coming months will bring an acrimonious debate in the United States on whether the terms of the Iran agreement are sufficiently tight or dangerously lax. The most likely outcome is that President Obama’s views will prevail in Congress, but the final verdict will lie with voters in the presidential election 16 months away. In as volatile a world as this, the outcome then is far from certain.
But there is a deeper issue lurking here that we should start to address sooner: the unwritten gamble Obama is taking that Iran will begin to change internally so that in 10 years — when restrictions are slipping away — the country will be more peaceful, less interested in guns than butter. Obama’s long-term strategy hinges on whether the aging ayatollahs will leave the stage and a new, more open generation will come to power. Even some of his aides are unsure, and his foes think he is horribly naive.
Under the circumstances, prudence would suggest that we ought to develop a strategy that not only contains Iran beyond its borders, but also hastens those hoped-for changes in Iranian society. The accord may have cracked open a window.
During the Nixon years and beyond, I saw one president after another work a two-track strategy of military containment while also reaching out in people-to-people diplomacy, persuading citizens that a Western lifestyle was more attractive than the repression and miseries they were experiencing. As ardent an anti-Communist as you will ever meet, Nixon also thought that if the Soviets and Chinese became enmeshed in trading relationships with the West, they would be more peaceful. And he was right.
We have seen numerous signs that the Iranian people are much more primed to embrace the 21st century than are their rulers. Already, more women than men study at universities in Iran, and a high percentage of their women become engineers. The underground music scene in Tehran continues to thrive despite government repression. A 2009 World Public Opinion poll found that 51 percent of Iranians hold a favorable opinion of Americans, a number consistent with other polls, meaning that Americans are more widely liked in Iran than anywhere else in the Middle East. The US favorability rating isn’t even that high in US allies India or Turkey, and is two-and-half times as high as in Egypt.
Linda Mason, a leader-in-residence at the Kennedy School, recently returned from a visit to Iran and was stunned by how warmly she was greeted as an American, starting at customs. She felt safe walking through the parks and streets of Teheran. Linda said the people of Iran made her feel she was in South Korea, while the regime reminded her of North Korea.
So far, the US has been acting very gingerly toward developing people-to-people relations with Iran. Indeed, the Obama administration appeared craven when it failed to support Iranian street protestors following that country’s 2009 election. But this appears to be a moment when we could begin ramping up exchanges of scientists, medical leaders, artists, students, and more. The Internet offers far more opportunities for dialogue than we had during the Cold War.
We need not go soft on Iran externally in order to employ our soft power internally. Whatever side you take on the nuclear agreement, we all have an interest in winning that bet.
David Gergen is a professor of public service and codirector of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School.