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From 'Brinksmanship' To 'Hope,' Here's What Might Result From U.S.-Iran Deal

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From 'Brinksmanship' To 'Hope,' Here's What Might Result From U.S.-Iran Deal

Middle East

From 'Brinksmanship' To 'Hope,' Here's What Might Result From U.S.-Iran Deal

From 'Brinksmanship' To 'Hope,' Here's What Might Result From U.S.-Iran Deal

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What will the U.S.-Iran nuclear relationship look like going forward? The two nations can't escape their bitter history; the question is how to add to it.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's talk through scenarios for the future, a future that includes the nuclear deal with Iran. President Obama offered one plausible scenario on NPR last year. He said Iran should seize the chance to normalize relations with the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BARACK OBAMA: Because if they do, there's incredible talent and resources and sophistication inside of Iran, and it would be a very successful regional power that was also abiding by international norms and international rules. And that would be good for everybody.

MONTAGNE: The president says Iran may not change, which is why inspections are designed to limit its nuclear program no matter what. But Israel's leader sees different scenarios, two of them, both bad.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Iran has in fact been given two paths to the bomb. One is if they cheat, and they second is if they keep the deal. They win either way.

MONTAGNE: Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel says Iran might secretly try to continue nuclear development now or just do it later after parts of the deal expire. Views of the future color many arguments about this deal. So as part of an NPR News special broadcast, our colleague Steve Inskeep asked experts for their scenarios of the future.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Each scenario is different. Each highlights different parts of a complicated equation. And to be clear, each is presented here only as a plausible scenario. A full-blown prediction in the Middle East is worthless. We will call one possibility the Brinksmanship Scenario. It comes from a prominent opponent of the deal. He is Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute.

FREDERICK KAGAN: The Iranian interest is to continue the deal for as long as possible as long as they're not actually being interfered with in ways that they find unpleasant.

INSKEEP: Kagan expects things to get unpleasant, and here's why. The United States wants to lift economic sanctions tied to Iran's nuclear program. The United States wants to maintain economic sanctions against Iran on other issues, like support for terrorism. In the Brinksmanship Scenario, that doesn't work.

KAGAN: We are going to want to sanction them for a variety of malign activities, including killing, you know, our allies and possibly Americans. And every time we do that, the Iranians are going to threaten to walk away from the deal. And so we're going to be engaged in this constant deal brinkmanship over, is it worth it to us to run the risk to impose the sanctions and the Iranians might walk away, and what would it mean if they walk away? And the Iranians have to calculate, is it worth it to us to walk away and so forth? This is going to be the future of trying to manage this deal.

INSKEEP: If you're the U.S. president and you're in that position, you're trying to go after Iran on non-nuclear issues, Iran responds, this is not fair; we're walking away from the deal - if you're the U.S. president, don't you say, fine, walk away, start enriching uranium again and we'll end up with war and we'll bomb you and we'll win. Why wouldn't the president say that?

KAGAN: Well, hang on. That's what a president should say up to the we'll end up with a war. But it should be, yeah, OK, walk, absolutely and we're going to sanction you and we're going to try to snap back the sanctions and we're going to try to do a whole bunch of other stuff and make it as painful for you as possible

INSKEEP: But in Frederick Kagan's view, a future president won't really have that choice. He says President Obama framed the nuclear deal as a way to avoid war. So if a future president threatens the deal...

KAGAN: You will immediately have a chorus of people who are saying, this begins the march to war. It's Iraq all over again. A lot of presidents, potential presidents won't care about that.

INSKEEP: Well, in this...

KAGAN: Some will.

INSKEEP: Yeah, although in this situation, Iran is walking away from the deal. Iran is being dared to walk away from the deal.

KAGAN: And shockingly I'm willing to predict that that's not how it will be played by the defenders of the deal and by the increasing numbers of people who, for economic reasons, will be invested in having the deal continue. And in my view, this deal effectively sacrifices our ability to influence Iran on non-nuclear issues in exchange for whatever you think about the nuclear agreement, and that's a huge mistake. So I want to sanction this IRGC individual who has been in Syria helping the Assad regime gas his own people. I get the word from the Iranians, if you do that, we're going to walk away from the deal. Do I want to fight that fight? I don't know.

INSKEEP: Kagan argues that Iran is not really that committed to the nuclear deal. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, allowed the negotiations, but has not publicly endorsed the agreement itself.

