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August 13, 2015 10:33 am

Will Iran Follow the Soviet Example?

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President Ronald Reagan with actor Kirk Douglas and his wife Anne Buydens. Photo: White House.

President Ronald Reagan with actor Kirk Douglas and his wife Anne Buydens. Photo: White House. – The nuclear deal with Iran has, inevitably, been accompanied by a large amount of crystal ball gazing among its defenders and opponents as to how the legitimization of Tehran’s nuclear capacity will impact its behavior. Will the Iranian regime emerge from the deal as a responsible international actor—an outcome on which President Barack Obama himself is betting—or will it seek to rub salt into the wounds of its gullible Western interlocutors by fanning existing regional conflicts and launching new ones?

Predicting politics is a notoriously difficult business. Only the very brave or the extremely foolish approach it with any confidence. With history serving as a rough guide, it is tempting to err on the side of caution by not forecasting earth-shattering future developments. At the same time, caution closes off our willingness to imagine radical, unexpected potential outcomes—which is what happened with the Soviet Union, whose example has been much invoked in recent weeks.

In 1980, when president Ronald Reagan entered the White House a few months after the invasion of Afghanistan triggered renewed fears of wider Soviet aggression, few thought to suggest that the USSR would cease to exist early on in the next decade, because the prospect seemed so outlandish. At most, it was granted that the period of detente that began at the end of the 1960s had exposed Soviet society to a modest, if unprecedented, awareness of the advantages of Western democracy. “Soviet young people crave blue jeans and rock music, while their elders try to ape the latest Western fashions,” noted one contributor to the Foreign Affairs journal in 1980. “None of this promises a new Russian Revolution, but it does guarantee the growing significance of both consumerism and cynicism in Soviet life.”

Will the same fusion of “consumerism and cynicism”—hallmarks of Western life—lead Iran to become a more open society? Put another way, will the lifting of international sanctions mean that economic considerations, rather than ideological ones, are given priority when it comes to the Iranian regime’s foreign policy?

Even if the answer to that question is in the affirmative, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Iran will naturally orient towards more openness and democracy. Fifty years of resistance to communist repression—in Budapest in 1956, in Prague in 1968, across Poland in 1981, in Beijing in 1989—proved conclusively that authoritarian regimes will spread fear and bloodshed to retain power, even when they ultimately end up as the losers. Given the brutal crushing of Iran’s student-led democracy movement in 2009, in the face of American and Western indifference, one should not be surprised if ordinary Iranians are reticent about participating in a rematch.

Even so, it can still be argued that there are elements within the Iranian regime who believe it would be wise to launch a reform process from above, in order to head off the eventuality of a 2009-style uprising. But these elements, foremost among them President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, have earned the title of “moderates” without even dipping a toe into the waters of political reform.

Additionally, the lifting of sanctions will immediately benefit the most bellicose components of the regime, like the Revolutionary Guards Corps, which controls 20 percent of the companies trading on the Tehran stock exchange, and the office of the Supreme Leader, who runs a private portfolio named for Ayatollah Khomeini valued at $95 billion. In their eyes, the coming windfall is a reward for the Islamic Revolution, not reform. Finally, the Soviet experience could turn out to be more of a hindrance than a help, insofar as it provides a salutary lesson to authoritarian regimes about the lethal dangers of conceding too much power to those over whom you rule.

That should lead us to look more closely into the circumstances which led to the Soviet Union’s demise. There is something of a myth floating around that the detente policy of president Richard Nixon led organically to the opening of Soviet society and the subsequent dismantling of Soviet power. A closer reading of the history shows us that were, basically, two phases involved. Under presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter, detente enabled the Soviets to stabilize their military strength, by working under the assumption that the Soviet Union was a superpower entitled to expect military parity with the U.S. and NATO. Following the Afghan invasion of 1979 and the repression of Poland’s independent “Solidarity” labor union in 1981, Reagan reversed this policy with a profound boost to America’s nuclear superiority. It was from this position of strength that he successfully negotiated with the Soviet Union’s final leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

It may be, then, that the nuclear agreement reached in Vienna last month is merely the first of two or more phases in the evolution of post-deal Western policy towards Iran. And if the Soviet Union is any guide, then the secret to its direction lies in what Tehran does. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan buried many of the assumptions that underlay the detente policy. A similar action by Iran might, then, lead to a comprehensive rethinking of its own case.

The problem is that the Iranians are, in some ways, ahead of the Soviets. We have launched a policy of detente after their invasions, through proxy militias and Iran’s Qods Force, of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. We have no mechanism to restrain their support of proxy allies like Hezbollah. (Secretary of State John Kerry has pointed to a U.N. resolution that prohibits Iran from militarily supplying Hezbollah, but given that there’s another resolution still on the books ordering the disarming of Hezbollah, it’s not of much use.) We have no control over how they spend their sanctions relief windfall. Any attempt on our part to tighten the screws on Iran will be countered by armies of lobbyists representing the European and American business interests itching to get back into the Iranian market.

From this vantage point, it seems fanciful to believe that Iran will be a dramatically different state 15 years from now, when the “sunset clause” sets in. Sure, one cannot discount the ability of human beings to produce wildly unexpected results. But we shouldn’t bet on those things either.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014). 

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  • ART

    There is a difference in the psychology of communism and sharia law/ One is knowingly manmade the other is alleged to be divine. It is hard to negotiate with someone who claims to be a divine spokesman, it is hard to deal with a death cult it is hard to deal with people who willingly intentionally send even young children out to die. The leaders of the USSR were not part of a death cult. Iran will have nuclear weapons as soon as it believes it can get away with it. The iranians are on a religious crusade

  • Pinchas Baram

    who is this mad dog M. Schwartzer and who let him out of his cage? and why is he on this site?

  • Ephraim

    I had not realized that Nazis were welcome on this site. Your blatant antisemitism only proves that you are excrement, a disgrace to humanity, as well as, naturally, a moron. The USSR was not a bitterly oppressive theocracy, Iran is. The USSR did not have huge demonstrations calling for the death of all Jews, Israel, and the US. The USSR never had a policy of being one large suicide bomber. Only a scumbag, totally blinded by bigotry, would use his antisemitism in order to defend a so-called deal which will prompt the world’s first nuclear war.

    No viable inspections makes this ‘deal’ worthless. Anyone with a modicum of intelligence would realize this. However, to Nazis such as you, bigotry triumphs over truth every time.

    Why does this site approve the comments of Nazis? Aren’t there enough venues which welcome human effluence, such as this, to allow him to spew his lies and hate?

  • Yale

    The real question is pace: Will Iran’s progress toward nuclear-tipped ICBMs be faster or slower than any possible move toward Iranian perestroika.

    Since Iran can have nuclear weapons under this deal by next year simply by declaring the rest of the world insufficiently submissive to their demands (see article 26), my bet is that there will be an Iranian nuclear force well before the regime starts mellowing. Maybe the nuclear force is designed to prevent it from mellowing.

  • Phil

    >>An NPT with Iran means NO NUKES EVER, if you told otherwise it’s a lie.

    You’re either a fool or a liar. Iran’s nuclear program was in violation of its commitments under the NPT, and this deal puts the US in violation of its obligations under that treaty. The more likely oucome of this deal is Iranian nukes by 2017.

  • Scott

    Simply – you’re a fool Neville Chamberlain…..
    If there’s any “spies” we’ve been run over by….They are from the Middle East and Africa. They’re just not Jewish.