A close friend — educated in the West but who moved back to Tehran after the revolution and who has spent the last 35 years hoping that things one day might improve to the point where he could sell some assets, recover others, make a couple of business deals and retire in the West with the proceeds — said to me on the day of the announcement of the nuclear deal with the United States and its partners: “Well, I’ve waited 35 years. Now I can wait a couple more if that’s what it’ll take to get to normal.”
Yes, normal. That’s what Iranians are hoping for, and what they’ll be satisfied with. If other constraints on life beyond the financial are lifted as well, as President Hassan Rouhani has promised, I suspect that retirement in the West won’t really be in my friend’s future.
The deal is certainly good for Iran, if the measure is its popularity among ordinary people. But it is not popular for reasons that some might suggest: that Iran bamboozled the West into a terrible compromise if not appeasement and therefore the nationalistic and prideful people are celebrating victory over the Great Satan. That certainly, however, could be what some Iranian viewers surmised just from having watched the American congressional hearings — broadcast unprecedentedly live on State TV — if they paid close attention to what the detractors of the deal were lecturing Secretary of State John Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz about. But, no, the Iranian people long ago, depending on their political leanings, resigned themselves to the fact or satisfied themselves that their government, or more precisely the nezam — the Islamic system — would never agree to humiliation by, let alone surrender to, foreign powers, no matter the cost to the nation.
What Iranians were celebrating on the evening of July 14 was their version (and perhaps as significant for them) of the storming of the Bastille — a potential break with an order that included sanctions, isolation, vilification of their country, and, more importantly, their own 36 years of struggle for normalcy. From the congratulatory text messages that Iranians sent to each other, and the anxious wall-to-wall television, radio, Internet and newspaper coverage of the nuclear deal reached in Vienna, to the spontaneous street celebrations in big cities that evening, Iranians were breathing a sigh of relief that maybe, just maybe, things can get better for them economically, socially and politically.
Another friend, a successful businessman whose affairs suffered progressively as sanctions tightened over the past six years, said to me numerous times since negotiations began that he and fellow Iranians were being driven crazy by the false starts, the alternating good and bad news coming out of various locations in Switzerland, Vienna, New York or Oman, and that despite the fact that the talks hadn’t ever broken down, they were hostages to watching a horror movie but not knowing if it will, like in the movies, end well. Knowing that I had attended almost all the sessions as a reporter, he didn’t call the day the deal was announced (as he usually did during the talks). On my phone, though, there was a simple message from him: tabreek — congratulations — with no exclamation point. None needed.
Few Iranians were ever on the side of the delvapassan — the self-proclaimed and self-named “worried” group, who made it known in ads and public statements that the country was about to give away the farm to hegemonic enemies. Not only did most Iranians not believe that, they also realized that if the status quo continued for very much longer, there might not be much of a farm left for them to give away.
The excitement with which most Iranians greeted the nuclear agreement was not an anti-revolutionary cry, nor a verdict on the deal itself. It was merely an expression of hope — sorely lacking among so many Iranians who could see none — that the Revolution with a capital R might finally be permitted its maturity. The deal was simply good news for them after years of bad, even if the promised results would not, most knew, be realized overnight.
The parade of European leaders to Tehran in the days after the deal was clinched, quick to lay a claim to business with the “new” Iran, may have looked unseemly and even premature to outsiders, but to Iranians it was a sign that their hopes were not entirely misplaced. While the Revolution would never be over (so long as its leaders are around), at least Iran would henceforth be treated as an adult, and not the errant child, of the world community.
When Mr. Rouhani spoke on television at the beginning of August and thanked the country’s youth for their support and their clever use of social media to help secure the historic deal, it was clear to Iranians that if he gets his way their Revolution will indeed have grown up. Mr. Rouhani is no Mikhail Gorbachev — he is too confident in his and the nation’s destiny — but he is the politician most likely to succeed in dragging Iran out of its revolutionary puberty.
For most Americans, and even most Europeans, the nuclear crisis with Iran has hardly been an overwhelming preoccupation. A deal or no deal — despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dire proclamations — does not factor greatly in the lives of ordinary folk on either continent, nor even in Israel. A deal does factor enormously in the lives of every single Iranian living in the country, and even some living outside.
That notion was best summed up by a photograph posted on Instagram and Twitter of an older, chador-clad woman from behind, face invisible, sitting on a carpet in a modest Tehran home while watching a flat-screen TV broadcasting the congressional grilling of Mr. Kerry.
But the deal isn’t about the United States anymore. If Iran abides by it (even as America rejects it) the rest of the world will too, and the United States will have killed not the deal but its own credibility, the tremendous goodwill it has in Iran, and even its own economic interests. And Iran, the Iranians know, will abide by the treaty, make do in a world without America, and will re-elect, in 2017, the president who brought them the promise of a better life.
Hooman Majd is the author of three books on Iran, including The Ayatollahs’ Democracy: An Iranian Challenge and The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in Iran.