You pointed out that Ayatollah Khamenei's view is, it's stupid to negotiate with the Americans because no matter what you've negotiated, they're going to cheat. It's possible to summarize much of what you've said as the American version of that. No matter what we've negotiated here, the Iranians are going to cheat. I don't mean to suggest, as Obama did, oh, you're just like an Iranian hardliner. I'm not suggesting that. But there is this mutual suspicion here, which I find very interesting. Do you feel that your suspicions are in some way mirrored by the suspicions on the other side?

KAGAN: Yeah, look, I'm not insulted by it at all. I mean, I think President Obama put in an incredibly insulting way, as he has put most of his attacks on reasonable critics. But I think the Iranians are right, and we're talking about this.

I think that the United States collectively - not the United States as embodied in Barack Hussein Obama, but the United States collectively has not signed up to this deal and doesn't really necessarily intend as a nation to abide by it. We have a whole lot of candidates saying they don't intend to abide by it.

INSKEEP: In Frederick Kagan's Brinksmanship Scenario, the deal only adds to mutual suspicion and distrust. Now let's hear another scenario, the Modest Hope Scenario, which comes from Haleh Esfandiari. She's an Iranian-American scholar who was imprisoned in Iran in 2007. Now in Washington, she sees the Iran agreement as a beginning. She focuses on Hassan Rouhani, the president whose administration made the nuclear deal.

HALEH ESFANDIARI: The ball is in the court of Mr. Rouhani. He has now to deliver his other promises to the people, regardless of what the supreme leader says.

INSKEEP: Rouhani won election in 2013, promising better relations with the world and also a better life at home.

ESFANDIARI: People are expecting an improvement in the economy. People are expecting a lowering in the cost of living. People are expecting more access to the outside world, especially the younger generation are expecting access to employment. They hope that there will be a lot of foreign investment as a result, leading to a lot of jobs.

INSKEEP: The clerics who oversee the government will face pressure to open up the country despite their reluctance. Esfandiari does not expect the forces of change to topple Iran's government. She does expect smaller change.

ESFANDIARI: The conflict is going to be within the elite, definitely.

INSKEEP: Within the elite...

ESFANDIARI: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...Meaning that the current elite stays in charge of the country. They just argue among themselves...

ESFANDIARI: Oh, yes.

INSKEEP: ...Over the precise rules.

ESFANDIARI: Yeah.

INSKEEP: In your scenario, if it plays out, will a more democratic society emerge?

ESFANDIARI: It has to.

INSKEEP: Will a different Iranian foreign policy emerge?

ESFANDIARI: It has to. Iran will have to reconsider some of its foreign policy, especially in the region. This does not mean that Iran will give up the support for Hezbollah or its important role in Iraq or in Syria, but it means that it will reach out to the Persian Gulf countries.

INSKEEP: The Modest Hope Scenario from Haleh Esfandiari at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. And then there's the scenario of a longtime visitor to Iran. The journalist Robin Wright has reported on the country for decades.

ROBIN WRIGHT: The nuclear deal, at the end of the day, is not just about nukes. It's about the future of Iran politically. It's about the future of the revolution.

INSKEEP: The Islamic Revolution of 1979. That was the year Iranians took American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. It's been closed ever sense.

WRIGHT: I went back to the U.S. Embassy in Iran in May and got a tour of a building that is today a museum, where everything looks exactly as it was when it was captured. The tape for the telex machine and the intercepts machine are in place. The passport equipment, the stamps and so forth are in place. It looks like the whole staff just got up and went out for a coffee break. I was given a tour by a docent who was with one of the branches of the revolutionary guards. And I asked him the question, do you foresee the reopening of this embassy anytime soon? And he said, no.

INSKEEP: Not in this building, but the man did expect an American presence will return in some form to Tehran. And that leads Robin Wright to what we could call the Cautious Opening Scenario. Wright suspects the nuclear dear may initially cause Iran's ruling clerics to try to clamp down on society and prevent too much change.

WRIGHT: But the truth is that what's been unleashed here is a different kind of process. It's the beginning of a healing process. It's that phase that Crane Brinton writes about in "The Anatomy Of Revolution" about the beginning of normalcy, the end of a raging fever. But that doesn't mean it's going to happen soon and that it's not going to be fitful. The revolutionary philosophy hasn't changed. But there is an opening, and it is just that. It is one opening when there need to be a lot more to make a difference.

INSKEEP: Two nations - the United States and Iran - share a long and bitter history. There is no scenario in which they escape that history. The question is how they add to it.

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What's Next For Iran? 5 Possible Futures, From Disaster To Hope

Hear NPR's Special, The U.S., The Atom and Iran

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Iranians shop at the main bazaar in the capital, Tehran, on Sept. 16. Many Iranians have high expectations that their economic conditions will improve following the nuclear deal, which will lift some of the toughest sanctions against the country. But some analysts think the economic boost will be limited at best. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Iranians shop at the main bazaar in the capital, Tehran, on Sept. 16. Many Iranians have high expectations that their economic conditions will improve following the nuclear deal, which will lift some of the toughest sanctions against the country. But some analysts think the economic boost will be limited at best.

