One of the hopes underlying the Obama Administration’s approach to the Iran nuclear negotiations has been that reaching a deal would moderate the behavior of the Iranian regime. President Obama told National Public Radio in April 2015 “it is possible that if we sign this nuclear deal, we strengthen the hand of those more moderate forces inside of Iran,”1 while his advisor Ben Rhodes postulated that “a world in which there is a deal with Iran is much more likely to produce an evolution in Iran's behavior.”2 Both sought to avoid the impression that this was the primary purpose of the accord, with Obama stating that “the deal is not dependent on anticipating those changes…If they don't change at all, we're still better off having the deal,” 3 and Rhodes stressing that the deal had “to be good enough to be worth doing even if Iran doesn't change.”4 It was explicitly clear, however, that prompting change in Iran, while perhaps not the objective of the nuclear deal, was at least a hoped-for side effect.
The Evidence So Far
Impact of Change on Iranian Policy
While both Rouhani and his rivals are dedicated to the preservation of the Iranian regime, their policy differences are nonetheless significant. On economic policy, Rouhani has stressed not only the need to utilize nuclear diplomacy to lift Iran’s international economic isolation, but to undertake broader domestic economic reforms. Iran’s Supreme Leader, meanwhile, has called for a return to what he terms the “resistance economy,” which essentially amounts to economic self-sufficiency and rejection of foreign investment. There is also good reason to believe that Iran’s hardliners worry about the country’s reintegration into the global financial system, which may require a crackdown on the illicit trade and finance on which they thrive and could benefit more forward-looking, Western-leaning Iranian entrepreneurs and businessmen. While Rouhani has paid lip service to the “resistance economy” concept, he has stressed the need for increased trade and investment links with the outside world and reached out to the very businessmen who have in turn been intimidated by Iran’s security services and judiciary. He has come under withering criticism from hardline adversaries for his perceived disloyalty to Khamenei’s economic dictates.