election of Hassan Rouhani) and 2014 showed that Iranians were deeply divided. The Iranian president continues to have the support of a slight majority but he does not get stellar grades for having delivered on creating jobs, protecting personal and civil rights, advancing democracy or increasing the rights of women – issues that, shortly after his election, Iranians told us should be the new president’s most important priorities.

Given that some Iranians may have high expectations that the deal will improve their lives, it will be necessary for the government to deliver the goods quickly. But weighing heavily on Iran’s leaders will be the knowledge that strong majorities of the public will still need to be convinced that the deal was worth the price they paid.

So while the US is presenting the deal as a blow to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the Iranians need to maintain that it was their victory, that they did not capitulate. And that is why just as there will be no rush for the US to embrace Iran as its new ally, neither will the Iranians be able to dramatically change their rhetoric or the regional policies anytime soon.

As Mr Obama noted, the goal of the negotiations was limited to Iran’s nuclear programme. In this regard, it is a good deal. Now, the hard work begins to address the broader regional concerns. In the meantime, naive optimists and panicking critics should take a rest. The concern that Iran might develop a weapon has been addressed. But the process of seeing whether this deal can lead to more significant changes in Iran’s behaviour and in the attitudes of both Americans and Iranians has just begun.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

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