The Iran Nuclear Accord: A Fig Leaf for the Ayatollahs or an Opening for Civil Society?

TEHRAN, IRAN - JANUARY 29 :  Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) meets with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali
TEHRAN, IRAN - JANUARY 29 : Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) meets with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) on January 29, 2014 in Tehran, Iran. (Photo by Agency/Getty Images)

Mahmood Delkashteh is an Iranian blogger. His forthcoming book is on the early stages of the Iranian Revolution from 1979-1981.

Will the nuclear accord with Iran just provide breathing space for the ayatollahs to continue ruling, or will it resuscitate the Green Movement?

The nuclear accord with Iran could be a turning point for the country, or it could be yet another turn backward that consolidates the rule of the ayatollahs.

Understanding the complex interplay within Iranian politics of the 34-year-old confrontation with the U.S. is key to grasping the potential of this moment of flux.

Just as President Obama has his critics who want to scuttle the nuclear deal with Iran, so too does Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader. Those critics are mainly a large faction of the Revolutionary Guard that has handsomely profited from Western sanctions by exploiting shortages through black market dealings.

While it is not surprising that a weak U.S. president has his hands full fending off opponents, it is puzzling why a strong Supreme Leader -- who after all engineered President Hassan Rouhani's election that opened the way for the nuclear deal - doesn't just shut down Iranian critics.

It was Khamenei who authorized the initial secret contacts in Oman a year ago that laid the groundwork for the present accord. It is his policy of "heroic flexibility" that has allowed it to go forward. And he openly congratulated Rouhani on his return from Geneva for his victory.

So, why doesn't the Supreme Leader give Rouhani his full support without hesitation and hedging?

There are two reasons for Khamenei's ambivalent behavior that reveal the core nature of the regime in Teheran and expose the limits of any US-Iranian rapprochement.

The first reason is that, as the details emerge, it is clear that Iran submitted to Western demands, not vice-versa.

Iran has agreed to stop enriching uranium above 5 percent and to convert half of its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium to oxide and dilute the rest to 5 percent. Furthermore, while the Arak plutonium reactor is 90 percent completed, the government has agreed to halt construction. Overall, Iran has agreed to 20 demands from the U.S. and its allies in return for the gradual release of only 5 percent of its assets frozen by sanctions.

To save face for having gone down this path because of desperation over the economy, Khamenei is seeking to put some distance between himself and Rouhani, telling the critical faction of the Revolutionary Guard he is not very pleased with the details. He sees their loud voices as a measure of vigilance against caving in any further to the West.

The second, more core reason for Khamenei's tolerance of the Revolutionary Guard agitation is the tried and true gambit of sustaining crises with external foes as a way to compensate for the regime's legitimacy deficit. This behavior goes back to the American Embassy hostage crisis in 1979 -- which led to the overthrow of Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the first elected president -- up to Ahmadinejad's constant clashes with the West over Israel and the Holocaust.

For this reason, those who are hoping for the normalization of relations with the U.S. will be disappointed. As Bani-sadr said before the recent signing of the Geneva agreement, "expect a nuclear deal with Iran's Rouhani, but not normal ties with the U.S." because the Iranian regime has made conflict with United States a linchpin of its domestic and international politics. Normalization would spell the end of the regime.

What we can expect from Iran's leaders, then, is a genuine effort to open some breathing space from protracted economic crisis and social discontent through winding down its nuclear program in exchange for the weakening of sanctions. At the same time, we can also expect the continued defiance of Iranian leaders, as is one of Khamenei's most recent speeches when he again hit at the US as "the Great Satan" bent on enmity "with Iran, Iranians, Islam and Muslims."

President Rouhani's role is like that of the metaphorical lion on a flag described by Rumi, the 13th century philosopher: a seemingly strong creature bolstered by the blowing wind of the supreme leader, but who will fade in a flutter when the force behind him dies down.

Once Iran has attained its breathing space through the nuclear accord, we can expect another confrontation to flare up in time.

The one hope is that, by weakening the grip of sanctions and toning down the knife-edge conflict with the West, the breathing space will resuscitate civil society. The only way out of the cycle of ayatolloahs ruling from crisis to crisis is when Iran's civil society decides that enough is enough and rises up. We saw a big glimmer of this possibility in the Green Movement after the 2009 elections.

Such a movement can only emerge robustly if sanctions are lifted and the threat of a military attack on Iran is removed. Sanctions have weakened the middle class, which can only lift it head and demand change when it is not struggling to survive. And, as history tell us, iranians, like citizens everywhere, will never revolt against the ruling powers when the territorial integrity of the nation is under threat.