Prospects for a long-term nuclear deal with Iran are better today than in decades because of a new government of “realists,” growing social problems and economic pressure, according to two veteran journalists who recently returned from Iran. But they also told an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) on January 9 that a final breakthrough faces tough opposition in both Iran and the United States.

robin wright and david ignatius

“Iran will compromise a lot to get it,” Robin Wright, a USIP-Wilson Center distinguished scholar, said of a prospective deal being negotiated with the aim of ensuring that Iran’s nuclear activities are for peaceful purposes. “They want to move on.” Iran and the world’s six major powers agreed on November 23 to an interim deal freezing key aspects of Iran’s nuclear program to allow six months of talks on a final agreement.

Wright, an Iran expert and author, is editor of The Iran Primer, a comprehensive website of news and analysis on Iranian politics, foreign policy and society. David Ignatius is a longtime foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Post. The two offered observations from separate reporting trips to Iran at a forum that was jointly sponsored by USIP and the Wilson Center.

On changes in Iranian politics and society

Wright described the new presidential administration of Hassan Rouhani, who took office last August, as leading “a new category of realists” who “want to open up political space” within Iran’s political system, but do not want to overhaul it. Rouhani is arguably more popular now than when he was elected, she said.

One sign of the changed mood in official Tehran: Wright was allowed to visit the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran. One of the masterminds of the Embassy takeover, Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, later told her that he favors a resumption of U.S.-Iranian diplomatic relations and reopening of an American Embassy.

The achievement of a long-term nuclear deal would further alter Iran’s internal political picture, opening the door for more realists and reformers to compete with conservatives and hard-liners, who still dominate Iran’s Parliament and judiciary, Wright said. “To break the hardline lock on Parliament, something has to happen this year,” she said. Parliamentary elections will take place in 2015.

Ignatius said he saw “the appearance of a real debate among senior levels” of Iranian elites on the country’s future direction. The previous government of hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has come under intense criticism for its links to the country’s powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and for alleged corruption. Ignatius argued that Iran’s revolutionary instincts remain alive in some power centers but that he also encountered “a society waiting to jump into the future.” Rouhani has been careful not to challenge the IRGC directly but has said it should stay out of politics, Ignatius said.

On U.S. policy and sanctions

Although the Rouhani administration appears to be ready for a new relationship with the United States after 34 years, Washington may not be ready, Wright said. “We are on the same page. Whether we can turn that page is the big question,” she said. “They’ve moved on. I’m not so sure that we’ve moved on.”

U.S. and international sanctions have weighed down the Iranian economy, said Wright, yet commercial activity in Iran proceeds briskly. The famed Grand Bazaar in Tehran, she said, “is popping,” as are glitzy new shopping malls. The interim nuclear deal signed on November 23 provides modest and temporary sanctions relief that is worth $6 billion to $7 billion for Iran. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told Wright that if the U.S. Congress imposes additional sanctions—even if their implementation is delayed—prospects for an enduring nuclear deal are dead. “Congress could make an epic miscalculation in passing new sanctions,” Wright argued. “It would basically be a war resolution.”

Ignatius agreed that sanctions often characterized as “crippling” do not comport with the economic vibrancy he found in Tehran. “They are a very resourceful people,” he said of the Iranians. “What the sanctions have done is cripple Iran’s future.” Though Ignatius said he doubts a comprehensive pact can be reached within the current six-month time frame, more sanctions would have the effect of strengthening “the most corrupt people” in Iran.

Ignatius described himself as more pessimistic about such an agreement than Wright but said the effort represents the best chance for reversing elements of Iran’s nuclear program. He called the Obama administration’s approach to Iran “sensible” and reflecting a strategy that has the broad support of a powerful international coalition. “The president needs to own this and continue to drive it,” he said. At the same time, chances for a deal would be enhanced by seizing opportunities to “give Iranians a taste of what is to come” if a deal were to be reached. He suggested cultural programs as part of an American outreach to Iranians. “Let the ayatollahs tell people they can’t go listen to music,” he said.

On changing regional dynamics

Faced with the gains of Sunni militants in next-door Iraq and in its ally Syria, Iran is going through a “strategic recalibration,” according to Wright. “Iran suddenly finds itself encircled by Salafis,” she said. The United States is perceived in Iran as sharing a common enemy in al-Qaida and other Sunni extremists, she said.

The realists who have gained power in Iran may be willing to deal with the United States and others on challenges like the Syrian conflict, possibly even walking away from President Bashar al-Assad but not the dominant Baath Party. Wright said that Iran might be willing “to lop off the head to keep the body” of a coalition government that included both elements of the current government and the opposition. In Tehran, she said, there is a growing recognition “that Syria may not hold together as long as Assad is in power.” However, the Iranians are “not going to walk away from Hezbollah,” the Lebanese Shiite militant group they have supported for decades, and other regional allies, Wright added.

Iran’s role in the region’s security structure would need to be accepted to restore a more comprehensive stability in the region, Ignatius said. The fact that both the United States and Iran are supporting the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki in its fight against al-Qaida-linked Sunni fighters suggests room for other cooperation and information-sharing, a type of engagement that has occurred in the past on al-Qaida and on the Afghan Taliban.

Ignatius said Iranian foreign policy had been “incredibly adept at riding several horses at once”—pursuing nuclear negotiations, backing Hezbollah and supporting Syria’s Assad all at the same time. “They’re masters at this,” he said, adding, “We [the United States] need to ride multiple horses at once.”

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