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Is the Iranian nuclear deal just a nuclear deal? Is it something bigger that will transform Iran and the broader Middle East?

Or is it a slow-motion nightmare?

Nobody can know today, of course — and yet it's important to game out the possibilities. What you think of this deal, with terms lasting a decade or more, depends heavily on what scenarios you think are most likely in the future.

President Obama has offered an optimistic scenario: Iran never gets the bomb and seizes an opportunity to end its isolation.

Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu offers pessimistic scenarios in which Iran evades weapons inspectors, or simply bides its time and eventually continues nuclear development.

As part of an NPR News special on the Iranian nuclear deal, we asked five specialists on Iran where the country might be headed. Each focused on different parts of a complicated equation. Each is presented here only as a plausible scenario.

The Mutual Disappointment Scenario

This one comes from Mehdi Khalaji, a man who called himself a "recovering ayatollah." He's a onetime clerical student in Iran and is now an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

He doesn't think anybody will get what they hope from the deal.

The Iranian leadership has been "given promises that if Iran complies with this deal, many of the sanctions would not be enforced," says Khalaji. "On one hand, that's a good thing for Iran. On the other hand, that's not enough for [foreign] companies and banks to immediately start to work with Iran."

International firms will be reluctant to make big investments because they know the door to Iran could close again.

"Any political change in one, two years, may change the political will behind this deal," he adds, referring both to political change in the U.S. and Iran.

The Iranian people could be disappointed. The country's political moderates, who supported the deal, could be discredited.

The U.S. may also be disappointed with the deal because of Iran's lack of compliance, which Khalaji thinks will be hard to sustain.

The Gradual Collapse Scenario

We heard this vision from Karim Sadjadpour, a journalist who now studies Iran at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"People have had very high expectations for change for many years in Iran," he says. "So the aftermath of the nuclear deal is met with disillusionment. This deal that we have been hoping for — that was supposed to open up the country, which was supposed to remove financial restrictions, to open us up politically [and] socially — disappointed us, didn't meet these expectations. And there is this long period of disillusionment. And frankly, I think this is a period which could be measured in decades, not years."

In this scenario, Iran's clerics will cling to power, resisting change. They will be increasingly discredited.

Someday — maybe many years from now — the system could collapse as the Soviet Union finally did in 1991.

If you're a U.S. policymaker, the Collapse Scenario sounds appealing. But Sadjadpour adds an advisory.

An Iranian man walks past a mural displaying an outline of Iran, adorned in the colors of the country's national flag, on June 29 in Tehran. A large majority of Iranians appears to support the nuclear deal. Bherouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Bherouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

An Iranian man walks past a mural displaying an outline of Iran, adorned in the colors of the country's national flag, on June 29 in Tehran. A large majority of Iranians appears to support the nuclear deal.

Bherouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

Should Iran's revolutionary government collapse, the successor government might prove just as problematic, he suggested. It could resemble post-Soviet Russia, as led by Vladimir Putin.

"When I look at the history of Iran and Russia, its resources, the nationalism of the country, its resentment toward foreign interference, its tremendous pride, I see Iran's future more akin to Russia than I do, say, China, or other countries, perhaps in eastern Europe which have managed to transition to functioning democracies," he added.

The Brinksmanship Scenario

A prominent opponent of the deal, Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, outlined this vision.

"The Iranian interest is to continue the deal for as long as possible, as long as, they're not actually being interfered with in ways that they find unpleasant," Kagan says.

But he expects the situation will become unpleasant: The deal calls for the U.S. to lift economic sanctions linked to Iran's nuclear program, but the U.S. also has vowed to continue sanctions on non-nuclear issues, such as state support of terrorism.

Kagan doesn't think that will work.

"We are going to want to sanction them, for a variety of a malign activities, including killing our allies and possibly Americans," he says. "And every time we do that, the Iranians are going to threaten to walk away from the deal. And so we're going to be engaged in this constant deal-brinksmanship over, 'Is it worth it to us to run the risk to impose the sanctions, and the Iranians might walk away? And what will it mean if the Iranians walk away?' "

If they do walk away and resume banned nuclear activities, the U.S. could restore sanctions or even threaten war — but Kagan contends that will be impossible. President Obama sold the deal as an alternative to war.

