Hello to the Iranian Spring

American prisoners set free in Iran
American prisoners set free in Iran

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Story highlights

  • Iran has completed the necessary steps in a deal to restrict its nuclear program, inspectors said
  • Aaron Miller: Iran will go from being one of most heavily sanctioned countries, to one of the most scrutinized

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of "The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President." Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him on Twitter @aarondmiller2. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Last week was Iran week -- from the tensions over the detention of 10 U.S. sailors, to the prisoner/hostage swap to the implementation of the nuclear agreement.

Like most other issues in a broken, angry and dysfunctional Middle East, dealing with Iran remains a work in progress, including over the nuclear agreement itself. But one thing is clear: Iran, and not a divided and dysfunctional Arab world, is rising politically and economically.
Aaron David Miller
So you can forget the Arab spring. That time has passed. Instead, say hello to an Iranian spring. Here are six reasons why:
Implementing the nuclear deal: There's little doubt that progress on this score has exceeded expectations. By any reasonable measure, Iran has done what it signed up to on issues relating to exporting enriched uranium outside the country: dismantling centrifuges and converting its Arak reactor so it can't produce the plutonium required to make a bomb.
The odds that Iran will violate the accord in major ways appear slim. The regime got a very good deal and will be reluctant to risk access to billions in unfrozen assets and the open for business sign that is already attracting foreign firms. So the focus will now turn to monitoring, and Iran will go from being one of the most heavily sanctioned countries in the world to one of the most scrutinized.
But don't expect Iran to abandon the strategic patience game when it comes to the nuclear issue. The reality is that Iran will be left at year 10 or 13 with a large and sophisticated nuclear infrastructure, one that will then have the option of weaponizing should it choose to do so.
Hostage release: The big surprise of the past few days wasn't implementation of the agreement, but the secret negotiations that produced freedom for a number of U.S. dual nationals. The results of this diplomacy were bittersweet. Two Americans remain in Iran, either imprisoned or unaccounted for, even while there is cause to celebrate the freeing of four others (and a fifth that Iran released separately from the formal swap in exchange for seven Iranian nationals serving time for sanctions violations).
To restate the stunningly obvious: Iran should not be thanked or compensated for fixing a terrible problem they themselves created. And yet Iran got a pretty good outcome: a big thank you from the Obama administration, an improvement in an image recently tarnished by the sacking of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, and extricating itself from a move that had never generated much else than trouble.
Is Iran moderating? In a way, it really doesn't matter. Iran's divided polity serves its interests. The West can continue to deal with the reformers, President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, while the real power for meaningful change resides with the Supreme Leader and the security establishment. The nuclear deal wasn't intended to subvert a highly authoritarian and ideological regime, but to sustain it by co-opting the public's desire for a better economy and more accessibility to the outside world; reformers like President Rouhani are more interested in these than challenging the fundamentals of theocratic governance. Iran will take years to change.
Still, next month's parliamentary elections, and those for the Assembly of Experts, will reflect whether the Iran nuclear deal has produced any change in the balance of power between reformers and hardline conservatives.
The U.S.-Iranian relationship: Much has been made of improvements here, and on the functional effectiveness of a relationship that a year ago didn't exist. There's no doubt that this relationship has morphed into one that can now actually be used to get things done. Last week's incident concerning the U.S. sailors, and a year-plus of negotiations over U.S. hostages, suggests that a channel now exists for solving problems. That channel is facilitated by a strong personal relationship between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart.
But it would be wrong to assume too much. Relations between nations aren't based on personalities; national interest and domestic politics play the greater role in defining their terms. And there is much that still divides Iran and the United States, particularly when it comes to the Middle East.
So, Iran's interests are served by some improvement, but not too much: cooperation when it serves Tehran's interests, and obstinacy and obfuscation when it does not. In short, keeping U.S.-Iranian ties at some level of boil continues to provide the leadership a target with which to mobilize conservative elites.
U.S. allies: One of the best ways to measure whether Iran is perceived to be succeeding is to see how loud the complaints are from Iran's adversaries. And in this case, the complaint quotient from Saudi Arabia and Israel is quite high.
Israel and Saudi Arabia both acquiesced in the nuclear deal, in large part because they have no other choice. Both worry that decades of U.S.-Iranian tension is changing into cooperation, and that the United States has accepted Iran's central role in the region. The Saudis see an Iranian hand everywhere -- in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria -- and are worried not about the proverbial Shia crescent, but a full Shia moon. The Israelis, meanwhile, worry (quite rightly) the Iranian nuclear accord is at best an arms control agreement that will leave Iran with the capacity to move to weaponization a decade from now should it choose to do so. Neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia has been satisfactorily assured by U.S. commitments on the political or military side, and they are hoping that the next U.S. administration -- Democrat or Republican -- returns the United States to a much less accommodating view of Iran.
The region: Here, the impact of the nuclear deal is at best judged as incomplete, and at worst as something of a setback. Iran's regional aspirations appear to have remained the same, and the unfreezing of assets -- whether it's 50, 100 or 150 billion dollars -- will help fuel them. Iran is, of course, taking advantage of a local problem in Yemen to support the Houthis and stick it to the Saudis, while in Syria, Tehran is supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime full bore. In Iraq, Tehran is backing pro-Iranian militias, while in Lebanon it is supporting Hezbollah.
The next big test of Iran's intentions will be Syria, where the United States and other players, including Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, will try again at the end of this month to use diplomacy to produce a ceasefire and dialogue between the Assad regime and the divided opposition that can stabilize the country. Here again, Iran is well positioned: inside the process, but with the capacity to block an outcome it doesn't like, or push for one it does.
All this suggests that if someone were naming the three most consequential countries in the Middle East today, it would actually be three non-Arabs nations: Turkey, Israel and Iran. All are politically stable, all have huge economic potential, all have effective military clout, and all are regional powers.
But the most intriguing -- and dangerous among them -- remains Iran. And this past week has underscored the reality that how Tehran chooses to exercise its newfound wealth, legitimacy, its emerging relationship with the United States and its power more broadly will determine much about this turbulent region in the years ahead.