The most striking implication of the agreement signed in Geneva last weekend—to ensure that Iran’s nuclear industry does not develop nuclear weapons while gradually removing the sanctions on the country—is more about Iran than it is about Iran’s nuclear industry. The important new dynamic that has been set in motion is likely to impact profoundly almost every significant political situation around the Middle East and the world, including both domestic conditions within countries and diplomatic relations among countries.
This agreement breaks the long spell of estrangement and hostility between the United States and Iran, and signals important new diplomatic behavior by both countries, which augurs well for the entire region. It is also likely to trigger the resumption of the suspended domestic political and cultural evolution of Iran, which also will spur new developments across the Middle East.
Perhaps we can see the changes starting to occur in Iran as similar to the developments in Poland in the early 1980s, when the bold political thrust of the Solidarity movement that enjoyed popular support broke the Soviet Union’s hold on Polish political life, and a decade later led to the collapse of the entire Soviet Empire.
The resumption of political evolution inside Iran will probably move rapidly in the years ahead, as renewed economic growth, more personal freedoms, and more satisfying interactions with the region and the world expand and strengthen the relatively “liberal” forces around Rouhani, Rafsanjani, Khatemi and others; this should slowly temper, then redefine and reposition, the Islamic revolutionary autocrats who have controlled the power structure for decades, but whose hard-line controls are increasingly alien to the sentiments of ordinary Iranians.
These domestic and regional reconfigurations will occur slowly, comprising the situations in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states led by Saudi Arabia. The critical link remains a healthy, normal, non-hostile relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which I suspect will start to come about in the months ahead, as both grasp the exaggerated nature of their competition for influence in the region and learn to behave like normal countries. They will learn to compete on the basis of their soft power among a region of half a billion people who increasingly feel and behave like citizens who have the right to choose how they live, rather than to be dictated to and herded like cattle.
Should a more normal Iran-Saudi relationship occur, as I expect, this will trigger major adjustments across the entire region, starting in Syria and Lebanon where the proxies of both countries face off in cruel and senseless confrontations. The Geneva II conference in January, to explore a peaceful transition in Syria, will be the first place to look for signs of an emerging new order in the region that will be shaped by a healthier Iranian-Saudi relationship.