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A US-Iran realignment is not in the cards

Jul 20,2015 - Last updated at Jul 20,2015

With the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between the P5+1 and Iran, some are panicking in despair, 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 and politics cannot easily be erased.    

As US President Barack Obama has made clear, the focus on the negotiations was on Iran’s nuclear programme. The US has not embraced Iran, eased its concern with Iran’s current regional behaviour, or absolved Iran for its hostile actions against US citizens or those of our allies and friends. This is not the change the president sought, nor is there any support in Congress or American public opinion for a changed US relationship with Iran, at this point in our history. And so those who envision the JCPOA as a sign that the US is abandoning its traditional alliances in favour of the Islamic Republic ought to relax. It’s not going to happen anytime 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 United States, in particular.  For 35 years now, the Iranian public has been fed a steady stream of vitriol against the “Great Satan” 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 back, 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 revolutionary self-identity.

For decades now, 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, we polled in several Muslim countries asking respondents whether they favoured “achieving peace and understanding” with the West or “continued struggle” against the West. The only Muslims who supported the latter option were Iranians. And they did so by a rather substantial 63 per cent to 37 per cent 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. Back in 2006 and 2008, the years when Israel dealt devastating blows to Lebanon (2006) and then to Gaza (2008), Iran’s message to the region was, in effect, “Look at what Israel, supported by the US, is doing 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, and standing tall against Israel’s aggression.”

The message worked. Back then, Iran’s favourable ratings across a deeply traumatised Arab region were in the 70-80 per cent range. And in many Arab countries (including those with overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim populations) the Shiite Muslim leaders of Iran and its allied movements often ranked highest in popularity in public opinion polls. 

What ultimately turned the tide against Iran was the war in Syria. Arab outrage over the horrific violence meted out by the Bashar Assad regime and the strong support Damascus continued to receive from Iran served as the “nail in the coffin” of Iran’s favourable ratings in the Arab world.

But even with that, Iran is too deeply enmeshed and invested in the Syrian conflict and the Iranian public has become strongly supportive of their government 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, 9 in 10 Iranians said that it was “important for my country to be involved in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq”, while 8 in 10 were supportive of their role in Bahrain and 6 in 10 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 impacted Iranian public opinion — in ways that went beyond the “official” position of their government. For example, while the Supreme Leader maintained that it was against religion 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 President Hassan Rouhani) and 2014 showed that Iranians were a deeply divided. The 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/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 with the deal their lives will improve, it will be necessary for the government to deliver the goods, in relatively short order. 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, in terms of national honour.

That is why 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 to the West.  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 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, naïve 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.

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