Iranians cheer during street celebrations July 14 in Tehran, Iran, following a landmark nuclear deal. Many young Iranians want their country to open to the world, and see the nuclear agreement as an important step in ending Iran's isolation. Ebrahim Noroozi/AP hide caption

toggle caption
Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

Iranians cheer during street celebrations July 14 in Tehran, Iran, following a landmark nuclear deal. Many young Iranians want their country to open to the world, and see the nuclear agreement as an important step in ending Iran's isolation.

Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

"The next [U.S.] president is going to have to deal with that reality, which is ... if he starts or she starts talking about walking away from the deal, you will immediately have a chorus of people who are saying 'this begins the march to war — it's Iraq all over again.'"

Kagan believes that the mutual suspicion between the U.S. and Iran will keep tensions running high, and that it's a mistake to go forward with a deal that did not receive bipartisan support in the U.S.

"I think the Iranians are right" not to trust the United States, he says. "I think that the United States collectively — not the United States as embodied in Barack Hussein Obama, but the United States collectively — has not signed up to this deal. And doesn't really necessarily intend to, as a nation, abide by it. We have a whole lot of [presidential] candidates who say they do not intend to abide by it."

The Modest Hope Scenario

This comes from Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian-American scholar, who was imprisoned in Iran in 2007.

She's now in Washington, at the Wilson Center, and sees the Iran agreement as a beginning.

"The ball is in the court of [President Hassan] Rouhani. He has now to deliver his other promises to the people, regardless of what the supreme leader said," according to Esfandiari.

Rouhani won election in 2013, promising better relations with the world, and also a better life at home.

"People are expecting an improvement in the economy, people are expecting a lowering in the cost of living, people are expecting more access to the outside world," she adds. "Especially the younger generation are expecting access to employment — they hope that there will be a lot of foreign investment, as a result, leading to a lot of jobs."

The clerics who oversee the government will face pressure to open up the country, despite their reluctance.

Esfandiari does not expect the forces of change to topple Iran's government, but she does expect smaller changes.

"The conflict is going to be within the elite, definitely," she says. "The conflict is going to be between those who want to follow a more moderate policy and those who want to follow a more radical, conservative policy."

Will a more democratic society emerge? "It has to," Esfandiari says.

Will a different Iranian foreign policy emerge? Again, she says, "it has to."

"This does not mean that Iran will give up the support for Hezbollah, or its important role in Iraq or in Syria," Esfandiari says. "But it means that it will reach out to the Persian Gulf countries."

Will relations with the U.S. improve?

"It's very difficult to predict what improvement means," she says. "Will they have trade relations? Sure. Will more American tourists — not in great numbers, but in modest numbers — visit Iran? Yes. Will Iran and the U.S. cooperate on ISIS [the Islamic State]? Sure. So there is going to be probably modest improvement, but gradual improvement."

The Cautious Opening Scenario

Journalist and scholar Robin Wright has visited Iran many times in recent decades, and in May toured the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, where Iranian revolutionaries took American hostages in 1979. The Iranians have turned the brick building into a museum.

"Everything looks exactly as it was when it was captured," Wright says. "The tape for the telex machine and the intercepts machine are in place, the passport equipment — the stamps and so forth — are in place. It looks like the whole staff just got up and went out for a coffee break.

"I was given a tour by a docent, who is with one of the branches of the Revolutionary Guards. And I ask him the question: 'Do you foresee the reopening of this embassy anytime soon?' And he said, 'No.' "

But her tour guide did say he believed there would be some sort of limited relationship between the U.S. and Iran.

"The nuclear deal, at the end of the day, is not just about nukes — it's about the future of Iran politically; it's about the future of the revolution," Wright says. "And there are many in Iran who are afraid that President Rouhani is the equivalent of President Gorbachev, in seeing over the end of the Soviet Union. They are afraid there there are going to be too many openings, too many new ties with the outside world, that will corrupt or erode the political process."

Because Iranian conservatives hold such fears, Wright's scenario foresees the nuclear deal being followed by steps backward rather than forward: Conservatives might clamp down on society in an effort to hold off larger social changes.

"But the truth is that what's been unleashed here is a different kind of process," she says. "It's the beginning of a healing process."

The historical moment makes Wright think of a book by Crane Brinton called The Anatomy of Revolution, which refers to the beginning of normalcy at the end of a "raging fever" of revolution.

"But that doesn't mean that it's going to happen soon, and that it's not going to be fitful," she adds. "The revolutionary philosophy hasn't changed, but there is an opening — and it is just that. It is one opening, when there need to be a lot more to make a difference."

Iran and the U.S. have a long and bitter history. There is no scenario where they escape that history. They do have a chance to add to it.