Time to deliver

After the successful negotiation of an agreement on Iran's nuclear programme, the pressure on Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is set to increase. Iranians expect an improvement not only in their economic and socio-political situation but also in the fight against corruption. By Adnan Tabatabai

By Adnan Tabatabai

At last. After 23 months and a concluding three-week marathon of negotiations, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif took centre stage on Tuesday to announce that a nuclear agreement had been reached. And so, an international conflict that lasted more than 12 years and teetered on the brink of war many times has finally been resolved.

Undoubtedly, obstacles remain on the path towards the implementation of the agreement. The US Congress in particular is causing some serious headaches. Its approval of the 159-page Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is needed. A two-thirds vote against the document cannot be ruled out.

But when one considers the amount of political capital the Obama administration has invested in these negotiations, it is hard to imagine that Democrats in Congress and the Senate will join the Republican opposition in derailing this agreement by voting against their fellow party members and president. Such a collapse of the JCPOA would mean that Washington could be held responsible for the ultimate failure of the agreement. Considering the global relevance of the issue, this seems too high a price to pay.

In contrast, no serious challenges are to be expected in Tehran. Iran's negotiating team, which is headed by Javad Zarif, enjoys broad support both among the high-ranking political elite and the people. There are, of course, critics and sceptics – particularly among conservative hard-line parliamentarians and outspoken political commentators – but they will not be in a position to critically endanger the implementation process of the nuclear agreement.

Rouhani's major political success, however, brings new challenges. His administration now has to deliver on two domestic fronts.

Iranians in Tehran celebrate the reaching of an agreement on Iran's nuclear programme and the gradual lifting of sanctions (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
A cause for rejoicing on the streets of Tehran: on the evening of Tuesday, 14 July 2015, thousands of mostly young people took to the streets of Tehran to celebrate the announcement of an agreement on Iran's nuclear programme and the gradual lifting of sanctions. They honked car horns and played pop music at full blast. With banners and chants, they thanked President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif for initiating the agreement with the West

The promised economic boost

Must urgently, the Iranian population demands an improvement in economic conditions. This ranges from an increase in purchasing power (namely by strengthening the Iranian currency) to job creation and serious efforts to increase social justice and reduce corruption.

A lifting of the comprehensive sanctions regime will undoubtedly facilitate such endeavours. However, even if the upcoming implementation process runs smoothly, sanctions targeting Iran's finance and energy sector will not be lifted before the end of this year, and even then, it will naturally take several more months before ordinary people begin to see an improvement in their everyday lives.

Home-made problems such as mismanagement and corruption will certainly not be overcome by the lifting of sanctions alone. However, with the end of Iran's economic and political isolation, a more open market and more meaningful competition may bring the level of corruption down and increase managerial professionalism.

Combating corruption and bolstering social justice

In a co-ordinated effort with the judiciary, Rouhani's government is firmly cracking down on some of the most severe cases of corruption in the history of the Islamic Republic. However, these efforts will only have a sustainable effect if they are comprehensive and do not just target a select few.

Most importantly, Iran's re-integration into the global economy must not only benefit the political and social elites. President Rouhani will have to make sure that the lower-income layers of society – which make up the majority of Iran's population – also really feel the benefits of the agreement in their day-to-day lives.

For this part of society, the euphoria over a diplomatic success and talk about dialogue with the rest of the world is not enough. For them, it is primarily a matter of economic survival and the need for a swift improvement in their living conditions.

The reform-seeking voters who swept Rouhani to power have shown a lot of patience since he took office. Even those who actively and tirelessly campaign for more political freedoms and civil rights have thus far abstained from exerting too much pressure on his government in order to avoid further complicating the nuclear talks.

A child selling matches on a street in Tehran (photo: IRNA)
Increased poverty: economic problems are forcing some Iranian families to send their children onto the streets to earn money, like this child selling matches on a street in Tehran. According to a report by the Iranian parliament, more than three million children across the country work instead of going to school

Pragmatism and a cautious opening

They hope that, strengthened by the nuclear deal, President Rouhani will be in a better position to foster domestic de-radicalisation and work to open up the socio-political realm. As plausible as this seems, a lot of it will depend on whether or not Rouhani has the political will to confront influential elites and their resistance to such measures.

In this regard, it is important to bear in mind that Rouhani is not a reformist. He is instead a security-minded figure who hails from the core of the Islamic Republic's security apparatus. Ironically enough, this aspect of his background significantly increases the prospects of his living up to his promise of opening up the public space.

When Rouhani speaks about increased media freedom, a lower presence of security agents at universities or more social liberties, he does not do so out of a high regard for pluralism and democratic principles. Instead, his security-oriented mindset tells him that excessively tight restrictions could lead to unrest and conflict. Such arguments in favour of more civil liberties resonate much better among Iran's powerful conservatives than words of a genuine reformist.

In short: Rouhani intends to open up the domestic scene for the sake of national security ("amniat-e melli") and in the interest of the entire system ("maslahat-e nezaam"). Considering that the country is still recovering from the particularly restrictive years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's tenure, and taking into account the fact that the country is situated in a volatile regional context, such a path towards more openness may indeed be the only promising one to take.

Rightfully, Iran's population will expect Rouhani to walk this path. After all, they gave him enough support and granted him a strong mandate, which enabled the president to champion the nuclear deal.

Adnan Tabatabai

© Qantara.de 2015

Adnan Tabatabai is a political analyst on Iranian affairs and CEO of the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO) in Bonn.