Nuclear Agreement a Boost to Civil Society in Iran -- but Also to Proxy Wars in the Middle East

Iranian wave the national flag during celebration in northern Tehran on July 14, 2015, after Iran's nuclear negotiating team
Iranian wave the national flag during celebration in northern Tehran on July 14, 2015, after Iran's nuclear negotiating team struck a deal with world powers in Vienna. Iranians poured onto the streets of Tehran after the Ramadan fast ended at sundown Tuesday to celebrate the historic nuclear deal agreed earlier with world powers in Vienna. AFP PHOTO/ATTA KENARE (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

The Vienna agreement is a turning point in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran, but also a big step for the geostrategic future of the region. From now on Iran will be a full partner in the big game in the Middle East and the world.

While the nuclear threat may be diminished, it could well be supplanted by intensified sectarian proxy wars in the Middle East as Iran's economic isolation ends. At the same time, the end of economic hardship within Iran could well give more breathing space to the demands of civil society for more rights and freedoms.

Under the new framework that has been drawn up, Iran agrees to substantially scale down its nuclear activities in order to make any attempt to develop nuclear weapons infeasible. In return, Iran expects immediate relief of sanctions that have suffocated the Iranian economy by cutting off its oil exports and its ability to earn foreign currency.

But there are tough issues which remain to be resolved, among them the intrusive role of the International Atomic Energy Agency in verifying that Iran really does reduce its capacities as it has pledged. The IAEA's demand to visit Iran's military bases has been rejected as a "red line" by Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Also, with regard to the issue of timing and sequence of lifting sanctions, the agreement is vague and subject to different interpretations.

From now on Iran will be a full partner in the big game in the Middle East and the world.

Iranian officials have repeated clearly that the Iranian government would only accept a deal over its contested nuclear program if world powers simultaneously lifted all sanctions. "If there is no end to sanctions, there will not be an agreement," President Rouhani affirmed back in April, echoing remarks made by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

However, the Obama administration and the Europeans have invested enormous political capital in assuring their Israeli and Saudi critics that it was tight sanctions which crippled Iran's economy and forced it to negotiate. Their assurances now would give the United States the flexibility to re-impose limited sanctions without putting the whole process in danger. But tailoring new limited sanctions will be as difficult as knowing the right moment to lift them.

One other obstacle to the implementation of the Vienna agreement will be the war of factions in Iranian domestic politics, just as there will be a fight in the U.S. Congress.

The final deal will certainly heighten domestic political tensions in Iran, bringing a political boost for President Rouhani's cabinet and the reformists in the upcoming 2016 elections for the Iranian parliament. But Ayatollah Khamenei has made sure not to give too much authority to Rouhani and his group ahead of those elections. Having the final say on all matters of state, the supreme leader ensures that no group, including the Revolutionary Guards and the ultra-conservatives, gains enough power to challenge the status quo.

A Boost to Civil Society

Almost ignored in this discussion, however, are the effects that a nuclear deal might have on the future of Iranian civil society. Specifically, how might a final nuclear agreement between Iran and the West influence the prospects for civil liberties within the Islamic Republic?

According to a recent report published by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, a high percentage of prominent Iranians representing different professions, such as lawyers, writers, directors, analysts, university professors and artists, believe in the positive effects of the nuclear agreement on the state of basic rights and freedoms inside Iran. More than two-thirds of the respondents feel that an agreement that results in the lifting of sanctions would improve the economic lot of ordinary people, and once the sanctions are over, the public would be more focused on the need to improve civil liberties.

Once the sanctions are over, the public would be more focused on the need to improve civil liberties.

But what comes to most Iranians as a blessing is a malediction to the others, among them Iran hawks and the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, D.C. Since the first days of the negotiations for a deal between Rouhani's government and the Obama administration, Iran's hawks have been criticizing all forms of dialogue with P5+1 and the pursuit of any policy of rapprochement with the West.

Despite the attacks of Iranian hardliners, the wariness of hawks in Washington and Tel Aviv and the nervousness of Saudis and their allies in the Persian Gulf, there is a widely shared view among experts and analysts that implementation of this agreement is a far better option than military conflict.

However, this positively shared outlook on the nuclear front is accompanied by a fear of the empowerment of Iran's proxies and the Shia militias in the Middle East.

As the Iranians, Europeans and Americans are putting an end to the long odyssey of the nuclear talks, the Middle East could descend further into proxy wars, sectarian conflicts and battles against terrorist networks.

For many Iranians inside Iran, the nuclear agreement marks a new era in Iranian politics, but its repercussions will be likely be felt more strongly in the region than in Washington or Tehran.

Despite this historic agreement, difficult times await politics in the Middle East.

PHOTO GALLERY
Historic Iran Deal