As Mark Twain is said to have observed, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme." With this in mind, President Obama should remember that while historical analogies to China and Russia are seductive, events may rhyme in ways he doesn't anticipate.
Obama is making the risky bet that in the next decade, as Iran opens up economically and diplomatic exchanges thicken, Tehran's leadership will shift away from its post-1979 ideological confrontation with the United States and embrace engagement and cooperation.
This opening will empower an Iranian Deng Xiaoping or Mikhail Gorbachev who will conclude that sacrificing Iran's integration into the global economy is too high of price for Tehran to pay in pursuit of destabilizing policies in the region and a future nuclear weapon. Iran's hardliners, meanwhile, will be consigned to the shadows and a new generation will rise up.
If this is how Iran's next decade plays out, Obama's bet will have paid off. But betting on an internal transformation is risky. After all, Ayatollah Khamenei and the surrounding dark state -- the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and their vast industries -- aren't malleable for real change. And the Green Revolution of 2009
-- the urban moderate uprising -- should have reminded Washington of the ancien regime's resilience.
True, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has support among sections of the urban elite, the middle class and the younger generation, who seek a more economically open and engaged Iran. But his position is severely constrained by the conservative leadership and the coercive elements of the Islamic Republic.
If internal changes come, the effects are never clear-cut or predictable. For example, a special election earlier this year surprised many observers
by naming hardliner Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi as chairman of the Assembly of Experts instead of, as many had expected, a representative of Iran's moderates.
This assembly will choose Iran's next supreme leader. Dominated by a conservative, prospects for liberal post-Khamenei reform are bleak.
A safer bet would be to take the supreme leader's words and actions at face value. As evidenced by Khamenei's numerous pre- and post-nuclear deal statements, this week's agreement is simply a transaction.
Ayatollah Khamenei secured economic sanction relief in exchange for merely postponing the development of his country's nuclear program until after 2025. In addition, the deal's terms do not address other areas of difference with Washington, including the imprisonment of Americans still languishing in Iran's jails or a change in Tehran's regional behavior.
The reality is that opposing the United States is at the heart of the Islamic Republic's ideology that Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, have cultivated for over 30 years.
This ideology has noticeably manifested itself in both hostile rhetoric and terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies. Khamenei and his successors are unlikely to break from this ideology, which has underwritten the legitimacy of their regime.
Khamenei, then, is unlikely to be seeking a partnership with the United States, and Washington presently has little leverage for encouraging future cooperation. Why? For a start, the nuclear agreement offers Tehran few positive incentives for bilateral engagement, and instead rewards the Supreme Leader for his unilateral, rejectionist foreign and domestic policies.
The agreement completely unshackles Iran's government from United Nations restrictions on building up its arms and missile arsenals within a decade, and will allow Iran to expand its nuclear program after 15 years. Also, the U.S. Treasury's financial tools to counter Iran's behavior will be significantly handicapped even as economic sanction relief will provide a windfall of $150 billion
of frozen funds and new economic investment.
This opens the potential for post-deal revenues to be used for supporting proxies, partners, and allies from Sana'a to Damascus.
Moving forward, Khamenei can be expected to jealously guard the opening up of Iran's economy to prevent too much Western influence in the country's domestic affairs. More broadly, the Supreme Leader will likely use this economic boost to try to achieve his long-term objectives in the region, including pushing the United States out of the Middle East by further developing the country's armed forces, which will make it more and more dangerous for the United States to maintain a military presence in the Persian Gulf.
Such moves will take place against a backdrop that already sees Tehran boxing in Saudi Arabia with expanded interference in Yemen, Bahrain
, the Eastern Province, Iraq, Syria
, and Lebanon. And, of course, Khamenei continues to challenge Israel's survival through the arming and financing
of Lebanese Hezbollah and terrorist groups in the Palestinian territories.
With all this in mind, it's hard to see then why President Obama is so optimistic about establishing a détente with Iran. At the core, détente is a two-way endeavor, and while Washington may see the value of engaging a broader set of states in the region to confront common challenges, Tehran clearly has a very different end state in mind for the Middle East.
Believing that Iran could be a long-term partner in confronting ISIS or securing Syria's future fails to look beyond the surface in understanding Iran's true motivations. Washington policymakers would be wise to use these next 10 years to support America's allies in the region and find new ways to contain Iran and its regional behavior before all constraints on its behavior are abandoned.