Iran has entered uncharted territory following the landmark nuclear deal between Tehran and six world powers. I recently came back from a six-week trip to Iran where I had the opportunity to observe first-hand the changes, developments, and uncertainty in the country. The widespread optimism that initially surrounded the deal, and the expectations that it would bring an economic windfall, have been significantly diminished since, and there were many questions: Should Iran integrate into the global economy? How much will the economy improve with the lifting of sanctions? What will the policies of the next US president be, and what will this mean for Iran? With the recent victory of Donald Trump, these questions have become all the more important to Iranians.
The election of Trump only reinforces the hardline rhetoric and stances of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps, who were critical of the nuclear agreement, and therefore threatens the nuclear agreement and associated political efforts advocated by President Hasan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. What the United States chooses to do next will be critical in the future development of US-Iranian relations.
If Trump tries to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal—known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA—and symbolically increases sanctions to pressure Iran, Tehran may not necessarily break the agreement. But it will retaliate against US interests in other areas across the Middle East, and the domestic balance-of-power in Iran will tilt more toward the conservatives. If sanctions are increased significantly, there is a real probability of Iran again ramping up its nuclear activities—especially since it will consider the US to be in violation of the agreement and will be confident that other members of the P5+1 will not support punitive American actions against Iran.
Based on my observations, this larger context of uncertainty regarding Iran’s overall future has produced two opposing trends in the country: social and cultural liberalization, with an opening to the outside world, on one hand, and revolutionary aggressiveness and greater securitization on the other. Iran’s ability to navigate these seemingly contradictory trends reflects the unique enigma that is the Islamic Republic and provides insight into the power dynamics that have propelled Iran to become a regional power, even as multiple factions compete and struggle in the domestic political arena.
Of all my periodic trips to Iran, this one revealed the most culturally open social life I've seen Tehran. Access to high speed internet connections was common, while filtering of websites—particularly major foreign websites—had been reduced, and nearly everyone was on one form or another of social networking app, whether it be Telegram, WhatsApp, or Instagram. Even state-run television programs would ask viewers to visit the programs' social media profiles. Islamic coverings were of loose fit, and enforcement of the hijab by state authorities was minimal. The number of tourists was also very high, and Imam Khomeini International Airport was crowded seemingly beyond capacity, while hotels were booked with large and diverse crowds of visitors.
Simultaneously, Iran’s growing revolutionary and security policies were unabashedly apparent, the most visible being more public and overt expressions of support for the country’s role in the Syrian war. Billboards and music videos lauding the new martyrs of the war were common, as were documentaries and official meetings with families of the martyrs. But a more striking new element was how Iranian state TV aired sleek music videos glorifying non-Iranians, such as the Afghan “Fatimiyoun” brigade, in the fight in Syria. Iran's incorporation of foreigners in its military campaigns is of course not a recent phenomenon, but it had never been given such public and explicit prominence and laudatory news coverage as it now receives. Moreover, there is a sense within the hardline factions of the government that the JCPOA is one part of a larger Western strategy to push Iran off of its revolutionary path and perhaps even to achieve regime change.
In this context, domestic struggles for reform—whether political or economic—are perceived as potential national security threats. The discourse on foreign “infiltration” of Iran and the detainment of dual citizens are part of the larger strategy to safeguard the revolution as Iran moves towards rehabilitating its standing in the world. The election of Trump may further reinforce these viewpoints, because of the more hawkish advisers within the President-elect’s inner circle. Yet, due to Trump’s more accommodating public statements on Russia and Syria, there may also be a possibility for greater US-Iranian understanding in the Middle East.
These dual trends—of domestic social liberalization and revolutionary staunchness—are reflective of the complexities and contradictions of the Iranian political system and Ayatollah Khamenei’s strategic policy of “heroic flexibility.” Here the notion of “pragmatic revolutionism” best captures how Iran is trying manage this transformative period—hedging its bets against possible US malign intent regarding the JCPOA and advancing its regional posture to further bolster its revolutionary interests and the position of the “axis of resistance” against Western influence in the Middle East.